It's hot the day they come back, like they brought the sun down with them.
At first, she and Sora and Riku stay glued together – it's hours before they don't panic at the loss of touch, don't grope for an elbow or a waist to hold onto. The heat only gets worse as the day wanes, though, and eventually they have to pull away from each other's sweaty, sticky skin. Then the world swells around them once more, and they're aware of things other than themselves, as if they lost their unified stream of consciousness when Riku's fingers left Kairi's wrist, when Sora's eyes blinked. They can see their houses in the distance, and the school beyond that, and the half-dozen boats scattering the water between here and there. That's when they know they have to file out, to walk through the front door like they haven't been missing for years and try to adjust to being normal instead of – instead of whatever they are.
Kairi, selfish as it is, wants to put it off until it's absolutely necessary. She wants this day to sink into her skin, wants it carved into her for forever. So she hugs Riku and Sora good-bye, watches them fade into the white-washed glare of the sand until they're nothing more than sand themselves: miniscule, nondescript. She spread-eagles herself on the beach and lets the heat press down on her, memorizing the way it swoops past her ears and fills her lungs to bursting. The sky burns bright overhead but she keeps her eyes open. For a few minutes, she entertains the notion of lying there until she tans as dark as Sora, a crisp, nutty brown. She shakes the idea from her head after a while; islanders tan. Kairi burns.
It must be hours since she first lay down, but the sun doesn't sink any lower. Kairi sighs and presses her palms into her eyes, vainly trying to rub away the coronas that dance under her eyelids. They're still there when she pulls her hands away, starbursts of color lighting up her sun-bleached field of sight. Axel is sitting beside her, arms wrapped around his knees.
"Too much sun," she groans, wincing, as she pulls herself upright.
"No such thing," Axel says almost cheerily. As cheerily as Kairi's ever heard a dead person speak, anyway. "It's good for you."
"I'm hallucinating," Kairi says, blinking a few times for good measure. Axel doesn't go away, doesn't even pretend to. He's just a little blurred around the edges, like a worn-out drawing.
"If you are, could you maybe hallucinate me a little buffer? Or at least with better hair. This salt is really doing a number on me, you know?" His voice is a little raspy, like sandpaper, but it's still unmistakably Axel's voice, and that worries her. Kairi can believe that the stars are far-off worlds and that love can save the world, but she doesn't know if she can believe in ghosts just yet.
Then she decides that the best course of action is just to treat him like she would anyone else, because if this person, remnant, memory, whatever looks like Axel and talks like Axel, it might think like Axel, too, and she's still got a bone to pick with him.
"Don't think I'm going to forgive you just because you're dead," she tells him bluntly. She's getting ready to continue but he cuts her off with a raucous laugh, slicing through her words like a knife. She closes her mouth abruptly and stares at him, everything about him too pale, too dull to be real.
"Good for you, princess," he tells her. "Good for you."
Kairi walks home and doesn't look back.
The next time she sees him, it's almost shocking. Not his presence, not quite, but the weather; it's been a gray, chilly drizzle all day, breaking into showers every so often, and Kairi's sneakers are soaked through. He falls into step beside her easily, keeps his hands shoved in his pockets and his eyes on the ground.
"Hello," Kairi says evenly, careful not to look at him directly.
"Convinced yourself I'm real yet?"
"Not really," she shrugs. "I figure the real Axel isn't really one for rainy days."
"You're telling me," he says sourly, and she looks up at him and has to laugh: his hair is matted to the sides of his head and his face screwed up unpleasantly.
"Just put your hood up, genius," she snickers, reaching out to do it for him. Her hands stop about an inch from his shoulders. There's no warmth coming from him.
"Performance anxiety," he leers but doesn't move. He doesn't seem to mind their proximity, and Kairi doesn't really have the will to move.
"Are you afraid that your hands will go through me," Axel asks quietly, "or that they won't?"
"Both, I think," Kairi says, guilt-stricken, and lets her arms fall limply to her sides. The rain is steadily falling, now, and she can tell by the color of the sky that it'll only get worse. "I'm on my way to Riku's," she says suddenly. "It's just the next house down. You could come in, get out of the rain." It's an offer she doesn't know if she should be making, but it's out there, regardless, hanging tensely in the air between them.
"That's kind of tempting fate, don't you think?" he says wryly, watching Kairi edge closer to Riku's door.
"Just come inside," she pleads. "You don't have to stay."
"Sorry, girlie," he shrugs. She's not quite sure if he disappeared or turned and walked away: she blinked, it seems, for a second too long.
"Kairi?" Riku says, through the crack in the door. "C'mere, I'll get you a towel. Who are you talking to?"
She hops onto the doorstep, the overhanging roof keeping her a little dry, at least. "Would you still love me if I were crazy?" she asks him.
His lips quirk and the rain starts to pour.
(Briefly, she decides that she needs a firsthand account. She goes over to Sora's house one Saturday night and watches movies with him until he passes out, forcing her eyes open until Roxas makes himself known.
She wasn't expecting him to actually manifest, even though calling it that is a stretch, seeing as how he's mostly see-through. Still, she jumps when she sees him sitting between her and Sora, legs crossed and head cocked at an angle. "Hi," he says.
"You scared me," she tells him weakly, tries for a smile.
"Sorry," he says with a shrug. "Did you – you wanted to ask me something, right?"
"Yeah," Kairi says with a swallow. "I was just wondering about. Well, about the Organization."
He stiffens. "You probably don't want to know anything I've got to say."
She presses on. "Do you ever think about them? Maybe thinking about them so much that it's almost like they're real?"
"No," Roxas says, clipped and sharp. "I try not to think of it at all."
It's a lie and she knows it, but she knows when to keep her mouth shut, too.)
It's a good kind of morning, not too hot and not too cold, and Kairi decides she's going to go for a swim.
She's supposed to be waiting on Sora and Riku so they can walk into town together, but she's impatient and the sea is calm, storm-tossed, and inviting. She likes the darkness of it, likes that she can't see the bottom from where she's standing on the shore.
Walking in wet shoes would be uncomfortable later, so she kicks those off, and same goes for her shorts. She takes special care to fold them up and set them out of the reach of the tide, so they'll stay tidy, even if there's a little sand on them.
The water immediately takes her in, sucks the ground out from beneath her feet and tugs; Kairi laughs a little and paddles out farther, out into the deep where it's calm. She floats on her back there, staring up at the sky. She doesn't even realize he's there until she bumps into him.
"You still here?" she says quietly.
"You could always just try wishing me away," he offers. He's flailing awkwardly to keep afloat, so she kicks her way towards the shallows, where their feet can touch the bottom.
"I don't think you'd leave even if I did," Kairi says, and Axel's eyes go a little wide at that.
"Well, what do you think?" he asks her. It's every bit as dry as he always is, but she sees the bob in his throat as he swallows down more questions, ones that she won't ever hear.
"Do you really want to know?" she says and doesn't wait for a reply. "I think that if you can remember something – really remember something, so much that you believe it's still there – it can come back."
"Is that so."
"And I don't really know about this part," she says, tilting her head up so she's looking him right in the eye, "but I've always heard a prince's kiss breaks a spell."
Axel laughs at that, a little. "But you're a princess." She wonders if he knows that she takes it as a challenge.
"Says who," she tells him fiercely, and stands on her tiptoes to press her mouth against his. It's like kissing smoke.
When she opens her eyes, all she sees is clear blue.