FANDOM: Kingdom Hearts
SUMMARY: 'Roxas and Riku find themselves trapped inside DiZ's faltering VR system, in a dying world they were never supposed to be a part of.
PAIRINGS: Riku + Roxas (eventual Riku/Roxas), Riku + Sora, anything else will be added as it comes.
WARNINGS: Angst, gore, violence, mature themes, eventual citrus, steampunk AUishness; more Disney and Final Fantasy character appearances than you can shake a stick at. Some literary allusions.
SPOILERS: Spoilers for all three of the games
ARCHIVED: Onion Girls, Fallen Icons
FEEDBACK: Is welcome.
THANKS: To amet for taking the time to read over this for me and encouraging me to go on.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Next chapter and it's on amet's birthday! I'm not sure if this counts as a present or what but it's definitely for her.
I should probably point out (though those of you who are familiar with both sources) that my Wonderland allusions are a mishmash of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the Disney movie, and American McGee's Alice. It's a little bit twisted like that but these days I find it hard to separate the first and the last from each other with a few bits from the Disney movie thrown in for the hell of it.
The Final Fantasy and Disney characters/references start crawling out of the woodwork in this chapter; I didn't meant to be so heavy-handed about it but these things happen. A lot of things were supposed to happen in this chapter, a couple of which got either jettisoned or pushed back to the next chapter which hopefully won't take as long.
Any mistakes are entirely my own.
A Kingdom Hearts story
<< virtual time >> six months later...
It was gloomy when they ushered him out the front door, Doctor Hojo adjusting his glasses and tie as Roxas shifted, nervous hands passing his valise from side to side. He blinked despite himself, despite the gray skies, eyes watery and barely taking in the doctor telling him with an ineffectual pat on the shoulder that this too, would pass, dismissing it as a minor side effect of the drugs Roxas was being weaned from. They stared at each other, Roxas fidgeting then glancing over his shoulder, back towards safety and sanctuary, wanting nothing more than to return to his little cell, the conformity of drab-white walls and his tiny bed. Doctor Hojo picked up his pocket watch, gold chain gleaming against his shiny black waistcoat, checking the time and patting Roxas’ shoulder again before giving him a little push down the steps.
“Now, now. I’ve other patients, my boy, ones who still need me, “ Hojo was brisk, not unkind but clearly ready to be done with this conversation. “Your lady aunt has set up a follow up in a month’s time and I don’t want to see you a second before then.”
“Yes, but --”
A finger wagged in his face, “Not a second before. Good day to you.”
Roxas was given another nod to punctuate that last statement, the door opening and then shutting with a stentorian finality. He peered at it then closed his mouth, almost an afterthought before turning around again, facing the massive front gates, the ones that protected him from the world beyond.
His feet refused to move, a trickle of sweat moving between his shoulder blades. His clothes were new, scratchy with disuse and they moved uncomfortably against his skin. They smelled strongly of starch and chemicals, the scent of the hard soap the hospital gave its inmates rising above that, leaving him to reek of camphor. He reached up to tug the brim of his hat down, trapped hair catching against his lashes, irritating already damp eyes. Roxas swiped at them with the back of his hand, aware that he probably looked a fright, a wan slip of a boy with reddened eyes and clothes that didn’t fit right, without even a trace of his former confidence to carry off any of it. That unthinking arrogance had been rewarded with the train crash that had brought him to St. Cloud’s in the first place, that person as much of a ghost as Roxas felt himself to be now.
The sanitarium was a comforting refuge, one where his needs were tended and his disarrayed thoughts were regulated. Night terrors were chased away by opiate dragons, Doctor Hojo employing -- if not unorthodox, certainly illegal methods of treating his patients, the hospital kept stocked by a flourishing under the table trade with the local dock master. What couldn’t be treated through laudanum or harder opiates, was handled with other methods, Roxas rubbing his thumb against the scarred pads of his fingers. The doctor had been … very creative and if nothing else, each attempted new treatment, each experimentation, had been something to distract. A discouragement from lingering on those thoughts and impulses Hojo had explained were the product of his troubled mind. He needed to heal and heal he had under careful monitoring, at least enough that the doctor felt he was fit enough to leave this place.
Roxas wished he felt so confident. Wished he felt anything beyond the welter of uncertainty and simmering panic, aware that something was wrong, very wrong still -- with him and for once, no one was listening. Or maybe it was the fear that was wrong. Certainly Hojo had seemed to think so and he had to trust that his doctor, the man who had worked so closely with him for so many months, would know when he was ready to move on, even if Roxas himself didn’t .
He wondered what his parents thought, aware in some distant way that he had parents (Doctor Hojo had said as much, hadn’t he?) but neither of them had ever appeared for a visit, letters filtering in or from the stern remonstrance of his aunt the time or two that he had attempted to broach the subject. Of course they sent their love and were very worried for him but things were too uncertain with his father’s business for a visit which was why she visited him in their place. His mother was overwrought, understandably so, at the thought of her darling child so damaged, too delicate to withstand the ordeal a visit to the sanitarium would be. He must understand… There were many things he must understand or so his aunt seemed to think, conciliatory when she was in a benevolent mood but ready for battle at the sign of any disagreement. Roxas thought that she might have explained how it was that she came to be in charge of his medical care rather than another proxy but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. It slipped just out of reach when he tried. Which was perhaps not surprising given that he couldn’t remember if she was his father’s sister or his mother’s. Or either. Perhaps there was a ‘great’ and a generation between her and his parents.
Either way, Lady Tremaine was not one to be trifled with, her hair as iron-like as the coolness of her gaze, thin lips continually pursed as she viewed the world with outright suspicion, wrinkles relaxing when she managed to summon reserves of charm usually for other people (Doctor Hojo had been a favored recipient). She hadn’t been unkind, not exactly. More removed, watchful than anything else, small eyes boring into his at each meeting she conducted with him at St. Cloud’s, searching for something. Maybe some indication that he was fit to come home despite the constant progress reports the doctor sent home.
She had made an appointment with the doctor but hadn’t seen fit to come fetch him herself. Roxas didn’t know what to make of that, whether he should feel disappointed or relieved, somewhat worried that no one had sent a hansom cab for him. Were they late or was he expected to walk? That thought filled him with some trepidation, hesitating before he ambled down the steps, both hands clutching his baggage, wondering what had happened to his trunk, the things that had belonged to him beyond the few articles of clothing in this bag. He didn’t think Doctor Hojo would be happy if he tried to re-enter long enough to ask. It would just have to be dealt with later. If it hadn’t already been taken care of without his notice. That happened more than Roxas cared to admit.
It should have been comforting. Instead his unease built beneath skin level, a sour taste in the back of his throat, constant anxiety making it that much worse.
The gate was already unlocked, the keeper pushing it open to reveal the street, a skinny cadaver of a man, smelling of strong drink and glowering as Roxas slowed. It was busy beyond the gates, the drive leading out into one of the main hubs of the city, people casting a few curious glances at him before picking up their pace. Away from the madman, Roxas guessed and he rubbed the back of his neck., grimacing There was no one to meet him. No cab stopping or person scurrying towards him. He was that possible crazy from the asylum, yes but aside from that, he was -- anonymous. For the first time in so many months, the world stretched out, awash with activity and people, not regulated, not regular, and it took all his reserves to take that final step into the street, hearing the iron gates clang shut behind him.
No turning back now.
It didn’t take long for him to move, tripping into a brisk stroll by the steady crush of people coming, all but lifting him off his feet and pushing him along. He could walk or be trampled and on the whole, Roxas preferred being in one piece. He was able to dart in and out of the brightly bedecked crowd, reaching the main thoroughfare in scant time , the road branching off into several directions around the square. Roxas eyed the road warily, listening to the thunderous clatter of mechanical hooves against cobblestone, steam-powered steeds adjusting to the flow of traffic as they pranced forward. Cabbies sat hunched against the chill morning, the earthen cloaks of their trade revealing little more than strips of skin and eyes just above the collar and below their trademark top hats. Their whips snapped, part of the show, a throwback to the past when horses had been flesh and blood rather than carefully constructed machines, more efficient and enduring than their counterparts.
The use of actual horses for labor had been outlawed for years now, most of the animals confined strictly to recreational activities, providing an element of unpredictability that no machine could. Even so, there was a special class of cybernetic racing that allowed for free building, mechanics and alchemists creating their own mounts, each order attempting to best the other for the adulation of the common masses and no small pot of money. It was well past the last races of the year, the Autumn Stakes having come and gone while he had whiled away his time at St. Cloud’s, recalling an article his incurious eye had cast on while in Hojo’s office one morning last -- had it really been October? Roxas paused, his chest tightening and feeling a curious sinking, counting up the days in his head before looking around wildly, attention drawn by the frantic waving and shouting of a newsboy, dashing forward so quickly that he slid on a patch of ice. The other caught him, his honest round face surprised, cheeks ruddy and chapped from the cold, almost as red as the curls pressed tightly under his hat.
“’Ere now, be careful, sir. There’s no need to rush about so. I’ve plenty of wares to go around.”
Roxas shook his head, breath coming in a sharp gasp, aware that his heart was pounding in his chest, more than it should have been for running such a short distance. “D-day. I -- what day is it?”
“Is this some kind of joke?” The newsboy’s smile faded as he took in Roxas’ face, eyes drifting to his clothes, more guarded suddenly, “Not from around here, are we?”
“I am. I’ve been -- away.”
Roxas could see the dubious look he was being given, shaking his head and adding, “Please. I can pay you for your trouble once I return home.”
‘Humor the madman,’ Roxas thought and could see a similar thought running through the boy’s head before he shrugged, answering, “The sixth of January, sir. “
Half a year then. For half a year he’d languished and the world had continued onward with its races and holidays and petty rivalries. It seemed impossible given how much time had felt as if it were dragging for him, hours stretched out to days, nightmares that encompassed lifetimes beating in the violent tempo of his own raging heartbeat behind his eyes. The medicines Doctor Hojo had prescribed had slowed things down even more, leaving him with only the insulation of false distance, emotions removed, put to sleep as he struggled to find his way through the dark.
“A paper, sir?” Roxas started, the newsboy looking both nervous and hopeful, his voice colored with what might have passed for sympathy if the greed hadn’t been so visible in his eyes. “To help you catch up since you’ve been away so long?”
He opened his mouth to protest, patting his coat pocket out of habit, surprised when he was rewarded with the jingle of coin. His brow furrowed, Roxas digging in his pocket and finding more than enough to pay for ten papers, the vendor’s eyes growing large, almost luminous. Fingers feeling clumsy and more out of some sense of necessity than desire, he plucked out enough for one paper plus a tip, grubby fingers quickly closing around the coins, dingy paper thrust at Roxas with his other hand.
“You can come back here any time you need a paper, sir. I hope you enjoy it. Yes, I do,” The boy babbled, backing up a step as if he feared Roxas would change his mind and snatch back his pay.
The newsboy twitched then did an about face, back towards Roxas, hawking his wares again with redoubled effort, Roxas frowning at the paper hanging limply from his fingers. He wished he had thought to put on his gloves, feeling ink smearing beneath his cold fingers. There was no place to stop here, to linger long enough to cast more than a peripheral glance at his acquisition, setting a course towards the bridge that arched over the growing traffic and into Wonderland Square. He should just head home; indeed the urge to do so, to go straight to bed and stay there for as long as he might be left alone, was very strong. It was just … just -- Roxas glanced at the paper in his hands again, moving to skirt around someone without thought.
It was just he needed a moment, possibly several, before he could even come to terms with what his rattled senses were telling him.
Wonderland was one of several squares upon which the city was built around, circling the inner core of what had been the ancient city proper. It was an archaic throwback to a time when the city had been ruled not by a mayor and council but by a patrician with all the powers of a king, his name all but lost to their history. Wonderland was one of the few remaining squares that was still, for the most part, original, having never been razed or built over, an overgrown labyrinth of oddities whose acres had been tended but never tamed, a mishmash celebration of ages past. It’s inner secrets were hidden by a well-trimmed hedge, one of the few spots in the city that contained natural trees and plant life and supposedly -- supposedly actual indigenous animals.
He veered a right past the Majestic Maze, gryphon sentinels staring him down with cold marble eyes as Roxas scurried past, their massive wings forming the arch of the gate to the inner maze. There were stories about that maze and the Tulgey Wood nestled in its center, tales of people losing their way and vanishing into the woodlands, becoming part of the local lore of spirits haunting what had once been the Patrician’s private playground. Tales of animals who had the voices of those lost, entreating for help in words of nonsense and rhyme, human minds unable to remember how to form true speech thanks to their animal shapes. Stories like that Hatter they’d fished out of the ornamental pond, raving of tea parties and mice and writing desks like ravens. Roxas shuddered, recalling how casually Doctor Hojo had mentioned that the man had once been an inmate at St. Cloud’s, at the time without the wherewithal to ask what had happened to him. Or that poor man from the Cheshire district who had taken his camping knife to his hands and feet and carved to the bone, claiming he needed claws. His knife had been taken from him before he could set to working on his ears, Roxas haunted by that one detail all the papers had carried -- the man had been smiling. A smug, knowing grin that hadn’t vanished even as he sat in a bloody mess of his own flesh and bone.
There was a game going on in the Pale Realm, children laughing as they hopped into position on the ancient chessboard, the green cut into visible squares of grass, alternating squares dyed different shades to achieve the right effect. Black and white marble statues of chess pieces lined the outer corners of the green, seeming to peer down at the players with disinterest, weather-beaten and grimy in the chilly gloom. Queensland lay beyond that, the rising shadow of a faux tower, one of the newest pieces in the park, built to replace the ancient watch turret that had crumbled under the weight of itself one winter half a century ago. Some architect had apparently found great whimsy in erecting something more at home in a fairytale, airy and light, fit for a queen the press had said and somehow the nickname had stuck, the area becoming officially Queensland in short order.
There seemed to be a crowd gathering at the northeast edge of the board, milling around the Caucus Race, underneath the Dodo pavilion, leering representations of the bird laughing down at them, stone mouths cocked open. The Caucus was one of the few corners where one could speak freely and without fear of retribution -- at least from the authorities, left over from the Patrician’s days when very few dared to speak at all. Most people used it as a forum to spout off, usually about anything and everything, to the amusement or aggravation of whoever might be passing by. There weren’t usually this many people gathered though, Roxas tapping the paper against his hip before rolling it up and sliding it under his arm as he drew close to the fringes. He couldn’t see who was speaking but he could sure hear him. The dead were probably hearing him all the way in Gainsborough Fields.
“--and while the Alchemists and Engineers argue over the best course to take, our city is being menaced -- MENACED -- from without and plagued from within. Winter’s not just approaching, it’s HERE! The threat of war has never been more imminent and what do we have to show for it? Scarce resources that couldn’t even be quarantined if we were invaded and food supplies that wouldn’t last us a month!”
There was more than one murmur of assent, the people around him not jeering as they might normally be but fixed, uneasy and the undercurrent of tension would be hard to miss, his own shakiness aside. It colored the stiff posture beneath frock coats and bustled dresses, faces like waxworks, pallid and sharp. They were too like those damned stone birds, beady eyes intent without real humor, watchful beneath mild expressions, attuned to each shift in the atmosphere.
“This city is grinding to a halt under the weight of indecision! Damned tinkers and magicians. What do we care about their petty rivalries when our energy supplies are dwindling? Where will you be in two months when there is no coal to warm your houses, let alone steam to power our trains and factories? When your house servants cease to work because their batteries have nothing to move their cogs and springs? What will you do then? When most of you are no better off than the poorest of the poor, brought down to the level of those Springheel Jack prays upon, what then? Will you be so indulgent or will you think it is JUDGEMENT, yes, JUDGEMENT brought down by a wrathful God for the unnatural ways we have built our society, worshipping technology and magic rather than the sweat of the human brow, the body that was shaped and molded into HIS OWN IMAGE?”
Street Preacher. Had to be; his clothes were too threadbare to belong to any of the denominations with a real reputation and the wild gleam to his small, piggish eyes was too fanatical. The head above that ruddy complexion was shaved, jowls quivering as the ascetic clearly savored each word. Roxas had never seen him before, not personally but the sight was a familiar one. Everyone knew about the Preachers and their rabid stance on everything they deemed unnatural (up to and sometimes including bathing with hot water) and usually no one gave then more than a passing glance. They certainly weren’t to be taken seriously.
At least they didn’t use to be, Roxas corrected himself, glancing around. People looked disturbed, troubled but -- no one was snickering or catcalling. No one was throwing anything. They were all listening, as intent as the roly poly cleric enjoying their attentions. They were concentrating and it spooked him to realize that he could see some of them rehearsing this nonsense to spew back at people later.
That newspaper felt heavy under his arm suddenly, Roxas taking a step back, edging away as best as he could without causing a disturbance. The last thing he needed right now was for Mr. Loving His Own Voice to zero in on him and decide to use him as some kind of example or parable or something. The crowd around him shifted but not by much, Roxas aware now that he was pressed near shoulder to shoulder. Interest was peaking then, probably drawing people in much the same way and for the same reasons it had him.
He had heard enough of this kind of rhetoric at St. Cloud’s to not realize how far and fast this could go and go wrong given the right circumstances. At least the people there had the excuse of being mad.
He kept his eyes forward, feeling them burn a little with the effort not to blink, not to draw attention to himself as he emulated the interest of the people around him, shifting so that his right shoulder twisted at an angle, left shoulder behind and took a step back.
Right into someone.
“Could you be anymore obvious if you tried?”
Roxas froze, breath catching, the feel of his collar almost choking around his neck as warm breath touched his chilly ears, the sensation of that barely audible murmur tickling his skin. His leg trembled, aware that he was resting awkwardly on the ball of one foot and the arch of another, caught mid-step, the people around him moving in absently to take up the rest of the space so that he was well and truly tangled. Trapped.
“I take it back,” Came the next murmur, a husky voice warm with wry amusement.
There was a pause before the voice added, “Ease up, please? You might as well be waving a sign around announcing your intentions. He‘s a blowhard but he‘s not that oblivious. Slinking away is only going to signal to him that you‘re playing his game.”
Roxas obeyed, more on autopilot than anything else, that nervous knot in his stomach, the one that had been with him since the newspaper boy… Hell, the one that had been with him since leaving Doctor Hojo this morning, returning in full force, his butterflies having tiny passengers of their own, little worms of distress that seemed to be hopping down to burrow into him, digging down deep. He didn’t want to be here; he wanted to be home. No, that wasn’t true. He wanted to be back in his room at St. Cloud’s, waiting for his next dose of medication, waiting for lethargy and peace. Waiting for his anxiety to falter, then shatter under the overwhelming fog of opiates.
“I guess I’m going to have to take care of this myself.”
That rather curious statement was all the warning Roxas was given before a hand closed around the back of his frock coat, catching, with some impropriety he might add, his belt beneath it and giving him a sharp tug-twist. He fell backward, body following a tight arc before he was given another sharp yank, pants raised uncomfortably but there was little time to contemplate that or the chessboard field he was suddenly staring at, that hand rising to the small of his back and giving him a push, legs moving before Roxas could acknowledge that. His feet weren’t quite on the ground those first couple of steps, feeling his face flame at how undignified this both felt and likely looked, a spark of anger compelling him to do a quick lurch, arm pivoting back to smack at the person holding onto the seat of his pants, nearly tripping in the process.
Roxas was aware, once more, that he was painfully out of shape, fighting to catch his breath against that winded feeling, wiping the back of his mouth to disguise the sharp pants that wanted to make themselves known. He was hunched over, that arm also lifted in protection as he peered at his savior? Assailant?
He took in striped pants first, pale blue stripes over huge gray shoes, the frock coat above it white save for the collar and trim of the coat which was deep gold, almost gaudy. Roxas raised his eyes, brows lifting with them as he noticed the deep purple waist coat that seemed to shimmer, a brilliant juxtaposition of colors, a startling riot against the grayness, the man seeming to rise out at him, too real and causing everything around him to dull, flatten out. It left Roxas disconcerted, as if he could see the colors swirl together, having to close his eyes against the rush of disorientation.
It was gone when he opened them again a second later, as was that strange double vision, of the background bleeding away to translucent dark. There was only sky and field, the sight of strong legs and shoulders beneath a cut suit and above that a thin face peering down at him, a hint of a smirk playing at the man’s lips despite the more subdued flash of blue green as eyes slanted at Roxas.
“Not the most graceful way of going about things,” the other said, running a hand over his silver hair before dropping his arm into crossing over his chest. “But I suppose it will do.”
It was half on his lips to snarl, to demand an answer for being so cavalierly treated but -- that had been him, once, and the thought of it left Roxas feeling heavy, rubbing his face and looking away before he straightened, brushing off his pants. The other man -- no, he wasn’t a man, he wasn’t that much older than Roxas for all the cynicism darkening his tone, was watching him in bemusement.
“That wasn’t obvious?” Roxas asked, taking another step to put some distance between himself and his uh --the term ‘rescuer’ seemed too kind. Man-handler, now that had a nice ring to it.
“I said you were being obvious. You were also trying to sneak away, right? I didn’t say anything about not being obvious myself,” the other shrugged, peering out from underneath choppy bangs. “Like I said, if you’re going to play his game then you need to find a better way of doing things. Me? I’m not playing his game.”
Roxas opened his mouth but could think of nothing to say to that, looking away, over the other boy’s shoulder. No one had turned around; if anything, others were joining to see what the fuss was about, off-setting their desertion. The moment had passed for them to be singled out and there was fresher meat to be had. Roxas made a face.
“You’re welcome, by the way.”
That sardonic reply stung, Roxas’ eyes flickering back to the other’s now neutral expression, watching him lift a hand as if to dismiss him entirely when a small brown shorts clad figure burst around from behind him, hands on hips before dramatically leveling a finger at him. The silver-haired boy looked equally surprised then exasperated, aqua eyes rolling.
“Hey!” The skinny figure radiated rage in velvet shorts and knee socks, a cap over -- hey, was that a girl? Roxas narrowed his blurry eyes, craning his head for a better look which … was not the thing to do as the figure gave a disbelieving huff and slapped him with the back of her? hand.
“Put your eyes somewhere else or I’ll -- I’ll --”
“Enough, Yuffie,” hands dropped on the skinny girl’s shoulder, the silver-haired man holding her in place before she could try again as Roxas raised a hand to his smarting cheek, “I think we all get the point.”
“You obviously were raised in a barn somewhere because you have the manners of a goat,” Yuffie struggled, that accusing finger jabbing the space between them, mouth flattening above flaring nostrils. “We just saved you!”
“We?” Roxas queried.
“Heh, who do you think put Riku up to helping your sorry self? Why did I do that again?” Yuffie threw a disgusted glance over her shoulder at -- Riku? “He’s obviously some kind of pervert. We shouldn’t have wasted our time.”
“Pervert?” Roxas choked, feeling his temper start to sluggishly rouse itself, “Who’s dressed like a boy here? You are a girl, right?”
“Of course I’m a girl! Are you blind as well as gross? Disgusting lechers are the absolute worst,” She spat, hands finding her hips, the material clinging a way that wasn’t exactly proper for a girl so close to him in age.
“Well, it was kind of hard to tell, what with the bulky coat and -- Hey, I’m not sure you have the right to call anyone anything given how indecently you’re dressed right now. You look like a boy in -- that,” Roxas waved a vague hand at her ensemble, from the oversized cap down to the shorts that stopped at knee level.
He tried to avoid looking at her knees, aware that girls had them as well as boys but -- didn’t those fall strictly under the not for public consumption label? For girls, at least?
“There’s nothing wrong with my clothing! Stop changing the subject.”
“I wasn’t aware we had a subject.”
Riku was making faces at both of them, somewhere between pained and aggravated, choosing to keep quiet which was just as well because Roxas wasn’t sure he wanted the other boy to throw his two cents in given how arrogant he had been earlier. Yuffie was bad enough for the both of them.
“Of course we did -- your terrible manners, you -- you --yyyyyyyyyyyyyoooooooooooooooooou--”
Yuffie shuddered, head twisting at an unnatural angle before righting itself her mouth opening and closing so that the sound stuttered. She shook underneath the other boy’s hold, arms falling limply to her sides, large brown eyes frightened as her trembling grew more pronounced, voice tripping along, sounding tinny as it rattled upward and out.
“Damn,” Riku swore, leaning forward to scoop her up, his stride quick and Roxas forgotten as he loped in the opposite direction, away from the people milling.
Hesitating, Roxas studied his retreating back, rubbing at his tired eyes. Really it was no business of his. Yes, Riku had helped him. Sort of. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that part of that had been to laugh at him. Or to say thank you for the laugh Roxas had already given him. The thought irritated him. He had already dallied longer than he had intended, certain that his lady aunt would be displeased when he finally reached home. He didn’t want to be out any longer; he wanted four walls and a door to shut out the rest of the world. There was no reason to follow because what did it matter why Riku had chosen to intervene?
Except … Except…
It felt wrong, to leave like that. Without seeing if they needed help. Arrogant or not, Riku had attempted to come to his aid and if Yuffie were to be trusted then it had been at her behest, dismaying and unladylike as she might have been. Beyond that, someone had helped him once, some faceless person had pulled him out of the wreckage of a train chaise, had made certain he had reached safety and care. Didn’t that put some sort of onus on him to try and do something?
Shoving his chilled hands deeper into his coat, Roxas ducked his head, self-conscious and damning Riku for making him even more paranoid in the first place, scurrying after his retreating back.
For a man carrying a twitching girl, Riku managed to somehow not attract much attention, Roxas having to near run to keep up with his long stride, following the path to the Vale of Tears, overgrown willows and tall grass bending gently in the wind. It was silent save for the murmur of the streams that connected the Looking Glass pools to each other, a mournful hush that was both peaceful and menacing. There was something about the place that bothered him, something about the way the shadows fell from aged brambles, overly thick, dead vines tangling outward over every available surface, their roots wider than he was. They jutted out of the mists like the imprint of some unsettling leviathan, dangerous and sleeping, reminding one of blood and violence, burning with a terrible lonely beauty of their own.
It was quiet though and deserted, Riku bee-lining towards the nearest table, Yuffie leaning heavily against him as he shifted her lolling form to one arm, the other slapping away the tea set left waiting for anyone who might wander past. They clinked and tinkled in silent protest as they slid over the dainty glass surface of the round table, a large mushroom-like umbrella offering shade from prying eyes. Roxas darted forward to remove one of the steel-carved lawn chairs so he could move closer, feeling it huff to life at his touch, surface and cushions warming in an invitation to sit. Any other time, Roxas would have been grateful for that warmth, for the chance to dry damp clothes but there was little time. Not even enough to really take in the startled glance Riku was giving him, as if only now realizing Roxas had tagged along.
“Should I get a doctor?” Roxas asked, ignoring that look for now, trying not to feel insulted all over again even if he had considered leaving the other boy to his own devices.
Riku shook his head, silver hair falling in his face, picking Yuffie up long enough to sit her on the table or rather, attempt to. “Not necessary,” he grunted, pushing at her shoulder before his eyes fell on Roxas again, “I need you to help hold her up. This won‘t take long and then the two of you can go back to bitching each other out. “
“Oh good,” Roxas muttered. “Something to look forward to then.”
He took her though, disgruntlement melting into surprise as her full weight hit him, falling against him like lead or a heavy sack or something Yuffie would probably scream about if she could read his mind. Not so heavy he couldn‘t keep her upright but he had to work at it and he nearly dropped her when Riku‘s hands went for the front of her coat.
“Hold her steady,” Riku snapped, fingers making quick work of the buttons and there was a flash of white skin, Roxas feeling his own flesh starting to burn in embarrassment as Riku parted her shirt, expression intent as he leaned forward.
He dared a glance, Roxas couldn’t help that. Just a glance but it was enough to turn his head entirely, eyes drawn to the clear panel above small, pert breasts, gears turning albeit it with halting slowness, Riku sighing and tapping the glass and the lock that rested there.
“Stubborn. She’s always so damned stubborn about these things,” Riku was muttering, more to himself it seemed than to Roxas, digging around in one of his oversized pockets, “Keep her steady, please. I need to wind her and that’s not as easy as you might think.”
“She’s clockwork,” Roxas said and felt like an idiot as soon as he did, particularly at the dark look Riku shot him, biting his tongue.
“Automaton,” Riku corrected, pulling a chain free from a prison of cloth after a brief struggle, the light glinting off the large key hanging off the end of it. “Built her myself. Probably explains a lot about her. Me too, come to think of it.”
Riku worried at his lower lip as he twisted the filigree bow of the key, teeth sliding forward from some hidden compartment in the shank. He tapped it a time or two, giving it another twist until he was satisfied and then placed it against Yuffie’s chest, pausing to snap his fingers to attract one of the fireflies ringing lazy circles overhead, mechanical wings sputtering as they beat faster, hovering over the table as its lower half split, a bulb blossoming into life, bathing the lock in soft white.
“Better,” Riku grunted, placing the key in the lock and pushing forward, metal sinking deep into the prone girl -- automaton’s chest.
He gave it a sharp twist, metal grinding against gears and Roxas winced, teeth aching at the sound. Keeping a solid hold on the bow, Riku turned the key again and again, each wind making a clacking as the tension grew, Roxas watching the cogs and gears jerk in response, Yuffie’s eyes fluttering but without true sight.
“I hate doing this in public,” Riku commented, “Takes awhile and she gets embarrassed about it later on. She’ll be unbearable for days, especially with you here to witness this.”
“Maybe I can hold it over her head next time she calls me a pervert.”
There was the faint curve of Riku’s lips rising, a ghost of a smile, shoulders moving with another twist, “Doubt it. She’ll probably call you something worse after this. Yuffie’s touchy.”
“I would never have guessed,” Roxas said dryly, rewarded with a faint chuckle. He studied Riku out of the corner of his eye, “If you built her then --”
“I’m an Engineer. Just barely these days.”
Roxas considered that, wanting to ask what that meant before he continued, “Then why were you at the Caucus? The Street Preachers don’t exactly love your kind.”
“The Street Preachers don’t love anything beyond the sound of their own voice and the chance their coffers might be filled,” Riku paused, another twist-shove, the sound of winding a low whine between them, tilting his face towards Roxas, “Your eyes are bloodshot.”
This observation came from nowhere, Roxas uncomfortable as his gaze shifted downward -- no, not there, he didn’t need to see that much of Yuffie, machine girl or not -- then shrugged. “Are they?”
“Dilated,” The word pushed itself from Riku’s pursed lips, Roxas watching his frown deepen, peering at him in a similar fashion as he had Yuffie when she’d started to shut down earlier, as if he was something to be fixed.
Roxas almost smiled at that, could feel his mouth moving and teeth brushing against his lower lip, flat and helpless and entirely without mirth. He wished he were something he could put into the hands of an Engineer or Alchemist, something that could be mended by tools or magical herbs. If he were like Yuffie, maybe all it would take was someone like Riku to take all those pieces of himself he’d lost so many months ago and solder them back together. There would be no need for doctors or drugs; no more nightmares and wandering daydreams, glimpses of lives he had never lived but feared nonetheless.
“Next you’ll be telling me I look pale and should lie down while you check my pulse. Do you minister to people as well as machines?”
Riku gave him a crooked smile, “Most of the time? I can’t stand people.”
He didn’t know why but that made him chuckle, an uneasy sound bubbling from deep within his chest, real beneath the strain, Riku’s head cocked as he listened to it. He must have heard something he approved of, his attention turning back to the key in his hand, the mechanisms groaning in response to the mounting pressure, wondering why anyone would use spring power Didn’t most automatons these days run on coal? Something about mini-furnaces being the latest innovation or maybe he was remembering wrong. There hadn’t been a lot to do in the sanitarium but there had been endless time to read, a tenuous link to the outside world that he had maintained as best as he could with the materials at the hand. As a rule, patients hadn’t been allowed much, the doctors reasoning that the hospital was an escape to help recoup and then learn to deal again with the outside world. Therefore, it was up to them to monitor what made it in from that world.
Newspapers were acceptable -- to a point and with careful editing. Roxas could see he was going to have fun trying to fill in what those carefully excised articles and pages had been.
“It’s not really safe to wander around the city these days,” Riku spoke again, interrupting his train of thought, “Not when you don’t know what’s going on. There’s too much you can stumble into without realizing it.”
He didn’t say it like don’t you know anything the way Roxas might have expected, just matter of fact, features smooth other than the knotting of his brow, drawn in concentration as his hands continued to move. The pink of a tongue briefly touched his lips then the corner of his mouth, the color bright against Riku’s skin. Silvery locks feathered around his cheeks and chin, poised to catch between his lips but Riku would shake himself, not just his head and thwarted, his hair would fall back against his shoulders, choppy and sullen.
There was something comforting in this, familiar almost and that shook Roxas, wondering if it was just the sight of Riku working so hard on Yuffie, on trying to restart her. He’d seen too many similar incidents at the hospital, doctors leaning over patients, trying to save their lives. It felt like there was more to it than that though, some deeper sense that he was left struggling to understand. The sight of Riku struggling, working as best as he could and as fast as he could, stirred some tendril of recognition in him.
“Brace yourself. She’s got quite a kick.”
Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t for Riku to push the key forward, deeper into the lock so that it punched against something hollow, Yuffie jerking in response, limbs flailing and nearly head butting Roxas. He twisted his head, feeling hair tickling his cheek as the clockwork girl shuddered, drawing a sound that was like a hissed breath from deep within. Gears clacked and whirred, smacking against the key in her chest, Riku lifting Yuffie’s chin, studying her, searching and when he found what he was looking for --
Even Roxas winced as Riku’s hand closed tight and sure around the bow, yanking it outward, a moment’s resistance as tightened inner workings attempt to hold the shank in place. Yuffie bucked, hair brushing her knees as she curled in on herself, head resting against her knees as that incessant whirring dying away into something quieter, steady. Roxas blinked, loosening his hold and rubbing her shoulders, feeling an unwanted wave of sympathy as well as the awkwardness that accompanied that.
“Owwwwww,” Yuffie whimpered, leaning back and pointing at the key jutting out of her chest, “Get it out, get it out, get it --”
She was cut off by Riku doing just that, the key pulled free completely, disappearing into one of his pockets as the other boy scowled, apparently unmoved by her plight. Riku’s arms crossed, “Yuffie.”
His tone was harsh, Roxas straightening in response as Yuffie made a great show of huffing, grabbing the front of her clothing and tending to the fastenings. “Not now, Riku. Must you always do this in public?”
“I wouldn’t have to if someone reminded me to wind her like she’s supposed to,” Riku sounded scathing, “You asked me to make you responsible for that much.”
“Well, if you just gave me my key then you wouldn’t even have to ask.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll give it to you -- again -- and you can lose it. Again.”
“That was one time. And I didn’t lose it. Not exactly.” Was it his imagination or did Yuffie sound a touch defensive. Her eyes shifted, landing on Roxas and she puffed up -- Well, the image that came to mind was that of an angry cat, bristling as she scooted forward, hands clenched over her chest, “What is he doing here?”
Roxas found he was scowling now too, reacting to her tone and what he suspected was coming, “You’re welcome.”
It felt good to turn that back on her, watching her mouth drop, eyes narrowing before she turned on Riku again, “Did you let him touch my key?”
“Don’t you ‘Yuffie’ me. That’s not something you can just pass around,” she retorted then paused, and it was really perfect how well she was able to mimic being scandalized, “You didn’t, did you?”
Riku pressed the heel of his palm between his closed eyes, looking aggrieved, “Yuffie--”
“Because you know I’d be very upset if I were to find out such a thing,” She continued, her eyes lightening and Roxas couldn’t help but notice that they actually did lighten, the color changing as if to affect a mood and now that he was staring, he could see the faintest translucent sheen over her eyes. It looked like a film of tears only -- glassy, perfect and contained. “I might not ever forgive you, in fact.”
The silver-haired boy seemed singularly unmoved and unimpressed by this announcement. “That’s fine. I’m sure you’ll make a lovely planter for someone’s garden when you wind down again thanks to your own carelessness. Especially now that I‘m not sure I‘m going to be helping with that.”
That was … harsh, Roxas winced, fascinated by the way the pair of them bounced off each other, Yuffie drawing up her hands in clenched fists like she might actually hit Riku, her voice raising more than a notch, “Planter? Planter? As in some tacky little garden fairy thingie? Excuse me but have you seen me?”
Roxas was glad the Vale was empty; Yuffie was being loud enough that there was no way they would be avoiding attention otherwise
“I built you, Yuffie, so yes, I’ve seen you. If you’re trying to tell me my design could use some improvement … ,” There was a hint of curving lips on Riku’s part, not so much a smile as a smirk, “Well, I’d be inclined to agree with you.”
“That’s it. I’m definitely not forgiving you because how could you improve on this?” Yuffie huffed, thumping a hand against her chest dramatically, her expression now bordering on wounded.
He couldn’t help it, not with Yuffie flailing about, skinny limbs radiating nervous energy and over exaggerated emotion, Riku’s eyes straining higher in his skull with each roll, one hand on his hip and the other drumming against his leg. The sound caught, a little cough of noise, not a full-blown laugh but a bit more than a chuckle, now hidden behind his raised hand, as much to shield himself from that as to hide from the two of them. It drew their attention and he could feel his face warm at their scrutiny, argument forgotten or paused or whatever it was these two did, as they took his measure. It wasn’t much of a laugh, not by anyone’s standards, almost reedy in its dryness but his chest seemed to tighten then expand with it. Another quick breath and he was done but Roxas couldn’t deny that it had felt pretty good.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed, not like this, not without being forced.
Yuffie was the first to recover, arms lowering before she pushed herself off the table, hands behind her back as she leaned in, head canted to the side, “Which one of us are you laughing at?”
“I don’t really think it matters at this point,” Roxas lowered his face, rubbing the back of his neck, “You’re both -- It’s kind of a dumb argument, isn’t it?”
Riku snorted, hands sliding into oversized pockets as Yuffie hopped from foot to foot, Roxas continuing, “I mean, I don’t really think he’s going to junk you anymore than I think you’re serious about not forgiving him. Maybe I’m wrong but it feels kind of -- scripted. Like those arguments married people have just for an excuse to speak to each other.”
“Married? Him?” Yuffie evidently found that hilarious, voice rising in a squeak that was near lost as she leaned forward, shoulders shaking.
Her companion was somewhat less amused, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. Any of it, especially not from you, Yuffie, because you have no room to talk.” His gaze sharpened, “I never did catch your name though you know Yuffie and I’m sure you’ve caught my name by now.”
Roxas fidgeted, realizing that no, formal introductions hadn’t been made, more things had just happened and he had let himself get caught up in their wake. There hadn’t really been time and it had been easier somehow. Introductions meant having to think of himself as a person again, someone out in the world without the safety of a name on a door or a clipboard.
“Roxas,” he murmured, then repeated that, voice louder this time when he realized how inaudible he sounded. “My name is Roxas.”
*** End Act Two