Sora feels like something is missing. Maybe it's because he had Kairi's heart inside of him for so long, and now he doesn't. Maybe it's because Riku and Kairi are both so far away- have been so far away for so long. Maybe it's because he woke up at least a year older and doesn't know what happened to that time. He's missing so much that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what the feeling is coming from.
It weighs on him, as he goes world to world. It's not like he's thinking about it all the time- there's Riku to find, and the Organization to stop, and he hardly has any downtime to actually think ever- but it's at the back of his mind, muddled up with a whole lot of feelings he doesn't quite understand.
Sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night, clutching at his chest and feeling the reassuring beating of his heart, and wonders why it surprises him. He has muddled dreams but he can't remember them well, except that sometimes he dreams that he is trapped and no one is coming to rescue him. That's stupid, because he knows that Riku and Kairi would come for him, just like he would come for them. But his dreams have been weird since forever, and he doesn't think much of it. Not at the time.
He reads "Thank Namine" in Jiminy's journal when he wakes up in Twilight Town, and thinks that maybe this Namine is the key to all of it. But since he has no idea who Namine is or where to find her, he can't begin to look for her, except to ask, quietly and somewhat desperately, once he has finished asking about Riku: "Have you seen a girl named Namine?"
No one ever knows. It's like she doesn't exist.
And for a while, he forgets about her a little. Organization XIII is after him, after all. Especially the crazy maniac with the facial tattoos- Axel, that's his name. And Sora feels like he should remember that. Not just because the lunatic keeps telling him to memorize it. Like, maybe they met during that year Sora doesn't remember, but fighting him is easy, like play fights with Riku when they were younger and more innocent.
"You know what I figure?" Axel asks, after the fifth or so time they've fought. Axel's got Donald and Goofy trapped outside a huge ring of fire, so it's just him and Sora for the first time. Sora lifts up the keyblade, not really caring what Axel has to say. It's just more crazy talk, designed to make Sora slip up. To make him angry. Axel is pretty good at that, Sora has learned over the past few fights. Axel makes Sora fight sloppy, and he's good enough an opponent that Sora can't afford to be sloppy. Even if there is something playful in his fighting, like he doesn't really mean it, Sora can't trust that he won't really hurt him if he slips up.
"I figure you don't just stop being a Heartless," Axel says, twirling his chakrums round and round, looking deceptively lazy-like. "Heartless are nothing but corrupted hearts. Now, you're not corrupted anymore. But what does that make you?"
It's calculated to make Sora angry. Sora knows that. He doesn't care. He rushes madly at Axel, who leaps away.
"See," Axel says. "I think you're still just a heart. One with light- not corrupted like a Heartless. But no more human than I am."
Sora lunges again, manages slice the air just in front of Axel's face before Axel leaps away.
"Think about it," Axel says. "The Organization is all about trying to become whole. We could help you, you know."
And then Axel is gone, into one of those creepy dark portals (Sora doesn't like them; they remind him too much of the few minutes where he was a Heartless, alone in the darkness) and the flames dissipate.
Donald and Goofy join him again, but Sora doesn't tell them what Axel said. Because even though Sora has his heart, something else is missing, and it has been for a long time.
After that meeting with Axel, the Organization leaves him alone to stew for a while. He has a lot of weird thoughts in that time. Like, what did happen to his body? He isn't clear on the whole thing about Heartless, but he knows they fade to nothing when you kill them. They don't have a body. He doesn't remember much about being a Heartless, but if he didn't have a body then, it stands to reason that he doesn't have one now. Unless Kairi somehow fixed that, too. And he isn't sure how to tell.
One time he puts his hand flat against a wall and wonders if he could just walk through it. If he's just a heart, what's stopping him from doing it? He closes his eyes and pushes, and when he doesn't feel anything solid pushing back, he feels dizzy all of a sudden, like he's standing on the edge of something deep and dangerous, and might fall any moment. He pulls his hand back without looking at it, and doesn't try that again.
Sometimes Sora wishes he were smarter. Then maybe all this stuff about Heartless and Nobodies and whatever he is would make more sense. But Sora has only ever gotten passable grades in school, and this stuff is a lot harder, and there is no one here to explain it.
He still can't find Riku, either. He has a feeling that everything would be okay if he and Riku and Kairi were all together again. It's not logical, but Sora has learned that logic doesn't always have a lot to do with hearts and things.
"This ship runs on happy faces," Donald reminds him when Sora feels down. And then Sora fakes a huge smile for Donald and Goofy's benefit. But it isn't any more real than he is.
He thinks maybe Yen Sid could explain a little more about what's happening to him, but when Sora finds his tower again, he chickens out. Sora isn't sure he wants to know what he is now. He's pretty sure he wouldn't like any answers he gets. Instead, he asks: "Could you explain a little more about Nobodies? I'm not sure I understood the first time."
Yen Sid looks at him like he isn't very bright.
"Nobodies are what is left of a person when they become a Heartless," Yen Sid says.
"So they're the person's body?" Sora asks.
"Both their body and their soul," Yen Sid says. "But not their heart."
"What does a soul do, exactly?" Sora asks. "I mean, Heartless don't have one, right?"
"The soul is what enables us to act on logic," Yen Sid tells him. "Without it we would be mindless beasts like the Heartless, driven only by emotion."
Sora isn't a mindless beast. (Except on occasion when he tries to use drive form and something goes wrong and he chokes on darkness and wakes up a few minutes later with only hazy memories of what has happened to whatever he was fighting. This happens more and more often, lately. He's started to use drive forms less because of it.)
Sora is pretty sure he still has his soul. It's just his body he's missing, right?
Other members of the Organization come after him the next day in Agrabah, and between battle and utter exhaustion, he's too tired to worry about it for a while. He asks at a few worlds if anyone has seen Riku, but no one has. When he remembers to ask, no one has seen anyone named Namine either.
He tears apart a bunch of Heartless after that. But he's careful to do it methodically. Rationally. Not like a mindless beast, because he still has a soul, after all. Is still a person, after all, even if he might not quite be a human being at the moment, maybe.
Donald and Goofy stop telling him to cheer up. He isn't sure whether he's gotten better at faking smiles or whether they've given up.
For the first time ever, he thinks that maybe he should just give up and go home. It's not that he doesn't want to find Riku- he does, he wants it more than anything- but he's just getting really tired. There are days when he thinks that if he doesn't keep focus, doesn't keep moving forward, he might just dissolve into nothingness.
Sora has no body. He's kept together only by the strength of his heart. And probably his soul, too.
He isn't sure how much longer they can keep him together.
He finds his first clue about Riku in the form of a shadowy figure with a strange keyblade, at a battle where he kills 1000 Heartless. And the swell of hope makes him feel more solid again, more alive. For the first time in too long, he feels like maybe this is doable.
"Riku!" he says.
The figure turns, hooded and too tall, but still obviously Riku. Then he walks away, ducks behind a rock, and when Sora follows he is long gone and the taste of darkness is in the air.
Axel fights him again. Sora is in the underworld, and Hades is currently occupying Donald and Goofy. So it's just the two of them, again.
"Thought about my offer any?" Axel asks.
"You wish," Sora says.
"It can't be easy, walking around with just a heart," Axel says. "A lot harder than walking around with no heart at all. Don't you want to be whole again? Don't you want your soul back?"
"I have my soul," Sora says. "I'd know if it were missing. Maybe my body is gone, but I'm doing just fine at kicking your butt without it, aren't I?"
Axel laughs. "This is too rich. You think you still have a soul?" He laughs again, clutching at his stomach, and then goes still again too quickly. "I know at least one person who would disagree."
"Yeah?" Sora says. "So what?"
"The person is your Nobody," Axel says. "Think about it."
He's gone again after that. Sora goes to help Goofy and Donald, and tries really hard not to think about it too much.
His dreams that night are full of memories that aren't his. He remembers sitting on top of a clock tower with Axel, a little too somber to be himself. He dreams of killing Heartless after Heartless. He dreams that his name is Roxas, and that he has a soul, and that he doesn't have to concentrate to stay alive.
He has to find Riku. Riku will know what to do about this. Riku is smarter than Sora. And then they'll go back to Kairi, and between the three of them they'll have to be able to figure something out.
He doesn't find Riku on the next five worlds. It's been a year since Sora woke up. At some point Sora's birthday had passed, uncelebrated and unnoticed. He isn't sure of the exact date, though- every world seems to keep track of time in a different way, and he isn't sure how things correspond to time on Destiny Islands.
Sora is so tired. Sometimes he feels like anyone could see right through him, like he's a ghost or something. It isn't true. He's looked at his reflection in a puddle of water during one of those times. He's just as solid-looking as ever, even if he doesn't feel like it.
The next time he sees Axel, he says: "Could I see Roxas? I'm not saying I'll join you. But I want to meet him."
"That's a bit tricky," Axel says. "See, he betrayed the Organization a couple of months back. Tried to kill our leader. We've got him locked up now. He's under heavy guard so that he can't escape, and so that the pest can't get to him." He doesn't look too pleased at this fact. Sora remembers the dream he had, how Axel and Roxas were something like friends. If Nobodies could have friends. Sora was a little fuzzy on if Nobodies could feel anything at all, the same way he was a little fuzzy about if he should even be able to exist.
"I need to see him," Sora says. "Just- there's something I need to do."
Axel grins. Sora ought to feel threatened by that, but he doesn't. Desperation has made this seem like a good idea. "I might be able to arrange that," he says.
They meet the next time Sora is at Twilight Town, which is the very next day. They sit on the clock tower and talk a bit, about the best way to get to Roxas, and Sora feels hopeful. Roxas is the parts of him that went missing. Roxas is his other half. And maybe, just maybe, if he rescues Roxas, things will be better.
Axel gets him as far as the Castle That Never Was, dragging him through a dark portal. Sora feels like vomiting after they're through it, but they made it in one piece, and that's the important thing, right?
"The rest is up to you, kid," he says. And Sora wonders whose side Axel is really on. Wasn't he trying to recruit Sora, just a few months ago? Is this a trap? But he remembers Roxas, and ice cream, and thinks that maybe Axel can be trusted after all.
He doesn't have to sneak very hard to get in. The thing about having no body is that he can just close his eyes, and walk, and pretend that it doesn't feel awful to remember he isn't a real person right now. When he opens his eyes he's walked straight through the wall. His stomach feels funny, but he ignores it because it's not like he really even has a stomach; it's all just part of his imagination, or something. He doesn't have a body at all. It doesn't matter.
He finds Roxas pretty easily. He doesn't even have to fight anyone on the way.
Roxas is tied and gagged in a small room in the basement. Sora is afraid to touch him at first. He isn't sure what will happen to them if he does. But he isn't doing Roxas any good breaking in if he can't get him out of here, so he risks it. Nothing happens, and Sora unties the knots methodically and slowly. They have been tied far too tightly.
He thinks that probably Roxas doesn't even need to be tied up. He's so skinny and malnourished looking that he probably couldn't lift a keyblade to get out of here. And that's not even considering the bruises. He has not been treated well, here.
Roxas opens his eyes. He stares at Sora dully. "Who're you?" he asks, voice raspy.
"I'm Sora," Sora says. "And I'm here to rescue you."
Roxas looks at him blankly. "Why?"
"Axel sent me," Sora says, because he doesn't feel like explaining the whole thing. Roxas looks a little brighter at that, and cooperates as best he can to get on his feet. He's not strong enough to stand on his own, but with a little support from Sora, he's alright.
Sora considers what to do next.
"I'm not sure how to get you out of here," he admits. "I'm not- I haven't been very good at plans, recently." Although his head feels a little clearer now that he's standing next to Roxas, as though proximity to his body and soul is enough for him to be whole again. He wonders if Roxas is feeling a sudden, unexpected swell of emotions. Is being near to Sora enough to make him feel like he has a heart?
Roxas shows no signs of heartfulness. He just gives Sora a look that makes him feel like an idiot. Which is stupid, because Sora is Roxas. Sort of.
Roxas holds out one arm, summons the keyblade, and promptly drops it. Sora grabs it before it hits the floor, nearly dropping Roxas in the process. Roxas glares. "How can you hold the keyblade? It's mine."
Sora shrugs with the shoulder Roxas isn't propped up on, and points the keyblade at the door. There is a barely audible click as it unlocks. Then he lets the keyblade disappear, because he has his hands full trying to get Roxas out the door.
There is a guard outside the door. Axel had warned him about that. Sora sets Roxas down against the wall, summons the keyblade, and says: "I'm getting him out of here."
The man, who has a scar over one eye, smirks. "We were wondering when you would come, Sora. I'm surprised it took you this long. Then again, you aren't the brightest, are you?"
Sora lunges. The man takes a step to the side, and Sora is sure he's about to warp away. He doesn't know how he knows that, but he does.
But Sora is ready for that. His head feels clearer than it has in- well, since before he lost his soul. He swings the keyblade around to his left and it hits the man in the side. There is a hiss of pain. The warp stops.
"Roxas knows how you fight," Sora says, suddenly sure that that is the reason behind his inexplicable knowledge. "So do I, now."
"Maybe Roxas has served his purpose, then," the man says. He lifts up his arrowgun. Sora raises his keyblade, ready to deflect, but realizes a fraction of a second too late that Xigbar isn't aiming at him.
Sora moves to block him, but knows even as he begins his two desperate steps forward that he is too late. He won't be able to save Roxas. Instead, Roxas will just die. Sora's soul and body will be gone forever, and Sora will just... disintegrate, probably.
There is a clash of metal against metal, and Sora blinks.
"Oh," Xigbar says. "The pest returns yet again."
Sora looks up, and blinks again. "Riku?!"
Riku's eyes flick briefly to Sora, and then Riku gives Xigbar a long look. "You don't get to kill my friend," he says.
"I'm not your friend," Roxas says. "I don't even know who you are."
"I wasn't talking about you," Riku says. "Well- maybe I am. It's complicated."
Roxas looks confused, which is understandable, and Sora take the opportunity to whack Xigbar with the keyblade once again. From behind. It's not exactly fighting fair, but Sora figures that doesn't matter right now. Not when Xigbar has just threatened his- well, his soul. And body. His Roxas, whatever that means.
Xigbar crumples to the ground. Roxas looks wide-eyed from Sora to Riku. "Did Axel send you, too?"
Riku looks questioningly at Sora. "Is that what you told him about why you were here?"
Sora nods, jerkily. "Axel did, though. He told me how to get here."
"How did you get in without fighting your way through?" Riku asks.
Sora just shrugs. "Never mind that now. We have to get Roxas out of here."
They manage to sneak out without alerting any other Organization members.
"I fought off a few of them on the way in," Riku says. "Maybe we're lucky and no one else is here."
They cast a few healing spells on Roxas, which Sora would have done earlier if he'd been thinking more clearly, and Roxas was recovered enough to walk on his own after that, though he didn't look like he would be winning any fights.
They get back to where Axel was waiting.
Axel ignores Riku and Sora, rushes forward, and says "Roxas!"
Roxas gives Axel a smile, but it looks a little forced. "You sure took your sweet time sending a rescue party."
Axel shrugs apologetically. "I couldn't take on the Organization on my own, could I? These things take time."
They take Axel and Roxas to Destiny Islands to recover- picking up Donald and Goofy on the way. Donald yells at Sora for pretty much the whole ride, until Roxas turns to him and pulls his keyblade out threateningly. For all that Roxas' grip on the keyblade is shaking, that makes Donald quiet down really fast- at least for a minute. Then he starts asking why Roxas has a keyblade, and Sora just shrugs. They aren't going to get any answers out of him, and none of the others seem terribly talkative, either. Eventually the barrage of questions ends, and they settle into a sullen sort of silence.
Sora isn't sure about going home, but he does it anyway. His mom looks at him blankly for a minute, smiling at him like he's a stranger. And then something crosses her face, and she takes three steps across their small living room, and pulls him into a hug, whispering "Sora. Sora."
So his mom remembers him, at least.
And then Roxas walks into the room behind him, and for a moment Mom looks afraid.
"Did I forget you, too?" she asks, and Roxas shakes his head sharply.
"No. We've never met."
"I feel like I know you," she says. One hand flutters to her head, as though it aches. But she shakes her head, and her hand falls back to her side. "Are you Sora...'s friend?"
Roxas shrugs, and walks up the stairs to Sora's room like he's lived there his whole life.
Sora isn't sure about how much Roxas remembers. But he gives his mom a quick smile and follows Roxas upstairs, because he hasn't seen his room in years, and he has to wonder if his things are still even there.
Roxas is standing in the doorway when Sora gets there, looking out-of-place and alone. He turns when Sora gets close, and Sora realizes, not for the first time, that they share a face, even if their hair and clothes are different and Roxas is pale compared to Sora's sun-darkened skin.
"I want to go back to Axel," Roxas says. "This place is... weird."
"I guess it would be, for you," Sora says. "Do you... remember it, at all?"
Roxas gives him a strange look. Steps a bit back into the room, obviously uncomfortable with how close Sora is standing to him. "I've never been to this part of the islands before. How would I remember it?"
So apparently Roxas doesn't remember anything about being Sora. Sora isn't sure whether to be glad about that or sad. On the one hand, Sora would feel even less real if Roxas remembered. It would be like Sora was a part of Roxas, instead of the other way around. But on the other... how can Roxas not remember the island? The island is home.
"What about Riku and Kairi?"
Roxas just looks irritated now.
"Never mind," Sora says. "You'll meet them. Well, you've already met Riku, and we'll find Kairi, and everything will be okay. And then we can all beat the Xemnas guy and save the worlds."
"Let me set something straight," Roxas says. "I'm glad you helped rescue me, but I don't know you. I don't want to stay here. I have my own agenda, and hanging out with a bunch of kids trying to play Save the World isn't part of my plan. I don't need you."
"You don't need me?" Sora repeats. "Really?"
He shoves Roxas against the posters covering the walls in his room, hand pressing flat against his chest. He can feel a fast thump-thump beneath his fingers, but he knows that doesn't mean anything- that isn't the kind of heart that's missing. "You don't have a heart, Roxas. Are you telling me you don't want one?"
Roxas' eyes narrow. "What does that have to do with you?"
"Axel didn't explain?" Sora asks. "I thought-" He shakes his head. "He really didn't tell you who I am?"
"No," Roxas says, glaring. "Care to enlighten me?"
Sora is pretty sure Roxas isn't going to stand there for the full explanation. Patience doesn't look like his strong suit. Fair enough, because it's never been Sora's, either.
"I'm your heart," Sora says. "I was- I was a Heartless, for a while. Kairi fixed me, but... you already existed. You were already my Nobody."
Roxas scowls. "That's doesn't make any sense," he says.
And okay, that's true. It doesn't make much sense to Sora either. And Roxas probably isn't any smarter than Sora- seeing as he's using Sora's brain right now- so it wouldn't make any sense to him either.
"You don't feel any different when we're together?" Sora says.
Roxas averts his eyes.
Sora stares at him for a minute. "When I'm near you," he says, "I feel... saner. More like I used to be. Because you're my soul. We need each other."
Roxas shoves him away. "I don't need anyone," he says. "I've never wanted a heart. I'm fine how I am."
And with that, Roxas leaves the room. But he doesn't leave the island, because Sora sees him later, eating dinner with Riku and Axel, laughing.
It seems unfair, that Roxas gets to feel things, gets to laugh, when Sora feels like he is starting to fall apart like an old rag doll. If Roxas were just a little more... blank, Sora thinks, maybe he'd be okay with... well, going back to being part of Sora, instead of himself. He wouldn't fight it. But inexplicably, Roxas can feel things. Inexplicably, Roxas is a real person, not just an unfeeling shell. Inexplicably, Roxas doesn't need Sora nearly as much as Sora needs him.
Even if Roxas had been... not a person, Sora doesn't even know how to put them back together again. But he supposes it's a moot point, because Sora would never do that to another person, even if it does mean he falls apart, in the end.
"How did you end up like that, anyway?" Sora asks, when it becomes obvious that Roxas isn't going anywhere any time soon, no matter what he claims he's going to do. "All tied up, I mean."
"Tried to leave the Organization," Roxas says. "They caught up to me in the end, though."
"Why'd you want to leave them?" Sora asks, curious. "Were they mean?"
Roxas gives him the special stare he seems to reserve just for Sora. "Why would it matter if they were mean? I left because I wanted to find out why I exist. Why the keyblade chose me. That's all."
"Oh," Sora says. And then: "So they were mean, then."
Roxas gives him that look again. Sora ignores it. "If you were friends," he says, "It wouldn't matter that you didn't know why you were there. I mean, I have no idea why I exist. I don't think anyone does. But I don't care much, because my friends are around, and I want to protect them."
Roxas gives him an entirely different sort of look, which is mostly confused. "Friends," he repeats.
"Well, yeah. I mean, you have friends, right? Like Axel."
Roxas continues looking confused. Maybe Nobodies don't have friends after all. That's sad.
"Axel is my friend," Roxas affirms, after a moment. "But he wasn't enough. I think you're wrong. Friends aren't enough to make you stay somewhere."
"Oh," Sora says.
Is Roxas really his missing soul? It seems so unlikely that his soul is so... negative. But then again, Sora reminds himself, Roxas has no heart. The heart is the most important part. Although Sora is probably biased, at the moment.
"I think I'll go see what Axel is doing," Roxas says, obviously uncomfortable with the conversation. "I'll talk to you later."
"Oh," Sora says. "Okay."
And that is the end of that. For now.
Just because they've rescued Roxas doesn't mean that they're done trying to save the worlds. Xemnas is still out there, and Axel and Roxas are really helpful about that, as former Organization members. They know the worlds to go to, to best interrupt the Organization's plans. At least, Axel knows. Roxas has been locked up for some time, and he was apparently the newest member of the Organization anyway, so he doesn't have as much useful information.
Roxas and Axel are good at fighting, too, though they caution Sora that killing too many Heartless is just playing into the Organization's plans.
But what is Sora supposed to do? Just leave the Heartless there to attack people? No, he has to take care of them. That's his job. And now that there are three of them who can use keyblades, it works better than ever. He and Roxas and Riku work great together as a team. He and Roxas work a little too well together to be coincidence, which makes perfect sense to Sora. But he doesn't mention anything, because Roxas seems a little freaked out if Sora says anything at all, let alone something that might imply that Roxas and Sora are supposed to be the same person.
Sora feels a little bad for Donald and Goofy and Axel, who are sort of left on the sidelines during battles. Because they need keyblades to kill the Heartless for real, and working in groups of more than about three people gets hard. But at least the others can keep the Heartless from swarming them, which is always a good thing. And sometimes they switch it up and Roxas goes off with Axel and patrols side areas while the rest of them clear out the main areas.
Sora thinks they're strong enough to go fight off Xehanort right away, but Roxas doesn't think so.
"He's the strongest member of the Organization," Roxas says. "I tried to fight him myself, and look where I ended up."
"But there are six of us," Sora says. "Maybe we're strong enough now."
Axel and Roxas both give him dubious looks.
"Wait," they say.
So Sora doesn't bring it up again for a while.
Things are better than they were, falling-apart-wise. Sora feels a lot more solid with Roxas nearby, even if they don't really talk all that much or anything. Roxas isn't exactly the brooding silent type- that's more Riku- but he's not really talkative, either. Sometimes- around Axel, mostly- he just seems contemplative. Around the others, especially Sora, he tends to glare.
But despite his glaring, he's a valuable member of the team. Sora quickly loses count of the number of times that Roxas saves Riku and his necks. Roxas is a blur of motion in battle, and he fights enough like Sora that neither Riku nor Sora have a problem predicting where he'll be at any given moment, which is important in fast-paced battles. Which is to say, every battle.
At night, they all sleep in sleeping bags. Usually they find a hotel or an abandoned house or once a hot air balloon to sleep in. Sometimes they don't, and they end up sleeping out in the open. A few times, they get ambushed. The first time that happens, Sora is pinned down under his sleeping bag, unable to move his arms enough to summon his keyblade. The zipper to his sleeping bag is inexplicably stuck.
He lets out a strangled noise, half-asleep and too surprised to form coherent words. And that wakes up the others, but not fast enough.
It's Roxas who gets out of his sleeping bag the fastest, Roxas who manages to dispatch the Neoshadow crouching over Sora with one hit, which is about ten hits fewer than it usually takes. Neoshadows are tough.
He looks down at Sora then, as Sora tries frantically to unzip the sleeping bag, hands shaking too much to do a good job of it. Roxas' face is all wide-eyed panic. And then he steps over Sora, dispatches another Heartless without much apparent effort, and turns back. His face is his usual glare now.
"Stupid," Roxas says. "Don't sleep with your arms pinned like that."
Sora glares back at him, and then the zipper comes unstuck and he manages to get out of the bag.
The rest of the Heartless are already gone. Riku has taken care of the third and fourth of them, with some help from Donald. He's also taken a good swipe to the shoulder, and he's bleeding, but a healing potion quickly takes care of that.
"We sleep in the Gummi ship from now on," Roxas says. Sora, heart still pounding, nods.
Of course, it doesn't work out like that. Sometimes the Gummi ship is just too far away to get to. No one ever said that the worlds were small, after all. So that isn't the last time they get ambushed. The next time is indoors, even. The Heartless don't usually appear indoors, but it isn't a hard and fast rule or anything.
When they get ambushed, or when they're just fighting normally, Sora notices that the Heartless usually come after him instead of the others. Well, it sort of makes sense- the Heartless don't have any reason to go after Axel or Roxas, do they? And Sora has a keyblade, which he knows tends to attract Heartless.
More than that, though, his suspects, is that he's the one without a body or soul protecting his heart. He's the easiest target. Otherwise, they'd be going after Riku, too.
He isn't sure how much about that Riku knows, or how much of it Roxas believes, but they step up to the challenge of protecting him. So do Donald and Goofy.
Axel is the odd one out of the bunch. Big surprise there. It's not that he fails to protect Sora- or anyone in the group, for that matter- but he has a strange gleeful expression while he does it. Axel takes a little too much pleasure in battling. Sora thinks he's a little unstable. But then again, Sora is the one who occasionally turns into a Heartless-like monster, so maybe it's best not to point fingers. (Not that that's happened lately. Sora's stopped using drive forms at all, since their group got so big. Because Sora is pretty much in control of himself even as a creepy thing, but he doesn't trust pretty much enough to risk it.)
Anyway. Axel's priority is always Roxas, but Sora doesn't fault him for that. Sora is pretty invested in keeping Roxas safe, himself, after all.
Sora isn't exactly sure what the plan is, why they're wandering from world to world. Before, he had to rescue Riku and Kairi. Now, though, Kairi is safe and home and Riku is by his side. Sure, they all have to become stronger. But they could have done that back on Destiny Islands, sparring with each other.
Riku has a plan. Sora is pretty sure of that. He's searching for something. When they aren't interrupting the Organization's plans, he drags them from world to world, seemingly at random.
But Sora doesn't know what the plan is, and when he tries to bring it up, Riku's eyes dart to Roxas and he just says, "I'm as clueless as any of you guys. I'm just hoping for something that will help us defeat Xeha- Xemnas."
Sora doesn't know where that first name came from, but he knows that it has something with Riku's plan. Sora is sick to death of people not telling him things, so he pesters Riku for days.
Finally, when Sora brings it up in the hallway of an old castle in a world that was abandoned long ago, Riku caves. He looks around, notices that Roxas and Axel aren't near, and says, voice low, "You can't tell this to the others, got it? I had to make a promise not to involve them any more than necessary."
Sora is uneasy about this, but he nods.
"We aren't the first people to fight Xemnas," Riku says. "I've been talking to King Mickey, among other people. He knew the ones who almost defeated him, last time. They're still around, but they're all trapped. He knows where two of them are, sort of. There's a girl named Aqua, and she's trapped in darkness. I haven't figured out how to get there yet. But there's also a boy named Ventus. And he's somewhere in the realm of light, so we should be able to find him. He might be the key to defeating Xemnas."
"You said they almost defeated Xemnas," Sora says. "What happened?"
"They failed. Ventus lost his heart," Riku says. "And Aqua was trapped."
There is something that Riku wasn't saying.
"So Ventus is a Heartless, then," Sora says. "And we can't even get to Aqua. What are we supposed to do?"
"Ventus isn't a Heartless," Riku says. "He's like Kairi. He doesn't have any darkness."
Hearts still aren't exactly Sora's forte, but that doesn't sound right. "He's a... what, a prince of heart?"
"No," Riku says. "He had his darkness taken from him. Xemnas liked to experiment. He tore a heart in half, took out all the darkness. Ventus is what was left."
Sora winces. "That sounds awful."
Riku nods. "There's more, though."
Sora waits. Riku seems to struggle with himself for a moment. "Aqua was a keyblade master. Neither of us are, yet. We can use the keyblade, but we haven't mastered it yet. She'll have a lot to teach us. We should focus on finding her as soon as we can."
Sora nods, and waits, puzzled, to see if Riku will say more.
"Sora," Riku says, after too long a pause, "I'm sorry I didn't rescue Roxas for you sooner. Before... never mind."
"Before he started seeming like a real person," Sora says. He isn't sure it was what Riku was going to say, but it's what Sora was thinking.
Riku nods. "You know... what's going on now, it can't last forever. You need your body back. You need your soul."
Sora doesn't want to think about that. Not now. He's spent enough time thinking about that.
"I think I can last long enough," Sora says. "To. You know. Fight Xemnas."
"Idiot," Riku says. "Like that's what I'm worried about."
Sora smiles weakly. "I know. But I can't just take my body back. Roxas is using it. And he can't last without it. He doesn't have a heart. My body... that's all there is to him. That and my soul."
Riku made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. "I know. There just aren't any good choices here, are there?"
Sora shook his head.
"Aren't any good choices?" Axel says from behind them. "What are you guys talking about?"
Sora turns to see that Axel and Roxas have come round a corner behind him.
That is the end of the conversation.
Sora's never seen Roxas use any special moves, beyond the purely physical ones. He assumes, for a long time, that Roxas just can't use magic. Maybe magic is a heart thing. Maybe that's why Sora's spells seem much stronger lately, since he first woke up with no body or soul to get in the way. His firas seem to have a little extra oomph to them, his thundagas an extra, well, spark. Not that there's a lot of room to use long-range magic, when there are so many people on the battlefield. Donald, Goofy, Roxas, Axel, Riku- with five other people to keep track of, it's hard to find any direction where he won't burn or electrocute or freeze someone if he misses his mark.
It occurs to him much later that the same applies to Roxas. But only later.
It's when they're travelling through Wonderland that he realizes he's misjudged Roxas' power. They're fighting, as usual- the Heartless that are left in any world are the strong ones, the ones that survived Sora's first and second and third go-through of the worlds.
They've been ganged up on again. It's just Roxas and Sora this time, because they've split up to search for whatever Riku is looking for. Only, of course, Riku won't tell any of them what that is, so Sora isn't sure how they'll tell when they've found it. Maybe they'll come across those keyblade masters Riku was telling Sora about? Anyway, Roxas is being really quiet, and Sora is trying to make up for his reticence by filling the silence with one-sided chatter about Kairi.
He is sure, for some reason, that Kairi and Roxas would get along really well. It's a silly conviction. He doesn't even know Roxas that well. But it isn't that silly- Kairi gets along with everyone. Maybe it's part of being a princess of heart. Maybe it's just... Kairi. But in any case, he wishes there was time to introduce the two of them properly.
Roxas, however, does not seem to appreciate hearing about Kairi. He seems downright annoyed by Sora.
Sora chalks this up to poor storytelling ability. He was trying to tell Roxas about how Kairi had saved him from being a Heartless, but he kept getting ahead of himself.
He's in the middle of a long side-story about how he and Riku would fight with wooden swords over Kairi, and how she'd eventually broken both swords over her knee and declared that she would never date either of them, because they were clearly huge idiots- when the shadows at the base of the buildings around them seem to grow darker. Sora trails off, and Roxas' sudden pleased look fades.
Roxas grows more alert, too. Without another word exchanged, they both summon their keyblades- Sora his one Kingdom Key, and Roxas two of the same. Sora still doesn't understand how the keyblade can be three places at the same time, but now isn't the time to worry about that.
Eyes appear in the shadows. Sora hefts his keyblade up, ready to swing at the shadows coming towards them, but Roxas stops him, one of his keyblades blocking Sora's way warningly.
"Stand back," he says, and there's something playful in his expression, something Sora has never seen there before.
There's no time to question. Sora stands back, and wonders what Roxas is going to do.
It starts off normally enough. Roxas is aggressive enough that most of the Heartless go after him first. The few that do go after Sora, Sora takes care of easily enough.
Then, when almost all the Heartless are surrounding Roxas- when Sora is about to jump in and save him, plan or not- Roxas lowers his keyblades.
Not all the way. He's still poised to attack. He just- isn't attacking, not at the moment. The Heartless, even the one or two that are attacking Sora, sense weakness, and move towards Roxas.
There is a burst of light. Sora has to look away for a moment. When he looks back, there are pillars of light all around a floating Roxas, wiping the Heartless out of existence.
By the time the last pillar fades, and Roxas sinks gently to the ground, all the Heartless are gone.
"What was that?" Sora asks, running up to Roxas.
"How I fight when I'm alone," Roxas says, as though it should be obvious. He's grinning, though, which takes the edge off of his are-you-a-moron look. Sora is grinning, too. Because that was awesome. And it's something Sora could never do, not in a million years.
Even though Sora was barely involved in that battle, he feels suddenly out of breath, his heart doing a funny little dance in his chest, and he smiles a stupid grin. He wonders, briefly, how he could ever have wished that Roxas were a part of him instead of a separate person, because Roxas is- well- magnificent. And Sora wouldn't want to miss that. Wouldn't want to miss him.
"Roxas," Sora says. "You're so awesome."
Roxas looks less than impressed, but Roxas always looks like that, so Sora just grabs him and messes up his hair. At that, Roxas lets out an undignified squawk and tries to get away. And then it turns into an all-out wrestling match, and all Sora's thoughts about Roxas' magnificence are sort of lost in the tussle. And then Roxas is on top of Sora, and they're both sweaty and bright-eyed and full of energy that needs to go somewhere.
"Give up?" Roxas asks.
"No way," Sora says. "Never."
"Stupid," Roxas says.
And then he kisses Sora, lips mashing together too hard. It isn't romantic. It's desperate. And suddenly the weird feelings Sora's been having about Roxas make a lot more sense.
Roxas pulls away, and says, by way of explanation. "I've never felt empty."
Sora waits for this to make sense. It continues to be a little random.
"If I really didn't have a heart," Roxas continued, after a few seconds, "I couldn't have feelings. And I've had them the whole time I existed. So, you see, I can't be your Nobody. You can't be my heart. We're both just... people. And that means... things are going to be okay, right?"
Sora nods, jerkily. "Sure," he says, lips still tingling from the kiss. "Of course."
The kissing becomes a regular thing, but neither of them mentions it to any of the others. Sora doesn't mean for it to be a secret, not consciously, but he supposes it becomes one after a time. It would just be awkward. Because Roxas and Sora aren't really different people, are they? There's something really weird about their romance, a kind of vaguely incestuous wrongness about it that Sora tries not to think about and which Roxas is still in total denial about, since he won't admit that Sora is his heart.
There isn't going to be a happy ending to this. Sora can't imagine one. But once he and Roxas start making out, Sora can't imagine being without him. He wouldn't call their relationship- whatever it is- comforting, because it's always going to be disconcerting to look at Roxas and see his own eyes staring back at him, but it's quickly... familiar.
They fit together. Roxas' mouth feels right on Sora's, and his hands feel right as they press Sora down into a bed or against a wall, depending on where they are and what furniture is available. Once they save Beast from a hoard of Heartless attacking his castle, and they each get their own room for the night. Sora sneaks off to Roxas' room right away, and they spend half the night making out and a little bit more, Sora murmuring Roxas' name over and over again until it is just meaningless syllables. Roxas says nothing, but getting words out of Roxas has always been hard.
Sora thinks that maybe they fit against each other so well because they are meant to be one person. In one of his more logical moments, he thinks that his attraction to Roxas, so sudden and magnetic, makes sense, because what else would he be feeling towards his other half but a desire to be as close as possible?
That doesn't make it less real. More perverse, maybe. Weirder, definitely. But not any less real. That's something he holds onto, when he's worried- which is most of the time. The only time he's not totally freaked out by this whole thing is when he and Roxas are actually kissing. That feels too good to worry about anything. Every other moment is harder.
They keep hopping from world to world. Sora doesn't think they're going to find what they're looking for. Not yet. He almost hopes that they never do. He wishes that this brief interlude could last forever.
Sora feels more grounded by this relationship. More rational. Even the Heartless seem to notice. They aren't as relentless in their attacks against him. It gives them all a better chance to fight them off, and it means that Sora isn't always swamped with evil dark things trying to kill him, so it's a good thing. A nice thing.
It feels like he has some breathing room for the first time since he started fighting this battle.
It doesn't last.
When things fall apart, they do so suddenly and catastrophically. They're split up, and it's Roxas and Sora together. They've managed to develop something of a friendship in front of the others- which mostly consists of Roxas being eerily silent and contemplative but occasionally cracking a smile when Sora chatters at him- so it doesn't look too strange, when the two of them split off from the rest of the group from time to time.
They don't always kiss the whole time. It happens once or twice, but usually they manage to get some actual searching done, though Sora isn't sure exactly what they might find. He tries asking people if they've met anyone named Aqua or Terra or Ventus before, but no one has.
Part of it is that there are just so many worlds out there. Millions of them, probably. The chances of running into clues are slim.
This time, they've stumbled across an inhospitable-looking world with a bunch of wind-worn cliff walls all around them. The world is big, and they spend a long time wandering around lost. It's too hot out there to want to be close, so any kissing is quickly over. They spend their time looking around, instead.
There are no people on this world, which Sora finds strange. What's the point of a world without people? They've never come across one like it before. Maybe they are in an abandoned part of the world. They've run into abandoned places before, houses or even whole towns with no people in them. The rest of the world is probably fine. Riku and the others are probably having more luck wherever they've ended up.
And then they turn a corner and see a dusty plateau full of keyblades. Sora turns to point this out to Roxas, but finds that Roxas has gone very still.
"We have to get out of here," Roxas says, almost whispering.
"Why?" Sora asks.
Roxas shakes his head. "I've seen this place before. I don't know when. But it's bad news. Can't you feel it? There's something evil here. Something wrong."
Sora can sort of feel it now, too, now that he is paying attention. He doesn't have Riku's ability to smell darkness, and he doesn't have an instinct for it like Roxas apparently does, but there is a prickling on the hairs of his arms, like electricity, warning of danger.
"We should go," Sora agrees.
They turn and go back the way they came. Sora doesn't know how he didn't notice before, but there is a hush over the whole area. Before, there were little lizards darting around, and the occasional noise of a hawk. Now, there is nothing. He wonders when that started.
A shadow falls over them.
The Darkside that appears behind them is bigger than any of the others Sora has ever fought. It isn't alone, either. There are Neoshadows flocking around it, and smaller, regular shadows there too.
It's an ambush. Sora's faced worse, but only with all of the others around to help.
The onslaught is quick, and Sora and Roxas are separated in moments, fighting separate battles on opposite ends of the bottom of a windy canyon. There is dust in Sora's eyes and he chokes on it when he breathes, dust everywhere as the Heartless and Sora himself kick it up into the air in the scuffle.
He catches glimpses of Roxas in between beating Heartless, but the glimpses are few and far between. He doesn't seem to be fairing as well as Sora. Three neoshadows have him cornered.
Sora tries to fight his way closer, but his journey is interrupted by a Shadow, and then a Neoshadow, and when he tries to catch another look at Roxas, he can't see him at all. There is a clump of Heartless where he was standing, and Sora's mind goes completely blank. All he can think is no, no, no.
He isn't sure what he does then. He reaches for the place in his head where he can feel the drive forms, and reaches past that, and the world turns inside out.
He doesn't remember the next few minutes at all.
When he's himself again, and not the monster that he sometimes turns into, the Heartless are all gone, and Sora can taste darkness in his mouth. He thinks, blearily, that maybe he ate some of them, but that doesn't make sense- Heartless just disappear when they die, they don't have anything like bodies.
Neither does Sora, though, so that thought is less than comforting.
Roxas is a few feet in front of him, trying to sit up but bruised and bleeding. Sora is glad that he didn't hurt him.
"What the hell was that?" Roxas asks, trembling with anger and probably with a good dose of hidden terror if Sora can read him at all. Which he can, he's pretty sure.
Sora sways slightly, and thinks that he probably overdid it, just now.
"Had to save you," he says. "Sorry... didn't mean to scare you."
Roxas' expression softens. "Stupid," he says.
Sora kneels down next to Roxas, partly to check him for injuries and partly because he feels like if he tries to stand any longer he'll just pass out.
He doesn't feel any better next to Roxas. His head is swimming, and he feels... fuzzy, like he isn't quite certain where his edges are. He has a vague feeling that that's a bad thing, but can't think why.
"Sora? Are you okay?"
Sora tries to say that he's fine, but it gets lost somewhere before the words make it to his mouth. Probably for the best- it was a lie, anyway.
Roxas manages to sit up all the way just as Sora collapses across his lap.
"Shit," Roxas says. "Sora, what's the matter?"
"Don't think I was supposed to do that on purpose," Sora mumbled into the ground.
Roxas casts a cure spell on himself, and then, once he's better able to get Sora off of him and flip him onto his back, tries one on him. It doesn't do any good.
"What did you do?" Roxas asks. "Sora, talk to me."
Sora doesn't know how to explain, beyond "I can turn into a monster sometimes," which Roxas has probably figured out already. So he settles for repeating, "Had to save you."
"I know," Roxas says softly. "But what did you do to yourself?"
"I was a Heartless once," Sora says. "Guess I still am, sort of."
Roxas' face goes hard. "This again? I thought we agreed that you weren't my heart."
Sora doesn't have enough energy to argue. Instead, with the last of his strength, he pulls Roxas down into one last kiss.
"Take care of them," Sora says. "Take care of..."
He means to say "yourself," but can't quite get the last word out.
Roxas grabs hold of him, and Sora feels arms around him.
Then arms clutch at air, and Sora is gone.
If Sora had expected anything- and he really hadn't had time to expect anything at all- he would have expected darkness. That was what happened the first time he turned into a Heartless, after all.
But there isn't darkness. Instead, eyes still closed, Sora can feel warm light on his skin.
Is he dead?
He is lying on a huge pillar, and he feels like he has somehow been here before. There is stained glass beneath him, oddly warm and gritty with a bit of sand. The whole thing is bathed in light from some invisible source.
He doesn't feel dead. He just feels... tired. Just when he's finally given up, there is something more than darkness to deal with, and he isn't sure he has the willpower to do anything about it anymore.
A little ways away, feet dangling over the edge and staring into the dark abyss that surrounds the pillar, is Roxas. He's wearing the Organization coat that he ditched ages ago. It's fitting, Sora supposes. This is definitely not a physical place- Sora knows the feel of real worlds, and this isn't one- and Sora thinks, that in some way, Roxas will always be wearing that coat, even though it's long gone, abandoned an a desert world when the heat was just too much.
"I think we're supposed to fight now," Roxas says, apparently hearing Sora shift. "If I didn't know you so well, I'd probably attack you." He sounds wistful. Sora wonders if he really wants to attack him, and is just restraining himself. He dismisses this thought as unfair.
Sora sits up. "Where are we? Why would you need to attack me?"
Roxas shakes his head, still staring off into the distance. "Stupid," he murmurs. He swings his legs back up onto the pillar, scoots over a little so he isn't so close to the edge. Sora breathes a sigh of relief, not even aware of how worried he'd been about Roxas until he no longer needed to be.
"Listen," Roxas says. "I don't think we have much time here. I'm going to let you have the body."
"It's yours. I think... I've always known that. Even when I said I didn't believe it."
"No," Sora says. "I'm not just going to let you sacrifice yourself for me. You said it yourself- we're different people. Even if we did start out the same, that doesn't mean we have to be anymore. Besides, you have feelings, Roxas. You can't be my Nobody. You can't be anyone's Nobody. You're just... you."
Sora is babbling, his points only tenuously connected, but he needs this to be true. He needs any of it to be true, so that Roxas won't leave.
"I don't care," Roxas says. "Even if I'm not your Nobody, I'm not going to let you die. You're... important."
He doesn't say what that means- important to his friends?- to Roxas?- to their mission to find Ventus and save the worlds from Xehanort? Sora can only guess.
"You're important, too," Sora says.
Roxas scoffs. "No one would miss me," he says.
"I would!" Sora says. "Axel would! I think even Riku and Donald and Goofy would miss you, Roxas. You have friends now! We would all miss you! How can you even think that you could just disappear and no one would care?"
Roxas looks genuinely taken aback. Sora takes the opportunity to scoot closer to Roxas, to kiss his mouth briefly.
"Even if we had never kissed," Sora says, directly into his ear to make sure he gets the point, "I would still miss you. Because you're my friend, not just my... whatever we are."
Roxas' mouth hangs slightly open.
Sora thinks that there's something funny about the stained glass pillar they're still sitting on, like the colors have shifted slightly. He looks down, but he doesn't remember what it looked like before. It's an image of Sora and Roxas now, twined together. And Sora knows, suddenly, where they are.
It's his heart.
"I don't think we can both be awake at once," Sora says. He isn't sure how he knows this, but he's sure of it, absolutely certain. "It would be... confusing, to have two people awake in one body."
Roxas nods, a question in his eyes.
Who's going to wake up, then? he doesn't ask.
This is the part where strangers would battle for the body. If Sora didn't know Roxas- well- intimately is the only word that really fits, even though neither of them knows the other that well, yet- then he'd fight for his life. But Sora does know Roxas, and he's had time to think about what's at stake, and he isn't so sure that this is a fight he needs or wants to win.
And Sora is so, so tired.
"I'll sleep now," Sora says. "I think... I need to rest for a while."
Roxas leans in, and kisses Sora. "I'll find a way to wake you up," he says. "That's a promise, alright?"
"And Sora- all those times I called you stupid?"
Sora nods again.
"I didn't mean it," Roxas says in a rush. "I love you."
"I know," Sora says, as things fade away. "I-"
Things don't fade to black then, either. Instead, they go very bright and white. But the result is the same. Sora sleeps.
Sora is gone. Roxas isn't happy about that, but he remembers what happened well enough.
He rolls over from his prone position, sits up, spits out dust. He hit the ground hard when he passed out. He can still feel the sting of it. Maybe it's only been a moment since then, maybe an hour. Roxas doesn't know. Time runs strangely in the heart.
He stands. Nothing feels different. Roxas doesn't feel like he's suddenly gained a heart. He told Sora before that he was able to feel things, and that wasn't a lie. But whereas before he felt kind of alone, even when he was with people, now he can sort of feel Sora inside of him, sleeping and warm.
The world is as empty as before the ambush, and Roxas hopes that he doesn't get attacked again. He has to make it back to the others. He has to explain what happened to them. It's not just him that depends on his safe return to the others- he has to find a way to get Sora back.
A million thoughts run through his head as he trudges back to the place he and Sora were supposed to meet the others, keyblade in hand and eyes looking warily off to the side for another ambush. He thinks that the others will be angry that Roxas wasn't able to protect Sora better. He thinks that Axel might be jealous that Roxas now verifiably has a heart. But most of all, he regrets. He regrets that he couldn't save Sora. He regrets that he never clarified what Sora meant to him. He regrets the times he antagonized Sora, back before they'd first kissed, when it could have been more moments they had together. He regrets these things so keenly that there is a pain in his chest, and he has to stop walking for a moment and just breathe, in and out, in and out, until the feeling weakens and he can move again.
He arrives at the gummi ship before the others do. He means to busy himself there. It's getting dark out. The others will be hungry when they return. Roxas should make dinner, since he got back first.
He doesn't. He sits down for a moment, and a moment turns into a few moments, and a few moments turns into an hour. When the others return, he is sitting in the shadows, staring at his keyblade, which he never bothered to dispel.
"Where's Sora?" Donald asks, and his question is echoed by Riku a moment later when Roxas has no answer. Then, looking up at Riku with no expression at all, Roxas points to his chest.
Riku stares at him for a moment. "What?" he asks, and Roxas knows now what utter denial looks like. "He can't be."
Roxas bites his lip. "We were ambushed," he says. "Sora... did something to save me. Turned into some kind of Heartless himself. And then he was Sora again, and he just... faded. I did what I could. He's not dead. We'll find a way to fix this. We'll get him back."
Riku doesn't look convinced. He walks into the other room of the gummi ship- there are only the two, the pilot room and the small cargo bay where they all sleep. The rest of them stand crowded in the pilot room, and the others look at Roxas like he is the biggest murderer they've ever met.
Roxas stares them back down.
"I'm going to fix this," he tells them again, voice wavering a little in the growing dimness. "Somehow."
He doesn't even sound convincing to himself.
Sometimes, in the weeks that follow, Roxas feels like Sora is stirring, is watching out of Roxas' eyes. The feeling never lasts long. Roxas wishes Sora could stay, wishes that they could have met as separate people instead of whatever they are to each other so that none of this had to happen.
He wishes they'd had longer to get to know each other.
He says none of this to Axel. Roxas has never been good at making words say what he wants them to say, and his time in the dungeons of the Castle That Never Was has only made him quieter. Even to Sora, Roxas communicated more by gestures and sardonic looks than he did by actual words.
Even though Sora is inside Roxas' heart, or is Roxas' heart, or something... it feels like he's so far away. Like maybe Roxas will never see him again.
He has desperate, wonderful dreams, sometimes, where the key to restoring Sora is just to go back to Kairi, to have her hug him like she did Sora when Sora was a Heartless. In the dreams, Sora is suddenly next to him, Kairi embracing the both of them, and Sora grins at Roxas like nothing was ever wrong to start with.
No matter what the answer is in the dream, he and Sora always kiss then, and they don't care that people are watching.
But none of the solutions in his dreams work in real life; he tries every one of them, just in case. Kairi is as disappointed as Roxas when it doesn't work, and Riku just stands behind her like her shadow, a darker, angrier version of her expression on his face.
He can't blame Riku for hating him. It has to be worse for him than it is for Roxas, not being able to feel Sora at all. If their positions were reversed, Roxas would hate him, too.
He can't afford to worry about that, though. Not now. Now is the time to figure out a way to get Sora back. He doesn't know how, but on every world they visit, he keeps his eyes open for anyone who knows anything about hearts or Nobodies. He doesn't find any. He has to wonder- has anyone ever experimented with hearts, besides Xehanort? Has anyone else ever dared? Or is it too evil for anyone but the most depraved people to try?
Yen Sid knows a little. Donald tells him that, reluctantly. So Roxas tries to talk to Yen Sid, but it does no good.
"I have to save Sora," he explains. "You know things. Tell me."
"There's nothing left to save," Yen Sid tells him. "His heart is now your heart. His memories will come to you in time."
"No," Roxas says.
He doesn't know how to explain. He never does. He can feel Sora, and it doesn't feel like himself. He feels like, well... someone Roxas should know better than he does. Sort of a stranger, still. But a familiar one. He wouldn't feel that way about himself.
And Roxas was never a Nobody, no matter what anyone tries to tell him.
But none of that is anything he can put in words. Words have never come easy to him when he needs them. Now, when he needs them more than ever, all he can come up with is silence.
"I don't believe you," he settles for. "Sora is alive."
For once, Riku seems to agree with Roxas, and they walk out of the room in silence, together.
Riku has never explained what they're doing, wandering world to world. He has a plan to find the keyblade masters, but he's never explained what it was. Sora seemed to trust him, though- still trusts him? It's so hard to tell what Sora thinks, when he's like this- and Roxas trusts Sora, so he follows Riku without questioning him. He occasionally sends him dark looks, though, just to make sure that Riku doesn't think they're friends. They're bound together by love of Sora, and that's all. They aren't buddies. Hell, they can barely stand each other.
They've been wandering in worlds that border the realm of darkness. Or, well, Riku tells them that they have been. Roxas' instinct for darkness is unpredictable at best. Sometimes it stands out to him like a shout in a quiet room, but mostly it just slips by unnoticed. He hasn't been able to figure why. There are more urgent things to figure out. Like how to save Sora.
He is a little obsessed. He knows this. He can't bring himself to care.
It comes as a surprise to Roxas when they finally achieve an objective of Riku's.
They're in a world that even Roxas can tell is close to the darkness. There's a sort of metallic tang to the air- not quite a smell, not the way Riku can smell darkness, but more of a taste, strange and alien.
They split up to explore. Riku goes with Donald and Goofy. Roxas goes with Axel. This is how they usually split up. Donald and Goofy don't seem to blame Roxas for what happened to Sora- they weren't even all that surprised- but they don't seem exactly comfortable around him either. And Axel is only part of their group because of Roxas, so it's not like he'd go with anyone else. Riku- well, he's always going to hate Roxas, Roxas thinks.
It's dusk by the time they meet up again. Roxas and Axel get back to the gummi ship first. They sit mostly in silence for a while. There doesn't ever seem to be much to say these days. It feels like they're waiting for something that might never come, trying to reach some objective that they don't even know what is.
This battle against Xemnas- they might never actually win it. At this rate, they'll never even fight it at all.
Roxas brushes his teeth in the ship's tiny bathroom, washes up as best he can with just a sink and no shower- they need to find a world with baths soon, because they're all starting to stink, even with Donald's magic taking away the worst of the grime every day.
He comes out and finds himself face-to-face with a blue-haired woman.
He blinks. Her eyes widen.
"Who are you?" he asks. He means to keep going, to ask, "and how did you get onto our ship," but something stops him. Maybe it's the way disappointment turns the corners of her mouth down. He feels irrationally bad about that as soon as it happens, and he doesn't even know what he did wrong to make her so upset so suddenly.
"This," Riku says, from a little ways down the cramped hallway, "is Master Aqua. She's a keyblade Master, and we're going to learn what we should be doing from her, since Yen Sid won't tell us anything useful."
Roxas hasn't even heard that Yen Sid has anything useful to tell them, but he lets his expression remain stoic. Aqua, for her part, smooths out her face to match, until it is impossible to tell that she's been anything but calm the entire time.
"You know about keyblades?" Roxas asks.
Aqua nods. "You must be Roxas," she says. "Riku told me about you."
"I bet he did," Roxas says, willing to bet actual munny that nothing Riku told her was good.
"We're going to save one of my friends first," Aqua says. "Ventus."
"You know where he is?" Riku asks. "That's convenient. We've been looking for him for ages. We thought we'd find him before we found you, but I guess it didn't work out that way. It'll be great to finally find him."
Aqua does not look displeased at this, exactly. It's hard to tell what she thinks.
"You wouldn't be able to save him," she says, pulling a keyblade from thin air. It looks... familiar, which is strange. But he knows it isn't hers without even asking. It looks wrong in her hands- it's too long for her to comfortably hold, as though it were made for someone bigger. There is something hard and uncompromising about it, too- not evil, not dark at all, in fact, but not Aqua.
And then he thinks, how the hell does he think he knows anything about her? He just met her a moment ago. It probably is her keyblade, he decides. Who else would it belong to? It's not like there are tons of keyblade masters running around.
"The world he's in is tied to this keyblade," she explains. "No one can find him without it."
"Well, great," Riku says. "You have your keyblade, so we can get going first thing in the morning."
"It will be dangerous," she says. "The world I left him in is balanced between the light and darkness. I left safeguards, but there is no guarantee that they held. Any number of forces may have invaded it. The room where I left him will be safe, but anything beyond that...
"Can't be worse than what we've been fighting," Roxas says.
Aqua looks a little sad, at that. He doesn't understand her at all.
Roxas sleeps well. He has another dream about Sora. In this one, Sora has been watching everything all along, from behind Roxas' eyes. He tells Roxas so, and kisses him, and smiles that goofy grin of his, and Roxas knows that even if he can't fix Sora, even if everything goes wrong and they all die, he is forgiven.
It isn't exactly comforting. But it gives him hope, somehow, that things will turn out alright as long as he keeps trying.
He wakes up cramped from being sleeping on the floor of the Gummi ship, and manages to hold on to that hope for about ten minutes before it fades to his usual quiet dread.
They leave the next morning, as soon as it's light out, they start the journey. The worlds have all shifted since Aqua left Ventus. It would be surprising if they hadn't, Roxas thinks, what with half of those worlds being eaten by darkness and Sora restoring them. He thinks of star-charts, and maps, and how the ones that they have on the Gummi ship are half-useless most of the time anyway. And those are recent maps. Aqua has been gone a long time.
They make several false starts, landing in worlds that are half-engulfed in darkness, more dangerous than any they've been to before. Once they land in a world that is all meteor showers and grassy peaks, and Aqua just shakes her head. "This isn't a world," she says. "Only the memory of one. This world doesn't exist anymore. It was destroyed."
"Your memory?" Roxas asks.
She nods. "It should be safe enough, though. We should resupply. It may be a memory, but there's good food here, and potions... nothing too strong, but enough to keep going on."
Roxas doesn't fully understand how worlds work. Could you really eat food from a memory? But Sora had said, once, that he'd been inside a book, and if Sora had gotten all sorts of useful items inside a book, surely a memory was no different?
In any case, the world's ground seems solid enough under Roxas' feet, and they split up to scour the whole place for food.
Aqua and Axel come with Roxas. The others go together.
Roxas tries to make conversation with Aqua and Axel, but it's hard. Roxas has never been good at chit-chat.
"What was this world called?" he asks.
"The Land of Departure," Aqua says, quietly, like it pains her to think of it.
It's a sad name. What sort of world was it, then, that it was even named for people leaving it? It seems pleasant enough, looking at it. Very quiet, and more serious than a lot of worlds. There is no sense of whimsy in the way things are arranged. It makes sense that Aqua came from here.
Aqua leads them to the kitchens of the main building, a sort of palace.
"Nice place," Axel says, in an obvious attempt to break up the silence. "Who lived here? Some king or queen?"
"It was my home," Aqua says. "Mine, Terra's, and Ven's. And Master Eraqus', of course."
Axel gives her a strange look. "Seems like we've been in the company of a princess and didn't even know it," he says, giving a mock bow.
Aqua's mouth twitches into something resembling a smile.
"No, nothing like that. We weren't royalty. The castle- it used to hold more people. It was a way station for keyblade masters. We were in training."
"Were there lots of keyblade masters, then?" Axel asks.
"Once." She shakes her head. "By the time Master Eraqus took the three of us in, there were only a handful of masters left."
"Why?" Axel asks.
"There was a war," she says shortly. And that is the end of the conversation.
Roxas knows- just knows- that there is more than she's telling them. But he doesn't mind her silence the way Axel obviously does.
"Tell me about the other keyblade masters you trained with," Roxas says, a little later. He's trying to make conversation. Axel sure isn't helping. For once, Axel has clammed up.
"They weren't masters," Aqua said. "They never had the chance." She looks a little sad, at that.
Roxas frowns. "We'll fix that," he says. "They're going to have lots of chances, Aqua. I promise you."
And that is a weird thing to promise, isn't it? It's weird that he cares about her feelings so much after knowing her for so short a time. But she smiles at him, and looks thoughtful.
"When you say that," she says, "I believe we have a chance."
"We're going to save everyone," Roxas says. "Your friends Terra and Ventus, and my- and Sora."
"Your Sora," Aqua says teasingly.
"Hey," he says, and she ruffles his hair, and it all feels so familiar, and so strange. It's like he missed her, and now she's back- but he'd never even met her until a few days ago.
"Do you think... we might have met somewhere before?" Roxas asks.
Aqua's face closes off at that. "I don't know," she says, after a moment. "Do you think so, Roxas?" She puts a strange emphasis on his name, as though she is afraid she might forget it.
There is too much weight in her question. They are both keeping secrets from each other, he's sure of it.
"No," he says, finally. "It was a stupid question. Forget I asked it."
It is stupid to get distracted. He has to save Sora. Saving everyone else comes second. Who cares about if they find Ventus or Terra? It's selfish, but he doesn't care. Sora matters more to him.
They finish looking for supplies. Aqua was right- there aren't a lot of strong potions laying around the palace. There are a number of weaker ones, though, and after fighting Heartless for months on end, any supplies are good supplies. They also raid the kitchen for food, and bring back as much as they can carry.
There are no Heartless here. Roxas wonders if that's because there were none, when Aqua was here, and it's her memory, or if it's just that there are no people here, no hearts to be corrupted. Either way, it is a welcome reprieve.
The next world they find is Castle Oblivion. And Aqua says, "We're here. Let's split up and look for him. The castle constantly shifts. It will take a while to find him."
They split, Aqua and Roxas and Axel in one group and the others in another. But Aqua doesn't seem really lost. Once the others are out of sight, she walks with purpose towards a wall. She touches it, and a door appears.
Axel looks at the wall. "Huh. Never knew there was a door there. Thought I had this place memorized. You know your way around here pretty well, Aqua. You been here before?"
"This world was my home," she says. "Or- it's what's left of what was my home."
"I thought that other world was your home," Axel said. "The one that didn't look anything like this."
"It changed," Aqua said softly. "What you saw- that was world for children." She looked around the empty hallways grimly. "This is reality now."
It is too empty. Like the shell of a world, not a world in of itself. Roxas thinks that reality can't be that grim. He won't let it be. One day, he'll make sure this place returns to its former beauty. A place like that shouldn't be just a memory. And if other worlds have been restored, why not this one?
She steps through the door, and they follow her.
They are halfway up the stairs when the door closes behind them and the lock clicks.
"The others won't be able to follow us," Axel says, voice suspicious.
"We'll only be a minute," Aqua says. "Come on."
Roxas is suspicious, too.
"You're sure?" he asks.
"Of course," she says. "Come on."
She tilts her head a little, and smiles. It's a very convincing show of cheerfulness. Roxas isn't even sure why he doesn't believe her. It isn't like he knows her well enough to know her tells. So he follows, and Axel follows behind him.
There is a room at the top of the stairs, and Aqua opens the doors for Roxas-
-and slams them before Axel can get in, locking them with a quick twist of her keyblade.
"Hey," Roxas says. "What are you doing?"
"We need to have a conversation," Aqua says. "And I think it would be best if we had it on our own."
Roxas scowls. "About what?"
Aqua frowns. "About this," she says, and she gestures to the chair on the other side of the room.
There is a boy in the chair, and he has Roxas' face.
"What is this?" he says, and his keyblades are in his hands before he even means to summon them. He fumbles with them for a moment- they've appeared in his hands backhanded, and he has to adjust his grip to hold them normally. Aqua watches him for a moment, and he can't tell what she's thinking at all.
"This is you," she says to him, "Ventus."
"That isn't my name," Roxas says. "And why- why does he have my face?"
"Ventus lost his heart ten years ago," she says, pacing the floor as she speaks. "After fighting his darkness made flesh. I had no idea where his heart could have gone- not until I saw you."
"Yeah?" Roxas says.
She ignores him. "I think that when Ventus' heart was lost, it went to Sora."
"And you want to take it back."
"It's not that simple," Aqua says. "Before, Ventus' heart was sleeping. It wasn't able to do anything. If it were still sleeping, it could be removed with no consequences."
"And now?" Roxas says.
"It's awake," Aqua says. "Because it's your heart, Roxas. You have his face. You have his heart. You are Ven."
Roxas shakes his head. "You could have told me all of this before we came here. Why keep it secret until now?"
"I couldn't be sure," Aqua says. "It wasn't enough that you looked like him. That could have been a coincidence. I had to see some definite sign. And I've seen so many, now. The way you hold your keyblades, when you aren't' paying attention. Your voice. Your eyes. I know now."
"No," Roxas says. "I don't think you do know. I think you hope."
Because Roxas' eyes- those are Sora's.
But he knows that at least part of what she's saying is true. He's never been a Nobody. He's always felt things. He's always had a heart.
He should have known better than the think it belonged to him. Nothing Roxas has ever owned has belonged to him. His body is Sora's. His heart is apparently Ventus'. He is a patchwork creature, doomed from the start to be pulled apart and all of his pieces given back to their real owners.
"Just look," she says. "Look at him." There is a plea in her voice.
"What's going to happen to me?" he asks. "If my heart goes back to him. I just- die, I guess. So that you can have Ventus back."
"You won't die. You'll be yourself again."
"And who is that?" Roxas asked. "I don't remember being Ventus. I don't know who Ventus even is."
He thinks, Sora worked too hard to keep me alive. I'm not going to let him down now.
"Neither do I," Aqua says quietly.
Roxas looks at her intently. "What do you mean?"
"I knew Ventus' light," she said. "The part of him that was left when Xehanort ripped out his darkness. But Roxas- you aren't just light. You're too angry to be just light. I think- and this is a theory- that you're all of Ventus. Light and darkness both. You don't just have half a heart- you have the whole thing."
"Then what happens to me if my heart goes back into him?" Roxas says, gesturing towards the throne.
"I don't know," Aqua says. "I wish I did. I wish I had answers for you. But I know this- as long as you're using Sora's soul, he will never be able to wake up. You need your own soul back. You need to be Ventus again."
He knows she is right. He stares at Ventus for a long moment.
"I'm afraid," he admits. "I don't want to forget things. What if my memories disappear? What if I forget all about Axel and Sora and everyone?"
"Your feelings for them are just as real as your memories," Aqua says. "No matter what, those will stay."
Roxas is still afraid. But he knows, deep down, that this is the only way to get Sora back.
And Roxas thinks, The two of us were never going to be alive at the same time. The universe isn't fair enough for that.
He thinks, at least I got to meet him.
"Do it," he says, before he can change his mind. "Bring Sora back. Put my heart where it belongs. And- if I'm not me, after, tell Sora- tell him I said he's stupid. He'll know what I mean."
Aqua look confused, but nods.
Roxas stands there, arms at his sides, and closes his eyes. He hears Aqua summon her keyblade. And then, sooner than he expected, there is a cold feeling in his chest, and he feels split, and then- there is light, and a feeling of coming home.
Sora wakes up in pain. He's kind of out of it at first. He opens his eyes to see nothing but white, and thinks that maybe he's dead after all. Then he remembers that Roxas promised to fix him, and he thinks that he can't be dead. Roxas wouldn't break that promise.
Then he hears pacing. The sound of shoes clicking along the ground, one step at a time.
"Gnurg?" he manages to get out, turning his head to see a woman with blue hair. She stops her pacing and turns to him.
"Sora," she says. She doesn't sound friendly, exactly. But she doesn't sound evil, either, which is good enough for Sora right now.
"Huh?" he says, a little more coherent now, but not much. "Who're you?"
"My name is Aqua," she says.
Oh. Looks like Riku was successful in finding those keyblade masters after all.
Then he looks past her, to the pale throne behind her.
"Roxas," he says.
Aqua shakes her head. "Ventus," she corrects.
Sora looks between her and the sleeping Roxas. "What?"
"Roxas was an oxymoron, Sora. A Nobody with a heart- he was doomed from the beginning. Ventus will be himself again now. There is no more Roxas." Her words are harsh, but her tone is gentle. Sora can tell she doesn't want to hurt him, even verbally.
Sora can't quite manage to sit up. He can't even work up the energy to yell at her, to deny that it's true. He always suspected something horrible was going to happen with Roxas- that there couldn't be a Sora and a Roxas at the same time. Not for long.
But- it isn't fair.
It isn't fair, and so- he realizes, in a flash of inspiration- it can't be true.
"You're wrong," he says. Because if his adventures have taught him anything, it's that the universe is fair; the heart of the universe is made of light. Good wins, eventually. People who are lost can come back, even from horrible possession and evil or from having their hearts lost.
Roxas isn't gone. Sora refuses to believe in a universe where Roxas is gone.
"Roxas," he says, again. Aqua looks sorry for him, but he ignores her. "Roxas!"
Roxas' eyes flutter open. He looks at Sora blankly, and Sora's heart just about breaks. Then there is a spark of something in his eyes.
"Sora?" he says. He stands, wobbles a little, and then steadies.
Sora knew it. He knew that Roxas was still there.
"Ventus," Aqua says.
Roxas nods, smiles at her brightly, but walks over to Sora.
"Are you alright?" he asks.
"Feel like someone smashed me against a wall," Sora says, "But I think I'm okay."
Roxas sits on the ground by Sora and pulls Sora's head onto his lap.
"Are you Roxas, or Ventus?" Aqua asks carefully.
"Yes," Roxas says. "Both. Or neither, or- You were wrong. I'm not either of them. I'm- me. Now, go let Axel in."
Aqua does as Roxas asks, and walks to the door.
Roxas bends down and kisses Sora gently on the lips. Tenderly. Sora kisses back. He can do that much, even all in pain and smashed-up as he is.
They never kissed like this before. It was never gentle. There was never time to be gentle. All their kisses before this were stolen.
They're interrupted when Aqua comes back, Axel in tow.
"You're in love," Aqua says. "That explains a thing or two."
And this is all going too fast for Sora. He doesn't know if he's in love with Roxas. He just knows that the thought of Roxas being gone had hurt. That being with Roxas makes him happy. He knows they're friends, but he also knows that being friends isn't the same as being in love. Even being friends who kiss is different than being in love.
He barely knows Roxas- knows Roxas-as-Ventus even less. Can you love someone who you barely know?
Yes, he does love Roxas. It's irrational, but he does. He spent a long time with his heart and Roxas' nestled together, and his heart knows Roxas even if his mind doesn't.
Axel just looks like he wants to laugh.
"You and Sora?" he says.
"Yeah," Roxas says, with a dopey smile on his face. Sora can feel the same smile on his own face.
It is only a minute later that the others arrive.
"Sora," Riku says. "You're back!"
And then there is a flurry of confusion and people fussing over Sora and Roxas. And no one even comments that Roxas is taking care of Sora. That Roxas was obviously kissing Sora, a moment ago when they walked in. So maybe Sora and Roxas weren't as discreet as they thought they were, in the month or two they were together. Or maybe everyone is just so glad that no one had to die for Sora and Roxas to both exist that they aren't questioning a little kissing just yet.
Sora can still feel the cool metal of Aqua's keyblade as it passed impossibly into his chest, pulling out Roxas' heart. Ventus' heart. (They're going to have to sort out the name issue later.) He hadn't even been awake at the time, and he can still feel it, cold and invasive.
But counterbalancing that is the warm feeling of his head resting in Roxas' lap, and of Roxas' hand resting on Sora's shoulder.
Sora feels complete, finally. Nothing is missing. He's himself for the first time in- well, a couple of years, at least. Maybe longer.
There are still a million things to do, a million battles to fight. But Sora doesn't feel like he's falling apart anymore. He can fight those battles, and win, and come out the other side still whole.
They all can.
It isn't an ending. Not yet. But in a way, it feels like one. They're whole, they're together, and they're themselves.
For the first time, Sora is sure they're going to win this fight.