Riku and his parents had come to stay at the castle for Sora's upcoming birthday, and also because his brilliant mother was smart enough to plan a ball where Sora could meet a 'potential wife'. The ball would be set before his birthday that way the party would be a way for them to get to know one another.
Now dressed in proper clothing, Sora now sits across from Riku while Sora's father sits at the head of the table, his mom to the left, then Riku's mom sits across from Riku's mother. Sora pokes at the greens of his salad while leaning on one hand.
"Sora," his mother's voice sounds. "elbows off the table."
Sora sighs and places his hand in his lap. Looking across the table, across a silver tureen filled with steaming mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, Riku smiles, popping a piece of pork in his mouth.
"Sora, you're awfully quiet. Something on you mind?" His mother asks.
"Hm? Oh, just thinking about the party." Sora says. He fidgets with long vest over his shift embroidered with the family's crest on it.
"You don't seem too eager about it." Riku calls him out on it.
"Well, I was if it weren't practically a set up by my mother." Sora jokes, but his mother gives him a look of warning.
"Well you're not exactly trying to look for someone, Sora." Riku interjects.
Sora leans over the table. "I thought you were on my side." He whispers.
"Sora, I really am surprised you haven't found a suitable wife yet. I mean you're a charming young boy, you're an heir to the throne." Riku's mom says. "It shouldn't be that hard."
"Really?" Sora quirks a questionable eyebrow at her. "Well what about Riku?"
"Admittedly I haven't found anyone yet, but at least I've tried." He retorts.
Sora's mother gives him a classic 'I told you so' look. "Well, maybe I don't want to get married." Sora suddenly snaps.
There's a silence and Sora reduces to lowering his head and fidgeting with his leather boots that stop just at the base of the knee.
"At least not so soon." He rephrases. "I'm only seventeen."
"Sora, it's not like you have to get married right after you meet." Sora's mom says.
"Well that's how you're making it sound." Sora counters.
"I just want you to meet someone special and get to know her. When you want to get married is your choice." Says Sora's mom.
"Are you sure?" Sora quirks an eyebrow.
The meals has an odd moment of awkward silence but Sora speaks again. "I was actually hoping that I could invite my friend." He says.
"The one who's been teaching you?" his father asks.
"Yes. He's never been inside the palace, and I feel he deserves it for teaching me." Sora explains.
"You mean to tell me you let your son bring in any commoner he desires?" Riku's mom ask, taking a delicate of her wine.
Sora's father was about to defend him, but Sora beat him to it. "Yes. I do. Because, shockingly enough, I find them as more than just commoners in the kingdom."
"Sora," his mother says, and Sora realizes he slowly rose up from his seat. "Please sit." His mother gently suggests. Sora obeys.
"I think it's reasonable." Riku adds. "I mean, they're the ones who'll be your basic support when you take over the throne, so why not get to know them better."
Sora gives Riku an appreciative smile. After a few moments of the sounds of silverware clanking against plates, Sora's mother wipes her mouth and clears her throat.
"Sora, why don't you and Riku explore the Rose garden?" she suggests.
Sora turns to Riku and shrugs his shoulders. They push out their seats and leave their dishes. "Thank you for the meal." Riku says before he follows Sora out the double doors.
Sora immediately takes Riku's hand after the door closes. "Follow me." He whispers.
Riku's momentarily baffled as Sora guides him down the corridor to the right of the dining hall. It was a tunnel-like corridor and it lead them straight out to the Rose Garden. A curtain of green vines hangs over the open archway in a spilling cascade. Flowers dot the vines, their heavy heads lolling sleepily amid waxy green foliage.
Parting the vines with one hand, they each pass through the archway and into a circular room. Countless crimson buds climb the iron-gate perimeters, their interlacing boughs and vines thick enough to for a living wall between the interior of the room and whatever lay without.
The vines and flowers commandeered the domed ceiling as well, though the boys could detect the mesh of tree limbs and the hint of blue light through one of the thinner sections. Gazing upward, Riku thought there must be thousands of the flowers, maybe even hundreds of thousands – every single bud the same deep bloodred hue. In addition to the climbing roses, long-stemmed roses grew along the base of the trellised wall, their blooms blending in with all the others.
Their overpowering fragrance, like the smell from a shattered bottle of perfume, filled their nostrils with every breath, making them light-headed. A carpet of ruby petals covers the circular marble floor, while several open archways line the curved wall, all of them leading out into what appeared to be rose-lined tunnels.
At the center of the room, stood a fountain. High above the brass statue's head and arcing veil, a blanket of roses twined with the decorative domed ceiling, the vines braided with the scrolling wrought-iron bars. A breeze enters through the gaps between flowers and metal, sending a cascade of petals raining down. The roses seem to watch them like thousands of spectators as they pass, their delicate heads bobbing in their wake.
"Pretty." Riku comments.
"I guess." Sora says as he leads Riku along the cobblestone path. "Come on. This way."
"Where are we going?" Riku asks.
"Out." Sora replies. Riku raises his eyebrows. "To the village."
Sora takes Riku's hand and he leads him through the maze of buds and vines until they reach a small sewer opening hidden under an outcropping of rocks by a small pond. Sora twists and pops off the lid, yet the smell of human waste and rotten food hasn't assaulted Riku's nose as he expected.
"This isn't actually connected to the sewers," Sora informs. "this just leads over to the moat bordering the castle."
"How often have you used this thing?" Riku asks.
"Well, I discovered it when I was little, but only used it a few times just to get away from the parties with people I never cared for." Sora admits.
"Jeez, tell me how you really feel." Riku teases.
"Come on." Sora smiles, and he jumps down into the hole.
Much to Riku's surprise, he finds himself in a hidden passageway, the kind in old murder mysteries where the killer hides to spy on his victims through the eyeholes of hanging portraits. Inside this narrow passageway, a tripod torch burns yellow-orange. Its flames threw jagged shapes across the masonry and against the emerald stained-glass windows, the courtiers on the other side moving across in a shadow play of silhouettes.
"This way." Sora ushers.
He took a turn sharply without so much as a backward glance. Another damp stone corridor stretches before them. Their footsteps were the only company they have. They came to where the next torch stood. Here the dank passageway smells of kerosene and must. Orange flames cast their glow over a deep purple stained glass window set into the stone wall, and Sora knew that beyond it lay the small iron-bar opening he could always slip through with ease. He hopes that he'll still be able to, and Riku will as well.
Stepping around the torch, Sora sidled up to the opening and presses his hands flat against the stone wall beside it. He passes his fingers over the grooves and mortar, feeling for the small crawlspace that leads to the opening. The heat from the fire, warming his face and arms, threw Sora's shadow onto the wall beside him. His hand finally dips into the rock and he smiles.
"Ha! There it is." He smiles.
He ducks his head down and squatting, he starts to toggle his way through the space. The light at the end of the tunnel shines through and Sora leads Riku through.
"This is probably the craziest thing we've ever done." Riku comments.
"Crawling through the secret passages?"
"No, sneaking out of the castle."
Sora finally makes it to the opening, and he peeks out through the rusted bars. They were near the side of the castle so they could slip through and not be spotted by local villagers or guards. If they can make it through and over the bridge, no one will suspect anything.
Jesse was probably in the woods by now fetching for some dinner. Sora was eager for him and Riku to meet. Their personalities seem similar so figuratively speaking they shouldn't have a problem getting along. Sora grips the two bars and jerks them out of their sockets and planks them aside. He flattens on his belly and slides through. Slapping of the dirt on his tunic he helps Riku through, then places the bars back. Riku's clothes were slightly stained with dirt.
"Care to explain this to my mom?" Riku says gesturing to his fine clothes ruined.
"We were riding and you got bucked off." Sora bluntly lies.
"How will your stable boy confirm that?"
"He will. Trust me." Sora says. "Now move."
The streets bustle today, full of people trading and making general merriment. The crowd works for Sora's advantage. He pulls Riku into a side street a block from Center Square, where he hides bags behind the bushes at the back of the mercantile. It's closed and hasn't reopened, so they should have no problem of anyone finding it.
Sora had placed the bag after his first discreet meeting with Jesse. Inside, there was replacement clothes so his fine ones wouldn't get muddy. Also he packs spare food for Jesse to take. Now he probably won't take any of it because of that stupid male pride Sora virtually seemed to lack, but once the smell of lemon cake wafts his nose, Jesse won't be able to resist.
"So, how often have you met this guy?" Riku asks as Sora rifles through the bag.
"Uh, about every day, for the last, three weeks. He's been teaching combat and weapon handling."
"Can't your guards do that?" Riku questions.
"Not really. I've seen him in action. There's no way the guards could even handle him. His training is real." Sora asserts.
"What's that mean?" Riku asks.
"I mean that with his training, I actually feel I have a chance. I feel like every prince knows the exact same routine of 'Thrust, parry and pose'. His training, it's nothing that anyone's ever seen, not even the guards. It's unpredictable which is what you need in battle."
"So you think that some villager can take out your guards."
"Yep." Sora bluntly answers.
Sora strips off his fine clothes and replaces them with a basic blue tunic and brown belt. Since his cloak is back in his bedroom, he'll have to settle for being spotted. But hopefully his underdressed appearance will at least hint to the villagers he's 'undercover'. Folding them carefully, he places them back into the satchel and pulls on a pair of hunting boots. Concealing them under the cover of leaves, Sora feels around until he finds the paper wrapped package.
"You could learn a few things too."
"No one can beat me." Riku boasts.
"Wanna bet?" Sora challenges.
Riku smirks. "We'll see."
Deep in the forest, a rabbit emerges from its burrow and perks its ears, twitching them from side to side. It hops out further, and as it sniffs the ground, an arrow pierces it straight in the eye. A pair of feet drop to the ground, and Axel picks up the rabbit with a smile.
"Huh, right in the eye. Not bad Jesse." He smiles.
Jesse was over at one of his many snare traps, bow in hand and another rabbit dangling by its foot inches from his head. He slings the bow back over his back and tends to the rabbit. "Why thank you. I do try." He gives a feminine bat of his eyes.
Axel laughs and tosses the rabbit into their burlap sack, the thing already over flowing with berries, nuts and a turkey Jesse shot an hour ago. "You know, I've been meaning to ask, how's it going with his royal pain in the ass?"
Roxas snickers. "He really isn't that bad. He's actually a fast learner."
"What is that a compliment?" Axel teases.
"I-it's a mere observation." Roxas stutters. He disengages the rabbit and stuffs it in the overflowing bag of game. "He just, grows on you."
"I've been meaning to say, you seem a lot happier since hanging out with him. I don't know whether to be happy or freaked out." Axel comments.
"What's that mean?"
"Well, I don't know, you just seem in better spirits. I mean, you're smiling more often, you actually looks forward to life. You seem to tolerate everyone more. Heck, I've even heard you sing a couple times."
"That was a lullaby for Xion." Roxas defends.
"Not while you're training in the backyard."
Roxas swallows back a lump. He focuses on taking out the other rabbit.
"I'm not saying you should stop," Axel quickly adds. "I'm just saying, it's good to see this side of you. Didn't know you had it in you." Axel pounds Roxas' shoulder. Roxas simply snickers in reply.
It's true, he's been more, spirited if anything. Now that he dwells on it, he has been, better. He feels lighter, as if spending time with Sora, talking with him has somehow help lift weight after weight off his shoulders. Roxas felt like he could open up to Sora about anything because he'll just get it. He's never really felt close to anyone; even with Axel he's kept a few secrets. And while he's yet to tell Sora, he knows if it were to come to that, Roxas wouldn't be as hesitant as he would normally be. Maybe it was just something about Sora that seemed nonjudgmental. It surprises, even scares Roxas to think he's actually letting someone get close to him.
All his life he's learned to separate his emotions from anything. To numb the pain until he's practically made of stone. To devoid himself of all feelings, and bits of his sanity; but Sora, Sora showed him something else. Something beautiful. Something to fill the void and make up for all of those missing pieces of himself. Despite his many attempts to deny it, Roxas has only known heartache and pain. There are days that he wishes he could just forget everything for a time, and just live a different life. Where his worries devote to how much money he can make at a food stand, rather than decide on how many guards he has to kill to gain entrance to somewhere.
There are days where he feels alone and cold in that home; with crippled anger, and tears that still drip sore. Most people can only see his physical scars, but the reals scars, his true wounds wouldn't be so hidden if they would just look him in the eye. His days of suppression are done. He's bleeding in places only Sora can see, where no one could ever think to look. And those will be the only wounds he can ever fix. It's as if he's been believing in something so distant. Denying his feeling of hopelessness. And getting down to the nitty-gritty, all he feels is this cruel, wanting.
He doesn't want to be the one to walk away from this, but yet he can't bear the thought of another year in that house. He can't find the road to lead himself out of it, and he can't keep pretending everything's okay. They say it's now about what he wants, but what he is. The blood runs in Roxas' veins.
He knows this all too well.
So many people have lost their lives because of him, and admiringly, he can belch all he wants about how it make him feel. But really, he finds little to no pleasure in it. He finds nothing really positive in the outcome. All it does it keep him at the top of the bracket as number one, thereby granting him unquestionable freedom as his reward. But this reward does little to stifle the emotions that boil within his chest. So he lets the yawning pit of icy silence within him swallow them whole, and offers so little of something like comfort.
Because of this, Roxas never wanted to make friends, but they're the only solid link that he has to a normal life, that he usually ends up breaking his own rule.
"Come on," Axel interrupts his trains of thought. "Let's head to the river. It's the migrating season for the salmon."
Roxas nods and follows Axel to the river. The water was practically spewing out fish at them as they casted their nest and baited their hooks. They spend the next hour fishing until they catch at least near close to two dozen. While Axel scales most of the, Roxas sits back against the rocks and gaze at the blue sky. A blade of wheat grass ticking between his lips.
Before Sora came along, Roxas thinks that the only tangible thing that helps him hold onto his sanity, is Axel. Axel tries to do normal things with him, and Roxas knows Axel wants to leave this place like him. But what Axel really possesses, it doesn't involve skill or endurance, but friendship. Real friendship. Someone whom Roxas could express his feelings without worrying about being ratted out or being judged for disrespecting his elder.
He trusts Axel with his secrets, and in the end, Axel trusts him with his own.
Axel wraps five of the remaining fish together by their tails and knots it securely. "What time is it?" he asks.
"About, early evening." Roxas estimates.
"Should we head back?" Axel asks.
Roxas answers with a mere shrug of his shoulders. He didn't really want to go back. But at the same time, he didn't want to lug the sack around, especially late at night. Just as he had slung the thing over his shoulders, a voice breaks through the trees.
Both Axel and Roxas jerk their heads in unison towards the direction. Roxas pulls out his bow, and Axel rests his hand on the sheath of his dagger. Sora breaks through the foliage and Roxas feels a smile naturally crawl its way across his lips.
"Hey, Sora." He awkwardly greets, quickly sheathing his weapons. "Uh, what are you doing here?"
"I came to see you." Sora simply answers.
"But we've already trained today."
"Well, I knew you were probably out hunting and I wanted to give you something." Sora says with a smile.
Roxas glances back at Axel, who still has his hand gripped about his knife. Roxas fans his fingers for him to settle down. Axel relaxes slightly, but Roxas can't mistake that look of excitement on his features. With the Prince right in front of him, defenseless, Sora might as well cover himself in bloody meat and jump into the moat. Sora looks to him.
"Oh, I'm sorry I didn't know you brought someone. Who's this?" he asks.
"This is my friend, Axel." Roxas introduces. Axel doesn't walk over to shake hands. Sora doesn't seem to mind.
"Nice to meet you." He replies with that smile.
"Likewise, our majesty." Axel responds.
"This is actually good. I brought my own friend."
"What?" Roxas goes rigid.
"He's visiting with King Ansem." Sora continues. "Oh, here you go."
Out he pulls a paper-wrapped package and Roxas can smell the essence of the delicacy before Sora even hands it off to him. "No way." Roxas smiles.
Sora smiles as Roxas carefully pulls at the string to have the paper open in bloom like a flower as it reveals a whole and fairly warm lemon cake. The buttermilk in this luscious lemon cake produces a moist yet fluffy crumb.
"Oh my." Roxas breathes. But before he could thank Sora, another rustle makes him direct his attention. Appearing out from the bushes, a silver haired boy of a higher height than Sora emerges wearing rather too expensive of clothes to be roaming the woods. His icy blue eyes glance at Roxas and Roxas swallows back his flow of questions, but doesn't stop his eyebrows from furrowing, gazing in disapproval.
Sora takes immediate notice. "Jesse, this is my friend Riku."
Roxas doesn't say anything, instead he simply gazes at Riku. Riku appears slightly uncomfortable, but not at all intimidated. Roxas rewraps the lemon cake and sets it gently inside his burlap sack.
"And before you say anything, I just wanted you two to meet." Sora quickly interjects.
"Why?" Roxas asks.
"Because he thinks you can beat me." Riku interjects. "Which I find to be rather amusing."
Roxas scowls, but no in the friendly way Sora had expected. "Well it's nice to see Sora's the smart one of the group." Roxas sneers.
Riku's friendly smile falters and he shifts between his feet. Sora looks between the two and fiddles with his fingers nervously.
This is not going how he had expected it.
"Pretty cocky for a kid." Riku bites back. Roxas presses his lips into a flat line. "So if you're pretty good, why don't you beat me?"
"Sounds like a challenge." Roxas counters. "You don't think I can win?"
"I know you can't. But I like a challenge." Riku counters.
"You don't want to fight me." Roxas sneers.
"Jesse, we should just go." Axel interjects.
With that, Roxas turns and heads in Axel's direction. "Jesse!" Sora calls.
"I'll come back." Roxas suddenly says. "I just need to drop these off."
"Why?" Riku asks.
"Because unlike you, I actually need to work for my food." Roxas sneers.
Riku gives him a dirty look, and Sora runs over to him. "Can I see your house?"
Roxas hesitates and his eyes flick to Axel. He gives an inconspicuous shake of his head. "I can't have any friends over." Roxas lies. When really, he's not willing to let Sora meet his family.
"I know, but I just want to see it. Please." Sora begs.
"Just because." Sora replies, not budging.
"Well that just instills me with confidence." Roxas sarcastically replies.
"Please. Please." Sora asks, nearly close to whining.
Please!" Axel snaps. "It's probably the only way to shut him up."
Roxas rolls his eyes and sighs. He looks to Axel again who only tells him no. Or maybe it's a yes, buried underneath that predatory gleam in his eyes. "You can just see my house. I just need to put my things back and then we'll head back."
"Yes! Come on Riku!" Sora says as he follows Roxas and Axel through the trees.
As they follow the two through the trees, Sora feels a tug on his elbow. He turns and finds Riku leaning in. Sora's cheeks feel warm and he will his pale skin not to betray him.
"How can you trust this guy?" he whispers against Sora's ear.
Sora looks to him to see if he's joking, but he's not. "I just do. He's proven his worth." Sora answers.
"But I don't like his attitude."
Sora twists his elbow away and glares at Riku. "Just because he's not fond of you doesn't mean he isn't cool." He snaps.
"I didn't say that, I just, don't have the right feeling around him."
"It's fine Riku. I trust him, why don't you. I have a good sense of judgment." Sora defends.
"Relax." Riku whispers. "No need to get so defensive."
"There's no need to be judgmental." Sora counters, then before Riku could counter again he turns and speeds up to Roxas. Roxas takes notice, but doesn't ask questions.
Admittedly, it was a fair question. Why did he trust Jesse? He is not sweet or gentle or particularly kind. But he is smart and brave, and even though he saved Sora, he treated him like he was strong. That's all Sora needs.
Walking on the forest trail, they soon wander into a particular section of the forest Sora doesn't recognize. There were trees that he did recognize, others not so quite. The sounds of the wildlife seemed to die down, as if they had proclaimed this place off limits. Sora's nerves soon morph to the point where he feels like he's trespassing. But this was Jesse's property, they probably don't get many visitors.
"So, you get any visits?" Sora asks as he hops over a log dominated by moss.
"Not many." Jesse bluntly answers.
Sora pouts. "Not even any mail?"
"We don't have many neighbors living close." Jesse implies.
"No aunt or uncles?"
"I take it you're not really the conversational kind?" Riku suddenly interjects.
Jesse turns and glares at him. "Only for those who are interesting enough. What's your excuse? You're a member of a prominent family, where are all of your friends? Why don't you ever go and visit them?"
Riku fists his hands. "They're always busy."
Jesse snorts and turns back to the trail. Anger boils inside Riku but as he was about to advance, Sora stops him and gives him a look to stand down.
"So, boys," Axel chimes in. "what's the latest word around town? Heard any rumors lately?" he steps over a stone entombed in dirt and moss.
"Well, there is one that I'm aware of." Sora says as he mimics Axel's movements. "Apparently, there's this thief wondering the land, and he attacked King Ansem, and killed several of his guards in the process."
Roxas' heart triples in speed, blood roaring in his ears as he turns to face Sora. Thankfully Sora was focused on overcoming a dirt hill to notice. Roxas glances to Axel, who only smirks.
"A thief huh?"
"Yeah," Sora continues on, accepting Jesse's extended hand. "they're nicknaming him the Shadow Stalker."
"Shadow Stalker?" Roxas repeats.
"Yeah. Personally I prefer Shadowcloak, because it sounds cooler -"
"Sora," Roxas snaps to get him to focus back.
"Oh sorry. Anyway, everyone's saying that he wears a uniform or strange armor of black, and they say he 'walks with the shadows'."
"Meaning . . ." Roxas ushers on.
"Like, they say that he only comes around at night, and when he runs into the shadows, like in an alley, he virtually disappears." Sora explains.
Roxas tries not to look at Axel's smug expression, fighting to keep himself from smiling himself. "You sound more intrigued than scared." Axel says.
"I am, actually." Says Sora. "I think it's really cool. In fact I sometimes even wish I had those talents."
"To be a ruthless assassin." Says Riku.
"Thief." Jesse corrects. "He's a mere thief."
"Who managed to kill several highly trained guards." Riku states.
"Anyway," Sora interjects. "I just mean that, I think that it's cool that he can do all those cool tricks; he knows like great sneak tactics, he knows how to be elusive. Does that make sense?"
"No." says Riku. "Yeah." says Jesse. Both answer in unison.
They look to one another, and while Riku gives a look of annoyance, Jesse simply waggles his eyebrows. After hopping over another mound of dirt and sliding down a small hill, they reach the patio on the back porch of Roxas' house.
"Well, this is me." He says.
"Welcome to Casa de Covert." Axel smiles gesturing to the home with both his arms. "Where no one can hear you scream."
Roxas shots him a glare, but to his relief, Sora laughs.
"Wow, this house is so beautiful. And so old." Sora steps out of the foliage and approaches the property line. "Imagine the history behind it."
"How'd you score a place like this?" Riku asks.
"My dad inherited it." Jesse says, then added as an afterthought, "These were the original servant furniture."
Sora runs around to the front and gazes in awe, like a child watching an acrobat at the circus.
"It has a bit of a weird layout though." Jesse adds, following behind him. "It's gone through a lot of renovations. After the Third era, it got turned into a nursing home. Then, in the Fourth, it was converted into a safe house for soldiers."
"It's huge." Sora breathes.
A window suddenly pops open and Larxene sticks her head out the window. "Are you just going to stand there or get in here and help with lunch?!" She screams.
Suddenly her eyes widen and her gaze sticks to Sora. Roxas could've sworn he saw her lip quiver in excitement and shock. Behind her, he could see the faces of the other family members. Roxas pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. "And this is why I don't bring friends over."
He slings off the burlap sack and tosses it to Axel. He then rummages through the second and pulls out a satchel. "Take those inside, and tell Dad I won't be home for dinner."
Axel smiles. "Sure. It was nice to meet you your majesty."
Sora nods and waves goodbye.
"Jesse!" Larxene screeches. "Aren't you going to bring your, friend inside?"
"No!" Roxas shouts back. And before she could protest, he turns, grips Sora's shoulder and ushers him away from the property.
Sora leans in, a small smile on his lips. "Was that your sister? Step-sister?"
"No, I really think it's the devil in disguise." Roxas jokes.
"She seems nice." Sora adds and the two laugh together.
As they trudge through the forest, Riku takes notice at the advanced similarities between the two boys. Both of the same height, different shade in hair, but still similar. They have the same blue eyes and rather same laugh. The likeness is uncanny. Sora seems to stay close to Jesse's side as they push aside bush after bush as the sun starts to drift above them.
"Do you know where you're going?" Riku questions.
"I've been in these woods all my life." Jesse replies, not even looking over his shoulder. "You take a guess."
"It just feels like we've been walking in circles. Like you're leading us somewhere."
"Maybe to you since you've spent most of your life in a palace of stone." Roxas pulls aside a branch and holds it while Sora ducks underneath. "But if I had intended to get you guys killed in the woods," he releases the branch and it swings smacking Riku in the face. Not hard, but just enough that the leaves leave faint scratches on his cheeks. "you'd be dead by now." Jesse finishes.
After another hour, they come to a clearing with targets set up in different ranges. They were the standard bull's-eyes with three rings of red. The farthest target was so put back Sora had to squint to find it by a tree.
"Today I'll teach you to shoot." Jesse says.
Sora and Riku look to find him pulling out a bow and a sheath of arrows from a hollow log. Sora runs over and help him, stringing the bow as Jesse checks to make sure no arrows fell out of the quiver. Sora slings them on his back and follows Jesse as he guides him to a small divider made of small stones.
"Stand behind here." Jesse instructs.
"So Jesse," Riku chimes. "How'd you learn to shoot?"
"My step-dad was rarely home, so it was Axel who actually taught me how to use a bow."
Jesse slings off his own and facing the targets, loads an arrow. He pulls the string back and after a few seconds, release it. It's a bull's-eye. Sora watches intently.
"He always said that composure was the key to a successful archer." He loads another arrow. "If you can remain calm, even in the midst of chaos, your arrow will most likely find its target."
He releases the arrow, and it lands centimeters next to the first. He slings his bow back over his shoulder. "Okay, let's see what you can do."
"Haven't you taught me already how to shoot?" Sora asks, but still pulls forward his bow.
"That was hunting, this is different." Jesse says. "Remember to stay within the boundaries and only use the practice arrows." Roxas steps back. "Aim for the middle target."
Sora takes a deep breath and pulls forward an arrow. He nocks it and draws back. One finger above it, two beneath it. Not touching the arrow. He pulls the string back and breathes. Releasing the arrow, it lands just above the bull's-eye section of the target.
"Nice shot. Right on target. Now hit the target to the left." Jesse instructs.
This target was set a little farther back. Sora loads an arrow and adjusts his aim so it's a little higher. His neck prickles as he remembers that Riku is there, observing how legit Jesse's training is. The pressure of Sora representing Jesse suddenly begins to tighten his chest. The arrow lands below the bull's-eye this time. Sora sighs in aggravation.
"Sora," Jesse calls. He turns to him. "Stay focused. It was a good shot. Don't worry about Riku. Just focus on your targets."
Sora looks to him, curious as to what gave him away, but then he remembers something about how Jesse was taught to read faces and body language. Something about how it helps him when trading in the market. Sora takes a deep breath and focuses. Pulling the string back, he aims higher, thinking of the arc that arrows have. In training, Leon taught him that the arrows don't fly straight, they have an arc to them. With this in mind, Sora focuses his eyesight and releases the string. The arrow hits the bull's-eye. Sora smiles as warm triumph boils through his veins.
"Great shot, Sora." Jesse praises.
"Riku, come on!" Sora urges. "This is fun."
"I'd rather just observe." Riku denies.
"Spare yourself the humiliation." Jesse mocks.
Riku's cheeks fade red as Sora goes to retrieve his arrows. Roxas smirks and diverts to Sora when he comes back.
"Apart from teaching me, Axel took me out hunting a lot when I was little." Roxas instructs.
He draws his bow and loads an arrow, letting it fly seconds later. He pulls another arrow and hits the left target, dead center.
"At the time, it was difficult to keep food on the table, let alone have enough left over to sell at the market. So whenever we came across more than one deer in a single location, it was imperative we kill as many as we could." says Roxas. "If you can keep your composure and trust that each shot is true, then you should be able to quickly handle multiple targets."
He sheaths his bow.
"When I tell you to, try and hit each of the closest three targets in eight seconds."
"So I can see who this would be helpful to you," Riku pipes up. Both boys look to him. "Seriously I do, but Sora, how would this be useful to you?"
Sora gives him a look of annoyance, sternness and defile. "Don't see how that's any of your business." He snaps.
Roxas looks to him with wide eyes but narrows eyebrows. He'd never heard Sora snap at anyone before, he always seemed like the 'befriend everyone' kind of person. But this just goes to show Roxas how unpredictable Sora could really be. How little Roxas really knows about Sora. This makes Roxas question all that he's been teaching Sora. If he teaches him everything he knows, Sora could end up better than him. It's scary if he thinks about it. As to test, Roxas notes to observe Sora.
"Draw string and get ready!" he barks.
Roxas folds his arms. "I'll count to three and then say "go". You have eight seconds to hit each of the targets."
Sora nods and squints his eyes. Keeping his gaze forward.
"One . . . Two . . . Three . . ." he pauses, flicking his eyes between Sora and Riku. "Go!"
Sora release the string immediately, hitting the first middle target. He loads another arrow and draws back. The arrow flies and zips over the left target. Sora grunts and loads another. He hits it, but a he goes for the right, Roxas call time.
"Time's up." he says. "Better luck next time."
Sora lowers his bow and sighs. He hands Roxas the bow and ruffles his hair with his fingers.
"Hey, don't worry, you'll get it again. Just next time, even if the arrow doesn't hit your intended target, keep shooting to the next target." Sora looks to him with a questionable look. "Imagine if that was a man. If you kept shooting at the one, you would've been tackled by now. Makes sense?"
Sora nods and gives a wary smile. Jesse gives him a playful punch.
"You're actually not bad for a beginner." He teases.
Sora flips his hair femininely and gives a bat of his eyes. "Well I do try." Roxas laughs and snatches his bow from Sora.
"Hey Sora," Riku speaks up. "We should get back."
"Late for your polo lesson?" Roxas snickers.
Sora nudges his arm into Roxas' side. "Oh! And before I forget," Sora says as Roxas slings the bow and quivers back into the hollow log. "I was wondering something."
"This probably can't be good. For some." Roxas jokes.
"Haha, listen, my family's throwing a party, and I was wondering if you'd like to come to the palace?"
Roxas freezes for a moment, his heart slamming against his ribs. He spins around. "What?" his eyes were probably wide and his posture overly, stunned, but he needed to make sure he heard right.
"I, I was just wondering if you wanted to go to the palace. My mom's throwing a party for me to find the perfect girl, and I need someone else there to disappear with." Sora puts air quotes around disappear, as well as adding an overly dramatic eye roll when talking about finding the perfect girl. "Will you come?"
"IS this for your birthday?" Roxas asks.
"No, there's another party after that. Mom's just trying to unravel this plot of me celebrating my party with a potential wife." Sora nonchalantly answers. "Again, will you come?!"
Roxas swallows, and ignores the large, grimace-like smile on his lips. "I . . . I would be incredibly honored. But I, I don't think I have anything worth wearing to such a celebration."
"Oh! You can come to the castle early and I can get you a suit!"
"Oh no, that's fine, I don't want to intrude." Roxas dismisses.
"Come on!" Sora leaps to Roxas and wraps his arms around his shoulders. "It's not a problem, I promise! I could come and get you-"
"No! No, I'll . . . I'll be there. I'm pretty sure I can find my way to your palace." Roxas interjects.
"Okay, you promise you'll be there?" Sora asks.
Roxas smiles. "I swear on the King's life."