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Part 1

Revenge


 

It was less a set of images, and more a set of feelings and barely grasped sounds that plagued Namine’s nightmares. That didn’t mean she didn’t recognize what was going on. She’d had this nightmare before.

The sense of darkness filling the room, grating against her skin…

The feeling of something being very, very wrong…

Horror.

A sense of throwing herself forward—was that a blast of darkness she was stopping? A bolt of lightning? She couldn’t tell.

Riku’s face was always the clearest. Grinning widely, but the grin wasn’t his. His lips never curled like that. His eyes never glinted with that sort of malice.

Larxene was always there, too. Laughing? Screaming? Namine could never tell.

“Don’t struggle. It’ll only make things worse.”

Larxene’s words. Riku’s voice.

Namine woke up screaming.

It wasn’t a surprise to find herself on the floor in Kairi’s room, but it wasn’t exactly a comfort either. They’d fallen asleep here last night—all four of them. Her, Riku, Sora and Kairi. She and Riku had come to tell Sora and Kairi that they intended to move to Hollow Bastion. Somewhere during the conversation they got wrapped up in telling each other what they’d all been doing for the past six or so months. The conversation took so long that the obvious answer was just to spend the night. She and Riku didn’t normally need nearly as much sleep as Sora and Kairi did, being Replicas, but they were just as exhausted that night, so sleep came easy.

Riku was the first to be woken by Namine’s scream—that didn’t come as a surprise either. Namine found herself jolting away from him when he reached to comfort her. The image of darkness pouring from his fingertips still burned in her mind. The sound of someone shrieking. The sound of his laughter. She could almost still see the horrible smile on his face, despite the fact his features were all pinched with concern.

“N… Namine?” Sora asked, sitting up groggily. “Everything okay?”

“Just- just a nightmare,” Namine assure him. Assured all of them. Kairi was pushing herself up, too, blinking at the sunlight streaming through cracks of the window curtains. Riku still studied her, looking worried, but he didn’t press the matter at least.

“Oh.” Sora yawned, rubbing his mouth. “Should we get up, Kai? The sun looks like it’s high enough…”

“Wouldn’t hurt to get up now,” Kairi replied. She rubbed the crust of sleep from her eyes. She studied Namine, too, her mouth turned down in a frown.

“Y’sure you’re okay?” Riku asked. He didn’t try and comfort her this time. Namine felt relief flood through her, though she felt terrible about it once it had. Riku wasn’t dangerous. Well… not to her, anyway. She shouldn’t be so… terrified…

“I’m fine,” she lied.

How was she supposed to tell him—tell any of them—the visions she saw in her sleep? She couldn’t think of a way, so she just wouldn’t.

Kairi kept sending Namine worried and distrustful looks. Namine shifted uncomfortably, and was very grateful when Kairi didn’t open her mouth to say anything. Kairi’s attention turned to Sora instead. After an initial look of confusion, understanding passed through Sora’s face. Namine still wasn’t quite sure how they did that. How they communicated with their eyes alone. It must’ve come from knowing each other for so long.

“Hey Riku!” Sora said, jumping to his feet. “I think Kairi’s dad is making pancakes—maybe we should go help.”

Riku sent a nervous glance at Namine. She said nothing.

“Well, uh,” Riku stammered.

“Come on, it’ll be fun!” Sora said. He grabbed Riku by the arm and dragged him to his feet. “The girls’ve gotta get dressed, anyway.”

Riku stammered a few more feeble protests, but Sora still succeeded in dragging him out of the room and down the stairs.

“Alright, cut the act and tell me what’s up,” Kairi said, looking directly at Namine. Namine sunk down where she was sitting, her heart pounding in her chest.

“J- just a nightmare,” she mumbled.

“Then tell me what’s so horrible about it that’s making you look at Riku like that.”

Namine’s throat seized. Had she really been looking at Riku funny? How funny? Had he noticed? Had she upset him? Scared him? She’d obviously worried him…

“Here.” Kairi sat down over on Namine’s bed. Namine wasn’t exactly surprised by that, considering the bed was closer to where Kairi’d initially been sitting, plus was lower to the ground. It’d initially been just a mattress, dragged up here for when Sora spent the night. When Namine’d moved in, Kairi’s father had insisted on getting a bedframe for it.

Namine went over to sit down next to Kairi. She rubbed the palm of her hand with her thumb, looking around the room. It was hardly a comfort to be back here, though she definitely preferred this room much more to the one she’d stayed in at Castle Oblivion. (Anything would be better than Castle Oblivion, actually.)

The room was small, really only meant for one person. Kairi’s bed was against the opposite wall, and there was a dresser crammed next to it. The dresser only barely fit, but there was nowhere else to put it. The wall to the left was near completely occupied with the window, and the wall on the right had the door. As it was, you couldn’t stand at the dresser without risking having the door hit you from behind when it opened.

There was a dresser at the end of Namine’s bed, too, though it was much smaller than Kairi’s dresser. Not that Namine minded—Kairi had a lot more clothes than she did. (That was largely Namine’d only been living here six or so months, opposed to Kairi, who’d accumulated clothes over the past 14 years.) A single glance told her that her stash of sketchbooks was still safe, wedged between her bed and her dresser.

“C’mon, Namine,” Kairi said, snaring Namine’s attention again. “Sora’s only gonna be able to distract Riku for so long. You gotta tell me what’s up.”

Namine shifted uncomfortably.

Kairi looked at her expectantly.

“Well?”

“I- I’ve been having nightmares,” Namine mumbled.

“No duh.”

Namine’s shoulders hunched, and she stared down at her lap. “Well- they- they’ve been… been about Riku…”

“So that’s why you don’t want to tell him?” Kairi’s voice softened as she said it, and she shifted closer to Namine. She didn’t reach out to comfort Namine, and their skin hardly touched, but there was still something comforting about sitting next to Kairi. The solidarity. The familiarity.

“Less… I don’t wanna tell him… and more… I don’t know how to,” Namine said.

Understanding crossed Kairi’s features.

“Is he dead in them?” she whispered. “Hurt? Or… you’re… Rewritten and—”

“NO!” Namine interrupted, horrified. She shuddered at the thought. She’d never even considered having nightmares about being Rewritten—though that had only happened days ago. She’d been trying not to think about it too much. And even then, these other nightmares… they’d been plaguing her for so long that the images played in her eyes almost every time she closed them.

“…then what?” Kairi asked, gently.

Namine swallowed. Her eyes darted to the doorway. She lowered her voice to the quietest whisper.

“He’s- he’s terrifying in them,” she explained. “And I see them all the time I’ve… I’ve had this nightmare so many times. The same thing every time. He’s…” She shook her head. This was hard to pull together—no. Hard to admit. “He’s… He’s bathed in darkness he’s grinning like a maniac and- and he’s attacking someone. Always. It- It looks like- like Larxene.”

Namine struggled to say the words, despite knowing that the words meant nothing to Kairi. She didn’t know Larxene. Didn’t know all the things that Larxene had done to Riku. And saying that Riku was only attacking Larxene in her nightmares? That was putting it lightly. The details just made Namine’s stomach too queasy to formulate into real words.

She didn’t want to tell Kairi how much Riku wanted to make Larxene hurt.

How much this revenge meant to him.

“Do you think scaring Larxene is a bad idea?” he’d asked, ages ago. “I’ve got all this extra power. This extra darkness. I bet I could figure out a way to scare her with it.”

He’d said scare.

He’d meant so much more.

But how was she supposed to tell that to Kairi? She didn’t want to tell all that to Kairi, didn’t want to find the words to explain the situation in its depth. That made it all seem too real. She wasn’t ready for that yet. Wasn’t ready to consider it happening. Just telling Kairi about the nightmares was hard enough.

“Well… they’re just nightmares…” Kairi said slowly. The words made Namine’s heart clench in her chest. If only. “I… I know they’re terrifying, but—”

“I wish. I wish,” Namine interrupted. “And- and maybe- maybe they are. But I’ve got… this feeling… like a dark cloud hanging over my head. Like a storm- a storm just about to break, I—” She sighed. “I don’t know…”

Kairi studied her, as if trying to puzzle out the pieces of her thoughts, as if they were etched on her face. “…you don’t think he actually…. would…?” she asked, haltingly.

Namine just shrugged, wearily. “I wouldn’t put it… past him…”

Kairi looked at her firmly.

“Do you want to keep him from doing it?”

“Y-yes!”

The word caught in Namine’s throat.

“Then you should talk to him.”

“He’s gonna write it off as nightmares!”

“Or maybe not.” Kairi’s gaze only got firmer. “Who knows? You should tell him.”

Namine shifted where she was sitting.

“And tell him… what? That… I don’t want him doing it?”

It sounded so simple. Few things had ever scared Namine more.

Yes!” Kairi shouted.

Namine jumped.

“Kairi! Not so loud!” she scolded, quickly. Her eyes darted to the door again. If Riku heard….

“No one’s gonna hear us,” Kairi laughed.

 “You’d be surprised how good Riku’s hearing is.”

Maybe being able to hear them from all the way downstairs was a bit of a stretch, but... better safe than sorry. Especially about this. Though maybe it’d be easier if Riku did overhear… Then he’d know without her having to tell him.

Kairi grimaced, but when she spoke it was much softer.

“Okay but you have to talk to him about this!”

Namine clutched her hands together, and stared at the floor in front of her. Talking to Riku about this was the last thing she wanted to. She’d tried to once, and he’d blown her off. Dismissed her worries as nothing.

“You don’t understand how much this means to him…” she told Kairi. “How much revenge means to him… what she did to him…”

“No, I don’t,” Kairi admitted. Her tone didn’t waver. “But I know revenge isn’t the answer—it can’t be.”

Namine said nothing.

“Do you want me to talk to him?”

She looked up at Kairi, surprised.

“No!” she protested. “N- No. He’ll… he’ll get all upset about the fact that I told you before I told him and that it’s not me talking to him and—”

Kairi gaped at her. “So? That’s not- that’s… not even…” She shook her head, hard enough to whip her hair around a little. “Why would you even consider that? Why would you even…? Namine. It doesn’t work like that. Who cares about his feeling so long as we get him to stop?”

I do, Namine said, silently. Out loud she said: “He may not take it as well from you.”

So?” Kairi repeated.

“I just…”

“Who will he take it from?”

Namine shrugged.

“Namine, please, you need to talk to him.”

“Maybe it is just nightmares…”

Namine!

Namine clenched her hands into fists. Tried to look Kairi in the eyes.

“I mean- it’s not like… I may be overreacting.” She stumbled over her words, unfortunately, which made her argument so much less convincing. She swallowed the I don’t know that formed on her lips after that. That would only put her in a worse position.

“You should still talk to him,” Kairi said. She didn’t even blink at Namine’s protest.

“Even if it won’t happen?”

“Better safe than sorry.”

Namine chewed her tongue. She was probably overreacting. It wasn’t going to happen—it couldn’t happen. And even if it was going to… what would they do, really? They couldn’t deter Riku. They couldn’t.

Kairi got to her feet.

“I’ll go talk to him.”

“No, wait!” Namine jumped to her feet, too. “No!”

Kairi paused at the doorway. She sent a look back at Namine, hands on her hips, mouth tight. “Then what?

Namine rubbed her fingers together. “I… I’ll do it,” she said. “I will. I just. I’ve gotta figure out how to… how to tell him. This isn’t- this isn’t exactly easy to… to put into words.”

Maybe if she drew it, it’d make him believe it more. But the thought of putting this on paper made her want to puke. And even if she did, and even if he believed it would happen, would it dissuade him? Or would it only encourage him?

Kairi huffed. “Fine.” She didn’t look happy to say it, and she marched over to her dresser and opened a drawer furiously. “Fine! But come to me if you need any help. And if you- if you haven’t told him in a week, and the nightmares haven’t stopped, I’ll… I’ll tell him then!”

Namine swallowed.

“Okay.”

She moved to her dresser to rummage out clothes to change into, too.

 

xxx

 

“What was that about?” Riku asked, the moment Namine’s foot hit the bottom step. Her heart seized again. It felt like his gaze would bore right through her and dig the truth out.

“It’s… nothing,” she told him, trying not to stutter. “Just nightmares.” She directed the last bit at Kairi’s father—a kind man named Ren—who’d sent her a worried look. His face softened instantly. Riku’s didn’t.

Breakfast went well, for the most part. Riku kept sending her worried looks, and Namine kept ignoring them. Kairi gave her a dirty look once, but once Namine had mouthed ‘now’s not the time’ at her she’d let the matter drop.

“We’re all going shopping for clothes after this, aren’t we?” Sora asked around a mouthful of pancakes. “I know we all need new ones.”

“Riku’s paying,” Namine said, hardly hesitating. Maybe it’d distract him…

Hey!” he protested. The dirty look he sent her was mostly teasing.

“It’s not like you don’t have the munny,” she replied.

Riku grumbled, but didn’t protest further.

“He doesn’t have to pay,” Kairi’s father began.

“It’s alright,” Riku said, waving the matter away with his hand. “I’ve got more than enough to cover it.”

“How much do you have?” Sora asked.

“Somewhere over a hundred and fifty thousand,” Riku replied. Sora let out a low whistle.

Kairi got to her feet. “Well, let’s go!”

Chapter Text

“At least you remembered to use the door this time,” Namine laughed, sending a glance up at Riku.

He hunched his shoulders, and shifted the bag that was slung over his back. The bag really only contained their new clothes—the ones they weren’t wearing, of course—along with a smaller sack that contained Riku’s munny. He still had somewhere close to a hundred thousand, even after buying over a week’s worth of clothes for all four of them. Namine had a smaller bag Kairi’d given her, which held all of her sketchbooks and pencils.

Sora and Kairi hadn’t been too upset about them deciding not to stay on Destiny Islands in favor of moving to Hollow Bastion. Well, Kairi’d been upset—and rightly so. Namine had been on the fence about the move, too, but it just felt right to be going with Riku. Kairi’s father had been a lot easier to convince than Kairi, at least. In fact, he’d been the one to finally get Kairi to warm up to the idea.

“People you love have to move on sometimes,” he’d said, with a good natured chuckle. “There’s nothing you can do but let them go. Besides, from the sounds of it, it’s not like you won’t be seeing her again.”

Namine smiled fondly at the memory. Kairi’s father really was a good man.

Riku sighed on the step to Aerith’s door, his free hand raised to knock. He hesitated for a long moment.

“Hmm?” Namine sent quizzical look at him.

“Nervous,” he mumbled. There was an uneasy smile on his face. “What if she says no?”

“She won’t.”

“Maybe it’s too much to ask…”

“Riku.”

He lowered his hand. Namine sighed and knocked instead. Riku about jumped out of his skin, but he didn’t say anything. The door was thrown open, and before either of them could say anything, Aerith had pulled Riku into a hug.

“Thank goodness you’re okay!” she exclaimed.

Riku went pale. “Oh,” was all he said.

Namine laughed nervously, once she’d thought about it. Riku’d been in Hollow Bastion when she’d been kidnapped by Organization 13 about three days ago. Obviously he’d departed from there, and probably worried everyone in the process. He hadn’t returned since then.

Aerith let go of Riku, then immediately hugged Namine, too.

“S-sorry I didn’t stop by,” Riku stammered. He coughed nervously. “I- I forgot. Sorry.”

“Oh don’t fret over it,” Aerith told him. “The important bit is that you’re okay now and everyone can stop worrying! Come on in, come on in—” She stepped aside and waved them inside, pausing only after she’d shut the door. “Ah… what’s with the bags?”

“Is tha’ Riku ‘n Namine?” Cid called. He was in the kitchen, from the sounds of it.

“Did they bring Sora? Or Kairi?” Cloud asked, stepping out into the living room.

“Do I need’ta make more sandwiches?” Cid called.

Aerith grimaced about being interrupted before her question could be answered, but she said nothing.

“Sora and Kairi stayed home—on Destiny Islands,” Namine explained. “They’re both okay.”

“Do you want to talk to them?” Riku said. He shifted uncomfortably. The color still hadn’t returned to his cheeks.

“Eventually, it might be nice, but you don’t have to go get them right now or anything,” Tifa said. She pushed past Cloud and plopped down on one of the couches. “How are you two doing, huh? Get everything sorted out?”

Riku nodded. “It, uh-”

“Yeah,” Namine said.

Riku sent her a look.

“We did get everything sorted, and we’re doing okay,” Namine said, to further clarify. “It’s… y’know… What happened is a long story and I’d… I’d rather not…”

talk about being Rewritten.

Riku’s eyes narrowed as he looked at her, but finally he looked away. He didn’t say anything more on the matter. Namine studied him a moment, trying to discern his thoughts. She came up with nothing. Oh well.

There’s also the nightmares to consider… Namine thought, with a small sigh. She sent a sideways look at Aerith. She’d promised Aerith a while ago that if the nightmares became more of a problem, she’d tell. But… no. They weren’t a problem. They were just nightmares.

I hope.

“The bags?” Aerith repeated.

“Ah… well…” Riku shifted from foot to foot. “We- we were-” He coughed. “Can we… move in?”

Aerith blanched. “Uh—” she began, but didn’t finish.

Namine could almost feel the dread wash over Riku. His shoulders sagged and he let out a frustrated little breath—it was almost too quiet to hear, and she might not have heard it if she hadn’t known what it sounded like.

“No no! It’s fine!” Aerith said, quickly. “It’s fine. I don’t mind if you do—of course I don’t!—I just. It. There’s…”

“It’s not like we don’t have the room,” Cid called. “People can share! This house is huge, Aerith. Practically what it was made for!”

“I was just trying to figure out who would share,” Aerith finished, sounding a little upset that she’d been interrupted, again. Namine didn’t blame her.

“Me and Cloud can share,” Tifa said.

“It’s not like we’re staying much longer anyway,” Cloud added. “Probably.”

“Me and Riku can share,” Namine said. Riku looked over at her, startled, but after a second more his features fell to consideration, then agreement. He nodded.

Aerith hummed to herself as she considered it, and before long, she was nodding as well. “Yes it… That’ll work. That will work. Someone will have to drag a cot up to the other spare room, though—”

“Not me!” Cid yelled. Not that he exactly needed to, given how close the kitchen was to the living room. “I shouldn’ be liftin’ things, ‘n I definitely shouldn’ be draggin’ cots up the stairs.”

“I wasn’t asking you to, Cid,” Aerith assured him. “I’ll ask Leon when he and Yuffie get back from rounds…”

“Am I not here?” Cloud asked, a touch of humor to his tone.

“Wh- oh! Right.” Aerith laughed, nervously. “Would you mind, Cloud?”

“Not at all.” Cloud moved to open one of the doors by the stairs. Storage.

Aerith nodded. “Riku, you’ll probably have to help—”

“I can do it.” Tifa got to her feet. “The two of us got the other cot up the stairs just fine the other day—I’m sure we can manage this one.”

“Right,” Aerith said. “I suppose that’s for the better, in hindsight, Riku. Your shoulder…”

Namine watched as Cloud and Tifa wrestled a cot out of the storage room, maneuvering it to the stairs with little argument. Tifa’s strength easily matched Cloud’s, and they were nearly the same height, so they made maneuvering the cot look easy. That, or the cot was just meant to be moved around. Namine’s attention was drawn back to the current conversation when Riku asked:

“So… why is your house so big, Aerith?”

Aerith considered the question a moment, grimacing.

“Jus’ give ‘em the short version!” Cid told her, poking his head out into the living room.

Aerith nodded. “My mother ran a sort of healing business,” she explained. “Not that… business is probably the right word, considering she very rarely accepted pay. And there used to be a hospital here, when the city was bigger, but—”

“The short version!” Cid interrupted.

“Right, right!” Aerith waved her hand dismissively in his direction, and sighed a little. “She needed more room to hold all the patients, so she bought this house.”

“But if the city had a hospital…” Riku began.

“See, Cid, they were curious,” Aerith said. Her tone carried no more than mild exasperation. “Not everyone could afford hospital bills, Riku, and most people didn’t see the point in troubling doctors with minor cuts or headaches. Plus, in emergencies, sometimes we were closer.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Riku said.

Namine nodded, assuring them all that it made sense to her, too.

“So if you two are movin’ in, does that mean tha’ rebellion o’ yours is over?” Cid asked.

“Yeah,” Riku said.

Namine waited for him to go into further explanation, only to realize that he didn’t intend to. Though… there wasn’t much further to say on the matter—not of the Rebellion anyway. The Organization was dead. The whole thing ended on that.

And I don’t think he’s too keen on mentioning me being Rewritten… Namine thought. She was grateful for that. She wasn’t keen on mentioning it either.

“You really don’t mind if we’re staying?” Riku pressed. “I mean, it is long term and—”

Aerith didn’t let him finish. “It’s fine,” she assured him. “I promise you, you’re always welcome here. Oh! That’s right, you’ll need sheets for that cot. Excuse me.” She headed up the stairs. Cloud and Tifa had clearly managed to get the cot up there without an issue, considering they were nowhere in sight and Namine didn’t hear Aerith say anything to them when she reached the top of the stairs.

“I have’teh ask, though,” Cid said, leaning his shoulder against the wall. “Why is it yeh don’t wanna stay on Destiny Islands?”

“It’s boring,” Riku answered.

“Ah.”

Cid didn’t even press the matter further.

“Yeh want sandwiches?” he asked.

“No thank you,” Namine said. “We had a big breakfast—well. I don’t want one. Riku…?”

He shook his head. “Nah.”

She elbowed him.

“Thanks, though,” he added, sparing a second to send an annoyed look at her.

“Uh-huh.” Cid ducked back into the kitchen.

“See, I said it’d be okay,” Namine said, quietly. She nudged Riku again, gentler this time, and beamed up at him. He smiled back, though he honestly looked like he couldn’t quite believe this was happening.

“Alright!” Aerith came down the stairs again. “The room’s all set up! It’s the one you’re usually in, Riku. Do you need help carrying anything? Have any other bags?”

Riku and Namine both shook their heads. Riku hefted the bag over his shoulder.

“This is all we got.”

The room ended up being set up much like Kairi’s room, back on Destiny Islands. Or, the beds were in the same places, anyway. The big bed, or, the real bed, was on the right, and the cot on the left. The dresser was up against the remaining wall, under a small window. It was the only dresser. Namine was glad that neither she nor Riku had a lot of clothes.

“Which half of the dresser do you want?” she asked, starting to unpack their clothes. Riku could’ve done it, she supposed, but she figured she’d save him the embarrassment of having to handle her underwear.

“I- I don’t-”

“Oh, you should have the top half, since you’re so tall. Duh!”

“Namine I don’t care.”

“Neither do I. You’re getting the top half.”

“Oh. Okay.”

There was a pause.

“Where do you want your sketchbooks?”

“They can sit on the dresser—I’ll take care of it when I’m done here.”

“Right.”

Another pause.

“Which bed do you want?”

Namine took a second to consider.

“Never mind,” Riku said, before she could answer. “I’ll take the cot.”

“You don’t have to—”

“It’s fine.”

There wasn’t any talking him out of it, Namine knew, so she decided not to bother. Not that the decision immediately quashed her annoyance. Even if it was a little thing, about the beds, he did this with other things too. Go out of his way to ensure her comfort, or safety, while at the expense of his own. The thought of the other things frustrated her much more than the beds did.

She sighed.

“You excited?” she asked Riku. She looked up from folding one of his shirts to look at him.

He nodded. “Yeah! Yeah.” He nodded again. He was sitting on the cot—his bed—leaning against the wall with his hands behind his head. There was a grin on his face. “I mean… I knew it was gonna happen something like this. I did. I just… still funny to have it happen.”

Namine nodded and grinned back at him. She loved watching him talk about this. How he lit up. There was something about Hollow Bastion that was just so good for him. Something about this house…

“You don’t mind, right?” he asked her. “I know you wanted to stay with Kairi—”

 “I want to stay with you just as much,” she assured him.

He grinned even wider.

Chapter Text

It’d been the night right after they’d come home. They’d finished swimming and were waiting for their clothes to kind of dry—not that they’d swam in all of their clothes, just most of them. Anyway. Kairi’d been sitting wearing Sora’s jacket (so she wouldn’t be without a shirt) and Sora’d been shirtless and furiously wondering why it was so cold this late in the year.

That was the night Sora told Kairi about his Shadow.

Kairi’d been right. Their parents could wait another few hours before finding out that their children had returned. This conversation could technically wait, too, but there was no telling when they’d be able to really get this kind of privacy again.

(As much as his parents trusted him, he doubted sneaking out at night to go hang out with Kairi would go over well, regardless of the fact all he wanted to do was talk with her. He wasn’t even interested in Kairi enough to, well, do the things his parents probably would think he’d been doing under circumstances like that.)

“Hey Kairi, you tired or anything?” he’d asked.

And that’s how it started.

 

xxx

 

“Hey, Kairi, you tired or anything? Wanna get heading home?” Sora asked.

Kairi shrugged. “I mean I was hoping to wait until our clothes had dried at least a little more, but there’s no guarantee of that happening in the middle of the night.” She prodded her soaked shirt, grimacing.

“Do you mind staying out here a little longer?”

“No. Why?”

“I wanted to talk—oh. Your voice feeling better?”

“It sounds better, doesn’t it Sora?” Kairi asked, rolling her eyes. “And yeah my throat feels fine. I didn’t expect my voice to be gone long.”

Sora flushed. If he’d been paying more attention, he would’ve realized that yeah, Kairi’s voice had sounded a lot better lately. “Okay,” he said.

“This about your Shadow…?” Kairi sent him a worried look, all annoyance leaving her tone.

Sora chewed his lip, but nodded.

Kairi tensed. She said nothing.

Sora swallowed. Swallowed again. Dug his fingers into the sand, gripping some of it in his fists. Where was he supposed to start? Well, he supposed there was no place better than:

“He loved me.”

Kairi was silent long enough that Sora feared she hadn’t heard. Not exactly surprising, considering how quietly he’d said—

“He what?” Kairi asked. Her voice squeaked, and she turned to stare at him, shaking, eyes wide with horror.

“He said he loved me,” Sora repeated. “He—well, he didn’t say it. But- but I could feel it, Kairi. I could feel his feelings pounding in my chest I could feel them.” He beat against his own chest for emphasis. “Right here. I could feel it.”

“…how?” Kairi asked. “How could you feel that?”

“There was a connection between me ‘n my Shadow. I’d always been able to feel his emotions. See his thoughts.” Sora’s hand clenched into a fist, closing around his necklace so he was clutching something—he couldn’t clasp at his shirt, seeing as he currently wasn’t wearing one.

“He… loved you?” Kairi shook her head in disbelief. “Are you- are you sure?

Sora nodded. “Positive, Kairi. I can feel it even now. Pounding at me. Threatening to crush me with its weight…” It was like there was a set of iron claws wrapped around his heart, and another set wrapped around his stomach. Anytime he thought about what his Shadow said, they’d both squeeze and…

“But he was…” Kairi began, but trailed off. She shook her head, ran a finger through the sand. “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised…” she mumbled. “All that time… he was talking about you…. wasn’t he?”

“Hmm?”

Sora couldn’t answer her, seeing as he had no idea what she was asking. Or maybe… he did…

“Shortly after I started looking for you… he kept coming to see me,” she explained. “Well… he’d been seeing me before that…”

“Really?” Sora asked. He couldn’t quite say he was surprised, though. The memories rolled around in his head—not that he had a very clear sense of them, just a feeling. A feeling like he’d been there, visiting Kairi, instead of his Shadow. All of his Shadow’s memories were like that. And he had all of them in his head.

“Yeah.” Kairi nodded. “He stopped by a lot, actually. Maybe I’m not surprised, now that I’ve learned who he was. If he was you—or like you—well… maybe it was comforting to be around me.”

Sora let out a long breath. “I’d believe that.”

“Anyway, when I was searching for you… He’d said he was searching for someone, too, not that he’d give me a name. He just said it was a friend.”

“Bet it killed him to say that,” Sora said. The words were bitter on his tongue. Then he chuckled—sharply. Because maybe it hadn’t (figuratively) killed his Shadow to say those words. After all, if he’d loved—

Kairi looked up at him now, her eyes narrowed with concern. Her mouth was set with determination. “He was worried about you, Sora. He was really worried about you.”

“And what’s that supposed to do? Make me feel better?” Sora laughed—a bark of laughter, short and sharp and oh so bitter. “You don’t understand what he was like, Kairi. He was… He- He was horrible he…”

Sora couldn’t make himself finish.

Sure, before Maleficent, his Shadow had been horrible. Except… after Maleficent—after Sora’d gotten away from her, and after he and his Shadow had finally gotten in touch again… His Shadow hadn’t been too horrible. Well, making him kill Maleficent aside, of course—No! Not putting that aside. You couldn’t just shove something like that to the side. The things his Shadow had done were unforgiveable!

But… Sora just felt empty, thinking like that. Like he wanted to believe it, but he couldn’t quite get his heart around it.

Everyone made mistakes, after all…

NO!” Sora screamed, anger flaring through him. He took a fistful of sand and threw it in the direction of the water.

He didn’t want to forgive his Shadow.

He didn’t want to hate his Shadow.

“It- It horrified me, Kairi!!” he shouted. “It scared me—hearing him say he loved me. Feeling him and how he- how he…” He swallowed the words, unable to finish that sentence. “It- it disgusted me because… because how could a creature so dark and so- so evil—who’d been nothing but horrible and cruel to me and- and hurt me…”

He reached up, raking his hand across his face, tracing his scar—the mark of his Shadow’s anger. A mark he’d never lose. His hand stopped at his neck, where the scar broke before continuing to his shoulder, fingers curling around his own skin.

“How could a creature like that love me? How could- how could he love me?”

Kairi shook her head, sadly. “I don’t know, Sora. I have no idea and wish I did so I would know what to tell you but I…” She trailed off. Sighed.

“He did…” Sora whispered. The words came out in chokes. “He did love me. I felt it. I can still feel it. Like it’s gonna eat me. Swallow me whole. He loved me.

Kairi said nothing. Sora rubbed at his neck. His heart turned over and over in his chest. He’d thought talking to Kairi would make him feel better. So far, it was only making him feel worse.

Just thinking about all this made him feel worse.

Kairi shifted to her knees, rubbing her hands together nervously. She shifted again, so she was about leaning over Sora. Slowly, she reached out, her fingers hovering near his forehead. There was sadness in her eyes.

“Can I?” she whispered.

“Yeah.”

Sora closed his eyes. Kairi’s fingers brushed his skin—his scar—trailing it all the way from his left eyebrow, across his face, and then down to his right shoulder, where it eventually ended. The skin was sensitive, but Kairi was gentle, and her touch didn’t hurt. Sora took a deep breath. He could hear Kairi’s breath catch in her throat—a stifled gasp, or perhaps a muffled sob.

“Did- did he… really…?

Sora nodded.

Kairi’s hand lingered on his shoulder.

“It was an accident,” Sora said. The words came tumbling from his lips. “Or- or maybe it wasn’t quite one. He was just frustrated—more at the situation than anything else and I wasn’t helping and- and he lashed out. I don’t- I don’t think he meant to hurt me maybe. I dunno.” Sora realized very quickly that he hardly knew what he was saying. “I dunno,” he repeated.

Tears started rolling down his cheeks.

He reached up to wipe his eyes, a little confused.

“Wh- why am I crying?” He had to wipe his eyes again, and then his cheeks. “Why am I crying? Wh- why am I…?”

He hadn’t even felt the urge to cry until now. These had come out of nowhere, though they hardly felt like his. Or maybe they did. What did genuine tears even feel like? Where had these tears come from? He felt sick to his stomach.

“It’s stress, probably,” Kairi said. She shrugged. “It’s okay…. Crying’s probably perfectly normal right now….” She moved her hand to rub his back, and shifted her weight so she was sitting again.

Sora buried his face in his hands. The tears wouldn’t stop falling. “Wh- what am I supposed to do?” he sobbed. “Wh- wh… how… How am I supposed to- to live knowing that he loved me? Kn- knowing that he—”

“I don’t know.” Kairi shook her head. Her shoulders seemed to shake a little. “I- I don’t know, Sora. I just don’t know.” Her fingers clenched into a fist against his back. She hung her head. “I- I wanna say that we’re not getting the whole picture or- or something wise and dumb like that but- but it makes me sick to think of defending him!!” Her voice rose to a shout.

Sora flinched only a little—she was right next to his ear, so the shouting startled him, but he was fairly used to this after nearly fifteen years with Kairi. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kairi just kept ranting. That didn’t surprise him either.

“After what he did!?”  Kairi demanded. “He- he betrayed me. I… I thought he was my friend, and yet… he… …to me and… and to you.” She shifted to face him again, reached out to touch his cheek—his scar. “If he- if he loved you, then- then why did he hurt you?”

“It was an accident,” was all Sora could say.

He didn’t even know how he knew that, or if he believed it.

“Was it?” Kairi asked.

Sora shrugged.

There was so much in his head now, now that he had his Shadow’s memories, boiling inside him. So many moments like that one, moments he remembered with conflicting emotions. Disgust, but enjoyment. Shock, but disgust. Horror, and agony. Trying to process it all just made him sick.

“I don’t want to defend him either, Kairi,” he said. “I don’t. Trust me. After all those battles. All those months running from him. Fighting him. Staying away from home because I was afraid he’d hurt you. Staying away from anywhere because I was afraid of him hurting anyone I cared about. And- and yet…” He wiped his nose, now—wiping his eyes was useless. “People- people can change, I guess, I just—”

I just… what?

People could change, but could Shadows? They weren’t human.

It’d been so much easier when he could just say he hated his Shadow and move on with his life…

…but had he ever really hated his Shadow?

Now thinking about his Shadow just made Sora upset. He wasn’t disgusted, really—he was confused. Conflicted. What was he even supposed to feel about this?

Kairi’s hand fell away from his face.

“How- how could he love me?” Sora choked. As if that was all it came down to. He raised his face to the stars and shouted in frustration—“How could he love me!?”—as if he could blame his Shadow for it.

You couldn’t blame someone for falling in love.

“I’m sorry.” Kairi gripped his shoulder, to steady him. “I’m sorry—I wish I had an answer for you but I don’t.

Sora squeezed his eyes shut. They hurt so much from all this crying.

“He- he begged me to kill him, Kairi,” he said. “He literally got on his knees and b-begged me. He- he said he couldn’t do this anymore and…”

Sora took a shuddering breath. It took all his strength to resist the urge to scream at the sky again.

“And… And I think I understand… especially now,” he whispered. “Living- living with this weight is horrible. It’s only been a few hours, but- but I don’t know how I’d survive any longer. I don’t know- don’t know how he survived as long as he did.”

Because he couldn’t die by any hand but my own…

The thought made Sora cry even harder.

He said he’d tried to kill himself, but it hadn’t worked. It hadn’t worked so- so he made me—

“But it’s only been a few hours!” Kairi argued. “Maybe- maybe the feeling will fade over time.”

“It didn’t for him…”

The firmness—the desperation—in Kairi’s voice when she replied made Sora’s heart clench.

“It has to for you. Dying is not an option.”

That was just it.

“IT SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN FOR HIM!” Sora screamed. “I shouldn’t have had to kill him! I didn’t want to!!”

Dying shouldn’t have had to be an option. There had to have been some reason for his Shadow to keep living. Forget all Sora’s mixed feelings about him! Dying shouldn’t have been an option for him.

“Sora, I’m sorry,” Kairi repeated. This had to have been the billionth time she’d said it. “That must’ve stunk but I—”

“I didn’t want to!! I DIDN’T WANT TO!

Sora pounded at his chest, screamed at the sky again. As if the heavens would find some way to repay him if he screamed at them long enough. As if his Shadow could still hear him.

It was so unfair. The memories just kept washing over him. His Shadow on his hands and knees, tears streaming down his face. Tears streaming down his own face, as his voice fought to leave his lips.

It was so unfair.

The battle his Shadow wouldn’t fight—that he didn’t want to fight. Finally raising his blade. How heavy his arms had felt. How all he wanted to do was cry, and not shove his blade through his Shadow’s chest.

How his Shadow had thanked him, smiled, like he’d never been happier. Like he’d finally gotten his release.

Sora hoped wherever his Shadow was now—dissipated entirely, or in some sort of afterlife… Sora hoped he’d found his peace. It was the worst way to get peace, but… if at least one of them was happy…

“I- I didn’t- I didn’t want to…” Sora sobbed.

Kairi wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. She smelled like saltwater and sweat. Her hands pressed grains of sand into his skin, but Sora was grateful. So terribly grateful. That she was here. That he didn’t have to face all the feelings roaring in his chest all by himself.

“I’m sorry,” Kairi whispered, and her voice cracked. “I’m so sorry.

Sora clutched at her for an anchor, curling in on himself. He couldn’t do anything more than cry anymore. He didn’t think he’d be able to do anything but cry for a long while.

 

xxx

 

Sora rolled over in his bed and squeezed his eyes shut even harder, as if it would make the room any darker, as if it’d block out his roiling thoughts.

I just want to sleep. I don’t want to have to mull over this every night before I go to bed. I just want to sleep…

It was hard to do.

It’d been a few days, but the conversation still jostled around in Sora’s head. He didn’t feel much better about the whole ordeal now, either. He was still trying to process it. Make peace with killing his Shadow. Make himself somehow accept the fact his Shadow loved him.

It still weight heavy on his chest.

He wanted the weight to go away.

He loved me…

He hates me…

He loved me.

Sora pulled the pillow over his head and tried very, very hard to block it all out. When he finally fell asleep, it was a long time later, and the thoughts and memories kept spinning around in his head even in his dreams.

Chapter Text

Riku eyed Sora warily from across the table. He kept yawning, covering it with his hand, and even the looks he sent Kairi were weary. Sora and Kairi had come to visit Hollow Bastion, and of course everyone wanted to know what’d happened to them too. They were all sitting at the table as Sora and Kairi filled everyone in on what Riku and Namine hadn’t mentioned over the past week. Neither of them brought up Namine being Rewritten, though, and it wasn’t until Sora was asked about his Shadow that he said anything on the matter.

“Oh? He’s… he’s gone…” Sora let out a long breath, drumming his fingers against the edge of the table. “He’s… finished. I… y’know…”

He trailed off there, sending a brief look at Kairi.

“You don’t sound very happy about it,” Yuffie said. Her elbow knocked against Riku’s as she leaned forward on the table.

Sora’s drumming became a little more aggressive. He sent another look to Kairi, on his left, then sent a hesitant look to his right, where Cloud was sitting. Actually, if Riku trusted his eyes, it looked like Sora looked past Cloud and at Tifa.

“Maybe I didn’t want to kill him…” Sora mumbled. He stopped drumming, leaned back in his chair. He looked exhausted.

“It’s for the better,” Cloud said, looking sternly at him.

Sora only shrugged. Riku thought he saw him mutter something that looked like ‘sure’.

Leon leaned back in his chair, though Riku figured that had more to do with trying to see past Yuffie than anything else. “Why didn’t you want to kill him…?” he asked, slowly.

Sora shook his head. “I don’t think… I ever wanted to kill him. I just… I figured I had to.” He wouldn’t look anyone in the eye—not anyone who wasn’t Kairi anyway. He shrugged again. “I guess… guess it didn’t… it didn’t feel right, that’s all. When it came down to it.”

Tifa tried to press the matter, but Cloud put a hand before her, signaling her to drop it. The conversation continued—not that there was much left to discuss. Sora rarely looked up again. Kairi kept sending looks at Namine, but every time Riku turned to Namine, she acted like nothing was wrong.

“Something up?” he asked her.

She looked up at him, hesitating a long, long moment before saying no, nothing was wrong.

He knew she was lying.

“Namine—”

“Not now. Please.”

Riku wanted to ask further, but Sora caught his attention across the table, mouthing the words ‘can I talk to you?’. Riku sighed, sending one last look at Namine, before nodding. What’d he done, though, to upset Namine like this? Surely he’d said something, but…

The conversation eventually dwindled, and everyone left to do their own things. Namine and Kairi headed upstairs to talk. Sora waited until everyone had left the table, then meet Riku’s eye. Riku shifted a little in his seat.

“Yeah?”

“Have you… have you ever killed anyone?”

Riku raised his eyebrows. Of all questions…

“Sora…” he began.

Realization washed over Sora’s face. “Oh. Right. That was a dumb question.”

Riku shrugged. He couldn’t exactly deny that.

“Never mind,” Sora said, pushing his chair away from the table and getting to his feet.

“Wait, hang on, why’d you wanna know?” Riku nearly got to his feet too, only to remember how tall he felt standing next to Sora. He didn’t like how it felt like he was towering over everyone all the time. Even with him sitting and Sora standing, Sora hardly had inches on him. Standing, Riku was at least two inches taller than Leon. At least.

“Just wanted to know if you feel as gross about it as I do, but you wouldn’t. You were built to be a killer.”

Riku let out a long breath, unsure of what to say. He licked his lips. Sora’s words had a certain sting to them—his choice of the word built rather than born, paired with the solemn look in his eyes and the certainty in his tone. He didn’t even look angry. He only looked resigned.

“Sorry…” Riku said, slowly.

Sora waved the apology away.

“That’s alright. Nothing you can do about it.”

Riku shrugged. “I can try to talk…?”

“No, you can’t, because you don’t understand, either—unless you’ve been up all night puking over it? Didn’t think so.”

Riku swallowed.

“Is this… is this about your Shadow?”

Sora rolled his eyes. There was a sharpness in his voice, now, as he spoke. “It’s about everyone. All of them!” Then he grimaced; reconsidered. “Maybe not Ansem. And I can’t say I’m too sorry to see Maleficent go, just wish it hadn’t happened the way it did.”

Riku wet his lips. He knew this was dangerous territory, and that Sora’d basically already answered, but he couldn’t help himself. “And… your Shadow?” he asked.

Sora slammed his palm against the table, eyes blazing with a fury. Riku jumped a little. He hated admitting that he was scared by little things like this, but he definitely had been surprised.

“I already answered that, Riku,” Sora hissed. “Why does everyone want to know about him?”

“I was just—”

“You don’t understand, and you never will.” Sora pulled away from the table, straightening slowly, regarding Riku with that angry gaze for as long as possible before he finally turned away and started off. “There’s no point talking to you about it,” he muttered, heading for the stairs.

Riku eyed the stairs for a moment. He didn’t want to look like he’d been following Sora—he really had no intention to—but Namine was up there, and…

Not that she wants to talk to you.

Riku shook his head, squishing that thought from his mind. She and Kairi were friends, after all. He could allow them some privacy. Even if…

“Riku?” Aerith called, from the living room. “Can you come look at something for me?”

“Yeah!”

He got up and headed out there to meet her.

Aerith smiled at him when she saw him. “I was thinking of starting a garden outside again,” she explained. “And wanted your opinion on where it should go.”

“Why mine?” he asked, surprised.

“Because you’re the only person who lives here that isn’t busy right now. I mean, I’m going to ask everyone eventually, but I guess you’re first!”

Despite himself, Riku couldn’t help the smile that formed on his lips.

 

xxx

 

Sora knocked on Cloud’s door, even though it was open. It just felt rude not to knock, especially since he and Tifa looked like they were discussing something.

“Cloud? Can I ask you something?”

Cloud looked up at him, then sent a glance at Tifa.

“’Bout your Shadow?” he asked, eyes darting back to Sora.

“Kinda.”

Cloud nodded. He sent another longer look at Tifa. After a moment of glaring at him, she rolled her eyes. “I’m going,” she sighed, getting to her feet and pushing past Sora. He could hear her clomp down the stairs after a few seconds.

Cloud gestured for Sora to sit on the cot, where Tifa’d been sitting. Cloud was sitting on the edge of actual bed. Each was up against opposite walls, so by sitting on the cot, Sora was facing Cloud.

Sora cleared his throat, working up the nerve to ask his question. It wasn’t an easy question to ask. Honestly, he figured the only reason he’d been able to ask Riku so easily earlier was likely because he already knew Riku’s answer.

“You… you ever killed anyone, Cloud?”

Cloud’s eyes widened with surprise. Then he shook his head. “No one besides Sephiroth,” he said. His face darkened with concern. “Are you… are you saying you have? Besides your Shadow?”

Sora only nodded.

There was Ansem, of course. I think. And Maleficent, and those two members from Organization 13—Xaldin and Luxord, weren’t they?

Cloud considered him with wide eyes for another moment, then shook his head. “Well, I can’t help you there. I’m sorry.” And, he really did look sorry. “You’re better off asking Leon or Aerith or… Well, Rinoa’s not around but, still. They’re more likely to have the answers you’re looking for.”

“R-Really?” Sora asked, a little stunned.

Cloud nodded. “Yeah. They ended up getting involved in some fight with an evil sorceress on another world. I don’t know all the details, but I know it ended in her death. Zack talked about it a lot.” He shrugged. “Anyway, don’t press either of them—Leon or Aerith—too hard about it. They may not want to talk.”

“Yeah, of course,” Sora said, without hesitation. He filed the information away for later, hoping he wouldn’t forget it. He sort of doubted he’d get the chance to ask today.

“Was that it?” Cloud asked. “Or did you actually have something to ask about your Shadow?”

“I do.” Sora shifted his weight in the cot, pulling his legs up and folding them under him. This wasn’t exactly an easy question, either. “Why do you say it’s better he’s… that he’s dead?”

Cloud’s earlier surprise wasn’t a match for his surprise now.

“Because… it is…” he answered, eyeing Sora suspiciously. “I mean I know it can’t have been easy to take his life, but there wasn’t another option…”

That was the answer Sora couldn’t bear.

“Sora, I am a being created to drag you into darkness! There is no other win for you besides my death!”

“Are you sure!? Because you giving up on that sounds like winning to me!”

He hadn’t been able to bear the answer then. How was he supposed to bear it now?

“What if there was?” he asked Cloud. “What if there was another option?”

“There can’t have been,” Cloud replied. “He can’t have lived. Sooner or later he would’ve tried dragging you into darkness. You can’t have—”

“We could’ve worked something out!!” Sora shouted. He turned away, hastily wiped the tears from his cheeks.

“What’s got you so twisted up in knots, huh? Can it be fixed? Can I…?”

“Sora there’s no way to fix this!! Please just- just kill me!”

They could’ve worked something out. If only his Shadow hadn’t been so hasty. If only Sora’d said something different. Gotten his Shadow’s attention. Managed to get them to talk through it, figure out how to fix it, figure out how to—

But he wanted to die because he loved you, he reminded himself.

It’s not disgusting to love me. We would’ve worked it out.

But could you live with that knowledge?

I have to anyway, whether he’s alive or not. Maybe it’d be easier if he were still here…

Sora shook himself out of his internal argument. Cloud was regarding him sternly. He didn’t know Cloud well enough to know if the way his lips pursed together meant he was angry or not. He could almost sense Cloud’s impatience, though.

“What would you have done?” Cloud asked. “Befriend him? You can’t befriend a Shadow. A Sheto..?” He laughed weakly, and shook his head.

The sound of the word Sheto stirred something in Sora. A sense of familiarity. A flash of images conveying what it meant. Someone drowning in darkness. Gold eyes watching on, glinting with pleasure. Fighting. Struggling.

“I’m a being made to drag you into darkness, Sora.”

“It’s impossible,” Cloud continued, his voice dragging Sora out of the images. “Sooner or later, he would’ve snapped back to what he needed to do—kill you or smother you in darkness—and neither of you would’ve been able to stop it. Him being close to you, being ‘friends’ with you, would’ve only made it worse. He could’ve done it in your sleep.”

Something roiled in Sora’s chest.

“No, he wouldn’t have,” Sora protested. “He- He wouldn’t have!”

He wasn’t sure exactly why he was protesting.

He wouldn’t hurt me. The thought made him sick. He loved me. He wouldn’t have—

“Shadow’s aren’t creatures you should trust,” Cloud told him, plainly.

“Mine was different!”

Cloud raised his eyebrows. The amusement in the expression made Sora’s hands clench into fists and unfold his legs from under him. The urge to punch Cloud square in the jaw and wipe that not-quite-a-smirk off his face flooded him, then the urge was gone. Sora didn’t even have time to question it.

“Look, even if he was,” Cloud said. “Even if his head was in a good enough place to restrain himself, he would’ve done it anyway. Shetos are very purpose driven creatures. He would’ve fallen back into the same pattern, without realizing what he was doing, and eventually he’d have you by the neck, pulling you into the darkness with him.”

The image sent shivers down Sora’s spine.

Echoes of he wouldn’t have continued in his head.

Anger filled him as quickly and as strongly as the urge to punch Cloud had, but this time it didn’t vanish. He leaned forward where he sat, palms pressed to the cot, prepared to launch himself forward. As if attacking Cloud was even a smart idea. As if he really wanted to.

“How do you know?” he demanded. “Last I checked, you and Sephiroth weren’t—”

“Weren’t nearly as connected as you were to your Shadow, no,” Cloud finished. There was a sharpness in his tone. He watched Sora as if he really expected him to attack. “But my Shadow had enough time to go around, make a name for himself, and a reputation. He wanted to get away from it, wanted to be the stuff of other people’s nightmares, not just mine. Except he always came crawling back to me. He couldn’t stay away.”

The words tugged at Sora’s heart, and the fire of anger flickered to nothing.

“I think it drove him mad…” Cloud grimaced as he spoke, clearly not thinking highly of the thought. “Eventually he grew more and more focused on fighting me. Trying to killing me. As if it were an obsession he couldn’t shake.”

Sora let out a long breath. He trembled a little with the raw emotion surging through him. He didn’t know what his feelings were doing, but they certainly weren’t staying in one place for long, and he was sure he’d soon be overwhelmed by it all.

Maybe that’s why my Shadow died, he thought. So he wouldn’t have to fall that far, wouldn’t be forced by madness to kill me, when he so desperately couldn’t stand harming me…

…not that it makes his death any easier to bear.

Sora swallowed. His knees knocked together. He gripped the edge of the cot, elbows locked with the strain of it. He cast his eyes to the ground.

“I understand,” he whispered.

“Why he couldn’t have lived?”

Sora nodded.

“Good.”

Sora squeezed his eyes shut. It wasn’t easy to bear—none of this was—but he understood. Just like he understood why his Shadow wanted to die. Not just to avoid madness, but because he found himself despicable.

“Is that it?” Cloud asked, and his voice was kind now. Still a little rough, but this was Cloud. Everything he did was a little rough.

“No…” Sora said, slowly.

There was something else. It was just, the thought of telling Cloud gripped at his stomach, but he needed to. He needed Cloud to understand.

“I just… I didn’t want to kill him because… He asked to die.” The words fought and struggled out of his mouth, like someone was in his throat and trying to drag them back before they left his lips. His eyes were shut, so he couldn’t see Cloud’s expression, but he figured it was surprise of some sort.

He continued: “And it’s… it’s been really unsettling me. Maybe if- maybe if he hadn’t told me… but…” Then he chuckled, a little bitterly. “Who am I kidding? Even if he hadn’t told me, I would’ve known.” He clutched at his chest.

“You would’ve?”

The shock in Cloud’s voice was enough to make Sora look up at him. Cloud was frowning. Suspicious.

Sora sent him an equally confused look. Did he not have Sephiroth’s memories, like Sora had his Shadow’s? He supposed he wasn’t surprised. Many other things had differed between their Shadows.

“I… I’ve got all his memories, now,” Sora explained. He tapped his knuckles against his chest, right over his heart. “Am I… am I not supposed to?”

“I don’t have Sephiroth’s…”

Right. Sora had been right in assuming that.

Sora took a second to fumble for words to explain it, explain what had happened. Explaining to Kairi hadn’t been hard, but now he was nervous, as if Cloud would correct him. “He- my Shadow… when he died.” Sora swallowed. “There was something left of him. He said it was a heart—my heart, that he’d harbored in him, and that I should take it back. I did.”

Cloud went very pale. Sora’s frown deepened.

“Was I… not supposed to?”

“I- I don’t think you needed to,” Cloud replied. “I mean, I didn’t have to with Sephiroth… but our Shadows were very different, weren’t they?”

“Do you think it was a bad idea?”

“Not necessarily…

Cloud didn’t sound to certain, though.

“Cloud, if I made a horrible mistake, I’d like to know!”

Cloud shrugged and shook his head. “I couldn’t tell you if you had. You’re the only other person I’ve met who’s had a Shadow. There’s no telling how different they should and shouldn’t be. I think…”

He hesitated.

“Yeah?” Sora pressed.

“I think it smells a little fishy,” Cloud said. “But, I might just be paranoid. I’ve been paranoid for five years.” The last bit was said as if it were a joke, but Sora didn’t find it at all funny.

Oh, please tell me I haven’t made a horrible mistake.

Sora let out a long breath. “Still… why did it have to go that way? I- I didn’t want to…”

He didn’t want the fight with his Shadow to go how it had. Didn’t want his Shadow’s death to come the way it had.

“You can’t change the past, so there’s no use fussing over it,” Cloud said.

“But- But I… I didn’t want to kill him…” Sora’s voice caught on his lips. “I- I didn’t want it to end like that—”

“Do you think I wanted to sit and watch Xehanort murder Zack? While I was too weak to do anything about it?” Cloud’s voice was sharp like a whip, but as fragile as glass. “Do you think I wouldn’t give anything to be able to go back and change that night, if at least, to make it so he was still here and Aerith would smile again? Because I would. But I can’t. And you can’t change how your Shadow died, either.”

Sora just nodded. His shoulders hunched as if the words were blows. He understood. He did. He just… He didn’t like it. He didn’t like any of it.

“And since you can’t change the past, your only option left is to learn to accept what happened,” Cloud said. The confidence in his tone was gone. His hands curled to fists against the bed. “It’s not easy. Of course it’s not easy. But what other option do we have?”

“None,” Sora whispered.

Cloud nodded.

“Exactly.”

He got to his feet.

“Now come on. You should probably be heading home soon, shouldn’t you?”

Sora nodded fervently, and got to his feet, too. Cloud was right. He and Kairi could only stay here so long, before they needed to head home again. If they were gone too long, their parents would get worried. Or, his parents would, anyway. Unfortunately.

Cloud headed out and down the stairs, gesturing over his shoulder for Sora to follow. Sora did.

Chapter Text

“This is your room?” Kairi asked. She paused in the middle of Namine and Riku’s room, turning in a full circle once to get a good look at it.

Namine nodded. “Uhhuh.”

There was a thick tension in the air, despite Kairi’s attempts to ease it. Namine tried to breathe evenly, tried not to dread where this conversation was going, where it had to go. Even though Kairi was currently avoiding the question, Namine knew she would ask eventually, and she dreaded the moment.

“Heh, all it needs is another dresser and it’d look like ours—I mean. Mine. Back on Destiny Islands.”

Namine swallowed, wishing she couldn’t see how Kairi’s face fell at the words. She knew Kairi wasn’t too excited about her having moved out, and the wound was still raw. It’d been a week since she’d moved out of Kairi’s—since she’d seen Kairi last. Clearly Kairi was still upset.

“The window’s… bigger too,” Namine said, after a moment, to fill the silence. “Not that… not that it has nearly as pretty a view.”

Nearly every house on Destiny Islands had a view of the ocean, at least in the distance, behind everything else. Here, in Hollow Bastion, all you got was a view of the city, and it didn’t glow orange at sunset like Destiny Islands did. It hardly glowed at all.

Kairi’d moved over to the window, looking out of it, but she said nothing.

Namine cleared her throat.

“I… I guess I could always spend the night back with you, sometime…”

Kairi turned to Namine. She folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the dresser, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. Her hair was getting long, just as she was getting tall, and it kept falling into her eyes. She looked incredibly annoyed about it, though when she opened her mouth, it wasn’t to complain about her hair.

“Well, before we even think about a potential sleepover—have you told him?”

There it was. The question Namine’d been dreading.

Had she told Riku about her nightmares? About her visions of what could’ve been the future—not that she really believed it could be the future. She didn’t want to believe it could be the future.

The answer hadn’t changed.

No, she hadn’t told him.

She swallowed nervously.

“I- I don’t think he’s gonna do it,” she told Kairi.

It was a lie, and a lie she wanted herself to believe more than she wanted Kairi to believe it. She wanted to hide in denial. Use it as a shield against what she otherwise knew to be horrible truth. Riku would, if he got the chance. He would go through with it.

Kairi raised her eyebrows, and Namine sighed. That was Kairi’s I-don’t-believe-the-crud-you’re-telling-me face.

“Namine,” Kairi began.

“I- I really don’t,” Namine stammered. She believed it less than Kairi did.

If Riku had the chance, he’d do everything she’d seen him do in her nightmares.

“Why won’t you tell him?” Kairi asked, demanded. There was an air of authority about her, an air that had always clung to her, especially when she was angry, or when she wanted to know something. And every time, she got what she wanted. Every time, Namine buckled under the weight of that look.

Namine ran her hands over her skirt, as if to smooth it, and looked at the ground. She wasn’t brave enough to look Kairi in the eye. Especially not now.

“I… I don’t want to hurt his feelings…” she mumbled.

“What!?” Kairi jolted upright. “Namine, what the hell? That is like the worst reason not to tell him about this.”

“I’m…? Not so sure if I’d call it the worst reason…”

“Really?”

“I don’t like it when he’s upset…”

It was more than that she just didn’t like it. Kairi didn’t know what it was like, when Riku was upset. She didn’t know that it felt like all the color drained from the world, didn’t know how his feelings pressed in the back of Namine’s head. Upsetting him was like purposefully upsetting herself. With that connection of theirs—telepathic or whatever it was—she felt what he was feeling. Even if it was muted, she still felt it. It was horrible, when he was upset, though the connection did have its upsides.

Whatever that memory thing that happened was when we kissed, for one…

“Well… I guess that’s understandable,” Kairi said, slowly. “But you can’t keep him happy all the time. And you can’t spare his feelings when he’s about to do something incredibly dangerous and you can stop him.”

“I just…” Namine began. She didn’t know how to finish.

“You have to tell him.”

Namine shook her head. “It’s probably nothing.” She smoothed her skirt again, then hugged her arms across her chest. She moved towards the bed, considering sitting down.

“Is it?” Kairi asked. She pushed away from the dresser, taking a step towards Namine.

Namine swallowed. She didn’t like lying, but…

“The- the nightmares have died down.”

Kairi grabbed her by the arm, pulling until Namine was forced to face her.

“Namine, don’t lie to me, I can see the bags under your eyes. They’ve only died down because you haven’t slept.”

“It’s hard to sleep.”

That wasn’t a lie.

“Because of the nightmares?”

Namine sighed. “If I’m not having them, Riku is,” she said. Kairi’s grip on her lessened, and she looked Kairi in the eye now. “I don’t think either of us have gotten sleep. At all.”

The first night here she’d woken up screaming, tormented by the same plague of nightmares she’d been having for these past few weeks. Riku was screaming the next night, loud enough he nearly woke the whole house. He woke Aerith, at any rate, and Yuffie, surprisingly. They didn’t sleep the next night. Or the night after that. They were Replicas. They didn’t need as much sleep.

“You should tell him,” Kairi said, after a long moment. She stopped gripping Namine’s arm, though she ended up gripping Namine’s hand instead. “Maybe it’ll make ‘em stop.”

Namine swallowed. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But… “I don’t think—”

“Namine.”

Kairi saw through her lie before she could even start it. She was going to say she didn’t think Riku was going to do it, again.

“I’ll tell him, if you’d rather,” Kairi said. There was a haughty look in her eyes, daring Namine to tell her no.

“He won’t take it from you,” Namine mumbled, then bit her lip. She hadn’t realized how saying the words would turn her stomach in knots. Hadn’t realized just how complicated her relationship with Riku was. She felt like she should say more—because Kairi didn’t know—but she couldn’t find the words to explain to Kairi how Riku didn’t listen to anyone. That the only person he’d ever seemed to listen to was her. And maybe Aerith.

Not that she’d dare trouble Aerith with this. Even if she had promised, long ago, to tell Aerith if these nightmares started popping up again… she couldn’t bear the thought of telling Aerith the horrid things Riku wanted to do to Larxene. Aerith didn’t need to know.

Fortunately, Namine didn’t need to figure out how to put any of her thoughts into words. Kairi kept talking.

“I don’t think you believe he’ll take it from you, either, and if you’re not gonna do it—”

“Kairi, please,” Namine tried to interrupt.

“Someone has to, Namine,” was all Kairi answered. “We have to stop him.”

Namine felt like she was going to be sick.

“They’re just dreams…”

She didn’t want to tell Riku. She hadn’t realized until now that it really had to be her that told him, because he wouldn’t listen to anyone else. That thought was worse than the thought of telling him. It was a lot of weight to bear.

“You don’t believe they’re just dreams, though,” Kairi argued.

“Why is this so important to you?!” Namine demanded. “It’s not like it’s going to make up for what happened to Sora!”

The words fell from her lips like bombs. Kairi’s eyes went wide, and she even took a step away from Namine. Not that Namine blamed her. She clapped her hands to her mouth, instantly regretting whatever anger or adrenaline—or protocols—it’d been to make her say it.

It’s something Larxene would say.

That thought made her go rigid.

7 told me he removed all the Larxene data!

Except he’d also told her that there was a lot of it, and it’d take more than one look through her data to make sure it was gone. When the Organization Rewrote her—or, more specifically, when 37 Rewrote her, he’d made sure it wouldn’t be easy to set her straight again.

Namine made a mental note to go see 7 as soon as she had a chance.

She opened her mouth to apologize to Kairi, but Kairi beat her to it.

“You’re right. It won’t, and I’m not stupid enough to think it will.” Kairi’s eyes darkened dangerously. Namine almost wanted to be the one stepping back, now. “I’m not stupid enough to think stopping Riku or saving him from whatever it is you think he’s gonna do is gonna make up for not saving Sora. I’m not an idiot, Namine. And that’s exactly why I’m not gonna sit by and let you make the same mistakes I did.”

“Kairi, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean it.”

“That doesn’t matter! What matters is if you really think Riku’s gonna do something that he shouldn’t—or something that’s gonna hurt him—you have to tell him.” She jabbed Namine in the chest, eyes burning. “Otherwise, you’re gonna find yourself sitting around here for five months not sure if he’s ever gonna come back to you.”

Namine could only stare.

She was horrified she even said it to begin with.

She hadn’t meant it.

And Kairi’s words stung. It wasn’t easy to process them. Process the hurt in them. What they meant in relationship to Namine and Riku. Not to mention there was the roiling monster—Larxene—that Namine could feel in her stomach. She’d said something like this to Kairi before, back when she’d been Rewritten and Kairi’d been forced to fight her. She’d run her mouth like this, too.

“It never occurred to you to get off your butt and go looking for him, did it?”

“I was scared! I was scared I wouldn’t be able to find him, or that when I did, he wouldn’t be him.”

“I’m sorry,” Namine repeated.

She wasn’t sure if she was apologizing for what she said this time, or for what she’d said last time.

Kairi didn’t even acknowledge it.

“Are you gonna tell him?” she asked. “Or am I gonna have to?”

“I…”

A knock on the door interrupted them, then Sora poked his head in.

“Hey, Kai, I hate to interrupt, but we maybe need to get going?” He nodded behind him. “I mean we’ve been here a few hours now and my parents…” That’s when the situation he’d interrupted dawned on him, and his eyes went wide. “Sorry. Was this important? You need another fifteen minutes?”

“No, you’re right, we should go.” Kairi sighed, then sent a stern look at Namine. “One more week, though. One more, and then I’ll tell him if you haven’t.”

Namine nodded, following Sora and Kairi out of the room then down the stairs. Sora asked what they’d been talking about, but Kairi brushed him off. Probably for the better, Namine figured. Sora didn’t need to know either.

Chapter Text

“So I see you two made up,” Tifa called.

Kairi nearly missed the next step. She clutched at the railing, stopping completely, almost causing Namine behind her to stumble. She turned her attention to Tifa, not even wondering where everyone else was right now—she only saw Tifa and Cloud sitting on the same couch, Tifa with a smug little smile on her face. Kairi couldn’t tell if she was just teasing, and even if she was, it didn’t change how much the words bugged Kairi.

“Like we wouldn’t?” Kairi demanded.

Sora sent a glance at her, continuing down the stairs. His eyes told her get off the staircase, first, then keep talking. She chewed her lip angrily, but listened, hating that she had move her eyes away from Tifa so she could be sure of her footing on the stairs.

“Look, I get it,” Sora was saying. She could hear the roll of his eyes in his voice. “I was an idiot for thinking we wouldn’t. I already knew that. I don’t see why we have to pound it in again.”

“Darkness messes with your head,” Cloud replied, with a slightly disinterested shrug. He was leaning forward in his seat, elbows resting on his knees, and slouched over. Tifa was practically draped across the couch, looking quite comfortable. Cloud didn’t even seem to notice that her shoe was touching his leg.

Sora deflated a little, scratching the back of his head. The sound of feet on the stairs behind her told Kairi that Namine had headed back up, likely to give them some privacy with this conversation.

“I thought you were mad at him,” Tifa said, looking directly at Kairi.

Kairi rubbed her thumb over her knuckles, grimacing. “Maybe a little frustrated,” she admitted. “But just because I was mad doesn’t mean I’m going to hate him forever. Why would you think that? We’re best friends. It’s gonna take a lot more than a few screw-us to get me to hate him.” She sent a reassuring smile over at Sora, who smiled back.

Tifa and Cloud exchanged knowing looks.

Sora’s smile fell to suspicion, and he and Kairi exchanged a knowing look of their own.

“You didn’t… really think she was mad at me, did you?” Sora asked, turning back to Cloud and Tifa.

Cloud shook his head. Tifa’s smile got wider.

“Nope,” she said. “Just checking to make sure you knew where you stood with each other.”

Kairi started to say that there were nicer ways to go about that, but Cloud was speaking before she could get anything more than a few sounds out.

“Darkness meddles with the important things, like your relationships with the people you love,” Cloud said. “And though it looks like the worst is over, the road ahead is still pretty rough.”

Sora nodded, like he understood. “So you were just looking out for us.” He didn’t sound annoyed at all, not that Kairi understood why. Well, she did understand—Sora was generally more laid back about these things—but that didn’t make her any less annoyed.

“It’s just going to be hard on the both of you,” Tifa explained. “Best start off knowing where you stand with each other than let the road—or the darkness—make you think you hate each other again.”

“I never thought I hated him,” Kairi protested.

“Well…” Tifa began.

“But I thought you hated me,” Sora said, before she could finish. He shrugged, apologetically, sending an uneasy smile at Kairi, like he feared she’d get mad at him for saying it. Honestly, she wasn’t angry, just happy to see that apologetic smile on his face again.

“That was the darkness’s fault,” Kairi assured him. His smile immediately became less apologetic and more genuine.

“Could it happen again?” Sora asked, turning to Cloud and Tifa.

“It could,” Cloud said, simply.

“But if you’re sure about where you stand with each other, it shouldn’t,” Tifa added.

Cloud nodded.

“Well, was that everything, then? We need to get going.” Sora shifted uncomfortably. Kairi instantly remembered why. His parents…

“Yeah, that was all we had to say,” Tifa said.

Kairi hardly waited for her to answer before running halfway up the stairs. “Namine? We’re leaving!” she called, knowing Namine would want to say goodbye. Riku probably would, too, wherever he was.

“Oh, are you?” Aerith asked. Kairi turned, finding her walking in the front door, Riku tailing her. Kairi moved down to the bottom of the stairs again.

“What were you two doing?” Tifa asked.

“Gardening,” Aerith replied, dusting off her hands. “Riku, you mind going and getting everyone so they can say goodbye?”

“Uh-huh,” Riku said, without hesitation. He moved to the stairs, actually flashing a smile at Kairi as he passed. She stared after him, a little surprised. He was taking the stairs three at a time—thanks to his ridiculously long legs—not complaining in the slightest. It was nice to see him smile like that. Be happy like this.

“Gardening, huh?” Cloud asked, learning back in the couch. He hardly sounded surprised.

“Well, not quite,” Aerith said, amending her pervious statement. “Trying to figure out where to put a garden. Once I’ve got that figured out, I’ve still got to get flowers to—”

“Uhm, can we try and keep goodbyes quick?” Sora interrupted. He shifted from one foot to the other. “I hate to be rude, but we’ve really stayed longer than we should’ve, and I’d—”

“Oh, nonsense.” Aerith waved his worries aside with her hand. “You haven’t stayed too long. I don’t mind the company.”

Sora shook his head, a little aggressively. If he wasn’t out of Kairi’s reach, she’d grab him by the arm or hand to comfort him. “It’s not that I’m worried about. If we’re gone too long, my parents are gonna be furious with me.”

Kairi sighed and rubbed her cheek. He hadn’t needed to tell them that, specifically. A simple ‘they’ll be worried’ would’ve sufficed. He’d always spoken and acted before thinking, though…

Everyone stared at him for a long moment. Aerith looked almost horrified. Cloud’s face was a mix of surprise and concern. Tifa just looked confused.

“Why are they going to be mad?” Cloud asked.

Kairi quickly tried to answer, hoping to save Sora from talking himself into a hole. “They just worry easily and—”

“I may have told them I was at Kairi’s,” Sora mumbled, rubbing his arm.

“Sora!” Aerith gasped. She definitely sounded horrified now.

Kairi suppressed a groan. I’m trying to help you, Sora, would it kill you to be quiet!

Tifa looked like she was going to say something, and if she didn’t, Cloud certainly would. Neither of them got the chance.

“Why’d you do that?” Leon asked, making his way down the stairs. He paused at the foot of them, seeing as Sora wasn’t standing more three feet from them. It would cause a traffic jam sooner rather than later, Kairi realized, but she wasn’t sure if she could do anything about it.

“They just haven’t taken the news about where I’ve been for the past six months well, that’s all,” Sora said.

Kairi raised her eyebrows. So now he wasn’t going to be honest?

“They haven’t taken the news at all,” she corrected. There was no reason to start lying now, and more importantly, she couldn’t pass up the chance to remind him to actually tell his parents. They only reason they were in a hurry to get home was so that he could keep up his ruse that he’d been at Kairi’s. If anything, his parents were more upset he hadn’t told them than anything else.

“That’s your dad’s fault!” Sora huffed, folding his arms over his chest and glaring at Kairi. “I was gonna tell ‘em but then he goes and tells me,” he paused, cleared his throat, and continued in a crude imitation of Kairi’s father: “‘Careful Sora, they might not take the news well’—what kind of advice is that? Scared me right out of it!”

“My dad doesn’t sound like that!”

“He totally does.”

“You should still tell them, though,” Aerith said. “Sooner rather than later.”

“Tonight,” Kairi said.

“Eh, I don’t blame him, for not wanting to,” Tifa said. “It’s not like my dad took the news well, when I told him I was leaving.”

“Tifa, you shouldn’t assume everyone’s like your father,” Cloud scolded. “Not that I disagree with Kairi’s father. There is a chance they might not take it well. They don’t know about other worlds, do they?”

“That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t tell them,” Aerith countered.

“I never said he shouldn’t tell them—”

“Alright, fine!” Sora said, over everyone. “I’ll tell ‘em. I will. Eventually.”

“Tell who what?” Yuffie asked. “Uh, Leon.”

“I’m moving.”

“Nothing,” Sora told Yuffie. “It’s nothing.”

“Cid wants to know if he really has to come down,” Riku said.

“Well I guess not,” Aerith sighed.

“Can we get this moving along or not?” Sora demanded, raising his voice over everyone’s again. “I really don’t want to be rude, and I’d really love to stay, but I don’t need to add ‘being out obnoxiously late’ to the list of things my parents are gonna be mad at me about.”

“Why are his parents gonna be mad?” Namine asked.

Everyone—minus Cid—was down the stairs now, and most of them were crowded kind of awkwardly at the bottom of the staircase. Kairi moved to stand by one of the couches to allow room, though Sora didn’t move.

“He hasn’t told them where he’s been,” Kairi explained.

“Ah.”

“Well?” Sora raised his voice again. “Can me and Kairi get going or not? It’s getting kinda late!”

Aerith laughed. “We’re not trying to keep you, Sora, just trying to be polite and give everyone a chance to say goodbye.”

“It’s not like I’m never going to see any of you again,” Sora grumbled, but didn’t argue further.

Goodbyes were short and sweet, for the most part. Kairi took a little extra time saying goodbye to Namine. They discussed plans for a potential sleepover again, but couldn’t discuss much else, with Riku standing there. Kairi settled for giving Namine a very stern look, nodding at Riku, and hoping Namine got the point. From the way her face paled, she likely did.

Sora wound up getting caught in another conversation with Cloud, but he was wrapping it up by the time Kairi’d finished with Namine.

“Well, if I need anything, I know where to find you,” Sora said.

“Ah…”

Tifa nudged Cloud in the gut before he could continue with whatever he was going to say. “Aerith’s got your number if Sora ends up needing it, so don’t worry.”

“Right. Best get going then, right, Sora?”

Sora nodded, then looked to find Kairi. She smiled at him, and after a few more goodbyes, they were out the door and on the street before Aerith’s house. Sora let out a sigh of relief, but it was more theatrics than anything else. Kairi understood his feelings completely. Big families were always the hardest to get away from, especially when you were in a hurry, it seemed.

“Come on,” Kairi said, holding out her hand for Sora to take. “Let’s go already.”

He took her hand, activated his star shard.

Star shard travel was as it always was, jolting and almost like you were being torn in twenty different directions at once, before finally being pushed in just one. Kairi shook herself as they landed on Destiny Islands, thinking that Tifa’s corridors of light were much more preferable. If only she could do them herself…

“Oh no.” Sora’s voice sounded very tight. “Why is it dark out already?”

Kairi felt the blood drain from her face. “Crud, time runs differently between worlds.”

“It does!?”

“Yeah, and I knew that, and I’m sorry I forgot.”

“Thanks a lot, Kairi!”

He didn’t sound very grateful, and he shoved at her with enough force she would’ve stumbled if she hadn’t expected it.

“Well, on the bright side, now you’ll have to tell your parents,” Kairi said. She did her best not to laugh, but couldn’t help the smile that was forming on her lips.

“Thanks a lot Kairi!”

There was a sting to Sora’s voice now, and he shoved her forward, causing her to stumble this time. She recovered her footing quickly, sent a look back at him long enough to stick her tongue out, and started running in the direction of her house. Sora was quick to follow.

Chapter Text

Riku was in the kitchen, helping Aerith put the clean dishes away. Aerith had tried to tell him she was fine, she could do it herself, but he ignored her protests and helped anyway. Maybe it was for the better, Namine noted, as she watched from the living room. After all, Riku could reach the high shelves easier.

The three of them were the only ones downstairs. Leon, Yuffie, and Cid were all upstairs, doing whatever it was they did. Leon was probably reading, or writing something, as she’d noticed him doing as of late. Cid was likely working on some gadget prototype or other, or drawing up new plans for an improved canon, not that there had been much Heartless lately. Namine had no clue what Yuffie might be doing. Maybe she’d already gone to sleep. It wasn’t like it was too early to, and Yuffie did like her sleep.

As for Cloud and Tifa, they’d left not long after Sora and Kairi did. Namine hadn’t caught where they were heading, but no one seemed surprised at them leaving, though Aerith had been quite happy to hear they were going together.

Namine was drawing, besides watching Riku and Aerith work in the kitchen. She and Aerith made idle talk, with occasional input from Riku. They discussed Sora, briefly. Aerith mentioned how she felt he was… off, but couldn’t put her finger on what was off about him. Riku’d said he’d seemed more tired lately, but that was all any of them could think of. Namine hadn’t even noticed there was anything up with Sora, with how otherwise preoccupied she was.

She kept considering putting her nightmares onto paper, into her sketchbook, because then it really would be easier to tell Riku about them. She couldn’t make her hands move to form the shapes, though. She sighed. She should probably tell Riku soon, before she could chicken out of it again, but she couldn’t bring it up with Aerith here.

It might be easier… But, no, I can’t tell her about this! She doesn’t need to know.

“You two should sleep tonight,” Aerith said, suddenly.

Namine looked up, surprised. Riku paused with a mug halfway into the cabinet, shoulders tensed. After a second, she saw him force himself to relax.

“We don’t need as much sleep as you do,” he told Aerith, laughing lightly. The laugh was meant to ease her. To push her worries aside. He’d used the laugh on Namine before.

Aerith didn’t pause, didn’t falter. “But you do need it more than once a week, don’t you?” she asked.

“Well…” Riku began, but he couldn’t finish.

Namine didn’t know what to say, unsure which direction Riku wanted to go with this. Were they trying to talk themselves out of sleeping? Was he going to tell her about his nightmares? She couldn’t tell. She could never tell when it came to Aerith, and how he’d respond to her.

Tentatively, Namine reached out with her mind, trying to forge the bridge that connected hers and Riku’s heads. It wouldn’t come. She frowned with distaste.

Shouldn’t I have noticed that sooner…? she wondered, but she really couldn’t come up with a reason why she would’ve noticed sooner. She hadn’t tried to form the connection after she’d been Rewritten. But hadn’t it always been open, at least a little?

With a start, she realized she hadn’t heard his thoughts at all this past week. Nothing, not even the slightest trickle of thought, or emotion. She couldn’t say if she was relieved or not. The connection had been a burden as much as it had been a blessing.

But if it’s gone… is it gone? She wasn’t sure it was, didn’t want to say she was sure it was, not yet. To think of all the things that would’ve gone with it…

“My point still stands, you should probably get some sleep,” Aerith said, drawing Namine out of her thoughts.

“We’ll try,” Riku told her.

Aerith nodded. She took one brief look around the kitchen to make sure everything was in order, then nodded again, satisfied it was. She pulled Riku into a short hug.

“Good night.”

“Uh, good night.”

Aerith smiled at him, then headed out the kitchen and up the stairs.

“Good night, Namine,” she said as she passed.

“Good night.”

Then Aerith was up the stairs.

Riku slowly closed the cabinet by him. He didn’t turn to look at Namine, specifically, but she could still sense how his attention shifted to her.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered

Namine looked up, surprised. “For what?”

“For not saving you in time.” He played with the handle of the cabinet door, pulling it open a little, pushing it shut. “That’s… that’s what you’re upset about, isn’t it?”

Namine slowly pushed her pencils into a better position, so she wouldn’t upset them if she stood up suddenly. “What are you talking about?”

“Well I’ve been running it over in my head all day, and I can’t come up with another reason for why you’re upset.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to just ask me about it?” Namine asked. Annoyance flared through her, though she tried to shove it down and out of mind. She didn’t like being annoyed with Riku. Yet that’s all she’d seemed to be lately. Annoyed with him.

“Would you answer if I asked?” Riku replied.

Her response—and her anger—died in her mouth.

“Well…”

“Exactly.”

Riku shut the cabinet with a slam, then pushed away from it, moving so he had one hand braced on the wall between the kitchen and the living room, looking down at where she sat on the couch. Namine tried not to look at him.

“That wasn’t your fault,” she told him, simply. She could bear this subject. She could bear any subject that wasn’t what she saw in her nightmares.

“Of course it was. I wasn’t fast enough to save you.”

Namine grit her teeth. This argument again. “I was the one who thought it was a good idea to just let Xigbar walk away with me and not put up a struggle. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me.”

Riku shook his head, as firm as he always was about this. “But you walked away with him because you trusted me to be fast enough.”

Namine glared, then let out a frustrated breath.

“Do you want to know why I’m really upset?”

Riku’s face softened a little, from anger to confusion. He hesitated a moment, and then:

“Yeah.”

Namine faltered immediately. She hadn’t actually expected him to say yes. For some reason. Plus, how was she supposed to tell him why she was upset? That she was upset because he had that look on his face again—the determined face where his bottom lip stuck out in a slight pout and his eyes narrowed with a quiet anger. The face that told her his opinion was a stone that could not be moved, that he refused to believe it was anyone’s fault but his own.

How was she supposed to tell him that?

And the nightmares…

She looked away from him.

“It wasn’t your fault, so stop acting like it was,” she told him.

Riku pushed away from the wall, stepping towards her. “No, come on, why are you mad at me?”

Why are you mad at me?

It was like a physical blow, and had Namine been standing, she would’ve staggered. As it was, she leaned back in the couch, hunching her shoulders. She tried to mask the shock on her face. Looked down at the ground.

“I’m- I’m not… not at… you…” She swallowed, mumbling. “I just. I’ve… Nightmares…”

“Oh.” His voice was softer now, and he didn’t sound a bit surprised. He moved to kneel on the ground before her, taking her hands in his. Even kneeling, he was almost eyelevel with her. Namine blamed it on how low this couch was.

“They are difficult, aren’t they?” Riku whispered. He shifted and straightened to press a kiss to her forehead, lingering there a moment. “The nightmares…” He sighed deeply, his breath ruffling her hair, and then pulled away.

“It’s… it’s more than just nightmares…” Namine stared at her lap. At their hands clasped together in her lap. She wouldn’t let Riku’s softness ruin this. She had an opportunity. She had to tell him. If, for the very least, because Kairi would be furious if she didn’t. Not to mention what he’d do if…

“Yeah?”

“It’s… Larxene…”

“What?” Riku laughed, lightly. “Why are you worried about her? She can’t hurt you.”

Namine shook her head. “No, I’m- I’m worried about you and—”

“She can’t hurt me either.”

“But- but she’s alive and you—”

Riku’s smile fell immediately. “Shit…” he breathed. “She is alive.” Horror crossed his face, quickly replaced by anger.

Namine felt her stomach clench.

“Riku, please—”

“I doubt she can get me here, though…” Riku mumbled, not seeming to pay Namine any attention. His grip on her hands grew tighter.

“That’s- that’s not what I’m worried…”

She trailed off, as Riku looked up at her. He smiled broadly.

“We’re safe, Namine,” he said, firmly. “I’m safe. More importantly, you’re safe.”

Anger bubbled in Namine, but she quickly shoved it down, before it showed on her face. She didn’t want to upset Riku. But couldn’t he just listen to her?

“Riku,” she began, but he was already getting to his feet.

“Aerith’s right,” he said. “We should probably get some sleep. I’m actually kinda tired, now that I think about it. Need me to carry anything?” He gestured at her pencils, spread out on the couch.

Namine sighed, and shook her head. “I got ‘em…” she muttered, shoving them into her pencil case. Why was it her he was worried about? Why couldn’t he, for once, be a little more worried about his own safety? If they were discussing Larxene, it was him who was in the most danger.

She kept her mouth shut, though. Maybe she could tell him about the nightmares later—surely, when she woke up from one this morning, she’d have a chance. Have a chance to say she wanted to talk about it, wanted to tell him. And if not then in the morning, then surely, sometime later tomorrow.

That hope in mind, and grateful for an excuse to put it off, Namine followed Riku up the stairs.

 

xxx

 

Namine sighed deeply, shifting against her pillow. She couldn’t sleep, not that that was a surprise. Sleep had been hard coming all week, even without the nightmares.

She’d been lying awake for probably an hour now, based on her internal sense of time. There wasn’t a clock in this room—Riku had said he definitely wouldn’t sleep with it ticking at him all night—so she couldn’t cross check her internal time sense… but it’d never been wrong before. Probably had to do with being a Replica.

She sat up, sending a look over at Riku. It was amazing how peaceful he could look in his sleep. How a face that she had seen make so many cruel and pained expressions could be completely serene once its owner lost consciousness. She licked her lips nervously. She didn’t want to wake him, but…

“Riku…?”

He sat up immediately, turning to look at her. She had no trouble seeing him, even in the near pitch darkness that filled the room. Impeccable night vision was something that also probably came from being a Replica.

“Yeah? Namine? Something wrong?” Riku asked.

His words were slurred a little by sleep daze, but not as much as they could’ve been. He’d always been like that.

“I… can’t sleep…”

“Right. Well. We don’t have to.” He shifted into a more comfortable position, visibly calming now that he was certain she wasn’t in danger. “I know I told Aerith we would, but we can always get some sleep later tonight. Or tomorrow. I think we can make it one more night.”

Namine flopped back onto her pillow, rolling on her side so she was facing Riku. She ran her fingers over the edge of the bed, inches from her chest.

“I want to sleep,” she said. She was a little surprised by the whine in her tone as she said it, but didn’t have the energy to care. She felt exhausted. Nearly a week with no sleep was finally catching up to her. She just wanted to be able to sleep.

“Okay.” Riku nodded at her. She got the feeling that, even if he was functional, he wasn’t entirely awake yet. “Uhm… we can talk until you nod off? I could just talk at you. Read you something? I don’t know what normally helps you go to sleep.”

Namine shrugged, uselessly. “I’ve never had much trouble sleeping before.”

“’Fraid to sleep ‘cause of the nightmares?” Riku asked, quietly.

She only nodded.

Now’s your chance. Tell him why they frighten you. Go on!

“I… I wish I could help…”

Please, Riku, suggest talking about the nightmares. Don’t people say talking about them eases them? I doubt it’ll ease mine, but at least then you’d know…

Riku sent a long worried look at her, his bright eyes looking even brighter in the darkness. “Got any suggestions…?” he asked.

Namine sighed. She really didn’t want to talk about her nightmares tonight. It would be smart but… but then she’d never get any sleep. Her desire for sleep was much, much more potent than the need to tell Riku about her nightmares.

“Can… can I sleep with you?” she said, very, very slowly. She wasn’t sure how Riku’d respond to such a suggestion.

“Huh?”

“In your bed…?”

Riku studied her. “You think us sleeping in the same bed together might help you sleep?” He asked the question in the same halting tone she’d phrased her suggestion in.

Namine swallowed.

“It might… might ward off the nightmares.”

“Y’think?”

“Being near you seemed to help ward off the meltdowns.”

He chuckled a little. “Not as much as, ah… kissing you did.”

She could hear the grin in his voice as he spoke. She hoped the darkness at least hid her blush. Riku normally didn’t tease, but he could never seem to let this subject drop. Maybe it was just because he liked thinking about it, and she couldn’t exactly blame him for that.

“Been a while since the last meltdown, hasn’t it?” Riku said, suddenly.

“Hmm? Oh… not that long…”

Two weeks, I think. A little over two weeks. Guess that is a while, but certainly no cause for celebration. Just cause to be worried one’s coming soon.

“Maybe they’ve stopped.” The way he said it suggested he didn’t believe it.

Namine laughed, feeling that same disbelief. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

“Right.” Riku cleared his throat. “So… about sleeping in the same bed…”

“Is that weird?” Namine asked, before he could get much further. She didn’t move at all, other than to draw her arm away from the edge of the bed and against her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, too, not wanting to watch Riku’s slow and precise movements as he worked out his answer.

“Do you… think it’s weird?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I think it’s… something… that maybe might be… considered weird…?”

She could hear Riku click his tongue, a sharp sound out of the darkness. She wasn’t sure if she should take it as him being annoyed, or just some unconscious movement he made as he thought. Without their connection—she really was suspecting it was gone completely, because even now as she reached out for it she couldn’t find it—she could only guess.

“Namine, if you don’t want to...” Riku began, speaking slowly.

“I do.”

“But you think it’s weird…”

“I dunno…”

“Isn’t it normal for people who are dating to share a bed, though?” Riku said. “Or, y’know, no one’s gonna think too much about it…”

Namine laughed a little. “Riku, I wouldn’t call whatever it is we’re doing dating.”

And even if it was, how am I supposed to know if sharing a bed is normal for people who are dating?

“Well, if you wanna go on a date sometime—”

“Right now I want to sleep.”

“Do you want to share a bed or not, Namine?”

She hunched in on herself. She couldn’t help it. “Do you think it’s weird?”

Riku sighed deeply, and then she heard the slight creek of his mattress—not that it creaked much—followed by the sound of his feet on the floor. Before she could open her eyes to see where he was, or open her mouth to ask what he was doing, he had lain down in the bed next to her, between her and the wall.

“There,” he whispered, shifting to make himself fit into the tiny space that the bed allowed. It wasn’t a very large bed, and it definitely hadn’t been made to fit two people. The fact that Riku was as tall as he was probably wasn’t helping.

Finally, he’d gotten himself settled, with one arm wrapped around her, and his chin resting on the top of her head. Namine figured that as long as they both stayed on their sides, and neither of them moved too much in their sleep, this could be comfortable. Staying still required her being correct, though, in saying this would help their nightmares. She wasn’t sure if she thrashed much when she was having a nightmare, but she knew Riku did.

Just don’t think about it, she told herself. It’ll be fine…

“Better?” Riku asked, gently.

“Uh-huh…”

Namine could feel her eyelids drooping already.

“Alright. Just wake me up and let me know if you need me to move, though.”

“Yeah.”

Namine didn’t even remember falling asleep, but she did in the end. She didn’t have a single nightmare that night, either.

Chapter Text

Sora opened and stepped through his front door—it was unlocked, of course. Few people bothered locking doors on Destiny Islands. Unsurprisingly, the lamp in the corner of the front room was still on, and both his parents were sitting on the one couch in the room, up against the side wall. The look on his mother’s face said he definitely wasn’t forgiven for being out so late.

Definitely not when I said when I was hanging out with Kairi… oh man this is bad…

“Sorry,” he said, closing the door behind him. He cleared his throat nervously. The words I got caught up on the play island formed on his tongue, but he swallowed them. No more lying. Just the truth, now.

“It’s an hour after sundown, Sora.” His dad’s voice was weary, and his dark eyes tired. He raked his hand through his dark hair, just as dark as Sora’s. Had it been any longer, it likely would’ve stood up just as much as Sora’s, too.

“Sorry,” Sora said again.

“I assume you have an explanation,” his mother said. The raise of her eyebrows suggesting she fully expected an explanation, and likely one of the long winded “explanations” he’d given when he was younger, which weren’t really explanations at all, but elaborate lies.

Sora looked between the two of them, still trying to piece together what he was going to say. His father looked exhausted, the grey in his hairline more pronounced than usual. His mother’s skin seemed to be stretched tighter across her face, though whether that was from the current anger or her waning age, he wasn’t sure. She certainly looked a little thinner than she had six months ago.

His parents were both well past their prime, unlike Kairi’s dad, who was still in the middle of his. Sora always forgot the exact age difference between his parents and Kairi’s dad, but he knew it was somewhere over ten years. Wasn’t it closer to twenty? Anyway…

Sora took a deep breath, and then sat down on the floor in front of his parents, folding his legs under him.

“I need to tell you something,” he said. “About… where I’ve been. For the past six months.”

That got their attention. His dad seemed to relax a little. His mother did the opposite, moving to sit on the edge of her seat.

“I- I want you to hear me out. Before you say anything,” Sora said, quickly. “It’ll be a lot to take in, and a lot to believe, I know that. But hear me out. Please.” He lowered his head, silently asking for forgiveness. He shouldn’t have lied to them, shouldn’t have kept this a secret for so long, even if it had only been a week. He should’ve told them the day he came home, or the day after, anyway, once the tearful reunion, shower, and a good night’s sleep were out of the way.

“Go ahead,” his mother said.

“We will,” his father said.

Sora swallowed once, then went into it, knowing it was better not to hesitate, better to just get this done.

“I’ve been in another world.”

His mother made a noise of indignation, and he winced. He’d expected it, but it made it no less painful. He kept his eyes fixed on the ground before him.

“Another world?” his mother demanded. “Sora, that’s—”

“Akemi… We said we’d hear him out.” His father’s voice was soft, soothing, like it always was. It was always his father that would ground his mother, that would calm her before her anger could take her. Sora didn’t need to look up to see his mother’s tight-lipped grimace, nor the concern that darkened his father’s face.

“I know it’s a lot to believe, and I know I’m asking a lot, asking you to believe it.” Sora rest his hands on his knees. He cleared his throat. “Do you… do you remember when the darkness came and swallowed this island? I don’t know… where it took you, if it took you anywhere, but it took me to a different world, and I’ve been there all this time. I- I would’ve come home sooner, but I didn’t have the means until… until very recently.”

That wasn’t the whole truth, or anywhere near all of the truth, but he knew he had to start small. Everything that happened was much, too much to say in one sitting. He’d worry about telling them everything once he was sure that they’d believe him.

“What was it like?” his father asked.

Sora smiled a little. He could always count on his father to support him, even when his mother doubted. It was one of the things he loved most about his father. If he had his father convinced, then eventually, eventually, they’d be able to turn his mother around.

“Haru! Don’t encourage him!”

Sora tensed, looking up now. His mother looked furious. His father’s face showed little expression. The only problem it came down to, was how would he convince his father without a chance to talk to him alone?

“I’m not lying, Mom, I promise you,” Sora said, grinding out the words with effort that surprised him. His tone was sharper than he intended, a frustration bubbling in him. He pushed it down, worried. These were his parents. He couldn’t yell at them. He was horrified at how strongly the urge to shout pulsed through him, how strongly he wanted to scream at them.

Is it the darkness…? I hope it isn’t…

“Sora…” his mother began, but a look from his father silenced her. She sighed, deeply.

Sora sighed, too, a heaviness weighing on him.

They’ll hear me out, but I get the feeling they don’t actually believe me. I just… If I can convince Dad…

“If I wasn’t in another world, where else would I have been?” he asked. “This island’s too small to hide me for six months.”

“You could’ve stowed away on a ship, I suppose,” his dad mumbled.

Sora’s fingers curled into fists on his knees. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, biting back tears. “I- I didn’t…” His voice cracked.

His father said nothing more, did nothing more.

“You must have,” his mother said. “And if you did, that’s fine, I don’t mind. I just want the truth.”

“I’m telling the truth!! Kairi can back me up!”

Admittedly, saying that Kairi could back him up did little to help him, and he knew it. When they were little, they used to do a lot of pranks and tell a lot of lies. Sora’d thought them harmless, for the most part—and in reality, most of them were—claiming that they’d been attacked by a sea monster when he was really only playing pretend. Kairi backed him up all the time, too, regardless of how silly his stories were or how elaborate.

Honestly, he wasn’t exactly surprised at his mother’s reluctance to believe him, especially with the knowledge there was a spell on this island. Or, Kairi’s dad thought there was a spell anyway. A spell that made everyone forget foreigners after they left, and maybe did more than that. It was to keep the balance, to keep the worlds separate.

Sora’s mother laughed, sharply, knowing just as well as he did that Kairi’s word meant little. The laugh made something burn in Sora. He wanted to shout, scream, so much more. She was being thickheaded, and ignorant, and—

And she’s my mother! I can’t think of her like that!

He bit his tongue, trying to quash his ill feelings. He really hoped that, if they were caused by the darkness, that darkness wouldn’t be hard to tame. It was going after his parents. His parents!

Sora took a deep breath. He couldn’t do anything about that right now. It’d have to wait. Slowly he lowered his head again, curling his chin to his chest. He didn’t want to argue. He just wanted them to believe.

“I am telling you the truth,” he said, very, very slowly. “I mean it. I’ve always been honest to you about the big things, so why would I lie to you now? And- and if I was lying—” He couldn’t help the catch in his voice, the hysterics this was pushing him into. Why did it have to be so hard to convince them? “If I was lying, I’d have come up with something better than this. Like- like a crazy witch kidnapped me or—”

“Sora,” his dad interrupted.

Sora grit his teeth. He shouldn’t let this frustrate him so much, but it was hard, it was so hard. Why wouldn’t they believe him?

“I’m telling—”

“That’s enough, Sora! I don’t want to hear it!”

It was his mother who cut him off this time, and Sora cringed at the sound of it. His throat hitched. His patience snapped like a cut wire. He slapped his hands down against the ground, his head snapped up to look at them. Anger flooded him.

“WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME!?” he screamed. “WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?”

He could feel the way his face twisted up in fury, could feel his lips curl with disgust. Nothing. They knew nothing. They were a pair of ignorant fools and—

His father looked surprised, scared. He was pushing himself back against the back of the couch, as if to distance himself from Sora, from his son. His mother looked horrified, too much so to even be angry anymore.

That’s when reality snapped back into place around him. The heat of anger fled him, leaving only the cold of shock. His parents. He’d just yelled at his parents, and maybe threatened them. He wasn’t sure how they’d interpreted the snarl on his face, wasn’t sure if he wanted to consider it a threat.

“I- I’m sorry.” The words couldn’t leave his lips fast enough. His voice didn’t sound sincere enough. “I- I didn’t- I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

Tears rolled down his cheeks. He gasped for air.

“Sora…” his father began.

“I’m sorry.”

Sora fled to his room.

Chapter Text

Kairi’s dad seemed only mildly surprised to open his front door and see her. “Hi, Namine!” he said, grinning widely. The smile always reminded her of Sora; very open, very casual.

“Is Kairi here?” Namine asked. She was starting to worry she might have missed her. She hadn’t left Hollow Bastion that late in the morning, but time obviously ran differently between worlds, seeing as it looked like it was quite later here. Late enough that Kairi might already have gone to the play island, if she still went every day, and certainly late enough for Sora to be over, or for her to have gone over to his house…

“Yeah, she’s upstairs,” Kairi’s dad said. Namine let out a sigh of relief. “I can call her down if you want, but I think you can find your way just as well. You did live here.” The last bit seemed almost an afterthought.

Namine agreed, saying that she could find her way on her own, laughing a little. Forcing a laugh, anyway. She had other things on her mind than Kairi’s dad’s spotty memory. Not soon enough, she was poking her head into Kairi’s room. Kairi was sprawled across her bed, reading. The second bed—the one that used to be Namine’s—was still made, which surprised Namine a little.

“Hey!” Kairi said, picking her nose up out of a book and waving. She noticed the look Namine was giving the second bed, then added: “My dad figured we might as well leave the sheets on it, for when Sora spends the night. Or for when you spend the night. Or whatever.” She frowned then, closing the book. “You look upset about something else, though. What’s up?”

“I… I tried to talk to Riku last night.”

Kairi tossed the book on the floor and sat straight up.

“How’d it go?”

Namine shook her head.

Kairi winced with sympathy. “That bad, huh?”

“More like I hardly got three words out before he managed to change the subject,” Namine mumbled. She flopped down on the bed next to Kairi, falling back onto her back. Being here seemed to make the tenseness flow out of her, though it did nothing to alleviate her weariness.

She wasn’t physically weary, of course, not in the traditional sense. She’d slept very well last night. She was just… mentally weary. She hadn’t been able to bring up her nightmares to Riku this morning. The moment she started talking his eyes scrunched up and his mouth curled with distaste. She’d abandoned her attempts after that.

He’s being sour about it, and I haven’t even properly told him…

“Do you want me to talk to him?” Kairi asked, a repetition. Namine was sure she’d offer every time this came up, at least until Namine told Riku, or until it was too late…

Namine shook her head, partially to clear her thoughts, partially to answer Kairi.

“I want him to stop being… I don’t know…”

She wasn’t quite sure how to put everything that’d been frustrating her about this—about him—into words, let alone a single one that would finish that sentence. Unreasonable, maybe, could be what she was looking for, but that almost felt like putting it blandly.

“Butthurt?” Kairi suggested.

Namine laughed in spite of herself. “I wouldn’t call it that.”

“Then what would you call it?” Kairi shifted to lie down next to Namine, putting her hands behind her head much like Sora would.

Namine shrugged. “I don’t know… but it’s more than just the nightmares…” She let out a long breath, reaching up to rub her face. “I’ve been really frustrated with him lately, and I’m not even sure why…”

“Not the nightmares, huh…?” Kairi said, slowly. Namine could just picture how she chewed her lip as she thought, even though she couldn’t see it from this angle. “Is he doing something to tick you off?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Well, think about what’s usually happening when you get upset.” Kairi turned her head towards Namine. She looked nothing besides patient and understanding.

Namine let out another long breath.

“It’s just… he… it’s like he completely ignores the fact—”

“They didn’t believe me, Kairi, can you believe that!?” It was Sora’s voice that interrupted her, accompanied by the heavy sound of his feet on the floor. Both Kairi and Namine sat bolt upright. Namine did a double take at the sight of him, at the scar across his face, and she immediately felt bad for doing so. It was just going to be a while before she got used to seeing it.

Sora had his arms folded across his chest, drumming his fingers against his skin, and he was still ranting. “The moment that I mentioned other worlds, they just… you… have Namine over.” His annoyance fell immediately once he realized that, and he dropped his arms from across his chest. “Sorry. Never mind.” He moved for the door.

Kairi jumped up to intercept him.

“No, hang on, what? What happened?”

Sora just shook his head. “It’s okay, talk to Namine. I need to talk to your dad, anyway, really.” He pushed past Kairi, heading back down the stairs.

“What’s going on?” Namine asked.

Kairi shrugged, slowly, staring out the door even though Sora was long out of sight. After a long moment she turned to Namine, worry etched on her brow. “I think… I think he was talking about his parents…”

Namine’s eyebrows raised with shock. His parents. He’d tried to talk to his parents about where he’d been, like everyone in Hollow Bastion had told him to last night, and they hadn’t believed him. She hissed in sympathy.

“Do you need to go talk to him?”

She understood completely. This seemed much more important than Riku.

Kairi chewed her lip, clearly worried, but shook her head. “No… he’s right. It’s my dad he needs to talk to, really—I doubt my word would do anything to convince his parents, if his word didn’t, but my dad’s word, on the other hand…” She trailed off, eyes meeting Namine’s, her expression asking if Namine understood. Namine nodded, saying she did.

“Well…” Kairi flopped down in the bed again, though Namine remained sitting. “Where’d we leave off? You being upset with Riku, I think.”

“Yeah.” Namine grimaced. “I don’t remember what I was saying, though.”

“Take your time.”

It was hard to gear her thoughts away from Sora and his parents, and back to Riku, but eventually she managed. She mulled over their conversation last night, trying to remember what had frustrated her about it, besides the fact that he wouldn’t listen to her…

Actually, maybe that was it.

“Well, he wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to tell him about my nightmares,” she said. “He kept changing the subject, and it was really frustrating.”

“Understandably so. Not much you can do about that but call him out on it, though.”

Namine nodded.

There was something else, she remembered now.

“And then… when he’s upset…” She began, then paused. Is that how she wanted to explain it? She tried again. “He does this thing when he’s upset…”

“Yeah?” Kairi pressed.

“He gets… he…”

Namine wasn’t quite sure how to describe the way Riku’s bottom lip quivered in a pout that made him look angry and hurt at the same time. Nor was she sure how to describe how his negativity pressed at the back of her mind…

Then again, if our telepathic link really is gone… then so is that...

She’d tried reaching for the connection between their minds again this morning, but like last night, she hadn’t been able to grab it. She wasn’t sure if she’d say it had vanished, or if it was just… too far away to touch. She still wasn’t sure if she’d miss it if it were gone, either. On one hand, it really would be nice not to have her mood affected by his feelings pressing in the back of her mind in the future. On the other hand, it had been nice to be able to talk silently with him, along with being able to hear his negative thoughts and catch him before he could drown himself in them.

Yeah?” Kairi repeated, looking sternly at her. “He does what?”

Namine mulled it over a moment more, then settled on: “He looks like a kicked puppy.”

Kairi snorted, and Namine couldn’t help the slight smile that came to her face, too, at the comparison.

“A kicked puppy?” Kairi asked.

Namine nodded. “Yeah! Like- like when you accidently step on a dog’s tail and they get that big sad look in their eyes.”

“Ohhh, oh yeah! Like it’s their fault, and—” She stopped, the grin falling into horror. She propped herself up on an elbow, looking urgently at Namine. “Exactly like that?”

Namine’s stomach twisted as the realization settled on her, too. Exactly like that. Hurt and upset and wanting to apologize, like it was his fault, even though it was an accident, or it was her fault.

Like him saying it’s his fault I was Rewritten, even after all this time. There’s that I’m upset about too. That, and every other time he’s done it… which is…

She couldn’t specifically count any other time, but she got the feeling there were plenty of them. A couple with Larxene flickered through her mind. Those would’ve been with the other Namine, though. Or just Larxene. Clearly, she could still see plenty of his memories, connection or no. She shuddered at the thought of Larxene, and did her best to put the shrill voice and ringing words out of her mind.

“If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s yours, kiddo.”

“Kind of like that, yeah,” Namine told Kairi.

Kairi let out a long breath, letting herself fall back against the bed. Namine rubbed her fingers together.

“And… and there’s this other thing he does,” she said, quietly. “When I’m upset. He’ll- he’ll drop everything just to try and make me happy again, and frankly, it’s a little annoying. Makes it hard to have a serious conversation with him.”

“I can imagine.” Kairi’s reply was distracted, and her eyes were fixed on the ceiling. She chewed her bottom lip furiously, deep in thought. “How long’s he been doing this?” she asked, though that was just as distracted.

Namine shrugged. It was another thing that was hard to peg out specific occurrences of, but it felt like it’d been happening forever. Perhaps, even, before she was created. Back in the other universe…

“Forever?” she answered Kairi, with another shrug.

“Right.”

Kairi said nothing more, just went back to chewing her lip. The thought of joking a little, asking Kairi if she really thought she could glare the answers out of the ceiling, crossed Namine’s mind. She pushed it away, though. She’d never been good with jokes like that, plus she didn’t want to derail Kairi’s train of thought.

It was an agonizing minute of silence before Kairi finally spoke. “So… let me get this straight… You don’t want to talk to him about your nightmares partially because he won’t listen, but also because it upsets him and you don’t want to deal with that. Plus talking about them will make you upset, which makes him do the thing.”

Namine thought about that a second, then nodded. “In a nutshell, I guess, yeah.”

“Right. Nightmares, or no nightmares, Namine…” Kairi sat up, looking at her very firmly. “You can’t be responsible for Riku’s happiness. He should be able to do that on his own.”

Namine sighed. “I know…”

“You can’t go on like this. It sounds exhausting.”

It is… Namine admitted, silently. She sighed again.

“What do I do?” she asked.

“Talk to him,” Kairi replied, like it was obvious.

Namine made a face. That was easier said than done. She had to tell him about her nightmares first, anyway. And what would she say to him? She’d have to think about it…

“Can you believe it’s May already?” Kairi asked, changing the subject. “It feels really weird.”

“I guess, yeah…” Namine said, distractedly. The problem, in a lot of ways, was bringing it up to Riku while they were alone. They had their own room, of course, but there were still a lot of people in Aerith’s house. Even with Tifa and Cloud gone…

“My birthday’s tomorrow,” Kairi said.

That got Namine’s attention.

She turned to look at Kairi, eyes focusing on her this time.

“Is it?”

Kairi nodded. “Yeah. Don’t worry about getting me presents or anything, though. It’ll be enough if you and Riku just come over. There will probably be cake.”

“Were we… supposed to get presents?” Namine asked.

Kairi stared at her for a long moment. “Uh. Oh. That’s right. You haven’t celebrated a birthday before, either.” She shook her head a little. “Sora’s was back in March, but none of us were around for that…”

“Ah,” Namine said, slowly. Now it made a little more sense. Kairi’d had to explain Christmas to her, too, and that had been just as confusing at the time, if not more so.

“Probably best if you don’t tell Aerith or anyone, either,” Kairi added. “That’s part of the reason I didn’t bring it up the other night, the other being I forgot. I don’t really need them throwing gifts my direction, and you know how Aerith is…”

Namine smiled at that thought. “I won’t tell her until after tomorrow, then. She’ll probably feel bad for missing it, but she won’t make everyone buy you gifts, at least.”

“Right.” Kairi stood up, stretching. “I should probably go see what Sora wants, now. You’re welcome to stay, but you don’t have to.”

“I… I think I’ll go back to Hollow Bastion.” Namine stood up, too, and straightened her skirt. “Lemme know how things go with Sora.”

“Try not to put off talking to Riku too long.”

“I won’t.”

At least not about the nightmares, anyway, can’t put those off much longer, Namine thought. Maybe I’ll try when I get back. I’m sure he’ll want to go on a round of the town… not that I’m too keen on going… fighting hasn’t exactly been enjoyable, ever since being Rewritten.

A walk around town would do, though, I suppose…

“You gonna use one of those dark corridor things, or you gonna use the front door?” Kairi asked.

“The front door, I guess. It might be a little mean to your dad to just vanish on him.”

They headed down the stairs.

Chapter Text

Kairi’s birthday party went well. It was the four of them (Kairi, Sora, Namine, Riku), plus Selphie. It was good to see Selphie again, Namine thought, forgiving Selphie for the spotty memory. Selphie and Sora brought presents, and Namine sketched a quick picture for Kairi—another to go on the walls in Kairi’s room. Riku, not wanting to be the only one without a present, gave Kairi some munny. She seemed thankful.

The party was a sleepover, so they all stayed the night at Kairi’s, before going home later in the day.

Namine didn’t have the time, didn’t take the chance, to tell Riku about her nightmares. She hadn’t wanted to on Kairi’s birthday, and couldn’t find the courage to talk to him the day after, even long after they’d returned to Hollow Bastion.

Surely a day more wouldn’t hurt. She’d tell him first thing in the morning.

Riku didn’t even ask if they would be sharing the bed again tonight, he just flopped into Namine’s bed. This was basically the fourth night they’d be doing it, though, so Namine wasn’t horribly bothered. Not that she would’ve been bothered much anyway. She hadn’t had a single nightmare since they’d started doing it, and Riku seemed to be sleeping better as well.

At least, he’d been sleeping better until now.

Namine was jolted awake with a start. Riku wasn’t thrashing—yet—but his grip on her had tightened drastically, and his breaths were coming in short gasps, and he was mumbling quite a bit

“I- I didn’t do anything… Please, please, please, I didn’t…”

She tensed.

Larxene.

“Riku…” she said, slowly. “Riku, it’s just a dream…”

She grabbed a hold of his arm, partially to be reassuring, partially just to pull it away from her before he could constrict her breathing entirely. She wanted to sit up so she could reach him better, soothe him better, but it was all she could do to keep him from accidentally suffocating her. His muscles were tight and didn’t want to move, and she didn’t have near enough space to shift at all, let alone sit up.

Please! I didn’t—”

The words cut off completely, not into a groan, not into a scream, just into silence. Namine swallowed, worried, but was rather thankful he wasn’t screaming. They wouldn’t wake the whole house, that way.

“It’s alright,” she whispered, hoping to calm him further, to lull him completely into sleep again. “It’s just a dream…”

For a long moment, she was sure it worked. He was still very tense, but his breaths had slowed, and he stopped mumbling. His grip on her didn’t lessen, though.

And then he spoke:

“I’ll kill her.”

The words sent chills down Namine’s spine.

“I’ll do it,” he hissed, malice dripping from his voice. “I will. I’ll kill her.”

Namine tried not to shudder, though she really couldn’t help it. She shifted as best as she could to look at Riku over her shoulder, though she could move very little, and couldn’t see him as a result.

Just a nightmare, she told herself.

Just a nightmare?! Wake him up, you idiot! Wake him up and tell him everything. If he really means that—

But after a moment or two, his breathing had slowed completely, and his grip on her had lessened entirely. She could shift to see him, now, and he looked so peaceful, so serene, that it broke her heart to consider waking him.

The morning. It won’t hurt to wait until morning.

Even so, it was a long time before Namine went back to sleep.

 

xxx

 

“Do you want to play a game?”

A shiver went down Sora’s spine at the sight of Luxord, smiling over his cards. Sora didn’t like that smile. He didn’t know much about cards, and even less about gambling, but he’d played enough other games to know that was a smile of a man who anticipated winning. And this game wasn’t a game Sora could afford to lose.

“I’ve had enough of your stupid game!” Sora shouted.

Shouting was all he could do, though. His limbs were limp, though they still moved, just not of his own accord. Closer examination proved why. Strings were attached to him, like he was a marionette. He followed the strings with his eyes, and found them dangling from the hands of his Shadow.

That sight sent another set of chills down his spine, especially the sad look in his Shadow’s eyes.

He turned his attention back to Luxord, only to find it was Maleficent there instead. In his dream, he didn’t even question where Luxord had gone, he hardly even realized anyone but Maleficent had ever stood there.

“Fool boy, you’d be better off serving me!” Maleficent called, with a sweep of her staff, preparing for battle.

Sora’s own limbs moved into a battle stance, though the stance was not his own. Normally he held his Keyblade in both hands, not just one, and he never held it at his side like this.

“I’ll never let that happen!” Sora shouted. The words rumbled from deeper within him, and he wasn’t exactly sure they were his words.

The battle raged in ways that should’ve been impossible, but ways that felt completely right within a dream. Sora hardly kept track of the battle, anyway, so he couldn’t quite pick out was wrong with it if you’d asked. It was just… wrong.

“I’m doing this because I love you.”

The words reverberated in his skull. The words made the battle stagger, they made time slow to a halt. Sora turned to face his Shadow, and it was like moving through molasses. The strings on his limbs had vanished. His Shadow stood before him, golden eyes wide with terror, with sorrow.

“If you love me, then why are you hurting me!?” Sora shouted.

Even his words seemed to leave his mouth at a snail’s pace.

“I’m doing this because I love you.”

Everything snapped, and he fell. It was a short fall, only to his knees, but everything around him had shifted with it. His Shadow was gone. The nether space he’d been fighting Maleficent in had been replaced, filled with familiar images. The front room of his house. The wooden floor beneath him, scuffed by years and years of sand scraping across it on the bottom of careless shoes on careless feet.

He was before his parents, on his knees, crying, begging.

“Please, just listen to me. Please, I wouldn’t lie to you.”

I’m doing this because I love you.

His Shadows words still pounded in his mind, so hard he thought they might burst from his head.

“Sora, there’s no such thing as other worlds!” his mother shouted.

“WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME?!”

I’m doing this because I love you.

It all clutched at his heart, tugging with an unbearable pain. He thought he would explode. What did his Shadow mean? Why wouldn’t his parents listen? Why—

‘You cannot hide from me.’

That was a different voice, a voice that was more felt than heard. It felt like something was pressing on his mind, like footsteps of a small animal across his skin. Every sight, every sound, every feeling around him and within him dissolved at the arrival of that voice.

Suddenly there was only mist around him, a grey mist, and he couldn’t tell if he was standing, or if he was floating, or if he was even really there. The mist was thin and thick around him at the same time. He could see his hand just fine when he waved it in front of his face, but when he held it at an arm’s length in front of him, it vanished. Even so, he could see something in the distance, a dark form, a familiar silhouette.

It almost looked like… a wolf.

And the shape of it, the feel of it was so familiar—familiar?—he thought he might weep.

‘If you thought you could hide from me, Mahtas, you were a fool.’

The wolf vanished, then the mist, and then Sora was awake.

He sat for a long moment, at first not recognizing the sight of his own room around him, nor the feel of his own bed beneath him. Reality drifted back to him so slowly, he feared for a second he might still be asleep.

That wolf… was it… was that real?

It seemed absurd, but the mist had felt like waking between sleeping, those few moments when you were awake but didn’t dare open your eyes, didn’t dare get out of bed. Did he know the wolf? Something familiar about it tugged at him, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember seeing it before. The fact it was in his dreams—along with what it had said—scared him more than any other of his nightmares had.

Sora untangled himself from his sheets and staggered to the bathroom. He had to hold onto the walls to keep himself upright.

You cannot hide from me.”

The wolf’s words.

Had it been talking to me? And, and what had it called me? That word…

He couldn’t summon the word to his mind again, nor a concrete meaning for it. He thought he knew what it meant, maybe, but when he couldn’t remember what he word even was

The feel of hot water on his hands brought him back to his senses. He couldn’t even remember turning on the water in the sink, and with a hiss of pain he quickly turned on some cold water to balance the hot out. Normally the hot water wasn’t warm enough to scald, unless it’d been left running for some time. Obviously, he had been running it for a while…

Sora shook his head and splashed the water on his face, which is what he’d come in here to do anyway.

It was just a dream… It had to be!

He turned the water off, slowly, then looked up into the mirror. It was hard not to cringe at his own features, at a face marred. He hadn’t had much access to mirrors for a while after receiving the scar, and was sure it’d be a while from now before he really got used to seeing it.

He rubbed at his cheek with wet fingers. The new skin—much lighter than any of the rest of his skin—stung a little when pulled, but it didn’t hurt much otherwise. He let out a long breath, lowering his hand from his face.

“I’m doing this because I love you.”

Sora gripped the edge of the sink and cried.

Chapter Text

Riku wasn’t in the bed next to Namine when she woke up that morning. He wasn’t in his bed, either, not that she’d expected him to be. This wasn’t exactly strange, of course. It wasn’t like he’d never gotten up before her before, but…

“I’ll kill her.”

The words he’d said last night. Hissed in her ear as he clutched her like a lifeline. The thought made her blood run cold all over again. She tried to reassure herself. He’d been half asleep, of course, when he’d said it. He was probably just downstairs.

She clutched to that optimism like it was a balloon that would get away the moment she loosened her hold on its string. Slowly, she got up, got dressed, and headed downstairs, heart pounding with anticipation of what she might—or might not—find when she got down there.

The sight she was greeted with when she reached the bottom of the stairs nearly confirmed her worries. Aerith, Leon, Yuffie and Cid were all at the table, eating breakfast. Riku was nowhere to be seen. Namine swallowed. She opened her mouth to ask where Riku was—because maybe he was just on a walk, or doing rounds of the town, or…—but Leon beat her to the question.

“Where’s Riku?” he asked.

The blood drained from Namine’s face. The optimism didn’t just slip from her fingers, it shattered around her.

“What- what do you- do you mean he’s not here?” she demanded. Her heart pounded in her throat.

“I will. I’ll kill her.”

The words rang in her ears. The images swam in her mind. She had to clutch the stair railing to steady herself.

“So he’s not asleep?” Yuffie asked.

“Namine… is something wrong?” Aerith asked, over Yuffie.

“Oh no. Oh no oh no.” Namine’s grip tightened on the railing. It was hard to get air into her lungs. “I thought I’d have- I thought I’d have more time I thought… I thought he wouldn’t…”

And she’d been a fool to do so. She knew him too well. She knew him way too well. He wanted revenge—of course he did—and he had the power to take it. The darkness flooding through his veins… A monster in the back of his mind, biding its time, waiting for the right moment. She’d seen it before, and she knew what fed it.

“She deserves it! After everything she’s done to me, to us—!”

A hatred for Larxene, harbored in his chest for months.

The power to go after her.

“Namine.” Leon’s voice was calm. Stern. “Where’s Riku?”

The images—so familiar now, after seeing them so many times—repeated in her head.

Darkness stained walls.

Riku, bathed in darkness—she hated to see that smile on his face.

A figure, cowering in the corner—she thought she knew who it was, but she didn’t want to admit it just yet. Didn’t want to believe it.

“I- I have to go,” she said, and opened a dark corridor around herself.

Why had she waited so long to do something?

 

xxx

 

Finding her hadn’t been too hard, not that he’d expected it to be. She ended up being in the World that Never Was, or, what looked like it used to be the World that Never Was. The place was in ruins, and darkness stained the walls.

He took a deep breath in, savoring the taste of darkness that filled the air. It was almost as if he could pull from it, too, and not just from the darkness that filled in his own veins.

Larxene was in the remains of the Grey Area, sitting on one of the few couches left, looking a little distressed. The sight brought a smile to Riku’s face. She was haggard looking, hairs out of place, her cloak torn. She jumped to her feet when she spotted him. The glare of her golden-green eyes—when had they gained the golden tint?—and the sneer of her lips were harsher than usual, sharper, and they should’ve made Riku cringe. All he did was grin wider.

There was something… off about her. Like she didn’t quite have it all together.

Darkness sang in his veins, and he nearly laughed from the thrill of it all. She was slipping. He’d come prepared to face her at her top form, but he wouldn’t have to. Oh, it was his lucky day.

“What do you want with me?” she spat.

The way her body tensed was subtle. She was preparing to fight, she just didn’t want him to know that. It was a pity he knew her so well.

“Hmm?” her voice flared with annoyance. “Look, it’s not my fault Xehanort got to Marluxia, so I don’t know why you felt the need to hunt me down. And alone? Really?” She snorted. “I thought your whole little group worked differently than that.”

Riku held up a hand, grinning. “Okay. Hold up.” He wasn’t sure why this was so amusing. It just was. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I don’t care, either.” He was just happy to be here, preparing to fight her. Mainly for his revenge, but it’d been a while since he’d had a good battle, too. He’d been thirsting for one.

Larxene’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean you don’t know what I’m talking about? You were there.

Riku considered her a second, then burst out laughing. “Oh! I see! You’ve mistaken me for Re… for… someone else.”

The words Real Thing buzzed on his tongue, but he swallowed them. He’d let her guess. It’d be fun to make her guess. Make her remember who he was.

“You’re not Riku?”

She didn’t sound like she believed it.

Riku couldn’t keep the grin off his face.

“Well, I am, in a way. But, I suppose, from your perspective… no. I’m not.”

She studied him long and hard, eyes narrowing into a deeper glare with each passing second. Laughter bubbled at Riku’s lips. He didn’t say anything more, just watched as the gears turned in her head.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, finally. She scoffed, and it was angry. Her face contorted with disgust, like he was a piece of gum she wasn’t particularly happy to see on her shoe. “That Replica Vexen built. Hmph.”

Riku’s grin just widened further. Any wider and it’d split his face in two.

Larxene summoned her knives, but she summoned them lazily. “Listen, I don’t have time for you right now. So if you want to save yourself the trouble, and the pain while you’re at it, just scoot on out of here. I’ve got more important things to—”

“IT’S NOT GOING TO END LIKE THAT!” Riku roared. His grin fell. His voice shook. His body trembled. Blood pounded in his ears, and the darkness quickened in his veins, surging through him, feeding on his fury.

“I can take you,” he hissed, his voice dropping to a normal level. “I can fight you, and I can win, and I can make you pay.

Larxene laughed, her normal harsh laugh. Riku shivered at the sound of it.

“I’d like to see you try,” she called. She threw the lightning bolt before he could blink—had this been any other time, that would’ve been all took. One lightning bolt, then he’d be down.

But not this time.

He threw up a wall of darkness to catch the lightning bolt, stopping it long before it could hit him. Once the lightning was neutralized, he tossed the wall aside, and then threw a new blast of darkness at Larxene. It knocked her backwards. She cried out in shock… and anger.

Riku summoned more darkness to his fingertips, donned Dark Mode. Dark Mode wasn’t a necessity, of course, but he couldn’t resist the familiarity of it in this situation. Nor could he resist the way his skin tingled, as if just wearing it made him even stronger. The strength was intoxicating. He could win the battle with it. He could do so much more than just win.

He threw another blast of darkness at her, and then another, and another. She was quick, but she didn’t avoid all of them. She couldn’t get a single attack in edgewise, he made sure of that. He felt pretty confident he could take at least one lightning bolt, but he wasn’t stupid. He knocked her back with darkness every time she neared him.

Soon she was yelling and swearing with frustration. Riku savored the sound of it—this was going so much better than he could’ve anticipated. Any moment she’d be on the ground. On her knees. Begging him to quit.

He jumped back, well out of her reach. He crouched down, using his whole body as a conduit, gathering darkness between his hands. He could feel how it warped the air around him, as it grew and spiraled. He waited until it seemed to distort the lighting of the room, and then released it—

The force of it sent him skidding backwards.

The strength of it threw Larxene against the opposite wall.

Riku giggled with excitement. He had her. This was perfect.

She moved to get up, but another blast of darkness kept her down. Riku made his way towards her, slowly, drawing the whole process out. Larxene kept struggling to get up, and she was swearing something awful. He just threw darkness every time she moved, keeping her down with the repeating blasts.

He couldn’t relent now. She never had with him.

“C’mon,” he whispered, leaning over her, grinning widely. He pulled more darkness into his hands. Relished in the moment as a brief bit of fear flashed through her eyes.

“Let’s see what it takes to make you scream.”

 

xxx

 

“KAIRI!! Kairi!!

Kairi looked up from the game of cards she and Sora were playing. It had been one of their favorites when they were kids, and they hadn’t played it in, well, a long time. Long enough that both of them had all but forgotten the rules, anyway.

“Is that Namine?” Sora asked, with a squinty frown up at Kairi.

“Sounds like it.” Kairi got to her feet and hurried to the door to let Namine in before she alerted the whole neighborhood. She couldn’t help but chew her lip—what was wrong? And, more importantly, if something was so terribly wrong, why had Namine bothered with the front door?

Kairi hardly even got the door open before Namine started talking, very quickly.

“HE’S GONE HE’S DONE IT HE’S DONE IT.”

Kairi grabbed Namine by the shoulders. “Okay. Okay, slow down, Namine,” she said. “Calmly, now, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Riku went after Larxene.”

Namine’s eyes were wide with panic, with terror, and she trembled as Kairi held her.

Kairi blinked. She had no idea what that meant.

“Uh.”

“THE NIGHTMARES I WAS HAVING.”

That got Kairi to understand. Her brow furrowed immediately with concern, and a little bit of anger.

“You didn’t tell him about those?”

“I WAS GOING TO THIS MORNING!” There were tears in Namine’s eyes. “I- I should’ve known better, I- I should’ve told him sooner I should’ve told him I just. I don’t know. I thought waiting a few more hours wouldn’t hurt. I thought—”

“Well, what’s done is done,” Sora said. He sounded a little frustrated, though, which earned him a startled look from Kairi. Now wasn’t the time to deal with it, though, Kairi told herself. Riku was the bigger problem, here.

“We- we need to stop him,” Namine gasped. “We- we need to- OH NEVER MIND.” She wrenched away from Kairi. “I’ll go by myself!” Darkness sparked at Namine’s fingertips, preparing to from a dark corridor, Kairi assumed. “It’ll be—”

“Oh no you don’t!” Kairi grabbed her by the arm. She wasn’t sure if it canceled the dark corridor out, but she hoped it would shock Namine enough to delay her forming it. “Sora! Star shard!”

“Uh-huh!” He tossed it to her, and she caught it with expertise.

Just because Namine had insisted that Kairi not talk to Riku about the matter didn’t mean Kairi hadn’t prepared. Riku was her friend, too. She’d respected Namine’s wish to try and stop him herself—partially because she hardly even knew what was going on—but she wasn’t going to let him do something stupid and dangerous, and given Namine’s previous failure to stop him…

“I’ll hold down the fort,” Sora called. “Let your dad know where you are ‘n stuff.”

Namine glared, trying to wrench herself away from Kairi again. Kairi was quite glad she’d learned a few things from Tifa about hand to hand combat, because otherwise Namine’d have probably pulled out of her grasp by now.

“Kairi, that’s- that’s not necessary,” Namine said. “I can—”

“Too bad.” Kairi activated the star shard.

She wasn’t quite sure where it dropped them off, but wherever it was was a mess. There was plenty of smoke in the air, and it looked like a few things were—or had been—on fire. She did spot, within moments, a group of very familiar people. A little too familiar. A smile tugged on her lips. Seeing the other universe’s Kairi was a little bit of a surprise, but definitely a pleasure, despite the circumstances.

“Well great!” Namine shrieked. “We have no idea where we are! And we’re- we’re nowhere near Riku, or Larxene! You should’ve just let me form a dark corridor—”

Kairi grabbed her very tightly by the wrist to prevent her from trying to form a dark corridor again. “Tifa told me once that star shards take you where you need to be, not where you want,” she explained, slipping the star shard into her pocket for safe keeping. That done, she gestured at the Other Kairi, to prove her point. They were at least in the right universe. “Besides, I don’t like those dark corridors anyway.”

Namine looked like she wanted to say something, but she never did. She also looked like she was going to be sick. Thankfully, for the moment at least, she didn’t do that either.

“What’s going on with Riku and Larxene?” the Other Kairi asked, having reached them.

Namine sent a glance at her. She seemed to calm a little, at least past anger, but she was trembling again.

“He’s- he’s gone and gotten it into his head that he needs to- to kill Larxene,” Namine explained, tripping a little over the words. Her voice was tight with emotion. “Your Larxene. The one who- who…” She spluttered, then grunted—or growled, though Kairi had a hard time believing Namine growling—with annoyance. She’d gone a shade paler.

“Has he found her? Do you know?” Namine—well, not Namine. The Other Namine—asked. There was genuine worry, and urgency, in her tone. Her eyes shone with understanding.

Namine—the actual Namine. Kairi’s Namine?—shook her head. “No. He just went tearing off and by the time I’d told Kairi…”

The Other Namine didn’t let her finish. “Then we need to get moving,” she said. She looked like she might be sick, too, and whipped her head around as if looking for someone.

“We?” Namine about squeaked with surprise. Then she groaned—no, that was definitely a growl. “Oh, this would’ve been so much faster if I’d gone by myself!”

“They can help,” Kairi said, annoyed. The Other Namine knew Riku, too, didn’t she? It wouldn’t hurt having her. It wouldn’t hurt having any of them. Extra hands would be nice. Kairi was pretty sure she and Namine alone could hold Riku, but what about this Larxene he was going after? She was dangerous, wasn’t she? Too dangerous to trust that they could handle her and Riku without help, certainly.

I wish Sora would’ve come… oh, but he has his reasons. His parents, for starters. If he’s having difficulty explaining other worlds to them, certainly another universe would be too much. …does Sora even know there’s another universe? Well, he must know, but has he met anyone from it?

Come to think of it, has Namine met anyone from—no, now is not the time!

“What’s going on now?”

Kairi’s heart skipped a little at the voice. Sora. No. No, not Sora. This universe’s Sora. And was that Riku with him? His hair was atrocious!

Not that our Riku’s is any—stop with the bunny trails already, Kairi! Stay focused!

“No time to explain!” she said, before she could distract herself further, or before she could say anything to embarrass herself. She was normally better than that, but being near this universe’s Sora was putting her on edge. “They already know what’s up.” She nodded at the Other Namine and Kairi.

“We need to go save Riku from himself, it would seem,” the Other Namine said, so quietly Kairi barely heard her.

“Well, we’re somewhat caught up with Marlynort…” Sora—the Other Sora—began.

Kairi raised her eyebrows, not sure what in the Worlds a Marlynort was, but… oh, there wasn’t time to ask! She tightened her grip on Namine’s wrist. Namine was struggling enough that Kairi was worried she might try and slip off again.

“Not all of us need to go,” the Other Kairi said. “Namine and I can go. And Riku.”

Kairi wasn’t sure when—or why—the Other Riku had been added into the mix, but alright. It couldn’t hurt. Could it? There wasn’t time to protest, either. They needed to go!

If at least, before Namine manages to break from my grasp and goes tearing off on her own!

The Other Sora and Kairi finished discussing a bit more plans. Kairi bit her lip to keep herself from yelling to hurry it up. Finally the Other Kairi turned to look at her and Namine.

“Well, let’s go,” she said.

She looked determined. Both Namines looked a little queasy, and a little angry. The Other Riku looked like he might be a little confused, but he said nothing about it. Kairi pulled out the star shard again, and nodded.

“Let’s go,” she agreed.

Chapter Text

Something squeezed Namine’s stomach the moment she laid her eyes on the scene before her. They’d found Riku, and that was good. Nothing else was. The scene was so familiar she almost relaxed—if only it had been less horrifying.

The darkness stained walls… This was the World that Never Was, though, and not Castle Oblivion, like she’d initially predicted. An easy mistake to make, admittedly…

Riku was advancing on Larxene, grinning, laughing. The darkness was so strong around him that it was visible, all the energy in the area directed at him and through him.

Larxene was up against the wall, cowering—was she cowering? Namine couldn’t care about that detail. Seeing Riku was enough. She didn’t care who he was going after. She wrenched herself away from Kairi and threw herself in front of Riku.

“Riku, no!” she cried.

This was too much. This was too far. She knew what Larxene had done to him—of course she did. She knew it as well as he did—but this wasn’t justified. No amount of pain could justify this. No amount of hurt.

The thought just brought tears to her eyes. This was the reason she’d been so hesitant to tell him about her nightmares. Telling him not to do this was one thing, but having to explain why she didn’t want him to? Telling him that all his pain—all that pain—didn’t justify this? He’d assume she meant his pain didn’t mean anything at all, which wasn’t true, but he was stubborn enough as it was…

And with the darkness, too… Namine thought, with a constricted chest. I’d nearly forgotten about it, forgot what it could do to him. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him use it anywhere but in my nightmares…

Riku paused, the gleam falling out of his eyes. His face scrunched up with confusion. His lips turned down in anger, and his whole stance suggested he might just attack anyway, despite her standing there.

“Namine…” he began.

“Are you trying to protect me?” Larxene asked, from behind. Namine shivered. Larxene’s voice—the slight laugh in her tone—was awful to hear, even when she was in this position.

“N-n-no,” Namine stammered. She braced her hands out in front of her, prepared to throw Riku back if she had to. She was protecting Larxene, in a way, she supposed, but it wasn’t fully in her intention to. Her intentions all surrounded Riku. Protecting Larxene was an unfortunate, but necessary, repercussion.

“Then what are you doing?” Riku demanded. His eyes narrowed.

Namine had to swallow to keep her heart out of her throat.

“I’m- I’m protecting—” She had to stop and re-gather her words. Speaking to Riku made her heart thud too loud. She turned her words around, tried again. “I’m protecting him from the monster you made in him, Larxene.”

Why was addressing Larxene so much easier than addressing Riku? Why was she so worried about him being angry at her? If she should be worried about anyone’s temper, she should be worried about Larxene’s. But. Then again…

Larxene only burst out laughing. Anger flared across Riku’s features. His hand raised to strike, though he still hesitated. For now. There was a dangerous gleam in his eyes that nearly made Namine choke.

“I think Vexen’s to blame for that, not me!” Larxene called.

Namine swallowed, wanting to laugh. That’s when Riku shoved her aside and started at Larxene, a growl tearing from his mouth. Kairi was there to stop him, using a blast of light to knock him back.

Once he was on the ground, Kairi sent out another—larger—blast of light. It tingled against Namine’s skin as it passed her, filled the whole room. Larxene cried out in what sounded like pain, but she stifled it quickly.

The light faded. Kairi staggered. The Other Kairi rushed to catch her so she wouldn’t fall.

“Careful there,” she warned.

“Drat,” Kairi mumbled. “I was hoping it’d make the air a little more bearable to breathe.”

“I… don’t think it works like that,” the Other Kairi told her, laughing slightly and pulling her out of the immediate line of fire. “Mm… maybe I could try and give you some tips on—”

The area exploded with ice.

 

xxx

 

With all the ice, and how cold the room had gotten, Riku almost feared Vexen had shown up. He found, when he looked up, that Larxene was restrained by the ice, and more importantly, discovered it wasn’t Vexen. It was just a very large Blizzaga thrown by Namine. Or. No. Namine was on the ground. It was thrown by the… Other… Namine…

Oh…

Having Namine here was bad enough. Having Namine—the Other Namine—was even worse. Plus Kairi (two Kairis??) and Real Thing? Riku about screamed in frustration. They were ruining—

“Hey.”

Namine’s voice. Namine’s hands, grabbing him by the face. But something didn’t feel right… She held him as if he were fragile and her hands had more callouses than they should’ve. This wasn’t Namine—wasn’t his Namine. Her face was narrower, her hair longer, her eyes darker.

The air caught in his lungs. Why was she doing this? She’d never done it before. She’d never—

“One,” she said.

Riku stared.

“What?”

“Come on, Riku. One.”

She still stumbled over his name like the sounds didn’t belong in her mouth. But at least he knew what she was trying to get him to do now. His heart ached from the horrible familiarity of it.

“I don’t need to count,” he protested.

“Your head needs clearing. One.”

“It does not—

“One.”

He grunted. “Namine, please.” There were more important things to be worried about. That Blizzard spell wouldn’t last forever—he should go after Larxene now, while she was incapacitated, forget everyone else. Darkness wouldn’t negate the Blizzard. He could finish up and… “Just let me—”

One.

The firmness of her voice was too much to resist. He let out a huffy breath from his nostrils, but repeated after her.

“Fine. One.”

“Two…”

They kept repeating like that. A trick to clear his head—to clear both of their heads. It’d been months, or maybe a year now, since they’d last done this. Normally it was the other way around, too. He’d hold her…

He couldn’t get past six.

“Namine, please, I’m fine!” he protested. He appreciated the gesture, really, but his head didn’t need clearing. He knew what he was doing.

“Six,” she repeated, not listening to him.

“Namine!”

“That spell’s not going to last forever.”

“Which is why I need to go get her now!! Why are you letting this chance slip by?”

She hated Larxene as much as he did. She had to. Why was she making him count? Why did she think he needed to clear his head? He didn’t need to. He just needed to go up and go after Larxene again. Make her pay for what she did. To the both of them. Why didn’t she understand that? She, of all people, should.

“One.”

“Ugh no okay. Six. Six.

They kept counting.

No one interrupted them, which came as a little of a surprise. Not even Larxene tried—though maybe her mouth was frozen, too.

“Riku, your head’s not clearing!”

“Ten,” he said, ignoring her. The sooner they were done with this, the sooner he could get back to Larxene.

Riku, don’t think I didn’t notice. Focus on the numbers, not anything else. Forget about Larxene. Like we used to do. Please.

It was instinct to listen to her. To pause. Take a breath. Clear his mind.

But he didn’t… have to listen to her. She may have been the girl he swore to protect, the first girl he ever loved, but she held no sway over him. Not anymore. The numbers were hardly a distraction. His mind kept churning.

The girl he swore to protect… why wouldn’t she let him avenge her?

Larxene deserved it. She deserved this pain she needed to feel how she’d made them feel. It was only fair. Why did Namine’s grip just tighten on him? Why’d she continue counting with a fierce determination, like it really would solve their troubles this time? There weren’t any troubles to solve. Everything was fine.

The sound of ice shattering caught his ears. He wrenched himself away from her, rougher about it than he ever would’ve been before. He had to move now. Get Larxene before she got the upper hand. He couldn’t give her any openings.

But he was reckless, and he made his biggest mistake.

He got too close to her.

It didn’t matter that the darkness cloaked him, flowed through him and out of him in streams. It didn’t matter how much fury and pain he fueled into the attack. The moment he took a step too close was the moment he let Larxene take her upper-hand.

Instead of throwing the darkness at her from a safe distance, he ran at her and lunged, preparing to wrap his hands around her neck. The second he was in her space, she’d caught him by the throat, and held him there. One—or both—of the Namines yelled from behind him. One of the Kairis swore.

Larxene just grinned. Her eyes glinted with laughter. Her fingers tightened around his neck. He felt the jolt of lightning before it hit him, and the moment he did, he knew he’d lost his chance.

The lightning went up her arm, through her fingers, into his throat and then through the rest of his body. He was sure he screamed, and then she threw him back. Namine—his Namine—watched from a distance. She looked horrified. It made his gut clench. All thoughts of what he planned to do to Larxene nearly fled his mind. Nearly.

Riku pushed himself up, growling. He had to get up before Larxene got any closer—but the moment he was off the ground, someone restrained him by the wrists. Real Thing. Riku growled a little louder, channeling darkness through himself, preparing to force himself free.

Larxene laughed at him. Laughed! At him!

Well, honestly, he wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed. The desire to wrap his hands around her neck grew a whole lot stronger.

“That’s cute and all kiddo, but do you even have any idea what the darkness is going to do to you?” Larxene took a few steps towards him, drummed her fingers against her chin, pretending like she was trying to remember some piece of information. “Because I seem to recall something about you missing… a certain few… Darkness Protection Protocols.”

She sent him a knowing look. His blood ran cold.

“H-how did… you know?” he demanded.

“I don’t think that’s a question you need to be asking…” Namine said, slowly. The… Other Namine. The one from this universe. It felt weird calling her the Other Namine, because he knew her so well, and she didn’t seem very other to him. But…

He considered what she said for a moment… maybe she was right. Larxene had been there in Castle Oblivion, when he was created. Just because she didn’t have a hand in his creation or anything didn’t mean she’d never had a chance to look at his data. Or Vexen could’ve told her…

“What’s this about Darkness Protection Protocols?” Real Thing asked. He seemed a little worried.

“They keep darkness from eating a Replica from the inside out, from what I gathered. Vexen was too stupid to install them.” Larxene said. She smiled unpleasantly.

“He didn’t have time,” Riku snapped. Defending Vexen was a weird feeling, but there was no taking it back now. Unfortunately. “Besides, I’m quite grateful for it. If he’d installed them, I wouldn’t have anywhere near the amount of power I have now.”

He poured more darkness out of his body, as some sort of display. Real Thing’s grip on him only tightened. He’d have to throw darkness at Real Thing to get him to let go, at this point.

“Didn’t Vexen say that the darkness could kill you?” Kairi asked.

Gee, what a great time to bring that up. Not.

(The way Real Thing tensed behind him only proved it. Now was the worst time to mention that.)

“He said I had a few months!” Riku protested. His eyes settled on Larxene again. Though he couldn’t see it, the glint in his eyes matched the glint in hers perfectly, and her smile echoed on his face. “Why else do you think I’m here now?” he asked. “I’m getting this taken care of while I can, so I can have no regrets later. There’s nothing I’d regret more than not taking my change to get revenge.”

“And revenge is going so well for you,” Larxene said.

His smile fell to a snarl.

“OH SHUT UP!” he screamed.

With a blast of darkness he wrenched himself away from Real Thing’s grasp and threw himself at her. Someone grabbed him from behind, halfway into his lunge. A pair of small arms. Namine. His Namine.

“LET ME GO!” He struggled against her, not caring if the darkness he threw hurt her. “LET ME GO LET ME GO! I WANT TO HEAR HER SCREAM I WANT TO HEAR HER BEG FOR MERCY I WANT TO—”

“Tough luck,” Larxene spat.

She hurled a blast of darkness at them, sending him out of Namine’s arms and to the floor again.

“Did you actually think you were doing anything?” Larxene laughed. “You can’t seriously be that stupi… Oh. Wait. Yeah you can.”

He pushed himself up as best as he could, glaring, trying to process what had just happened, what she was saying. That was darkness she’d thrown at him, so it didn’t hurt him too much, but… If she’d thrown darkness…

Did you actually think you were doing anything?

All adrenaline, all excitement, all feeling of hope that Riku’d had left him entirely. He hadn’t actually hurt her with all that darkness.

“What do you mean?” Kairi—the Other Kairi—demanded.

Larxene grinned widely. It was off, somehow, but not in a good way. Riku wasn’t quite sure how to describe it. She’d been off this whole time… this was different. The grin was genuine, and just as cruel, it just wasn’t her grin. Her lips never quite curled like that, her eyes were never that wild.

This is what happens when darkness consumes a person,” Larxene explained. The darkness seemed to build around her. “I have it to my advantage now. And as for you, you silly little toy…” she giggled “…well, I’ve already said that it’s only going to eat, you, up.

If the darkness had consumed her, then he hadn’t been hurting her. Darkness didn’t hurt darkness, after all. Riku snarled, frustrated at his own stupidity. Frustrated at these circumstances. At her. At everything. Darkness had been his ally. Why had it let him down?

“FINE!” he yelled, jumping to his feet again. His blade appeared in his hand—he’d hardly taken the time to summon it. “There are other ways I can make you scream—”

“Riku, no!”

Namine’s hands, clutching at him again.

“Just let me do this!” he roared, pushing her off. “I need to do this!!”

No!” It was Kairi’s hands, grabbing him now, pulling the blade out of his grasp. “You don’t need to do this.”

She deserves it!!

“Maybe she does, but you don’t deserve what this is doing to you.”

The gentleness of Kairi’s voice nearly brought tears to his eyes. The tears made him angry. There was nothing wrong with him. There was nothing too horrible about what he was doing. It was justified. His heart was fine. His data may be at risk but that had nothing to do with this.

“We need to go,” this universe’s Namine called. “He’s too stubborn—”

Riku’s teeth clenched. She was right. She was wrong. He tried to pull himself away from Kairi, but too many people seemed to be holding him where he was. Maybe it was only Kairi and his Namine. Maybe it was more than that. He couldn’t tell. He didn’t care.

Let me at he—AHGH!”

The yell of anger quickly became a cry of pain. Something that burned like lightning but felt like darkness hit him, and again he was thrown near halfway across the room. He thought he heard his Namine scream. Kairi might’ve screamed too. It was hard to tell. Something was—

He screamed again, kept screaming.

Something felt like it was ripping in his chest.

Footsteps. Someone standing in front of him, protecting him. The click of Larxene’s heels pausing. Namine was standing before him, he could just feel her presence, despite the fact he couldn’t make his body do anything but stare up at the ceiling as he writhed in pain. The familiarity about choked him. It had to be Namine—the Other Namine. Not his Namine.

The tone of Larxene’s voice only proved it. She wouldn’t speak like this if she were addressing anyone else.

“You better move,” she warned.

She was laughing, but she was annoyed. The laughter was angry, sharp. The sound of it made Riku’s blood boil. He knew what was coming.

Move! he wanted to scream. Move, I’m not worth it! I’m not worth it MOVE!

His lips wouldn’t work. His body refused to move except to shudder with pain. Something was clawing its way through him. He felt like it would kill him. Everything inside of him was on fire, and it wasn’t from the lightning. Lightning didn’t hurt like this. Lightning didn’t last this long. It felt like something was destroying every inch of him from the inside out.

It was a wonder he could even focus on anything but the pain.

“No!” this universe’s Namine said, firmly.

“Oh, please.” Larxene scoffed. “He means nothing to you. Are you really going to take a blow for him? I won’t hold back.”

“I’m not backing down.”

The pain in Riku’s chest finally subsided to something bearable. He grit his teeth together, preparing himself for her inevitable scream, but it didn’t come. His Namine screamed instead, and that was followed by the sound of her body hitting the floor. Had she thrown herself in front of the blow? Why?

He didn’t have much time to wonder, or to ask. One of Kairi’s hands clasped around his arm. The world jolted from under him. When everything stopped jostling, he was on his side in the sand. Everyone but Larxene was there, too, all looking disgruntled and most of them on the ground.

Waves pounded in the distance. His eyes searched for Namine. He found her on her back, clutching at her chest and writhing.

Chapter Text

Namine clutched her hands in front of her chest and bit her lip. She was still in quite a bit of pain, but it also appeared to be fading. For the most part. It took her a second to register the shouts of Curaga! followed by the healing energy seeping through her bones. It took her a second longer to realize that was why the pain had faded.

Before she even had time to sit up or take in her surroundings—past the sand that stuck to her skin—someone was shouting.

“How could you be so stupid!?

The Other Namine.

Shouting at her.

Namine sat up straight, hands clutching into fists. “You were going to take it!” she shouted back. “What’s it matter that I pushed you out of the way?”

“I had it under control!”

“Did you really?” the Other Riku asked. His voice was filled with a bitter laughter—an all too familiar sound.

The Other Namine grimaced as if there were something foul in her mouth.

“It’s fine,” Namine said. “I’m fine.”

“That should’ve been me—and what’s it matter to you who took it as long as Riku didn’t?” She jerked her head over in Riku’s—not “Real Thing”’s—direction, just to clarify who she was talking about. Not that she had to.

Namine let out a short bark of anger. “I didn’t do it to save him! I did it to save you!”

The air around them froze.

Namine went pale, realizing the words that had just left her mouth. It was true, of course—she’d never doubted it was true. She’d known from the moment she took the blow why she was doing it. But she hadn’t intended to admit it.

What?” the Other Namine demanded.

“I- I dunno,” Namine stammered, her confidence—and anger—quickly lost. She shook her head in exasperation. “I just… I couldn’t bear the thought of you getting hurt.” The words felt funny in her mouth. The silence that settled after them was thick on her skin, so she laughed to fill it. “Chalk it up to being built from his data,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. She nodded her head over at Riku.

The Other Namine stared, blinking rapidly. She said nothing. No one else did either. Namine tried to hold the other Namine’s gaze for a moment, but it was a hard look to bear. Especially with the knowledge of what she’d done—taking the blow to protect her, and not Riku…

Namine tore her gaze away. Searched to find her Riku.

He was on his side, looking like he was probably in a lot of pain too. He kept trying to push himself up, but his arms didn’t have the strength to support his weight yet. His eyes were wide, whether with shock or worry, Namine wasn’t sure.

“Are you alright?” Kairi asked, breaking Namine’s attention.

“Fine,” Namine said, not sure if she meant it. She swallowed, running her fingers over her collar bone, where it hurt the most. From the looks of it, her skin was darker in that spot, marred by the darkness of the blow. Her shirt had been torn a little, too.

“Are you sure?” Kairi pressed.

Namine met her eyes, and nodded, firmly. She was sure now. “Yeah. I’m fine. It- it still stings a little but… I’m fine.”

The Other Kairi studied her. “Well, from the looks of it, it didn’t break skin or anything, so there’s only… darkness to worry about…” Her mouth crinkled with distaste.

“I can try to—” Kairi began.

“It’s fine, look.” Namine moved her hand and tilted her neck a little so Kairi could see better. “It’s mostly faded already. I don’t think I’m in serious danger or anything.”

Her eyes found the Other Namine again. Her mouth ached to say it was nothing, that she wasn’t even really hurt. The mark on her skin proved otherwise. Even if she was “fine”, it hadn’t been nothing to throw herself in front of the blow like that.

The Other Riku cleared his throat. “Destiny Islands, huh?” he asked. He was on his feet, staring out at the sea. “Wasn’t exactly expecting here, Kairi.”

“First place that came to mind,” the Other Kairi answered.

The Other Riku just nodded, scanning the horizon a moment more. Then he turned back to the group. “More importantly…” he said, slowly. “What are the chances of Larxene following us?”

“High,” Riku croaked.

The Other Namine shook her head. “She won’t- She won’t track us here, not right away,” she said. “It’ll take her a while to track us down at all.”

“It’s me she’ll come after…” Riku moaned. He rolled over onto his back, burying his face in his hands. He didn’t sound nearly as confident in himself as he had mere minutes ago. Namine couldn’t blame him—at least, not for the lack of confidence. For other things… well…

“Can she find you if you’re in the other universe?” the Other Kairi asked.

Everyone was silent for a moment.

“I… wouldn’t put it past her to try…” the Other Namine said. “But… does she even know that there is another universe?”

“I wouldn’t count on her not knowing,” the Other Riku said. “It’s not like she can’t find out. I’m sure one of the Vexen Replicas over here will squeal if she, uh… persuades them.”

Namine was caught between laughing and shivering at the suggestion. Larxene’s methods of persuasion were, well…

“Might buy us some time, though… won’t it?” Kairi looked around.

The Other Namine nodded. “At least until we can do something about her over here, yes.”

“Then we should head back as soon as possible.” Namine didn’t hesitate before saying it. There were a lot, a lot, of things she wanted to talk to Riku about, but they could wait until they were home. Until he was safe.

The Other Riku shook his head. “I think we have a few things to discuss, first.”

Everyone’s eyes trailed over to Riku. Namine’s heart caught in her throat. Of course. Everyone wanted to talk to him, just as much as she wanted to. She’d been silly not to realize that.

Riku slowly sat up, realizing that everyone’s attention was on him. He said nothing, even though he looked like he was burning to do so. He just eyed each of them, daring them to call him out.

Namine took a deep breath, trying to piece any words she wanted to say together. What did she want to say? “This was too far”—of course, but it was surprisingly hard to make herself look him in the eye as she thought it, let alone get her mouth to form the words. She knew why he did it. How much it meant to him. The thought of telling him his feelings were wrong—though it was his actions that were wrong, not his feelings, but he wouldn’t see it like that—near paralyzed her with fear.

“Well,” the Other Namine began. Namine sighed with relief. She didn’t have to speak first. She could let her words churn in her mind a little more, as she tried to figure out what to tell Riku. …if only she didn’t have to do it here.

“I can understand why you did it,” the Other Namine continued. “What I think you don’t realize is that you’re now running the risk of…” she trailed off. Her mouth worked for words for a second, before stopping. It was nice to know she was just as tongue-tied, speaking to him, Namine supposed. Or was it terrifying?

The Other Riku spoke up. “The main point of this is that you have way too much darkness coursing through your veins.” He shook his head, grimacing. “I felt it myself…”

Namine watched Riku—her Riku—as his face scrunched up with fury. Having the Other Namine be angry at him seemed to upset him enough as it was, but it was like he couldn’t take the same sort of disapproval from the real Riku. That, or he cared less when it came to screaming at Real Thing.

“Are you all just going to sit here and berate me?” Riku demanded.

“That’s not what we’re trying to do,” the Other Namine assured him, quickly. Too quickly. It made Namine’s stomach churn. “We just want you to understand the consequences of your actions—”

“The consequences of my actions are that Larxene dies!” Riku about screamed when he spoke. “What’s the problem with that, huh? I thought you would’ve wanted that.”

I do, Namine thought, though he hadn’t spoken to her. Not directly, anyway. But… this…?

This moment. This feeling in her stomach. Watching him like he was a bomb about to go off—the worst part, he was. One wrong word, and he’d explode on all of them. This, she didn’t want.

“That’s not the point,” the Other Kairi said. “We all want her gone, too. And trust me, we will make sure she goes. But toying with her and wanting to make her beg for mercy… isn’t that exactly what she did to you?”

Riku’s face darkened. His fists sparked, just slightly, with darkness. One wrong word.

“It would’ve been fine if she hadn’t been immune to darkness…” he grumbled.

Except it wouldn’t have been fine.

“You’re not immune to darkness yourself,” Real Thing countered.

Riku growled. “Vexen said I had a few months!”

“I think we should go back to Castle Oblivion and have that checked out,” Kairi said.

Namine shot a look at her, confused. Hadn’t Riku mentioned something about Vexen—or anyone—not being able to do something about his darkness for a while? She hadn’t been there for the initial discussion about it, of course (being… well, Rewritten and all…), but 7 had mentioned it, and she and Riku had talked about it. A little.

Riku growled some more and swore under his breath. Namine sighed. If anything, they needed to get back to Castle Oblivion so she could ask someone—preferably Vexen—what state Riku’s darkness was really in. He hadn’t been very forthcoming past the “yes it’s dangerous” and “no it can’t be fixed right now”. Though, if Larxene was to trust, it was definitely more than just “dangerous”.

Why hadn’t he told her how deadly it actually was? Did he think she wouldn’t care? Or did he just not want to worry her? Knowing him…

Then again, it’s not like you were very forthcoming with him, either, she scolded herself. She tried to ignored the pang in her chest at the thought, shaking her head to clear it.

“…important thing is that you don’t turn into the monster Larxene is,” the Other Namine was saying. Of course, words like those caught Namine’s attention. That was exactly what she’d been wanting to tell Riku. If the Other Namine told him, then… maybe she wouldn’t have to—but would the words mean as much to him coming from the Other Namine?

The Other Namine pressed on: “If you want to help us take care of her, I’m sure we can work something out. But revenge is not the answer.”

Riku threw his hands over his ears and dug his fingers into his head. “Why is that all anyone tells me?!” he screamed. Namine flinched back from him, even though she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, knew she wasn’t even close enough for it to be a problem even if he would. The darkness swelled around Riku as he kept screaming, mocking: “Revenge isn’t the answer! Revenge isn’t the answer! Revenge isn’t—

“Because we care about you,” Namine interrupted. Words to calm him. To tame the beast in him. She hated the fact that she had to even do this…

If you hate it so much, then just don’t do it!, she told herself, furious.

But that wasn’t an option.

“Yes,” Riku said. His tone was bitter. Sharp. “Yes you do—though I haven’t heard a word about this come out of your mouth until now—but them?” He gestured in the Other Namine’s and Other Riku’s direction. Had the Other Kairi not been on his left, he might’ve gestured at her too. “What do they care?”

“Because it involves our Larxene, and our universe,” the Other Kairi answered.

“Because it’s dangerous,” the Other Riku said. “You’re on the verge of accidently killing yourself, from the sounds of it, and I know I can’t just sit by and let you do that.”

“Because if you think I don’t care about you, you’re stupid.” The Other Namine met his eyes. Her voice didn’t waver at all.

There was a long silence. Namine forgot to breathe, waiting for how Riku’d respond. Fearing how Riku’d respond.

“I’m stupid?” he asked. There was a pause, and then he laughed—that bitter laugh of his, even though it was softer and quieter than usual. The pain in his eyes was near unbearable. “Really? It’s not like you’ve ever given me a reason to think you cared about me before. All those times you could’ve thrown yourself in front of me?—and yet you didn’t before now.”

“That was then and this is now!” the Other Namine didn’t shout, but she sounded like she wanted to. “I’ve changed since then. You’ve changed since then.”

“So… what? You’ve changed and suddenly decided to start caring about me?” Riku asked. He didn’t shout, either, but there was a hostility in his tone.

The Other Namine shook her head. “Honestly, I’m just glad you’re alive. I moved on. You moved on…” Her voice darkened. “But unlike you, I got over my fear of Larxene and stood up to her—not to say that I wasn’t completely terrified—and standing up to you was nearly as bad. But I didn’t try to make her re-live all the pain she put us through. Because, admit it, that’s just too cruel for either of us.”

There they were. All the words Namine wanted to say, laid out in the air before her. She didn’t even have to say them. All she had to do was confirm them. Nod. Say she believed the same.

“Hmph.” Riku grimaced, folding his arms across his chest. Clearly he didn’t think much of what the Other Namine’d said.

“She’s right…” Namine muttered. She looked at the sand in front of her instead of at him.

“What?”

There was surprise in his voice. Hurt?

“Never mind.”

She didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to have this conversation. Not now. Not here. Not ever if she was honest. She just…

“Namine!” Kairi scolded.

Namine tensed. “I said never mind.”

“Oh come on, Namine,” Kairi said. “You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep—”

“Kairi… please…”

She didn’t want to have this argument now. She didn’t want to be here now. Five pairs of eyes watching her. The air bristling between them. Not even the sound of the waves in the distance was a comfort. Nothing here was a comfort.

“Look, I’d tell him for you, but this is something you need to say—” If only Kairi’d stop talking…

“What?” Riku asked. “What does she need to say?”

“Nothing.” Namine gripped the edges of her skirt. She hunched her shoulders, and still didn’t look up at Riku.

“Namine, come on, I know you couldn’t tell him about the nightmares, but—”

“Nightmares?” Riku interrupted. Namine was a little relieved. She could handle discussion about those. Probably. “Is that what you’ve been having nightmares about? This?

He sounded surprised. Hurt. Angry…

“Well—”

“Why didn’t you tell me?!”

Hurt.

“I tried to, Riku, but you wouldn’t listen and…”

And?

“I WAS SCARED!” she screamed. She was tired of holding it in. Tired of all of this.

“…what?

The anger fled Riku’s voice. The hurt remained etched on his face. Namine swallowed, fumbling for the words. She couldn’t back out again. She couldn’t turn back now, and it about killed her. This was the last thing she wanted to be doing.

“I was scared- I-” she stammered. “You were… you were scaring me.”

Riku turned away, his face scrunching up in pain. He raked a hand through his hair. He looked on the verge of tears—on the verge of collapsing entirely.

“I’m- I’m sorry.”

The words should’ve comforted her. Appeased her. All they did was tick her off. She was tired of him stopping everything he was doing—feeling—just to apologize to her. The words were rarely sincere, anyway, just said to please her. She was so tired of it. So tired of this.

“For what?” she demanded.

“For scaring you.”

He didn’t miss a heartbeat.

“And for Larxene?”

Neither did she.

“What’s that matter?” Riku asked, squinting at her in confusion.

She swallowed, preparing her words. “Riku—”

He didn’t give her the chance. “Why do you all care so much about her? Huh? I didn’t actually hurt her—”

“But you wanted to!” Namine countered. “And you were going to, and had she not been immune to the darkness- the- the things you would’ve done to her…”

She couldn’t repeat them. Couldn’t give life to the images she’d seen in her dreams, the voices she’d heard for weeks. They were too horrible to dwell on, let alone recount.

“She deserved it!” Riku yelled. “Didn’t she? Didn’t she deserve to feel the pain she put me through—put us through?” He sent a look over at the Other Namine.

She shook her head. “No one deserves that. Not even Larxene.”

“And only- only monsters do that to other people,” Namine added. Her stomach squeezed itself as she said it. She thought she might be sick. “Only- only monsters force that kind of pain on someone—only monsters like Larxene. And- And Riku… Riku you are so much better than her. I- I want to believe you’re so much better than her…”

She swallowed the bile in her throat. He’s not a monster—that’s what she wanted to think. But there were times… There were times that Riku was so much of a monster. There were times when he was so much like Larxene. So many times when he’d gone out of his way to anger someone else just to see them rage—and enjoy it. So many times…

“……you think I’m a monster?” Riku asked. His voice cracked. Any other emotion he’d worn before had shattered. Now it was just pain. Like she’d broken his heart in two.

And in so many ways… Maybe I have…

The thought was too much too bear, and she couldn’t answer his question. She wanted to tell him no. She wanted to tell him no, but…

Him standing above Larxene like that, laughing as she cowered…

Other times, she’d seen him, and she’d never been sure if it was just the darkness or if it was him. There were so many bad habits he’d learned from Larxene—why should she assume cruelty wasn’t one of them?

Why should she assume that it was only the darkness, and not at least partially him?

“Namine…”

She had to look away from him, bit her lip to keep the words “no of course I don’t” from spilling from her mouth.

“The- the darkness—” he began.

“Is not entirely responsible for your actions,” the Other Riku broke in. “Did it contribute? Oh, I’m sure. But some of this was you.”

“I- I just… I just… N-Namine…

She shook her head. Pulled at the edges of her skirt, not that there were any loose threads to occupy her fingers. The skirt was brand new, after all.

“I- I don’t really- don’t really wanna talk about it right now.” She didn’t have the energy to raise her voice above a mumble. “I don’t want to be having this conversation right now. I- we… we need to go home.”

“Are you sure…?” Kairi asked.

“I- I need to have 7… have him look at this,” Namine said, rubbing the wound on her chest.

“Oh, right, I nearly forgot.” The Other Kairi handed her a potion. “Take this. It should help.”

There was no point refusing, so Namine just took it and nodded her thanks. She let Kairi help her to her feet, and then grabbed Kairi by the shoulder, so Kairi could use her other hand to grab Riku.

“Namine,” he said again, not budging. “Please…

“Come on or I’m leaving you here,” Kairi said. She held a hand out to him.

After a moment, he took it. Goodbyes were said—all brief. Namine kept her eyes on the ground the whole time. She could feel Riku’s gaze burn into her, even when Kairi activated the star shard and they were whisked back to their universe.

Chapter Text

When the sand crunched beneath her feet, Namine almost feared the star shard hadn’t worked. It was only with the realization that the three of them were the only ones in sight that she thought better of the fear. Of course it’d worked. Kairi’d just taken them to their Destiny Islands.

“Why here…?” Namine asked, looking up at Kairi. She avoided Riku’s gaze entirely—avoided looking at him at all.

“I could guarantee getting us to the right universe if I aimed here,” Kairi replied. “It is home, after all.”

Namine nodded, letting go of Kairi. She took a step back and nearly tripped over her own feet.

“Namine…” Riku began again.

Namine flinched. Looked down at the sand. Not at him. Her mind spun for ways she could avoid this conversation. She supposed she could just from a dark corridor around herself, but it just… It didn’t feel right. Except… what else was she going to do?

“Riku… I just…”

“Riku, I think Namine wants to talk to me,” Kairi interrupted. “So shoo shoo and give us some privacy.”

“But—” Riku protested.

Shoo shoo.

“This will only take a second—”

“And this will only take a minute. Go on. Shoo shoo.”

Riku eventually sighed in defeat. He trudged off—not that Namine was sure where he’d eventually go. Kairi watched him, making sure he’d move out of earshot. He surprised both the girls by forming a dark corridor around himself ten paces from them.

“Well, that takes care of that,” Kairi said. She turned to Namine. “Well?” she asked. “I know you don’t necessarily want to talk to me, but since we have the privacy to do so…”

“Thanks,” Namine mumbled. She couldn’t bear to look at Kairi in the eye, either.

“…you don’t have to talk to me,” Kairi said, after a moment. “It just didn’t look like you wanted to talk to Riku…”

Namine sighed. “I don’t,” she said. “I should… I just…”

Now she’d worried him. More than worried him. She should really talk to him, to make sure he knew everything was okay… except… everything wasn’t okay. No, she didn’t really think he was a monster, and the least she should do is go clarify that with him. But, as for everything else…

She was tired of this routine.

“It’s… it’s exhausting,” she mumbled, more to herself than Kairi.

“What is?” Kairi asked.

“This… Me and Riku… It’s…” Namine shifted from foot to foot. Tugged at the edges of her skirt. “It’s exhausting,” she repeated, unsure of what else to say.

It was a relief to say it, though. Like a weight had been lifted from her chest. After a deep breath, she kept going.

“I feel- I feel like I’m being crushed by his need for me to be happy. His need to stay in my good graces. I… mmhg…” She smoothed her skirt down—not that it needed smoothing, it was just the action of running her hands down it that soothed her. “I’m so tired of it, and- and I know that I basically just told him that I think he’s a monster… and…” Her confidence fled. “And maybe I’m… overreacting….”

“Look,” Kairi clapped a hand against her shoulder, squeezing it a little. “The way I see it… you did just basically call him a monster and he’s got every right to be upset about that. But… you said this has been happening forever. Or basically forever. Him being upset about you being upset, I mean.”

“Yeah,” Namine agreed, not that she’d needed Kairi to specify. She sighed. “I think it’d be a little easier to stomach if I didn’t always feel like he was more upset about me being upset than why I was upset…”

Kairi squeezed her shoulder a little tighter. Namine grimaced.

“Because, I mean, I don’t know how many times someone told him that what he was doing to Larxene—or trying to do—was wrong,” she continued. “But he didn’t seem to care until I was the one who said it. And then- and then it felt like he was only apologizing to make me happy. He wasn’t really sorry about Larxene—I know he wasn’t!”

Honestly, she didn’t expect him to ever be sorry about what he’d tried to do to Larxene.

“Well…” Kairi drummed her fingers against Namine’s shoulder. “If you’re upset about this. Tired of this. Then you need to fix it.”

Namine looked at Kairi, remembering that she had to look up. Kairi’d grown taller by quite a bit since the last time she’d seen her, before the World that Never Was. It was going to take her a while to get used to, just like seeing Sora with that scar was. Namine swallowed, trying to drag her attention back to the actual matter at hand.

“…how do I do that?” she asked.

Kairi shrugged. “You just gotta tell him what’s wrong. There’s really nothing else you can do.”

“And…. when he gets upset?”

“I… I don’t have any advice for that.”

Namine let out a long breath, and hung her head.

“Not even an offer to do it for me…?” she asked, weakly, more joking than anything else.

“Namine, I’d love to,” Kairi said. “But it was one thing when I was just telling him not to do something incredibly dangerous and stupid—I can’t tell him that there’s something wrong with your relationship. He’s gotta hear that from you.”

“Figures…”

Kairi shifted so she was standing in front of Namine. “Hey, chin up. Look at me.” She reached out, tilting Namine’s head up with her fingers. Once she’d done that, and was satisfied Namine wasn’t going to look back down, she grabbed Namine by both shoulders, squeezing them tightly. “You’re strong, Namine. You are so, so, so strong. You can do this, alright? Deep breath… good!”

Namine waited a second, regulating her breaths until Kairi let go of her.

“I…. don’t think I want to do it now, though,” she said.

Kairi studied her a second, cocking he head to the side as she considered that. “Mm… I guess you don’t have to do it now… but, the longer you put it off, the harder it’s gonna be.”

Namine nodded. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “Once I’ve sorted out what I want to say to him.”

“If you want me for moral support or anything just lemme know.”

“I will…. Well… I should get going. I still need to have 7 look at this.” Namine’s fingers trailed over the wound absentmindedly. It still stung, just slightly, especially when her fingers brushed it.

Kairi reached out, her fingers meeting Namine’s on the wound. She traced the wound with care, as if fearing hurting Namine any more. Namine bit her tongue to avoid grimacing too much with discomfort.

“I could always…?” Kairi began, but trailed off uncertainly.

Namine shook her head. “You’re not that good at healing and you know it.”

Kairi grimaced, but didn’t deny it. After a second, she pulled her hand away. Namine smiled at her. “I’ll, uh, I’ll let you know,” she said. She took a step back, away from Kairi, preparing to form a dark corridor.

“Ah, wait real quick,” Kairi said. Namine paused. “Are you two… like… dating?

Namine frowned in surprise at the question—she hadn’t expected anything like it—but her shock and confusion didn’t stop the color from rising in her cheeks. “Well. Uh. I- I mean.” She cleared her throat. How to put it? She and Riku weren’t dating in the traditional sense, but… “Well we… haven’t done any, y’know, dating. Anything. But, uh…” She cleared her throat again. Her cheeks felt very hot. “I love him. And he loves me. And… I guess… I guess what that comes down to.”

“Well I didn’t figure you’d done any ‘dating things’,” Kairi said. She was giving Namine a wry look that made her turn even redder. “I just wanted to be clear on you loving him.”

“I- I don’t see why that- why that matters.”

Kairi’s wry look vanished completely. “The more you love him, the more this has gotta change, that’s all—and the more you love him, unfortunately, the harder it’s gonna be. Trust me. I know.”

Namine swallowed. She didn’t have to ask to know what Kairi was talking about.

Kairi smiled reassuringly, then. “Chin up, though! You can do it.”

Namine nodded. She formed a dark corridor.

 

xxx

 

“Namine…”

She cringed at the sound of Riku’s voice, though she regretted it the moment she did. He’d been waiting for her in Castle Oblivion. How he’d managed to predict where she’d head and make sure to be waiting not ten feet from her arrival spot was a mystery. But there he was, pushing off from the wall, heading over to her. His face was still scrunched up in that expression between pain and sorrow—an expression that, unfortunately, did look very much like a kicked puppy. (Curse Kairi for painting that mental image so clearly for her!)

“I- I don’t want to talk right now,” she stammered, taking a step away from him, directing her gaze over his shoulder. If she had her sketchbook, she’d hug it to her chest. She hugged her arms to her chest instead. “I- I still need to… need to figure out what I want to say. I need some- some more time to process this. I need…”

“Can you answer one thing?”

His voice was even when he cut her off. His hands were trembling at his sides.

She studied him a long moment, though not quite directly. She couldn’t stand looking at him directly for long. Finally, slowly, she said:

“Depends on the question.”

He swallowed.

“…do you really think I’m a monster?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. No, I don’t, not really, but… But…

“Riku... I’m- I’m sorry, that’s not… that’s not an easy question to answer…”

“So you do think I’m one!” His voice only raised slightly at the accusation—largely, he just sounded relieved to have an answer.

“I didn’t say that,” Namine argued. She tried to be patient as she spoke, but her voice still got louder as the words left her lips, still shook with frustration. Him jumping to conclusions like this, not giving her a chance to explain herself—especially when it was threatening his feelings—that was another to add to the list of things she was getting really tired of.

Riku’s eyes narrowed. “Namine, this shouldn’t be a question you have to think about. And if you do have to think about it, then that means, yes, you do think I’m a monster. You’re just trying to find the kindest words to break it to me in.”

“Riku—”

“Don’t bother.” He interrupted her with a slight shake of his head, with a raise of his hand to signal her to stop. “I don’t need kind words. In fact, I’d rather you just yell at me. Go on. Say it. I’m a mons—”

Stop that!” Namine shouted. She dropped her arms from her chest. She wished he’d stop looking at her like that. She wished he wasn’t having this conversation. Wished she was anywhere but in this black hole of a moment.

At least her yelling disarmed him enough to give her a moment to gather her thoughts.

“I- I don’t think you’re a monster,” she said, as firmly as she could manage. “Or… I don’t want to believe you are. I don’t, Riku! But- but sometimes…”

She took a deep breath. Took another. Had the air in this place always been so hard to breathe? Had the white of its walls always bugged her eyes so much? Her gaze kept trailing back to Riku, the dark clothes he was wearing a stark relief to the burning white of the rest of the Castle. Except looking at Riku just made her stomach churn…

“Sometimes?” Riku prompted. The snarl of his lips was angry. Impatient.

“It’s… it’s like…” she tried, but couldn’t find the words.

She tore her eyes away from him, squinting so that the white walls behind him didn’t hurts as much. She hugged her arms to her chest again. Her palm pressed against the wound, and she near jumped from the shock—and pain—of it.

That’s when the right words hit her. She gagged at the thought of them, and the memories that came with them, but they were words he’d understand.

She wet her lips. Swallowed. “Y-y’know how… when… when I was Rewritten?” she asked. “You said- you said it was like Larxene in my body. Her voice coming out of my mouth. That’s- that’s what it’s like with you, sometimes.”

It wasn’t easy to get out. The memories pounded in her head. The things she’d done when Rewritten. The things she’s said to him. The snarl that formed on Riku’s face when he realized what had happened, why she was acting how she was. Feeling like Larxene had been sickening enough. Having Riku nearly kill her for it was just as bad.

She swallowed again. Pressed on, though each word was like agony in her throat.

“Sometimes- sometimes you… sometimes all that comes out of you is her. Her- her cruelty. Her words.” Namine didn’t clarify that by her she meant Larxene. She didn’t need to. “Sometimes the line between you and her is blurred. Sometimes I can’t- I can’t see if there even is a line separating you from a monster…”

Her heart jumped to throat as she finished speaking. She hunched her shoulders, clutching herself tighter, trying not to double over. She really was going to vomit—or it sure felt like she would. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. The silence that surrounded the two of them was much worse than her words. Waiting for Riku to say something.

“I…” he began, but he didn’t finish.

“I need to talk to 7.”

It killed her to leave it at that. To leave without letting him respond. But she couldn’t bear his face anymore. Couldn’t bear how his lips quivered. How it looked like she’d just shattered everything his world was about.

She couldn’t bear meaning that much to him anymore.

“The more you love him, the harder it’s gonna be…”

She turned her back on him.

“Namine! Wait!”

Please…” She didn’t turn around. “I need more time to sort this out. I need- I need more time to get my thoughts together, Riku, and- and I can’t…”

…can’t do that with you looking at me like this.

She started walking. The walking soon became a run as he called after her again, and again, and again.

Chapter Text

Namine was surprised—though quite relieved—to see Vexen sitting at the other computer in 7’s room. He explained that 7 made good company, though he didn’t say what he needed the company for, or even what he was busy typing up on the computer.

Namine didn’t find it in her to care what he was doing, though. “Vexen, can I ask you something?”

“Mm? Oh, yes.” He looked up at her, squinting a little, looking quite distracted. His eyes narrowed after a second of studying her longer. “Wait a minute. Are you hurt?”

Namine cursed under her breath and moved her hand to cover the wound. It was no use. 7 was there in seconds, tugging her hand away.

“Namine… let me see… if you’re hurt—”

“It was a blast of darkness,” Namine mumbled. There was no point in resisting 7.

Vexen’s eyes narrowed even further. “From what?”

Namine shook her head. “That’s a long story, and I have a slightly more important question for you.”

“You need to get repaired first,” 7 insisted.

“I’m a little more worried about the darkness having any… negative side effects on my data or whatever.”

“Mm… it shouldn’t—but I’ll run a scan on you while you talk to Vexen. Sit.”

Namine sat on the cot closest to 7. It was exhausting to argue with him—which was probably why he was so good at his job as a Medic.

“About… Riku’s darkness?” Namine began.

Vexen let out a long breath.

“How much did he tell you?”

“Just that it was dangerous but you couldn’t do anything to fix it,” Namine said. “Kairi also mentioned it could kill him—which he didn’t mention.”

She considered mentioning what Larxene had said, too, but decided against it. She hardly knew what to say to Riku about the matter. Dragging Vexen into the mess would only complicate things.

“Well… it can’t kill him, exactly,” Vexen began.

“Yes it can!” 7 argued.

“It can’t any time soon,” Vexen corrected, sending a glare at 7. “We do have a few months before it’s going to reach deadly levels, which should be enough time for me to translate his Code into something the computers of this universe will recognize. Then we can fix it.”

“Can’t you just… take him to the other universe and install the protocols there?” Namine asked. Once she’d said it she realized the flaw in that plan. The other universe. Like getting Riku over there would be easy.

“I’d rather not make him go to the other universe,” Vexen replied, confirming her thoughts. “It has too many bad memories—and besides, there’s a chance we may not have the option to hop over there to fix his data whenever we please in the future. I’d like to be prepared for such occasion.”

“You could just install the protocols and then worry about translating his Code,” 7 said. From the sounds of it, he and Vexen had been having this argument for a while.

Vexen shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Well… yes… technically, I could…” He cleared his throat. “But I would still rather avoid having to take him to the other universe if possible—and even if I didn’t want to avoid that, he won’t listen to me on the matter until it’s life or death. So unless you’d like to talk to him about it, Namine.”

She grimaced. She could hardly talk to him about anything, lately. She doubted she’d be able to convince him to go to the other universe. Or, go to the universe for something that didn’t involve revenge on Larxene. Hopefully he was over revenge, now. Had leaving him alone been a good idea…?

“You never did answer how you got hurt, Namine,” 7 said, interrupting her thoughts.

Namine stared for a long moment—definitely a second or two too long.

“It was a Heartless,” she lied.

Neither of the Vexens looked like they believed her, but neither pressed the matter. Vexen pushed himself to his feet.

“I’m assuming Riku’s been using darkness excessively, recently, yes?” he asked. “Considering you’re worried about it.”

Namine nodded.

“I’ll go talk to him, then,” Vexen said. “I need to, at the very least, talk him into letting me scan his data again. While he isn’t in any immediate danger—or he shouldn’t be—excessive use of darkness will only hasten matters…”

He left, grumbling as he went.

7 cleared his throat. “Should we do another round of Larxene data checking?” he asked. “You’re clear, by the way. No damage from the blast, outside of the expected ones. Just as it should be, with the Darkness Protection Protocols installed.”

That sounded like a dig at Vexen, not that Namine knew what good it did, seeing as Vexen was no longer in the room.

“Good, and yes,” Namine said. “I’d like that.”

She didn’t expect to get any more thinking about what she was going to tell Riku done while 7 looked at her data, but she was more than eager to put off the inevitable conversation with Riku for a little longer. Vexen was going to go talk to Riku, so the matter of him being alone wasn’t a problem anymore. She could wait.

“You know the drill,” 7 said, flashing a smile at her. “Go on and lie down.”

 

xxx

 

“There you are.”

Riku looked up, and then had to suppress a groan at the sight of Vexen.

“What are you still doing here?” he asked. “I thought you, of all people, would’ve left this stupid Castle by now.”

Vexen’s mouth twitched. Riku couldn’t tell if he was smiling or grimacing.

“I’m working on translating your Code, remember?” Vexen said. “Speaking of, Namine said you’d been using a lot of excess darkness, lately?”

Riku grunted. Quick to get to the point, as always. He thought about lying—saying no—but darkness still sparked at his fingertips, defying him. Plus, Vexen was more likely to believe Namine than him… unfortunately…

“What of it?” he asked.

“‘What of it’?” Vexen scoffed. “Riku! You know fully well that too much use of it will only put you more at risk—”

“Look, don’t worry about it! I don’t intend to use it much more, anyway. I’ve got nothing to use it on…”

“Oh?”

Riku turned away from Vexen’s raised eyebrows and curious tone. He didn’t want to tell Vexen about Larxene—Well, maybe if he’d actually managed to kill Larxene. He would’ve told Vexen then. When he had something to show for it. But now? He didn’t want to displease Vexen like he’d displeased Namine—and honestly, he wasn’t sure if Vexen would be more displeased by what he’d tried to do, or the fact that he’d failed…

The sound of a dark corridor opening saved him from having to answer.

Riku looked up at it, a little confused, and then every muscle in his body stopped working. That was Larxene! How did she get here so fast? He tried to pull a little darkness to him—at least, for defense—but it all seemed to flee from him.

“How many Larxene Replicas are still alive?” Vexen asked, sounding completely unworried.

It was a miracle Riku could get his mouth working. “Th-th-that’s not one of them,” he stammered. “I-It’s her!

Since the darkness had failed him—again—Riku thought about throwing himself behind Vexen, using Vexen as a shield. It was cowardly, sure, but Riku didn’t care. In fact, the only reason he didn’t do it was because his limbs wouldn’t respond to him.

“That’s…?” Vexen began, but he didn’t finish. “Why is she here?” he asked, instead. He sounded quite worried, now, and threw a hasty look at Riku before returning his attention to Larxene. “What did you do?

“I- I may have tried to kill her…?”

“And you didn’t go through with it!?”

“Well—”

“NEVER MIND. There isn’t time.” Vexen moved to stand in front of Riku, shoving Riku behind him. “Go! Get out of here!”

As much as Riku wanted to do, all he could do was stare. His mind was reeling. Panic was choking him. Larxene, here! Vexen, helping? But he’d never—

“I said get out of here!” Vexen repeated, when he saw that Riku hadn’t moved.

“Wh- why are? Why—”

“Do you expect me to just stand here and let her find you?” Vexen looked furious, but he still kept half an eye on Larxene. “Trust me, I’ve had far enough of doing that. Now go before I shove you through a dark corridor myself!”

Panic overruled the confusion. Riku formed a dark corridor around himself.

Chapter Text

Riku tripped over his own feet as he stumbled out of the dark corridor, and fell onto the ground. Tears of relief welled up in his eyes at the sight of Aerith’s living room—Aerith, pacing, Cid, reading, Yuffie… well, he couldn’t tell what she’d been doing, but she was currently leaning over the back of the couch to look at him. Riku’s muscles gave way, then, and he fell onto his back, but he didn’t even notice. He was safe!

Then the relief turned back to panic, washing through him like ice water. He was safe—yes—but only for the moment. Larxene could find him any minute, and when she did… oh he was in for a world of pain. If he lived.

If I live… ha! A nervous giggle bubbled out of his mouth. He could die. He would die, if Larxene found him, unless some miracle happened. And Larxene was, eventually, going to find him…

Vexen could only buy so much time.

Riku’s panicked laughter fell to a grimace at the thought of Vexen. Vexen, protecting him. Vexen! Why did Vexen even care? He’d never cared before…

“Do you expect me to just stand by and let her find you? Trust me, I’ve had far enough of doing that!”

He’d never—

“Riku…?”

Aerith’s voice.

He turned his head to look at her. It looked like she’d just stopped pacing, and now she was regarding him with a worried expression.

“The hell you been?” Cid demanded.

Right. Right. He’d left here early this morning to go after Larxene—it felt like an eternity ago. But he’d left before anyone’d been up… so no one should’ve been this worried…

Unless Namine’d vanished, too. Waking up and finding both of them gone would’ve probably worried everyone, though he can’t have said he’d expected anyone to be worried this much.

“Yeah, and where’s Namine?” Yuffie asked. “I mean, after she ran off this morning…”

Oh, that would explain it, also. Namine’d panicked upon finding him gone—that wasn’t a surprise, at least—and she’d worried everyone else…

…and oh, he was in so much trouble when Larxene found him. He could almost feel the electricity dancing through his body. Could almost feel the pain that was coming.

“N-Namine’s okay,” he said, trying to distract his mind from Larxene. Namine should be okay. Yes, she was in Castle Oblivion, where Larxene (currently) was, but Larxene was after him. She wouldn’t stay there long. Hopefully. And 7 was definitely with Namine right now, and he could (almost) count on Vexen protect her.

Ugh, and there was Vexen to think about, too!

Riku’s mind wouldn’t stop spinning. He reached up and buried his face in his hands.

“What’s got you all in a panic, then?” Leon asked. He was standing somewhere by Aerith, judging by the direction his voice came from. “I think that’s a little more important.”

It was. Riku took a few shuddering breaths. The sounds didn’t want to leave his lips.

“L- L- Larxene’s after- after m-me,” he managed, finally.

“…who’s that?” Yuffie asked.

Who’s that? It was such an innocent question, and it almost sent Riku into a laughing fit. Who’s that? How was he supposed to sum up all of Larxene in an answer to that question? How was he supposed to sum up not just her cruelty, her attitude, her position in the Organization he used to—unwillingly—work for, along with the countless hours she called punishment? Countless hours of lightning coursing through his veins, of screaming at the top of his lungs, of her laughter ringing in his ears.

He didn’t need to find the words, though—he didn’t get a chance. Aerith dropped to her knees beside him, pulling him into her arms and wrapping him into a hug.

“You’re okay,” she whispered. “I promise. I promise she isn’t going to get you here. You’re safe here. You’re safe.”

He shivered, caught between surprise and sobbing with relief. Safe. He was safe. He didn’t realize his heart had been pounding until it was slowing.

“Who’s this Larxene character, huh?” Cid asked. “An’ wha’sit about her that’s got you so worked up?”

“Yeah, I thought you weren’t afraid of anything,” Yuffie added.

He laughed a little, with relief. Everything felt so normal. So wonderful. Safe.

“L-L-Larxene is a whole- d-different k-kind of… k-k-kind of—”

The words caught on his tongue. He wanted to say monster, but Namine’s words rang in his ears.

“It’s not that I think you’re a monster—I don’t want to! But sometimes the line between you and her is blurred and…”

And saying Larxene was a monster was like admitting he, himself, was one.

“What’s more important is why she’s here,” Leon said.

Riku coughed. “I- I may have- I- I uh. M-might have tr-tried to k-kill her,” he stammered. Telling Vexen had been easy. Telling everyone here, however? That was a thousand times more nerve-wracking. If Namine’d acted so negatively towards it, how would they…?

Aerith grunted in discomfort. “Mm… revenge isn’t…”

“…isn’t the answer,” he finished. “I- I know.”

That’s what everyone else had told him. He was still a little bitter about it—answer or not, it was a damn good idea—but he couldn’t complain to Aerith about it.

“How long before she gets ‘ere?” Cid asked.

Riku shifted in Aerith’s arms, shifted so he was sitting up. She shifted with him—one arm still wrapped around him, the other falling into his lap.

Riku met Cid’s eyes. “I- I dunno. I- I mean…” He licked his lips. “She- she f-found me in- in Castle Oblivion r-really quickly, bu-but she doesn’t even know about… about here…”

Plus Vexen’s distracting her. Standing up for me. Protecting me…

The thought made his stomach churn. It was too much to think about. He pushed it aside.

“It’ll be safer to count on her showing up,” Leon said.

Yuffie nodded. “Yeah, and maybe you should wait upstairs, huh, Riku? So that she won’t know you’re here when she shows up. If she shows up.” She shrugged. It was a little bit of a surprise—to Riku, at least—to hear that from her, but no one argued against her.

“Y-you guys are…? You’ll…?”

Protect me?, Riku wanted to finish, but saying the words out loud was too much.

First Vexen, and now them.

Actually… First Namine—the other Namine, and his Namine. And Kairi. And then Vexen and then…

It really was too much to take in. He swallowed. Tried not to shiver.

He’d never hoped to expect anyone to divert Larxene’s wrath from him. But here he was...

“O’course!” Cid broke into a grin, chuckling a little. “Shouldn’ be tha’ hard, right? All we gotteh do is… keep her out?” He looked at Leon, expectantly, who nodded.

“We can take her!” Yuffie declared. “It’ll be four against one!”

Aerith smiled at him “You hear that, Riku? We’ll protect you. She’s not gonna hurt you.”

“Th-thank you…” Riku muttered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Leon said. “It’s the least we can do.”

Aerith nodded, and pushed him to his feet. “Go wait upstairs. We’ll let you know when it’s safe.”

 

xxx

 

“Nnngh…” Namine brought her hand up to shield her eyes from the surprisingly bright light that bounced off the walls of Castle Oblivion. She turned to look at 7. “You finished already…?”

“Not- not exactly, but Vexen wouldn’t let—”

7 didn’t even get the chance to finish.

“Larxene showed up,” Vexen said. “She went after Riku. I mean, she doesn’t have him right now—at least not as far as I am aware—but she’s hot on his tail.”

Namine sat up straight. That was all she needed to know.

“Be careful,” 7 warned. “You shouldn’t have any problems, since I hadn’t started initiating any changes to your data, but you might be a little unstable. Once you have a chance, you should come back.”

Namine nodded, only half listening.

“Do you know where Riku is?” she asked Vexen.

“If I did, I wouldn’t have come to get you,” he replied. “I told him to get somewhere safe. That’s all I know.”

“He’s in Hollow Bastion.”

“Really?” Vexen squinted at her. “How do you know?”

Namine pushed herself off the cot, forming a dark corridor.

“Because it’s home.”

 

xxx

 

They were all settled on the couches, exchanging nervous glances. Cid tapped his feet impatiently. Yuffie kept shifting around in her seat. Leon didn’t move, but just the air about him made Aerith sure that he was nervous. She had to keep from chewing any of her nails off, herself.

The plan was to wait and hope Larxene never showed up. If she did, then the plan from there was to convince her Riku wasn’t here. Hopefully they could succeed. Like Riku said, she had no clue about them, or their relation to him.

Thankfully—or not so thankfully—they didn’t have to wait long. It’d hardly been minutes when the front door was kicked in. Everyone jumped—Cid even swore with surprise. Aerith quickly got to her feet to greet their, uh, “guest”.

“Where is he!?” Larxene screamed, turning on her. Even in anger, her nose was turned up, and she looked down on all of them like they weren’t worth her time.

Aerith tried not to tremble as she moved a few steps closer to Larxene. It wasn’t hard to see why Riku feared Larxene so much, now that they were standing in the same room. Larxene carried herself confidently, unafraid, knowing the force she possessed and what she could do with it. She was also radiating a surprising amount of darkness…

Aerith’s eyes narrowed in concern. Horrible person or no, it was hard to see even Larxene be so consumed by darkness.

Well?” Larxene demanded. Aerith remembered with a start that she’d been asked a question.

“You’re… going to have to be a little more specific,” she said, straining to keep her voice calm and polite. Her heart pounded in her chest.

“That stupid Replica!” Larxene screeched. Electricity—and darkness—sparked at her fingertips, and she took a step forward, hand raised, as if prepared to strike. Aerith stood her ground.

Larxene’s lips curled, just slightly, with disgust. She lowered her hand, only barely, and continued ranting. “He just thinks he can get away with that little show he put on? Hmph! Like I wouldn’t—oh, he is so in for it when I find him.”

Aerith’s heart thudded. It was all she could do to keep herself calm, though not for fear this time. For anger.

“I’m afraid I still don’t know who you’re talking about,” Aerith lied.

Larxene’s eyes narrowed. “He’d go by ‘Riku’ around here,” she said, slowly. There was a chuckle behind her voice, but Aerith didn’t question it. No need to further anger the beast.

“Riku?” Aerith asked.

“We haven’ seen him ‘ere for weeks!” Cid called.

“Yeah, and even if we had, do you think we’d tell you?” Yuffie added.

Aerith refrained from shooting a warning glance at Yuffie. That’d give them away more than her outburst would.

“Don’t lie to me!” Larxene spat.

Aerith tried not to flinch, but before she knew it, Larxene had her by the collar of her dress. She gasped, reaching for Larxene’s wrist, only to pull her hand back in pain. There was lightning.

“Hey!” Yuffie shouted.

“Put her down,” Leon said. Aerith could see him jump to his feet out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t dare look away from Larxene.

Larxene didn’t listen, pulling Aerith closer. Aerith turned away, seeing as she couldn’t exactly break free. Her mind wasn’t clear enough to cast any spells, and, of course, the only one she could even think of right now was Thunder. That wouldn’t do her any good.

“I know he’s here,” Larxene hissed. Aerith bit her lip, squeezing her eyes shut. Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding. She could feel Larxene’s breath on her face. “I wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t!”

“I- I don’t know who—” Aerith gasped.

“We said put ‘er down!” Cid shouted.

Larxene laughed, but distanced herself from Aerith. She didn’t let go. “And what are you going to do if I don’t?” she asked, turning her attention to everyone else. Aerith shuddered. Larxene’s voice was too sweet. Too confident in her own abilities. Almost thrilled at the promise of battle.

“It’s four agains’ one!” Cid replied, grinning. His spear was already in his hands, and Leon was ready with his gunblade. Yuffie had even fetched her shuriken.

“I wouldn’t test your odds,” Leon said, slowly.

Larxene was silent for a long moment, considering it. Finally, she let Aerith go. Aerith would’ve been relieved, had it not been for the grin on Larxene’s face.

“I won’t have to,” she said.

“An’ why is tha’?”

Larxene only grinned wider. “Because I’ve got Namine!” she called, raising her voice.

Aerith looked at Leon, panicked. Leon quickly nudged Yuffie before she could protest. Thankfully, Cid had the sense not to shout out, either. They couldn’t tell Riku she was lying. They could only hope that he didn’t believe her.

There was silence for what felt like eternity, but was only a few agonizing seconds in reality.

It was broken by the sound of feet pounding down the stairs.

Aerith sighed.

“Works every time,” Larxene muttered, with a pleased smile.

“Let her go!!” Riku roared, launching himself over the railing of the stairs and hitting the ground with surprising grace. Then he paused, eyes going wide as he realized Namine was nowhere in the room. He growled, surprise falling to a glare in Larxene’s direction. “You bi—ack!”

Larxene hadn’t hesitated. The moment she’d seen him, she’d thrown a lightning bolt at him. Riku went sprawling.

“See? That wasn’t too hard, now, was it?”

The pleasure in Larxene’s voice sent shivers down Aerith’s spine.

“Nngh…”

Riku slowly pushed himself up.

“Come on! Fight back!” Larxene summoned a set of knives to her, and lightning danced around her body in waves. She was grinning, but there was a hardness in her eyes. A sense of disgust that was stronger than any she’d radiated before.

“I…” Riku pressed himself up against the side of the staircase.

“It’s not like it’s going to change how this goes,” Larxene continued, stepping towards him. “Not now. There’s no need to—” Her face fell. There was no amusement in her tone when she spoke, now. “Do you have to?”

Aerith had moved so she was between Larxene and Riku. She reached behind her back, casting a Wall on Riku. There. That’d keep Larxene from doing any damage to him, at least for the moment.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Aerith forced herself to say, politely, even though she felt like being everything but polite right now.

Larxene jutted her chin in Riku’s direction. “Hand him over, and I’ll be out of your hair.”

Aerith wanted to laugh. Like she’d just hand Riku over to Larxene! This was the woman who’d tortured him, abused him, ground into his head that he deserved pain, along with all sorts of other filthy lies. Why in the Worlds would she just hand him over?

“I believe she told you to leave.” Leon stepped forward, brandishing his gunblade.

Cid’s grip tightened on his spear.

“Yeah!” Yuffie called, raising her shuriken to throw. “Go on, before you make us have to fight you!”

Larxene sighed, dramatically. Then she grinned. “Well… then I’ll have to make this—”

The grin fell from her face and the words stopped on her tongue. Aerith had chosen that moment to aim a blast of Holy right at her stomach.

Chapter Text

Larxene went flying backwards, and a second blast of Holy sent her through the window. Aerith winced at the sound of shattering glass, but was very grateful the force of two Holys had only broken the window, and not done any more damage. It’d been reckless to even cast one in the house, let alone… oh well…

“Little overkill there, huh, Aerith?” Leon asked, laughing a little. Cid and Yuffie were gaping at her. Riku moaned from behind.

Aerith licked her lips. “I guess…” she said. “It felt good.”

“Well, we gonna fight her or what?” Yuffie regained her composure quickly, launching herself over the back of the couch.

“Obviously!” Cid was quick to follow her outside.

Aerith started after them, but stopped after a few steps. The effects of having thrown not one, but two Holys was settling in on her. “Leon?” she asked. “Can you grab me an ether? Or three…”

He nodded, going to do so.

Riku grunted behind her, and Aerith turned to him. He was pushing himself to his feet. “I should… fight too…” he said, grimacing. He trembled, though, as he stood.

Aerith shook her head. “You stay here. We’ve got this.”

She feared, for a moment, that he’d argue, but he didn’t. He smiled uneasily at her, and then sat back down on the ground.

Aerith paused only to grab her staff on her way outside to join the battle.

The battle didn’t last long, though. In fact, it lasted only long enough for Leon to hand Aerith some ethers. A dark corridor opened not ten feet from Larxene, and out stepped Namine and… Vexen. That was his name. Larxene took one look at them, and then vanished through a dark corridor of her own.

Riku screamed from inside the house.

Aerith froze, heart squeezing in her chest. She couldn’t even move to save him—she knew it was too late. The air left her lungs in a sob, and she fell to her knees. Stupid. Leaving him inside—alone—had been so stupid.

“Why wasn’t one of you with him!?” Vexen demanded.

“I- I wasn’t thinking,” Aerith stammered. “I wasn’t thinking- I- I wasn’t—”

“None of us were thinkin’!” Cid said. “It’s not yer fault!”

“Where’d she go with him?” Leon asked, grounding everyone. If there was one thing she could rely on him to do, it was that. It was always that.

Vexen let out a long breath. “Well… she’s not stupid enough to go to our Castle Oblivion… she probably took him to the other universe.”

“Is he gonna be okay?” Yuffie asked.

No one answered.

Aerith buried her face in her hands. Stupid. Stupid, stupid. She should’ve known better. She should’ve known so much better. Why hadn’t at least one of them been smart enough to suggest staying with Riku? Why hadn’t…

“Aerith?”

Namine’s hand was on her shoulder.

“I promised him he’d be safe…” Aerith murmured.

And now he was the exact opposite of that.

“Hey, listen.” Namine pulled her to her feet, gripping her by the arms. “We’ll find him. Okay? We’ll find him.”

Aerith nodded, slowly.

Namine tightened her grip. “It’ll be okay. Larxene isn’t gonna- isn’t gonna make quick work of… of…” She swallowed, obviously not wanting to say it. Aerith didn’t blame her. Admitting that Riku’d be dead within the hour if they didn’t find him wasn’t an easy thing to admit.

“We’ll find him,” Namine repeated.

Aerith nodded again. “I’m coming, too.”

Namine looked surprised for a moment, but it faded quickly into understanding. “Alright. Vexen?”

“Coming.”

Namine formed a dark corridor around the three of them.

 

xxx

 

“You didn’t really think you could get away with it, did you?”

The words were returned by a groan of agony, then finally a response.

“I didn’t intend… to… to leave you… alive…

“You should’ve known better!” A laugh, to accompany her mocking tone. “You’ve never been strong enough to take me.”

His protests were lost to cries of pain.

 

xxx

 

Namine’s dark corridor let them out on Destiny Islands. Much to Namine’s relief, Kairi was within sight.

“Kairi!” she called. “Star shard! Now!”

“Why!?” Vexen demanded.

Namine hardly spared a glance at him—her eyes were fixed on Kairi as she ran over. “Because I can guarantee getting to Riku, but I can’t guarantee getting to backup,” Namine explained.

“Why do we need backup?”

“Oh, let me think…” Namine turned to Vexen, then, not a drop of amusement in her tone. “I can’t fight. You’re a coward. And no offense to Aerith, but I doubt she can pull both our weight.”

“None taken.”

“Ah… I- I am…! I… That’s…” Vexen stopped fumbling for a protest and glared. “Well if we needed backup, why didn’t we grab someone else from Hollow Bastion? That Squall kid seemed pretty reliable.”

“Leon,” Aerith corrected.

“What?”

“He goes by Leon.”

“Oh. When did he change his name?”

“I didn’t even know he had another name!” Kairi added, having reached them.

Namine’s eyebrows were raised. She hadn’t known about the other name, either, but now wasn’t really the time to fuss about it. She sent a look at Kairi. Kairi nodded.

“I got you covered,” she said, tossing a star shard—probably Sora’s again, or still—to Namine. “Need me to come with?”

Namine shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think you’ll be much help. I mean, if there’s anywhere near the amount of darkness there was last time…”

“Mm… good point…”

“What about Sora?” Vexen asked, looking directly at Kairi.

Kairi went very pale. “Oh… w-well… he… He hasn’t been feeling very well today.”

Namine frowned. Not feeling well? He’d seemed fine this morning. Kairi wouldn’t meet her eyes, either. Something was definitely wrong. But, now wasn’t the time to be worrying about it.

“Is he sick?” Vexen asked.

Namine started to yell at him to stay focused, but Aerith beat her to it.

“I don’t think now’s the time,” she said. “If we need to go, let’s go!”

“Right. Sorry.”

Namine grabbed Vexen by the arm. Aerith was already holding onto her.

One star shard trip later, and they were… well… Namine didn’t know or much care where they were, the important part was that it was the right place. It had to be the right place, considering she was greeted by the sight of the other Namine, and the other Riku and the other Kairi, along with this universe’s Sora and Axel and Roxas and Xion. Plus two other people she didn’t know. Or… one other person she didn’t know. The other… thing was a blue… koala? But koalas didn’t have four arms. Or ears that big. Never mind. Now wasn’t the time to worry about it.

“Uh,” the girl she didn’t know began.

The blue not-koala said something excitedly in another language, then waved enthusiastically. “Hiiiiii!”

Namine was just trying to figure out how to respond, or rather, direct the situation back to the matter at hand, when Real Thing—uh, the other Riku spoke.

“She found him, didn’t she?” he asked.

Namine just nodded.

“We sort of need all the help we can get,” Vexen said, uncertainly. Namine was a little surprised he was mentioning it at all, after his earlier protests. Maybe his worry for Riku had overcome his pride. Wouldn’t that be something.

“But we need the right type of help,” Aerith added.

“I’ll go,” Axel said. Namine felt Vexen shudder beside her. She sent a look up at him, but he’d masked whatever discomfort he’d been feeling well. He was eyeing Axel distrustfully, though.

“We’ll go, too,” Roxas said. Namine was confused who he meant by we, but then she noticed him exchanging glances with Xion. After a second he looked at the other Namine. “Unless…” he began.

The other Namine shook her head. “Perhaps it would be best if I sat this one out myself. It might not be my place.”

Namine didn’t have the energy to argue or question further. It wasn’t like she desperately wanted the other Namine to be there, anyway. “I’m not going to say one way or another,” Namine said. “But we need to go now.”

“Roxas, Xion, and I can take care of it,” Axel said, as if to assure everyone.

They all linked arms or hands, and once Namine was sure everyone was attached, she activated the star shard.

Chapter Text

It was funny, how powerful old instincts were. Funny to think they were powerful enough that Riku acted on them without thinking, without even bothering to consider the fact that they wouldn’t help him in this situation. Scream more. Fight less. Those were the old rules. Not that it would’ve mattered much, even under these new rules. The only thing he could save was his dignity. His life wasn’t on the line, it was already down the deep end. All it was now was a matter of time, until she got tired of toying with him and struck the final blow.

It was even funnier to consider how they fell back to the old patterns, even after all this time. Larxene didn’t have to pin him to the wall with knives—he’d long given up on fighting back—but she did so anyway. Riku found himself in that position at least once, electricity coursing through his veins.

Dark mode? He couldn’t remember donning it, but it was there. It pulsed near constantly, fighting to keep up with the damage being inflicted on it, inflicted on his body. It could only do so much, though. Riku tasted blood in his mouth, and vision through his left eye was cloudy. Had Larxene punched him there? A knife, maybe? He couldn’t remember. All the moments blurred together with the pain of the lightning and the sound of her laugh.

He was exhausted, too, and there was a pain boiling in his chest. Every little movement he made was a struggle. Every blast of darkness that hit was like agony.

Scream more. Fight less.

The sooner she got what she wanted out of him, the sooner she’d quit.

Except once she’s done toying with me, that’s it, I’m dead!

Nervous laughter bubbled at his lips.

I’m dead! I’m dead I’m dead!

“Cut that out!” Larxene screamed.

The following bolt of lightning silenced him, but he hardly screamed, mind still spinning with manic. He had to bite his lip—hard enough it bled—to keep himself from bursting out with laughter again.

Dead! Dead! I’m dead!

He wasn’t sure how much time passed from that point until the moment Larxene wrenched him off the ground, suddenly, holding him by the collar. Honestly, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed at all since Hollow Bastion. Had it been hours? Minutes?

“One step closer and I’ll kill him!” Larxene declared.

What a funny thing to say… he thought. He thought better of the laugh in his throat, and swallowed it. It felt like there was something tugging at his feet.

Safe, you idiot! You’re safe! The thought resounded in his head, but it was drowned by the continued scream of Dead! Dead! I’m dead!!

That’s when Larxene dropped him.

Except he didn’t crumple to the ground. He fell much farther than he should’ve, and then landed in someone’s arms. Axel’s arms. He didn’t even blink at the sight of Axel, hardly stumbled when Axel set him on the ground. His mind was still reeling. The stream of I’m dead stopped, backpedaled, became a waterfall of I’m alive! Alive! Alive alive alive alive alive alive alive alive—

Riku wasn’t quite sure how long that lasted. Wasn’t sure how long he stared at his trembling hands, unable to process anything but that one thought. Alive. Alive. Alive. He thought he heard Axel yelling behind him, and was sure he heard Larxene, but other than that…

According to Aerith, who explained it all to him later, what had happened was this:

She, Namine, and Vexen, along with Axel, Roxas, and Xion from this universe—the other universe—had arrived. Larxene had immediately threatened to kill him should they try to save him, but between some quick thinking on Axel’s and Aerith’s part, they’d still been able to save him. Axel had formed a dark corridor under him, and Aerith had made Larxene lose her grip on him with a blast of Thunder. Thunder had been the most unexpected thing Aerith could throw, which was why it had worked.

That, of course, led to him dropping into Axel’s arms.

Riku finally looked up from his hands, and took the time to articulate his thoughts into words. “I’m alive…” Laughter burst from his mouth, then, continuous giddy laughter that wouldn’t stop. “I’m alive! You came for me!” He looked between Namine and Aerith, not sure who to thank—the thought of thanking Axel didn’t even cross his mind.

“No duh,” Namine told him. She sounded a little miffed. He didn’t like seeing the frown on her face.

He swallowed, then closed his eyes for a moment, letting the steady flow of alive alive alive alive wash that thought away. He opened his eyes to send a nervous glance over at Larxene, who was too busy attacking Roxas and Xion to pay him much attention. Yet.

“Pity I can’t just make a run for it…” he mumbled. “If I bolt, she’ll just follow…”

Like she had in Castle Oblivion. Like she had in Hollow Bastion. It was him she was after. Staying here was the only way to guarantee beating her.

And hopefully, it’ll keep her from grabbing me and running again.

He let out a long breath. Darkness sparked at his fingertips, in anticipation, in response to a thought he’d barely thought. Alive alive alive turned into fight fight fight—but couldn’t he do it. Should he…?

“You should stay back,” Aerith said, reaching out a hand to hold him where he was. She met his eyes, regarding him earnestly. “But I promise it won’t be like last time. One of us will stay with you.”

Namine shrugged. “I might as well. I’m not a great fighter yet.”

“I thought… you were mad at me…” Riku squinted at Namine. He’d forgotten, briefly, in the shock and terror of it all, but she’d definitely been mad at him earlier. His stomach churned. The stream of alive fight alive fight alive became bad bad bad bad bad and he did his best to push the matter out of his mind.

Except Namine’s lips curled inwards, forming that frown again. Her eyes narrowed at him, too. She really was upset!

“Well, yeah!” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let Larxene get you!”

Well yeah well yeah well yeah.

She was mad at him, and she’d admitted it.

Riku felt like he was going to be sick.

There must’ve been some face he’d made or something, because Namine practically flared with anger. She didn’t get a chance to say anything, though she desperately looked like she wanted to. Aerith shoved them both aside, catching a blast of Dark Thundaga—or something stronger—against her staff and diverting it to the ground. A hiss of pain escaped between her teeth, not a surprise with how the leftover darkness was nipping at her fingers.

Darkness bad good alive alive Namine mad bad bad why.

Namine tossed up a hesitant Cure for Aerith. Aerith laughed, shortly, which confused Riku. He was much less confused when she banged her staff against the ground, and Healing magic flooded his body. His woozy mind instantly felt much clearer, and he didn’t feel like he was going to trip over his own feet if he tried to move anymore.

“Can’t believe I forgot to do that,” Aerith muttered. She brandished her staff and took a step forward, as if to steady herself, but moved no further, just surveyed the battle. Riku found himself doing so, too, without thinking much about it.

Axel’d just thrown his chakrams at Larxene, both flaming. She’d warped to avoid them—a trick Castle Oblivion granted her—and was met by Roxas’s Keyblade. He got in maybe one strike before she warped yet again and threw knives in retaliation.

“Mm, maybe it’d be best if I stay put,” Aerith mused. “Oh, and—”

Another wave of her staff, and energy swirled around Riku. He squinted, trying to discern what it was, but could only tell it was some form of barrier. To further prevent Larxene harming him, he realized.

“What about you, Vexen?” Aerith asked, turning to him. “Are you going to fight?”

“Hmm?” Vexen looked genuinely surprised, and much like he’d been startled out of some deep thought. “Right. Yes. Fighting.” He cleared his throat nervously, and summoned his shield to him. “Fighting.”

He didn’t move any more than that, though. Riku snorted.

“Too much of a coward to do anything?”

Vexen shot a glare at him, and threw a blast of ice at Larxene. That was avoided, and returned with a continuous stream of some darkness-lightning hybrid. It was a good thing Vexen had his shield out.

“I still don’t get what you’re even doing here, you dumb Replica,” Larxene sneered, pouring more energy into the attack. It took Riku a moment to realize she was talking to Vexen.

“She doesn’t—”

“Shh!”

Larxene didn’t know who Vexen was. She thought he was just a Replica. What about anyone else here? Surely Axel knew. Surely. But Roxas? And Xion? Riku couldn’t speak for either of them.

“What do you care about him, anyways?” Larxene continued, voice rising. Her attack hadn’t stopped. Vexen had skidded a few feet backwards from the force of it, but his shield kept him unharmed. “What do any of you—ack!”

While Larxene was focused on Vexen, Xion hit her with a tossed Keyblade. Larxene turned immediately, threw a large blast of darkness at Xion. Without her Keyblade to block—it was still spinning back to her—Xion was defenseless. The blow sent her into the opposite wall.

“Xion!” Roxas shouted. He started to rush to her, but was stopped by Axel.

Xion was already pushing herself to her feet. A Cure from Aerith helped.

“Are you going to fight?” Namine asked, nudging Riku to get his attention.

“Oh, you’re going to let me this time, huh?”

The bitterness tumbled from his mouth without his consent. He bit his lip, but it was too late to take the words back. Namine glared at him. His chest felt sore.

“Riku, now is not the time for this.”

“You wouldn’t let me fight her last time!”

“That’s because you weren’t fighting her!—also, throwing darkness around isn’t going to do you any good this time.”

She hadn’t needed to say that. He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. If he did fight, he would properly fight. But first…

“Why are you mad at me?”

Just asking her seemed to make her even more angry. Riku almost regretted asking, but he needed to know. If he knew what was upsetting her, he could stop it. He couldn’t do anything about it if he had no clue what it was he had to do.

“Riku, now is really not the time!”

Why was that she’d all she’d say? I need some time to think. Not now. I don’t want to talk right now. Now’s not the time.

When was the time?

“You can’t give me an easy answer?” he demanded.

“Not everything is solved with an easy answer, Riku, trust me. It’s- it’s more complicated than just- than Larxene. It’s more complicated than- than just- just one thing you’ve said.”

Why did she always get so antsy, too? Like she was afraid of speaking. What did she have to be afraid of? Him?

“I don’t want to think you’re a monster, but sometimes…”

But sometimes.

Riku swallowed. There was something foul in his mouth. Something roiling in his chest.

He set his mouth to speak, only to pause. What was he going to say? Demanding to know whether or not she thought he was a monster seemed like too much. Asking if she was scared of him was an impossible task, an unclimbable mountain.

“If- If it’s not… not something I’ve said, then what? What is it?” he asked, slowly.

Namine didn’t answer. She shoved him aside, placed herself in front of him, and then threw a spell up in front of her. Reflect. It stopped a bolt of lightning in its tracks.

Now is not the time.

Riku’s blood ran cold.

“That wasn’t necessary,” he mumbled, not sure if he felt embarrassed or just… “Aerith cast some sort of barrier spell on me, and it’s still there.”

He could see it shimmering in the air before him.

Namine sent a glare over her shoulder. “You could’ve told me!!”

“I thought you’d have noticed,” Aerith said, shrugging sheepishly.

If it were possible, Riku’s blood ran even colder. It felt like something had squeezed his lungs. Even Namine looked mortified. Aerith was listening. Aerith was listening. Aerith was—

“How much did you hear?” Namine asked.

“Enough to know you’ve been arguing, but no more. I don’t like eavesdropping.” She sent them a reassuring smile. “Besides, it’s hard to eavesdrop when there’s a battle going on.”

Riku sent a glance over at Vexen. Thankfully, he’d (sort of) joined the battle, so the chances of him hearing anything were slim.

“If you’re really going to keep arguing, though, best keep it quiet,” Aerith added. “I’m sure neither of you want Larxene to hear.”

“Exactly why this needs to not happen right now,” Namine said, giving Riku a dirty look.

Riku bit his lip, but didn’t argue this time. Aerith was right. If Larxene knew he and Namine were arguing, that’d be bad. That’d be very, very bad. She’d use it to her advantage, somehow, and it was best not to hand her things to bait them with.

From the looks of things, though, Larxene was much too occupied with the battle to have noticed anything. She was too busy warping and throwing things and avoiding things that had been thrown at her. Good.

“Axel!!” Vexen shouted. He didn’t sound very happy.

Unfortunately, Riku hadn’t been watching to see what had happened, or why he was yelling.

“Stop throwing your ice where I’m throwing my fire, and we won’t have this problem!” Axel called.

Riku burst out laughing at the thought. He didn’t have to see what had happened to find it funny. He could imagine. Even Namine smiled a little, which was good to see. Larxene was laughing, too, which wasn’t even a surprise. She’d always enjoyed Vexen’s discomfort.

Riku frowned, after a second. Why was Larxene looking directly at him…?

The air stopped shimmering around him.

Riku’s heart stopped.

Larxene’s laugh became a sharp grin, wide enough to split her face in two. She vanished.

Riku felt her hand on the back of his neck before she even got it there. His body went numb. Time seemed to slow. She yanked him off the ground and the world warped around him.

Warping was, of course, limited only to the battlefield, so she couldn’t go far with him. Riku didn’t count it as a relief, though. He was too focused on the knife that had been pressed to his neck.

“Well, now that we’re back on schedule,” Larxene laughed.

Chapter Text

“Well, now that we’re back on schedule,” Larxene laughed. She pressed her knives closer to Riku’s neck. They were sparking with some sort of energy, though Vexen couldn’t tell whether it was lightning, or darkness. Or both.

“Let him go!” Vexen screamed. He was a little surprised at his own outburst, initially, but then he hardened his face. It was no good demanding anything from her if he didn’t look serious while doing it.

“Is this some sort of Replica solidarity that I just never picked up on before?” Larxene demanded. Vexen noted with uneasiness that her eyes lingered on him longer than anyone else. But at least she still didn’t know who he was. Not that keeping it secret was doing much good for him, or for Riku.

“I’ll show you Replica solidarity!” No. i—er, Xion, that was—shouted, charging at Larxene. Vexen grimaced at himself. If he’d gotten used to calling Riku, Riku, then he’d have to get used to calling Xion by her name, too.

Unfortunately for Xion, Larxene was prepared. She threw a blast of darkness (or that darkness-lightning hybrid) at Xion before Xion could even reach her. Xion took the blast in full, and it threw her to the wall behind her. That was the second time she’d been thrown like that. Shouldn’t she know better? Surely he’d programmed her better than to—

No. Now was definitely not the time to be thinking like that. Besides, Xion was probably fine, based on the looks of the Cure Aerith had thrown up for her.

Larxene made a big show of faking a yawn. “Go figure. Replica solidarity is a thing.” She hardly sounded amused, though.

Vexen’s eyes darted to Riku. He was just dangling under her grasp, eyes glazed, unmoving. The thought that Larxene could make him shut down like that, shut in on himself, infuriated Vexen. It also baffled him how she managed to dangle him off the ground like that, seeing as he was at least her height. If the boy had any sense, he’d use his height against her—at the very least, he should be able to break from her grasp.

And this whole time, he hasn’t even bothered to summon his blade…

Vexen grit his teeth. He needed to get Riku away from her, but how? His mind spun with ideas, but most of the ones he came up with required more guts than he had. Why wasn’t anyone else here doing something? Namine was brash enough, wasn’t she? Then again, she didn’t stand a chance against Larxene, so maybe it was for the best.

It was a good thing Larxene liked making a show out of things. She carried on speaking. “I really am curious as to why you all care about him so much!” There was a note of irritability in her tone, and Vexen could see it in the curl of her lips, too. A slight snarl, a narrowing of the eyes.

You,” Larxene continued, gaze locking on Namine. “Namine… Replica… thing. I can figure why you’re here. You were probably created to love him, since the real Namine wouldn’t bother.”

A strangled grasp of protest escaped Vexen’s mouth, before he caught it and reeled it back in. Too far. That was too far. He sent a look at Namine, and was surprised when she didn’t do anything more than glare. Aerith looked horrified. Vexen squeezed his mouth shut. Turned back to Larxene.

Riku swung an arm at her, as if to punch, but it was sloppy and half-hearted. Fear overruling his anger, another thing to take Vexen surprise. It was usually the other way around. Larxene was quick to still him by jabbing him in the ribs with her knives.

She kept speaking, as if Riku hadn’t even moved. “And, I don’t know much about you, miss pretty-in-pink…” Her eyes found Aerith. “But I gather you just like helping people. So whatever.”

“He’s my friend,” Aerith argued.

Yet another thing to surprise Vexen—actually, no. He wasn’t surprised by this. it was hard to be surprised, considering Riku’s choice to go to Hollow Bastion above anywhere else for safety. Hadn’t he and Namine mentioned moving to Hollow Bastion, too? Why do that, instead of return to Destiny Islands? And of course, why else would’ve Aerith wanted to come with them to save him? Liking to help people or no, that didn’t account for her panic upon realizing that Larxene had still gotten to Riku, in the end.

Friends.

A smile tugged at Vexen’s lips, despite the circumstances.

Larxene, however, was less amused. “Oh, so you’ve gone and made friends, huh?” she demanded, her attention turning to Riku. He didn’t answer quick enough for her, and she shook him like a rag doll. “Answer me, toy!!”

Vexen’s blood boiled. He took an unconscious step forward. Put him down! He wanted to scream it. Put him down! Why wouldn’t his lips move to form the words? Put him DOWN! His blood was racing, pounding. He wasn’t that far from them, and if he attacked—

No, stop yourself there. He planted his feet firmly in the floor, taking a deep breath. There’s no sense rushing in when you’re not thinking straight. Think this through before attacking…

“The two that I just don’t understand, are you imbeciles!” Larxene was saying. Her voice still made Vexen’s blood boil, but he held it in. Larxene was looking directly at Axel as she spoke. Who was the other imbecile?

“I mean, I know you’ve always been on your own side, whatever that is,” Larxene said. Her eyes were burning. “It’s never been convenient for me, that’s all I know. Why even bother with this stupid, failed experiment?”

She shook Riku again for emphasis. It took all Vexen’s will to keep himself from charging in.

Think this through, first! What’s the best course of action? Charging certainly isn’t, you’ve never been suited for that kind of battle. Ice is probably the best option. But how do I keep from hurting Riku on accident?

“…is you being here.” Larxene rounded on him then, pulling Vexen out of his thoughts. He shivered a little. The look she was giving him… “Replica solidarity crap or no, you Vexen Replicas all follow a specific set of protocols!” She was shouting, her tone somewhere between angry and mocking. “You don’t care about this thing—” And again, she shook Riku. “—all you care about is the science of it all. He’s not a person to you.”

That was too far. More than too far.

Vexen shifted his stance, the ice coming to his fingertips with hardly a thought. The rest of Larxene’s words blurred to his ears. The ice took form of something like knives. Vexen waited only long enough for them to become solid, then he threw them at Larxene.

“I said earlier, let him go!

Only one ice-knife hit its mark. Larxene hardly flinched at it. Her grip on Riku remained as tight as ever. Shouldn’t his height or his weight have overcome her by now?

“What do you care about him?” Larxene asked. She was laughing, clearly very pleased to see him angry.

“What’s it matter to you that I care?” Vexen replied. He steadied himself, so his voice couldn’t tremble—either with fear, or anger. A clear head. He needed a clear head.

“What does it matter to you that I kill the toy?”

Why did her words have the unnatural and infuriating propensity to get under his skin?

“He is not a toy!”

‘Toy’ was an oversimplification and an insult. Not only was it demeaning to call Riku a toy, but the technology that built him was certainly more sophisticated than any that would make mere toys. Then again—the point of ‘toy’ was to be an insult. Vexen grunted. He couldn’t say anything like that, either. It’d give him away, and it’d probably only make her laugh at him.

“He is a real person,” Vexen said instead. It was a struggle to keep his voice even.

“Ha! Real person?” There was more edge than amusement in her laugh this time. “You Replicas should know better than to have such delusions of grandeur! You’re not real, so—”

“That doesn’t make him a toy, and it certainly doesn’t make him your toy!”

Stop yelling, already, a voice in the back of his head hissed. Stop yelling, stop wasting time, and snatch him from her already!

“Why do you care?” Larxene repeated.

“What’s it matter to you?”

Throwing ice at her didn’t work, but you can do more than that, can’t you? Freeze her solid, then grab Riku.

“You shouldn’t care about him!” She shook Riku again. “So why are you even here!?”

“It’s none of your business why I’m here!”

“You made it my business by showing up!”

Vexen grunted again.

Freeze her solid already, you coward. Ahh, but how long has it been since I last tried freezing someone like that? It’s been ages—no! Don’t think like that! You don’t have time! Each second you leave him in her grasp is a second closer to his death!

“Oh, my, how could I have not seen it before?” Larxene asked, breaking his attention. She dramatically smacked her forehead with her free hand. “You’re not a stupid Replica! Silly me!”

Vexen blanched, pausing where he was. How could she have known? Then again, he hadn’t been actively trying to keep his identity secret. He’d just sort of hoped she wouldn’t figure it out…

“You’re Vexen himself!”

There was no amusement in Larxene’s voice, now, only malice. Enough to make Vexen hide behind his shield on reflex. Based on the look she was giving him, she was preparing to come gut him once she’d finished with Riku.

But now that she knew who he was—well, it was laughable to think that she’d be scared, but the least Vexen could do was own up to it.

“Yes. Now let Riku go!

He took a step forward, and a burst of ice spurted up out of the ground from where his foot touched it. The ice sped towards Larxene, but she was too quick for it and moved aside. He should’ve just solidified the air around her—but how long had it been since he’d done anything like that?

“Now!” Roxas shouted.

Vexen looked up in surprise. Roxas was rushing for Larxene. Hadn’t Xion been with him? Where was she now? But it was good, at least, that they had a plan. Very good.

Roxas’s swing missed. Vexen was sure it was supposed to, given that someone—Xion—hit Larxene from behind. She crumpled to her knees, and dropped Riku. Vexen blinked a few times in surprise. Larxene on her knees was a sight he’d never dared to hope to see. She was quick to collect herself, though. The only upside was Xion had gotten Riku out of there. Good.

Now! Before she has a chance to recover further.

Vexen was throwing ice shards before he knew what he was doing, rushing at Larxene. Some of the ice hit, some didn’t. She was on her feet. Vexen blocked a darkness-lightning blast with his shield. Ducked to avoid a set of knives to the face.

I forgot how unsuited I was to close-ranged combat… The shield’s good for defending, but what about attacking? Ice, of course, but—

“Even if you are the real Vexen, since when did you care about him?” Larxene asked. “I thought he was just an experiment to you! Everything was!”

Fury pounded through Vexen, but he hastily calmed it, and then did his best to block Larxene out. He didn’t fight well when he was angry. He’d just have to ignore her, as best as possible.

I also need to get away from her. I’m much better at attacking from a distance. Oh, but my attacks hardly did anything from a distance, and she’d have more than enough time to get out of the way! Vexen about screamed with frustration. What do I do?

He kept blocking punches and blasts of darkness-lightning with his shield. He couldn’t keep this up for long, but he had to end it here. End her here. Larxene had done more than enough damage, and she wouldn’t be stopped until she was dead.

An icicle to the heart. That’s all it would take.

Vexen wasn’t quite sure how he managed it, in the end. Honestly, he hadn’t expected to. But then Larxene stumbled back. She looked between the icicle through her chest and at Vexen with hatred. The darkness seemed to build around her, and Vexen almost feared it hadn’t worked. He hid behind his shield, anticipating the coming blow.

None came.

The darkness that was building around her consumed her, and she was gone.

Chapter Text

Larxene’s dead.

Vexen killed her.

Riku wasn’t sure if he was going to burst with joy or faint with shock—not that he’d faint, of course. He wouldn’t dare faint. A laugh bubbled in his mouth.

Larxene’s dead.

“She’s dead!” Riku exclaimed, and he laughed again. Larxene was dead.

“Is she really dead?” Xion asked. She sounded skeptical, but Riku couldn’t imagine why.

“Well of course she is,” Axel said, laughing. He’d banished his chakrams, and had resumed his usual laid-back posture. “Didn’t you see the malice in Vexen’s eyes?”

Vexen banished his shield. “Well- well I-” he stammered.

Vexen. That’s right.

Vexen killed her.

And not only had Vexen killed her, Vexen’d killed her to protect Riku. Vexen’d defended him, too.

“That doesn’t make him a toy, and it certainly doesn’t make him your toy!”

Riku’d been stunned at the time—not that he wasn’t stunned now. He was just a little giddy from the shock of it all. Larxene’s dead. And he’d laugh a little with relief of the thought. Vexen killed her. The laugh would freeze on his face, his brain still spinning to process that.

“Why do you care about him?”

“What’s it matter to you that I care!?”

Not only had Vexen protected him, but Vexen… Vexen cared about him? Of course, he probably shouldn’t be surprised, after all this time. Maybe. Were memories always this hard to process in hindsight?

Heh, maybe Sora and Kairi were right, he thought. Not that I’d call Vexen my father, of course, but I suppose he does have a… habit of worrying about me. Was I just not paying attention, or ignoring it out of spite? It really was hard to remember.

“Are you hurt?”

Aerith’s voice brought him out of his thoughts.

Riku looked up. She’d rushed to Vexen. From the looks of things, Vexen had staggered—or he’d summoned a pillar of ice (that came up to about his waist) to lean against, anyway. He was breathing heavily, but shook his head as Aerith approached.

“No, no, just a little… I’m just…” he shrugged, hopelessly. “I’m all right.”

Aerith tossed up a Cure for him anyway, though it definitely looked like a lower level of the spell. She whispered something to him—something meant for his ears only, though Riku couldn’t help but hear it.

“It needed to be done.”

There was a slight tremble to her shoulders, Riku could see, but she steeled herself quickly. Before he knew it, she was turning to Axel and Roxas and Xion, smiling pleasantly.

“Thank you,” she said. “For helping.”

Axel waved her off. “Are you kidding? Vexen did all the work.”

Roxas turned to send Axel a look of disbelief. “Uhm, actually Axel, it was us who got Riku away from Larxene.”

“Yeah, and you saved him that first time,” Xion added, sending him a near identical look. “You aren’t going to let Vexen take credit for that, are you?”

“Oh yeah, that’s right.” Axel straightened himself haughtily, looking straight at Vexen. “You should be thanking me!” he said.

Vexen hardly hesitated. “Thank you.”

Shock flashed through Axel’s features, and he even leaned back a little with surprise. Apparently he hadn’t been expecting a thank you—not that Riku could blame him, there. He hadn’t expected Vexen to thank anyone, at least not that easily.

“You mean it?” Axel asked.

“Don’t make me say it again, Axel.”

Axel grinned.

“There’s the Vexen I remember!”

“Riku.”

Riku turned to Aerith, who’d addressed him. She was giving him a look she often gave Yuffie when Yuffie needed to check her manners.

“You should thank them, too. They did save your life,” Aerith said.

Riku nodded. There was no point in arguing. He turned to Axel and Roxas and Xion.

“Thanks,” he said.

Roxas and Xion nodded in acknowledgement, and Axel said: “Don’t mention it, kiddo.”

“Anyway, we should probably be going,” Roxas said, sending another pointed look at Axel. “I doubt everyone else is in too much trouble, but if Marlynort showed up again…” He trailed off.

Riku had no idea what he meant by Marlynort, but Xion and Axel both nodded like they understood. Axel pulled a star shard out of his pocket, and after a few short goodbyes, they were gone.

“I think there’s one more person you should thank,” Aerith said, her attention on Riku again.

Riku stared at her for a second, trying to figure out who she meant. Did she mean her? But it wasn’t like her to indirectly ask for a thank you like that… Then Riku remembered Vexen.

Vexen killed Larxene.

Vexen protected me.

“Mm… thank you… Vexen,” Riku said. It felt weird to be saying it. He found he couldn’t meet Vexen’s eye. “For… y’know…”

“You’re welcome.”

“I guess we should go back, then, right?” Aerith said, looking between them.

“Yeah…” Riku began.

“Actually… since we’re here…” Vexen straightened, banishing his ice pillar. He shifted a little, looking nervous.

“Hmm?” Aerith asked.

Vexen cleared his throat. His eyes found Riku’s. He mumbled something that sounded like “Darkness Protection Protocols”, and then sighed and shook his head, as if second-guessing himself. “Mm, but… no,” he said, louder now. “I think we’ve faced enough bad memories for one day.” His eyes darted to where Larxene had been.

Riku understood. Going near the computers here was one of the last things he wanted to do, and clearly it was one of the last things Vexen wanted to do, too. Too many bad memories.

The thought of going near one of those computers does make me a little queasy, but… I suppose I’d rather not die. And since we’re here…

“No, you’re right,” he said. “We are here. I guess we might as well.”

Vexen regarded him with a stern look of worry—there was no denying what it was now.

“Are you sure? If you don’t want to—”

“Namine? Are you alright?”

Vexen paused as Aerith spoke. Riku immediately turned to Namine. She was hugging herself, staring at the ground uncertainly. She was hardly two feet away from him, but when he moved towards her, she scrambled five more steps away from him. Riku couldn’t say if the look in her eyes was worry, or fear.

Something squeezed at his heart.

“Are you… still mad at me?” he asked, uncertainly.

“What?” She stared at him with confusion, for a moment, but then her face darkened. Though she still hugged herself, her shoulders seemed to hunch a little less, and her voice was much shaper when she spoke. Much sharper than it’d been all day. “Riku, I’m a little more worried about something else right now!”

“Worried about… what?” Vexen said.

Namine reached up, fingers brushing her temple. “My head…” she murmured. Her eyes darted back to the floor.

“Meltdown?” Riku demanded.

She shook her head no. “Pounding…”

“7 explained that to me,” Vexen said. “Horrible concept really. Resorting to such measures to keep Replicas ‘in line’. Hmph…”

7 hadn’t told Riku how it worked, and Riku hadn’t been able to track down Roxas to explain either. Namine didn’t want to talk about it, of course. But, eventually he’d been able to worm the basics out of Kairi, after quite a few questions.

The general concept was that when a Rewritten Replica—such as Roxas or Namine—went against their orders, a pounding would start in their head. The pounding grew until it drowned out all thought and they gave in to the urges they were resisting. The idea made Riku feel a little sick to his stomach, and watching Namine as she made a fist made him feel even more so. There was a glint in her eyes that made his heart seize.

“Namine—”

Vexen was suddenly there, using that warping trick Castle Oblivion granted him. He pushed Namine back, standing firmly between her and Riku.

“Riku, you know better,” Vexen said. “If she is—”

“I’m sorry,” Namine whispered.

Riku stared. “They fixed you…”

“I did interrupt 7 while he was working on something with her data,” Vexen explained, sheepishly. “I just didn’t expect it to have such serious consequences. Then again… Alpha said 37 made his fail-safes near impossible to break…”

“What is going on?” Aerith demanded. She’d moved so she was standing beside Riku. Her eyes shifted between the three of them, uncertainly.

Riku just shook his head.

“The Organization—” Vexen began, but Namine interrupted.

“They Rewrote me to kill Riku.”

What!? I- I don’t understand—”

“They fixed you!” Riku repeated.

“It’s probably just a minor slip,” Vexen assured him. He sent a nervous glance over his shoulder. “Like I said, I interrupted 7 while he was working on her. I’m sure we can get everything back in order—we just have to go back to our universe.”

“The sooner the better,” Namine said. Her voice was tight. She wouldn’t look at Riku.

Riku didn’t mention his lacking Darkness Protection Protocols. Honestly, he wasn’t even thinking about them anymore.

Namine…

Why are you mad at me?

 

xxx

 

They were waiting outside 7’s room. Vexen was inside, talking to 7. Namine was also inside, though whether she was awake or not, Riku wasn’t sure. He figured she wasn’t, though. 7 must’ve started looking over her data already, if not already started editing it. They’d been here long enough.

Riku was leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest, eyes fixed on the wall opposite him. Aerith stood beside him, alternating between wringing her hands together and looking around uncertainly. Riku was sure the way her bracelets clinked together when she wrung her hands would drive him nuts, but he didn’t have it in him to tell her to stop. He was also sure she’d said something to him, at least, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember what, and didn’t care enough to ask or try to continue the conversation.

Namine… he thought, wearily. They fixed you…

Was everything today… you being mad… was that just because of this? Or is it wrong to assume that—to hope that…?

What did I do? I know going after Larxene wasn’t smart, but do you really want me to apologize for it? My only regret is that my plan didn’t work…

Of course, if she wanted him to apologize, he wouldn’t hesitate to. He’d do it a hundred times—a million—if she asked. But, thinking back on it, it didn’t seem like an apology was what she wanted. So what did she want?

She said… she said it was more than just Larxene, more than one thing I’ve said. But what? What is it I’ve done?

I haven’t done anything wrong… have I?

I can’t remember doing anything wrong.

So why are you upset…?

The door opened beside him, and Riku pushed away from the wall. It was Vexen who stepped out. Riku was a little disappointed, but not exactly surprised. There was no way it would’ve been Namine.

“7 agrees with me,” Vexen said. “It looks like a slip in her data, probably caused by the fact I’d interrupted her earlier editing.” He grimaced at that, but didn’t pause. “He’ll have her fixed up soon.”

“You don’t sound very sure about what it was,” Riku grumbled. He couldn’t tell if he actually cared, or if he was just being sharp for the sake of being sharp. Being sharp with Vexen felt natural, at least, unlike fighting with Namine. But he didn’t have much reason to be sharp with Vexen, did he…?

Mm, those were thoughts for another day.

“We’re as sure as we possibly can be, Riku,” Vexen said. He sighed a little.

Aerith let out a long breath. She wrung her hands together again, as she looked between Vexen and Riku. “Okay. I still don’t quite understand what’s going on. I don’t know a lot about Replicas.” She addressed Vexen, as she spoke, her back all but turned to Riku. “But, I suppose I’ll start back at… Rewrite? They… they Rewrote Namine…?”

Vexen nodded. “To put it very simply, Replicas are extremely sophisticated computers. Well. They’re more than that but- but simply, and at their basics, they are much like a computer. And, like a computer, they can be Reprogrammed, or Rewritten, to do whatever a programmer wishes.”

It seemed to pain him not to go into more specifics. Riku was quite proud of him, though, for managing as well has he did. Aerith nodded, very slowly, brow furrowed deeply.

“Okay. I… I thought that’s what you meant.” She nodded again, looking quite uncomfortable. She started wringing her hands together again. “That doesn’t… doesn’t make the idea any more pleasant to stomach, though.”

“The Program’s in safe hands now, at least,” Vexen said.

Riku doubted Aerith had any idea what Vexen meant by that, but she didn’t seem bothered by not knowing. She left it at that, and turned to Riku, a stern—no, concerned look on her face.

She swallowed once. Twice. “Did she… did she really…? Try to…” It seemed to pain her to say the words.

Riku nodded, so she didn’t have to finish.

Aerith let out a long breath, clasping her hands in front of her mouth for a second. Then, abruptly, she grabbed Riku’s arms and held them tightly. Tears swam in her eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Didn’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Didn’t want to worry you, he thought.

He cleared his throat. He didn’t want to think about that anymore.

“Thank you, by the way,” he muttered. “For saving me.”

Aerith smiled at him, though it was an uneasy smile. “Don’t worry about it, it was the least I could do,” she told him. “I made you a promise, remember? And even if I hadn’t… I would’ve come anyway. That’s what family does.”

Riku smiled back, though it was just as uneasy, just as broken.

Family.

 

xxx

 

Namine was done a little while later. 7 and Vexen both swore she was fine, and she was acting normal again. Minus being frustrated with Riku, of course, but he got the feeling it was just him. It was to be expected, after all, since she was… unhappy with him.

He wanted to ask her why, again. Wanted to ask what it was he’d done to upset her. But after the initial “I’m fine now” she didn’t seem to want to talk to him. Plus Aerith wanted to get home soon.

Probably for the better, Riku thought, with a sigh. I don’t think I wanted to have this conversation where Aerith could hear, anyway. Or Vexen. Especially not Vexen.

Just because he wasn’t quite as upset with Vexen as he used to be didn’t mean he wanted the man meddling too much in his life. The less the better. He was already nosy enough as it was.

“Home, now?” Aerith asked.

Namine nodded, pulling out Kairi’s—or, Sora’s—star shard. “Home, for now.”

Riku frowned at that phrasing, and even Aerith raised her eyebrows, but neither of them questioned. Aerith put her hand on Namine’s shoulder, and Riku put his on Aerith’s. It didn’t look like Namine wanted him touching her right now. It didn’t look like she wanted him anywhere near her.

That made his stomach turn in awful knots, but what was he going to do about it? He couldn’t do anything right now. He’d have to do it later. Maybe once he’d figured out how to ask her what was wrong without angering her again.

“Ready?” Namine asked.

Aerith said yes. Riku nodded. Namine activated the star shard, and they headed home.

Chapter Text

Namine was a little surprised to see the front window broken when they returned, but Yuffie assured them Leon and Cid had gone to get new glass. She’d been left behind to prevent anyone from sneaking into the house and stealing, not that there were really enough people in the town to be seriously worried about that sort of thing. Yuffie was quite happy to see them all back safe and sound, too, even hugging Aerith. (She looked like she might have hugged Riku, too, if she hadn’t thought it to be a bad idea.)

Namine headed upstairs before anyone could stop her. It wasn’t long before she had her bag packed with her sketchbooks and clothes. She had just finished when she realized Riku was standing in the doorway, and had been standing there for a while.

“I’m… I’m gonna go spend the night at Kairi’s,” she explained. “And, y’know, I- I gotta return the—”

“You have a week’s worth of clothes in there, Namine, and your bag will hardly shut. That’s an awful lot of clothes for one night.”

She swallowed, though he was right. The bag wasn’t that large, and the truth was she really had only three, maybe four days of clothes in here. Still…

“It’ll just be… for a bit…” she said, very slowly. “I’m just gonna move back in with her for a bit. I need… I need some time…”

Riku didn’t move. He stayed in the doorway, shoulder propped against the frame. The posture was supposed to look casual, but she knew him better. He was tense, frightened, putting up a mask of uncaring to protect himself—a mask that he would shatter himself if prompted enough.

“Are you really that mad at me?” he asked, voice tight.

Namine looked away from him. It was horrible to watch that mask break. “I… I just… I think it’d- it’d be better, and…” She busied herself with doing the buckles on her bag, though she knew the changes of actually getting them fastened were very slim.

“Can you at least tell me why you’re mad?” Riku demanded. He’d moved away from the wall, now, all sharpness and bitterness. He clutched his arms over his chest, like they were a shield that could protect him.

“Riku… please…” She sighed.

“I’m sorry about Larx—”

“Stop!”

It was anger that left her mouth, anger that she wished she couldn’t feel. Anger that made her feel too raw, too powerful. Anger that mad her blood pulse in ways she hated, though she knew she was safe, knew she wouldn’t hurt him—not against her will. They’d fixed that. But it still made her feel sick, just like being in any sort of battle did.

Riku considered her for a long moment, looking lost, heartbroken. She swallowed, not holding his gaze for long. He really did look like a kicked puppy, and it was rather unsettling. A bit amusing, how accurate the description was, but quite a bit more unsettling.

“This… this is why I’m upset…”

The words fell out of her mouth before she registered saying them.

“…what?”

Now Riku looked scared.

Namine chewed her lip long and hard, almost not daring to continue.

I’ve made it this far, though….

“You… you doing this.”

“What am I doing?” Riku pulled his arms away from his chest. “Namine, I don’t understand—”

“Going… going out of your way to please me—” It was a struggle to say it, but she forced herself to. “Especially- especially when I’m upset…”

She couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t do this.

“Namine… I’m just… I’m just trying to fix things…”

And they need to be fixed another way! – But she couldn’t say it. All she managed was a mumbled: “It’s exhausting…” And then she was pushing past Riku, rushing down the stairs. She was very thankful he didn’t move to follow.

 

xxx

 

Riku stood there for a long while, turning the conversation over and over in his head, trying to pick out where it went wrong. Him asking why she was mad was where it had all started downhill, but it seemed pretty wrong long before that.

What did I do?

Going out of my way to please her….

It didn’t make sense. It didn’t make any sense. And on top of everything else that had happened today… He thought his head might explode.

He waited some time before heading downstairs—hopefully long enough to give Namine time to leave. He didn’t want her to go, of course, but it was too late to do anything about that now. Going after her would probably only upset her more.

“What was that about?” Aerith asked in a quiet voice, pulling him into the dining room and away from everyone else—or, Yuffie. Leon and Cid hadn’t gotten back yet.

“She’s just… gonna go stay with Kairi for a bit,” Riku said, slowly. Part of him wanted to tell Aerith the whole thing—maybe she’d be able to make more sense of it than he had—but he decided against it. Maybe Namine wouldn’t need much time, and this would be over tomorrow. Why worry Aerith further than necessary?

“She explained that to me, Riku,” Aerith flashed him annoyed look. “Do you… Never mind. It’s not my place to pry. If you want to talk about it, though…”

He shook his head. Not now. It’d blow over tomorrow. It had to.

 

xxx

 

Sora sat on the floor in his room, running his fingers through papers he’d been saving for ten years. Crude drawings of knights and dragons and other monsters. Stories he’d written that ranged anywhere between half a page and written in crayon to twenty-three pages written in his neatest handwriting and bound together by string.

He was trying to distract his mind. It wasn’t working.

Grounded… What did I even do to get myself grounded?

Based on what he remembered from the earlier conversation with his mother—what little he remembered of it—he wasn’t sure. He’d come home, quite some time after Kairi and Namine left to help Riku, and his mother had asked…

She’d asked if I was done hanging out with Kairi already, and I…

It was hard to pull the memories together. He closed his eyes, and focused, trying to piece the memories into something complete.

“I thought you were hanging out with Kairi today,” his mother had said, when he’d come inside.

She’d sounded a little bitter about it, though she tried very hard to sound casual. His father had still been down at the docks—and still was now—like he was every day, hauling fish.

“Nah,” Sora’d replied. “She had something come up.”

He’d wanted to get the conversation done and over with as soon as possible. He was avoiding talking to his mother as much as he could, at least when his father wasn’t there too. Conversations with his mother alone went downhill very fast.

“Really? What came up?”

His mother had just been trying to make conversation, but something about it had ticked Sora off. That was where the memory started getting fuzzy.

“Gee, I’d love to tell you, but it’s not like you’d believe me, anyway.”

“Sora! What did I say about that attitude!?”

Sora let out a long breath. His head hurt from trying to remember so much detail. He set his stack of papers back in their box, and lay back on the floor.

We descended back into the same argument. “You aren’t telling the truth.” “I am but you’re not listening.”

Or… or something like that, and…

He remembered yelling, though he couldn’t remember any of the words he’d said. He remembered that his mother had looked horrified, and furious, and hurt to hear them.

And then I felt horrible, but… what did I say after that? What did I say at all?

He rubbed at his head. He was a little worried about the spotty memory, but he was quite a bit more worried about what he’d said to his mother. She’d sent him to his room at the end of it, and now he was grounded. He knew that much. But what had he said?

I think I said something about Riku, which is a surprise, since I know she can hardly remember him. Ahh… I hope Riku’s okay…

He felt bad about not going with Kairi and Namine to help. He did. He just wasn’t sure if he should go, not when his memory was like this, not when he couldn’t seem to control himself. He had already mucked things up with his parents as it was, he didn’t need to risk Riku’s life by throwing his own darkness into the mix.

It’s gotta be the darkness. What else can it be?

Mm, I should probably go apologize to Mom. I should. I didn’t mean it. I don’t know how I’ll explain myself, but I really do owe her an apology. At least.

Explaining that he didn’t remember what he said wouldn’t be fun, either, but he owed her an apology. He did. It took him more effort than he would’ve liked to admit to make himself get up and actually head to apologize, though. It was like something was holding him back. Like a part of him didn’t want to go. Like a part of him didn’t think she deserved the apology.

She does, though! Sora batted the other part of him down with annoyance. The other part... The darkness…

I’ll have to ask someone about that, about why it’s acting up again. Apologies first, though. I have to apologize—

He didn’t get any further than the top of the stairs. A wave of memory—was it a memory?—surged through him, a flood of emotions. He clung to the wall to keep himself upright, gasped air into his lungs.

“If I’m lying, then where did I get this, huh?” And he raked his hand across his face, across the scar left by his Shadow’s rage, his Shadow’s mistake. “A scar like this could only be made by darkness! A scar this awful could only be wrought by darkness’s foul and disgusting hands!”

His vision swam. His knees gave way. It was all anger. It was all pain.

“Sora? Are you alright?” his mother called, from below.

He didn’t realize he was clutching his face, tearing at the scar as if he could remove it from his skin. He didn’t realize he was on the ground. All he felt was fury, and the words pounding in his head.

“IT WASN’T SOME KIND OF STUPID ACCIDENT!!”

Everything went dark.

 

xxx

 

Roxas went through the motion of buying sea salt ice cream, not even looking at the nice old lady who sold it when she smiled at him, said it was good to see him again, etc. He hardly heard her, honestly, just like he hardly tasted the ice cream when he put it in his mouth.

I’ve been through each world at least twice now… he thought, starting off at an idle walk. Done as much asking around as I’ve dared. There’s been no word of him.

Riku’d said Axel’d be back, eventually. He hadn’t been very forthcoming on the when or where, though. He said he didn’t know, and Roxas guessed he believed him, it was just still rather frustrating.

Of course, Roxas knew wandering worlds aimlessly in hopes of stumbling on Axel wasn’t the best course of action. It wasn’t all he was doing, though. He’d sent his Samurais—those Nobodies he could control—out scouting and… Well, honestly, fighting Heartless kept him sane.

I suppose I could go drop by C.O., see if someone can look at my data or whatever. At least to get rid of this itch I get when I haven’t killed Heartless in three hours. It’s getting kind of annoying…

Not having a set limit of magic casts would be nice, too, I suppose…

He wasn’t even sure how that set limit of casts was working, since he rarely stopped by the World that Never Was anymore. He wasn’t questioning it, at least as long as the casts kept restocking. They definitely restocked by the end of the day.

Maybe that’ll be my next stop. Maybe someone in C.O. will know about Axel.

He took the ice cream stick away from his mouth, frowning at it. It was empty. He hadn’t even realized he’d finished it until he’d bit into it and found no ice cream. With a sigh, he tossed the stick in the nearest trashcan.

Axel… where are you?

Chapter Text


 Part 2

Ramifications


 

The Heartless situation in Hollow Bastion was under control—or, it wasn’t as bad as it had been, anyway. No one could say if that was because there were less Heartless, or if it was because Riku was around to kill all of them before any could cause trouble.

A round of the town a day—which Riku always took, along with someone else, except on Saturdays when Aerith insisted he rest—was enough to manage the Heartless. Riku ended up making at least another round each day, though, if not two or more. Sitting still was too much. It made him too antsy. So he walked around the town, and he fought what Heartless he stumbled on.

He and Namine had started a habit of walking around the town together—when they thought there would be less Heartless—but they hadn’t had a chance to do it more than twice. Twice, and then she’d left. She’d left to stay with Kairi, for a “couple days”.

It’d been two weeks.

She still wasn’t back.

Kairi’d come to visit, though—the first Riku’d seen of anyone that wasn’t his family in these two weeks. Besides Joseph. He and 29 had moved in a few days ago.

“How is Joseph?” Kairi’d asked, when Riku’d mentioned it to her. She’d sounded pretty invested, which had caught Riku by surprise. “I think he’s okay,” he’d replied. “He seemed okay, but we didn’t talk long—he wouldn’t stop asking about Namine and 29 had to drag him out of the house.” Riku hadn’t seen Joseph since. Not that he minded too much. The boy asked way too many questions.

Anyway, Kairi was visiting, and currently, she and Riku were doing that round of the town. Kairi’d been extremely eager to go, actually. She said she was too out of practice. She said nothing about Namine.

“Hey, Riku, keep up!” Kairi called from up ahead, drawing him out of his thoughts.

“Coming,” Riku said, taking longer strides to catch up to her. He really didn’t have to run, though he might have, had Kairi been running. He flexed his shoulder, grimacing a little. It throbbed, faintly, and had been ever since he’d dislocated it again.

That’d happened the day after Namine left. He was just out fighting Heartless, and it had come out of place. Aerith said it felt looser than normal, but had chalked it up to the fact this was the second time he’d dislocated it. No one mentioned the possibility of Larxene having pulled it out of place, or something, though Riku was sure they all thought it. He couldn’t say he remembered her yanking on it, at any time, during the—well. He couldn’t remember. He wouldn’t say he was surprised, though, if that was the case. Especially if she had known it was injured.

“Is Namine still mad at me?” Riku asked, couldn’t help but ask (again), as he fell into step next to Kairi. Just like last time he’d asked (and the time before), she ignored the question entirely.

“Look, there! I think I see some Heartless!”

Riku suppressed a groan—not because of the Heartless. Because of Kairi. Heartless were expected outside of the immediate vicinity of the town, and they were currently standing in the bowl of the Great Maw.

Kairi was already running at the Heartless, light spilling from her fingertips. How she managed without a weapon at all, Riku still didn’t quite understand, but if her fists weren’t enough, her light certainly was. Riku hardly had a chance to attack before Kairi’d gotten rid of all of the Heartless.

Since talking about Namine wasn’t an option, Riku went back to telling Kairi about how things were in Hollow Bastion. Sometimes she asked about things, and the rest of the time he just… he wanted to talk about it. He wanted to share the victories they were achieving with someone outside his family.

People were returning to the town, more than ever before. Riku didn’t entirely understand why that was a big deal, but Leon and Aerith seemed ecstatic, and even Cid seemed relieved. It was a victory, even if one he didn’t understand. And they were nearly finished with the infirmary, too.

“Infirmary?” Kairi asked.

Riku nodded. Neither of them stopped walking—It was the end of their rounds, and the sooner they got back into the town, the better. Honestly, the sooner they got out of this area, the better. Riku didn’t mind the winding paths on the side off the cliffs too much, but this was where he’d nearly fallen off and dislocated his shoulder to begin with. His shoulder ached just thinking about it, and he quickened his pace, praying not to find any Heartless here.

“Well, people are going to get hurt, and they’re going to get sick, so we need an infirmary,” Riku answered. He resisted the urge to pull Kairi away from the edge of the path, and continued as casually as possible: “It was Aerith’s idea. She used to run a healing business with her mom—I mean, you can’t really call it a business, since it was free, but it was—”

“Yeah, yeah, I got you!” Kairi interrupted.

Riku raised his eyebrows at her, but said nothing. He slowed his pace a bit so she would walk ahead of him. The path narrowed so that there was only just enough room for theme to walk side by side, and he wasn’t risking it.

“She wanted an infirmary, because her house isn’t big enough anymore,” Riku continued. “I mean, that’s because more people living in it now, and so there’s no room for any sick people or injured, or—”

“So you have an infirmary,” Kairi interrupted, again.

Riku scowled this time. “Almost,” he said, slowly. “It’s not quite done yet, but once it is, Aerith’s going to work there full time.”

They had finally gotten out of the ravine trail, and made their way through the rubble of what Riku had been told was once a castle gate. Probably for the big bastion that loomed in the distance—the place where a man called Ansem the Wise once lived. If there were any Heartless in this area, they were taking their sweet time about revealing themselves.

“Where is it?” Kairi asked, turning on her heel for a second, so she could look at Riku. She turned back around near immediately. “The infirmary. Where’s it gonna be?”

“Oh, it’s right by her house! Or, not far, anyway. She didn’t want it to be too far.” Riku moved to fall in step beside Kairi again. “I’ll show you when we’re done!” It was hard to keep the grin off his face. He was really proud to have helped, and really excited—largely for Aerith, and for everyone else—that it was nearly done. He only wished Namine could’ve been here to see it, too.

Kairi nudged him in the ribs. “Why didn’t you show me before?”

“Because you caught me right as I was leaving for rounds and I was more focused on that,” Riku grumbled, rubbing where Kairi’s elbow had hit. Kairi sent a look at him, one he couldn’t quite make out, but it definitely wasn’t anything that would’ve indicated she was about to apologize for elbowing him so hard. There was something burning in her eyes, though.

“What are the plans after the infirmary?” she asked. She suddenly seemed interested about it.

“Then it’s back to fixing up the housing district,” Riku replied. “We’ve got a lot of houses done, but the more people that move in, the more we need. Aerith says she wants to plant flowers all over town, too—she says it’ll brighten the place up.”

Kairi smiled. “I saw the garden outside her house.”

Riku beamed. “I helped plant that!”

“Well, it looks wonderful.”

Riku studied her a second, eyes narrowing a little as he did so. “Is that smile because of the garden, or because something else?” he asked. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if he could ever remember her acting like this before.

Kairi let out a short laugh, then rolled her eyes. If anything, her smile grew wider. “This is just… The most I’ve heard you talk, in, like, ever. It’s kinda nice.”

That had certainly not been the answer Riku’d been expecting. He fumbled to open his mouth, embarrassed to feel a blush rising to his cheeks. Before he could say anything—not that he knew what to say—Kairi was talking again.

“It’s also nice to see you so excited about this,” she said, her voice quieter than before. “I certainly haven’t seen you this excited about anything before.”

Riku felt his cheeks get hotter, and he swallowed hard. A thank you was probably in order, seeing as that had been something of a compliment, but instead he protested: “I’ve been excited about other things!”

Kairi just shook her head. “Mm, no, I don’t think so.”

“What about- What- what about…” Except Riku couldn’t come up with anything. Kairi sent him a knowing look, and he elbowed her, scowling. Even so, the scowl was ruined by a small smile that didn’t want to go away.

“I was wrong. You moving here was a good thing.”

The words what about Namine? danced on his tongue. “Kairi, y’know, there are stairs,” was he found himself saying, instead.

Kairi’d started climbing up the rubble that led to the Bailey. Despite there being a set of functioning stairs—well, admittedly, those were a little out of the way, but, still…

“What? Don’t like climbing?” Kairi called down at him.

“I just don’t…” Riku began, but didn’t see the point in it.

Kairi hesitated, hands on the ledge above her, about to pull herself up. “Namine’s good, by the way…” She said, sending a glance down at Riku. “She also wanted me to tell you that she hasn’t had one of those memory meltdown things, and for the most part, we think they’ve stopped.”

Riku’d been about to ask oh, so we’re talking about her now, but then the news hit him. Her meltdowns had stopped. Or, that would make three or more weeks since the last. “You serious?” he asked.

“Yup.” Kairi pulled herself onto the next ledge. “She even saw 7 about it—and Vexen, since he was there. That Alpha guy says we’ll have to wait to be sure they’ve stopped, though, seeing as it could entirely be the fact she hasn’t been, y’know, around you for the past two weeks.”

“He’s still on that?” Riku groaned. He stepped onto the bottom ledge and started climbing up after Kairi.

Kairi shrugged. “I guess. Wouldn’t know. But, anyway, regardless of what he says—Vexen seems pretty convinced that’ll be the last of them. That they were initially an error in her data that Rewriting her inadvertently cured. 7 jokingly suggested that 37—I think—figured out how to cure them and did so along with Rewriting her, but none of them really sounded like they believed that, and 7 went on some tangent about how if he couldn’t, no one could, or something.” She shook her head. “Vexens have a thing with pride, I swear.”

“Tell me about it,” Riku agreed, with a long sigh.

He waited a moment, until Kairi’d finished pulling herself up onto the final ledge, until he’d climbed another one.

“Is… is she really that mad at me?” he asked. That was probably the fifth time.

Kairi groaned and glared down at him, but to his surprise, she said: “Riku, look, I promised Namine I wouldn’t talk about that.” She actually acknowledged his question, instead of avoiding it!

“She is mad, then, huh?” he asked. His fingers curled around a loose rock on the ledge above him.

“Well, duh.

“About what?”

“I definitely cannot tell you that.”

Riku sighed. That was probably as much as he’d get out of her. Her persistence in ignoring his questions up to this point had been astounding. He was just about to pull himself up onto the next ledge when Kairi spoke again.

“If you want my opinion, though—and don’t tell her I told you this—I think she’s scared of confrontation and wants to put it off for as long as possible.”

Riku looked up at her, a little surprised. Still… He shook his head. “No, she’s scared of me,” he corrected.

“Uh, no, more like any confrontation,” Kairi argued. She laughed, but it wasn’t a good one, it was more of an exhausted one. “Sora jokingly refused to give her back her sketchbook a few days ago and rather than argue with him about it, she backed down immediately.” Kairi waited a second, then continued rapidly, as if a new thought had occurred to her. “And, I mean, I’m not saying she should’ve fought Sora over it, but she didn’t… I dunno. She didn’t treat it like one of those if-I-don’t-care-you’ll-drop-it things, she legitimately seemed scared to argue with him about it. And that’s…”

She stopped there. Riku rolled his eyes. One time with Sora didn’t prove anything. Namine was most likely scared of him. Everyone seemed to be, when he got in a foul enough mood. The way she couldn’t look him in the eyes when she left burned in his mind. And she’d all but called him a monster…

“Hope she doesn’t put it off any longer,” he grumbled, hand curling into a fist. “Don’t know if I could survive another two weeks.”

Kairi growled, very loudly, and then she’d jumped down to join him on the ledge he was on. He took a hasty step back, but the ledge was only so big, and any further back he’d topple right off. This meant Kairi had plenty of room to get up in his face.

“Riku, tell me you don’t seriously mean that,” she demanded.

Riku laughed nervously, trying not to eye the drop behind him.

“What? Kairi, can you please—”

She jabbed him in the chest, and he flinched. For being five inches shorter than him, she was taking up way too much of his space.

“Look, Riku, maybe I’m overreacting, but knowing you, even casual words like that get me worried.” Her eyes burned. “You’ve always been reckless, you’ve always seemed to have little regard for your own life—I mean, the whole reason you’re in this universe is thanks to a suicide attempt!

Riku rolled his eyes. Scoffed. “That wasn’t a sui—”

“You didn’t expect to win, did you?” Kairi interrupted. “You went into that battle knowing one of you wasn’t going to live. That you weren’t gonna—”

“In hindsight, yes!” Riku shouted. But she was shouting. And about to shove him off this ledge. “But- but at the time I was too angry to—what does this have to do with anything!?

Except she wasn’t listening, she was shouting over him. “And, I mean, if what Namine’s told me wasn’t worrying enough, most of those Vexens or whoevers in Castle Oblivion have a lot of surprising stories about how reckless you are, if your latest stint with Larxene wasn’t enough!”

“That wasn’t exactly my—” Riku began, but stopped. Grimaced. Technically, it was his fault. “I had that first time under control—or I thought I did,” he argued. “And it’s not my fault she hunted me down.” Except it was. “Well, I mean, it wasn’t because I was reck— This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about!!”

“Listen, alright, if Namine does leave you, you’re not gonna like… kill yourself or something? Tell me you won’t.”

Kairi’s voice shook, but Riku hardly noticed. Despair broke across his face.

“Oh, she’s leaving me, isn’t she?”

Riku!

“Is she?”

“Answer my question, first.”

“I thought you weren’t allowed to talk about this.”

“Riku, for the love of—mm.” Kairi looked about ready to punch him. It also sounded like her words were an effort to grind out. “It is one thing, when your relationship is in jeopardy. It is another entirely when it’s your life.

Riku grimaced and looked away. She had a point. Now if only she’d move so they weren’t both sharing this tiny ledge…

“You won’t?” Kairi pressed. “Because it’s dumb. It’s absolutely idiotic. I know you love her, but that doesn’t mean life is worth nothing if it’s not with her—really. You would have so much else to live for, and- and I know it’s a lot to ask—asking you to move on twice, from the same girl, I get it, and I get it’s hard, but Riku—”

“I wouldn’t,” he interrupted. “You’re right. It’d be kinda dumb.” Relief instantly washed over Kairi, which Riku guessed he was grateful for, but seeing as she wasn’t moving, he went ahead and finished climbing the rest of the way up to the Bailey. He wasn’t going to stand there any longer if he didn’t have to, and that seemed like the end of the argument.

Kairi grumbled something he couldn’t make out, but followed after him.

“Uh… how… did you know about the other Namine, though?” Riku asked, as he bent down and offered an arm to Kairi to help pull her up. He was glad, not for the first time, that it’d been his left shoulder that had been dislocated, and not his right. “Did Namine—did our Namine tell you?”

Kairi sent an are you kidding look up at him. “What? No! C’mon, Riku. If you’re first month here wasn’t enough…” She trailed off. Whether that was to make her point, or because of the exertion to get her on the final ledge, Riku wasn’t sure. Maybe it was the latter, seeing as she continued talking once she was up there and dusting herself off. “I saw how you looked at her. And that… that counting thing? That doesn’t just happen between two people who don’t care about each other. I don’t claim to know her feelings for you, but you can’t tell me you didn’t love her at some point.”

Riku opened his mouth to protest, out of habit more than anything else. But there was no point. Slowly, a little reluctantly, he nodded.

“I did,” he admitted.

Kairi’s eyes crinkled with sadness, a look which tore at his heart and his stomach at the same time. He knew why it was there. He just didn’t like being pitied. She sighed.

“And, I know it wouldn’t be easy moving on from her again, but…”

He shook his head, hard, cutting her off. “Actually, it… maybe…. Maybe it wouldn’t be…” Tears burned behind his eyes, which was funny, because he wasn’t sad about this. “I mean, the first time wasn’t… so bad. Moving on.”

Kairi stared at him.

“What… do you mean?”

Riku shrugged, smiled nervously. “I just, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened, about what she said… and she’s right. The other Namine.” He forgot he had to clarify, for a moment. “She’s right. I’ve changed. She’s changed. We’re not… we’re not who we used to be… I dunno…”

He shook his head, at a loss for how to put how he felt, exactly. His smile widened, though. Tears still burned behind his eyes, they just didn’t fall.

“I dunno how to explain it,” he said. “But something about those words just clicked with me. Maybe I still love her, maybe I always will, but… We’re different now. And I don’t need her. I don’t need anything from the other universe. Everything I need is right here, in this one.”

Kairi punched him in the shoulder. “What are you grinning like an idiot for?” she teased.

“Maybe it’s dumb. It’s just. Thinking about it makes me happy.” That was for certain, at least. Happiness bubbled and burst within him, though he’d come to this conclusion a while ago. “It’s… I guess… I just never thought I’d be able to let her go. And here I am.”

It was more than that, too. It’s nice to know that we got a happy ending, even if it wasn’t with each other, he’d thought, and thought again. It’s nice to think about the fact she’s happy, and loved, and found someplace to call home. And it’s nice to think about the fact that I’ve found the same. But he wouldn’t tell Kairi that. He doubted he’d tell anyone. Except, maybe, her, if he ever had the chance to speak with her again.

Kairi grinned at him. Why, he wasn’t sure, because she hardly knew what he was feeling. “It’s not dumb,” she assured him, regardless.

“Thanks,” Riku said. He couldn’t stop smiling. “And, I mean, I don’t want that to happen with Namine, with our Namine, but… to answer your question, I- I wouldn’t… y’know. I wouldn’t.”

“Good! Because just like I told Sora—dying, isn’t, an option.

Riku nodded in agreement. Then her words registered.

“Wait. What? Sora was considering—”

“IIIII WASN’T SUPPOSED TO SAY THAT!”

“He seriously was!”

“No, not seriously!” Kairi corrected. Her cheeks were a brilliant red. “But we were talking about Things and he was upset and he said something along the lines and I didn’t believe him, exactly, but, you know, I had to… Yeah. I had to tell him it wasn’t an option.”

“What things?” Riku asked.

“Can’t say! I promised I wouldn’t say!”

“You make a lot of promises not to tell people things…”

I know.

Riku considered Kairi a moment. She looked pretty distraught. Figuring it was something she’d do to him, he nudged her in the arm, and joked:

“Aren’t we all friends? Isn’t keeping secrets from each other, like, the last thing we’re supposed to do?”

It was only after he said it that he realized how little it actually sounded like a joke.

“It is,” Kairi agreed, with a shrug. “But I can’t fix your relationship with Namine for you, and Sora’s is something that isn’t my information to share. You’d have to ask him, and there’s no guarantee he’ll tell you.”

Riku licked his lips, lowering his hand back to his side. “That bad…?”

Kairi only nodded.

Riku swallowed, then tried again to cheer her up. “Hey, you know, you’re right. About Sora. He wouldn’t—”

“I know.” Kairi nodded, but she didn’t look at him. Her eyes were fixed on the ground, and she slowly rubbed her arms. “I know,” she repeated. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not still worried about him. He hasn’t exactly… been himself, lately.”

Riku’s eyes narrowed. The last time Sora ‘hadn’t been himself’ it had led to the destruction of Destiny Islands, followed by a fall into darkness. “How so?” Riku asked.

“It’s…” Kairi began, but stopped. She looked up at Riku, chewing her lip hard. “It’s just, sometimes, out of nowhere, we’re talking, and suddenly it’s like I’m talking to someone else. And, I’m not too worried, because it feels almost exactly like what happened when we were staying with Maleficent—but I’m still worried.”

“The darkness?” Riku offered. That’s what it’d been last time.

“Probably. Like I said, it feels the same, and it hasn’t been that long… maybe it’s just not gone completely…” She shrugged.

“I, uh, don’t mean to be a hypocrite here, but have you tried talking to him?”

“That’s not hypocritical. Namine’s the one avoiding you—and yeah, I’ve tried.” Kairi sighed. “He doesn’t remember it happening, though. So…” After a second, she added: “I mean, I’ve told him what I know is happening, and he agrees it’s probably the darkness, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s still happening.”

“I can’t help,” Riku said.

“I know. But you should still know. Like you said, we’re all friends.” Kairi smiled at him. It looked a little forced. “Anyway, let’s finish these rounds! I’m getting hungry.”

Chapter Text

Riku and Kairi ended up being done with rounds sooner than expected—Riku’d dislocated his shoulder again. Not that he could say he was surprised. His fighting style didn’t put much strain on his left shoulder, but it still put enough strain on it.

They were on their way to get Aerith when Riku heard a voice he’d actually been dreading to hear. It was Joseph. Not that he didn’t like the boy, it was just, until he figured out what was going on with Namine, Joseph was one of the last people he wanted to see. Like he’d told Kairi, the boy asked too many questions.

“Hey Riku! Hey Kairi! Nice to see you!” Joseph sounded even more excited to see Kairi, if possible. Riku wasn’t sure how Joseph could be more excited than he usually was.

“Hey, nice to see you too,” Kairi said, as he ran to meet them. “But we’re kind of in a hurry and—”

“Why are you here?” Riku asked. Kairi shot him a dirty look and mumbled something about getting tired of being interrupted all the time.

Joseph beamed. “My excitement senses were tingling,” he answered, wiggling his fingers. “I thought I’d come check it out.”

Riku glared. He swore Joseph was getting taller. The boy was about at his shoulder now. “Well, nothing exciting happened. We just finished rounds.” Kairi glared at him, likely for not mentioning his shoulder, but that was fine. They were heading towards Aerith. Joseph could find out when they got there.

“Oh drat!” Joseph snapped his fingers, frowning a moment. “I wanted to help.”

“Joseph, you can’t fight,” Riku said.

“Well, no, I don’t have a weapon yet, I got that,” Joseph replied. He looked pretty offended, but maybe that was just because of his age. And what would you know about that? Riku asked himself, but pushed the thought out of his mind. “But Cid told me that there might be a weapon specialist in Disney Town we can ask to build my design, we just haven’t gotten around to—”

“I was there, Joseph,” Riku interrupted. Maybe the pain was making him snippier than usual. His shoulder didn’t hurt that bad though. He’d certainly put up with worse.

Joseph rolled his eyes. “I know! I was telling Kairi. Geeze.

Kairi eyed Riku a moment, then her attention was on Joseph. “What design?” she asked.

“Oh!!” Joseph lit up. “It’s for a boomerang-shield hybrid thing and it looks really cool. Cid said it will probably work too but I need a real weapons specialist to build it for me, because he only knows how to build canons. And then he went on about—well, he mentioned a girl, I think.”

“He did not,” Riku said.

“He did too! He didn’t go on about her or anything—I didn’t mean to say that—but when he told me about a weapon specialist in Disney Town he was also like ‘I wonder if she’s still around…’” Joseph’s imitation of Cid brought a short laugh to Kairi’s lips, but Riku only scowled harder. “He also may have mentioned a name but I forgot it which really stinks I’m usually better at—”

Riku shook his head. “Joseph, I did not hear him say anything about anyone but that weapon specialist.”

“He said it really quietly,” Joseph argued. “Maybe you missed it.”

“I doubt it.”

“Look, Riku, this chitchat is nice, but aren’t you in pain?” Kairi interrupted.

Joseph shot a worried look at him immediately. Riku groaned. “I’m fine,” he said. They weren’t far from Aerith’s house. It didn’t hurt that bad.

“Hey, wait, what’s wrong!?” Joseph demanded, coming to a full-stop to look Riku up and down. Riku didn’t stop moving, and neither did Kairi.

“I dislocated my shoulder, no big deal,” Riku grumbled. It was an effort not to reach over and push at it, to make it hurt worse—pain was a good way to ground frustration, and boy was he getting frustrated—but he managed.  He kept his fists tightly clenched at his sides. Aerith would be proud.

“Oh!! Do you need me to go get Aerith? I can run ahead!” Joseph was already running before either of them could answer, and Riku groaned again. Kairi shrugged at him, but she didn’t seem bothered. In fact, she seemed a little smug. (He’d told her earlier that he could walk to Aerith just fine, it wasn’t his legs that were broken, and he got the feeling she was mad at him for not letting her go get help while he stayed put.)

They really weren’t far from Aerith’s house, though. They were there in only moments, though they’d somehow still taken long enough for Joseph to already be running out of the house. “She’s at the infirmary!” he called, running off again.

Riku sighed, not that he was surprised. Aerith had been at the infirmary when they left for rounds, and that was less than an hour ago.

“Well, this way, I get to show you the infirmary,” Riku said, eyeing Kairi.

“You were going to anyway.” Kairi didn’t sound amused. “And I think I’d much rather have come without you being injured.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Joseph was dragging Aerith out of the infirmary—a large blocky building that was made of two smaller houses connected together. The roof was still two different colors, and the portion in the middle of the roof had yet to be finished. From the sounds of it, Joseph was explaining very rapidly (and likely with more detail than necessary) what the problem was.

Aerith spotted Riku and Kairi approach, then, and her face lit up a moment before it darkened with concern and her eyes fixed on Riku.

“Riku! Again?” Aerith sighed as much as she groaned, coming over to him.

“He was being reckless,” Kairi said.

“Was not,” Riku argued.

“I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there!” Joseph added.

Aerith rolled her eyes and pointed at the ground. “Here, sit, you’re too tall for me to reach otherwise. You know that.”

Riku did as told, and it was just seconds before his shoulder was in place again. Aerith got to her feet, muttering something Riku couldn’t make out—and then she looked at Kairi, and smiled.

“Nice to see you, Kairi, I heard you were over,” she said. “Riku’s already told you about the infirmary, hasn’t he? Do you want to come see it? It’s not finished, but it’s… It’s quite an accomplishment.” She pointed over her shoulder at it.

Kairi nodded. “Yes, please, I’d love to see it! C’mon, Riku.”

“One second,” Riku told her. And then he burped. As far as burps went, it was probably the nastiest he’d ever tasted. He didn’t think much of it, though—or, not until he felt something trickling down his chin. He reached up to wipe it away with his thumb, frowning when he got a good look at it.

Goop wasn’t quite the right word. It felt nothing like goop. It hardly felt like liquid. It was black, shimmering with dark shades of purples and blues as it shifted. It… was shifting. Of its own accord. And it stung like darkness—

Darkness.

Darkness mixed with saliva, from the feel of it.

Riku grimaced and tried to shake it off his hand—

And then he burped again. Except it wasn’t a burp. This came much quicker, and much more violently. It spurted up from his throat, poured out of his mouth. It hit his hands before he had the sense to move those out of the way, to move and double over to retch properly. The substance that hit the ground was fowl, that same darkness-saliva mix, and it writhed and bubbled like a live thing. He squeezed his eyes shut so he didn’t have to look at it, and desperately hoped his hair wouldn’t fall over his shoulders and get into the mess, too.

Just as he thought it, Kairi was pulling his hair back and out of the way. It had to be Kairi. Aerith’s hands weren’t that rough, weren’t that calloused. And it couldn’t have been Joseph, because he was shouting from somewhere off to the left.

“Ugh, disgusting!” Kairi moaned. “Is that even—alright, whatever. You okay, Riku? That can’t have felt good.”

“Uh—” he began.

But then he coughed and retched again. Kairi groaned, but she said nothing else, and she didn’t move. One he was done, he felt her start tying his hair back with a hair-tie. One of hers, probably. Then she moved out of the way.

Riku coughed again, and flecks of darkness—or perhaps he should just call it puke—left his mouth and hit the ground, but the worst of it seemed to be over. He gasped and panted for air, as he straightened. He’d never felt so disgusting in his life.

“Did you seriously just puke darkness?” Kairi asked. She was kneeling on the other side of the mess, now, fingers outstretched to touch it.

“It sure looks like he did!” Joseph said. He was considering the scene from what looked like a safe distance.

“I wouldn’t touch it, if I were you,” Aerith warned, and Kairi pulled her fingers back. Aerith squatted down next to Riku, on his left. She reached out and rubbed his back for a moment, humming briefly. “You alright, Riku?”

“Uh, I… I guess. But I’m…” He shrugged, not sure where he’d been going with that.

“You’ll be alright soon enough,” Aerith assured him. She patted his back, then pulled her hand away. “The other question: how did this happen?” She looked between Riku and the mess—which still bubbled and writhed, disgustingly enough. She looked completely lost when it came to her answer. “I’ve heard of darkness tricking the body into puking, but actually puking darkness?” She shook her head.

“Mr. I-Forgot-To-Install-Darkness-Protection-Protocols might have an answer,” Riku suggested.

“Vexen?” Kairi raised her eyebrows.

“Well, he seems the most likely to know,” Joseph said. “Do you want me to go get him?” He almost sounded eager to be out of here, which was strange—but him being eager to help wasn’t, necessarily. He hardly waited for someone to tell him yes before forming a dark corridor and leaving.

Aerith let out a long breath. “Right, if he’s doing that… Kairi, do you think you could run back to my house and bring a glass of water? And tell Leon there’s a nasty mess of darkness we’ll need to clean up—not that I have any idea how to get this out of the ground…”

Kairi was already on her feet and running. “I’ll let him know!” she called back.

Riku groaned and wiped his mouth again.

 

xxx

 

Sora tapped his knuckles against the glass of Kairi’s window, a little surprised to find it closed, especially at this time of year. He shifted, hoping the branch he was on would support his weight—it had never had any trouble in the past, and he didn’t think he’d gotten any bigger, but it certainly felt less steady. Namine was getting up to open the window for him, though, and soon enough he was inside.

“Can’t bother with the front door?” Namine asked, with a laugh.

Sora dusted himself off. “Kairi’s dad’s not home. What’s it matter? Besides, he wouldn’t have cared even if he was—I’ve been doing this forever. You know that, Namine.” He ran his hands over his jacket absentmindedly, glancing around the room, noting the distinct lack of Kairi. “And… I guess Kairi’s not home, is she?”

“Nope,” Namine answered, going back to sit on her bed, where her sketchbook lay and pencils were—well, they actually weren’t scattered. They weren’t necessarily in a perfect order or anything, but they were all next to each other. “Kairi went to Hollow Bastion.”

Sora raised his eyebrows in surprise. “She didn’t take my star shard.”

“I formed a corridor.”

“Ah. How’s she getting back?”

“Riku will form a corridor—that or you go pick her up.”

“How will I know when she’s done?”

“Pick her up by dinner if she’s not home yet.” After Namine said it, Sora realized how obvious that was. Oh well. Better to clarify, he supposed.

He plopped down on the bed next to Namine, falling onto his back and lacing his hands behind his head. He noted that Namine carefully pulled her pencils closer to her and away from him. “We need, like, portable phones, or something,” he said. “I guess I’ll ask Cloud or Tifa when I see them next. They have phones.”

“Yeah,” Namine agreed.

“Hey, why didn’t you go to Hollow Bastion, if Kairi went?” Sora asked.

Namine hesitated.

“W- well…

Sora rolled his eyes.  “You still fighting with Riku?”

“I- I guess…”

Sora eyed her, not that she was facing him, not that he could really see her face from this position. “You should really talk to him,” he began.

“I know, I know!” She cut him off, quickly, sharply. “The longer I wait, the harder it’s gonna be. I got that. I just…” She shook her head—that he could see—“I don’t know what to say to him.”

“You wanna practice on me?” Sora offered.

Namine laughed at that, though she sounded more exasperated than anything else. Sora didn’t mind much though, about the laughter or the exasperation, even if he had been completely serious in that offer.

“That’s stupid,” Namine told him.

“Alright, well, why are you mad at him?”

Namine took a long moment to respond. She almost appeared to curl in on herself, her shoulders hunching inwards. Sora slowly sat up, considering her with worry. She didn’t look at him. “Is- is it weird to be mad because I’m tired of meaning so much to him?” she asked, her voice quiet, trembling.

Sora frowned hard. “Uh… Explain?”

“I’m- I’m tired of his world revolving around me—I’m not that important.”

“Oh, c’mon, you should be flattered Riku thinks you are!” Sora couldn’t help but laugh a little. Wasn’t being important to someone a good thing? It had to be better than the alternative.

Then again… he couldn’t say he would mind if he had meant a little less to his Shadow.

“When it gets to the point he can’t be happy if I’m unhappy?” Namine asked.

Sora shrugged. “I dunno. Seems pretty normal to me to be upset when someone you care about is upset.”

Namine looked him dead on. “But when he’s just falling on his face to please me?”

“Well…” Sora chewed the inside of his cheek, slowly lying back down as he thought it over.

Namine continued, angrily: “He doesn’t need to please me. He doesn’t need my high opinion of him to function and it makes me feel sick to think that he relies on it so much.”

“That… hmm…” Sora stopped chewing his cheek, abruptly, realizing that if he chewed any harder he’d draw blood. Normally he didn’t chew that hard. It was while he was running his tongue over the throbbing spot inside of his mouth to check it that something occurred to him. He sat up. “Wait, you mean he actually needs constant reassurance that he’s amazing? Because I thought he was pretty full of himself.”

“Obviously you haven’t been paying attention.” Her words were bitter, as was her laugh, but Sora tried not to notice.

“Guess we haven’t interacted much, lately…” he agreed. Not that that was a surprise. Six months apart, less than a day being reunited, and then Riku’d moved to Hollow Bastion. Sora wished he’d visited more than that one time he did in the past three weeks, but he’d been grounded… Among other things. “But, still, he really doesn’t think he’s the best thing in all the worlds?”

“He acts like he does, but, trust me…” Namine gripped her sketchbook tightly. “He thinks very lowly of himself.”

“I thought fake-it-til-you-make-it was supposed to work…”

“It hasn’t with Riku.”

Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised… Sora thought, rolling his Shadow’s memories over in his head. He’d always thought the same of his Shadow—cocky, conceited, acting like he owned the place… But in the end… He was certainly much more broken than just that…

Sora pushed the memories aside. Even if they weren’t his own, they still hurt to think about.

“So… lemme guess, you haven’t talked to Riku because, what? It scares you?” he asked Namine.

“I- I don’t know how to tell him without it making matters worse,” she replied.

“Well… How do you know it’s going to make matters worse?”

“You know how Riku is.”

Sora paused. He supposed he had a good idea, but that wasn’t going to help this conversation, and it wasn’t going to help Namine. “Actually… no I don’t,” he said, slowly. “Like I said, we haven’t interacted much in ages. You know him much better than I do.” He sent her a reassuring smile. “How’s it gonna go wrong, huh?”

Namine shrugged, slowly, leaving her shoulders hunched. “I’m… I’m going to tell him that I’m upset because I think he cares too much about me but how’s he going to fix that, how is he supposed to care less? I can’t ask him to care less about me!” Tears glistened in her eyes.

“Guess… guess you can’t,” Sora agreed. “As much as it may annoy you…” he added, in a grumble, his mind flashing briefly over his Shadow. “So you- you have to… learn to live with how much he cares about you, because there’s nothing else you can do, even though it hurts.”

“I… I never said it hurt…?”

Sora flushed red. “W- well, I mean, y-y’know, seeing him? Seeing him, uh… Uh…

“Fall on his face to please me…?” Namine finished. She was eyeing him suspiciously. Sora did his best not to make eye-contact.

“That, yeah. I guess,” he said.

Namine nodded, very slowly, finally turning away from his as she considered it. “Well… ”

“Tell him, uh,” Sora cleared his throat. “Tell him that he doesn’t need to worry so much about pleasing you, maybe? That’s what I would do. I’d tell him that it doesn’t matter how much he loves me, he doesn’t need to trip over himself about it. That’s what I would say, if I could….”

Namine turned back to him, looking even more suspicious than before. Sora grimaced with embarrassment, realizing that was the second time he’d done that. In a span of two minutes.

“I- I mean! If it were me and Riku but it’s obviously not me and Riku and it’s definitely not me and someone else.”

Except that made it worse.

“You’re blushing, Sora,” Namine said, completely deadpan.

He smacked his hands to his face, as if to hide it. “No I’m not! No I’m not.” He could feel the heat in his cheeks, though. There was no use denying that something was up. “Look, it’s- it’s not about me and Kairi or anything, so don’t be worried about that.”

Namine continued eyeing him. “Okay… But… who…?”

Sora shook his head, unable to say anything else, and certainly incapable of telling her the truth. Telling Kairi had been one thing. He’d known her since they’d been in diapers. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Namine, he just… This was no secret he was eager to share.

“Sora…”

“Namine, please, not today—maybe another time.” Maybe never.

She sighed, but didn’t press. “Alright. Well… I guess you’re right about Riku…” She turned to face the opposite wall, staring hard at it. As she continued, she picked up speed, as if becoming more certain of herself. “I should- I should tell him that I love him, and I know he loves me, but that doesn’t mean… That doesn’t mean he has to make me happy all the time. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be happy all the time. I’m going to be angry with him and he’s going to be angry with me but that doesn’t mean we love each other any less.”

Sora sent a surprised look at her, though grateful to be off the subject of him. “You’ve been… thinking a lot about this.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” Namine agreed, nodding.

He smiled and nudged her in the shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I think that’s the perfect thing to say to him.”

“Thank you.”

“Glad I could help.”

“Oh, hey.” Namine straightened and brightened considerably. “What did you come over for, anyway? You need anything?”

“To be honest, I just kinda wanted out of my house,” Sora said, chuckling nervously. “Though I was maybe planning on bouncing ideas off Kairi again—about my parents. How to convince them I’m not lying about being in other worlds.” He scratched the back of his neck, trying not to groan, trying not to stew too hard on his mother’s angry words and his father’s cautious glances, and especially not their lack of belief in general. “I’ve tried everything I can think of but it’s not like I have proof, and frankly, I’m just about ready to—”

Sora,” Namine interrupted him, in a tone that made him check the room for danger before realizing how stupid that was.

“What…?” he asked, brows knitting in his confusion.

She was gaping at him. “What do you mean you don’t have proof?

“Well… it’s not like I brought back any souvenirs,” Sora said. He continued studying Namine, not exactly sure what she meant, or why she was still gaping like he was missing something obvious. Was he? “I guess I could go get some or something but how do I prove they’re actually from another world, and—”

“Sora, you have a giant magic key sword that you can summon at will,” Namine interrupted again, her voice even firmer this time. “How is that not proof?”

“…oh.

“Did that really not even occur to you?”

Sora rubbed at his head, embarrassed to admit that, no, it hadn’t. “Maybe that spell that Kairi’s dad keeps talking about is stronger than we thought…” he murmured. Kairi’s dad swore there was some sort of spell on the island, one that kept everyone from noticing other worlds, one that made everyone on the island forget Riku, forget Namine, briefly forget about him. Most of the problems with his parents Sora chalked up to the spell, honestly. And forgetting he had a Keyblade, and how hard it would be to deny him doing magic in front of his parents…

Well, in short, if he’d had any doubts about the spell, he had none now.

Namine rubbed at her face, shaking her head, clearly at a loss for words. Because of the spell? Because Sora’d forgotten about his Keyblade? He wasn’t sure. He was too embarrassed to ask. After a long moment, Namine asked him:

“So are you going to show them your Keyblade?”

Sora nodded. “Yeah. Uh. Well, my mom is on errands now, and dad’s working on the docks like he always is, and I’d rather get them both at the same time, so, tonight.” He tried to sound confident. Maybe he should catch his dad on the docks, though. He wouldn’t be happy about having work interrupted, but Sora was positive that his dad would be easier to convince, and that it would be easier to convince his dad if they were alone.

“Don’t forget,” Namine said.

Sora nodded again, assuring her he would. He tried not to think about how the spell might affect his memory. About how many reasons he was coming up with to put it off. And definitely not about the fact that he knew he should go talk to his dad now, while he was alone, while he could be sure he wouldn’t forget, but didn’t want to—not that he had no reason for it—so he wouldn’t, and he changed the subject.

“Well, hey, you want to do something?” he asked Namine. “Since, y’know, it’s just us? Been a while since just the two of us have done anything together.”

“Uh… sure. Can we…” Namine paused, chewing her lip for a second. He wasn’t sure if she was just hesitant to voice her suggestion, or if she was having trouble thinking of one. It was the former, he realized, when she spoke. “Would you mind if we did some training, actually? I’d like to practice my magic.”

Sora nodded enthusiastically. That was well within his capabilities. “Yeah, sure!! Let’s go down to the play island, though, just in case of misfires.”

Namine shot him a no duh look. He shrugged innocently.

Chapter Text

Kairi ended up returning first, funnily enough, seeing as Joseph should’ve had Vexen back within seconds after leaving. Whatever. Riku’d relocated to sit a little further away from the mess, though he found he didn’t quite have the energy to move much more than three feet. He sipped on the water as Aerith told him to, and Kairi plopped down on the ground next to him. All three of them sat there, waiting for Joseph to return with Vexen, or for Leon to come with a… bucket, or whatever it was he was looking for. Riku hadn’t been paying attention.

“Do you think if I just blast light at it, it will do anything?” Kairi asked.

“I… No, I don’t think so…” Aerith said, with a rueful look at the mess. “No telling how much scrubbing it out of the ground will do, either, but we’ll have to do something.”

A dark corridor opened, then, and out stepped a frantic looking Vexen, followed by a much calmer—though still worried—Joseph. Vexen stopped short, wide eyes fixed on the mess, looking much like he wasn’t sure what to think.

“I told you,” Joseph said.

Vexen spared the boy a distracted look. “Yes. I… well…”

“When I told him what happened, he said he didn’t believe it,” Joseph explained.

“I’m not sure I blame him,” Aerith said, rising to her feet. “I was a little surprised, too. Anyone puking darkness, Replica or no, seems a little… far-fetched.”

“Well, it happened, so let’s stop arguing about that,” Kairi said. Riku closed his mouth and swallowed his words—he’d been about to say the same thing. Or something along the lines. Aerith sent her a surprised look, and Vexen just shook his head. He did not take his eyes of the mess.

“I… forgive me,” he said, very slowly. “I didn’t do much studying on how darkness affected Replicas, only enough to know it wasn’t good, and so I wrote the Darkness Protection Protocols. Past that…”

“So you have no idea why this happened?” Riku asked.

Vexen shook his head again. “No.”

“Any idea how to keep it from happening again?” Kairi asked.

Vexen hesitated, but his answer was the same. “No.” After a second, he cleared his throat, and amended: “Well, short of installing the Darkness Protection Protocols, anyway.”

“Which you’ll never install, at this rate,” Riku grumbled.

“I’m working on it, Riku! Translating your Code is not such an easy task!”

Riku groaned. Kairi patted him on the shoulder. Vexen scowled at him a moment more, then slowly looked around.

“Uh, by the way, where is Namine?” Vexen asked.

The air went still. Aerith and Kairi exchanged looks—perhaps, in fact, Aerith looked a little accusing. Before either of them could finish that silent exchange of words, Riku spoke. Might as well get it over with.

“On Destiny Islands,” he said. “It doesn’t matter why.”

Based on how Vexen’s face darkened, he might have known why. Riku wasn’t surprised by that, though. He’d had to have noticed something was up when they were all dealing with Larxene. Neither Riku nor Namine had tried very hard to hide it.

The thought stung, and Riku chewed his tongue viciously. Aerith met his eyes after a second, and silently mouthed one word.

“Remember…”

Remember what I told you.

Riku closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He did remember. He did remember how it had been more than sleeplessness that had plagued him one night, how he’d been overcome with a sudden inability to breathe. Once Aerith had found him, and calmed him down, he’d told her everything he could, everything he knew, about what had happened between him and Namine. The thought of not knowing any longer had almost been enough to close up his lungs again.

“Namine just needs some breathing room,” Aerith had told him, once he was calm enough. “And I know it’s hard to hear that she needs it from you, but forever does not mean every moment by each other’s side. You need time alone, time with other people, just to breathe. I’m sure that’s all she needs.”

He’d thought it silly at the time, and maybe still a little silly now (two weeks was an awful long time to catch your breath), but the words had been comforting, and the idea of them on top of what he already knew even more so. She was afraid to confront him. She just needed to breathe.

She wouldn’t have to confront me if someone would tell me what’s wrong, he thought, a little bitterly, but now wasn’t the time to work more answers out of Kairi.

Vexen slowly bent down next to the mess, starting to examine it. Before he could do anything else, someone cleared their throat loudly, drawing everyone’s attention. It was a Vexen Replica. Or…

Riku squinted. This newcomer wasn’t wearing an Organization cloak, and while he easily could’ve still been a Vexen Replica, there was something about the way he carried himself… Riku couldn’t place it. If this was a Vexen Replica, it was one he’d never met.

The Vexen cleared his throat again, only continuing once he was certain he had everyone’s attention. “Ah, forgive me for the intrusion, I just…” It looked very much like he was trying to contain a smile. “Well, I heard myself screaming, and I sensed a lot of darkness, so I thought I’d come see what the fuss was about.” He sent a very pointed look at Vexen, who fumed.

“I was not screaming,” Vexen protested, straightening to his full height.

The Replica sent him a look of disbelief, then held his hands up in surrender. He glanced at the mess. Scowled a moment. Returned his attention to Vexen. “Which Replica are you?” he asked.

Vexen blinked. “Uh. I’m. I’m not. I’m Vexen.”

The Replica raised his eyebrows further. “Right… 6? Are you—?”

“Oh! No! I’m—I’m from a parallel universe,” Vexen explained, quickly. He stared at the new Vexen with wide eyes, and Riku had a feeling he knew why. Before either of them could voice their thoughts—or Kairi could demand to know what was going on, because she looked about ready to—Joseph butt in.

“Oh! Oh!” He moved so he was visible to the new Vexen, jumping up and down excitedly and waving. “Master Vexen!! Hi!!! Nice to see you again!! Glad to know you did come back I heard rumors from uhhh I think Vexen here that you would but I never took the time to ask anyone for a straight answer but hey that’s okay you’re here! Nice to see you!”

The new Vexen—Riku saw no point in calling him Master Vexen—waited until Joseph was finished before saying anything, carefully nodding in the right places. Riku’d only seen 29 have that much patience with the boy, and that wasn’t on every occasion. The new Vexen grinned, though, and bent down a little so he was more on level with Joseph.

“Nice to see you too, Joseph!” he said, very politely. “But I do believe I’m going to start introducing myself as Even now. I think I have the right to that name again, seeing as I have the heart…” He placed a hand over his chest a moment, looking a little distracted. “Ah, but Joseph, no need for any ‘Master Even’s, either. Just Even is fine.”

Joseph nodded and saluted. “Roger that!”

Even smiled at him, then cleared his throat, pulling together a more professional attitude. Riku rolled his eyes at that. “Anyway, I know we haven’t quite finished with introductions,” Even said. “But I really need to ask about… this…” He waved a hand over the mess on the ground.

“I puked darkness,” Riku said. The sooner this was over, the better. He found Vexen insufferable enough, and he didn’t doubt Even would be just as bad, if not worse.

“Oh really?” Even asked, eyes lighting up. “That’s absolutely fascinating.” Worse, Riku realized, as Even knelt down next to the mess and started prodding it with his bare fingers. Even would be much worse than Vexen.

“Leon’s bringing something to clean that up soon, or he should be,” Aerith said.

“You might need more than a bucket and a rag,” Even said, with a little laugh, as he wiped his hand off on his shirt. “Darkness mixed with saliva… Literally, absolutely, fascinating. Can I have a sample?” He looked between Riku and Aerith, as if he needed to ask permission.

“I’m starting to see why you don’t like Vexen,” Kairi muttered, nudging Riku. “I mean, if he’s as bad as this.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve only talked at length with that one Replica. 7. He’s nice. Nothing like this.”

“Do you even have anything to put a sample in?” Vexen demanded. He was standing well away from Even, along with the mess. “And is there really any time for that? I think there are much more important things at hand right now.”

“Tell me, Vexen, when was the last time you can recall someone puking darkness?” Even asked. “Never, right? I want a sample. Surely you can understand that. You’re a scientist, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes.”

“You can’t tell me you’re not the slightest bit curious.”

“I’m worried, and frankly, a little disgusted.”

Even shook his head in disbelief.

Vexen squinted at him. “You didn’t even blanch at the parallel universe thing.”

“What? Oh. Well, if that Riku boy hopped over here, I don’t see why someone else couldn’t have. I’ll want to ask you why of course, but, that can wait a little bit.” Even looked around. “Do any of you have something I can put a sample in? I didn’t bring anything with me.”

Joseph’s hand shot into the air. “Oh! Oh! I do I do! Well okay not on me but I can go get something one sec!” And again, he was gone, before anyone could tell him to do otherwise.

Even let out a long breath and pushed himself to his feet, dusting himself off. “Alright, well, we’ll let him do that, and I guess it’s back to introductions. You…” He pointed at Vexen. “You did say you were Vexen, right?”

Vexen nodded.

“Any reason why that, and not Even? Unless Even isn’t your name.”

“No, it- it was. I just… I never got to reintroduce myself, and now everyone knows me as Vexen…” Vexen sighed. “Besides, it might be a little late now.”

“Ah, yes, it would be strange to have two Evens walking around—but are you sure you don’t mind? I know the, uh, negative connotations that the name Vexen carries.”

“I’ve gotten used to it.”

“But there’s still the option of—”

“Are we going to do any other introductions, or are you going to sit there and keep blabbing at each other?” Kairi demanded. She did not move from where she was sitting next to Riku, and he cringed as she raised her voice. It was just because she was so close that she seemed so loud, he knew, but it still hurt his ears a little.

“Sorry,” Even said. “I’ve already introduced myself, which leaves, well, you three. You’re… ah, wait, you’re Riku, aren’t you?”

Riku nodded. He wished he could look at Even without also having to look at the darkness mess. Where was Leon with that bucket or… whatever he was getting.

Even sent a glance at Vexen. “Your Riku?”

Riku rolled his eyes. “What’s it matter who built me,” he grumbled.

“Right?” Kairi agreed, softly. “Seems like a rude question to ask, if you ask me.”

“…but, I wouldn’t exactly—” Vexen was saying.

Even cut him off before he could finish. “Of course, of course! But you are—

“From the same universe, yes.”

“I’d figured, but—”

“Geeze louise,” Kairi mumbled, shifting so she was leaning back on her arms. “Me and the other Kairi weren’t this bad.”

Riku nodded. “I know—Well, then again, me and Real Thing weren’t ever like this, but… Yeah.” He jutted his chin at Even and Vexen, who were still babbling over top of each other about parallel universes. “This is something new entirely.”

“Have you even interacted that much with anyone from the other universe?” Kairi asked. “I mean, like, I know you have, but like… at length when there’s more duplicates than just you and—wait a minute, did you just call him Real Thing?” She started at him, incredulously.

He returned the look in kind. “I’ve… always called him Real Thing?”

Kairi opened her mouth to say something, but Riku motioned to quiet her, as Even said something that caught his attention.

“And you, you’re Aerith, aren’t you?”

Perhaps this wasn’t the most exciting thing ever, but Riku was still curious. In part to know how Even knew her, and to see how Aerith responded. She was still standing in the same spot, most likely having been waiting politely and patiently while everyone else spoke. It would be like her.

She nodded in response to Even’s question, and told him that, yes, she was Aerith.

“I thought so,” Even said, with a thoughtful nod of his own. Then immediately he looked apologetic, and he explained himself. “I know we never talked much, if at all, but I heard a lot about your mother’s… work, for lack of a better word. And since you aren’t Squall, you must be Aerith.”

Aerith laughed a little. “No, I’m definitely not…” Her smile drooped slightly and she licked her lips. “He goes by Leon, now, by the way. Not Squall. And… I’m sure everyone in the town knew about what my mom did—even people who are returning now light up once they hear the name Gainsborough. It’s a strange feeling.” She smiled again, briefly, but it was gone as Even asked his next question.

“How is your mother, by the way?”

“She- she passed away,” Aerith said. There was a reluctance in her voice, but only a slight one.

Even’s own attitude drooped immediately as well. “Oh. I am sorry to hear that…”

“It’s okay,” Aerith assured him. She hesitated a moment, as she studied Even. “You were… one of Ansem the Wise’s apprentices, weren’t you?”

“Ah, yes, I was,” Even replied. His voice seemed a bit emptier than normal. “Any… any news of him?”

Aerith shook her head.

“Unfortunate, that,” Even said, but he did not sound surprised.

“What about any of the other apprentices?” Vexen asked. “If you’ve returned, shouldn’t they have, as well? Have you seen any of them?”

“It was only me in the Castle, and I searched every room,” Even replied. “There looked to be recent signs of life, but no telling who from.”

“Could’ve been one of them.”

Even dismissed Vexen’s argument with a wave of his hand. “Could’ve been one of the Restoration Committee. Or Xehanort. Anyway, I believe I have yet to ask this young lady her name.” He gestured at Kairi.

She rolled her eyes. “It’s Kairi. Thanks for finally taking the time to ask.” Sarcasm was thick in her tone.

“Forgive me, I kept getting interrupted, and it would be a lie to say I’ve ever been good at—uh…” Even stopped short, all of a sudden, considering Kairi with wide eyes. He took a few steps in their direction. Riku could almost see the gears turning in his mind as he thought.

“Got something on my face?” Kairi asked.

“Oh, no, I… Your mother. What-  what’s her name?”

Kairi shrugged. “Heck if I know, Dad says she moved out when I was two, and doesn’t say anything else about her.” Then she appeared to realize what Even had just said, and she jumped to her feet. “Wait, are you saying you know her?”

“I… I think so…” Even blinked. “The memories are not as clear as I’d like them to be, and I only saw her a few times.”

“Can you give me a name?”

“Mira.”

“Mira,” Kairi repeated. She said the name slowly, as if tasting it on her tongue. She sent a look in Riku’s direction, mouthing the name again. She looked surprised. She looked happy. She took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

“I got it!” A dark corridor opened, and Joseph stepped out, holding a small glass vile, which he promptly handed over to Even. “Sorry it took so long. Couldn’t find my chemistry set right away.”

Even thanked Joseph and told him it was alright, as he bent down and scooped some of the mess into the vial—when was Leon going to get here with those cleaning supplies? Riku was getting really tired of looking at this mess. He was the only one sitting on the ground, too, now, and that wasn’t helping his mood. Just the thought of standing made his head swim, though.

Did I ever ask how this happened?” Even asked, looking straight at Riku. He suppressed a groan. “I understand that you puked darkness, but, how? Why?”

“I was hoping one of you could tell me,” Riku replied. He sent a pointed glance at Vexen, who was fuming where he stood.

“I’m assuming it had something to do with the fact I forgot to install the Darkness Protection Protocols,” Vexen began, speaking as if he expected an interruption. “But besides that—”

Even rounded on him. “You forgot to do what?!” he demanded. He sounded and looked about as angry and as horrified as 7 had when he’d learned the same news. “I don’t know how things worked in your universe, but I doubt you had Darkness Protection Protocols for nothing.

“Yes, yes, I get that it was a mistake, but I have to translate his Code to your Code before I can do anything about it!”

Even rubbed at his temples with one hand, slowly leaning back on the ground so he was completely sitting, opposed to squatting like he had been. Riku tried not to chuckle, but Vexen often made him feel the same way.

No one said anything for a moment. Vexen looked like he was trying to find words to say, though, and Aerith was squinting in the direction of her house. It was Joseph who broke the silence with a rough clearing of his throat.

“Master- Master Even, sir?” he said.

“Just Even is fine.”

“Right. Sorry. I just…” He wouldn’t look Even in the eye. “I was wondering why there are Darkness Protection Protocols and not protection protocols for anything else….”

Even lowered his hand from his head, studying Joseph carefully. “I’m… I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

“I just mean… I…” Joseph appeared to swallow hard. He still would not look at Even, which was unusual for him. This behavior even had Riku worried. “Why did you make us…? Or, why did you make us so young? Why- why did…” He sniffed, loudly. “Why did you think it was such a good idea to give an eight-year-old boy so much power and no idea how to use it!?

Even stared, blankly.

“He means Toby,” Kairi said. Her voice shook as well, but not as much as Joseph’s did.

“Toby?” Even sent her the same blank look, then recognition crossed his face. “Oh yes. I forgot for a moment.”

“You forgot!?” Joseph shouted.

“I- Joseph, you have to understand, all of my memories are a little fuzzy right now,” Even stammered, hastily. “And Toby? Toby was an experiment I did not have time to pursue—I’d only just finished him when Riku arrived in this universe, and Xemnas wanted me to study him, and I was curious, and- and I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Whatever- whatever happened to him, I can fix it, alright? I can fix it.”

Joseph shook his head aggressively. “No you can’t. He’s gone. He’s dead. His data was fried because you didn’t think everything through, because you didn’t have time!

“Joseph, I swear, if I have his file, I can just—”

“That’s gone too!” Joseph trembled, breathing heavily. “I know- I know it’s not your fault Riku killed you, and it’s not his fault because he didn’t know, but that doesn’t change the fact that you were gone, and that so many bad things happened, and that no one was there to stop them. You weren’t there to stop them. And I just… I…” He shook his head and scrubbed at his eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

He formed a dark corridor around himself, and he was gone. Even stared at where he had stood, appearing stunned. Riku didn’t blame him, entirely, though he knew what Joseph had been through. He sent a look over at Aerith, trying to judge how she’d reacted to all of that—she knew very little about Replicas, and there was no telling how much had made sense, or how much he would have to explain. Aerith did look confused, but when she caught him looking at her, she sent him a look and a shake of her head. Not right now.

Riku eyed the mess three feet from him, and nodded. Not right now. He could explain later, if she needed him to. He cleared his throat, turning his attention to Even.

“I’m, uh, I’m sorry about killing you, by the way,” he said. It felt weird to say, but he figured Even deserved that apology. There’s little I regret more, he added, silently. It might not have prevented everything that had happened with the Rebellion, but it certainly would’ve prevented some.

“Oh? Well, I didn’t stay dead, so no hard feelings, I suppose.” Even smiled uneasily at him. “The… The Program, though… What happened to it?”

Riku let out a long breath, not at all looking forward to having to discuss that. But he owed that to Even as well, for all the trouble he’d caused.

Vexen spoke before he had the chance. “Perhaps you should see for yourself,” he told Even. “And ask one of the Replicas. They will be able to explain better than us.”

Riku doubted he would’ve done that badly at explaining everything, but he was certainly grateful that he didn’t have to.

“That is a good idea,” Even agreed. He pushed himself to his feet again, pocketing his vial. “Do we have transportation? I can’t form dark corridors anymore.”

“I can,” Vexen said. “Riku, if you wouldn’t mind coming, too… Perhaps a scan of your data and a check of your darkness levels would better clue us in as to why this happened.”

Riku took a second to nod his reply. It wasn’t that he hadn’t expected the request, or that he hadn’t assumed this would be the next step. It was that Vexen had asked so politely, rather than demanded it of him.

“Here.” Kairi reached down to pull him to his feet. “I’ll go too, of course.”

“And I’ll stay here and see where Leon is,” Aerith said. “This mess has to be cleaned up one way or another. Take care. Nice meeting you, Even.” She waved at them, then started for her house.

Vexen formed a dark corridor. “Let’s go, then, shall we?”

Chapter Text

“What do you want to start with?” Sora asked, rubbing his hands together. Namine shrugged, staring at him. The waves pounded in the distance. The sand crunched beneath her bare feet. Sora’d ditched his jacket, and it lay off to the side—summer had already started, and the afternoons were beginning to get hot.

“I dunno,” Namine said. “I’m really only good at Reflect.” It was the only one she’d been practicing. The only one she could practice while sitting in Kairi’s bedroom. The only one she could practice without having her heart seize in her chest. Just the attempt of casting offensive spells made her feel queasy. She’d asked Kairi to help her to get used to it again, but Kairi’s tough-love attitude didn’t help. That’s why she asked Sora.

She figured she should probably tell him the real reason she wanted to practice, but her tongue was tied, and he was talking before she could even sort her words enough to start.

“Reflect?” Sora looked at her with wide, curious eyes. “I don’t know that one.”

Rather than explain it to him, Namine just reached out and cast it. The barrier came much quicker, and lasted a little longer—that’s what she’d been practicing to do with it, along with make it reach a wider area. For now it still only surrounded her, but she was certain its reach was increasing, if only by inches.

“Whoa! Neat!” Sora rubbed his hands together again, eyes glinting with an eagerness to try. Before he asked her for any instruction, he reached out his hands, and commanded: “Reflect!” To Namine’s surprise, the spell took—it didn’t go completely around him, but it did reach over his head. For a first try, that was pretty outstanding.

“Amazing…” she whispered, trying not to gape, and trying not to feel jealous. She’d managed to learn it well enough to completely surround herself with it in a day, but it had definitely taken her more than a few tries. “Good- good job!” she told Sora, forcing a smile.

He was grinning, looking very pleased with himself. “Thanks! My magic’s gotten a lot better lately. But, c’mon, that can’t have been perfect. Tell me what I got wrong. Lemme try again.”

They spent probably fifteen minutes going over it, though it consisted more of Sora casting it multiple times in a row than it did of Namine doing anything. He was trying to train himself to focus on the idea of the spell, to memorize the feel of it, something which could only be done through repetition. Rather than waste her energy by practicing it as well, Namine just watched, and gave him pointers, usually only when he demanded them. He had the spell mastered within those fifteen minutes.

“Alright,” Sora said, after he’d downed an ether. “What now? You wanna work on something? What spells do you know?”

“That, Cure, and Fire…” Namine said, very slowly. Now was her chance. She just had to tell him.

“Then I guess Blizzard is where we start!” Sora moved to stand next to her, holding a hand out. “It’s a lot like casting Fire, but instead of focusing on heat, you focus on cold, or picture ice… or a chunk of ice… Blizzard is actually pretty fun because it comes in different forms, if you want it to. Watch.” He cast it twice in rapid succession—the first was a blast of ice from his hand, the second a chunk that dropped from the sky, then he turned to her with a grin. “It just depends on how you picture it in your head when you cast it! You try!”

Namine reached out her hand, too afraid for a moment to speak, too afraid to do anything but go along, even though it was not quite what she wanted to do. She could hardly raise her hand, though. Her chest seemed to constrict.

“Something wrong…?” Sora asked, studying her.

“I…” She licked her lips, and pulled her hand back to her chest. “I’m not sure if I’m… If I can…” That wasn’t right. None of those words were right. “I just want… I want to be able to cast offensive magic without freezing up…”

Sora considered her a long moment, obviously not understanding at first. It clicked before he had to ask, at least, and patience washed over his face. “Ah, I see! Right, then Aero is what I need to be teaching you—it’s offensive, but it doesn’t do much more than push an enemy back and away from you. Maybe it does damage? I wouldn’t count on it doing a lot though…” He shook his head, then with a sweep of his hand commanded: “Wind!

A blast of air carved its way through the sand. Namine could feel it pull at her a little. She licked her lips. Sora sent a reassuring smile at her. “Think you can do that?” he asked.

“I… Let me try…”

It couldn’t do any damage. She had to keep telling herself that in order to make herself even raise her hand from her side. She could not hurt anyone with it. She could not hurt anyone.

Namine took a deep breath, then mirrored Sora’s actions exactly, down to the verbal command and sweep of her arm. A gust of wind fled her, though it was much more feeble than Sora’s had been. At least it was something.

“Good job!” Sora clapped her on the back. She tried not to tense at his touch. “See? You’ve got this. Try again, alright? Let’s see how far we can get with this.”

They practiced for a while more, and Namine’s blasts became slowly more powerful—only by a little at a time, but she was no magical prodigy, and she knew well enough it could be months before she really had a hang of it.

Sora eventually coaxed her into trying it against him, reminding her that it was just a gust of wind, and it could not hurt him. “The worst that could happen is I get sand in my mouth!” he told her, laughing. He still had to assure her it wouldn’t hurt him at least twenty times, and she had to remind herself a thousand more before she was able to even prepare to cast the spell against him.

She managed to do it, though, with only the slightest catch of her stomach. The air did nothing more but whip at Sora’s clothes, and he grinned at her, once he’d pulled his arm away from shielding his face. “There you go!” he said. “Try it again. I’ll Reflect this time.”

Namine took a few deep breaths, but cast it again for him. He cast Reflect before it hit, and when his spell went down, he grinned even wider. “Didn’t feel a thing!” he told her. Namine sighed in relief. That was good to hear.

“Wanna try with a different spell?” Sora asked. “How about Blizzard again? That one’s relatively harmless—or, it can’t do any serious damage. Maybe a couple bruises.”

Her stomach churned at the thought of having to cast another spell against Sora. She should tell him that that was enough practicing for today. That maybe she should just practice Aero for now—thank you for teaching it to me. There were so many excuses, but she could open her mouth to form none of them.

Sora took her through the steps of casting Blizzard again, and had her cast it at the empty air in front of them for a while. She could make herself cast it, now. She could make herself cast it. Perhaps it was because she knew it could not hurt anyone so long as she aimed at the sand. Perhaps she was just getting in the groove again.

In fact, Namine felt fairly confident before long. She could cast the magic without freezing up. That’s all she wanted. Her confidence and good mood fled her, though, when Sora proposed the idea of her tossing Blizzard at him while he Reflected.

“It won’t hurt me,” he told her, for the hundredth time. “I have good reflexes, I’ll get the Reflect up in time, and I’ll be fine! And even if I don’t, somehow, it’s just Blizzard. Like I said, the worst I can get is a nasty bruise. Nothing a Cure couldn’t fix. C’mon, Namine!”

She wanted to tell him no. That was enough for today. She was too nervous. But it was hard to refuse, hard to deny the eager glint in Sora’s eyes. The thought of casting the spell against him scared her to death. The thought of backing out and explaining herself and having to argue against Sora’s persistence scared her just as much.

So as Sora took his stance, Namine took deep breaths and prepared herself to do it. She raised her hand to cast the spell—

All she could see was Riku, lying in his own blood.

Her laugh, his screams, ringing in her ears.

Get up, you worthless piece of—

Her stomach heaved. The air fled her lungs. Bile rose to her mouth. A faint thumping started in the back of her head.

“No!” she cried, falling to her knees. She shook her head vigorously, clutching at her hair. She couldn’t do it.

“Namine?” Sora was at her side before her name had finished leaving his lips. “C’mon, you okay?”

“N-no, no stay back! I’m going to hurt you!”

“I already told you, a Blizzard—”

Sora, seriously!”

The thumping in her head was too familiar. The itch of her blood.

“You aren’t going to hurt anyone, Namine…” Sora said, after a moment.

She shook her head again. He wasn’t listening. How could he not be listening? It was him who restrained her, in the end, when it had come down to it. He knew how much damage she could do as well as anyone else. Didn’t he remember?

“I’m going to hurt you!” she cried again. She would have pushed him away from her, but even that could turn into a further form of violence. Even if he did not remember, she did.

Sora did not budge an inch. Was he insane? “Namine, come on, that’s not true!” he said. “I’m your friend. You wouldn’t hurt me.”

Please, Sora, just stay back!

Instead he pulled her into a hug. Tears welled up in her eyes, in part from the comfort of it, in part from terror. He was too close to avoid getting hurt, if something did happen, if she did—

“It’s okay,” he whispered, holding her tight and doing nothing more. “You won’t hurt me. You aren’t going to hurt anyone. You’re safe now.”

She shook her head and did not stop. The pounding in her head persisted. “They’re gonna make me hurt you, they did, they put it in my head that I have to—”

“No, shh, that was fixed, wasn’t it? That was fixed. You aren’t going to attack anyone.”

“I’m scared. I’m scared.” Tears poured from her eyes, and her stammers became sobs. “I don’t want to hurt anyone again. I- I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“You’re not gonna hurt anyone,” Sora repeated. “I promise, Namine, you aren’t going to. Not if you don’t want to.”

“But on accident?”

He shrugged, slightly, and Namine felt it as he did. “Accidents happen,” Sora said. “But you won’t hurt anyone on purpose. There’s no way.”

It was too much to take, too much to believe, and she was terrified. “But- but even if I don’t want to, I- even if I don’t want to, I- I’m going to. I- I never wanted to kill Riku, I never wanted to but I nearly did. I nearly did.

“They fixed that,” Sora clutched her tightly, grounding how her body shook. “You won’t do it again. You gotta believe you’re okay, because you are okay.”

“O-okay…”

Shh, you’re okay.”

“Okay.”

He held her for a long while, until she could breathe properly again. He kept reminding her that she was okay, every now and then, just as the silence seemed too much and tears broke in her eyes again. How his timing was so perfect, Namine did not know, but she was very grateful for him to be here, very grateful to have Sora as a friend.

When he finally let her go, they sat in the sand, saying nothing for a moment. Sora looked like he wanted to. Namine looked down at her hands. After studying them for a bit, and once sure Sora would not say anything, she spoke, quietly, her voice hardly above a whisper.

“It’s just… I nearly killed Riku,” she said. It was something of an apology. An explanation. “That doesn’t just… go away.

“I- I know,” Sora said. “I know.”

He shifted a little, so he wasn’t sitting casually anymore, but hunched over his folded knees. He took a long breath.

“And I- I know this probably doesn’t compare to what you had to go through, but… I was forced to fight a lot of people I didn’t want to, and in the end, I was forced to kill all of them—” His voice caught, and he shuddered a little. “I- I killed them. I killed people. And, I- I know that Organization 13 was a group of bad people who would do bad things, and I know that he apparently had to die, but I still… It… Y’know.” He sent her a bitter smile. “It doesn’t go away.”

“Right…”

And Sora was right about it not comparing more than anything else. He did not have to face and fight someone he loved. Worse, he did not want to do it.

It was the memory of wanting to kill Riku, wanting to slice him open, that burned her worse than anything else. The glee she’d felt as she watched him writhe. That was real, even if it was elicited by programming, by something that was not her. She remembered it very clearly, and it stained her mind.

She could not bring herself to correct Sora, though.

She could not belittle his feelings—he was just trying to comfort her, to be sympathetic, and she understood that. She could not tell him that it did not work, could not bear telling him that it made her feel no better.

So she kept her thoughts to herself.

“I’m sorry, by the way,” Sora said, after a moment. “I… I shouldn’t have pushed you to try that, even if it was harmless… We should’ve just gone and fought Heartless. I would’ve been able to practice Reflect, and you’d have been able to practice casting spells. Heartless are all you’re probably gonna be fighting from here on, anyway. I can’t think of any other big-bad-guy threats like Organization 13.”

Namine shrugged. “It’s okay.”

“You mean that?” Sora leaned in close to her, twisting his head so he could look at her from the position he put himself in.

“You were trying to help,” Namine said, with another shrug. “And you didn’t realize right away that it wasn’t going to… That’s not your fault…”

“Well, still, next time lemme know if you’re getting uncomfortable. You’ve gotta let your friends know about that stuff!”

She nodded, having no voice to say anything else. Trying not to think about how hard that was, even if it was what she needed to do.

Sora slowly poked her knee. “You wanna go fight Heartless now?” he asked.

“No. I want to go to Castle Oblivion. I- I want to make sure I’m safe.”

“You are, Namine.”

“I want to talk to 7.”

Sora looked at her as if he could stare an answer out of her, then he sighed. “Alright,” he agreed. He jumped to his feet and pulled her to hers, then dug his star shard out of his pocket. A few seconds later, they were both whisked away.

Chapter Text

Riku chewed at his tongue angrily. He and Kairi were sitting in the Main Room of C.O. A place he’d hoped to never visit again. Vexen had done a scan of his data to check on his darkness, and besides a few incomprehensible noises, he hadn’t said whether it was in a good state or a bad one. He and Even were currently back in one of the rooms with a computer—which room, he wasn’t sure, perhaps it’d been 7’s room—still arguing over it. Riku and Kairi had left them to that a while ago, and now they were sitting here.

“You, uh, sure we can’t just leave and have them come bug us if they find something?” Kairi asked.

Riku shrugged.

“That’s no help.”

“Sorry. What do you want me to say?”

Kairi sat herself on the ground again—why she couldn’t just sit on the couch Riku didn’t understand, but he figured that she was occupying herself by moving around. And shooting her hair-ties at him.

“Something to get us out of here, or at least give us something to do,” Kairi replied. “I mean, how long have we been here?

“Twenty minutes.”

“It feels like forever.”

Riku only shrugged again. She wasn’t exactly wrong, though. They’d only been sitting out here for twenty minutes. They’d probably been here, total, closer to an hour. Long enough for Even to be filled in on what happened in his absence and then come back to argue with Vexen, anyway.

Kairi scowled at him, but said nothing, not for a long moment. Then she smiled and shot another hair-tie at him. He wasn’t quite quick enough to catch it, but he was able to deflect it, and prevent it from hitting him in the eye.

“Could always teach you how to use one of these,” Kairi laughed.

With irritation, Riku realized he was tugging at his hair again—it felt a little strange to have it tied up like this, and he just couldn’t get used to it. He pulled his hand away and sent Kairi’s hair-tie back at her.

“Come on,” Kairi said, still laughing. She wasn’t quick enough to catch the hair-tie either. “If you’re gonna keep your hair that long, you might wanna know how to keep it out of your face.”

“I’m fine.”

“C’mon, Riku.”

“I said I’m fine.”

“I could always get you a headband.”

Kairi.

“The least I can do is fix your ponytail,” Kairi said, pushing herself to her feet. She slid the hair-tie they’d been shooting at each other around her wrist so deftly he almost missed it.

Riku groaned. There was no stopping her at this point. “Just get it out of my hair,” he grumbled. “I don’t need it.”

“Alright, fi—”

Sora and Namine suddenly arrived by star shard, cutting her off. Riku stared in surprise. Kairi was only tripped up a moment by their arrival, and was soon enough tugging her hair-tie out of Riku’s hair. He tried not to flinch too much.

“What are you two doing here?” Kairi asked. She asked like she already knew the answer.

Sora shifted uncomfortably. “Well, uh, Namine wanted to practice magic, and she taught me this neat new spell called Reflect, and I wanted to practice it, so I asked her to cast some magic at me.”

Kairi finished yanking her hair-tie out of Riku’s hair with a surprising ferocity, then marched over to Sora and elbowed him hard in the gut. “What were you thinking?” she asked, then she was going to Namine, sliding her hair-tie around her wrist, and looking on the verge of reaching out and hugging Namine. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Namine said. It didn’t look like she was meeting Kairi’s eyes, and she sounded nervous about something. “I’m alright. I just… Y’know? Wanted to check.”

“Want me to go with you?”

“I got it…”

She glanced once at Riku, and then she was walking away, in the direction of 7’s office. Riku stared after her, only a little surprised. He didn’t entirely follow what had just happened, but he knew well enough that she did not seem to want to talk to him, and he was in no mood to press.

And… something Kairi had said earlier came to mind, watching her. “No, more like scared of any confrontation.” He did not fully piece together what Sora and Kairi were talking about, but the way Namine’d held herself, all small and hunched over, drawn in on herself… She’d gotten like that the last time they’d spoken. He’d assumed it was because she was scared of him, but she’d been like that now, and that was before she’d even noticed he was here.

Perhaps it wasn’t just him…

“I don’t want to believe you’re a monster, Riku, but sometimes…”

Those were not easy words to forget, though.

“Where’s your dumb jacket, Sora?” Kairi asked, smacking him playfully.

Sora pushed her off, looking somewhere between amused and annoyed. “Hey, first, I left it on the beach, whoops, I’ll get it later, but second and more importantly, it’s not dumb!!”

“Yes it is!” Kairi laughed.

“Is not!

“Sora, it has an X across the front of it, how is that cool?

“IT’S- well, that’s…” Sora frowned hard, fumbling for an answer. A smile drew on Riku’s lips. “Okay, well, that’s not super cool or anything, but the rest of it is cool, and my style, and, uh…. the only thing that matched the pants….”

Kairi sighed and rolled her head back in exasperation.

“Hey, uh, what are you two doing here, anyway?” Sora asked, looking first at Kairi, then at Riku.

“He puked darkness,” Kairi answered, before Riku could open his mouth.

Sora gaped. “You what?!

“Puked darkness,” Riku repeated, nodding a little. He slowly reached behind his neck and pushed his hair away from it. Having it down suddenly felt as weird as having it up did. “It wasn’t very pleasant…” Before Sora could say anymore, he gestured in the direction Namine had went. “What’s up with her, huh? I didn’t really follow.”

“Oh, well, uh…” Sora and Kairi exchanged identical glances, as Kairi shrugged, and Sora slowly scratched the back of his neck. “They’re, like, panic attacks, we guess.” He held out his hands and shrugged.

“I’ve been doing a lot of reading on my dad’s computer and that’s what they sound like,” Kairi added. “She sorta just, kinda… She shuts down on herself if you push her too hard, or she’ll start freaking out about how she’s gonna hurt someone, which, I get, but…”

Riku’s eyes narrowed.

“Okay… but, it’s been a full month now. Have they seriously not entirely fixed this Rewritten thing?”

Sora shrugged again, obviously clueless. Kairi glowered at him.

“Look, I have no idea, I just know Namine’s still itchy about it,” she said crossing her arms firmly over her chest. “So I guess they haven’t.”

Riku swallowed. That was certainly the least comforting thing he’d heard all day. Knowing that there was a chance—even the slightest—that, perhaps, he could suddenly find Namine’s hands around his throat, or worse, sent shivers down his spine. And imagine how Namine must’ve felt. How was he supposed to assure her she was safe if she wasn’t?

“Uh, Riku…?”

Riku looked up. Vexen. His expression immediately turned sour.

“Even wants another look at your darkness levels,” Vexen said. “Do you think you could…?”

Riku sighed, but got to his feet. “Yeah.”

“Can we come?” Kairi asked.

Vexen looked first at her, then at Sora. His eyes narrowed slightly, for a moment, and then he just sighed. “Well, I see no point in stopping you,” he said. “And if Even minds, he can complain.”

“Who’s Even?” Sora asked.

Riku sighed again. This was certainly not how he’d wanted to spend his day.

 

xxx

 

Namine took a deep breath as her consciousness returned to her. She felt only mildly better, and a quick check of her internal clock told her not much time had passed. Apparently 7 hadn’t done any editing of her data to remove… whatever it was that made her act like this. Was there no bad data left? No, there had to be. How else could she explain what had happened this morning?

She pushed herself upright, slowly, eyes narrowed.

“You’re clear,” 7 told her.

“I’m safe?”

“Yes.” He sounded a little exasperated. Exhausted. “You’re fine. I looked, and there doesn’t seem to be anything.” There wasn’t anything left. How was that possible?

“So, I… I won’t hurt anyone?” she asked.

“You shouldn’t. There’s… There’s no reason you would.”

There were no protocols left telling her to harm anyone. It should’ve been a relief, but all it brought was confusion. If there weren’t any protocols, then what happened this morning? If there weren’t any protocols… She opened her mouth to press, to ask 7 to double-check, to be sure, but then he said:

“Riku’s in the next room over. Vexen thought you’d want to know.” 7 made a show out of checking his computer so he wouldn’t have to look at her.

Namine swallowed her question. Riku. Right. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. To steel herself. She’d put this off long enough, and she should really put it off no longer.

“Alright,” she said. She rose to her feet. “Alright. I’ll- I’ll go.”

7 did not care about this, or he can’t have cared much, but saying the words aloud further cemented her resolve. Further committed her to doing it. She couldn’t put this off any longer. And she knew what she was going to say to him, and Sora’d said it was a good idea, and she’d run it over and over and over in her mind.

She knew what she wanted to say. She loved him. She knew he loved her. He didn’t have to go out of his way to please her. She wasn’t always going to be happy. It was so simple. It made her heart beat so hard.

Despite that, Namine still forced herself out into the hallway. She couldn’t back out. She wouldn’t back out. She started to where Riku was, only sparing a second glance and a polite “excuse me” at the Vexen she bumped into on the way. The second glance was only because he wasn’t wearing an Organization cloak. But it didn’t matter. She couldn’t let herself get distracted, or she’d never keep her resolve, she’d never speak to Riku.

The door was open, so she stepped in, stopping in the doorway. “Uhm…” she began, and then stopped. Where to start? Riku was sitting on the single cot in this room, Vexen was over by the single computer, and Kairi and Sora were leaning against the wall by the door—or they had been. Kairi looked at Namine only a second before nodding like she understood, and a look was all she sent at Sora before he was nodding as well.

“Ah, Namine, good to see you!” Vexen said, smiling at her. He looked genuinely pleased. Riku said nothing, just picked at his fingers, as if they were more interesting. He looked so tired.

Namine hesitantly opened her mouth to answer Vexen, but then Sora called at him and waved him over, and before Namine really understood, Sora was on his toes so he could hiss something in Vexen’s ear. Something Namine couldn’t hear. Vexen first looked surprised, then disgruntled, then about to argue, but a look from Sora stopped that.

“Oh, yes, that’s right!” Vexen said, with an obvious forced enthusiasm. “I was going to talk to 7. If you’d excuse me…”

Sora followed out the door after him, then Kairi—she paused only a second to squeeze Namine’s shoulder. Then all three of them were gone, and the door was closed, and it was just Riku and Namine left in the room. Riku looked up at her, moving as if it were a chore, his face drawn in thin patience. She had never seen him look so tired.

He said nothing, though. He just kept messing with his fingers, staring at her. Waiting for her to make the first move. Namine took a deep breath. Where to start? She knew what she wanted to say, she had rehearsed, but she had not prepared anything to start with. Riku we need to talk seemed too blunt. I have something to say seemed too forward. If you want to fix our relationship then listen seemed like just a way to guilt him, and that was the last thing she wanted to do.

She wished Riku would stop staring at her. This had seemed so easy when she was in the hall, but now that they were in the same room, now that they were alone… It was so much more overwhelming than she wanted it to be, than she’d expected it to be. It was like something was wrapped tightly around her chest and squeezing hard, squeezing so hard that her heart beat furiously against it and air only barely got into her lungs.

She couldn’t do this.

She was terrified.

Namine was just turning her feet towards the door, just turning to bail, when Riku spoke.

“Look, Namine, I… I messed up.”

She froze where she stood, feet unbalanced, half-turned away from him. The air seemed to tighten around her. She didn’t turn to look at him, kept her gaze where it was, at a point halfway between the wall and the floor.

“Wh-what?”

“I messed up, Namine, alright? I messed up.” Riku paused, only a moment. She could hear him swallow—it was funny how sound acted in this castle. Most moments the walls seemed to suck up even the tiniest noise, but in moments like these they were all amplified tenfold.

“I… I don’t know what I did,” Riku continued. “But, obviously, I must’ve done something wrong. I… I get that. But if you won’t tell me what I did wrong, then I can’t fix it. So- so please, Namine… don’t go…”

Namine gasped for air, biting her lip and trying hard not to sob, but tears were already running down her cheeks. Her heart tugged at the sound of his wavering voice—of how desperate the boy she loved sounded. She could hardly bear it anymore.

She turned to him, hugging herself tightly, tears falling freely.

“I… I messed up, too…” she said, haltingly. “And I… I’m sorry. I was just… I was scared…”

It was an effort to get her feet moving, but once she started, she could not stop. She stumbled over to him and sat on her knees in front of him—he was still at least a foot taller than her, at least, and it was not just granted to him just because he was sitting on the cot. He was so big, and she was so small, and that was the way it had always been.

“Scared of what…?” Riku asked. He reached out, running his fingers over her cheek. She leaned into his touch, unable to help herself. She’d missed him.

“I… I didn’t know what to say…” Namine said, shaking her head. It was too much to admit she’d been scared of him, scared of what her negativity would do to him. Even now, she couldn’t do it, couldn’t tell him that. She should, probably, but she couldn’t. “And I was scared…” She swallowed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright…”

His voice was sweet. His calloused hands were rough. She swallowed again, then pulled his hand away from her face. There was no running, now—no running from this, no running from the fact her words might hurt him, whether she wanted them to or not. She had to say them. She had to fix this.

“Namine?”

She covered her mouth with one hand, clutching Riku’s fingers in the other, trying again to hold back a sob. She took a few deep breaths, trying to calm herself. It seemed to work. She just hoped it would last long enough for her to get the words out.

“I- I owe you an explanation,” she said, grinding the words between her teeth and spitting them from her mouth. It seemed like a good place to start. “For… for why I w—for why I’m upset.” For why I was wouldn’t work. She was still upset. “I- I just… I get tired of this, Riku. I- I get tired of this… this routine…”

His brow furrowed with confusion. “What routine?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. Wished she wasn’t crying, but there was no helping that now. No going back now. Her stomach heaved. She had to get this done.

“Me… me trying to keep you… happy.”

“I don’t understand.”

She shook her head. Didn’t open her eyes.

“I- I shouldn’t have to keep you… happy, Riku.”

“I never said you had to?”

“I know.” She knew—she’d always known that he’d never been doing this on purpose, that he didn’t know any better. She hadn’t known better, either, not for a long while. “But when you- when you fall all over yourself to keep me happy, when- when the moment I’m upset you get upset, too… It- it feels like I have to stay happy to keep you happy, and I- I can’t do that.” She hoped her tears weren’t slurring her words too much. “I- I can’t be happy forever, Riku. And you- you shouldn’t rely on my happiness to be happy.”

“I… I’m still not sure I understand.” Riku’s voice caught. Namine shivered. “Isn’t it…? Aren’t I supposed to be worried about you, when you’re upset?”

Namine just shook her head, hard. She squeezed Riku’s hand between hers, for a second, and he shifted so he was clutching her hand back. “I- I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, I just… I- I know that… I think that you’re taking it too far.”

“Too far?” Riku asked.

She nodded. “We’re- we’re too dependent on each other, Riku. You’re too—” He was too dependent on her, and yet she couldn’t say that. “I’m not always going to be happy with you, Riku. There are times when I’m gonna be mad at you, I’m gonna be really mad at you. But you can’t- you can’t let it destroy you. You can’t destroy yourself because I’m not happy. You- You can’t destroy yourself because I don’t think you’re perfect, because I don’t think you’re perfect, and I never will!”

“I…”

“And I know. I- I kn-know it’s a lot to ask, after- after everything you’ve been through.” She scrubbed at her cheeks. This hurt the most. “After- after Larxene. After the other Namine, after… after all that. But I- I can’t do this Riku. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t—”

He threw his arms around her. He gripped her so tight she thought she’d puke, but she didn’t tell him to let go, she wrapped her arms around him too. Buried her face in his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said, he sobbed. The sound of his voice cracking was torture. “I still don’t think I understand, but I’ll try. I’ll try to understand. I’ll try to fix it. I’ll try.”

“Thank you…”

“Yeah.”

After a long moment Riku pulled away, taking her face in his hands, wiping her tears away with his thumbs. Her eyes still hurt, but that wasn’t because of his touch, only because of the tears. She laughed, a broken thing, but the smile on her face was real. He smiled back, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes—those were clouded with worry.

“And… about Larxene…”

Namine shook her head. “Don’t, alright? What’s done is done.”

“I’m sorry, though,” Riku said. “Not for what I tried to do, not for what I wanted to do. But I’m sorry I scared you. And… and maybe it wasn’t worth all the trouble it caused. That won’t change how I feel about her, but she’s not worth losing you.”

Namine wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to sob, so she did both. “She’s- she’s also dead,” she said. “And she can’t hurt you. Maybe I- Maybe I didn’t want it to happen the way it did—but her being dead is something to celebrate, at least, isn’t it?”

He laughed with her, a bubbly thing. “Yeah!” his voice still cracked, but his smile was beautiful. “I guess it is.”

Chapter Text

Namine and Riku sat there for a little longer, out of words but enjoying each other’s presence. Namine wasn’t sure how long she wanted to stay there, or if she wanted to say anything else… Then they were interrupted by the sound of someone falling over, a distinct ow, and a sharp shh!

The ow had been from Sora, and Kairi’d been doing the hushing.

Riku sent a wry look at Namine, then leaned around her. “Boy, I sure hope someone’s not eavesdropping on us!” he called.

There was a pause.

“Uh, nothing here but us mice!” Sora called. His voice was slightly muffled by the door, but they could still hear him clear enough.

“Sora, you idiot, that gave us away!!”

“They already knew we were here, Kairi!”

Namine found a furious blush rising to her cheeks. “Were you two eavesdropping the whole time?” she asked.

There was a pause, then Kairi opened the door. Sora was flat on his face on the ground, which would explain the falling noises. “Look,” Kairi said, “I just wanted to be on hand in case I needed to punch Riku in the—I mean be here for moral support.”

Sora burst out laughing. Namine blushed harder. Riku only rolled his eyes, which was a relief to Namine. At least he wasn’t going to get offended.

“Woooow Kairi,” Sora said.

“Oh, get up off the floor!”

“I can’t believe you two were eavesdropping,” Riku said.

“Really?” Sora asked, as he pushed himself to his feet. “Because, that’s like, right up our alley—Hey!” He pushed Kairi away from him before she could smack him, sending her a dirty look.

“Anyway, if we’re all done here, can we go?” Kairi said. “I mean, if, you two still want a bit, that’s fine, me and Sora can scoot out of here, but…”

Namine looked at Riku, who shrugged. Namine got to her feet, rubbing her arm. “Well… I wanted to…”  She paused. She’d wanted to, perhaps, ask 7 again if he was sure about her data, but he’d sounded pretty sure. She wasn’t sure what had happened this morning, what she’d felt—or, not why she’d felt it—but if 7 said it wasn’t something in her data, then it wasn’t. And either way, she wasn’t likely to get any different answers out of him. “Never mind,” she said. “I… I think leaving is a good idea.”

“Alright, then, where to?” Sora asked. “Hollow Bastion? Or Destiny Islands?”

Riku cleared his throat. “Well, that depends, I guess, on, uh, whether or not Namine’s- whether or not you’re, uh…”

“Are you moving back to Hollow Bastion, Namine?” Kairi finished, for him.

“Oh!” Namine blinked in surprise. “Oh, uh, yeah, I guess. I wasn’t even thinking about that…!” She laughed nervously, rubbing at her arm again. “I’ll, uh, have to get my stuff from Kairi’s though…”

“Well, the boys can go wait in Hollow Bastion while we go get your things,” Kairi suggested. “We shouldn’t take too long.”

“Hang on,” Namine said. “We should probably tell someone we’re leaving.”

Riku grumbled something about Vexen not needing to know. Sora rolled his eyes and pulled out his star shard. “Well, you do that, and me and Riku will just head to Hollow Bastion, alright?” Sora put a hand to his mouth to stifle a yawn. “Oh, and Kairi, can you pick up my jacket before the tide makes off with it?”

“Uh-huh,” Kairi said, heading for the door. She slowed to wait for Namine. “Come on, let’s go let 7 know we’re leaving.”

“Yeah.”

They left Sora and Riku in the room, and presumably the boys left from there. 7 was only a room over, and the door was open, so Namine just poked her head in. Vexen was not here, as she’d thought he’d be—hadn’t he said he wanted to speak with 7? Maybe he was done by now. Oh well, Vexen wasn’t that important. The one Vexen Replica she’d run into the hall though—the one who wasn’t wearing the Organization cloak—he was here.

“Namine wanted to let you know we were leaving,” Kairi told 7. She sent a look at the other Vexen and grimaced a little.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” 7 said.

Kairi shrugged. She sent a smug look at Namine though. Namine didn’t get a chance to say anything.

“Namine! I wanted to speak with you,” the other Vexen said. “I’m Even, by the way. I, uh, I created the Replica Program here.” Namine stared at him. That also meant he’d created her. The revelation was like a whack to the gut, and Namine vaguely wondered if Riku felt this way all the time around Vexen. It wasn’t quite an unpleasant feeling, but she thought it might explain part of the reason why Riku was so sharp with Vexen all the time.

“Uh… nice to meet you?” Namine said. What else was she supposed to say?

Even studied her just a second, then nodded to himself. “I… I see you’re eager to leave,” he said, “so I won’t make this long. I just… I wanted to tell you I’m sorry for what happened to you. I never built this Program for such a purpose, and I am truly sorry.”

“I… it wasn’t exactly your fault…” Namine told him, as she shrugged. It wasn’t like he’d been the one who’d Rewritten her.

“Still…” He sighed, then smiled at her. “Well, I won’t keep you any longer. I hope you have a good day.”

“Uh… You too.”

Kairi squeezed her on the shoulder as they left the room, smiling widely at her. “You okay? You seemed a little…”

Namine nodded rapidly. “Yeah, I’m alright. He just mentioned who he was and that he built the Program, which, y’know, includes… me… and that was a little weird.”

“I… would have no idea,” Kairi said. She shrugged, then she laughed, sparing a glance over her shoulder. “He was much more reasonable than he was earlier though… Maybe because it was just him and not Vexen, too…”

Namine shrugged, then slowly laughed, too. “I… would have no idea,” she said, repeating Kairi’s words. Kairi looked at her, then laughed along.

“Let’s go get your stuff.”

“Yeah.”

 

xxx

 

Sora decided to plop down on one of the couches and take a nap, which was fine by Riku. He slipped into the kitchen to help Aerith clean up after lunch, telling her that he and Namine seemed to have made up. Aerith was excited to hear that, and to hear that Namine was moving back in. She suggested that, perhaps, they take separate rooms this time, since Tifa and Cloud were gone, and Riku shrugged in response. That was something Namine would need to be here to decide.

Riku leaned back a second to peer around the partial wall separating the kitchen from the front room. Sora was curled up on the couch by the bookshelves, hopefully asleep by now. Riku wasn’t sure why he was checking, though. Sora’d already heard everything he and Namine had talked about, seeing as he and Kairi had eavesdropped on the conversation. Still, he checked, and then he told Aerith in quiet words what Namine’d said, everything he remembered.

He wanted to better make sense of it. He thought he understood it alright, for the most part, but he wanted to tell Aerith. He wanted her thoughts.

Once he was finished, Aerith was silent, running her hands over the plate she was holding to make sure it was clean. She passed it to Riku after a moment, then she laughed a little, and shrugged.

“Riku, I think right now you’re just going to have to listen to Namine—this is between you and her, and while I’m flattered you’re asking me for help…” She shook her head and started draining the sink. “I don’t think I can provide any extra insight. I think it’s wonderful you made up, though.”

Riku sighed, drying off the plate and putting it away. He supposed he should’ve been expecting an answer like that. It was alright, though, he figured. He understood well enough what Namine had said, it was all just a lot to digest. He sighed again—more in annoyance, now—and pushed his hair out of his face. The hair-tie Kairi’d pulled his hair back with earlier had hurt his head, but it had been nice to have his hair off his neck and out of his way.

Aerith sent him a glance. “Look, Riku, like I said… you just have to listen to her. And you told her that you’d try and make things better, right?”

“Mmhmm,” Riku answered, with a nod.

“Then you need to do that, and you’ll need to talk to her, and you’ll need to communicate. Both of you do.”

“Right…”

“Oh, stop worrying so much, Riku!” Aerith laughed. “I think you’ll be alright.” She dried her hands off on the towel hanging on the cabinets under the sink, then studied him sternly. “Now, how’d it go? Did Vexen have anything else to say about you… well, puking darkness?”

“Oh yeah…” Riku said, setting his towel down on the counter. “No, it wasn’t really anything different than what we established here. The Darkness Protection Protocols should fix it, when we eventually install them, my darkness levels are troubling, but could be worse, there’s nothing they can do for me now, etc.” He waved his hand, dismissing the issue. “It sucks, but, I mean…”

“Chances of you puking darkness again…?”

“Neither of them had any clue.”

“Neither of—Oh, that’s right, Even was also there.” Aerith nodded. “Well, anyway, I should probably go let everyone know Namine’s going to be back. Thanks for your help with the dishes.” She slid out of the kitchen and headed upstairs.

Riku went out to the front room, picking up his book from where he’d left it on the coffee table and plopping down on the couch opposite Sora. Namine and Kairi should be here soon, or relatively soon, but he wasn’t going to think himself silly while he waited for them.

He’d read about two pages when Sora sat bolt upright. Sora looked around franticly, as if not realizing where he was, then he broke into a long groan. “Not again…” he moaned. “Why does this keep happening?

Riku considered him a moment, sliding his hand into his book so that he would not lose his place. “You okay?” he asked.

Sora jolted. “What? Yes. Fine.” He appeared to be breathing heavily now, and Riku couldn’t describe the look Sora sent him as anything other than annoyance, if not disgust.

“Whyyyyy are you pinching yourself so hard you look ready to pop a blood vessel?”

Sora hastily stopped doing so. “What? No I’m not. No I wasn’t.”

Riku stared a moment, then let out a sharp chuckle. Alright. Fine. He wouldn’t press. It was a little bit of a surprise to see Sora doing something like that, but Riku understood well enough why he might have wanted to, and why he wouldn’t want to talk about. He filed it away to tell Kairi, maybe, but otherwise, he dropped it.

Sora started mumbling something which Riku couldn’t entirely make sense of. He did catch a couple frantic not agains along with a very angry sounding why am I even—! before that broke off into more grumbling.

“Are… are you sure you’re okay?” Riku asked.

Fine!” Sora shouted, shouted so loud Riku jumped. Then Sora seemed to realize himself, grit his teeth, and said in a slightly (slightly) calmer tone: “I just can’t fall asleep anymore and it’s infuriating.

“Well… it’s only been ten minutes?” Riku offered, with a shrug. “Maybe you should, uh, try again?” He wasn’t really sure if he understood that about sleep. He never slept regularly enough to be sure, but he thought it usually took him more than ten minutes to fall asleep.

Sora shot him the dirtiest look he’d ever seen. “Yeah, whatever, fine.” He flopped back down onto the couch and rolled over so that his back was to Riku. “I’ll try again,” he grumbled. “Think myself sick. That’s fine. I’m not complaining.”

Riku raised his eyebrows. Oh well. He turned his attention back to his book and started reading again.

It was another fifteen or twenty minutes later when Namine and Kairi showed up. Kairi tossed Sora his jacket, which he flinched at, but he did not move otherwise. “Hey, Riku, wake him up, will you?” Kairi asked, as she and Namine started up the stairs. “We gotta head back home if he doesn’t want to worry his parents, it’s starting to get late.”

“Got it.” Riku closed his book. “Hey, Sora!” he called. He knew Sora wasn’t asleep—he hadn’t gone back to sleep since he’d lain back down. “You hear that? Kairi says you gotta go home.”

Sora shifted, but said nothing.

Sora!

Sora covered his ears and started grumbling again.

Riku rolled his eyes and got to his feet, tossing his book down on the coffee table. “C’mon, Sora,” he said, moving over to Sora and shaking his shoulder. “I know you’re not asleep, so—”

Sora very suddenly and very violently grabbed Riku by the wrist. His grip was like iron. He shifted to look up at Riku, eyes burning, mouth drawn in a crueler snarl than Riku ever anticipated seeing on Sora’s face.

“Sora, what the hell let go of me! Sora!

Sora’s eyes slowly widened, and he very quickly let go of Riku’s wrist. “I. Uh. I’m, uh- sorry?” he stammered. “I… uh…”

Riku pulled his hand away, moving to pick up his book, just to make a show out of doing something. “Sleep well?” he asked, bitingly, sarcastically. His wrist burned, and Sora’s fingerprints were still indented in his skin.

“I… alright, yeah, I guess,” Sora said, yawning. “Doesn’t really feel like I did, and I’m still exhausted, but…” He shrugged and started pulling on his jacket. “Dunno. Sleeping’s been like that lately.”

Riku wondered if Sora’d ever accidentally grabbed anyone else like that when they’d come to wake him up. If he had, it was no wonder why his parents were so angry with him all the time.

“Right. Well. Namine and Kairi are here.”

Riku thumped his book against his palm, then started upstairs to put it away, just so he could get away from Sora for a moment, just so he could be doing something.

 

xxx

 

A voice called out of the darkness.

I’m surprised you’re still here, boy.

It was all he could do to keep himself from laughing back, though if he did laugh, the laugh would be empty.

It’s not like I can go anywhere, he called back. You made sure of that.

“Oh, but I wasn’t referring to that!” the voice said. “I’m just surprised that your heart hasn’t yet been smothered by mine. That should have happened ages ago.”

The words sent chills up and down his spine. He bit his lip, trying not to think about the presence that surrounded him so thickly it could drown him, trying not to think about how weak his heart felt. How long had it been since he’d felt strong?

My friends… he called back, wearily. I still… have something to fight for. I still—

The darkness around him was filled with laughter, a cruel, pleased laughter. Despair filled his gut. It was hard to be confident when that voice sounded so sure of itself, when he sounded like he’d won.

“Of course you do! Just remember—you need me.”

Darkness consumed him.

Chapter Text

“Sora, you really can’t keep avoiding it forever!”

Sora swallowed the bitter laugh in his throat, easy since he was tossing his Keyblade at a Heartless behind Kairi and it was a grunt that left his mouth more than the laugh. They were in Hollow Bastion, helping out with rounds. The other option had been helping restore houses, but this had seemed the most useful.

“Well, I can try,” Sora said. He did not need to look to see that the blast of light Kairi sent past him hit a Heartless that had probably been sneaking up on him. He’d asked, a while ago, when she’d begun to enjoy fighting—considering she had thought it “silly” when they were younger and now seemed to enjoy it more than anyone he’d ever seen—and she’d replied with a “Well it was silly when we were practicing to fight imaginary monsters. The monsters aren’t imaginary now, are they?”

“Sora, come on, that’s the entire island you have to avoid,” Kairi scolded. “Does it really bug you that much?” She sent him a worried look, and Sora rolled his shoulders before tossing a Fira at the nearby Heartless. He didn’t look her in the eye as he answered.

“I’m just tired of everyone asking. You would’ve thought, by now, that everyone would’ve gotten the memo, I don’t want to talk about it.” He sliced angrily through the nearest Heartless. “I’m just so tired of having to blow them off, because that’s all I can do short of lying, and maybe that would be better, but, I just! I don’t know!”

“Sora—”

“It’s not like I can tell anyone that ‘oh yeah I had a dark copy of myself who thought it’d be fun to torture me’!” It was the constant questions about the scar across his face that bothered him much more than the questions about where he’d been, for some reason. Those questions were annoying too, of course, but they didn’t infuriate them like questions about the scar did. (He didn’t even think he minded that much, about having it, was the thing. And yet…)

“Just tell them you got in a fight,” Kairi said. A blast of light from her finished off what was left of the Heartless. “Isn’t that what you told Tidus and Selphie? It shut them up eventually, and maybe it’ll shut everyone else up too.”

Sora sighed and banished his Keyblade. She wasn’t wrong.

“It’s still embarrassing,” he grumbled.

Kairi eyed him sideways. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine!

She studied him a while longer, in a way that made his stomach boil, which was crazy, because it was only Kairi. He aggressively avoided her gaze and folded his arms over his chest, biting his tongue to keep himself from snapping at her and telling her to say whatever it was she wanted to already and stop staring at him like that. There wasn’t anything wrong with him! Really.

“What about… the gaps in your memory?” she asked, very quietly.

Sora grunted. She was making him wish he hadn’t mentioned those to her a couple nights ago. They scared him, though, they terrified him. He hadn’t thought the darkness had been this bad, all that time ago, and worse, he wasn’t sure how to stop it this time.

“Still there, if that’s what you want me to say!” The words were much sharper than they needed to be, and he knew that, he just couldn’t seem to stop it. He blamed the darkness. It had to be the darkness. “My mom acts like I was up all night last night even though I’m pretty sure I was sleeping. And I don’t remember if I ate breakfast.”

Kairi let out a noise that was simultaneously a long groan and a suffering sigh. “Sora, come on, I’m just trying to help you out. Also, you did eat breakfast. I forced a muffin down your throat.”

Oh yeah. He remembered that now. When he’d told her he wanted to come to Hollow Bastion, she’d sat him down and wouldn’t let him go until he’d eaten something. He didn’t see how it was a big deal that he wasn’t eating, but Kairi sure acted like it was. He’d survived on less food when staying with Maleficent, though.

“Anyway, enough blabbing about my problems,” Sora grumbled. “What about you? You ask your dad about—”

“No,” Kairi answered, before he finished. Now it was her turn to look shifty.

“You learned her name a week ago.”

“Well, yeah! I know!” Kairi rubbed at her arms, and shrugged. “I’m just not sure how well ‘oh by the way Dad I met a stranger he said he knew Mom was her name Mira also can you tell me about her’ will go over!”

Sora shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Probably fine,” he told her. “Your dad’s pretty chill.” Especially compared to my parents, he added, silently, but there was no use being bitter about it aloud. Kairi already knew that. They’d established the differences between their parents the moment they were old enough to notice them.

“Yeah, I know he is.” Kairi looked at him with eyes like stone, arms still folded very tightly over her chest. “It’s just… I mean, I haven’t cared about her at all before in my life. What if it sounds out of nowhere?”

“It’s not out of nowhere, Kairi—”

“It feels out of nowhere!”

The way Kairi’s voice shook made Sora swallow his witty comment, and study her carefully. Her arms weren’t crossed over her chest out of stubbornness, he realized—it looked more like she was hugging herself. Like she was nervous. Why, he didn’t know. She’d never talked to him about her mom before now. Then again, her mom hadn’t been a subject to talk about before now.

“I- I miss not caring about her,” Kairi said. “I miss not caring about where she is, or why she left, or who she is, but that’s all I can think about now. And I’m so…”

Sora put a smile on his face, and bumped her in the shoulder. “Aw, Kairi, it’s not—”

An explosion of light—or, something—off to the left made him break off mid-sentence and shield his eyes. Kairi did the same. When it faded, it left some sort of after-magic in the air that felt like something had just been singed. Sora and Kairi exchanged identically nervous, but excited, glances.

“What was that?” Kairi asked, breathing the question in awe.

Sora shrugged, grinning. “I don’t know! Let’s go check it out.

“Yeah!”

It was only a quick sprint from one street to another two blocks over, cutting between the rubble of houses that the Restoration Committee had not yet gotten to. Amongst houses in worse shape than the rest they found the source of the explosion-slash-strong-magic.

 The source was a young woman who might have only been a few years older than them. Aerith’s age, maybe younger. A young woman with blue hair, who was lowering her Keyblade. She was the source of the magic, Sora knew, though it was hard to peg how, exactly, he did know.

“Are the houses still alright?” she asked. “I hit one, didn’t I?”

“I don’t think you could make them much worse, Aqua!” the second person laughed—a boy, Sora’s age, who at first glance Sora thought was Roxas. Then he rethought that, due to the way the boy seemed to pull at his chest. He knew who the boy was, he did, he was just more caught up on the girl right now. On Aqua.

“If you’re sure…” she said.

Sora quickly dug into his pants pocket, then the other, realizing with a sinking gut that they were both empty of anything but his star shard. “Uhh….”

“What is it?” Kairi asked, turning to him.

“It’s not in my pants! Wait, duh, I’ve changed clothes.” He shook his head. Where had he left it? “Oh, I hope it’s on my desk. Or in my other pants…” But his other pants had been through the wash. He grit his teeth hard.

“What are you talking about?”

“There’s this, uh, charm, thing, that I need to give to her. It, uh, it’s a long story. But I might just—”

“Uh… Hey there?” It was the boy—Sora knew his name, he did, it just wasn’t coming to him right now—who called, though he and Aqua had both noticed them now. Sora swallowed the rest of his words. The charm could wait. Just a few minutes.

Kairi sent one last pressing look at Sora, then groaned and forced a smile. “Uh, yes, hi. Uh… Roxas?”

The boy blinked at her, then laughed and shook his head. “Oh! Oh, no, my name’s Ven. Ventus, actually, but everyone calls me Ven.” He grinned widely. “I’ve met Roxas though, and, yanno… see why you made the mistake. Replicas are weird…”

“I thought Roxas was a Replica of you,” Kairi said, turning to Sora.

Sora shrugged.

“Who are you two?” Aqua asked, slowly, though she was considering them with something much like surprise to see them, as if she knew them. Did she know them? Something was tugging at Sora’s mind, a familiarity about her, but it was probably just residue magic from that charm.

“I’m Kairi, and that’s Sora.” Kairi sent another pressing glance at him. “We, uh, we saw that… uh… spell of yours…”

“Mega Flare,” Aqua said, with a shrug. “It was probably too much for the amount of Heartless we were dealing with, but I… I was getting very tired of fighting them.” She smiled apologetically, then Ven nudged her.

“Hey, no need to apologize to them! No one got hurt, Aqua, and what’s the point of knowing all that magic if you never use it?”

“I never hope to have to use it, Ven,”

Aqua sent him a disapproving glare, so quickly Sora almost missed it. Sora’s heart turned over a little in his chest. Even without having the charm on him, he could almost feel its effects. He fidgeted a little. Maybe he should just go get it now. They’d all understand.

“Sora, seriously, what is wrong?” Kairi asked.

“I just!” He rubbed his hands together, and tried not to stare so eagerly at Aqua. His heart was thumping hard in his chest. “I probably shouldn’t make him wait. He wanted to—”

“He who?

“I- oh.” Sora looked nervously at Kairi, then at Ven, then at Aqua, breaking away from her gaze much quicker. He should probably stop babbling and explain himself. Introductions were out of the way, at least. He cleared his throat. “He, uh, it—A merchant in Agrabah forced this charm on me a while back and it, uh? I think it might be sentient? All I know is that it wants to talk to Aqua and I left it somewhere in my room and I feel bad.”

Kairi was looking at him as if he’d grown a second head, which was funny, because this can’t have been the strangest story he’d come back with after the past six months. Ven and Aqua exchanged looks, but Sora didn’t know either of them well enough to know what exactly the looks meant. They both looked a little surprised, and maybe a little confused.

“It wants to talk to… me?” Aqua asked. Bewildered. She looked bewildered.

Sora nodded. “Yeah. It spoke to me. Said your name. And, I mean, I guess there could be more than one Aqua about the worlds but I also saw some… memories from it, or something, and it certainly looked like you. Plus, I think I saw you in Agrabah once—another time—just a glimpse of you in the crowd, and it tugged at me…”

Recognition lit in Aqua’s eyes. “Wait, were you in Neverland, uh…” She paused, then looked at Ven. “How long ago was it? We were in Neverland and I thought I felt Terra… And then you stayed in Traverse Town for a bit…”

Ven shrugged. “Uh, a month or so ago?”

“I’m not sure about timing, but I think I was there,” Sora said. “Did you feel a, a tugging, in your chest? Telling you that you needed to head somewhere. A tugging so strong it seemed to block out everything else—”

Aqua was nodding before he could finish. “Yes! Yes, I did.”

Sora burst out with a laugh of triumph. “It was looking for you! He did want to talk to you! Here, if you hang on, I’ll go—”

“Hold off on that, Sora,” Kairi said. “We’ve got Heartless.”

“We can take ‘em!” Ven called, summoning his Keyblade and settling into a stance unlike any Sora had ever seen. Ven sent a giddy look at Aqua, and she rolled her eyes.

“Fine…” Aqua let out a deep breath and summoned her Keyblade. “Stand back, everyone. You too, Ven.”

Ven grinned like a little kid on Christmas, and did as told, banishing his Keyblade as he did so. Sora and Kairi both moved back with him. Sora thought about summoning his Keyblade, but since Ven had banished his…

“No, don’t do Mega Flare again!” Ven called. “Do something different! Like Fission Firaga! Is there too little for Ghost Drive?”

“Any idea what any of that means?” Kairi asked, in a hushed voice.

Sora shook his head.

Aqua let out an annoyed breath, and sent a glare over her shoulder. “Ven, I’m not going to show off.” She turned her attention back to the Heartless, then raised her Keyblade. Power swelled around her, the Heartless moved forward, and then the power she was gathering very violently released, and the area was filled with light.

When the light finally faded and Sora had blinked most of the spots out of his eyes, all the Heartless were gone, and the nearby houses did look a little worse than they had before. Ven was running to clap Aqua on the back, bouncing with excitement.

Wow,” Kairi whispered. She slowly moved up to Aqua, eyes wide. Sora hadn’t seen her this awestruck since they were kids. “Can you teach me how to do that?”

Aqua pushed Ven away from her, then banished her Keyblade. She blinked a few times at Kairi. “I… can you wield a Keyblade?”

Kairi shook her head. “No! But that was just magic, wasn’t it? I can learn that.”

“W-Well…”

Sora cleared his throat. “Uh, hey! I’m gonna go get the charm now, okay? Maybe we should meet back at Aerith’s house! You can show ‘em back, right Kairi?”

“Sure thing, Sora.”

“Actually, Sora,” Ven trotted up to him. “Can I come with? I mean, I don’t have to, but, I dunno…” He smiled and shrugged. Sora slowly shrugged as well.

“Yeah, alright,” he said. “Don’t see what it’ll hurt. Here.” He held out his star shard to Ven. Ven looked at it curiously, as if not sure what to do, entirely. “It’s a star shard,” Sora explained. “Just grab on.”

“Oh, a star shard?” Ven brightened instantly. “Mickey had one of those!”

“You know Mickey!?”

Ven nodded. “Yeah, of course! Master Eraqus and his Master are—were really good friends, so we saw him pretty often. He, uh, also got me out of trouble a couple of times…” Ven laughed sheepishly and scratched the back of his head.

“That’s, uh, that’s Mickey for you,” Sora agreed. He didn’t know what to say about anything else Ven had said. “C’mon.” He grabbed Ven by the wrist, then activated the star shard. The sooner he got that charm to Aqua, the better.

The star shard dropped them off in his room, just like he’d told it to. Immediately he flushed at the sight of it, realizing it was extremely messy, and in no fit state to have visitors. Oh well. Too late now. He let go of Ven and stepped over dirty clothes to his desk, apologizing about the mess as he went.

“Oh, that’s alright. My room’s usually this messy, too!” Ven chuckled. “Or, it used to be. No telling how it looks now. Haven’t seen it in seven years.”

Sora looked up from his desk—the charm was not there—and stared at Ven for a moment. “…What?

“Ah, long story,” Ven said. “Short version is that home got sucked up by darkness, or that’s what Aqua said happened, and we can’t reach it now. As for the seven years—hang on, Sora, you should know! I spent all that time with you!

It took a second for Ven’s words to register, but once they did, the tug in his chest one he’d seen Ven made sense. He only vaguely remembered the night of starry skies and a voice that echoed only in his mind, that Kairi had called him crazy for because she couldn’t hear, but he did remember it. Ven had come, in the form of fragmented light, asking for a place to rest, and Sora had offered his heart.

“Thanks for that, by the way,” Ven said, very quietly.

Sora nodded, and started towards his dresser. “Yeah, sure. No big.” The fact that his heart hadn’t been a safe resting place in the end hung in the air around him. No telling what that spill with the darkness had done for Ven. He hoped it hadn’t been too bad… He just couldn’t bring himself to mention it.

“Anyway, what are we looking for? I might as well help, if I’m here.”

“It’s uh, star-shaped,” Sora explained. “Orange. About this big?” He put his fingers together in the rough circumference of the charm, and held his hands up to Ven so he could see.

“Sounds like Terra’s wayfinder….”

“Hmm?”

“Does it look like this?” Ven rummaged in his pocket and then produced a star-shaped charm that was absolutely identical to the one Sora’d been carrying, except this was green, and not orange. Sora gaped a moment, then nodded.

“Aqua made us all one,” Ven explained, pocketing his charm. His… wayfinder. “Wonder how a merchant in Agrabah ended up with Terra’s…”

Sora shrugged. He had no clue, except maybe that it had something to do with the spell that was attached to the charm. He sent one last rueful look at his dresser. “Well, it looks like it ended up in one of these piles of dirty clothes.” Hopefully. “I’ll, uh, just look on my own.”

Ven nodded. “That’s fair.”

Sora bent down and started rummaging through the piles for his old pants. “Who’s Terra?” he asked, as he searched. Why wasn’t the charm calling to him? It was very unlike it, given all its other behavior…

“A friend,” Ven answered.

Sora wondered if Terra was the one who’d spoken through the charm. It probably was. But what did that mean for Ven’s friend? Why did he want so badly to talk to Aqua, specifically? Sora let out a long breath and moved to another pile.

“Hey, Sora. Try there.”

Ven pointed.

“Why there?”

Ven shrugged.

“Just a feeling.”

If Sora knew the charm at all, he knew not to ignore a feeling like that. He moved to where Ven was pointing, and sure enough, pulled his old pair of pants out from under more recent dirty laundry. In the pockets along with the charm were a handful of potions just past their expiration date… How had he forgotten to have his mom wash these pants?

“Here it is!” he declared, getting his feet, and moving to Ven. He held the charm—the wayfinder, had Ven called it?—out to Ven, seeing as he probably had more of a right to hold it than Sora.

Ven hardly glanced at it. His eyes were very firmly fixed on Sora’s face.

“Ven…?”

“…Vanitas.

Ven hesitantly reached out and placed his hand to Sora’s chest. The touch—along with the name—sent a jolt through Sora. Something yanked in his chest, hard, and it wasn’t the charm’s magic.

“N-No!” Sora found himself shouting, before he realized it.

Anger flared across Ven’s features. “I think I’d know where the other half of my heart is!” he shouted back.

The words seemed to reverberate through the room, and through Sora’s chest. A half-formed denial still burned on his lips. Something bubbled in the back of his mind.

Then the anger fled from Ven’s face, and was rapidly replaced with dread. “I… I’m so sorry,” he stammered. He was shaking. “I- I didn’t mean that. I… Can I sit down?” He staggered backwards before Sora answered, falling into Sora’s bed. He looked about ready to be sick. Sora couldn’t say he didn’t feel the same.

“I… I’m sorry…” Ven said, very slowly, with his eyes closed. “There was just something… something tugging at me since the moment you showed up, and I couldn’t place what it was until just now… Vanitas…” The name was a whisper on his lips. “After all this time, I thought—”

Sora swallowed hard, heart pounding. Ven’s whispered Vanitas rang through his ears, warring with a frantic protest of no, no no no! Tears welled up in his eyes, and he couldn’t say from where, and he was scared.

“Wh- what—Who’s Vanitas?

Ven looked up startled, and stared horrified for a moment. “Oh, no, Sora, please don’t cry! I’m sorry. I- I didn’t mean it, really, I was just… It’s just been…” His mouth worked for words he clearly did not want to say. Sora scrubbed at his cheeks. Why was he crying? What was churning in the back of his mind?

“Just- just tell me who Vanitas is,” he choked. “Please.

Ven stared at him a moment longer, then nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry.” He wrung his hands together. Laughed weakly. “Vanitas… Vanitas was the darkness split from me by Xehanort. I- I had to fight him, and… I thought I killed him, but…” There was a hope burning in his eyes, and for some reason, it was that hope that scared Sora more than anything else. “That felt like him. Whatever just happened, between the two of us… Only he’s pulled at my chest like that.”

Sora swallowed again. His mouth felt very dry, all of a sudden. He didn’t dare voice his thoughts—didn’t dare tell Ven that he recognized the yank as well, and the only person to have ever pulled at his chest like that was…

…his Shadow.

“You think… you think V-Vanitas is in here?” Sora asked, thumping his chest.

Ven shrugged. “I was in there. He could have been… In fact…” Ven hesitated a long moment. “In fact, I… I think I met him. Maybe. The details are all fuzzy. But I think I met someone who looked like him… who felt like him… He just kept saying that he wasn’t… I dunno…”

Memories swirled through Sora’s head, memories like that of his Shadow’s, though these were more like a half-recalled dream. Vivid only for a second or two, then the rest a blur. He thought he saw Ven’s face in them.

“What- what did he look like?”

“Spitting image of Vanitas,” Ven replied. “Your face. Darker hair. Gold eyes.”

The breath caught in Sora’s lungs.

“I think it was just because your heart and mine were connected,” Ven said, rapidly. “That’s why he looked like you. I can’t think of any other reason.”

“Oh, no, I… my Shadow…”

“Your what?”

“He looked just like that….”

Ven’s eyes narrowed curiously at him. “What’s a… Shadow?”

“A… A Sheto.” The word still brought images to his mind. Someone laughing. Someone drowning in darkness. He wet his lips. “He… He told me he was a creature created to drag me into darkness, but heck if I know how much of that was true…”

“You say he looked just like Vanitas…?”

Sora nodded.

“Do you- do you think he… was?

Sora shrugged. Shook his head. He was still crying. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Something within him was screaming. They weren’t the same. But how was he supposed to know that for sure? “I never met Vanitas, though,” he said. “No way of… knowing…”

“Guess not…” Ven agreed, with a slow nod of his head. Then he forced a smile on his lips. “Well, forget about that for now. We gotta get Terra’s wayfinder to Aqua! You said he had a message, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yeah!” Sora nodded as enthusiastically as he could manage. The charm seemed warmer in his hand. “It’s probably really important.” He tried to put the thoughts of his Shadow and of Vanitas out of his mind. It wasn’t something he could worry about now. “Let’s go?” He offered a hand out to Ven.

“Of course!”

Sora pulled Ven to his feet and activated the star shard.

Chapter Text

The walk was pestered with constant questions and pleas from Kairi, asking where Aqua had learned all this, asking if she could be taught. Aqua took it all with tongue-in-cheek, not quite sure how to say she wasn’t sure if she even knew how to teach magic. Magic had always just been second nature to her. Besides, while Kairi showed some potential for it, she seemed to lack… control.

They only ran into two separate groups of Heartless on the way, and Aqua had let Kairi take care of them both. In part because she didn’t want to fight, and in part to get a better judge of Kairi’s grasp on magic. It was that of a beginner’s, and while the strength of it was impressive, Aqua was surprised Kairi didn’t burn herself half the time when she cast Fire. Kairi’s light attacks were even stronger, but had even less control, and if she kept going like that, she was going to burn herself out.

“So, that’s a no to teaching me how to do cool magic, isn’t it?” Kairi asked, as she studied Aqua.

Aqua shrugged, not wanting to sound mean, but having to turn her down. “I think… I think you need more practice on what you know already, first,” she told Kairi. Not to mention I don’t have the luxury of free time…

“Guess I can’t blame you for that,” Kairi mumbled, then took a trotting run up to the house that loomed before them. “C’mon, we’re here!” She waited for Aqua to join her, then threw the door open and headed inside.

Introductions were done and through with in short order. Riku was the boy on the couch reading, Namine was the girl sitting on the same couch as (but not next to) Riku, drawing. Yuffie had been called down from upstairs, and Aerith was the one who did most of the introducing. She mentioned a Leon and a Cid, but Aqua hadn’t been paying attention when Aerith mentioned where they were, and was too embarrassed about zoning out to ask for clarification.

“Forgive me if this sounds strange, Aqua,” Aerith said, when she’d finished introducing everyone. “Do I know you…? I feel like I met someone in the past with your face and name, but then again, that had to have been at least seven years ago, and my memories could just be hazy.”

The words seven years made Aqua’s heart stop in her chest. She had to take two deep breaths before she felt she was calm enough to speak without her voice hitching.

“That… was probably me…” she said, very carefully. She only just remembered bumping into Aerith—a younger Aerith—by chance in Radiant Garden all those years ago. The memory really only stood out because she’d spent the better part of an afternoon discussing various different healing methods with the girl’s mother. “I’ve, uh… been gone, for seven years.”

The words had only just left her lips when Kairi jolted next to her. “Hey, hang on! Seven years ago, you were on the Islands, weren’t you.” It hardly sounded like a question, with the way she spoke. “You gave Sora the Keyblade. I knew I recognized you!”

Aqua sighed, and nodded. She remembered that meeting much better than the meeting with Aerith—but passing a boy who probably hadn’t been ready for it a Keyblade was not an easy memory to forget. Sora seemed alright now that she’d met him, but Mickey had mentioned some… unsettling things about the boy, and the darkness… Oh well. Nothing she could do to change that now. It wasn’t like she could go back in time and not give him the Keyblade.

“I, uh, don’t want to be rude but you’ve—aged well,” Kairi said, licking her lips and avoiding Aqua’s eyes. Aqua sighed again. That, at least, was a question she’d been expecting. Aerith had looked about ready to say something of the same.

“I’m not so sure I did age,” Aqua explained, wishing she did not have to, or at the very least, that Ven was here. He was like a rock to steady her—or, perhaps a voice of encouragement would better describe him. Terra had been her rock. “I… I was in the Realm of Darkness, and time passes… differently, there.”

“Realm of Darkness? Where’s that?” Yuffie asked. She’d moved to lean against the rail of the staircase.

Aerith shot her a warning glance. “Yuffie,” she scolded, quietly.

“Yeah, geeze Yuffie,” Riku butt in. Behind his book was a lopsided smirk. “If you’re going to ask border-line rude questions, ask good ones. What were you doing in the Realm of Darkness, Aqua?”

Aerith shot him a warning look, while Kairi chuckled and plopped herself down on the couch between him and Namine. Aqua blinked in surprise, not sure how to respond to any of what had just been exchanged. Her lungs felt constricted, though, and she wished more now than ever that Ven was here to help her out.

After a shuddering breath to compose herself, Aqua managed to say the words: “I don’t really want to talk about it…”

It was easier to think about than it had been… months ago, she thought, though she’d been having trouble judging time since leaving the Dark Realm. Anyway. It was easier now than it had been to think about Terra, and the state she’d last seen him in. It was easier to think about that final battle with Xehanort, but, it was still not pleasant to think about, and it was certainly not something she wanted to divulge to people she’d only just met.

They didn’t have any need to know that Xehanort had simply gotten fed up with fighting her and had sent her to the Realm of Darkness to get rid of her. They didn’t need to know that his actions not only turned her attempts to save Terra and Ven both on ends, but also condemned her to what had felt like an eternity wandering the Dark Realm and endlessly fighting Heartless, among other terrible things.

No, that was something they certainly did not need to know.

To Aqua’s immense relief, no one pressed her into answering, though. She was glad.

“Well, would you like something to drink, Aqua?” Aerith asked. “You could probably use a glass of water…” She was already moving towards the kitchen.

“Uhm, yes, that would… be nice,” Aqua said.

“Can you get me some, too?” Kairi asked.

“Mmhmm!”

“Please and thank you!”

Aqua stood there for a moment, trying to relax her shoulders, and feeling very awkward. Perhaps she should sit down? The other couch was completely empty, so it wasn’t like there was nowhere to sit… Yes, she should probably sit down.

“So, what brings you here, Aqua?” Aerith asked.

Aqua cleared her throat, making herself comfortable on the couch. “Well… me and Ven have just been… traveling the worlds and fighting what Heartless we find,” she said. Riku looked like he wanted to get back to his book, and Namine was still idly sketching, but Kairi’s attention was on Aqua. Aqua tried to look at her as she spoke, though she did glance into the kitchen a few times, seeing as Aerith and Kairi were the ones most interested in what she was saying. “I… We’ve heard something about some group called ‘Organization 13’—”

“They’re dead.” Riku looked up from his book for just a second, scowling faintly. “Or… they are now. I should know. I killed two thirds of them. Dunno who got the other third, but it was probably Sora.”

That didn’t quite come as a surprise. Mickey had mentioned something about them, briefly—Aqua’d meant to ask him for more details, but he’d been too eager to tell her about Xehanort, and subsequently, Terra, and that news had made her forget to ask about this Organization.

Kairi grinned, looking very pleased with herself. “Yeah, they’re plans are toast!

Riku elbowed her. “You hardly helped.”

She stuck her tongue out at him.

Aqua laughed faintly at the sight of it.

Aerith spoke from the kitchen: “Well, Aqua, if you and Ven would like a place to stay—this town has been seeing a lot of new residents, lately, and I think there’s room for you if you’d like. Certainly there’s a house around in at least decent condition…”

It took Aqua a second to realize that Aerith seemed to be implying permanently, and when she did realize that, she laughed. “Oh! Thank you, but, no, we’re still…” She licked her lips. “We don’t really intend to, ah, settle down any time soon. We’re still looking for Terra… and for Xehanort…”

She knew that those were much one in the same thing, unless anything about Terra’s situation had changed. She was hoping, hoping that Terra might have found a way to escape Xehanort, and was just too weak or too injured to come find her. Or that they were just missing each other as they went through the worlds. But she knew chances of that really being the case were slim to none. Terra had had seven years to escape Xehanort, and if he hadn’t figured it out by now…

Yuffie let out a sharp laugh. “Xehanort’s been gone for, like, four years now,” she said, sauntering up to partial wall that divided the kitchen from the front room and leaning up against it, arms folded tightly over her chest. “And good riddance to him.”

“Actually, uh…” Aqua stopped before she got any further, not sure if she should finish. On one hand, it wasn’t like she had to correct Yuffie, and tell her that Xehanort was coming back. On the other, considering the way she spoke of him, perhaps she would rather know. Aqua took a deep breath, and finished. “Xehanort’s coming back.”

Aerith dropped both glasses she was bringing out. She managed to fumble and catch one, but not the other, and the first still spilled water all down the front of her. Aerith winced. “Sorry! Sorry…” She hugged the glass tightly to her chest.

Aqua started to her feet to help, except Riku was already picking up the glass Aerith dropped. It would be better if she let him help, most likely, seeing as he lived here. From the grimace he gave the glass, it was broken. He took it and the other glass from Aerith’s hands, then said something to her that Aqua couldn’t here.

“Is he really?” Yuffie demanded. Aqua did her best to shift her attention to her.

“Yes… that’s what Mickey told me,” Aqua answered.

“I can second that,” Namine said, eyes averted. “If the other universe is anything to go by, anyway… Me and Riku have known about this for a while…”

“Why didn’t you mention?” Yuffie demanded, rounding on her.

She winced. “Forgot?”

“There were a lot of other things going on when we found out!” Riku added, from where he was in the kitchen. Aqua frowned, certainly curious. Especially about… another universe? She didn’t have time to really think on it, though, or to ask, not that she was sure she wanted to.

“Whoooo is Xehanort?” Kairi asked, drawing her words out.

“A very, very bad man,” Aerith said. One hand was over her heart, and the other to her lips, and she appeared to be clutching herself very tightly, not to mention leaning against the wall for support. Yuffie inched closer to her. Namine got up and skirted around them, heading to a door in the wall behind Aqua, though that was all Aqua saw before she stopped watching.

“He was evil,” Yuffie added, very firmly, her expression even more sour than it had been seconds ago. “Like, legitimately evil, and I’m pretty sure he’s why this world fell into darkness in the first place. I know Leon says we don’t have any proof but we also all know that it’s just something he would do.”

Aqua closed her eyes and sighed deeply. There was no point in saying anything, nothing to add, really, because none of that was wrong. It was still saddening to think of how much Xehanort—how much Terra—had hurt everyone, though.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered.

“Hey, what? Don’t be!” Yuffie laughed. “It’s not like it’s your fault.”

Well, I could’ve tried harder to stop him… Aqua thought, but did not say. If I just hadn’t been so afraid of hurting Terra… Or if I’d tried harder to save Terra before then…

Kairi got to her feet, then, to help Namine. Namine’d brought towels to help clean up the water. Aerith shifted out of the way, and dried herself off with a quick blast of Aero. Aqua laughed at that, though she couldn’t say she hadn’t done it once or twice before, and Ven did it… constantly. Though, him and wind was another thing entirely.

Speaking of Ven—he’d just arrived. It was hard to miss his presence, when his heart was bursting with light as it was. Kairi and the other Princesses of Heart were the only people she’d ever met to rival it, but her sensitivity to Ven came more from having lived with him for so long. She could peg Terra’s presence in a heartbeat, too, along with Master Eraqus’s. Or, she could have pegged Master Eraqus’s, back when he was still…

Her hand moved to her pocket, where the Keychain for his Keyblade was. It’d been there ever since she’d found it abandoned in the Land of Departure.

“Here! I got it!” Sora pushed the door open hard enough it slammed against the wall. His grin split his entire face, and he held what suspiciously looked like Terra’s wayfinder in his hands. There was a certain… tug, about it, too. Not just in the way that it tugged on her mind—she really should probably go take it—but a pull on her heart, as well. A pull that felt like…

“Whoa, hey!”

She did not realize where she was standing until Sora was deftly moving the charm out of her reach and sliding out of her way. Aqua blinked a few times, and took a step backwards and away from Sora.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s alright.” His eyes were burning. He held Terra’s wayfinder behind his back. “I get it. He’s eager. But the message—it’s private, I think. And you don’t want to miss it. And I don’t know if he’ll just burst out with it the moment you’re holding this thing. Do you want to go outside, or…?”

“We could always leave the room,” Aerith was offering, before Aqua could respond.

“What’s this about a message?” Riku asked.

“Something Sora was going on about, I don’t really know,” Kairi answered.

“I… Going outside will probably be better…” Aqua said, very slowly. The tug on her mind was still strong, but it was nothing compared to what she felt beating in her chest. Terra. She felt Terra. It was almost as if he was standing in the room, except it wasn’t strong enough to describe it like that. The presence was faint, just a whisper of him, just an echo. And it was coming from his wayfinder.

“Ven?” Sora said, handing the wayfinder for him to take.

“It’s not going to go off if I touch it, will it?”

“No! No, it’s for Aqua.”

“Of course…” Ven took the wayfinder, a pout on his face—the one he always got when they were teasing him about being young (not that he was really, that young, or much younger than them). “C’mon, Aqua. Let’s see what Terra’s dying to tell you.”

There was a bite to his voice, but Aqua hardly heard it, just as she did not hear what anyone said as she and Ven slipped outside. The tug in her mind was persistent, and she wanted to grab Terra’s wayfinder out of Ven’s hands, except that was childish, and she knew there was no point in it. She’d hold it and hear the message soon enough. They found a semi-secluded spot off to the side, in the shadow of one of the mostly completed houses, and settled themselves on the ground.

“Ready?” Ven asked. He held the wayfinder out for Aqua to grab.

Aqua hesitated just a second, then nodded. “Yeah.”

The moment her fingers touched it, it sparked to life, and energy surged through her. A voice spoke. Terra’s voice.

“I’m ready.”

“Good, because I already started!”

Aqua and Ven exchanged glances. That sounded like the voice of an old woman.

“What?” Terra again. “Aw, man, alright. I, uh…

“Don’t waste your time, boy!”

“Stop distracting me! Look, I… Aqua… Aqua. I’m sorry. That’s what I wanted to say. That’s why I’m doing this. I wanted you to know I’m sorry, and I’m not so sure I’ll have the chance to tell you next time we speak.”

They certainly hadn’t, if said “next time” was the one she thought he was referring to. Maybe if she hadn’t been so hasty to ask about Eraqus. If she’d heard him out…

“I’m… I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you for help. I just thought I could handle the darkness on my own. I thought I knew what I was doing. Thought I could trust Xehanort!” He laughed, sharply, bitterly. Aqua thought she heard the old woman scoff, as well, but Terra was talking again before she was certain. “He’s been leading me along this whole time. I don’t know what for, but I can feel the grip he has on my heart.

Ven gasped. Aqua closed her eyes. She knew all this, now, but it was nice to hear Terra say it, nice to hear him say he didn’t want this. She hadn’t, exactly, thought he had, but seven years in the Realm of Darkness gave you a very long time to think about things, and more than enough time to start to question.

And, don’t tell Ven this, but, Aqua, I’m terrified. I’ve got one of those feelings—you know how I used to get? When we were younger? I can’t make heads or tails of it, like always, but… Something horrible is going to happen. I can feel it. I’m sure of it. But if I don’t go, he’ll kill you, and if I do go…

He paused, just a second.

If I do go… I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what will happen, really, to me or to you or to Ven. I don’t know. I just know it doesn’t feel good. And I don’t know how to stop it. And I’m sorry. Tell Ven I’m sorry, too.

“And if I can’t stop what Xehanort’s planning, then- Then do whatever it takes to stop him. And I mean whatever it takes. Even if it means—me. Getting rid of me. Better that than the future I feel coming. Anything would be better. I’m so sorry.”

There was a long pause. Aqua shifted, expecting that to be the end of it. There was certainly a finality in Terra’s tone. But then the old woman spoke.

“Done?”

“Yeah. Done. You sure it’ll get to her?”

“Positive! I know what I’m doing. My magic will ensure it reaches her—eventually.”

“Eventually!?”

“Better than never, isn’t it? Now come on! Where’s my munny?”

It cut off abruptly there, before the woman’s voice had quite finished the final word. Aqua took a very deep breath. Relief flooded her, abruptly and so strongly she was not sure it was her own. Relief from what? That the message was delivered, her mind supplied, immediately.

Sure enough, the lack of a tug towards the wayfinder was a relief, and Aqua could feel the magic that bound the message to it fading, but there was more to the relief than that. (Spells couldn’t feel, anyway.) And even though the magic was fading, the presence she knew as Terra’s did not.

“What did he mean, Aqua?” Ven asked, nudging her and distracting her from her thoughts. “About that feeling? I never knew he got… feelings about things.”

“He hasn’t since we were both kids,” Aqua answered, distractedly, her mind not really in the answer. “He used to get feelings about people, and places, and they always turned out right. Master Eraqus was really interested in them, but… something happened, and Terra stopped getting them almost entirely.”

“Right.” That was all Ven said. For having just heard about this, he was taking it pretty solidly. Normally he was a well of questions, but he didn’t ask any more about Terra’s powers of not-really-at-all foresight. “Who do you think that woman was?” Ven asked, instead.

Aqua shook her head. Besides the fact that the woman was a skilled magician, she had no clue. She was trying to get a feel of the spell that had been cast on Terra’s wayfinder—but it was much too advanced for Aqua to make sense of. She’d studied magic, studied all sorts of magic, but never something like this. The fact that it had almost faded certainly made it harder to get a sense of.

Ven seemed to mistake her silence for distress. “Hey. We’ll find him. You know that.” Ven smiled at her. “We made it out okay. He will too, bad feeling or no.”

“Yeah, I know.” Aqua nodded. She knew that very well. It had been her decision to look for Terra, a promise to herself to bring him back, to make up for not saving him to begin with. She got to her feet.

“Let’s head back, yeah?” Ven said, joining her. “I think I want to tell Sora about the message—well, not like, everything Terra said, but… Something. He seemed to really care about it.”

Aqua nodded again, to say she understood, to say she was okay with that. Ven ran ahead of her. Aqua walked more slowly, then stopped entirely, looking down at Terra’s wayfinder in her hands, something occurring to her. Why did she feel his presence coming from it, anyway? She’d been too distracted by the tug and the spell and the message to really ponder it, but now the message had been heard and her mind was clear. It can’t have been the spell, could it, muddling her senses? Tricking her into thinking she felt Terra, when all she felt was something that had been recorded? Or maybe it was just because he’d carried the wayfinder for so long….

It had to be just that. Anything else was impossible.

“Aqua?” Ven stopped at the door to Aerith’s house. “You coming?”

“What? Yes. I’m coming.”

Chapter Text

With Aqua and Ven outside, and the mess cleaned up, Riku headed back for the couch and his book. He saw Sora send a slightly wistful glance at the door, then Sora went to Kairi and asked her if they could talk, and then they headed upstairs. Whatever. Yuffie was still grumbling about Xehanort, and while Aerith was distressed, she seemed certainly in no mood to talk about it, so Riku left her alone.

Namine joined him on the couch after a minute—at the other end of it, of course—picking up her sketchbook again. Things between them were better, but still… shaky. If Riku had better sense, he’d say it was because neither of them was sure what to do. He did know for certain that they were avoiding the old patterns, and that he did not like these new ones, and Namine did not seem to either. But what was he supposed to do about that? He’d probably have to talk to Aerith again, except now wasn’t the time, and if they ended up talking about anything tonight, he had a feeling it might be about Xehanort.

Speaking of…

Riku rubbed at the corners of his book, then nodded to himself. He checked to see that neither Yuffie nor Aerith were quite in earshot. They weren’t, or, Riku doubted Yuffie would hear them over her pacing and mumbling, and even though Aerith was pretty close in the kitchen, she wouldn’t hear if he was quiet. He scooted closer to Namine.

“Any idea what that message thing was? Sora and Kairi didn’t explain.”

She glanced up at him, just as if to register he was there, and then avoiding his gaze as soon as she could. Riku tried not to be too bothered—she did do it with everyone. Not just him. It was unfortunate, but it wasn’t something he could fix, so he shouldn’t worry too much about it. That’s what he told himself.

“No...” Namine answered, with a shrug. She fingered one of her pencils, but didn’t move to make a mark on her page.

“Could you… draw a picture?” Riku didn’t look at her as he asked. He knew he shouldn’t be this nosy, and knew it was even worse to use Namine’s abilities like this. But all this distaste about Xehanort had him on edge, and an urgent message… No, there was no use trying to hide it. He was just nosy.

Namine glared at him. “No. That’s rude. Besides, it wouldn’t work… It’s not about you, and… Honestly, I haven’t been able to draw pictures like that since I was… Rewritten.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah…”

Riku slowly shifted away from her and opened his book back up. He shouldn’t be nosy. He couldn’t talk to Aerith now. He had no idea what to do with Namine. Letting out a long breath, he started reading again.

 

xxx

 

Ven trotted up the stairs two at a time, after being told Sora was up here talking with Kairi. (In his excitement, he did not stop to consider the implications of that.) He didn’t understand Terra’s message as well as Aqua had seemed to, but he understood apologies well enough, and understood that he didn’t really think Terra had anything to apologize for. It was Xehanort’s fault, not Terra’s. Xehanort had tricked and manipulated all of them. Ven had been put in a similar position, himself.

Thankfully, forging then destroying Chi-blade had been an option, and a success. It had only cost him Vanitas.

Then again, maybe it hadn’t. Sora—

“I’m just, pissed, Kairi, if anything!”

—was shouting about something. Ven stopped about three feet from the room he knew Sora to be in. (If Sora’s yelling was not enough to tell him, the slight tug on his chest was.) He frowned at the door, knowing he probably shouldn’t interrupt, but…

“I know why he thinks what he thinks,” Sora continued. He sounded angrier than Ven had heard him all day. And was Sora talking about him? “But, I just, I don’t think it’s right. It can’t be!”

“Sora, come on.” Kairi only sounded impatient. “You need to cut this out. Fight the darkness or whatever it is that’s making you so…” She made some vague noise that Ven thought she meant to finish conveying her point with. He didn’t understand it, but then again, he was eavesdropping.

“I know! I’m trying. Don’t think I’m not trying.”

Ven stood there a second, debating whether or not he should… He should probably go back downstairs, and just talk to Sora later, but this seemed to be a lull in the conversation, and the tug in his chest drew him to Sora, whether he wanted it to or not. He moved towards the room, raising his hand to push the partially-shut door open.

He felt the chill pass through him before he heard Sora speak.

“Ohh, no, not now. Not now.

“What?” Kairi asked.

“Go away, Ventus, I know you’re there.”

Ven’s breath caught in his lungs, but he forced himself to keep breathing, forced himself not to think about the way Sora said Ventus, when no one ever said his full name. He tried not to think about how familiar the sound of Sora’s voice shaping around his name was, either.

“I just, uh…” Ven coughed and cleared his throat. He should really listen, and leave, but the pull of his heart and Sora’s made it hard. “I thought you might want to hear about the message…?”

“Now’s probably not a good time, Ven, no offense,” Kairi said, poking her head out around the door.

“That’s- That’s fi—”

“Wait, the message? Oh! Oh yeah!” Sora was suddenly there, opening the door and putting himself next to Kairi, smiling widely. If Ven was honest, he’d say Sora sounded like a completely different person. “Was it good news? …It wasn’t good news, was it?”

Sora’s face fell as he considered Ven, though Ven wasn’t sure what kind of face he was making, and highly doubted it had anything to do with Terra’s message. He put his best smile back on his lips.

“It, uh, was hardly news. Really just an apology.” As he said it, Ven realized that he wasn’t quite sure what he’d intended to tell Sora about the message. None of what Terra said was anything Sora would understand or, really, exactly, care about. He just thought Sora should know. He just wanted to…

Ven hastily put that thought out of his mind.

Sora nodded, somehow looking understanding. Kairi stood there with her arms folded over her chest, considering Ven with an obviously thin patience, and Sora with a look Ven was confused to read as distrust. Perhaps it had something to do with the yelling, but, no, that wasn’t his business.

“It was from your friend, right? Terra?” Sora asked. “How is he? Don’t give me that look, Kairi, I carried that charm in my pocket for like a month and I’m pretty sure he talked to me! I’m curious.”

Kairi rolled her eyes and held up her hands.

Ven nodded at Sora, affirming it was Terra. “He’s… Well…” Ven almost said alright before he caught himself—a liar he was not, not if he didn’t have to be. “He’s with Xehanort,” he said. That was truth, and would explain most of it. “We think, still. Xehanort was… kinda using his body.”

“Xehanort,” Sora said. Kairi’s mouth turned downward. “Who’s that? You’re like the, uh… fifth person to have mentioned him.” The way he paused made it sound like he’d actually taken the time to count.

 “Wow. Not even a blink at the mention of Xehanort using his body?”

Sora shrugged and smiled uneasily. Kairi’s face hardened like a rock. They both exchanged sidelong glances, and Sora shrugged, and Kairi’s face softened. A little. She didn’t look any happier, though.

“I guess you could say I know enough about Xehanort to not be surprised by that,” Sora said. “But I still only have the vaguest idea who he is, and I’d kinda really like to know more!”

“All I got when I asked earlier was ‘very evil, plunged a world into darkness’,” Kairi added. Despite how angry she looked, she did look curious.

Ven laughed a little. That wasn’t exactly an inaccurate description of Xehanort. “Well, he was a Keyblade Master, and well-respected one, I think. He was also, like, crazy old.” That seemed like a good place to start. Both Sora and Kairi were listening attentively. Ven rubbed at his chin, thinking of what else to say. “I think he was power hungry, or something, and I don’t think he cared who he hurt to reach his goals. He was a cruel master, too.”

If he and Terra and Aqua weren’t enough to prove that, then Vanitas was. Ven tried not to dwell long on the memories of Vanitas’s that sat in his head (they made him sick if he thought about them too hard) but he was familiar enough with them to know Xehanort had been the exact opposite of kind when training Vanitas. That in mind, he watched Sora closely as he finished. He wouldn’t press, but he couldn’t help but be curious if the mention of Xehanort being a cruel master sparked anything in Sora. It didn’t seem to….

“He’s also coming back,” Kairi added, after a second. “Aqua mentioned that earlier, and it seems pretty important.” Her eyes glinted, and she nudged Sora. “So much for that break from being a hero, huh?”

Sora laughed as he pushed her away. “Nah, that’s alright! I got a month off, didn’t I? Besides, it’s not like I did much world-saving last time around, guess I gotta make up for it this time!”

“Sure, but no leaving me behind!”

“I didn’t mean to the first time!”

Ven rubbed his hands together, smiling uneasily. He wasn’t sure what to say, and very suddenly felt like he was intruding. He coughed. “I, uh, I think I’m gonna go back down—”

“Yeah, sure!” Kairi said. “Me and Sora probably need to head back home soon, anyway, or our parents aren’t gonna be happy, so…”

Ven nodded, understanding. He didn’t have parents of his own—he and Terra were both orphans—but he understood that Master Eraqus would’ve been displeased if he was late for anything. It was probably the same. Aqua sure acted like it was, anyway, and since she was the only one of them who still had parents…

Anyway. It didn’t matter that much.

He waved and said a partial goodbye and headed downstairs, though he got the feeling that Sora and Kairi wouldn’t be far behind.

“Hey Ven!” Aqua called. “Do you mind if we stay here for the night?”

Ven hesitated a second. “Uh, no, of course not,” he said. “Is there room?”

“It’s fine,” Aerith assured him. “So long as you don’t mind sharing a room with Aqua.”

Ven made sure to smile at her. “Oh, yeah, I’m okay with that!” He and Aqua had been sleeping next to each other on the ground for the past couple months as they’d been traveling, after all, or sharing a room when they stopped someplace with an inn or hotel. Of course it was no big deal.

He was just glad Sora didn’t live here. How he would’ve survived the night with Vanitas calling to him from Sora’s heart, he wasn’t sure.

Chapter Text

Kairi was beginning to think it was not just the darkness affecting Sora. Probably. The darkness would explain the angry outbursts and the way Sora kept avoiding her at times. It would even explain the way he got absolutely furious at the slightest mention of his parents. But there was… something else. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but something she knew could not simply be residual darkness.

But what? She could do all the research she wanted on her dad’s computer, but only half the resources accounted for magic and monsters and darkness, and none of them seemed to line up with whatever was going on with Sora. The only “experts” she really knew were Tifa and Cloud, and they did not see Sora every day, did not see the shifts in his eyes and in his behavior, so they couldn’t tell her anything of use. Kairi supposed she could take Sora to see them, but that would require staying with them long enough for Sora to… start acting strange around them, and that could take weeks. Her dad might be okay with her being gone for weeks again, but Sora’s parents definitely wouldn’t be.

She was on her way to Sora’s house now, though not exactly for any specific reason. Maybe she’d try talking to him again about what was going on, maybe she wouldn’t. Really, she just wanted to hang out. She was thinking they should go down to the play island today. Go swimming.

Kairi knocked on Sora’s front door, though she knew it was unlocked and she could probably just barge in. Sora’s parents didn’t like her doing that, though, and even if they weren’t home, old habits died hard. After a moment, she glared, and knocked again.

“Sora?” she called, for extra measure. After another moment, she sighed. “You better not be doing something embarrassing for your sake! I’m—”

“I’m coming!” Sora called. A pit formed in Kairi’s stomach, and it only got worse when Sora opened the door—only just enough to see her, and he didn’t look very happy to. “Yeah? What do you want?” He sounded eager to be rid of her.

“I was hoping we could go swimming,” Kairi said, evenly. She would deal with him when he was like this, because she had to, because if she did not she’d never figure out what was wrong. There had to be something she was missing.

“Uhh… Nope. I’m busy.” Sora drummed his fingers against the doorframe. “My, uh, mom gave me a lot of… chores to do.”

Kairi did her best to keep the glare off her face. Getting angry only made Sora more unreasonable when he was like this—was it Sora? No, no, that was silly. It couldn’t be anyone else.

“Well, I could always help,” she suggested. “It’d be more fun that way.” If only he would move, so she could step inside the house. Then he wouldn’t be able to get rid of her.

Sora took a deep breath, glaring death at her before he masked it with something… less hateful. Seriously, what was wrong with him? “I don’t think my, uh, mom would be very happy about that.”

“She doesn’t have to know.”

“She could be home any minute.”

Kairi frowned. “Sora… It’s Thursday. She’s teaching her sewing class from now until just before dinner.” Had he forgotten? She admitted she had trouble keeping track of the days sometimes, but even as she reminded him, it sparked no recognition in his eyes.

“Oh,” was all he said.

“Are you going to let me in or not, Sora?” Her patience was wearing thin. Not that that was hard, when he treated her like this. “This is ridiculous.”

He wouldn’t quite look at her. His fingers tapped a furious rhythm against the wall. “Uh, no, I really think I should, uh, I need to do… laundry. You can’t really help with that.”

“And I can’t just sit and watch?”

“Maybe you should go check on, uh… Namine. She probably has… something… going on. Right? Yeah. You do that.” He stepped backwards out of the doorway. Kairi tried to reach out and stop the door before it shut, but she wasn’t quite fast enough.

Sora!” she shouted, banging against it.

The only response was the sound of the lock being thrown.

Kairi stood there a full minute or two in shock and indignation. Not only had he shoved her off, but he’d locked her out, too. She stormed over to his bedroom window on the side of his house, then glared furiously up at it. It was closed, and probably locked as well. Finding the nearest rock, she chucked it good and hard right at the window. She missed, but that was probably for the better—Sora’s parents wouldn’t be happy if she broke it, even if she did have more than enough munny to replace it.

 “What is wrong with him?” she grumbled to herself, heading down to the docks. Even if Sora wasn’t coming, she needed a good long swim to clear her head.

 

xxx

 

Ven stared up at the stars, slowly counting them. He knew it was futile, but that was the point. Eventually it should put him to sleep. And it kept his mind off… other things. For the most part.

They’d left Hollow Bastion a few days ago, and were currently camped in the fields far from the castle and forest of the Dwarf Woodlands. Aqua was asleep beside him. Probably. She had as much trouble as he did sleeping most nights, and tonight had not been the first when she’d checked the perimeter five times for Heartless, nor the first when she’d complained she had no idea how to cast wards against them. Master Eraqus had known how to, but he hadn’t taught it to her before he…

Ven let out a long breath and started counting the stars again. He’d gotten up to fifty-four last time, before being distracted. He tried to focus on the task harder this time. Tried to let the numbers and the twinkle of the stars drown out the ache in his chest.

He’d expected to never see Vanitas again, and that was alright. Vanitas was not the kindest person, and the Worlds were probably better off without him. But his heart still longed for its other half, and feeling it beat inside Sora had been… uncomfortable, to describe it kindly. Ven was still trying to piece out what to do about it, though. Talk to Sora, definitely, but then what? Getting that piece of Vanitas back in his own chest would be ideal—bringing Vanitas back in full would be too dangerous—but how? The Keyblade could supposedly do that sort of thing, but Ven could not imagine doing it himself. Master Eraqus was dead, so he could not, though perhaps that was for the best. Ven wouldn’t dare imagine Master Eraqus being willing to do that sort of thing. Aqua might know how to do it, but she held a lot of Master Eraqus’s beliefs when it came to darkness, and telling her about this whole mess was the last thing he wanted to do.

Ven blinked a few times, then grimaced. Where had he been? Forty… something, but no telling which star he’d last counted. He sighed and started over.

“Ven…? You’re not asleep.”

He forced a smile on his lips, so that it would carry to his voice easier. “Stars are pretty tonight,” he told Aqua. That was all. That was all he dared.

Aqua saw right through it, though. “Trouble sleeping?” she asked. He could feel her shift next to him—see it out of the corner of his eyes—so that she was a little more upright. Probably so she could look at him.

He shrugged. “Got a lot on my mind.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really…”

He heard Aqua shift in a way that meant she was pulling Terra’s wayfinder out of her pocket. Again. Not an hour had gone past in the last few days where she hadn’t at least checked to make sure it was there, if not get lost in thought completely while staring at it. Ven chuckled a little.

“You aren’t going to be able to stare any answers out of it,” he teased. “Especially not if you aren’t going to ask those questions out loud!”

“Oh shut up!”

Ven laughed, and swung himself upright. “But, seriously, Aqua. Why do you stare at it so much?”

Aqua took a deep breath, sparing only a glance at him before her eyes were fixed on Terra’s wayfinder again. “I’m just… I’m hoping it’ll lead us to him…”

“I thought that was only supposed to work if we were all carrying the charms,” Ven argued.

“Well, that’s how the legend goes,” Aqua agreed, with a sigh. “It’s just… Can’t you feel him, Ven? It’s like he’s right there. I can sense him. I can sense him through his wayfinder, and I’m just hoping… I’m hoping that I can follow the feeling and it will.... at least give me a clue to where he is. But I’m not sure it works like that…”

Ven shrugged. He had no idea. Aqua’s ability to sense hearts like this was something that only she could do, last he’d been told. Or, that only she could do without long years of training and refining your senses.

“We aren’t going to find him if we’re too tired to walk, though,” Ven said, flopping back down into the grass. “Try and go back to sleep.”

“Mm. You too.”

Aqua lay back down. Ven started counting the stars again.

 

xxx

 

Kairi was glad Sora’d started leaving the star shard with her, in part so she could make this trip, but mainly just so he couldn’t go anywhere when he was in one of his… moods. She raked a hand through her still slightly-wet hair and shoved the star shard in her pocket, moving up to Aerith’s front door. Knocking brought a call of come in, so she did.

The house was completely empty, with Namine and Aerith the only two in sight. Namine was sitting on one of the couches, sketching (unsurprisingly), while Aerith was in the kitchen. Making lunch…? A glance at the clock on the wall showed Kairi it was 1 o’clock, and while that was a little late for lunch, it wasn’t unreasonable, though it did make Kairi feel a little strange. It’d been at least 3, if not edging on 4, when she’d left Destiny Islands.

“Uh, hi,” she said. Namine and Aerith both chorused hellos, and Kairi cleared her throat, figuring she should just get to the point. “Aerith, do you have either Cloud or Tifa’s phone number? I don’t think me and Sora ever actually got that from you.” Not that I’d be able to ask Sora, seeing as he locked me out of his house, she added, silently.

“Hang on, I’ll write it down for you,” Aerith said. Seeing as Aerith wasn’t moving out of the kitchen, Kairi headed towards it. She stopped short when she got closer, eyes widening.

“You cut your hair,” she said.

Aerith glanced up at her, then smiled. She reached up to touch her now-short curls that fell to her shoulders, smiling again as she returned her attention to the notepad on the counter. “Yeah,” she said, as she nodded. “I just sort of… felt like it. You want both their numbers?”

“Yes please. It looks nice, by the way. Your hair.” It was a little strange seeing Aerith without her braid, but this new look wasn’t bad at all. She still had her bow, of course, it was just now on top of her head, probably tied to a headband. “Has… it always been curly?” Kairi found herself asking, after a moment.

Aerith nodded again. “Mmhmm. You could just never tell when it was braided, though. Here.” She tore the paper off the notepad and handed it to Kairi.

“Riku got his cut, too,” Namine said, before Kairi could look at the numbers. “You’ll have to see him.”

Kairi rounded on her, jaw dropping open. Riku! With short hair! She’d been only teasing the other day about it being too long. “Did he? Where is he?”

“He and Yuffie are on Heartless control while Leon and some of the new Restoration Committee members work on houses,” Aerith explained. “They should be back soon for lunch, though. Do you want a sandwich, Kairi?”

Kairi started to say no, seeing as once she headed back home it’d probably be dinner time, except she was hungry now, and dinner was unpredictably late most nights. “Uh, half a one, please? Just turkey and cheese is fine.”

“Here, Kairi, come here,” Namine said. Kairi plopped down on the couch next to her without question. “Riku looks a little like this, now.”

Namine showed her a rough sketch in her sketchbook of Riku sporting his new haircut. From the looks of the drawing, she’d probably drawn it while he was getting it cut. Kairi’s eyes flickered over the rest of the page, and she giggled a little.

“How many sketches of him do you have in here?” she asked. There were two more on this page alone.

Namine blushed furiously, pulling the sketchbook away from Kairi. “He makes for good pose study, alright? The fact he doesn’t stay in the same position for more than ten minutes helps. And makes it harder to catch the pose before he’s moved.” The explanation was reasonable enough, but Kairi couldn’t help from sending Namine a teasing look. Namine’s deeper blush was worth it.

“Did you want any particular kind of cheese, Kairi?” Aerith asked.

“No, whatever’s fine.”

“Then here you go.”

Aerith handed her a plate. Kairi took it, thanked her, and started eating, nudging Namine and asking her if she could see some of the other sketches. Namine agreed after a second, but only if Kairi promised not to tease her again. It was a fair deal.

Kairi stayed only long enough for Riku to get back, so she could tease him about his haircut. She didn’t stay much longer than that, though, because some of those “new” Restoration Committee members had also come for lunch, and it was getting crowded. Not to mention the time difference between worlds…

“I hope you’ll have some answers for me,” she told the piece of paper with Cloud and Tifa’s numbers on it, as she pulled down the phone from the wall of her house. She still doubted they’d be able to help her without speaking to Sora at length, but, it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Chapter Text

Kairi took a deep breath before heading up the path to Sora’s house. His dad was at the docks. His dad was always at the docks. His mom was buying groceries—there was a reason she was coming now, after all, especially to have this conversation. Cloud and Tifa hadn’t been able to provide her any ideas, as she’d expected, but she’d come across something while reading…

Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to consider, but the symptoms all seemed to line up, and without an expert to prove otherwise, it was all she had. And she was certain if she could just talk to him while he was in one of his “moods”, she’d know for sure. Split personalities were supposedly easy to notice. And if it wasn’t Sora, she’d see it, right?

She didn’t make the mistake of knocking on his door this time, she just let herself in. Sora was in the kitchen, halfway in the fridge, moving things around and… singing? No, just humming. Kairi didn’t recognize the tune, though, which was strange, considering they’d always shared music.

“Yo, Sora,” she said, leaning against the island in his kitchen.

He jumped and pulled himself out of the fridge, then looked at her with wide eyes. “Uh… hi. Kairi.” He let the fridge close behind him, and his eyes slowly narrowed.

“Something wrong?” Kairi asked.

Sora nodded. “I… I don’t remember waking up,” he said. He smiled in a way that showed he was irritated by the notion. “I don’t remember coming downstairs, I don’t remember getting dressed, and I have no idea what I was doing in the fridge.”

“Getting breakfast?” Kairi suggested.

“Probably.” Sora sent a look back at the fridge, then grimaced, and leaned on his elbows across from her.

“You should eat.” Talking to him could wait until he had breakfast. Besides, this was definitely Sora she was talking to, so she wasn’t in a rush. Unfortunately, the fruit bowl that sat only inches from them was empty, and she couldn’t just take an apple out of it and force it into his hands.

“Eh, later.” Sora followed her eyes to the empty fruit bowl and grimaced twice as hard. “What are you here for, anyway?” He flicked her in the arm.

Kairi hesitated before answering his question. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to push it to this point, yet, but then again, there couldn’t be anything wrong with telling Sora what she suspected before she was sure. It was just Sora. “I, uh… I actually thought I might know what’s with the gaps in your memories.”

“Really?” Sora asked.

“Yeah, I was doing some reading on my dad’s computer again and—”

Irritation flared through his eyes. “Oh! Great!” He moved to the cabinets that hung above the counter so violently she second guessed her decision to tell him—or, at least, the assumption that it wouldn’t hurt anything. Then again, maybe this was better, if the sudden irritation meant what she thought it meant. “Here we go again, then! How many times do I have to say it?” He glared at the cabinet’s contents, slammed the door shut, then moved to another one and reached for a plate. “It’s not PTSD or another one of those dumb disorders, and I’m not doing therapy!”

Kairi studied him very carefully. She’d didn’t remember mentioning PTSD in the past, and she’d certainly never mentioned therapy. Maybe his parents had? But Sora’d never mentioned that to her…

“I wasn’t going to say PTSD,” she said, trying to sound casual, all while watching him like a hawk. “But I was thinking it might be—”

Sora rounded on her and slammed the plate against the island counter. “He’s not sick!” he roared.

He seemed to realize himself just as his words registered to Kairi. He’s. She started to open her mouth, but then his deer-in-the-headlights look became anger even worse than it had been before, and he slammed a fist against the counter. “Dammit!” he shouted. “Dammit.” He kneaded his forehead, trembling hard.

Kairi licked her lips, trying to gather her words.

Sora—or whoever this was—spoke between ragged breaths. “If… If I say ‘I’m not sick’, now, will you believe me and we pretend this never happened?”

Kairi couldn’t help her snort. “No.”

“Worth a shot…”

“Not really! I mean, come on, you know I know you’re not—”

“Go away!” Probably-Not-Sora shouted very suddenly. Kairi frowned at him, but when she followed his horrified gaze she understood. Standing there right in front of the couch was a wolf. One that was familiar, one that Kairi recognized, because there was no mistaking it. No mistaking its black fur, no mistaking the way its tail and the fur that rolled down behind its head were made from sort of shifting red fire. Its eyes were not gold, though, like they were last time Kairi’d seen it. They were a blank yellow. Like a Heartless.

“Go away!” Not-Sora repeated. “Don’t make me—”

The wolf leapt right at him, clearing the counter with ease. It should’ve knocked him into the opposite counter, but instead they both vanished.

Kairi hastily reached for the star shard in her pocket.

 

xxx

 

A sense of a large black beast shrinking under his hand—except that couldn’t be his hand. The skin was too pale, and his gloves weren’t that color, but the shape was the same…

A sense of first aggression, then affection, at his back in the sand and a heavy weight on his chest.

‘I’ll miss you…’

“Me too, you sack of bricks.”

 

xxx

 

Very suddenly finding himself on his back with a wolf on his chest—with no recollection of how he got here, or where Kairi was, or what he’d last said to her, of course—was not how Sora wanted to “wake up”. He tried to figure out where here was, but all he could register that it was very dark, and there was cold sand beneath him, and there were waves in the distance. That was it.

‘What are you doing in there?!’

Sora blinked at the wolf. It hadn’t moved its mouth, but he understood it just fine. Somehow. Wait, he recognized this wolf! It was the wolf that had chased him (and Cloud) through so many worlds, trying to…! Well, honestly, he had never figured out what it had wanted with him to begin with. Memories and notions and maybe an explanation bubbled in the back of his mind, but the wolf gave him no chance to examine them.

‘Well? What do you have to say for yourself?’

“Uh, frankly,” Sora said, not understand what was going on in the slightest. “I’d just like to know—”

‘Not you!’ The wolf growled threateningly, and Sora grimaced and turned his head away from its face. Its breath was atrocious. ‘My master!’ Its eyes flashed pure yellow—the whites and all—before returning to normal golden wolf eyes. Somehow, Sora understood this to mean it was angry. It waited a moment, breathing heavily against his face, before it snorted. ‘Not going to answer, are you? Fine! I’ll rip you out myself if I have to.’

Panic flooded Sora. “What?!”

The wolf plunged its teeth into his chest.

It was agony in his chest and fire in his body—for a few seconds. The pain in his chest didn’t diminish, but he was… alive. The wolf hadn’t torn at his flesh or anything physical about him. Instead it had wrapped his jaws around his heart. Not that that was a good thing, really, it was just better than the alternative. Sora’s mind churned as he tried to find a way out of this situation—but then his body was moving and a screech was tearing itself out of his mouth.

NO!” His hands grasped at the wolf in ways that felt effective, except he wasn’t moving his hands, and if he had been, he wouldn’t have known to grab at those spots specifically. “Put it back! Put it back, you sack of bricks! DO YOU WANT TO KILL US BOTH PUT IT BACK!!

It was like Sora was in the backseat as his body moved without him telling it to. The tug in his chest and the words that were leaving his mouth only took a second to snap into place around him. He suddenly felt very cold.

My Shadow…

“SORA SHUT UP AND JUST LET ME MOVE YOUR BODY ALRIGHT! DO YOU WANT TO DIE?” His hands moved to the wolf’s mouth, fingers trying to pry its teeth open. “I said let go of me!

‘You told me you were going to—’

I know! I know what I told you, I know what I told the both of you, alright? I didn’t think this would happen—and I’m not too happy it did, either!” There were tears in his eyes, and a fierce pit of despair in his gut. That belonged to his Shadow, but there might as well have been no distinction between the emotions and Sora’s for how strongly Sora felt them. “Just let go of me, you aren’t doing me any favors by ripping me out, it’s not like I have a body anymore!”

There was a slight hesitation, then the wolf’s jaws slackened by an inch. ‘You can have mine,’ it said in its mental rumble.

The offer seemed to upset Sora’s Shadow even further. “Don’t you dare! Now let me go.

The wolf obliged.

The world around Sora seemed to tremble, then it snapped back into place, as his heart and his Shadow’s combined again and slid back into his chest. Sora fell onto his back, breathing heavily, fingers curling into the sand beneath him. The sky above was pure black, no stars, no light except that that which seemed to come from the ground and the rocks themselves. He recognized this place. The Realm of Darkness… But why here…?

His unasked question was answered by the thought-voice of his Shadow.

I used to come here a lot.’

It was out of the way. The waves were comforting—Those things were conveyed without words, just in feelings and notions. Sora’s surprise and confusion about the situation was probably conveyed to his Shadow in the same.

The wolf made itself comfortable on the beach a little ways away from Sora. It seemed contented, but Sora also got the feeling it was watching his every move. Sora absentmindedly reached out to it, running his fingers through the fur on its head. He tried to piece together what he was feeling right now, about his Shadow. Irritation, maybe. Relief, definitely, for too many reasons.

Sora swallowed. “So… you’re…?” he began. He couldn’t bring himself to finish, but he didn’t really need to.

Not dead. Yeah,’ his Shadow replied, still silently. Probably for the better.

“You said that wasn’t your heart…”

I didn’t know!’ There was a frantic note in his Shadow’s voice. ‘I swear, Sora, I had no idea. If I HAD known…’

He trailed off there, and his hesitation bubbled in Sora’s mind. The thoughts that drifted by after that made Sora’s stomach flip.

“…you really don’t want to be… here?” Sora asked, with a slight hesitation. Alive was the first word to come to mind. You really don’t want to be alive? But asking that, considering that, was too much to bear, a thousand times too much.

His mouth contorted into a grimace. For the life of him, he couldn’t say whether it was him or his Shadow that was grimacing.

I dunno. Maybe it’ll be easier now that you know about me… But, the fact still stands…’

Sora closed his eyes. His Shadow didn’t need to say it. Now that he was aware of his Shadow, things like that were passed between them without words, without either of them really consenting to it.

You love me—Sora hardly thought it, but immediately he could feel his Shadow recoil.

A wave of sorrow and frustration surged through him, through the both of them, and Sora did his best to distance himself from it. Those were his Shadow’s emotions, not his. This didn’t sadden him. It didn’t even make him mad anymore. He’d had months to think about it, or, a month and a half or so.

“Look, I…” Sora took care to put his thoughts into words, just the feelings would not be enough. “I know it makes you angry. I know it makes you upset. I- I know you hate yourself for it. But it’s… it’s no big deal. Not to me.”

Well, that’s fantastic!’ His Shadow’s voice was so bitter and so sarcastic it made him ache. ‘Yeah, it makes me feel so much better. I mean it! Now can we stop talking about it?’

“No.” Sora wasn’t going to back down that easily. This was important. If he was going to have to live with his Shadow in his heart, then he was going to get this out. There was no way he was going to wait to discuss what had driven his Shadow to death to begin with. Besides, you didn’t mess around with things like love. You didn’t not talk about it. Love was something you needed to be clear on.

Alright. Fine. I’m listening.’

“I wanted to say I’m sorry I acted so negatively when I first found out,” Sora said. “It’s just—”

I hurt you,’ his Shadow interrupted. ‘I was absolutely awful to you. I get it. Of course you were mad when you figured it out! I go from making your life hell to striving so hard to keep you safe, to be with you, that I lose myself? That’s not—’

“I forgive you.”

“You forgive me?!”

The words came out through Sora’s mouth instead of being silent, and then he was sitting up, kicking up the dark sand with the sharp movements. The actions and words were his Shadow’s, of course. Sora did not try to take control of his body back—he wasn’t quite sure how to, actually—but more importantly, that wasn’t what mattered right now. The wolf growled softly, but that wasn’t what mattered either.

Yes, Sora said, silently. Seeing as his Shadow was in control of his body right now, he couldn’t use his mouth, or he didn’t want to try using it. I do.

“For what? For everything?” his Shadow demanded. His anger made Sora tremble. “For every injury, for every cruel thing I said, every cruel thing I made you say? For Maleficent? For- for this?” He reached up and pulled at Sora’s face—the scar did not hurt now to touch, but Sora knew where it was even if it felt no different than the rest of his skin.

That was an accident.

“It was—”

An accident, Sora repeated, firmly. And I forgive you. For all of it.

“But I—”

You regret it. And that’s what matters.

Tears welled up in Sora’s eyes, and his hand moved to cover them. The sobs were choked back in his throat. Clearly, his Shadow did not want to cry, but Sora wasn’t in a position to do anything about it, really. It felt a little strange to have his body do all this without him telling it to, but that wasn’t something he could do anything about either.

It’s okay, he said.

“I hurt you,” his Shadow protested.

And you’re sorry.

There was a hesitation. A shaky intake of breath.

“And- and I… I…”

He did not seem keen to say the words I love you, but Sora did not blame him for that. The love was still roiling in his chest, though, so it did not need to be said. Sora only wished so much shame didn’t accompany it.

It’s not a big deal, Sora repeated. I know it feels like it is, but… It’s not. I don’t mind. You love me, that’s how it is, there’s no point making a big deal out of it. Not really. The exasperated laugh that went with that thought didn’t leave his mouth, but it reverberated mentally. I mean, can’t say I’ll ever return the feelings, but, then again, it’s not like I really know you.

Sure, he knew a lot of things about his Shadow, but having someone’s memories and emotions inside of you was not the same as talking with them, conversing with them. Knowing things about his Shadow was not the same as having a relationship.

“This isn’t a joke, Sora!” His Shadow snapped.

I was being completely serious.

His Shadow didn’t reply, but his disbelief rattled inside of him—them? Whatever. Sora felt it. And he wasn’t really surprised.

I mean it, Sora said. I think we could be really good friends if we tried.

“That’s not quite ‘returning the feelings’.”

Well, no, but that would be weird if we were sharing a body, anyway. Maybe we should wait to worry about that when you’ve got your own body again.

His Shadow laughed, but his emotions were shut off from Sora now, so Sora couldn’t tell why. He’d have to ask, later, how to shut off his emotions from his Shadow. The more privacy they could get, the better.

“You want control of your body back, huh?” Sora’s Shadow asked.

Yeah, Sora answered.

‘Alright.’

It really didn’t feel any different, but when Sora shifted, his body responded this time. He wondered if they’d have to keep passing control of his body between them like this. That wouldn’t be fun, but it wasn’t quite a question for now. There were too many questions to ask them all right now. Sora considered the wolf, which was still lying on its stomach, watching him. “What?” he asked it. “You got nothing to say now?”

‘I just wanted to prove my Master was back,’ it answered. There was a glint in its eyes. ‘Besides, I wouldn’t dare get between my Mahtas and his amaste.’

Sora didn’t know what that word meant, but he could feel the heat rise to his cheeks. Clearly, even when not in explicit control, his body would still respond to some of what his Shadow was feeling.

“What’s that mean?” he asked. Unlike Sheto and Mahtas, no images came to mind with this word. He figured it had to do with his Shadow putting a block on how much passed between them.

It just means “loved one”,’ his Shadow replied. If the heat in Sora’s cheeks wasn’t enough, he also sounded pretty embarrassed. ‘Typically it implies, that uh, we both… y’know….’

‘It does not have to,’ the wolf interrupted. How it had heard Sora’s Shadow, Sora was not sure, but then again, it seemed to communicate mentally as well.

“Ah,” Sora said, not sure what else to say. At least it didn’t mean what he’d initially anticipated it meaning… The glint in the wolf’s eyes had implied too much for comfort.

After a pause, Sora’s Shadow asked: ‘Uh… you don’t… mind me being here, do you?’

“What? Nah! I mean, it’s just as much my fault as it is yours.” Sora shrugged. “Besides, I’m… I’m glad you’re not dead. And it would explain a lot.”

Sorry about your parents…’ Sora’s Shadow said, very reluctantly.

Sora shook his head, pushing that worry aside. “They were being unreasonable even without you aggravating them. Maybe they’ll listen now.”

His Shadow laughed. ‘Sure, if they don’t think you’re insane for having voices in your head!’

Sora scowled down at his chest—the closest he could get to glaring at his Shadow. “Well, then you just need to be quiet when I’m talking to them from now on,” he said.

Easier said than done…’ There was a pause. ‘You never showed them your Keyblade as proof, by the way.’

“I… yeah…” Sora scratched the back of his head. “Forgot about that. But more importantly! Do you have a name?”

The pause this time gave Sora the sense of a double take. ‘Why?’ his Shadow asked.

“Because if I have to call you ‘my Shadow’ one more time I think I’ll lose my mind,” Sora explained. Something occurred to him, then, and he cautiously added: “It’s… It’s not Vanitas, is it?”

No!’ The reply was so quick and so powerful it seemed to make Sora’s heart quiver. ‘I don’t care what Ventus says, I’m not Vanitas! I know I’m not! I’m—I’m your Shadow. That’s who I am.’

“Not really any more, though,” Sora argued. “So no on the name?”

No.’

“Well, then we need to think of one.” Sora crossed his arms over his chest and frowned hard, hoping to glare an idea out of the sand. “How about Shad?

No way! Where’d you even get that from?’

“Short for Shadow…?”

No!’

Sora pouted. “I thought it was clever,” he grumbled, then sighed. “Well, I don’t have any other ideas right now. I guess we’ll keep thinking on it. Your wolf doesn’t have a name either, does it?”

‘I do not.’

“Clearly you’re just as bad with names as I am.”

A name didn’t exactly seem important at the time, Sora.’

Sora shrugged again. “We’ll think on it,” he resolved, then pushed himself to his feet. “Maybe Kairi will have some ideas.”

His Shadow’s mental groan made him stagger for a second. Once he’d recovered, he glared down at his chest again.

“Hey, we’ve gotta tell her. You aren’t getting out of it.” Sora held his hand out to the wolf, knowing this was how his Shadow traveled. “Can you take me back home, then?”

The wolf carefully took his fingers between its teeth and pulled him forward. The world shifted around them.

Chapter Text

Unfortunately for Sora, when the wolf brought him back into his house—right in the middle of his living room—his mom was back with the groceries. He stared with wide blinking eyes, not sure what to do. His mom hadn’t seen how he’d arrived, at least (though perhaps seeing it would’ve convinced her about this whole thing).

His mom glanced up for a second as she moved to grab another something to put away. “Oh, Sora, great! When did you sneak in?”

“Uh…”

His mom turned her back to him to put what she’d grabbed in the fridge, and Sora’s Shadow shouted: ‘Kairi’s not here! Try Hollow Bastion! Go go go!’ The wolf grabbed his fingers much harder and dragged him away.

Sora grimaced as the worlds shifted, sparing a second to regret leaving his mom there. Perhaps the spell would work in his favor, though, and make her forget she’d seen him for two unexplainable seconds. Then again, that probably shouldn’t be what he wanted… What he wanted was for her to believe him. Oh well. That could wait. At least now he could add magical wolf next to Keyblade on his list of things that were undeniable proof of what had happened.

‘Oh. I suppose this is not better, is it?’

Thanks a lot, you sack of bricks. You could’ve at least taken us outside!’

It took Sora a moment to realize what the wolf and his Shadow meant, but then he finished taking in his surroundings. The wolf had brought them right into the middle of Aerith’s living room. Surprisingly, Leon was the only one besides Kairi around—but Kairi was pacing angrily with a phone in her hands, talking in a rapid, panicked, squeaking voice.

“But we don’t know where to look! And like I said, the star shard won’t just take me to—” Kairi cut off, noticing them. She gaped for a moment, more at the wolf than Sora, he figured, then swallowed. “Never mind,” she told whoever was on the phone. “He’s just showed up. And uh…”

“I… have a lot of explaining to do, I get that,” Sora said. “Can we… do that outside, though, y’think?” He sent a hesitant glance at Leon, though he supposed Leon was not the worst person to have around right now.

Kairi slowly nodded. She kept eyeing the wolf distrustfully. “Well, I think everything’s okay,” she told whoever she was on the phone with. “No, you don’t need to come. Thanks. I’ll call you back.” She closed the phone, then tossed it to Leon. “Thanks for letting me borrow it.”

“No problem. It was something of an emergency,” Leon assured her. He was eyeing the wolf too, but with something Sora thought was more like awe.

“You better have a good explanation for me Sora,” Kairi said. She was glaring daggers at him.

Sora shifted uncomfortably. “I. I do. Outside?” He pointed over his shoulder at the door. Kairi glared a moment more at him, then sighed, and nodded. “Sorry, Leon,” Sora said. “This will take, uh… not long?”

Leon waved at them to go ahead, and they headed out. Kairi said nothing as they made their way to the Bailey, but she didn’t look happy. The Bailey seemed like the best sort of “secluded” spot to head to, especially after learning from Kairi that most everyone else was at the infirmary right now. The Bailey and the infirmary were in two separate directions.

“Who… were you on the phone with?” Sora asked, trying to ease the tension a little.

“Tifa.”

“Oh.”

Sora cleared his throat, then glanced down at the wolf. Can I tell it to go away? he asked his Shadow.

Yeah, sure.’

Oh good. “Uh… shoo?” Sora motioned for the wolf to make itself scarce. It stared at him, and his Shadow snickered.

Don’t bother him, alright?’ his Shadow commanded.

The wolf lowered its head in something like a bow, backed up, and then was gone.

Was that necessary? Sora asked.

Considering I’m pretty sure he’s only being nice to you because of me, well, yeah.’

Because I’m your amaste? Sora said, largely teasing.

Don’t.’

“So where’s that explanation?” Kairi asked. She was leaning against the rampart of the Bailey, arms crossed tightly over her chest, watching him with hawk-like eyes. Hopefully that silent conversation hadn’t looked too strange… Oh well, she’d know why it had happened in just a second.

Sora opened his mouth to speak, but Kairi was talking again before he could. “And, uh, did that wolf seriously just bring you back like no big deal?”

“There’s…. more to it than that…” Sora answered, slowly.

Kairi eyed him, then chewed at her tongue a second, eyes crinkling with distaste. “Well, alright, but I guess before that I should tell you that right before it dragged you off I was talking to—”

“I know,” Sora interrupted. “Well, okay. I didn’t know until right now, thanks for that.” He sent a small glare down at his chest—still the closest he could get to glaring at his Shadow. His Shadow had talked to Kairi before the wolf had found them. That was good to know. Oh, and Kairi was giving him a funny look. “Not you, Kairi!” he said, quickly. “It’s, uh. It’s my Shadow. He’s not dead. He’s uh…” Sora thumped at his chest. Easier to just get it out now than later.

“Oh! Well I guess that’s a little more comforting than what I was assuming,” Kairi said. “And it makes sense, I guess? But… still…” She frowned at him. “He’s… Are you… okay?”

Sora nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. I actually don’t mind too much.”

“…What?”

Sora shrugged. “Reeeeally just glad that he’s not dead…”

What.

“Kairi don’t give me that look.”

She was staring at him like he’d lost his mind. It made him feel a little queasy, honestly. Sure, this was big news, and he’d known she wouldn’t take it entirely positively, but that look seemed a little unnecessary.

“I’ll give you this look if I want to, Sora!” she snapped. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Well, I didn’t really want to kill him to begin with… and he’s not so bad…” It was hard to say it and sound confident, though, when Kairi’s face was caught between horror and distrust. Like, what, there was actually something wrong with him? Sure, his recent behavior and memory gaps had been a little worrying, but having it turn out to be his Shadow was certainly a better option than the others.

“Sora, have you forgotten who you’re talking about?!”

“No, I haven’t—”

“But he—”

“Listen, Kairi! I know he did a lot of bad things, and a lot of bad things to me, but he’s sorry,” Sora said. “He’s been in my chest for the past month, I can feel that, and I can feel it now. He regrets it. And I forgive him.” It was that simple. Why did everyone seem to have such a hard time understanding that?

Kairi shook her head. “How do I know that’s you and not him talking?” she asked.

Sora licked his lips. That wasn’t exactly a question he’d expected, and certainly not one he’d wanted to hear. “Trust me, Kairi... He’s not buying the whole forgiveness thing, either, and he needs to get over himself.” That was accompanied with another glare down at his chest. His Shadow had cut off his emotions from him again, though, and he wasn’t saying anything, either.

“How! Do I know! That it’s you, and not him!!” Kairi repeated, more frustrated this time. She pushed off from the rampart and stepped towards him, jabbing at his chest. Her eyes were watering. Her voice was cracking.

“You have to trust me, Kairi.”

“I don’t trust him.

“Kairi, please…”

“How do I know this isn’t a trick?” she demanded. She jabbed him in the chest again. “How do you know this isn’t a trick? That he isn’t just biding his time until he’s got a grip enough around your heart to just drag you into darkness, or something! Isn’t that what he was supposed to do? How can—”

“BECAUSE I CAN FEEL IT!” Sora interrupted. He cringed a little after shouting, but he was shaking all over with frustration. “I can’t really explain that to you, Kairi, I can’t make you feel what he’s feeling and what I’m feeling, but it’s! It’s all in here.” He thumped at his chest, pushing away her jabbing finger in the process. “I can feel it, Kairi. I can feel it!”

There was a pit in his stomach, because he’d never anticipated this, and he should’ve. He should’ve known she wouldn’t trust his Shadow, but he’d never considered it, never considered her doing anything but support and trust him, her best friend. Wasn’t his word enough? His Shadow was different now, but how was he supposed to make her see that? How was he supposed to change her mind? How could his Shadow change anyone’s mind if he did not even seem to want forgiveness?

Don’t bother, Sora. She’s not going to trust me.’

“Why won’t she trust you?” Sora was responding to his Shadow’s comment aloud before he realized himself. There was no point taking it back, though, so he turned to Kairi. “Why won’t you trust him?” he asked her.

Her eyes burned as she answered. “I did trust him!” she said. She was trembling just as much as he was, but Sora knew she was trembling with anger—the red of her face gave her away. “Did he not tell you? Did you miss it, despite apparently having all of his memories? He came to me, on the Islands, and visited me regularly. He was my only company while you and Namine and Riku were all gone. He was my friend. And then he threw it away because he was too embarrassed to tell me and you both that he loved you?” Kairi scoffed. “If he was really my friend, it wouldn’t have mattered, because friends trust each other with everything!

“Kairi…” Sora began, sadly. He’d known that she and his Shadow had talked—she’d mentioned it before—but the memories had never been ones to stick out to him. Perhaps he’d never looked, or perhaps his Shadow had tried to hide them. He didn’t have a chance to say anything else, though.

“And- and that doesn’t even touch the fact that he lied to me all those months!” Kairi continued, waving her arms angrily. “He wouldn’t tell me who he was, or that he knew you, he wouldn’t be honest with me because he wanted my company, he wanted me to be nice to him, he wanted us to stay friends for his own selfish desires!”

The rage boiled in Sora before he could contain it. His Shadow was grabbing control of his body before he could stop him. “That doesn’t exactly excuse you, Kairi!” He was stepping forward, shoving her hands aside, pointing an accusing finger at her chest. “Clinging on to a relationship with a boy you couldn’t see because you were so damn lonely, because you were so desperate for a friend you would take the first invisible stranger that came to you, without questioning what he was, or where he came from!”

“He shouldn’t have led me on!!”

“I! I was just! I was just…” His Shadow faltered, and lowered his hand. Sora sure hoped Kairi knew which one of them was talking right now. “I don’t know what to tell you, Kairi. I don’t know why I did it, I don’t… I…” He hung his head, turning to the side. “I didn’t want to tell you I loved Sora. I didn’t want to tell Sora I loved Sora!! It was embarrassing, it was horrible, and I was—”

He raised his hand, and Sora seized control of his body back, stopping him there, stopping him before he could grab enough darkness to throw in frustration. He held himself there, firmly, not moving an inch, not daring to.

Stop that!” he shouted. “It’s not! A big! Deal!”

“It IS a big deal!!”

The words were tearing from his mouth before he could quite finish his own, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. Sora forced himself to. Forced himself to take deep breaths and calm his racing heart. These emotions were not his.

“Loving me isn’t so bad…” Sora said, very slowly, half-anticipating to be interrupted again. “I mean, I’m a pretty nice guy, aren’t I—”

“IT’S NOT YOU! IT’S ME!” The tightening of his chest was back, and his Shadow was still using his mouth. “It goes against everything I am. I’m not supposed to love, and I’m especially not supposed to love you!!

“Sora, make him stop,” Kairi said.

Sora did not—could not—turn to her. If he moved, he was sure his actions would turn into his Shadow’s. “Kairi, please, this is kind of important…”

“Sora, he’s freaking me out!

“Kairi! If he’s going to live in my heart, I need him to not hate himself so much that he wants to die!!”

“Then get him out of there.”

The severity of her tone made Sora turn, against his better judgement. Her face was hard as stone. Sora felt his jaw go slack, and his eyes go wide. She couldn’t really be…?

It hurt, that his best friend wasn’t supporting him in what he cared so much about. It hurt, because he did care about this, he wanted his Shadow to be alive, and here he was, but none of this was what he wanted to deal with. His Shadow, a moment away from a second suicide if he could manage to pull it off without taking Sora with him. Kairi, not trusting him, not trusting either of them.

Thankfully, thankfully, there was an easy way out of Kairi’s demand.

“I don’t think there’s a way to get him out,” Sora said. “The wolf tried. It nearly killed both of us. Even if it tried again and was more careful… it’d probably still kill both of us. Right?” He directed this last bit at his Shadow.

“It would definitely kill me,” his Shadow answered, through his mouth. Sora started to question why, but already the thought was being answered—his Shadow was doing it so Kairi could stay on the same page. Based on the darkening of her face, she knew which one of them was talking this time.

“And since that’s what you want, then why don’t we just do that?” Kairi asked, bitterly, angrily—Sora hadn’t seen her this angry in a long time, and it made his chest ache. Worse, his Shadow seemed to be considering it, rolling it over in his head to make sure it could work.

“NO!” Sora screamed at the top of his lungs “No!!” He glared at Kairi, tears stinging in his eyes. “What happened to dying isn’t an option? Since when is it not an option for me, but it’s an option for him? That’s- that’s not okay, Kairi! How- how could you even suggest a thing!”

Kairi fumbled, the anger draining from her immediately.

“I never wanted to kill him,” Sora continued, crying now. “I never wanted to kill him. I’m not doing it now. You can’t make me! There’s a reason for everyone to live. You said that, Kairi. You said there’s always another reason to live.”

Kairi dropped her gaze. “I- I’m sorry…” she mumbled. “I don’t like this, but you’re right. We can’t just kill him.”

“Thank you.”

She may be right, though,’ Sora’s Shadow said. ‘I’m still your Shadow. Sure, I haven’t tried to drag you into darkness or anything. Yet. But…’ He seemed hesitant to put the thought into words, and Sora couldn’t bear dwelling on it to figure it out for himself. ‘It’s what I was born to do, Sora.’ The words seemed as much to be for explaining what he meant as they were for reassuring Sora. ‘Maybe I can avoid it as long as I’m in your heart, but…’

He didn’t need to say anymore. Sora nodded.

“We’ll ask around,” Sora said. Out loud again. He needed to get better at that. Kairi narrowed her eyes at him, and he sighed. “We’ll have to ask a lot of questions about Shadows,” he said. To get her on the same page. To clarify to his Shadow. “Someone’s gotta have an answer…”

Cloud’s not going to be able to tell us anything, you know that,’ Sora’s Shadow said in response to Sora’s half-thought consideration of him.

He might have something, Sora replied. And he’s a good place to start.

“What was with that wolf, anyway?” Kairi asked. She wouldn’t look directly at him, now, but she certainly seemed a lot less frustrated, at least.

“Oh! It’s, uh, my Shadow’s… pet…” Sora explained.

Sora’s Shadow laughed. ‘Don’t let him hear you say that!’

“Well, maybe pet isn’t the best description,” Sora corrected. “But, y’know, it does what he tells it to do.”

Kairi nodded, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back on the rampart again. “So it’s… it’s not gonna hurt you, then?”

Sora started giggling, not that he could really say why. It was probably a result of his body trying to process both his Shadow’s nervous laughter and his own genuine amusement at his Shadow’s embarrassment. The words no, of course it wouldn’t! were never said, but they were certainly thought, in passing. Sora was sure if his Shadow had a body, his face would be bright red.

“N-no,” Sora told Kairi through the giggles, swallowing hard to subdue them. “No, it won’t.”

Kairi only raised her eyebrows. “If your Shadow told it to?” she pressed.

“He’s not going to hurt me, Kairi.”

Kairi let out an annoyed breath, but did nothing else, and said nothing. Sora moved to lean against the rampart with her, bumping against her shoulder.

“By the way, got any name ideas for him? My Shadow?” he asked. “I’m getting really tired of just calling him ‘my Shadow’.”

Kairi laughed a little, sending him a sideways look. “What about Gary?” she asked.

Sora didn’t get it, but his Shadow did, immediately flooding with embarrassment and anger both, hot and churning through Sora’s body.

“Don’t you dare!” he snapped.

It was then that Sora saw the memories, of his Shadow talking to Kairi, of Kairi trying to pry a name out of him, and suggesting that when he wouldn’t provide one…

Kairi laughed a little more, a satisfied grin stretching across her face.

“Don’t worry, it’s dumb name anyway,” she said. Then she shook her head. “Can’t believe this. I guess I’ll try and help you think of something good.”

“Thanks,” Sora told her. “I appreciate it.”

His Shadow just grumbled inside of him.

Kairi sighed.

“You… You gonna tell anyone else about him?” Kairi asked.

Sora shrugged. “Eventually, yeah. I’ll probably have to.” Sensing his Shadow’s discomfort, though, he added: “Just, not today, maybe. Give us some time to… adjust…?”

“What about your parents?”

“They won’t believe me.”

Kairi rolled her eyes. “Not about him, I meant about everything, again, since you’re still putting that off.”

“Yeah, well—!” Sora bit his lip as the heat rose to his cheeks. “You- you need to be making your dad get a magician out there to look at the spell, or go find one yourself! That would make things a lot easier.”

Kairi glared at him. She didn’t argue, though. “Where to now?” she asked. “Back to your house? Or to Aerith’s?”

“Aerith’s…” Sora said, slowly. “We left Leon sitting there, and while we don’t have to tell him anything, I think he’d appreciate it if he knew we didn’t just… vanish.” He pushed away from the wall, turning over ideas in his head about how to approach his parents again as they made their way back to Aerith’s. He should get his dad first. Show him the Keyblade. Together they could convince his mom. But he wanted more time to piece out the words he wanted to say, the exact words, so he could not fumble and mess up if he got frustrated again.

You should just move out, at this rate,’ his Shadow said.

They’re my parents!

‘They’re a pain in the ass.’

Sora wished even harder they had a name figured out for his Shadow, so he could yell it at him now. He settled for glaring down at his chest again.

I’m not moving out when I’ve hardly even tried to talk to them! If it weren’t for the dumb spell—

‘Then talk to Leon, and go home right now while you’re thinking about it, and just get it over with,’ his Shadow interrupted. ‘I’ll try not to… mess things up this time.’

Sora scowled. He knew he should… Yeah, after he talked to Leon, he would. They’d tell Leon everything was okay, sorry for raising a panic, and then he’d go talk to his dad. He’d do it. He would.

Chapter Text

Kairi forced herself to stop eyeing Sora as they made their way back to Aerith’s. He appeared to be occupied with his thoughts—or, talking to his Shadow?—so he probably hadn’t noticed, but he would if she kept it up. And then he’d be annoyed. One of them would be annoyed.

She took a deep breath. It made sense. It could’ve been worse. But it didn’t make her comfortable. Especially since Sora was so chill about it! It didn’t feel like that long ago that he was furious at his Shadow. …had he been furious? Kairi only remembered a lot of yelling. And everything Sora told her that his Shadow did to him. And everything she and his Shadow had discussed… back before she knew who he was.

She still wasn’t sure which she was angrier about. The fact he’d never told her? Or the fact she’d trusted him…

It was only because he reminded me so much of Sora, she told herself. Now if only she could make herself believe it.

“Are you sure it doesn’t bug you?” she asked Sora. They were approaching Aerith’s house now.

He shook his head. “No. I mean, it’s gonna take some getting used to, but, I don’t think I mind. It’s better than the alternative.”

Kairi didn’t quite see how, considering the alternative was his Shadow being dead and out of their hair, but she said nothing as she opened the door to Aerith’s house. They’d tell Leon everything was fine, then head home. Not that they needed to, she supposed. It was still only morning here, fairly early morning at that, so it can’t have been any later than lunch time on the Islands.

The sight before her, though, made her forget entirely about going home any time soon.

Riku was sprawled on his back on the floor, unconscious, and looking much worse for wear. Yuffie was squatting next to him, eyes wide with worry even as she looked up at Kairi and Sora. “Leon went to get Aerith,” Yuffie said, before Kairi or Sora could say anything. “And I know I probably should’ve just taken Riku to the infirmary to begin with but it was habit to bring him here…”

“I thought Riku was already at the infirmary, working with Aerith?” Kairi asked, as Sora moved to further examine Riku.

“Did Leon tell you that?” Yuffie asked in reply. “I mean, Riku was, but then we had Heartless rounds to do. I told Leon that’s what I was doing when I left.” She sighed, hugging her arms to her chest. “Oh well… Do… Do you think Riku’s gonna be okay?”

Sora said nothing, and all Kairi could do was shrug. Riku looked pretty pale, and there was a small amount of darkness surging around him—just enough to make her skin itch. She had no idea what his darkness problems really amounted to, only that in the long run they could kill him if they weren’t fixed. But she wasn’t going to tell Yuffie that, especially not considering how distressed Yuffie already was.

“Geeze, this got bad, didn’t it?” Sora mumbled, fingers trailing over the surging darkness across Riku’s skin. He let out a short laugh—one quiet and quickly stifled, at least, though Yuffie still gave him a look. “And what’s this?” His fingers paused at a spot on Riku’s gut, where there was a patch of purple.

“That’s where Namine—” Kairi began, but had to stop and swallow the bile in her throat. Had to stop and suppress the image of Namine with a blade through Riku and a satisfied smirk on her lips. “That’s where his, uh, dark suit whatever tried to patch him up. Remember?”

“Looks like it’s doing it in other places, too…” Sora said. And he was right. There were a couple of obvious spots on Riku’s arms, and given the way the darkness was pulsing at Riku’s chest, he’d probably end up with purple spots there as well. Kairi felt pretty sorry for him. Sora started laughing again. “It’s not supposed to do that!” he managed to say, between ill-stifled giggles. “It’s not supposed to—” He broke into another fit of giggles, and quickly pushed himself to his feet and hurried outside, still laughing to himself.

Kairi couldn’t even be surprised that Sora’s Shadow found this situation funny.

“Is… is Sora okay?” Yuffie asked, as she watched him go.

“I hope so,” was all Kairi could say.

 

xxx

 

“How did it get that bad?” Sora’s Shadow said, through Sora’s mouth, still cackling madly, through Sora’s mouth. Sora couldn’t figure out how to make him stop. “How did it? It’s not supposed to do that!

So you’ve said, at least, a million times now, Sora said, silently, as he was forced to do. Of course, it hadn’t been a million times, but between the internal and external repetitions, it certainly felt like a lot.

“I’m sorry,” Sora’s Shadow replied, though he didn’t sound a bit sorry, and Sora could still feel his mouth pulled into a grin. “I’m just amazed that this even—” He broke off into another bout of giggles, but these caught in his throat rather abruptly as he turned around. “Oh, shit,” he said, and suddenly Sora found himself in control of his body again.

Leon and Aerith and Namine were approaching, and they were certainly close enough to have heard most of that, not to mention they were all giving him looks. To save himself some embarrassment and not make them forget about Riku who was definitely in worse shape, Sora merely slipped back inside the house. Yuffie gave him a strange look, too, but Kairi only glared a little and rolled her eyes, at least.

As (sort of) planned, everyone saw Riku first when they entered, so it (temporarily) distracted them from Sora. Namine and Aerith both were at Riku’s side in seconds, Namine watching closely over Aerith’s shoulder as Aerith put her fingers to Riku’s chest and pumped both healing magic and light into him. It looked nowhere near as strong as what Mickey had done all that time ago, but then again, Riku wasn’t on the verge of death this time.

After a second round of light, Aerith shook her head and pulled her hand away. “I didn’t think so,” she murmured. She sighed. “There’s nothing I can do. What happened?” She looked at Yuffie, who was still sitting on her heels, arms hugged to her chest.

Yuffie shrugged, eyes not on Aerith, but on Riku. “We were fighting Heartless and his darkness started acting up again, y’know, like it has been… He kept going in and out of his Dark Mode thing, but not on purpose, and then he got all sweaty and stammery and he passed out before I even got him here…”

“You’ll have to take him to Castle Oblivion,” Leon said.

Aerith sighed again. “I know…” She looked between Kairi and Sora. “I’m assuming one of you has transportation?”

Kairi nodded, producing the star shard.

“Can’t you just use a dark corridor?” Sora asked—or rather, his Shadow asked through him before he could stop it. Sora ground his teeth once the question was out.

“Without the Darkness Protection Protocols, Vexen figured it was for the best if Riku didn’t use them,” Namine answered. “Plus, depending on who all is going, dark corridors are really only safe for Replicas…”

A trip or two wouldn’t hurt… more than that probably wouldn’t hurt,’ Sora’s Shadow thought, but Sora bit his lip hard so those words would not leave his mouth either.

Stop using my mouth!

‘Sorry.’

He didn’t sound sorry.

“We should make trips,” Kairi said. “I’ll take Riku and Aerith—unless you’d rather me take Namine?”

Aerith shook her head. “I’ll be fine, I’ve been there a few times. I know I just need to ask for Vexen and leave it at that.”

Kairi nodded. “Alright. Then I’ll be right back to pick up whoever else wants to come along.” The star shard went off, and then she and Aerith and Riku were gone.

“It’s just me and you that’s going, right Sora?” Namine asked. She looked between Leon and Yuffie. “Neither of you want to come, huh?” From the look on her face, she already knew the answer.

“Got restoration work to do,” Leon answered.

Yuffie got to her feet, arms still folded across her chest. “I hate waiting around. Besides, someone’s gotta cover Heartless patrol while Leon works.”

If it’s just you and Namine, I could probably—’

No! Sora interrupted, before his Shadow could finish the thought. Your wolf’s way of travel makes me sick to my stomach, and I know for a fact you can’t do that flashing-from-world-to-world thing you used to be able to do. Not with you in here.

‘Fine, we’ll wait for Kairi, but this just gives Leon time to ask questions…’

Sora tried not to eye Leon anxiously, but Leon was definitely eyeing him. They all were. He cleared his throat. This is not how he’d wanted it to happen. This was not how either of them had wanted it to happen.

“Are… are you okay, Sora?” Namine asked, before Leon could ask anything.

Sora crossed his arms, drumming his fingers near his shoulder. “I’m, yeah. I’m fine.”

“Then what was all the… nervous giggling about?”

“That was, uh.” He coughed. Wet his lips. Easier to get it out quickly, as he kept thinking. He opened his mouth to speak, except, sound would not come out. To say it was as if his Shadow had his hands wrapped tight around Sora’s vocal chords might not, exactly, be incorrect.

Sora, please,’ he begged. ‘Don’t tell them.’

It’ll be easier if we get it out now, Sora argued, scowling a little.

They’re gonna be mad!’

Better mad than thinking I’ve gone crazy, though…

‘But you’re not the one they’re gonna be mad at!!’

It was the desperation in his tone that made Sora reconsider. The way it seemed to waver within him, shaking everything inside him. It was a quick—and perhaps unintentional—conveyance of images and moments and a lot of yelling voices that made Sora understand. Everyone’s eyes were still on him when he sat on the ground, breathing hard.

It wasn’t like he was surprised, exactly. He’d been there for most of these instances. He’d just… Forgotten.

That’s right, he thought, dread filling him thickly. Now that he remembered, he remembered how angry Cloud had been. How angry Leon had been. The way Aerith had shut down on herself after only three words. It was suddenly very hard to swallow. You were kind of awful to them, huh?

‘It’s in my nature,’ his Shadow replied, moaning a little. An apology bubbled around those words, but it was never said. Given the fact it felt pretty insincere, or at least half-hearted, Sora understood why it wasn’t.

There was something else, too.

Something else amongst the dread and thoughts of those here at Hollow Bastion.

It was a quick and sharp feeling—a thought that his Shadow tried to hide. But he wasn’t fast enough, and Sora saw it. A hot feeling bubbled inside him.

And- and Kairi—!?

‘I’m sorry about what I did to Kairi.’ Sora wasn’t sure he’d heard his Shadow answer so quickly in his life. ‘I’m so sorry.’ His mental voice trembled.

Sora took very deep breaths, trying to separate his feelings from his Shadow’s. The effort made his stomach clench, but better that than the angry tears he felt coming. His Shadow was sorry he did it. He really was. But he hated he was sorry, because he shouldn’t be, and—

Sora refused to think on that, refused to think on what his Shadow had done. His Shadow had made Kairi think he was gone forever? And it’d worked, for a while there? No, no, he wouldn’t think about it. A clean slate. They were going to start on a clean slate.

I don’t deserve that, Sora.’

Shut up.

“Sora?” Leon was looking very worriedly at him. He and Namine and Yuffie were, though it looked like Yuffie was pretending not to. Based on Leon’s tone of voice, and the crease of Namine’s brow, they may have been trying to get his attention for a while now.

Are you okay?” Namine repeated.

Sora swallowed. “It’s… it’s a lot to explain,” he said, made himself say. “And now… is not the time.” The words were easier to get out after that. “Later. I’ll explain later.”

Do we have to?’

Yes. Eventually. But we’ll wait until we have better proof you aren’t here to trick me, or something.

Leon looked at Sora like he wanted to press further. Namine was grimacing like she wanted to as well—though Sora knew she wouldn’t, she hated to press things—but then Kairi showed back up. Sora was not sure who the sigh of relief belonged to.

Kairi sent him a look which quickly became accusatory once she saw what position he was in. She said nothing, though, but he was sure she was thinking a lot of things, and if he knew her at all, none of them were kind. “Who’s coming with?” Kairi asked.

“Just me and Sora,” Namine answered. Sora was not so sure the looks everyone was giving him were really worth avoiding the anger. But, for now, there was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could do.

“Then let’s go!” Kairi held her hands out, and it was one star shard trip later that they were standing in one of the hallways of Castle Oblivion. Sora sure hoped they were in the right one, but Namine would’ve said if they weren’t, surely.

Kairi stuffed the star shard back into her pocket. “You tell them?” she asked, eyeing Sora.

“No. Not yet.”

“Mm,” was all Kairi said, then she stalked off.

Namine looked between Kairi’s retreating form and Sora. “Tell us what…?” she asked.

“Not now,” Sora said, again. “Aren’t you worried about Riku?”

“Well, yeah, but you’re my friend too…”

Sora found a blush rising to his cheeks, though he wasn’t exactly sure why. Embarrassed to be reminded, probably. Or maybe his Shadow was blushing about something. He doubted he could even tell the difference if that was the case.

“Let’s check on Riku first,” Sora told Namine. “Then I’ll tell you.”

She nodded. “Alright. This way, then.”

Sora was quite glad she lead the way for him, because he definitely would not have found his way to Riku if left to his own devices.

Chapter Text

Sora’s Shadow rubbed at his nose, or, did the metaphysical equivalent of it. Of course, here in Sora’s heart station, he could form himself a body, but then it was a little harder to watch things through Sora’s eyes, because it made him a little further detached from it. Not that he had to pay any attention to this conversation or anything, but he wanted to. There was something about the way Riku’s darkness had tugged at him when he’d examined it earlier. Something that made him giddy to just think about again. Why, though? That was the question. Maybe someone would say something that would help him figure it out.

Except, right now, all they were discussing were the Darkness Protection Protocol whatevers, and so on, and so on. Sora’s eyes darted around the room, long enough for his Shadow to get a better sense of where everyone was, not that it mattered. Riku was on one of the two cots in this room, out cold still, Aerith was sitting by him, Namine standing close to her, Kairi to Sora’s left leaning against the wall. She looked tired—no, exasperated, annoyed, at the end of her line. No surprise. And then Vexen and the other Vexen… no, Even, that was right. They were each standing at a computer.

“In short, no, we can’t do anything until the Darkness Protection Protocols are installed,” Even said, in response to something that someone said. Or asked. Or… whatever.

“How is that coming along, anyway?” Aerith asked, and this caught his attention. Not because of her question, but because of her attitude. Her tone was polite enough, but anyone with eyes could see just how thin her patience really was. There was no denying the tight lipped way she addressed Even and Vexen both as she asked, no denying the uneasy glances she sent the walls around them.

“Even suggested we stop trying to translate it manually and write a program to do it for us,” Vexen said.

“If it’s not faster, it at least would be more accurate,” Even said, and that was all Sora’s Shadow cared enough to hear. It was just more Replica stuff he wasn’t interested in. Nothing concerning the darkness, nothing to explain the familiarity he’d felt in the darkness pulsing through Riku’s skin.

Then, finally, Vexen said something that caught his attention. “…is how his darkness even got like this,” he was saying. A brief dig through Sora’s top layer memories told Sora’s Shadow that the sentence had started with what I don’t understand—“I programmed darkness into him, but not this amount, and while I suppose it could have mutated…” He shook his head.

“It must have, unless he’s somehow been in contact with a large amount of darkness in these past months…”

That’s when Aerith and Namine, then Kairi exchanged looks. Sora’s Shadow was glad Sora was standing where he could see everyone. There was probably more in their glances than he could read, but, certainly, something… Something tickled at the back of his mind, too. What was it…?

“Actually…” Aerith began, very slowly. “I’m not sure how, but there was a time when he came over to visit, and he…” She sent a look in his—no, Sora’s—direction, clearly hesitant to say something. Sora’s Shadow wished his senses weren’t so dampened by being in Sora’s body, because he should’ve been able to tell why. “Well, he got hurt pretty badly, and when we finally found him… there was a lot of darkness.”

“A Heartless?” Even asked.

“N-no…”

That’s when he remembered. That’s when he remembered finding Riku in a pool of his own blood and some darkness, and had decided to, well, make the situation… more interesting, by adding even more darkness into the mix. He was breaking into another fit of nervous giggles soon enough, and Sora’s irritation flooded through him.

Ohh, that was me,” he—accidentally—said, before Sora clapped a hand to his mouth. That was the unfortunate thing about laughing through Sora’s mouth—he was still laughing—the words came out of it, too.

Aerith looked at him—them—Sora—and sighed. “Well, yes, we know you were the one who… attacked… Riku, but…” She shook her head. “The darkness? I know you struggled with it, Sora, but I just don’t—”

“It was me—my Shadow,” Sora seized most of the control back of his mouth, though some of the giggles still seemed to break through, somehow. “My… I…” He bit his lip hard, and Sora’s Shadow did his hardest to stop feeling so giddy, because now was a bad time, now was a horrible time.

“Oh just tell them, Sora!” Kairi snapped.

Sora flinched. The resolve that settled in his mind was like a bucket of cold water—the laughter and giddiness Sora’s Shadow felt died abruptly. He made himself small as Sora opened his mouth.

“The sooner I get it out the better, I guess,” Sora said, whether to himself or the room, his Shadow was not entirely sure. “My Shadow’s not dead. He’s in here.” That, accompanied with the thump of his chest, as always. “It’s kind of my fault, and also his fault, and also an accident, seeing as neither of us knew that that heart… was his heart and it being in me would mean he… lived…” Sora’s words got less clear at the end. He was doing a horrible job of explaining it, but his Shadow didn’t care—he just wished he could be anywhere else right now.

“Thank you,” Kairi muttered. Sora knew she was smug without even looking at her, so his Shadow knew as well, and it made him feel no better. He’d wonder again why she hated him so much, but that was pointless, because he knew why. The cruel words he’d spat at her just to get rid of her still burned on his tongue, and the image of Sora’s horror and anger still swam in his mind.

“A Shadow? A… Sheto?” it was Even who asked, eyeing Sora warily. Sora’s eyes glazed over Aerith’s similarly distrustful look, but his Shadow did not miss it. It was hard to miss any foul look directed at him. Even’s look shifted from wary to studying to something else, then he nodded. “Mm, I don’t know much about them, but… More importantly, can we ask him about Riku?”

“Yes, what exactly did he do to Riku?” Vexen demanded, anger causing his voice to shake. Sora’s Shadow wished he did not have to suffer under his cold glare, and he almost removed himself from the situation entirely, had Sora not stopped him, caught him, like a hand on his arm.

“It’d be easier if you asked him,” Sora said. “Hang on.”

I don’t want to! his Shadow protested, before Sora could ask the question—not that he really needed to ask, what he was planning to do had already been passed along to Sora’s Shadow.

C’mon, please, I’m gonna mess it up,’ Sora said.

I don’t care!

‘No one here is gonna hate you,’ Sora assured him. ‘I mean, Kairi already does, but Aerith and Namine are pretty chill. You know that. And I’m not sure about Vexen and Even but their opinions don’t really matter. Please. It’ll be so much faster.’

It was the please that made him do it. That, and the fact control of Sora’s body was being thrust into his hands before he could even really say his answer. Then he was standing there in front of all of them, all of them staring, waiting, judging. Had Sora given them enough warning for what they were doing?

Just tell them it’s you, no big deal,’ Sora told him.

This wasn’t a good idea, he thought back, but he wet his lips to speak anyway. He forced a smile onto his lips, the cockiest he could muster. “Alright. Well. Hi,” he said. “Sora’s Shadow here, to answer your probably incredibly probing questions—damn, I guess Sora was right about the name. It is pretty annoying to introduce myself as that.” It was only after he said it that he realized what he’d done. Spoken when he’d meant to keep that thought to himself.

Smooth!’ Sora laughed at him.

“Shut up,” he said back, and then grit his teeth. He’d meant for that to be silent, too.

Sora laughed harder, and he managed to keep the laughter internal. Sora’s Shadow grit his teeth harder, and geared his thoughts back towards Riku, toward what he’d done, carefully looking at no one in the room. Their eyes all burned on his skin, but at least they hadn’t said anything yet.

“Anyway, about Riku,” he said. Sora’s ‘the sooner out the better’ policy seemed to have some merits, it seemed. Especially right now. He itched to move a little closer to Riku, to run his hands over the still sparking darkness at his chest, to get a good feel of all the damage it was doing to him. That would certainly put him in a better mood—but no, no, Sora wouldn’t approve. He swallowed, cleared his throat. A part of him wished Sora would finally feel how terrified he was and put an end to this, the rest of him hoped Sora never found out, so he could never think him any weaker.

“About Riku,” he repeated. “I uh, ha.” He laughed, made himself laugh. How could Sora not notice what he really felt? “Pff, okay, my bad. I don’t even have an excuse. I just. I pumped him full of darkness. I don’t even remember why he was there, or why I—don’t look at me like that!” It was too much, a few seconds too long under five—five!—sets of accusing eyes. “Did you really expect anything else from me? I’m sorry! I mean, no, I’m not that sorry, really. I’m only sorry because Sora’s upse—I MEAN because. I’m. I’m sorry that I wasted my time doing it and was so distracted that I let Maleficent drag Sora off right from under my nose.”

He was certain his heart had never beat so hard in his life, even including when he’d faced Sora that time he’d hoped would be the last, praying hard and in vain that Sora would not piece together the secret he wished he could deny. Kairi was still considering him with a look that was hatred and disgust at the same time. Vexen looked about ready to attack him, honestly. Even wasn’t doing anything but considering him, studying him, and though his face was the kindest, it still made him uneasy. Namine looked a little angry, a little scared, and Aerith—

Even with his senses dampened because he was in Sora, dampened because it was hard to pick out what other people were feeling when you had to wade through a stream of someone else’s emotions to even reach them… Even with his senses dampened, Aerith’s pain was too much for him to miss. She’d lost Zack in a pool of his own blood and too much darkness for her to heal. She’d almost lost Riku the same way.

“STOP STARING AT ME LIKE THAT!” he shouted, before they could speak, before they could call him out. “Okay? I didn’t know it could potentially kill him! If I had known—” But he broke off, because he knew he wouldn’t have done anything different. He didn’t actually care about Riku. “Well, whatever! What does it matter? You can fix it, can’t you?”

He looked at Vexen and Even, because they had the answers. Then he looked only at Even, unable to handle Vexen’s gaze. Even’s really was the only kind gaze in the room—everyone else was looking at him like… He angrily pushed down the memory of being pinned to the ground and Maleficent’s sneer. This was his legacy. A disgrace to the darkness. Not good enough for the light.

Even answered levelly, not a hint of anger or distrust in his voice. “Once we install the Darkness Protection Protocols, they should undo the damage your darkness has done to Riku, or, at the very least, prevent it from doing any more harm.” After a pause, he added: “Thank you, by the way. Now we know what we’re dealing with.” It wasn’t bitter at all.

Kairi’s next comment, however, was. “Can’t you do something about it?” she asked him. Her eyes burned. “I mean, it’s your fault, the least you could do is try and fix it.”

The scowl came easily. “Well, if I still had a body, maybe I’d be able to do something,” Sora’s Shadow replied. “But, I don’t have my own body, and can’t exactly extract any darkness through Sora’s.” Actually, he probably could, but not without potentially damaging Sora’s heart.

Sora latched onto that thought almost immediately, coming from wherever he’d been ignoring the conversation, or whatever he’d been doing. Sleeping, maybe, as he tended to do any time he wasn’t in control of his body. Anyway. Sora latched onto the thought of extracting the darkness from Riku, and before he’d asked—if he’d asked, Sora’s Shadow could’ve deflected the questions—he knew how high the chances were it actually could be done.

“Would it help?” Sora was asking, snatching control of his body back before his Shadow could fully convey how dangerous this idea was. “Would extracting darkness from Riku help?” After a pause he added. “This is Sora again, by the way.”

“It would solve most of our problems,” Vexen answered, almost immediately. From the glare Even gave him, Sora’s Shadow suspected the only reason Vexen hadn’t been smacked was because there was a bed and an unconscious Riku between them.

“It would not,” Even argued. “Would it buy Riku a little extra time? Yes. But that’s about all it would do.”

“That’s good enough for me!” Sora said, cracking his knuckles.

Sora! his Shadow warned, but Sora ignored him. Ignored him!

“Whoa, hang on,” Kairi at least, sensed the urgency. She pushed off from the wall she was leaning against, arms falling from her chest. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”

Sora hesitated, but only a moment, then he was shrugging Kairi’s worry off. “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

No you don’t! his Shadow screamed at him. Sora you have no idea what you’re about to do! Listen to me!!

“Are you sure?” Aerith was the one who asked this time—Sora, please, listen to Aerith!—eyes narrowed warily at him. “I know you’ve… dealt with darkness in the past, but this could be dangerous…”

“What’s it matter if it helps Riku?” Sora replied, without a pause this time. “You said he had, what was it? A month, tops, before the darkness reaches fatal levels?” He looked at Even as he asked. “I know you’re working on it, and making a lot of progress, but that’s still not a long time! If I can do anything to help…”

Sora, please, don’t! his Shadow shouted, wishing he could grab Sora by the shoulders and shake him. It’s not worth it!!

Sora replied this time. ‘This is Riku’s life we’re talking about. Of course it is.’

No one argued now, just stood aside and let Sora move to Riku. He poised with his hand over Riku’s chest, running over in his mind what he was supposed to do from there. That’s as far as Sora’s Shadow let him get. He seized control of Sora’s body, yanking him backwards.

“Don’t you dare!” he screamed—the words weren’t silent, seeing as he controlled Sora’s body, and that included Sora’s mouth. “You have literally no idea what you’re doing!!”

“I know it will help Riku,” Sora replied. Correction: they were caught with each of them partially in control of the body. Unsurprising, seeing as Sora was struggling.

“IT WON’T HELP YOU!

“C’mon, please—”

“NO! LISTEN TO ME. It’s not going to help. I mean, sure, it’ll get the darkness out of Riku, and that’s what we’re going for, but what did you expect to do with the darkness then? Just throw it to the side? It doesn’t work like that!!” He focused on nothing but getting the words out. He ignored how tight his chest felt. Ignored everyone else in the room. “You can’t do anything with the darkness but channel it from one thing to another. All it would do is come out of Riku and settle in you!! And that’s not!! NO!

Then let’s find another place to put the darkness,’ Sora suggested. He said it silently this time, but his Shadow hardly noticed. ‘Your wolf? Wouldn’t that—’

“SORA! PLEASE! Do you even know what being a conduit for the darkness would do to you? Don’t do this! You can’t do this! You’re going to hurt yourself!

If it saves Riku—’ Sora began.

“Stop that! Stop that!! He’s not worth it! He’s not worth what this is going to do to you! You can’t handle this much darkness! You can’t hold it. You can’t! Sora, please, you can’t. I won’t let you. I won’t let you do this to yourself!!”

Sora went silent, and stayed that way for a long moment. Then his churning thoughts caught up to his Shadow, and his Shadow went rigid. Now he realized the tears streaming down his cheeks. How loud he’d been shouting. What he’d been shouting, and more importantly who in front of. It was bad enough they knew he was here, but now they probably knew—

A wave of nausea passed through him. He couldn’t bear to look at anyone in the room, so he stared straight ahead, at nothing. At nothing.

Dammit! I hate you, Sora!” he screamed, and he did not care that the words left Sora’s mouth. “I said I hate you and I mean it! I hate you! I hate what you do to me!

And then he released what control he held of Sora’s body, and he fled. He fled to the deepest reaches of Sora’s heart, as deep as he dared. Except you couldn’t really run from something that surrounded you completely.

Chapter Text

Sora took a heaving gasp of air, reaching for something to support him. Kairi was there in a second, and he grabbed her arm, more than grateful that she hadn’t left him staggering. He felt… raw. Like he’d been split open and laid bare, like all his insides were now on the outside. Maybe vulnerable was the right word.

Perhaps that was how his Shadow felt. The link between them had been snatched from his hands, but Sora could imagine well enough. Shouting all that in front of everyone? Even now Sora couldn’t bear the weight of all their eyes on him.

He took another shuddering gasp for air, and then he was running. He pulled himself away from Kairi and he ran, easily losing himself in the repeating white walls, running until his stomach caught up to him. He ducked into the nearest room—it was empty, at least—and bent over double, nearly retching in response to the self-hate that was suddenly clawing through him. It was not his, but that didn’t mean he didn’t feel it like an ocean about to drown him.

Separating himself from the emotions was not easy, even with the link between him and his Shadow momentarily stifled. Stifled as well as it could be, anyway, he knew now. This link was apparently not something you could truly stifle, and the furious pile of emotions warring in his belly made that more than clear.

It is not mine! he thought angrily, fingers curling as he tried to hold onto his stomach. At least there was nothing in there to get rid of. It is not mine! It is not mine!! Three times, for good measure. He did not hate himself. But he was drowning.

“Sora?”

His first instinct was to push Kairi off, except, she was only sitting down next to him. After a shuddering breath he straightened and scooted closer to her, sitting so their knees were touching. Her presence helped cleared his head. Hold onto himself.

“You okay…?” Kairi asked, cautiously, studying him with a face that was mostly worried. He didn’t miss the distrust behind her eyes, though.

“Yeah…” he said, with a nod. “For the most part.”

“Is he…?”

Sora checked before answering. He reached out to contact his Shadow—that was all he could do, without a name; hey you! was not enough—but came up with nothing. Either his Shadow wasn’t there, or was ignoring him. Sora couldn’t say he minded either way. Not right now.

He shook his head. “No,” he told Kairi. “He’s not around—or as not around as he can be, anyway.”

Kairi nodded. She pushed her hair over her shoulder and leaned back on her arms, laughing to herself. “You’re lucky I followed right after you,” she said. “I don’t think I would’ve kept up, otherwise. Almost lost you as it was. This Castle’s…” She stopped there, shuddering, but there was something of a smile on her lips. She was trying to lighten the mood, and he loved her for it.

“Sorry for running, I guess,” Sora said. He scratched his neck. “I was just a little… embarrassed.” That was the first word to come to mind, but maybe not the right one. “Or maybe he was. I dunno… It was all…”

Kairi waited for him to gather his thoughts, not pressing, not yet. Sora let out a long breath and moved to rub his arms. There was no telling whether it was actually cold here or if it was just his nerves. He swallowed hard, then having found a good place to start, spoke:

“It’s just, I know what he feels for me. I do. I know he loves me, and I know he hates himself for it, but- but knowing is different than feeling it, and it just hit me again like a blow to a gut.” More than the embarrassment of what had happened, it was the reminder that shook them both up so much. The reminder of how much his Shadow cared about him. “This… this is why he was able to look me in the eye and tell me to kill him,” Sora said. “He was feeling like this.

Kairi eyed him warily. “Like what?”

“Like—” Sora stopped to fumble for words, for the right words to explain it. “About ready to puke, because he’s so disgusted with himself. Because he can’t forgive himself for hurting me, but he can’t forgive himself for loving me, either. Because that’s everything he’s not supposed to be. Because he’s my Shadow, and he’s supposed to drag me into darkness, but instead it scares him silly when I could potentially damage my heart? He thinks he should be happy about those things, but he’s not, and—”

“And so he’s so disgusted with himself he’d rather die,” Kairi finished. “I get the picture.” She wouldn’t look at him, but that wasn’t enough to completely hide what she was thinking from Sora. They’d known each other far too long. She was upset, she was frustrated, and he wasn’t entirely sure what about, but chances were it was just about his Shadow in general.

Sora hugged himself tighter, trying not to think too hard about it lest he lose control of his stomach again. It was hard to forget those moments of screaming and tears and blades bared against each other—hard to forget the pleas of just kill me! and tell me why first! Most nights Sora’d wished he’d never asked. Now, he wasn’t sure. With his Shadow still alive, it was probably best that the secret was out.

“What are you gonna do about him?” Kairi asked, breaking his thoughts.

“I don’t know,” Sora admitted, reluctantly. “But… but don’t you dare try and tell me again that I’m better off without him. That I’m safer without him! That’s what everyone says. That’s what he’s terrified of. But I think…” He hesitated, a second, not wanting to say it, not entirely sure. “I think… he’s changing, Kairi. I think he already has…”

“Hmm…” Kairi said. She shifted to lean forward, hands in her lap. “Maybe… Maybe the only thing to do with him is… to get him out of here,” she tapped Sora’s chest, “and then… send him on his way. Then he won’t have to constantly face this whole he-loves-you-but-he-hates-you-for-it, and if… if there are any chances left that he’d hurt you, he’d be far enough away that you’d see it coming.”

Sora scowled. He wished she’d stop saying that. “He won’t hurt me…”

Kairi only shrugged. “Still…

He couldn’t exactly argue with anything else she’d said. She had a point. It just pained him. He reached up to put a hand to his heart, sighing deeply.

“Is- is it weird to say I don’t want him to go?” he was asking before he really realized it. Kairi had that effect on him. He sent her a quick look, cheeks flushing with embarrassment, trying to gauge her response.

She burst out laughing. “Yeah, it’s a little weird!” she told him. “Why, though?” Despite the laughter, she was taking it fairly seriously. Or, not angrily or bitterly, anyway, so that was a plus. “Do you have a reason for me?”

“I… I dunno…” Sora swallowed hard. It felt like there was a lump in his throat. “I just… I want to give him the chance. The- The chance to…? I dunno! Change? Live? To… be a good person? But, not that, that sounds lame.” He grimaced. How to put it? “To be… someone who isn’t judged because he’s my Shadow, because he’s a Shadow, because he’s apparently some abomination who the worlds are better without, and- and clearly I’m the only one who’s going to give him that chance!” His voice cracked, and he winced, reaching up to scrub the tears from his eyes.

“That’s…” Kairi began.

“It’s true, Kairi!” he shouted, cutting her off. “Cloud said it was better if he was dead. Mickey saw him and only saw darkness to be destroyed. You said it would be better if he was dead!!” He wiped his eyes again. And again.

“And I’m sorry I said that!” Kairi protested. “But that wasn’t what I was going to say now. I was going to say that even though that’s very kind of you, it doesn’t change the fact that he needs to get over himself, or get over loving you, or something! You can’t ask him to stick around if—”

“Right. I know,” Sora said. He didn’t need her to finish.

“I… I really am sorry I said he’d be better off dead,” Kairi said slowly. Her eyes were fixed on her hands in her lap, and she was rubbing her thumbs together. “I don’t trust him, no, I’m not really happy he’s around, and I’m not really convinced this isn’t some elaborate act or plan of some sort, but… I really shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Sora hesitated, then flashed her a smile and patted her on the knee. There was no point arguing again about it not being an act. He understood why she didn’t believe it. Yet. He’d convince her eventually, just, not now. Not today.

“Um, excuse me.”

They both looked up. Even was standing there in the doorway, looking apologetic. He cleared his throat and straightened his shirt.

“Ah, is now a bad time?” he asked.

Sora and Kairi exchanged glances. It was as good of a time as any. They’d talked about just about everything there was to talk about, Sora thought. Kairi thought the same, he could tell, by the look in her eyes and her nod.

“No, we were done,” Kairi said. She got to her feet, then helped pull Sora up. “Good thing you’re here, too—short of a star shard trip we’d have never found our way back.”

Even chuckled a little. “The Castle is like that, isn’t it?” he said. “Actually, though, I came to tell you something. I’m not sure how worried you are about your Shadow being where he is, Sora, but I imagine you’d like any and all information possible concerning, probably, how to get him out?”

Sora and Kairi exchanged startled glances. How convenient.

“Uh, yeah,” Sora agreed, after only a second of surprised hesitation. “Among other things.”

Even nodded, as if anticipating that answer. “Well, like I said earlier, I don’t know much about Shadows myself, but I think I might know where you can get information. Xehanort spent plenty of time researching darkness when he was an apprentice to Ansem the Wise, he among the other apprentices. If what you’re looking for isn’t somewhere in the library at Radiant Garden—or, Hollow Bastion, as it goes by now, unfortunately—then what you’re looking for might be in one of their research notes.” Like Vexen (and many Vexen Replicas) he spoke rapidly, and left little room for interruption. Sora was just grateful Even didn’t talk so fast he couldn’t keep up. Some of the Vexens did.

“Seriously?” Kairi asked. She sounded like she didn’t believe it.

“Wow, thanks!” Sora said. He believed it—he’d seen the library—and while digging through Xehanort’s research piles didn’t sound like a lot of fun, any lead was better than Cloud-who-really-had-no-idea.

Even nodded again.

Kairi sighed. “Are we going now, or are we gonna tell Aerith and Namine we’re leaving?” Kairi asked. “Or, I don’t know, anyone else who might want to know.”

“I… I suppose I should tell someone where I’m heading so I don’t just vanish on everyone again,” Even said. He grimaced faintly, but what about, Sora had no clue, and he didn’t care to find out right now.

“Well, then let’s go do that,” Sora said, shooing Even into the hallway, checking to make sure Kairi was following him. The sooner they started looking, the better. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and find a way to get you your own body already, he told his Shadow. His Shadow didn’t reply.

 

xxx

 

Namine took deep breaths as she eyed Riku, still unconscious, still looking paler than she’d ever seen him—and he’d always been a little pale. Even had gone to get Sora and Kairi, or tell them something, she hadn’t entirely been listening. Vexen vanished as well, apparently to find Alpha or 7 or someone to give him a second opinion, though Namine was beginning to think Vexen had just gotten good at sensing when she wanted privacy. Aerith was still here, of course, sitting in the only chair, not far from Riku’s cot, and not far from where Namine herself was sitting on the floor.

She didn’t stop herself this time, as her fingers moved to Riku’s abdomen, moved to push aside his shirt just enough that she could see the scar of purple. It was the same color as the darker parts of his dark suit—which he should be thankful for, at least it wasn’t the bright lavender—and it certainly felt to be made of the same… material, if you could call it material. The air in her lungs caught, and tears stung in her eyes. The mark was a reminder, a very painful reminder, of something that should not matter anymore, except that something still haunted her dreams at night, and plenty moments waking, as well.

It was not her fault his darkness malfunctioned like this, of course. But it was her fault he even had the wound to begin with. The memory came back in flashes of images. Riku, in her arms. A slight shift away from him, just enough to get the tip of her blade to his skin. It was at an angle that she stabbed, but it’d been good enough to almost kill him. And if that memory wasn’t bad enough, then there was also the memory of his blood on her hands, his blood down the front of her dress—

“Namine?”

She jumped at Aerith’s hand on her shoulder, and had to clutch her chest to breathe again. Aerith smiled sadly down at her.

“Are… are you okay, Namine?” Aerith asked.

Namine nodded quickly out of habit. In truth, she wasn’t really, but she couldn’t take the nod back. Besides, she was as okay as she was expected to be. She pulled her hand away from Riku, swallowing hard. It wouldn’t hurt to tell Aerith, though, what was on her mind. Riku put a lot of trust in her.

“It’s just, that’s where I…” Namine swallowed again. “Where I hurt him…” She shoved the memory out of her mind, this time, not wanting to dwell on it any longer. If she did, she’d remember the satisfaction she’d first felt, and that was the last thing she wanted to do. She felt inches away from breaking into panic as it was.

“It’s… not your fault,” Aerith said, hesitantly. Namine knew she was only saying it because it was what she’d been told to say, not for any other reason. She didn’t fully understand what had happened, and she had no idea what it was like to be Rewritten. Then again, no one did. No one expect Roxas, anyway, but even if she could find him, Namine wouldn’t go to him. He’d treated the whole thing like a joke the last time they’d talked, and even if it was his way of coping, it just made her feel sick.

Still, there was no reason to make Aerith feel bad for trying to help. “I know that,” Namine said. “But it still…” She stopped there, shaking her head. There was nothing else to say. No reason to worry Aerith further.

“I’m sorry,” Aerith said, so quiet Namine almost missed it. Namine turned to her, confused.

“It’s… not your fault either?”

Aerith nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. That was a habit she’d developed ever since cutting it. She sniffed a little. It almost looked like she was holding back tears. “I know. I just wish I could go back in time, and… fix everything.” She tucked hair behind her ear again. “I know I can’t, but you and Riku both have gone through so much more pain than anyone should have to.”

Namine blinked a few times, touched, but not sure what to say. She ended up smiling weakly, and that’s all she could do, because then Riku was sitting up. He winced and clutched at his head immediately, in a way that made her wonder if it was from pain or to shield his eyes. Maybe both. He suppressed a groan as he backed himself up so he could lean against the wall.

“Ahg, what happened?” he muttered.

“Yuffie said that you were having trouble with the darkness when you were fighting Heartless,” Aerith explained, with a hesitant glance at Namine. Namine frowned a little, wondering what the glance was for. “You passed out before she could get you to me.”

Riku nodded. “And you brought me here to have the dynamic duo tell me they can’t do anything, right,” he said, and he groaned. The groan, Namine realized, was for the sight of his arms, which both had purple spots in a couple different places.

“I couldn’t do anything about that, either,” Aerith said. “I’m sorry.”

Riku shook his head. “Nah, not your fault.” He rubbed at his arm, though. Namine wondered how strange those spots must have felt. “What’s the verdict?” he asked. “They said they couldn’t do anything, huh?”

“Yeah, they did,” Namine answered. “Even thinks he has a quicker way to translate your data, though, so it shouldn’t be too long now.” She wondered if she should tell him about the time limit they’d put on it. Or perhaps what Sora’s Shadow had done to his darkness…?

“They…” Aerith cleared her throat before she could continue. “They said you only have a month before… before the darkness reaches fatal levels.” Riku hardly blinked.

“Yeah. I knew.”

“You knew?

Riku nodded. “They told me last time I was here.”

“And you didn’t say anything?” Aerith’s voice trembled, and her hands curled in her lap. Something about the air around her made Namine’s chest clench.

“Didn’t want to worry you,” Riku said.

“Didn’t want to worry me,” Aerith repeated. She nodded, and then she laughed, once, sharply. “Well, you should stop that. Both of you.” She sent a stern look at Namine as well as Riku, and Namine found herself cringing. “What’s the point of having a family if you don’t worry them? That’s what you’re supposed to do. And I worry anyway! There’s no point in- in not telling me things…!”

“Sorry,” Namine mumbled, and Riku echoed her.

Aerith nodded to herself. Namine looked to Riku, and he sent her a shrug and a sheepish look—unconsciously, she mirrored it. Then Riku looked up, to the doorway. Even’d returned, with Sora and Kairi at his heels.

Even looked around, and then grimaced. “Right, Vexen’s not here. Oh well. Would one of you mind telling him—or, anyone, really—that I’m going to show Sora and Kairi the library in Ansem the Wise’s castle? I think there might be research notes that could help them there.”

“The library?” Aerith asked. It was hard to miss the tone of excitement in her voice. “That’s right! We’ve been meaning to look through there for some of Ansem’s old notes. Would it be a problem if I came along?”

“I suppose not,” Even said. He looked between Namine and Riku, and sighed. “And I suppose you two will want to come along as well?”

Namine nodded, as there was no reason for just her and Riku to stay here, and Riku said they might as well at this point, and Even sighed again. “I’ll just write a note,” he said, moving to the nearest desk. “Someone will find it—normally I wouldn’t bother, but I fear leaving this place again without notice would cause too many problems. Two seconds, and then we’ll go. I hope one of you has transportation.”

Chapter Text

Sora’d been to Hollow Bastion’s library before, so there wasn’t a moment of surprise or anything. He did remember there being other places around here that were scattered with books, though, and he wondered when they’d have to start looking through those… He’d just finished with the thoughts when Even seemed to answer them.

“Just grab whatever stands out to you, don’t worry about trying to grab everything potentially relevant. I’ll send some Replicas over here later to comb through everything at length. Most of them certainly have more than enough time on their hands and nothing to do with it—it’ll be good for them!” He chuckled to himself, moving for one of the doors. “Anyway, I’m going to see if I can rummage up anyone’s old research notes.” And then he was gone.

Everyone else exchanged glances, and then each of them started to a different section of the library to look. Books on darkness were generally what they were looking for, because information on Shadows could be anywhere.

“Oh, by the way,” Aerith called, as she started up the steps to the second floor of the library. “If anyone finds any books on plants or herbs, pull them out for me. Okay? I’m trying to do some research…”

Riku was the first to respond with a “sure thing!”, but everyone else responded in kind. Sora headed up the stairs as well, seeing as Kairi and Riku and Namine probably had the bottom floor covered.

“Hey Riku?” Namine said.

“Yeah?”

“There’s a book on the very top of this shelf and I want it.”

Riku groaned. “If I have to spend this whole time running around to reach the books on high shelves for everyone I’m just going to leave.” He still went to get Namine’s book, though.

“Call me next time, Namine,” Kairi said, with a laugh. “I could’ve probably reached it. I’m almost as tall as him.”

“You’re at least half a foot shorter.”

“I still could’ve reached it!”

Sora laughed and shook his head, moving to the nearest bookshelf and running his eyes over the titles on the spines. Anything with darkness in the title… or hearts, maybe? Unfortunately, most of the titles were in a language he didn’t recognize. Latin, he thought, as he squinted at one of the thick volumes he pulled off the shelf. What language is Sheto, anyway? Not Latin, I’m assuming, he asked his Shadow, but his Shadow was still ignoring him. Sora sighed and put the book back on the shelf.

“What did you want those books on plants for, anyway?” he asked, turning to glance at Aerith, who was flipping through a book she held in her arms.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m planning another garden, to go outside the infirmary. My mom has plenty of notes written about herbs, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to see if there were any plants she missed.” She shrugged and frowned down at the book in her hands, then snapped it shut and put it back on the shelf.

Sora nodded, to say he understood. It seemed like a pretty reasonable thing to do. He started pulling books down at random (provided they were in a language he could read), flipping through their table of contents, and setting the few that sounded useful on the ground in a stack. Aerith’s stack went in her arms, though she only had two books so far. Sora eyed her sideways, debating the question he wanted to ask her.

She noticed his glances after a moment, and watched him expectantly. Sora cleared his throat.

“Well… What do you think of my Shadow still being around?” That was his question. Namine and Riku didn’t know enough about his Shadow—or about Shadows in general—to fully form an opinion on him. Aerith did.

Aerith slowly put a book back on the shelf, determining it was not what she wanted. She didn’t move to look at any other books, though. She seemed to be thinking about his question. “I… I can’t say for certain, Sora,” she told him, with a shake of her head. “I’ve… met your Shadow. You remember, don’t you? You were there, at least one of the times.”

“Yeah…” Sora sighed and ran his fingers over the spines of the books in front of him, not wanting to look at Aerith. “He taunted you… Cloud attacked him…” So much for hoping that Aerith would think kindly of his Shadow. But things had been so different, then…

His Shadow had acted almost like a different person. So casual with his cruel words, and all his talk about anger and darkness…

“Oh, you’re protecting me now, are you?” he’d laughed, when Sora’d put himself between him and Cloud’s blade.

“Never,” Sora had replied. He’d only done it to keep a fight from starting in Aerith’s dining room. Funny how the tides had turned. And so much for that never.

“He’s changed, though…” he told Aerith, swallowing. “Or… I think he has.” It was hard to think he hadn’t, when Sora hadn’t heard his Shadow once taunt anyone lately. He’d been sarcastic, and he’d been cruel, but he hadn’t done either and enjoyed it—he’d done them out of anger.

“Has he?” Aerith asked, looking at him. The question sounded genuine—it was not distrustful or suspicious, and that made something warm bubble inside Sora. He did not dare think the feeling belonged to his Shadow. Besides, the link between them was mostly stifled, at the moment.

Sora nodded. “Yeah, he—” He just caught himself before he spoke without thinking. His Shadow had made him promise not to tell anyone about his love, and Sora’d only broken that promise to tell Kairi. Sora reconsidered his words before he spoke, deciding what he could say that wouldn’t reveal too much.

“Maleficent… kidnapped me,” he said instead, watching for Aerith’s reaction. Most people jumped at that. “I... I think you knew? Cloud told you, didn’t he?”

Aerith nodded, at least. Sora sighed a little in relief and rest his hand on one of the shelves. That was one less thing to explain. Aerith looked like she wanted to ask something further, but she didn’t, even after Sora waited long enough to give her the chance.

“Well, somehow, Maleficent stifled the connection between me and my Shadow when she did, and it… it did something to him,” Sora continued. “I- I don’t know what.” That was a lie, but he’d promised not to say, and besides, it wasn’t like he knew how it had happened. “But he hasn’t really been the same since then, since we got back in contact with each other.”

“He did seem different, this time, compared to the other times,” Aerith agreed. She started to turn her attention to the bookshelf, but paused with a hand on one of the books to turn to him again. “And… he seemed really worried about you,” she added.

Sora felt the blush rise to his cheeks, and turned away. He wanted to blame his Shadow, but his Shadow wasn’t listening—he would’ve said something long before now if he had been—so the blush couldn’t be his. The worst part? Aerith’s eyes glinted like she knew.

“That- that’s part of it,” Sora said, and it was all he could say, would say. There was nothing he could do about Aerith piecing it all together, though, and he wouldn’t deny it if she asked. There was only so much lying he was willing to do.

Aerith didn’t press, thankfully. Instead she sighed. “I have to say, though, Sora… The one thing I know about Shadows—”

“Is that they have to die, huh?” Sora finished, on a guess. There wasn’t another likely way she’d end that.

Aerith hummed a little in affirmation, and she pulled down the book she had her hand on, flipping idly through its pages. 

“Well, I’m not taking that for an answer,” Sora told her. “Not now. There’s gotta be another way, and… I’ll find it. I will.”

“I hope you do,” Aerith said. “And, honestly, I think everyone in this room—if not everyone back at my house as well, though you’ll have to tell them—will be willing to help you look for it.”

Sora’s eyes widened a little. “Really? You think so?”

“Maybe not all of us are certain about him, but we’re certain about you, Sora,” Aerith said. She smiled at him, putting the book back on the shelf. “Friends help their friends.”

Sora smiled as well at the thought, it was a nice thought, but he couldn’t keep the smile for long. “I’m… not really looking forward to telling everyone about him, though,” he said. By everyone, he really only meant everyone in Aerith’s house, in this case. Aerith seemed to understand what he meant, though.

“They’ll understand,” she assured him. “Or, at the very least, they’ll take your word. If you think your Shadow has changed, can change, then I trust you and your judgement on him. That should be enough for everyone else, as well.”

It wasn’t enough for Kairi, Sora thought, but that wasn’t something he could tell Aerith—and it was something he understood. His Shadow was not kind to those in Hollow Bastion, but there was a difference between a few unkind words and a deception that lasted for two months.

To change the subject, and to get his mind off that, Sora hefted one of the books he had. “Hey, chances this’ll have any answers for Riku?” he asked.

Aerith laughed a little. “Unlikely,” she answered.

Sora laughed as well, shrugging and putting the book back. “Worth a shot.” He hesitated, then swallowed. “You worried about him?”

“He’s family, of course I am!” Aerith replied. “I’m worried, and a little scared for him, to be honest… But, there’s nothing I can do except leave it in Even and Vexen’s hands. At least they seem to know how to fix it before it’s too late.” She piled two more books into her arms, then sent a glance at Sora. “What about you?” she asked. “Are you worried about him?”

“He’s a good friend,” Sora answered, with a shrug. “I really hope they can figure it out in time…” He licked his lips. “I’m… I’m sorry, by the way. For what my Shadow did to Riku.”

“You’re not the one who should be apologizing, Sora.”

“Still…”

He cleared his throat, and turned his attention back to the bookshelves. He and Aerith didn’t talk much after that, and besides shouts across the library about what they were looking for again, would this be useful?, and so on, everyone was in near silence until Even returned. He gave Sora a handful of papers and one notebook, and Aerith another stack of papers, pocketing a completely separate notebook bulging with loose papers for himself.

They all decided to be done, after that, seeing as Even was going to send Vexen Replicas along later to further scan the shelves. After some deliberation, they all took their own stacks of books to read through—except the two plant books, which went to Aerith. Sora could have looked through all the books everyone had found (eleven, total), but it would take him ages, so they decided to split the work.

“It’s not like I don’t have the spare time,” Riku said, and Namine and Kairi were fairly quick to agree.

Books in hand, they all went their separate ways. Or, Riku and Namine and Aerith figured they’d just walk back to Aerith’s house from here, since they were on the same world and it wasn’t too far. Sora and Kairi had to give Even a lift back to Castle Oblivion before they could head home themselves.

Once home, Sora plopped the books and papers on his bed, then sighed at his clock on the wall. It was late afternoon, but… If he didn’t do it now, he’d forget again. And as much as he wanted to get researching, he left the books where they were, and headed down to the docks to talk to his dad.

Chapter Text


 Part 3

Respect


 

Braig cracked his neck before plopping down on one of the couches in the Grey Area. The World that Never Was was in pristine condition, so long as you ignored the dust, and the Replicas still wandering about. There weren’t a lot of them, and Braig didn’t care enough to scare them off—if the Vexen from the other universe hadn’t already told everyone that he and Xehanort were coming back, then Even certainly would. Besides, the Replicas all left him alone, so why should he bother them?

“You sure we shouldn’t just try and get the Replica Program again?” he asked, as a dark corridor opened in front of him. He knew that Xehanort would step out. One of the “perks” to having a piece of Xehanort in his own chest.

“Are you still caught up on that, Braig?” Xehanort laughed. The dark corridor closed, and Xehanort sat down in the couch across from Braig, looking quite comfortable. He was still flaunting Terra’s body, but, there was no reason he shouldn’t be. Braig tried not to envy him as he draped his own arm over the back of the couch, the mere action making his old bones creak. What he wouldn’t give for a young new body himself. Too bad that wasn’t part of the deal.

Braig shrugged, lazily. “Creating a Replica and shoving your heart into them before they’re fully conscious seems a lot easier than any other methods of getting a vessel, is all I’m saying.”

“You just want another Replica of yourself, don’t you?” Xehanort asked, kicking his feet onto the coffee table between them.

Braig put his hands up in defeat, seeing as he couldn’t really defend himself there. “It was nice having two of me,” he admitted. “Plus, I mean, we could have anyone we wanted, with that technology.”

“Except neither of us know how to use it, and Even’s changed the passwords,” Xehanort said. His eyes glinted, and there was a slight smile on his lips. “Though, I suppose that would bring us up to three, wouldn’t it?”

“Exactly!” Braig said, grinning.

But,” Xehanort argued. “We’d have to take the Program by force, since Even cannot be convinced nor threatened into handing it over.” For the most part, he sounded casual, but there was a sting in his voice. The grin slipped from Braig’s face, just for a moment.

“Don’t you think we’re enough to take it by ourselves?” Braig asked, scratching absentmindedly at the scar on his cheek—an old habit more than anything else. “Riku’s long gone from there, and he was really the only thing close to a threat defending that Program.”

“We could take it by ourselves,” Xehanort said. “Except, there’s no point if we don’t have someone to work it for us, is there?”

“I guess not,” Braig agreed, with only a second of hesitation. “Maybe I should start harassing the Replicas still wandering around here… What do you think, boss?”

Xehanort nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea.”

Braig racked his mind to recall all the Replicas he’d seen. He’d need a Vexen, for sure. It was a good thing there’d been a handful of them around—he just had to hope they were still around, and that one of them knew how to work the Program. Not all of them did.

“Anyway,” Braig said. “How many vessels did you say we needed, again?”

“Thirteen.”

Braig laughed. “Thirteen! Right. Why did I ask? I knew that. And Sora’s first on the list, isn’t he?” He didn’t need to ask that, either, because he knew Sora was their first target. “You sure about him, though?”

“I almost had him once,” Xehanort replied. “I don’t think he’ll be so hard to claim again.”

“If you say so, boss.” Braig did a quick count in his head. “That’d bring us up to four, if we got another Replica of me. We’ll still need nine.”

At this, Xehanort smiled. If Braig had not had a piece of Xehanort inside him, if he had not gotten used to this smile over the years, it would’ve sent chills down his spine.

“Don’t worry about that, Braig. I have someone else in mind.”

 

xxx

 

Riku sat up, stifling his gasp so that he would not wake Namine—he sent a glance across the room at her, in her bed, to check, and let out a sigh of relief. He hadn’t woken her. That was good. She could use all the sleep she could get, lately. Even if her nightmares about him and Larxene had stopped, she still seemed to get nightmares, and he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to help her. She hadn’t suggested sleeping in the same bed again, and he didn’t dare bring it up.

Riku wiped the sweat from his brow, then raked his fingers through his hair. He was still a little surprised when his fingers came out of it much sooner than they normally did, since it was short now. What had it been about that dream that’d unsettled him so much? There wasn’t much to remember, but…

He reached over to scratch at his arm, to pick at the patches of skin where his dark suit had tried to… heal him? No one was sure why it’d started attempting to repair him like it would repair itself, but Riku knew it was annoying. The spots drove him nuts.

But, anyway… the dream.

It’d been dark, and he’d been standing on something he couldn’t see. Or, had he been floating? He couldn’t remember. There’d been… someone else there, though. Someone Riku thought reminded him of Xemnas, except, he’d been much too young.

And that was all Riku could remember, outside of words that still rang in his ears.

Funny how one little mistake could cause so much pain. Look at all the damage you’ve done—but, then again, should you really expect anything else from yourself?

Riku shuddered, taking deep breaths.

Those words were followed by more. Xion’s slurred voice and the feel of her fist in his eye. “You’re not a hero. You’re the cause of all of this.” Alpha’s tone that fell just short of accusing. “The least you could do is help us to make up for it.” One mistake had caused an entire rebellion. His mistake had caused over a hundred people a lot of pain, if not cost them their lives.

Riku took even deeper breaths, picking at his skin until it hurt. He’d break the skin around the patches of dark suit before he broke it—he knew that well enough by now—but he couldn’t make himself stop. Heart throbbing in his ears, he got to his feet and formed an unsteady dark corridor, despite knowing he shouldn’t, despite how the slight amount of darkness it took to form a corridor simultaneously filled him with adrenaline and made him so dizzy he could hardly stand.

It was not, exactly, a surprise when the corridor opened to Destiny Islands.

Or, he did not register any surprise, anyway.

He only stumbled barefoot into the sand, not noticing how cold it was between his toes, either. It was later morning than it had been back in Hollow Bastion, based on his internal clock and the faint glimmer of light on the horizon signaling the sun would be up soon, but the sand was still cold from the hours of darkness.

Funny how one little mistake…

Riku trudged into the ocean, attempting to block out the words as best as he could.

…could cause so much pain.

He grit his teeth and closed his eyes. Focused on how the waves sounded beating against the shore, not on a list of people he’d harmed, even indirectly, through one hasty action. Focused on how the waves felt pounding against his skin. It was calming. It was grounding.

 And it was so easy to let the waves drown out all other thought.

 

Chapter Text

Namine paused at the bottom of the stairs. The sight of Aerith sitting on the couch facing the staircase, reading, was a familiar sight—she was the only other person ever up this early in the morning—but it lacked one Riku. And, he hadn’t been in their room when Namine’d woken up...

“Uh, is Riku…?” Namine began, but wasn’t sure how to finish.

“I… haven’t seen him,” Aerith answered.

“Oh…”

Aerith sighed deeply, then placed a piece of paper in her book and shut it, tossing it on the coffee table—which was now stacked with quite a few books taken from the castle’s library. Aerith looked at Namine, looking like she much didn’t want to say whatever it was she was about to. Namine tried not to cringe with anticipation, but she was rooted to the spot with it.

“He doesn’t have another revenge plot planned, does he?” Aerith said. Namine wasn’t sure if she was joking. She didn’t look like she was, and she only barely sounded like she might be, plus this wasn’t something Aerith was likely to joke about. Not to mention, knowing Riku…

Namine swallowed. Shook her head. “Uh, I don’t think so?” He hadn’t mentioned anything to her. Though, they weren’t really talking at length right now. And, he hadn’t mentioned Larxene either… She’d just known. Still—“I mean, Vexen is the only person I think he’d even potentially go after,” she said. “And I thought they got along last I checked, so…” She laughed a little, out of nervousness more than anything else.

Aerith appeared startled, Namine thought, but the expression was gone before she was sure.

“I suppose he could just be out in town,” Aerith said.

“He’s not suppose’ta go out on his own, though,” Cid said. Namine hastily moved out of the way of the staircase, flushing red as she did so. It was a surprise to see Cid up this early, though, given the bags under his eyes and the mug of what had probably been coffee in his hand, he could’ve just still been up.

“Well, no, but short of hunting him down—if he’s even on this World—there’s nothing we can do about that, is there?” Aerith replied, with another heavy sigh. The whole point of Riku not going out on his own was only to avoid him running into some Heartless he couldn’t handle, namely, any that could cast Thunder magic. That said, Aerith glared at Cid. “You haven’t been up all night, have you?”

“How d’you know I didn’t jus’ get up early?” Cid argued, moving towards the kitchen.

“Because I know you, Cid,” Aerith replied. If she’d been standing, her hands would’ve been on her hips. “You better be heading to put that mug in the sink and then head up to bed, not to get another cup of coffee.”

Cid groaned, and despite what Aerith said, started filling his mug again. “Listen, I’m almos’ done with these blueprints that Leon wanted tomorrow—uh, today. I’ll go to bed right after that.”

“And then it’ll be time to get up,” Namine said. She didn’t say it very loudly, because teasing made her nervous, but it was too quiet in the house right now for her to not be heard. Aerith laughed a little, and after a second, Cid did too.

“Yeah, I wish I were like you ‘n Riku! Not needing sleep at all most nights? That’d be nice.” Cid took a sip of his coffee, then grimaced slightly. “Speakin’ of, what was that about Riku being missin’ again?”

“Neither of us has seen him,” Aerith answered. “And neither of us knows where he is. And if he’s out in town—”

“Oh, give him an hour or so, he’ll probably come back without us searchin’ for him!” Cid told her, waving aside her worries and taking a longer sip of his coffee. “I’m sure he’s fine!”

“But if he runs into any Heartless—”

“He can take ‘em!”

“If they’re…”

“Aerith, really! He’s a big boy, ain’t he?”

“Maybe Vexen needed him…?” Namine suggested. She couldn’t really think of any other reason he’d vanish.

“Or he could’ve headed to the library to get a new book to browse through,” Cid added.

Aerith looked between the two of them, then sighed. “Alright, fine, I’ll give him another hour,” she said. “Cid…”

“I gotta finish these blueprints, Aerith.”

“But after that?”

“I’ll go to bed, sure,” Cid said. He made for the stairs again. “And I’m positive Riku’s alright, so stop worrying ‘bout him!” He plodded back up the stairs before Aerith could respond.

Aerith let out another long sigh, then got up and headed to the kitchen to do something about the coffee maker. Instead of putting it away, like Namine first expected, she started it up with a fresh batch.

“Well, Namine, do you want to wait for Riku, or do you want to go on our walk without him?” Aerith asked. Namine moved a few steps to the side so they could see each other better. Then she coughed and cleared her throat.

“Uh, actually… I was thinking about heading to Castle Oblivion, to see if he’s there,” Namine said.

“Oh.” Aerith studied her a moment, then shrugged and nodded. “Okay. Come back and let me know, alright?”

“Yeah.”

Namine formed a dark corridor around herself.

 

xxx

 

Sora pushed waffles around his plate, paying more attention to the open notebook on the table next to them than the waffles themselves. They didn’t really taste good—but, hardly any food had tasted good to him in months.The notebook was one of Ienzo’s old journals, not that Sora really knew who Ienzo was, or, who he had been. The journal didn’t have any info on Shadows, unfortunately—at least not yet—but it had plenty of info on darkness and hearts and such.

And absolutely none of it has been useful so far,’ Kano said, with a groan.

Kano was the name they’d chosen for Sora’s Shadow, after a few days and quite a few insincere suggestions from Kairi. (Kanuha had been Sora’s favorite.) Things between the two of them were… better, though that was all Sora could really say about it.

Well, we’ve got to look somewhere, don’t we? Sora replied, carefully taking a bite of his now-more-than-soggy waffles, so that he would not spill syrup on the notebook. And since you aren’t eager to ask anyone…

‘No one we know is going to have an answer, Sora, how many times do I have to—’ He broke off, though Sora knew how the end of that sentence finished well enough with their link. The link also told him why Kano’d broken off, but Sora had trouble making sense of that until Kano was explaining it. ‘Someone’s upstairs, they used a dark corridor.’

Sora was getting up before he’d finished, moving to take his plate to the kitchen.

Hurry up!’ Kano urged. ‘Before they come down and cause problems!’ He could not nod or otherwise gesture, but Sora felt his mind firmly fix on the fact Sora’s mother was sitting in the chair in the corner of the front room, sewing. That was as good as any gesture could’ve been.

I have to put my plate in the sink! Sora replied. Any idea who it is?

‘Just because I can sense a dark corridor from twenty feet away doesn’t mean I can tell who came through it. It’s a miracle I can even sense the dark corridor, with my senses all muddled from being in here.’ Sora got the idea that Kano was pouting, and he tried not to smile. After a hesitation, Kano added: ‘It’s probably not Riku.’

Sora did not need to ask why he thought that. Their link let him just know. Kano thought he’d be able to sense Riku’s darkness, and since he couldn’t

I’m going, Sora told him, pausing only long enough to grab the notebook off the table. He was extremely grateful his mom did not ask why he had not finished breakfast, nor ask where he was going.

Who he found in his room was definitely not Riku. It was Namine, looking a little confused and quite a bit worried. She stood very rigid, and waved awkwardly at him. Sora smiled broadly at her, a smile he’d been told could ease the tiredest man’s worries, and walked past her like it was no big deal she was here, moving to put the notebook on his bed. He would’ve just tossed it from the doorway—it definitely would’ve made it—but the book was in such pristine condition that he wanted to be extra careful with it.

“What’s up?” Sora asked, as he moved.

“Uh, have you… seen Riku?” Namine asked. She relaxed visibly, but she did not move to stand any less awkwardly in the middle of the room. Sora tried not to look at the piles of clothes on his floor and reminded himself that Namine had seen his room this bad on a regular basis.

For someone who hates to clean, I’m surprised you care so much when people see the mess,’ Kano laughed.

Sora ignored him, focusing instead on Namine’s question. “Uhhh, no?” he answered, unsure why she would think he would have seen Riku. “Is he missing?”

Didn’t last time he go missing he go on a revenge plot of some sort?’ Kano said.

Sora scowled, then immediately masked it so as not to confuse Namine.

I don’t know, I wasn’t there—how would you know?

“Well, he wasn’t in Hollow Bastion this morning, and I just checked Castle Oblivion, but he wasn’t there either,” Namine answered. Then she shrugged. “Maybe he’s gone back to Hollow Bastion by now…”

“Do… you wanna look for him?” Sora asked, studying her carefully. Kano was right. A missing Riku did not exactly seem like a good thing.

“Mm… no, that’s okay,” Namine said. “He hasn’t been gone that long, and I really don’t think he’s up to anything, I just thought I’d check the two most likely places for him to have gone… just in case, y’know?”

Sora raised his eyebrows. “Castle Oblivion and here?”

Namine shrugged, raising her shoulders up to her ears. “Maybe he wanted to talk to you? I don’t know… Seems unlikely he’d come here without telling you or Kairi, though.” Slowly, she smiled. “I already asked Kairi if she’d seen him, and her answer was ‘no, go away, it’s too early to be awake’.” Her smile got a little wider as she finished speaking, and then she laughed.

Sora laughed with her. “That’s Kairi alright! Still, Riku could be anywhere on this island, so, if you want to—”

“It’s fine,” Namine interrupted. “I really don’t think he’d have come and not talked to either of you two…”

Sora wasn’t so sure about that, but the last thing he wanted to do was press her. He’d done that one too many times already. ‘It was only once,’ Kano pointed out, but Sora just told him that once was definitely one time too many.

“Uhm… by the way…” Namine cleared her throat. “How are things between you and your…?” She trailed off, though Sora could not say he blamed her for not being eager to finish that sentence.

“They’re, y’know… going,” Sora answered, with a shrug of his own. Kano grumbled something indistinct that Sora didn’t want to bother deciphering. It was probably just discomfort at being the current topic of choice, anyway. “We, uh, figured out what to call him, by the way. Kano.”

“Kano, huh?”

“Yeah. Only thing he could agree on.”

“Well, I guess if it’s his name…”

“True.” Sora smiled a little, scratching at his nose. He gestured for her to take a seat in his desk chair, seeing as it was getting awkward for them to stand here as they talked. He plopped down onto his bed himself, moving the notebook and stack of papers that Even had given him out of his way.

“So, how are things between you and, uh, Kano?” Namine asked. She carefully sat down in the chair—Sora was glad his desk wasn’t too surrounded by dirty clothes—Kano laughed a little at him, again, for caring so much.

Sora shrugged again. “Like I said, they’re… going.” He pulled up his feet under him. “I, uh, guess I never told you, but I’m actually kind of glad he’s here? Or, that he’s not dead, anyway… We’re… adjusting.” Probably more to sharing a body than anything else, really.

Why does she even care?’ Kano moaned.

She’s my friend just as much as Kairi is, Sora replied.

“That’s… that’s good, then,” Namine said. She nodded.

Sora smiled at her, absentmindedly picking at his bedsheets. “Yeah…” he agreed. He and Kano could get along, for the most part, though Kano hated talking at length. At the very least, he’d caught Kano thinking less about wanting to die again, though that still hung in the air. But, it’d only been a few days. Sora had to keep reminding himself of that. Things never got better overnight.

“Oh! I talked to my parents, by the way,” he said. This was something Namine would definitely be interested in. “And showed ‘em my Keyblade for proof, like you said to.”

Namine raised her eyebrows, though the look she gave him appeared as if she expected the rest of what he had to say. “Really? Did it work?”

“Well, I think I maybe have my dad convinced, but my mom…” He sighed. Shook his head. He wished he had better news for her.

“You’d think a giant magic key would be enough proof for anyone,” Namine said, with a little laugh. She laughed much like she wasn’t sure of the joke she was making.

“Who knows, with that spell on this Island!” Sora replied. “Maybe they’ll come around eventually. It hasn’t been that long, yet.” He felt disgust and a little anger flare through Kano, but no ill-comments were said about his parents, and then Kano cut off contact with him. Whether it was because he didn’t want to talk about Sora’s parents, or he’d had enough of Namine’s company, Sora couldn’t say, but he wouldn’t be surprised by either. Small steps, Sora told himself, and kept telling himself. Small steps.

He waited a bit for Namine to say something, and when she did not, he asked: “So, how are things going with you?”

“Uhm, besides a missing Riku, good, I guess,” Namine said. She shrugged slowly, picking at the edges of her skirt.

“Are… are you sure you don’t want to look for him?” Sora asked, studying her carefully.

She nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure. If he hasn’t returned by, I don’t know, lunchtime, maybe then I’ll be worried, but…” She shrugged. “He’s allowed to have a few hours to himself, isn’t he? I guess it’s kinda worrying he told no one he was leaving, but…” She shrugged, again, sighing.

“If you’re sure,” Sora said, and though she did not sound sure, they left it at that. Sora didn’t want to press her, if he did not have to, even though pressing here wouldn’t end as disastrously as it had last time.

You sure Riku’s safe to leave on his own, though?’ Kano asked.

Sora spared an internal glare for him. Since when were you listening? I thought you were tired of this conversation.

‘Just saying…’

Sora rolled his eyes and shook his head, then flushed at Namine’s questioning look. “Sorry. Kano,” he said by way of explanation.

“Ah…”

Sora shifted how he was sitting, mostly out of discomfort. To change the subject, he said: “Hey, how are things between you and Riku, anyway?”

Namine shifted as well. “They’re… going,” she answered. She wouldn’t look directly at him.

“That bad?” Sora grimaced, feeling bad for her, though he was quite surprised, too. They’d had plenty of time by now to patch things up. Well, okay, it hadn’t quite been a month yet, if Sora had his time right—he might not, keeping track of time had become much harder, somehow, even with a calendar to reference every day. Still.

Namine just shrugged. She started picking at her fingers instead of her skirt. “I mean, they’re… better, I guess, it’s just felt… It’s been awkward.” She licked her lips. “It feels like, I don’t know. It’s not the same as it used to be, which I guess is good? But I don’t really like it…”

Sora thought for a moment, taking time to rack his brain.

“Hmm… You could try going on a date?” he suggested.

“What, really?

Sora supposed he should not be as surprised as he was at Namine’s surprise.

“Dates are, like, what you’re supposed to do when you’re dating,” he said. “And I guess you two haven’t even been on one…”

“Well, we aren’t really dating,” Namine argued. “I don’t know what to call mine and Riku’s relationship, but it’s not…”

Sora nodded quickly, to show he understood. “Okay, that’s fair,” he said. “But, I mean, still… A date might not be a bad idea. I guess? The whole concept of a date is getting to know each other better and, even if you and Riku don’t necessarily need that, spending some time alone together ad away from everyone else might, I dunno, make you talk about things you wouldn’t otherwise.” Sora shrugged. That was the idea, anyway, as far as he knew. He’d never been on a date, though…

Hey, wait,’ Kano said, rather abruptly. ‘You aren’t suggesting—’

“What!?” It took Sora a second to realize what Kano meant, and once he did, he flushed. “No, I didn’t mean you,” he protested. Okay, maybe he’d thought about taking Kano on a date for a second there, considering that whole ‘getting to know each other better’ thing might help them, but that didn’t mean he honestly meant it!

“Uh, Sora?” Namine asked, eyebrows raised at him.

Sora flushed harder. His cheeks felt like they were on fire.

“Not you, Namine!” he said. “I meant, Kano. Sorry.”

You WERE seriously considering it, Sora, don’t deny it!’ Kano argued, ignoring that now wasn’t a good time.

Sora scowled hard, perhaps twice as hard as he needed to, because the persistent heat in his cheeks was annoying on top of Kano being… Kano.

“I was not! Besides, it wouldn’t even work when we’re—” Sora broke off, scowling even harder, blushing even harder, trying not to look at Namine. It was embarrassing how often this kept happening to him. When we’re in the same body, he finished, silently.

It wouldn’t be easy to put words to the string of emotions he got in response from Kano, but if Sora had to, he’d definitely say surprise, maybe disgust, and—no, it was better if he didn’t think about it. That was a problem they could not solve until they were in separate bodies again.

“So… you really think a date might help?” Namine asked.

Sora was incredibly grateful she left it at that, and didn’t comment on how much of a fool he’d made of himself. He nodded.

“Yeah. It’s worth a shot, anyway.”

“Okay.” She nodded as well, slowly, considering it. After a second she straightened, eyes lighting up in a way that told Sora she’d remembered something. “That’s right. I should probably tell you that we’ve all been looking through those books for you. I… I don’t think anyone’s found anything, though. Or, I haven’t, anyway…”

“Well, that’s alright!” Sora told her. He smiled. “I mean, the fact you guys are even looking for me…” It was awfully kind of them, and he wasn’t quite sure how he could really ever express how thankful he was. Oh, he’d have to go back to the library sometime, to see if those Replicas that Even had sent had found anything… Maybe later today.

“I don’t have much else to do with my days,” Namine answered. “Sometimes I help Aerith in the infirmary, but otherwise… Drawing is only fun for so long.”

“Thank you for looking,” Sora said, keeping the smile on his face, to show her how grateful he was. He sent a glance around his room. “Do you, uh? Wanna do something?” He squinted at his clock. “It’s… we could probably go bug Kairi now, and she wouldn’t kill us.”

“Oh, actually, I should probably head back to Hollow Bastion,” Namine said. She got to her feet. “I only told Aerith I was going to Castle Oblivion, so… I should head back before I worry her…”

Sora nodded. “Yeah, that’d probably be a good idea.” He got to his feet to see her off, though all they ended up doing was waving semi-awkwardly at each other before she formed another dark corridor.

Is she always like that…?’ Kano asked, a few moments after she’d gone. Oddly, his tone seemed to be genuinely curious—the bit of snide mixed in almost felt just for show.

I guess so, yeah, Sora said. She’d always been a little out of place in conversations, like she was never quite sure how to interact. He thought it was worse now than it had ever been, but it was hard to remember what had happened nearly a year ago now, when she’d first come here. So it was hard to compare.

Right…’ Now Kano sounded—felt—like he didn’t care anymore.

“Back to research, then,” Sora muttered, flopping back onto his bed and reaching for the notebook again.

Chapter Text

“Look, okay, why don’t we look again?” Sora asked, rubbing at his face. His eyes were wide with a near panic, Kairi watched him with a sigh. She was worried about Riku too, of course she was, but…

“We’ve swept the Island three times now. If he was here, we would’ve found him.” Kairi stopped just a second to cast a glance at the horizon. “And, it’s getting late…” Well, they still had probably an hour before sunset, but that was late enough. She had to head home in time to call Aerith and let her know the news, anyway—though, since Hollow Bastion was three hours behind them, maybe that wasn’t something she had to worry too much about.

Sora frowned at her, then slowed his pace as his eyes darted to the side for a moment and he scrunched up his face, like she noticed he did while he was talking to his Shadow—er, Kano. Kairi tried not to scowl. Especially when it appeared to be what Kano said that reassured Sora more than what she had.

“I guess you’re right…” he sighed. “I’m just worried. We couldn’t find Riku in Hollow Bastion, and they say he’s not in Castle Oblivion, and we haven’t seen him here…”

“If he was on this Island, Sora, we would’ve found him by now,” Kairi argued.

He nodded. “Yeah…” He didn’t sound happy about that, though. Not that Kairi blamed him.

“Listen, Sora, I get you’re worried about him!” She was pretty worried about Riku, too. Even with his promises not to do anything drastic, he was still incredibly reckless, and with his darkness the way it was now... She hoped he turned up soon as much as anyone else did. “I just think at this point, we should probably call it a night, and worry about it tomorrow if he still hasn’t returned.”

Sora groaned a little. He scratched at his neck and got that distant look again. “What about your wolf?” he asked. Kairi glared now. He really needed to get better at not addressing Kano out loud. If he kept it up—she’d overheard his parents talking about him doing that, worried, and if he didn’t stop soon, it was going to be even harder for him to make up with them.

After only a second, and much before Kairi could really gather her words to ask, Sora laughed, a little bitterly. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.” Then he realized Kairi’s glare, and he laughed again, nervously this time. “S-Sorry… Kano’s wolf couldn’t do anything though—or he doesn’t think it could, since it took a good month to track me down…”

“Right,” Kairi said. “So we won’t ask it, and we’ll just look for Riku tomorrow, alright?”

Sora nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Alright.”

Kairi still couldn’t blame him for the reluctance, but it was getting too late for them to really do anything about it. They’d worry about it tomorrow. That’s all they could do. She just hoped something terrible didn’t happen to Riku during that time.

She stopped worrying quite as much as they neared the docks, though, and immediately started scanning them for—there! “Hey, Sora, looks like your dad’s still working,” she said, nudging Sora then pointing to where his dad was. “Maybe you should go talk to him.”

Sora squinted at his father a moment, then squinted at her. “What for?”

“Just, I don’t know, because?” Kairi answered. Because she thought Sora could probably use something else to occupy his mind than to fret constantly about Riku, but, she wasn’t going to tell Sora that. She shoved Sora in the direction of his dad. “If you do it now, that spell can’t talk out of doing it later.”

Sora glared at her, pushing her arms away from him. “But there’s nothing to talk about!!”

“Is that the spell talking, or is there really nothing to talk about?”

Sora opened his mouth to argue, then his brow furrowed as he considered it. After a moment he sighed. “Alright, yeah, I’ll go talk to him. You’re gonna call Aerith and tell her we didn’t find Riku, right?”

Kairi nodded. “Duh!”

“Okay.” Sora nodded back. There was only a slight hesitation as he headed down for the docks, at least. Kairi decided to blame that on Kano.

That takes care of that… she thought to herself, then started away from the docks and into town. Time to go home and call Aerith. She just had to figure out how to break the news to her first… Riku being missing wasn’t easy on anyone’s nerves, but Aerith was definitely taking it the hardest. Maybe she’d call Leon instead, and tell him. That’d certainly be a lot easier…

Well, whatever she was going to do, she needed to do it sooner rather than later.

 

xxx

 

Sora tried not to scowl as he made his way down to the docks and towards his father, or rather, tried not to let Kano’s scowl show on his face. Kano was not happy with the idea of talking to Sora’s dad right now. Though, he was never happy when it came to Sora’s parents.

I don’t care what Kairi says, this isn’t a good idea!’

It’s just my dad, Kano.

‘Both of your parents are—’

My dad’s a lot more reasonable than my mom, alright, now shut up. The last thing I need is them thinking I’ve gone insane because I’m talking to voices in my head.

‘Not my fault when you’re the one who keeps addressing me out loud.’

Sora sent a death glare off to the side—internally, it was directed at Kano—then dropped it and straightened, drawing all his composure to him. He’d reached where his father was working, checking his net for holes after a long day of fishing. Sora cleared his throat to catch his dad’s attention.

His dad looked up, smiling a little at the sight of his son. “Sora! Not often you’re down here. You need something?”

“Uh, no,” Sora said. He started to shuffle his feet before catching himself. Even though he wasn’t asked to, he sat down on one of crates stacked off to the side. “I just wanted to talk.”

“Ah.” His dad immediately returned his attention to the net in his lap. “About where you’ve been?”

Sora licked his lips, and tried not to sound surprised when he spoke. “Uhhh… yeah.” He squinted a little at his father, ignoring to the best of his ability Kano’s general foul mood and contempt that bounced around inside of him. “Do you… believe me?”

“Maybe…” His father replied slowly, with a shrug. He didn’t look up. “Another world seems a little farfetched, but you certainly can’t have been hiding on this island. It’s too small. Someone woulda seen you.”

Sora nodded at that—the search for Riku that’d taken up the past few hours certainly proved that. You could cover every inch of the Islands in such a short time, and everyone in town knew each other…

“Plus, you know,” his dad continued. “There are other lands out there past the ocean. Our trade ships go somewhere, and the tourists come from somewhere, so there’s no reason you didn’t just end up elsewhere. Maybe not another world, but, elsewhere.” He looked up at Sora. “I believe that.”

There was a long pause after that though, so any relief Sora had at those words didn’t last very long. His dad seemed very keen on inspecting a part of his net—a part Sora was sure he’d already gone over. There was an unsaid but that hung in the air in a way which almost made it deafening.

But…?” Sora prompted.

His dad shrugged, reluctant to look at him. “I’m not really sure I’m buying the whole ‘evil sorceresses kidnapped you’ thing, or that talk about what’s his name. Xeha-whatever.” Now he sent a glance up at Sora. “That talk about him coming back and being this ‘big threat’ to the whole universe.” He waved his hands as he said big threat, and said it in a way that made it clear he thought it something of a joke.

“He’s real, dad,” Sora said.

“And so is the sorceress, I presume.”

“This isn’t a joke!

Sora knew that most of his anger was coming from Kano, because Kano hated thinking about Maleficent more than he hated having to deal with Sora’s parents. But separating their emotions was hard at times, if not impossible, especially when he was annoyed as much as Kano was furious, and when their emotions were this similar they fed off each other. It was like how being around Kairi when she was in a bad mood could dampen Sora’s own mood, except, worse, by a thousand times.

There was a tired patience in the roll of his father’s eyes. “Come on, Sora, I was just—”

“She kidnapped me!” Sora shouted, jumping off the crates and to his feet. “She held me against my will in a castle that only had half a roof and it didn’t just leak when it rained you were just rained on, and I don’t even know what she intended on using me for but it wasn’t good, it can’t have been good, not to mention she hardly fed me and I probably would’ve starved if Pete hadn’t taken pity on me it’s not!! a joke!!

The waves seemed to pound twice as loud in Sora’s ears. He trembled as he stood there, staring down at his father, waiting for the response to the explosion and not feeling the slightest bit sorry—though if he thought too much about the other fishermen that had to be around and within earshot, well, that was another story.

“It’s not a joke…” Sora’s father agreed slowly. He was very intent on his net, and honestly, Sora wasn’t surprised. His father’d never been the one to yell—that had always been his mother.

“But do you believe me?” Sora asked.

His father hesitated a long moment. Instead of answering, when he looked up at Sora, he traced a finger over his cheek, in a mirror of Sora’s scar. “Did she, uh, give you that?”

Sora jolted, though he shouldn’t have been surprised at the question. “N-no! That wasn’t her, that was—” He broke off. He couldn’t say it had been Kano. He hadn’t even attempted explaining to his parents about having a Shadow and everything, because he was certain that would sound the least sane. If they didn’t believe in Maleficent or Xehanort, how could he possibly get through an explanation about his Shadow without becoming a laughingstock?

“It wasn’t her,” Sora said. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Sorry, son, it’s just… not easy having you come back and seeing—”

“I know. It’s not easy waking up and looking in the mirror every morning and seeing it.” Sora grit his teeth and tried not to feel Kano’s despair. This was his other least favorite subject. “But, until I’m positive you aren’t going to treat it like a joke…”

That isn’t a joke,” his father answered, without hesitation.

Sora raised his eyebrows. “Would it have been if I’d said the sorceress did give it to me?”

His father didn’t respond.

Would it have—”

“Sorceresses aren’t real,” his dad said. He wouldn’t look him in the eye again.

Sora licked his lips. “Would you have said that if I told you this scar was from her?”

“You said it wasn’t, so—”

“She was real!” Sora shouted. His dad flinched. “And I’m- I’m so tired of you acting like everything that happened to me isn’t serious! I know I’ve made up some crazy stories in the past but I’m fifteen-years-old, I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and if I was going to lie to you about where I’d been don’t you think I’d tell you I was somewhere happy this whole time?”

“Sora… please…

Sora couldn’t make himself stop, though, whether due to Kano’s anger or his own. He raked his hands through his hair. “And- and you don’t even make any sense! How is it you think me summoning a giant magic key that is also a weapon at will is completely reasonable, but as soon as I mention an evil sorceress it gets too ridiculous for you? Where do you draw the line!? If- If I had told you someone other than an evil sorceress had kidnapped me, would you have believed me?”

“Sora…”

Would you?

His dad let out a long sigh, raking a hand through his own hair. The net sat uselessly in his lap.

“Sora, life is not a fairytale.”

“I know it’s not,” Sora said, trembling now. Something bubbled in his throat that he wasn’t sure whether it was a sob or a laugh. “If it was, I wouldn’t have this.” He traced the scar across his face with his fingers. “If it was, when I came home, everything would be happily ever after, but it’s not!”

Instead, his parents thought he was making up stories about where he’d been. Instead, he had the remainder of his darkness and his mistakes nestled in his chest, and while he could never say he was unhappy about Kano being around, Kano was certainly no result of a fairytale. If life were a fairytale, he wouldn’t wake up sweating almost every night, remembering the battles he’d had to fight, the people he’d had to kill. Heroes in fairytales didn’t feel guilt, didn’t make mistakes, didn’t briefly side with evil. Life was certainly no fairytale.

“But magic and monsters and darkness and evil are real,” he continued. His voice shook, and Kano shifted inside him, burning with a rage much stronger than Sora was letting himself feel. “I just wish I could make you see that, make you believe that, make you believe me!!

“And I’d appreciate it if you’d stop yelling at me…” his father replied, quietly, but in a tone that made Sora pause.

Sora stared for a second, fingers curling into fists as he considered his father, considered what to say. Despair broke through him, and let out an unsteady breath. Of course it would come to this. He couldn’t expect a “yeah I believe you” after all that but… This was still exhausting, still so disheartening. He sniffed, then turned on his heel.

“Why do I even bother…” he grumbled to himself, heading back up the beach. His father didn’t call after him or attempt to stop him, but, Sora hadn’t really expected him to. His father didn’t like arguments.

And, Sora supposed, he shouldn’t be so upset with his father. He only had the stupid spell on the island to blame for this. But it was still maddening to have to have this argument, it still stung to hear his father treat everything so lightly when none of what had happened to him was anywhere near a light topic. It hurt, and he knew it wasn’t exactly his father’s fault, but—

“Are you sure you wouldn’t be better off without them?”

Sora stopped in his tracks, then scowled hard and trudged forward through the sand again, glaring down at his chest.

Kano, what did I say about—

‘That wasn’t me.’

Sora stopped again, eyes wide with terror as he looked up.

“What do you mean that wasn’t you?” he muttered.

Uh, the obvious sense of the phrase. I didn’t say that.’

“Well, if it wasn’t you, then who was it?”

Sora, you’re doing the out loud thing again, if your dad sees—’

Sora didn’t pay any attention, more focused on scanning the beach. He tried not to look around too frantically, but it was hard when there wasn’t anything in the immediate vicinity for the culprit to have hid behind. There were the bushes a little farther up the beach, a fence, a few trees—but they were all way too far away! The voice had sounded like it was right in his ear, like it was… in his head…?

“Did- did you feel anything? Anyone?” Sora demanded, directing his attention back to Kano, or, down at his chest.

Aggravation immediately flared through Kano, making Sora’s face scrunch up. ‘How many times do I have to tell you that I can’t feel anything through your body, Sora? It muffles my senses.’

“You can sense a dark corridor from twenty feet away!” Sora argued. Even though he knew it was pointless, he continued scanning the area, slowly turning in circles. They had to be hiding somewhere. Except there was nowhere to hide and there was a chance there wasn’t even someone hiding.

Dark corridors are not people,’ Kano replied, ‘and also, it’s probably only ten feet.’

“Do you sense anyone nearby or not, Kano!?”

No! I don’t know!’ There was a pause, and the scowl on Sora’s face deepened, and his toes wriggled in his shoes. He was holding too much control of his body for Kano’s desire to squirm to translate into anything more than that. ‘Why don’t you stop asking so damn much of me!! I can’t do anything while I’m stuck in here, how long is it gonna take for that to get through your head?’

Sora only swallowed, trembling.

“D-do you think it was—”

“Sora, are you okay?”

The sound of his father’s voice made him go rigid. That was right. He was still within eyesight—and probably earshot—of the docks, and at any rate, his father was behind him now. Hand on his shoulder, turning him around so that they’d face each other. Sora swallowed harder. He wished his breathing wasn’t so erratic.

“I’m fine,” he said, pushing his father’s hand away. He dare not force a smile on his lips, having no confidence to make it convincing, and knowing that his father would not be convinced at any rate. “It’s fine, I just thought—” He cut off before he could finish, because telling his dad that he’d heard voices was certainly not a good idea. “It’s fine,” he repeated, instead.

“If you say so,” his dad said. He did not believe Sora, though. Sora was positive of that. His fingers twitched toward his pocket, to where his star shard was. He and Kairi had separate ones now, which was a relief, because otherwise she’d have the only star shard between them. Not that he was planning on an escape route, of course. No, he wouldn’t be doing that.

Before he could think of a good way to deflect the conversation to something else, his dad was asking questions.

“What were you, uh, looking for, son?”

“I…” Sora wet his lips. Kano groaned inside him. “I… thought I saw someone, but then I looked and they were gone and, I guess, I panicked?” He couldn’t deny he had panicked, because his dad and everyone else on the docks had seen it. ‘If you do just vanish now,’ Kano argued, ‘that spell will probably make him forget he saw and or heard anything!’

Sora’s hand inched closer to his pocket, but he stopped it, balling it to a fist.

“And, uh, who were you talking to?” his father asked.

Sora blinked rapidly, eyes fixed in fear on his father’s face, trying to come up with a suitable answer. His mouth was very dry. It felt like a pair of fists had just closed around his lungs.

“Uh…. myself?” he answered.

“Riiiight.”

Sora flinched. His father simply raised his eyebrows. ‘Star shard, Sora!’ Kano screamed. ‘Get out of there, now, maybe it’s not too late!’

“Who’s Kano?” Sora’s father asked.

It felt like all the air had been knocked out of Sora’s lungs. Kano went silent inside of him, but it was a shocked silence, and the terror bubbling just underneath the surface of everything Kano felt was going to make Sora sick. He forced himself to breathe, and more importantly, mask his surprise with something more… relaxed.

“He’s no one,” Sora replied, before he realized how suspicious that would sound. “Uh! I mean, it’s no one. No one. I wasn’t… talking to anyone.” Except, that didn’t sound any better. He backed away from his dad. “Uhhh, listen, Dad, I’m fine, okay? I promise you, I’m okay, and this is definitely the thing you need to worry about the least—

“I think we should head home, Sora.”

Sora stared up at his dad. “H- home?”

“Yes, home, and then maybe—”

“I’m going to Kairi’s!” Sora blurted, taking another step away from his father. “I, uh, just remembered she wanted me to help her with some homework. With a, uh, reading thing. You know. She wanted me to read… something, for…”

His father did not glare, not exactly, but his eyes did narrow considerably, and Sora could sense that his patience was nearly spent. “Neither of you have school right now, Sora,” he said. “And even if you did, I think you arguing with thin air is a little more—”

“I’m- I’m going to Kairi’s!” Sora shouted. He pulled his star shard out of his pocket and activated it. He only just saw the horror and anger flood his father’s face before the star shard pulled him away.

Chapter Text

Aerith nodded at her phone. “Alright, thank you,” she told Kairi, who’d just informed her that they couldn’t find Riku on Destiny Islands. “I’m sure he’ll turn up… Alright… Bye.” She sighed and closed her eyes, clutching the phone to her chest a moment before returning it to her pocket. Rubbing at her head, she went back to making herself a cup of tea.

They’d just finished dinner, and she should probably get started on the dishes sometime soon, but she was too worried about Riku. She hadn’t seen him since last night. She couldn’t stop running over everything she’d said and done the previous day, wondering if she’d somehow… offended him? Made him feel unwelcome? But nothing came to mind, and it was unlike him, to say the least. Aerith knew he didn’t tell her everything, but for him to not even tell Namine? Then again, he and Namine hadn’t been talking as much lately…

Aerith sighed again, taking a cautious sip of her tea with trembling hands. There was nothing she had done, and nothing she could do now. Where was he?

“Hey…”  Yuffie said, coming up and nudging Aerith with her shoulder. Aerith staggered slightly, but only from her nerves—Yuffie did this a lot, as her own way to display affection. “I know you’re worried about him, but, he was taking care of himself long before he came here. A day probably won’t kill him.”

Aerith laughed a little, caught between exasperation and being touched by Yuffie’s concern. She placed her cup back on the counter and smiled at Yuffie.

“You’re probably right,” she agreed. “Still…”

“Leon says we’ll start looking through other worlds tomorrow, if he hasn’t shown up by then…” Yuffie continued. She smiled uneasily at Aerith. “And I think we should probably call Tifa or Cloud, so they can help us look.”

Aerith smiled back, hoping it looked as genuine as she was trying to make it. “That’s not a bad id—” she began, but then the front door opened.

“Ey, there he is!” Cid said. “See, Aerith, I told yeh not to worry too much!”

Aerith was a little too far into the kitchen to see the front door at a good angle, but she could hear Riku’s “sorry…” and the click of the door being shut again. By then she’d moved so that she could see, and there Riku stood, in the doorway—or rather, there he stood, getting hugged by Namine.

“Please don’t do that again,” she was saying.

“Sorry…!” Riku repeated, with a laugh this time. Before he could entirely compose himself after Namine’s hug, Aerith grabbed him for a hug of her own. She squeezed him hard, very grateful he was back. She hadn’t exactly thought he’d never return, but your mind wandered when you were worried about someone, and when that someone was Riku, it just left a larger variety of horrible situations to consider.

“Where were you?” Aerith asked, as she let him go. “We were worried sick!”

Sorry!” Riku said again. He smiled a little uneasily, for a moment, and then… The smile widened a little, to a natural one, and his eyes were gleaming. He was happy about… something. “I was… on Destiny Islands,” he said.

Aerith squinted at him. “What do you mean you were on Destiny Islands!? Kairi said she and Sora looked everywhere for you—”

“I don’t know, I guess I was in the one spot they forgot to look, or something?” Riku answered, with a shrug. “I’d tell you where but, actually, if I’ve found a spot where no one can find me that easily, that’d be really nice…”

Aerith squinted even harder, then looked at Namine, because she looked like she understood that. How, and the implications of what Riku’d meant, Aerith didn’t even want to begin to imagine.

“What makes yeh say that?” Cid asked. His tone suggested he was just as confused as Aerith was, though quite a bit more curious. The unfortunate thing was, Aerith almost thought she did know why Riku’d say that, she just really didn’t want to think about it.

Riku sent a hasty glance at Cid. “Oh. Just… because.” His smile fell a fraction of an inch, and the gleam in his eyes all but died. “It’s… fine. I’m- I’m sorry I worried everyone.”

“You were gone all day!” Yuffie said. She’d come out of the kitchen, too, and was standing just feet away from where Riku and Aerith and Namine were. Cid was still on his couch, watching them over a mug of his own tea.

“I… yeah…” Riku nodded slowly. “I was just… doing a lot of thinking. Plus I lost track of time, a little. I- I would’ve been back sooner but the sunset was really pretty and I didn’t want to…” He shrugged, and his smile grew again. “I’m alright, really!” His eyes directed this last bit at Namine and at Aerith more than at Yuffie.

Aerith started to protest, but the smile on his face made her pause. She hadn’t seen a smile that wide on him since the day she’d first told him he was family. Whatever he was happy about, it was something good.

“If you say so…” Aerith said instead, smiling back at him.

“How did you lose track of time for a full day?” Namine asked, tugging on his arm.

He pulled his arm away from her. “I was doing a lot of thinking,” he repeated.

“About what?” Yuffie demanded.

“Look, it’s no big deal,” Riku said. To Aerith’s dismay, he was beginning to sound frustrated. So much for that smile. “I promise I won’t vanish like that again, alright? I didn’t mean to stay so long. Sorry I worried everyone!”

He sent an apologetic, though exasperated, look at all of them, then headed for the stairs. Namine headed after him, looking much like she was going to attempt to ask him more about it. Yuffie opened her mouth to say something to Riku, but Aerith put out a hand to stop her. Yuffie glared, then spoke anyway.

“I’m glad you’re back,” she called to Riku.

He paused halfway up the stairs, turning around and ducking down a little so he could see her. He stared a moment before smiling again. “Yeah,” he said, then he continued up the stairs again.

“Yuffie, why don’t you go tell Leon that Riku’s back, since I doubt Riku will stop and tell him on his way to his room,” Aerith asked. Yuffie nodded, though she waited until Riku and Namine were both completely out of sight and the sound of their feet on the stairs stopped before heading up to Leon.

Aerith pulled out her phone again and dialed Kairi’s number in. “I’m going to tell Kairi that Riku’s back,” she told Cid, who just nodded at her, his attention on his book again.  Before Aerith could press the dial button, though, there was a knock on the door. Instinctively, she checked the clock, though she knew it wasn’t that late… Without thinking much about it, she closed her phone and headed to answer the door. Kairi could wait.

To her surprise, none other than King Mickey stood in the doorway. She bowed her head a little to him.

“Hello, Your Majesty,” she said.

“Hi!” he replied, smiling at her. “Uh, is this a bad time?”

“Not at all.”

“Alright, then, is Riku here? I need him for something.”

Aerith raised her eyebrows a little at the request, though she was very grateful that she could answer: “Yes he is! Would you like me to get him for you?”

“Yes please.”

Aerith turned to look at Cid. “Cid, could you?” she nodded at the stairs. It was a shame that she’d have to make him come back down when he’d just returned home, but there was no sense refusing the King—and, it was too late now, regardless.

Cid grumbled as he got to his feet, though it didn’t sound like anything more than his standing-up-isn’t-as-easy-as-it-used-to-be grumbling. Unfortunately, he only went halfway up the stairs before yelling at Riku to come down. Aerith tried not to cringe as she stepped aside to let Mickey in. (It would be rude to make him wait outside for Riku.)

“Also, do you know where Sora lives?” Mickey asked, once he was inside. “Or should I ask Riku, when he gets down here?”

“Riku will know better than I do,” Aerith admitted, thinking to herself that she’d never even been to Destiny Islands. And, sure, she knew Sora lived on Destiny Islands, but Mickey probably wanted more concrete details than that. “What do you need them for, anyway? If I’m allowed to know.”

“Yen Sid wants to talk to them,” Mickey replied. His eyes flickered over to Cid as Cid made his way back to the couch, then he frowned. He looked a lot like he wanted to say something, but wasn’t entirely sure how to. He spoke anyway, after a moment. “It’s because, well… Xehanort’s comin’ back.”

Aerith’s smile fell, and she suddenly understood why he’d been so hesitant to speak. “I know,” she told Mickey. “Aqua was here about a week or so ago… She mentioned it.” Aerith assumed Mickey knew who Aqua was, anyway, seeing as Aqua had mentioned him a few times during her stay. She appeared to have assumed right, as well.

“Oh, was she?” Mickey asked, smiling a lot wider now. “Was she doin’ okay?”

“Yeah!”

“And Ven?”

“Good, as far as I could tell,” Aerith answered. “They got a message from—”

“Oh, that’s right!” Mickey interrupted. “I did know they’d been by here. Aqua told me about the message. I forgot…”

“That’s alright,” Aerith assured him.

Mickey’s attention darted to the stairs, and a second later, Aerith knew why. She could hear Riku coming downstairs now. Him and… Namine, she saw, after another moment. Both of them looked a little annoyed, though Namine was addressing her annoyance at Riku more than anyone else.

“Yeah, what’d you want me for?” Riku asked, brushing some hair out of his face. (Even short, it was unruly sometimes.) “If this is about me—” He stopped abruptly, noticing Mickey. “Uhh….” His eyes narrowed.

Knowing well enough that Riku wasn’t going to speak after that, or, that chances of him saying something not-rude from here were slim, Aerith spoke to fill the silence and explain the situation. “The King would like to borrow you for something,” she said.

Recognition showed on Riku’s face, then he leaned down to say something to Namine. It was too quiet for Aerith to really hear, but she caught the words “Mickey” and “Real Thing”. Namine nodded aggressively as Riku straightened again. She was picking at her fingers rather than look at anyone, which made Aerith purse her lips.

“A friend of mine has some information to share with you about Xehanort,” Mickey explained.

“Why me?” Riku asked. Aerith tried not to cringe at his tone. She’d gotten used to his general lack of manners, but it was still jarring sometimes, especially in situations where good manners were important. Like now. At least Mickey didn’t appear too upset.

“Well, he only asked for Sora,” Mickey admitted to Riku. “But I thought since you helped take down most of the Organization, you might wanna know, too.”

Riku made a face and shrugged. He started to make some sort of noncommittal sound, but Aerith cut him off.

“You should go,” she said, in a tone that she used often with both him and Yuffie. The You’re-being-rude-and-need-to-stop tone. Riku looked ready to protest—he did, sometimes—but after a moment, he sighed. Aerith quickly thanked her lucky stars that he hadn’t decided to be more difficult than that.

“Alright, yeah, I’ll go—Namine?” Riku sent a glance down at her.

She looked up at him. It was hard to read what she was thinking, but after a moment, she said: “Uhm… I’ll come too… If… if that’s okay.” She looked hesitantly at Mickey.

Mickey grinned widely at her. “I don’t see why not! Uh, do either of you know where I can find Sora? I’ve got a good idea, but I’d like something a little more specific than just the world he lives on!”

“Yeah, I know,” Namine said. Riku frowned and grumbled about how he knew too. Aerith sighed.

“Then I guess we’ll get goin’!” Mickey said, nodding. He moved for the door, waving at Aerith, then at Cid. “Goodbye!! I’ll have ‘em back before long.”

“We can get home on our own,” Riku mumbled.

“Except you can’t use dark corridors, or you shouldn’t,” Namine argued. He scowled.

Mickey either didn’t hear them, or simply chose not to comment. Aerith saw the three of them to the door, then waited on the doorstep for them to depart. It was polite, after all.

Mickey pulled out his star shard, offering it to Riku and Namine. “You do the honors!” he said. Riku moved to take it, but Namine batted his hand away, and took it instead.

“Hang on, I better do it,” she said. “I know Kairi’s place better than you do.”

“I thought we were heading to Sora’s,” Riku said.

“Kairi’s is safer, trust me.” Namine turned the star shard over in her hands, then held it out. “Your Majesty…?”

“Whatever works,” Mickey said.

They all put their hands on the star shard, and in a familiar burst of light, were gone.

Aerith did not realize that she had sighed until Cid spoke.

“He’ll be back this time! The King’ll make sure he gets ‘em both home, you know tha’.”

Aerith laughed a little as she closed the door, rolling her eyes in Cid’s direction. “Yes, I know that,” she said. Still, there was a lot to worry about, especially knowing that Xehanort would return, or had returned. She put that thought out of her mind for a moment, though.

“Did Riku just leave again?” Yuffie asked, rushing down the stairs.

“King Mickey needed him,” Aerith answered.

Yuffie scrunched up her face.

“Do I need to go tell Leon?”

“I’ll tell him,” Aerith said. “Why don’t you go start the dishes? I’ll be back down to help you in a second.”

“Okay!”

Chapter Text

Kairi let out a long frustrated breath between her teeth.

Having Sora star shard directly into her living room wasn’t fun, and neither was dealing with how panicked he was upon arriving. If hearing a voice on the beach wasn’t bad enough, then there was also the fact he’d yelled at Kano in front of his father. And that on top of the fact he’d explained everything with her father still in the room, and then they had to explain Kano to him (though at least he took the magic explanation). Not to mention the missing Riku problem—another thing to go on a list of what was turning out to be a really bad day.

Kairi rapped her knuckles against the table to get Sora’s attention. He jumped from where he was sitting, probably startled out of a conversation with Kano. Kairi uncrossed her legs and leaned forward in her chair. “Okay, tell me again what the voice said.”

“It asked me if I didn’t really think I’d be better off without my parents,” Sora answered. He wrung his hands together, visibly distressed, (not to mention searching the room with his eyes with every spare second, as if he expected to find someone here.) At least the hand wringing was better than the frustrated drumming.

“And are you sure Kano didn’t say it?”

Sora glared. Automatically, his tone went from slightly panicked to dark and angry.

“He said he didn’t, Kairi, how many times do I have to tell you that?”

It wasn’t what Kairi wanted to hear, but she was glad that Sora had answered, rather than Kano. On another unrelated note, she was glad that her father wasn’t trying to be a part of the conversation, despite being in the next room and well within earshot.

“Until I’m convinced we can trust him,” Kairi replied.

Sora rolled his eyes. “Kairi, c’mon, we’ve been over this!”

Kairi let out a bitter bark of laughter. “Oh, excuse me, I completely forgot that he absolutely loves your parents and would never say anything bad about them, of course he wouldn’t!”

Sora glared, clearly not appreciating her sarcasm. She glared back.

“The voice didn’t sound anything like him,” Sora argued.

Kairi, on a roll and feeling rather hot with confidence, didn’t stop there. “Never mind the time he told them, in his own words, ‘to mind their own damn business’, and that other time when he got you grounded. Which, need I remind you, he refuses to tell you what he even said to your mother to get you grounded.”

“It’s for the better!”

“Is it really?”

Kairi raised her eyebrows, knowing Sora well enough to know that he did want to know what his Shadow had said to his mother. He was just too nice of a person to ask, especially now that they’d made this whole ‘second chance’ agreement. Second chances didn’t mean ignoring problems, though. They meant talking through them. Had Sora forgotten that?

“Kairi, seriously,” Sora said. He reached forward and started drumming his fingers against the tabletop. Kairi tensed. She hated that new habit. “I know he doesn’t like my parents, but that wasn’t him! He’s not trying to trick me. So just, drop it, okay? He’s not gonna hurt me!”

Kairi stared a moment, knowing she really shouldn’t, but, it was too late to stop herself. She reached up and dragged her fingers across her face in a mirror of Sora’s scar. Sora stiffened. His fingers stopped tapping.

“You say… when you have this…!” Her voice trembled as she spoke. How could he forget who gave it to him? “You say, when you cried yourself to sleep! Each night for a week! Thinking about how he died, and how he forced you to kill him!!”

Sora jumped to his feet with a clatter of the chair, slamming his palms down on the table. “He deserves!! A clean slate!!”

“Does he really!?

Sora stared at her, face scrunching up in a way that Kairi knew meant he was close to tears, and it made her chest ache, but what was she supposed to do? She wasn’t trying to be mean—okay, maybe she was—but she was just… she didn’t trust Kano. She didn’t like how Sora wouldn’t take this seriously, preferring to give Kano the benefit of the doubt. And she definitely didn’t like how her skin itched every time she was around Sora, like there was darkness near, because there was darkness near, it was in his chest and its name was Kano.

Please, Kairi…” Sora said very slowly, looking at her with pleading eyes. “I know he’s done a lot of bad things, to me, to you, to everyone. But I forgive him, at least for what he did to me—I’m sorry you can’t forgive him, and I’m not asking you to, but could you please just give him a chance?

Kairi turned up her nose, then let out a haughty breath and leaned back in her chair, arms folding over her chest. “Whatever,” she grumbled. “But next time this happens, I swear I will do something about him myself, Sora.”

Sora sat down, probably out of relief. Kairi didn’t look at him, clutching herself tightly. She should stop there, since she’d won the argument—not that it was an argument, was it?—in a way, but there was one more thing. One more thing that she was dying to know.

And she could’ve phrased it nicely, she could’ve just said Sora look I’m worried about—but when she opened her mouth, it came out just as bitter as everything else she’d said during this conversation.

“He’s probably poisoning you, anyway… Making it so you can’t see what’s wrong with him.” She definitely should have stopped at Sora’s startled look, but that only made her say: “Oh, did you forget that he has that power? That he used it on me to make me think you weren’t worth saving anymore? Why not ask him, if you’re so—”

“I WOULDN’T!” Kano shouted, slamming a hand against the table.

It hadn’t been long, but Kairi knew when it was Kano and when it was Sora. If the sudden flare of darkness grating against her skin wasn’t enough indication, then the way Kano used Sora’s vocal chords definitely was. It was still Sora’s voice, but it was… wrong. Not Sora.

Kairi scowled at him, not trusting him. (He sounded serious, though. Like he meant it. And no one looked like that when they were lying.) But before she could come up with some sort of comeback for him, the doorbell rang.

“Better stop the shouting at each other, not that I don’t think this is an absolutely fantastic way to work out your problems or anything,” Kairi’s dad said, as he moved past them and to the door to answer it. Kairi sent her scowl at him instead, knowing that had been sarcastic. She dreaded the lecture that was probably coming after he sent away whoever was calling at this time of night.

Her back was to the door, so she couldn’t see who it was when her dad answered. She tried to ask Sora if he could see, but given how he had to lean to the side to, probably, see around her dad, he had no answers for her yet. But, her dad didn’t speak to send whoever it was away, like Kairi’d anticipated. Instead, there was an awkward pause, a surprised “oh!” and then:

“Hello, Namine. Hello, uh… Riku. And, uhm…?”

“Mickey!!” Sora said. His face lit up drastically, and he jumped out of his chair and ran to join her dad at the door. Kairi admitted her own sour mood lightened quite similarly, though she did not like to admit it. She finished turning around—she’d started when she’d heard Namine—and, sure enough, Namine and Riku and Mickey were standing at the door. If that wasn’t enough to brighten her mood, it was definitely enough to make her stop being mad at Kano and Sora, at least, for the moment. Wait! When had Riku gotten—!?

“Uh, you a friend of Sora’s?” Kairi’s dad asked.

 “Yeah, he is!” Sora answered, before Mickey could. “Can they come in?”

In response, Kairi’s dad stepped aside to let them all in.

“When did you show up again!?” Kairi demanded, marching up to Riku as soon as he was out of the doorway. He sent her something between a nervous smile and a grimace, along with a shrug. Sora turned to them like he’d just now realized that Riku was standing here and what that meant—he probably just had. Kairi tried not to notice the way his eyes darted to the side as if he were talking to Kano.

“Twenty minutes ago, maybe?” Riku answered. He reached to pull at his hair—man, it still looked weird this short. “Since when were you two looking for me?”

“Since always,” Sora said, moving closer to them. Closer meant a lot closer, considering there wasn’t much space between the table and the door to begin with, and with six people trying to occupy it. It was no wonder that Mickey and Kairi’s dad had moved towards the kitchen a couple paces.

“Aerith mentioned it,” Namine muttered at Riku, from the spot she’d taken next to the wall. Riku sent a glare at her, then sighed and returned his attention to Kairi, then Sora.

“It’s fine. I’m fine. I was doing a lot of thinking and lost track of time.”

Kairi jabbed him in the chest. He flinched. “For a full day?” she demanded.

“It was only twelve—fourteen hours, maybe fifteen,” Riku said. He wouldn’t look directly at her. “It was actually a very nice day. Quiet. Relaxing… B-But now’s not the time to be talking about it!”

Kairi raised her eyebrows at the thought of Riku relaxing, especially since he was so tense right now. Tense and offended. Still, she followed his eyes to Mickey, who had just gotten done properly introducing himself to her father, and vice versa, from the looks of it. Riku was right. There were more important things to worry about right now.

“Anyway,” Mickey said, since he had everyone’s attention again. “I’d like to borrow Sora, and Kairi as well, but… now seems like a bad time…”

“It’s… not a great one,” Kairi’s dad agreed. He sent meaningful looks at Kairi and Sora both, and Kairi was reminded that she and Sora had been arguing quite violently before the doorbell rang. She wasn’t eager to get back to an argument, of course, but considering that, and the time…

“Oh, c’mon, it’s not that bad of a time,” Sora argued. “Especially if it’s important!!” He almost seemed eager, with the glint in his eyes and the bounce on his heels. Kairi had to bite her lip to stifle a groan.

“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s so important that it can’t wait until tomorrow,” Mickey said.

“I’m half tempted to tell you to wait until tomorrow,” Kairi’s dad said.

Mickey nodded. “And I understand that completely.” He took a cautious step towards the door. “I’m sorry for bothering you—”

“Can’t we at least know what you wanted us for?” Sora asked. What was he so eager about, anyway? Then Kairi realized that he was probably just eager to get off the Islands, and put as much distance between him and his parents as possible. They really needed to figure out what to do about that.

Why was it, again, they hadn’t talked—or tricked—his parents into going to another world? Certainly, a talk with everyone at Hollow Bastion—or, heck, one with Mickey would probably clear things up! Now wasn’t the time to suggest that, though, so Kairi filed it away in her mind, and prayed that she would not forget it before she had a chance to bring it up. If only her dad hadn’t finally decided to clean the table off last night, because otherwise there’d be pen and paper to jot down a quick note.

“Hmm…” Mickey frowned a little, crossing his arms over his chest. Before he could finish thinking, Riku answered the question for Sora:

“Some friend of his wants to tell us about Xehanort, I think,” he said.

Kairi’s eyebrows shot into her hairline. Forget Sora’s eagerness, and his parents! She turned to Mickey, startled. “And you said that sorta news could wait until tomorrow!?” She did not think about how rude that might have sounded. She just thought about how little they knew of Xehanort, and how big of a threat he supposedly was, according to Ven and Aqua and everyone in Hollow Bastion. Considering that, any news about him didn’t seem like news that could wait.

“Well, it’s not, groundbreaking news,” Mickey said. “Just some general info on him, since none of you are in the loop—though, I guess, someone’s told you by now that he’s comin’ back, huh?” He studied them all carefully, with a look much like regret.

“Aqua mentioned it,” Namine said.

Mickey sighed, though he nodded as if he’d expected to hear that. “Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, Sora, or… any of you. I didn’t wanna worry you right after you’d dealt with Organization 13, and… everything else…”

Thinking about having to fight Namine… and everything Sora had to go through with his Shadow, at the time… Kairi could not say she blamed Mickey for wanting to wait.

“It’s been almost two months, though,” Sora said.

“Sorry,” Mickey repeated. He wouldn’t look right at Sora. “I was busy.”

“Well, it sounds like it’s important,” Kairi’s dad broke in, with a decisive nod of his head. “I don’t know much about this Xehanort guy, but Kairi and Sora have both mentioned him a couple times, and if he’s some big threat to the worlds that only these kids can take care of, then alright, I guess I can’t stop them. Kairi can go.”

Sora deflated instantly. Kairi stared, trying to discern what her dad was thinking. Mickey seemed a little surprised, too, and Riku and Namine exchanged glances that surely spoke volumes between the two of them.

Kairi’s dad just shrugged and folded his arms over his chest. “Not so sure I can speak for Sora, though. He’s not my son.”

“I was spending the night, anyway…” Sora whispered.

Kairi bit her lip, not sure why her father was doing this. Normally he would’ve said yes in a heartbeat. The raise of her father’s eyebrows and the look he gave Sora explained everything, though. Sora did not have his parents’ permission to stay the night. And this wasn’t something as simple as letting the two of them go see a movie.

Please, Dad, don’t send him home… Kairi thought, desperately. Please, Dad… She doubted Mickey would take them anywhere, without Sora—but that wasn’t nearly as important. She wasn’t happy that Sora got in an argument with his father, and she wasn’t happy at Kano for causing it, but she would not dare tell Sora to go back to his house tonight. At the very least, tell him he can’t go, but let him stay here…

Her father let out a long sigh, then lowered his arms.

“Alright, Sora, you can go too,” he said. He fixed his attention on Mickey. “I’d like to have them back before midnight.”

“Time doesn’t run the same between worlds, though, dad!” Kairi said, quickly. “There’s no way we’d be able to—”

Mickey interrupted before she could finish. “I’ll have them back as soon as I can,” he said. “But that’s all I can promise ya.”

“Well, that’s enough,” Kairi’s dad agreed.

Mickey nodded, smiling gratefully. “C’mon, let’s get going then!” He waved them all out the door.

Kairi grabbed Sora by the arm before he could follow, letting Riku and Namine go first.

“Does Mickey need to know about Kano?” she hissed, hopefully quiet enough so only Sora would here. As it was, Riku still sent a glance at them. Him and his super-sensitive hearing…

Sora stood still a long moment, breathing hard. “If… If it comes up…” he said, slowly. “I’ve got to!” Annoyance flashed across his face. He pulled his arm away from Kairi. “He can’t not know forever…” he grumbled, stepping outside.

Kairi sighed, getting the sinking feeling that most of that had been directed at Kano, not her.

“Call me if you think you’re going to be out all night,” her dad said.

She nodded at him, not that she was sure where she’d get her hands on a phone. “I will,” she told him, and she stepped outside as well.

Chapter Text

Mickey waved them all into the room at the top of three—three!—large flights of stairs. Sora went first, then Kairi, then Riku, with Namine gratefully trailing behind them all, and clutching Riku’s fingers for support. She did not like the fact she could hardly do something new anymore without her heart getting lodged in her throat and her stomach churning one thousand different ways, but there was no arguing that that’s what kept happening to her. She did not think it had always been like this, but it was hard to remember.

Was this all just learning to cope after being Rewritten? Did it have something to do with her and Riku’s brief fight, and the fact things were still rocky between them? Would a date help, like Sora’d suggested? He’d only suggested this morning, but now that Riku was back, Namine wasn’t sure how to ask him—never mind this being the wrong time. The thought of bringing it up made her sick with anxiety, and she was certain it wouldn’t have before…

If she thought about it too long, the moments would all play in her mind again. Against the wall, begging L not to Rewrite her. Her blade through Riku’s gut. Everything in between, but she shut them out of thought, and focused on the scene in front of her instead, like she should be doing.

The room was rather small, though no surprise. She’d seen the outside of the tower. The walls were all lined with oddly shaped bookcases holding regularly shaped books, and various other probably magical odds and ends she couldn’t possibly name. In the dead center there was a desk, a chair behind it, and in the chair a man with a very long grey beard and very long grey hair to match, clothed in blue robes that definitely singled him out as a wizard of some kind.

“Master Yen Sid,” Mickey said, as they all lined up in front of the table. Namine stayed close to Riku and a little behind him, squeezing his fingers tight. He sent a reassuring smile down at her. “I, uh, I know ya only asked for Sora, but I brought some other people who I thought might need to hear about Xehanort.”

Yen Sid considered them all with his wide eyes. Namine felt sure his gaze could pierce right through her, and it did nothing to help her nerves.

“And would these ‘other people’ care to introduce themselves?” Yen Sid asked, after a long moment. His voice had a deep rumble to it that commanded attention to him, if the way he held himself was not already enough.

Sora scratched the back of his head. “Well, you know I’m Sora…”

“I’m Kairi.” She’d folded her arms over her chest, and though Namine couldn’t see it, she was sure Kairi was giving Yen Sid her best no-nonsense glare.

“Riku.” He simply offered his name up, sounding incredibly disinterested as he did so. They no longer had a telepathic connection between their minds, but Namine knew he’d much rather be back home, at Hollow Bastion.

It was her turn, now. Namine swallowed hard. “N-Namine,” she said, silently cursing herself for stuttering. What was wrong with her lately?

Yen Sid squinted considerably, though it was still a little hard to tell he was squinting at all since he had unnaturally wide eyes to begin with. “Who…?”

Namine jumped. “M-Me?”

“No, you.” He fixed his attention firmly on Riku. The squint in his eyes may have been distrust. “Riku, did you say your name was?”

Riku nodded.

Yen Sid stared. Namine wasn’t sure if she should say he was surprised or worried based on his expression—maybe he was angry? She didn’t understand why, though. No one seemed to. Well, Mickey did, and he looked about as worried as Yen Sid, if not more so.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve ever met before,” Riku said. “Were you… supposed to know who I am?”

“That’s not the point, Riku,” Mickey explained. “Y’see, Master Yen Sid can… uh, well…”

“The stars tell me many things,” Yen Sid finished for him. “Such as what is going on in the worlds, to begin with.”

Kairi sent a look at Sora, one Namine could see since Sora and Riku were standing between her and Kairi, so by looking at Sora she also had to face Namine. Kairi’s eyebrows were up in her hairline. She turned back to Yen Sid. “Wait, are you telling me you like… knew who we were before we even stepped in this room?” she asked.

Yen Sid nodded.

“But… not me?” Riku asked. The tone of his voice and the way his fingers slackened in her grip made it seem to Namine that he’d realized something—what, though?

“No…” Yen Sid answered. He was clearly uncomfortable, bony hands clenched into tight fists while resting on the arms of his chair.

“Why not?” Sora asked, and it was a good question. If this powerful sorcerer knew about everything that was going on in the worlds, why had he not yet learned about Riku? The way Mickey talked made it out like Yen Sid had some power of foresight, so how had he not foreseen anything concerning Riku?

Yen Sid considered the question for a long moment, lowering his head in thought. “Honestly? I do not know,” he replied in his rumbling voice. He sounded troubled, but his voice got no quieter as he spoke. “Tell me, Riku.” He looked up, and though his sharp gaze fixed on Riku, it still partially included Namine, and that made her shiver. “Do you think there is anything about yourself that could be shielding you from my perception?”

Riku shrugged. He shifted his feet a little uncomfortably. Clearly, he had something in mind, but didn’t want to say it.

“Is… is it because he’s a Replica?” Namine asked, for him. That was the only answer she could think of immediately, and she could understand if he did not want to say it.

Yen Sid’s eyes flickered over to her, and Namine instantly regretted speaking. She doubted he was really upset with her—or with anything—but his still-piercing gaze and the way his eyebrows seemed drawn in a permanent scowl were still uncomfortable, especially when his attention was on her.

“It is possible,” he allowed. “But unlikely.”

“Is it possible I just slipped under it?” Riku asked.

Sora and Kairi sent glances at each other, communicating without words in that way they’d always had, in that way that needed no sort of telepathy. Sora kept turning his head off to the side, though, as if trying to recall something. Namine wondered what that was about.

“Hmm…” Yen Sid did not sound convinced, nor did he look it. And neither did Mickey.

After a quick glance between Yen Sid and Riku, Mickey spoke. “I know it won’t fix the problem, Master Yen Sid,” he said. “But I did tell ya about Riku, a while back. He helped take down Organization 13. That’s why I brought him here to learn about Xehanort.”

“Aha! So you do know about me!” Riku said.

Yen Sid glared at him. “That does not change the fact the stars can tell me nothing about you,” he argued. His voice had never seemed to rumble more than it did now. Namine flinched a little. “Forgive me if I am distressed, but for you to be part of something so large and yet for me to only hear of you by word of mouth is… troubling, at best.”

Riku’s hand moved to better loop his fingers through Namine’s. She looked up at him, watching worriedly as he stood there. The good mood he’d had upon returning from Destiny Islands—that’s where he’d said he’d been, anyway—was long since gone, but it was even worse to watch him now, as his eyes fixed on the ground and he coughed anxiously. It wasn’t nice to see him this uncertain with himself.

“…is it because I’m from a parallel universe?” he whispered.

Namine’s eyes widened. Oh.

Kairi and Sora exchanged looks similar to her own. Mickey looked startled, though only a little. He must’ve already known about the parallel universe thing. And in any case, his surprise was only a pale rival to Yen Sid’s.

Yen Sid had leaned forward in his chair, looking about ready to jump to his feet. His hands had moved from the arms of his chair to lay flat on his desk as he held himself forward. “A… what?” he demanded.

Riku shrugged hard. “I- I dunno! A parallel universe. I’m not sure how to explain it any better than that.” He glared a little at Yen Sid, or rather, pouted. Namine squeezed his hand. “I guess I can go get Vexen, if you really want me to, I’m sure he can explain this whole multiverse thing better than I could.”

“No, no, that is fine,” Yen Sid assured him. “I am well aware of the theory, I just never anticipated the reality.”

“Well, it’s real,” Riku said. “I don’t need to get concrete proof, do I? Because I can really only bring you Vexen, and he’s not exactly the most reliable—”

Mickey held up a hand to interrupt Riku. “We believe you, Riku,” he said, then turned his attention to Yen Sid. “I already talked to Vexen about this, and he’s reliable in my opinion. It’s not like someone would lie about bein’ from a parallel universe.”

Yen Sid stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It would certainly explain why the stars know nothing about you, Riku…” He let out a long disgruntled sigh. “And perhaps you are why I haven’t been able to get a definitive reading from the stars in so long.”

Namine sent a glance at Riku, wondering how he was taking this news. His eyes were forward—not exactly looking at Yen Sid—and his face set in what most people would read as grim determination, but she knew to read as veiled unease. Mickey was watching and surely listening to Yen Sid intently, while Sora’s brow was furrowed as if he were mulling something over hard. Namine could almost hear the gears turning in his head. Kairi stood in a way that might suggest disinterest, but if she wasn’t listening as well as the rest of them, Namine would be shocked.

“I thought I knew what would happen,” Yen Sid continued. “That I knew what needed to be done. But then everything suddenly and very violently changed, and ever since…” He grumbled with discomfort. “I hate to say it, but, I am blind. The stars will still tell me what is currently going on, but I see no future written in them now.”

“What happened to the future?” Sora asked.

“Too many things happened that the stars could not account for,” Yen Sid replied, with a very definitive look at Riku. Riku looked away. “And so the future initially written in them became incorrect.”

“Okay,” Kairi butt in, in a tone that made Namine preemptively role her eyes. “So like, you’re saying that the stars tell you what’s going on, but they won’t tell you about what Riku’s up to.”

Yen Sid nodded—though in a very slow way which Namine did not think was hesitance.

“I can see the ripples of his actions, nothing more,” he answered Kairi.

Kairi nodded. Sora eyed her. “Right,” Kairi said. “But, like, can you see everyone else’s actions? Or, how specifically can you see them? I guess what I’m trying to say is: do you know when I’m going to the bathroom?”

“Kairi…” Mickey warned, in a tone of voice that said he wasn’t really mad, but that she probably needed to stop.

“No, what it is, he can’t see anything about me and so he can’t get a reliable prediction of the future because I’ve messed up the natural flow of the universe or whatever,” Riku said, though that was not quite what they were talking about anymore. Before Kairi could steer the conversation back in the direction she apparently wanted it to go, or Yen Sid could interrupt, Riku continued: “I’m assuming you wanted us—well, Sora—here because you… saw something about Xehanort, right?”

“I told you that I cannot see the future,” Yen Sid replied slowly. “Something you just pointed out.”

“Yeah, but, you also said you can see the present in nonspecific but presumably large detail,” Kairi argued.

Yen Sid glared a little at her. “I have seen nothing about Xehanort,” he said, answering Riku’s question. “I do not see everything. I only called you here because I supposed I should inform you… all… what to expect from him.”

Namine raised her eyebrows at his hesitance about saying the word all.

Kairi snapped her fingers.

“Aha! So you don’t know when I’m— ow!

Sora elbowed her to make her stop. Kairi swore under her breath.

“Sora!” she shouted, glaring death at him and clutching her chest. “Watch where you’re elbowing!!”

Sora clapped one hand to his mouth and reached out to her with the other one. “Oh my gosh sorry that was your boob—”

“A-HEM.”

Yen Sid cleared his throat loudly. Sora and Kairi quickly straightened and dropped their hands to their sides, giving him what was supposed to at least look like undivided attention, though Kairi was still grimacing and Sora biting his lip hard. Namine rolled her eyes a little. Riku sighed, as did Yen Sid, while Mickey shook his head.

“Aqua already told them that Xehanort was comin’ back,” Mickey said. “So you don’t hafta explain that bit to ‘em.”

Yen Sid nodded again, in that slow way of his that really just seemed to be a lowering of his head. “I see…” He raised his head again. “And what else do the four of you know about Xehanort?”

“We got ‘really evil’ and ‘wanted to conquer the worlds’ outta Ven,” Kairi said.

Sora nodded, looking at her as if for confirmation. “There was something about Terra, too…”

Namine thought she should offer something up—not that she had much to offer—but her heart was in her throat, and the thought of speaking at all was too much. She cursed her nerves and gripped Riku’s fingers tighter, but that was all she could do.

“That he’s Ansem and Xemnas, but like, a full person?” Riku said, with a note of uncertainty in his words. “They were his Heartless and Nobody and now that they’re dead he can come back.”

“Oh yeah!” Sora nodded aggressively. “I knew that too!! So, like, we know he’s not a great person, especially since he’s like, both of those guys mashed into one guy.” He squeezed his hands together, to emphasize his point.

“That’s not quite…” Yen Sid began.

“D’you think he’s back already?” Kairi asked. “Xehanort, I mean. It’s been a while since we took down the Organization.”

Yen Sid hesitated a moment, but Namine thought it looked more out of annoyance for being interrupted than anything else. “It would be unwise to assume otherwise,” he said. “It would also be unwise to assume he’s simply Ansem and Xemnas mashed together.” He sent a look at Sora. “Xehanort is terribly cunning, a formidable Keyblade Master, and though I do not yet know what he is planning, it would be best if you all remained on guard. We cannot know when he will strike.”

Namine shivered, not liking to hear this, not liking the looming feeling of another battle. She did not have to take part in it, of course, not if she did not want to, but that thought didn’t ease her stomach at all. The Organization had done horrible things to her, to all of them, and if Xehanort was worse than Xemnas... She started to grip Riku’s fingers tighter, except, he was pulling them out of her grasp.

“Why don’t we circumvent that?” Riku asked, arms folded on his chest, looking at Yen Sid with determination glinting in his eyes. “I mean, if we all go after him now, combined… I’m sure that’d be more than enough to take him. Between the element of surprise and the fact he’d be outnumbered…”

He sounded almost like Alpha, plotting a phase of the Rebellion. The thought of how unhappy he’d be to know that made Namine smile, just a little. Not that it lasted long.

“Yeah!” Kairi agreed. “And if we get Roxas to help, whatever he’s up to these days, I’m sure that’d be more than enough, ridiculously cunning Keyblade Master or no!”

“We could add Aqua and Ven to the mix, too,” Sora said. “That’s like, seven of us, plus Cloud and Tifa and maybe the whole gang at Hollow Bastion if we—”

“ABSOLUTELY NOT,” Yen Sid broke in, his voice loud, much louder than was natural, probably amplified with magic. It seemed to shake the whole room. He looked furious. “First of all, Riku, you are not to go anywhere near Xehanort with your darkness the way it is—and before you ask,” he sent a glare at Kairi, “just because the stars cannot see Riku does not mean my own senses are faulty.”

Namine clasped her hands together. She had played no part in this short concoction of a plan, and Yen Sid’s anger was not directed at her, but she still felt guilty. Guilty, and queasy, to have been so easily included in their counts of who would face Xehanort when she did not want to be anywhere near a battle ever again.

“Second of all,” Yen Sid continued. “There will be no hasty killing of Xehanort.” His voice was no longer unnaturally loud, but he wasn’t any less angry. “It would be disrespectful to my old friend’s memory to leave one of his pupil’s in Xehanort’s clutches, and to disregard his successor’s wish of saving her friend.”

“And cruel to, uh, kill Terra along with Xehanort,” Mickey added, in a quiet voice.

Yen Sid nodded—still in that slow way which involved not much more than a lowering of his head—in agreement. “Until I have determined a way to save Terra,” he said, “we are not confronting Xehanort.”

“Then why did you call us here?” Riku asked. Namine cringed at the sting in his voice. He was clearly tired of this conversation.

“I only asked for Sora,” Yen Sid replied sharply. Mickey deflated a little where he stood, eyes falling to his toes as he shuffled his feet uneasily. “Because I wanted to discuss the prospect of training with him.”

Chapter Text

“Training!?” Sora asked, and all of his thoughts about Xehanort and Terra and how Mickey was right, they couldn’t go killing Xehanort if he was using Terra’s body like Ven said he was—all those thoughts flew out of his mind. He felt a comment along the lines of since when did you care about Terra bubbling from Kano, but both of their attention was so quickly snapped to the subject of training that it was never said.

Yen Sid nodded. “Yes, I said training. Considering Xehanort is coming back, and that you have only six months of self-taught experience with the Keyblade, it could not hurt for you to… refine your skills.”

Refine?’ Kano laughed. ‘Hear that, Sora? He says you’re bad with the Keyblade.’

Well, I certainly ain’t no master, Sora replied, not really bothered by Kano’s comment. He exchanged excited glances with Kairi. His heart felt like it was in his throat. He didn’t know much about Keyblade Masters, and was sure training to be one would take years, but it was still exciting to be starting. Also a little nauseating.

“The last thing we’d want is for you to be in over your head should’ya hafta face Xehanort alone…” Mickey added.

And… HE has a point, Sora said to Kano, swallowing hard. He did his best to ignore Kano’s discomfort, which pressed at him as Mickey spoke. It was getting easier to ignore, at least, probably because he’d been forced to ignore it since Mickey showed up on Kairi’s doorstep earlier—and was that…? No, the feeling was gone again, too quickly for him to be sure of.

If Xehanort’s like they’re making him out to be, some training’s not gonna help you, though,’ Kano warned.

Sora swallowed again. He’d been trying not to think about that. Or how casually Yen Sid and Mickey considered him dead meat without the training. Oh, don’t be so pessimistic! he told Kano, though there was no conviction in it. I’m sure—oh crud. He could feel the blood draining from his face, and he bit his tongue. That voice, earlier… do you think?

It was a moment before Kano replied.

…no,’ he said. ‘Can’t have been.’

Sora’s heart raced, though. He could feel how little certainty there was in that answer. He thought maybe he should mention the voice to Mickey and Yen Sid, but, then again, if he didn’t ask about it, it felt less—

“Sora!” Kairi nudged him hard, and he gratefully pushed his thoughts to the side.

“What?” he asked, looking first at her, and then, as he realized he must’ve missed something he’d been asked, turned to Mickey and Yen Sid. “W… what?” he asked again, feeling very silly, and hoping they didn’t read too much into it, lest he have to tell them about Kano.

“I asked if you actually agreed to training or not,” Yen Sid said, his voice rumbly and irritated, probably due to Sora not paying any attention for the past few minutes.

Sora made sure to make a quick recovery, though. “OH!! Yeah!” He nodded aggressively. “Yeah, training’s a great idea.”

“Good,” Yen Sid said. His gaze slowly swept across everyone else in the room, the features of his face closing in what Sora first read as reluctance, then as distaste with a thread of superiority in it. “I’d offer to train the rest of you,” he continued, “but, seeing as none of you can wield a Keyblade…”

Sora sent a glance at Kairi, unhappy to watch her eyes widen with anger and her jaw work with disappointment. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised, though—and neither should she—because Yen Sid had asked him about training, and had said nothing about the rest of them in the first place. It would be nice if Yen Sid could help Kairi with magic or whatever, and maybe they’d ask, since Sora knew Kairi was dying to learn so much more, more than Sora could really teach her. If Yen Sid said no, maybe he’d point her to Aerith or Leon, seeing as they’d taught him magic just fine…

Sora’s eyes then flickered to his right, on the other side of him, narrowing slightly as he watched Namine breathe a sigh of relief. What was that all about? Oh, but, he had something else to ask Yen Sid. Ignoring Kano’s snide comment about how Riku was acting—what did Kano care if Riku thought he was too good for training? He probably was—Sora turned his attention back to Yen Sid, and to Mickey.

“So….” he asked slowly, looking between the two of them, not entirely sure which to address. Yen Sid, probably, though, so he fixed his attention on the sorcerer. “Am I training with you?” The you could be all inclusive, of course, and Sora darted his eyes at Mickey as he said it. Then he realized how rude that could’ve sounded, and quickly added: “I mean, it’s not like, a problem, I’m just, curious.”

“Some,” Yen Sid answered. “But, largely, you will be training with Aqua.”

Sora could not help the grin that spread across his lips. Kano groaned hard inside him, and Sora’s mouth twitched downward a second. He hated how Kano could kill his mood so quickly, so easily, and tried to focus on how excited he was to train with Aqua instead. He didn’t know a lot about her, of course, but he saw her clear an area of Heartless with a single spell that one time, and he’d sure as heck like to learn how to do that. Also, between Ven sitting in his heart for so long and carrying that charm of Terra’s, all he could do was think fondly of her.

Kano was another story. But, there wasn’t much Sora could do about Kano.

“Lucky…” Kairi grumbled, arms folded over her chest and slouching, Sora was sure, just by her tone. A quick glance to his left confirmed. He made a mental note to ask Aqua how she felt about teaching Kairi a few things. Except, hadn’t Aqua told her no? Sora thought Kairi’d mentioned it. Oh well, there was always Ven…

The thought of Ven made Kano groan so hard that Sora was surprised it did not leave his own lips. It was like a bubbling hatred and a general dread to be anywhere near Ven, and it was much stronger than what Kano felt about Mickey. Strong enough to make Sora ask, even though he knew the last thing Kano liked was being asked about things.

What’s your beef with Ven?

As expected, irritation flared through Kano, and Sora could almost picture him scrunching up his face. ‘If it’s not obvious to you,’ he said, ‘then I see no point in trying to explain it.’

Sora grimaced for a second, then masked the grimace. He was going to get good at masking expressions with all this practice, and he couldn’t say he liked the idea. He thought about digging through Kano’s memories (because, really, what was his beef with Ven?) but reminded himself it was an invasion of privacy, and they both needed all the privacy they could get. Also, now was not a good time.

“When d’ya wanna start training?” Mickey asked.

Sora blinked at the question, then looked at Kairi for answers. She gave him a look which he knew to read as well, you have to do something about your parents first, don’t you?

And what the hell does she want us to do about them?’ Kano retorted, with a sharp laugh. Sora succeeded in not scowling, but it wasn’t easy. ‘And it’s not like you NEED their permission to train.’

Sora silently agreed. Not to mention he wasn’t doing much these days, anyway, so as long as he was home before dinner they probably wouldn’t even notice.

“Well, probably not tomorrow,” he said, to answer Mickey, scratching his cheek as he thought. “But… a few days from now should be fine. And from there, whenever, so long as I’m not training all day long. I gotta go home eventually…

Kairi raised her eyebrows at him, then sighed. He knew she meant you could’ve explained that so much better, and he smiled uneasily at her. Her eyes trailed away from his face after a moment, narrowing a little, and he turned to follow her gaze. Riku and Namine had stepped a few paces to the side (no surprise, since the conversation had stopped being about them) and were talking in low voices which Sora could not make out. He did notice how Namine kept wringing her hands, though, and how she seemed to be paying more attention to the floor than to Riku. There was a general air of unease about her, just like there had been a few minutes ago, just like Kano’d noticed this morning, and Sora was kicking himself for only noticing it now.

Remind me to talk to her later?

Sora, I’m not—!’

Please, Kano…

Kano grumbled, but he did not get the chance to argue.

“Does… does this have somethin’ to do with your parents?” Mickey asked, watching Sora very carefully.

Sora felt the blood drain from his face.

Kano’s discomfort beat twice as strong within him—resonating with his own discomfort, and as he’d noticed before, when their emotions were the same, they were stronger. And because they were stronger, he was positive about what he felt this time: a spike of fear as he made himself look at Mickey, and he was certain it was not his own. Unconsciously, he reached up to rub a phantom pain in his chest.

“Uh, h-how did you…” Sora began, only to have Kano stop his mouth.

Idiot! you just told him.’

Sora’s mouth was already halfway open, but it still moved to form a silent O. Then he thought about it a bit more, and he frowned.

No, hang on, he said. Mickey had to have known before now, or he wouldn’t have asked.

Kano growled a little, knowing Sora was right and hating that he was.

‘Still!’ he barked. ‘Can we not—’

“Do you want me to tell them, Sora, or are you gonna?” Kairi said, interrupting what Kano was saying (Sora knew how it would end, though). Kairi’s face was the perfect picture of I Am Right, So There smugness, and it pissed Kano off. Sora was certain that Kano’s opinion flashed across his face, because Kairi’s eyes darkened, her smile fell a fraction of an inch.

Sora took care to smooth his features, before turning to address Mickey.

Sora, please!’ Kano said. ‘Do we have to?’

Maybe he can help, Sora argued. And if I don’t do it now, I’ll forget.

Kano moaned.

Sora bit his tongue, turned his head a little away from Mickey, and from Yen Sid—he hadn’t said anything in a while, Sora hoped it didn’t mean something bad—so that they could not see his face as he argued with Kano.

C’mon, he said, I thought you cared about me.

‘Low blow!’

No, seriously, I’m not trying to be—I mean, I know you’re no good with this, but, normally, if your friend is worried about something, then you’re worried, too! For them.

There was a pause before Kano answered. Sora could feel his emotions shifting, and his thoughts turning.

…since when were we friends?’

Sora swallowed.

I’d like to be, he answered.

Kano didn’t reply.

Sora thought he felt surprised.

“Sora, I get that Xehanort’s important,” Mickey said, tapping his foot impatiently, eyes narrowed at Sora, in either frustration or worry or both. “But if your parents don’t want you doin’ this…”

“No, no, it’s not that!” Sora assured him, quickly. “They just really aren’t convinced about this whole other worlds thing. Or that Xehanort exists.” Sora paused for a moment, and it took him a second to realize it was because he was waiting for Kano to say something. Kano remained silent, though. Sora shook his head a little and pressed on. “Everything I’ve tried to do so far to prove it to them hasn’t made much of a difference…”

Mickey folded his arms across his chest, considering that. “Have ya tried takin’ them to another world…?” he asked.

Sora opened his mouth.

Closed it.

“No.”

“In his defense!” Kairi cut in. “We—me ‘n Sora and my dad, that is—are pretty sure there’s some sort of spell on the Islands. One that makes it hard for, like, other worlds to interfere with things, or something? I don’t know, I just know that everyone there has forgotten Riku and Namine even existed, and didn’t notice at all when Sora went missing for over six months. Everyone, including our parents.”

Sora sent a look at her, silently saying thank you, and she nodded in acknowledgement.

“Oh, is that why your dad took forever to realize who I was?” Riku asked. Sora was surprised he’d even been listening enough to comment. “I thought it was the haircut.”

“Definitely why, especially since you don’t visit much,” Kairi said.

“He double takes every time he sees me, too,” Namine told Riku. “Even though I lived there for so long…”

Mickey and Yen Sid exchanged long glances.

“Sounds like a little more than the world barriers to me,” Mickey said.

Yen Sid lowered his head in agreement. He was scowling significantly. “It certainly does…”

“Oh, hey!” Kairi’s eyes lit up, and she pointed slightly at Yen Sid. “You’re a—I, I mean… Could you, maybe, take a look at it? The spell on the Islands, that is, if there is one. We don’t wanna take it down or anything, just, maybe figure out if there’s a way to exclude our parents from it…”

“Perhaps I could look at it…” Yen Sid agreed, but with a considerable reluctance.

Sora did not miss the glace Kairi flashed at him, raised eyebrows and nose crinkling for just a second. He could almost hear her say wanna bet he won’t actually do it? he seems wishy-washy to me. Sora wouldn’t call Yen Sid wishy-washy, though… He sent a partial glare at Kairi, hopefully conveying that he thought that, and that he thought she shouldn’t be so disrespectful.

“Well, anyway, Sora,” Mickey said. “D’you wanna bring your parents here? See if us talking to ‘em helps any? Not today, of course! But, sometime soon…”

Sora shrugged, figuring that wasn’t a bad idea. Not to mention, a talking mouse was definitely some solid proof. Kairi brightened beside him, radiating the fact she thought this was a good idea as well. Sora opened his mouth, to start discussing the when, except Riku interrupted.

“Actually, Hollow Bastion might be a better idea,” Riku said. Sora sent a startled glance at him—help from Riku on something like this was the last thing he expected to get. “Everyone’s nice there, and, it’d be a bit less of a shock than a mouse and a wizard, no offense.”

“None taken,” Mickey replied automatically. Yen Sid grunted.

Sora nodded and looked at Kairi for her opinion. She shrugged, considering it—though not for long, like she’d been considering this before now—and then she nodded. Riku had a point.

“Well… when?” Sora asked, directing the question at Riku now, instead of Mickey.

“Tomorrow’s probably too short of notice…” Riku answered, with a sideways glance at them, before he returned his attention back to a spot on the wall, a spot Sora realized he’d been looking at for a while. Though… maybe it wasn’t the wall, Sora thought, as he followed Riku’s gaze a little more closely. He seemed to be looking out one of Yen Sid’s windows—the larger star-shaped one—at… the stars themselves? “I’ll have to ask Aerith,” Riku continued. “But, I’ll let you know.”

“Don’t make it too long from now, though,” Kairi said, flashing Riku a firm glare.

Riku rolled his eyes at her, and sent a similar glare back. “I won’t.”

“Your training will start on Monday, Sora,” Yen Sid said. He did not need to raise his voice to get everyone’s attention again. “Will that be a problem?”

Sora shook his head. “Nope! Monday sounds good.”

“When’s Monday?” Riku asked, in a lowered voice.

“Four days from now,” Kairi whispered back.

“Right,” Riku said. His cheeks were red with embarrassment. Sora wanted to tell him that it was okay, he wouldn’t have known when Monday was in relation to today either, not until he got home and checked a calendar. Now probably wasn’t the time to bring it up, though.

Kairi cleared her throat and fixed her attention on Yen Sid. “Uhm, out of curiosity,” she said, “Why wasn’t Aqua here? She seems like, she could’ve been important if you planned on making this about Sora’s training. Especially since she’ll be doing the training…?”

Sora tried not to smile, knowing well enough that Kairi was probably only asking because she wanted to speak to Aqua.

“That’s, uh, my fault,” Mickey replied, with a cough. “I was… putting this off… and there wasn’t any time to contact her at such short notice…”

“Oh,” Kairi said. She shifted her weight, sending a grimace at Sora.

Sora bounced a little on his toes. “Uh… is that all?” he asked, scratching the back of his neck. There wasn’t exactly an easy way to ask that question. Still, Kairi looked ready to be done with this, and Riku and Namine had both looked done twenty minutes ago. And Kano—that was right, Kano’d blocked off contact after Sora had said…

“Yes, that is all,” Yen Sid said, with a deep sigh. “Well, almost all. Riku, about your darkness—”

“It’s because I’m a Replica,” Riku replied quickly. His eyes were still fixed on the stars out Yen Sid’s window. “It’s a programming error. They’re working on fixing it—don’t rag on me because they’re taking forever.”

Yen Sid looked a little startled at such a response, though Sora couldn’t say he was, for what Riku said or Yen Sid’s reaction. Kairi grumbled beside him. That’s all she did though. Grumble.

“Then, I guess we should go! I’m your ride home, aren’t I?” Mickey flashed a wide smile at all of them, as he pulled out his star shard. “You guys ready?”

“Uh-huh!” Sora said. Kairi and Riku agreed from either side of him. He did not hear Namine, but maybe she nodded. He turned to look, but only saw that she was dropping her arms to her sides, clenching and unclenching her fingers a few times. She met his eyes for just a second, then turned away, mumbling something that sounded like ready.

And then they all left.

Chapter Text

“Hey!! There you are!!” Kairi’s dad, Ren, called from the kitchen as Kairi let them all into the house—not that he needed to yell, seeing as the kitchen was only three steps from the door. The house wasn’t big. None of the houses on Destiny Island were. “I made smoothies.”

Sora grinned and step forward to take a glass, and also to get out of the way. Behind him, he heard Kairi worriedly ask.

“Uh, dad…

“Stress-cooking!” Ren replied, meeting her eye. “Look what you’ve got me doing! Stress-smoothie-making!! I’ll use up all the fruit on the island if you keep this up.”

Sora laughed, and then coughed and spluttered, seeing as he’d been in the middle of taking a drink.

“Serves you right,” Kairi told him, moving to pass smoothies to Riku and Namine. Sora wiped at his mouth, and then rather than ask for a paper towel, just wiped it on his pants. Then he remembered that Mickey was still in the room, and, well… Oh well. He flashed an uneasy smile at Mickey and slid over to the table, Riku and Namine following him.

“So! Tell me how it went!” Ren said, meeting Sora’s eyes this time. Kairi was still moving towards the table, so he couldn’t exactly look at her for an answer. Sora opened his mouth to speak, but Ren cut him off. “Actually, uh… Mickey? Do you mind telling me what’s up, while the kids work on their smoothies? That way they can’t leave anything out.”

Mickey laughed and nodded. “Sure thing! That is, if I don’t need to get you two home already?” He looked at Riku and Namine.

Namine shrugged and shook her head, but Riku scrunched up his face.

“Call Aerith if you think it’s gonna be a problem,” Kairi said, sitting down.

“And, hey!” Ren said. “Why don’t you all scoot so the adults can have the table?”

Kairi scowled and stuck her tongue out at him. She was the last one to get back up, probably out of spite, so it was a good thing Sora knew where her phone was. It was hanging on the wall that separated the kitchen from the little area by the stairs. Right next to it was a corkboard, with flyers about the latest town events and a list of phone numbers pinned to it, among other things, including a picture Kairi’d drawn when she was five that her dad refused to take down. Sora tapped the smaller piece of paper that had Aerith’s and Leon’s and Cloud’s and Tifa’s numbers on it, in case Riku didn’t know Aerith’s off the top of his head—he might not.

As Riku handed his smoothie to Namine so he could hold the phone, Sora settled into the corner by Ren’s work desk (just a few steps from the phone, half of it under the stairs.) Kairi joined them, asking to check and make sure Riku knew Aerith’s number. Sora nodded and took another drink of his smoothie.

He wondered briefly if he should try and contact Kano again, to make sure if he was okay, or whatever. It had been somewhere around fifteen minutes since Kano’d last said something, certainly not the longest time, but long enough to make Sora wonder. He decided against it, though. The two of them could both use as much “alone” time as they could get, not to mention it’d be nice to actually devote all of his attention to Riku and Namine while they were still here. Both of them knew about Kano, of course—he’d had to tell Riku if he wanted Riku to help him research—but holding two conversations at once wasn’t easy…

“Hey,” Kairi nudged him. “Bet I can down this faster than you can.” She raised her cup with the smoothie in it. She still had a lot more in there than he had in his.

Sora rolled his eyes. “Please. I doubt it.”

Kairi moved the cup closer to her mouth. “Three… two… one—”

“Go!” Sora shouted, slamming his cup to his lips and throwing his head back.

Technically, Kairi didn’t win, but Sora was sure she’d downed at least as much as he had by the time he’d finished, so he didn’t make a big deal about it. Besides, Riku was off the phone by then.

“Should we, uh, go upstairs?” Namine asked. She cast a hesitant look to the table—which she could still see from where she was standing at the edge of the wall. Sora could hear Mickey and Ren talking, though he wasn’t paying enough attention to catch what they were saying.

“Technically…” Kairi said, slowly, as she wiped her mouth. “Dad only said we had to scoot from the table.” She raised her eyebrows, and though she didn’t say it, it was pretty clear she wanted them to stick around and listen in.

Riku rolled his eyes. “As much as I’d love to eavesdrop,” he said. “I actually have something I wanted to… ask?” He dropped his gaze a little, taking his smoothie back from Namine.

Kairi nodded without hesitation. “Upstairs it is.”

They all shuffled up there and into Kairi’s room, seeing as it would be silly to stand and talk in the hallway. Kairi flopped down on her bed right away, setting her not-quite-empty smoothie glass on the floor off to the side. Sora stayed standing, leaning against the dresser Namine’d used when she was here, seeing as neither Riku nor Namine looked like they were gonna sit, and he didn’t want to make them any more uncomfortable. Riku hardly took more than a step out of the doorway, and Namine stood against the wall next to her bed, looking at her smoothie instead of at them. Sora remembered that he wanted to talk to her, but, whatever Riku had to say came first.

“Uh, okay…” Riku cleared his throat. “Do you, like… are you mad at me?”

Sora looked at him, then sent a glance at Kairi, to see if she understood the question better than him. She didn’t seem to, or probably not. It was hard to tell when she was lying down and he couldn’t see her face.

“What for?” Sora asked.

Riku rubbed a hand over his arm, sending nervous glances largely at Sora. “For, like, messing up the natural flow of the universe or whatever,” he mumbled.

Sora raised his eyebrows. Of all things. Kairi chuckled.

“Oh, please, is that it? Definitely not a big deal,” she said, and she propped herself up on an elbow. After blowing away hair that had fallen into her face from the motion of moving, she continued: “It’s not like you had any clue it was gonna happen, and even if you did, what were you supposed to do about it? You said you came here because some guy said you could have a second chance at life or whatever?”

Riku nodded.

“Okay, so, if anything, it’s his fault for not telling you the potential consequences, even though this totally feels like some big cosmic thing we’ve got no control over and might be bullcrap,” Kairi said.

“Hey, actually, if I can have a magic key sword, I don’t think we should knock something like destiny so quickly,” Sora argued. “I know life’s not a fairytale, but you gotta admit we’re pretty deep in the monsters and magic stuff.”

Kairi grunted at him. “Okay. Fine. But, it’s not like Riku could do anything about not coming here, short of, like, dying. Not really his fault.”

“Yen Sid was making it out to be this really important thing, though…” Riku muttered. He rubbed a little harder at his arm.

“C’mon, Riku, no point fussing over a future we’ll never see,” Sora told him. “And how great could it really be, anyway? Can’t’ve been worth dying over.” Riku’d never told them the circumstances, exactly, of how he’d come to this universe, but Kairi’d worked it out of Namine, and of course Kairi told him. Riku’d been found in a near death state by whoever’d brought him over to this universe. If he’d decided not to accept the offer for this second chance…

“It was probably one where you didn’t fall into darkness…” Riku said.

Sora considered that a moment. It was a little more reasonable to be worried about. Still, though… “So what?” he asked, straightening and fixing his fiercest gaze at Riku, daring Riku to challenge this. “So what! I wouldn’t fall to darkness, alright, but I’d never have you for a friend. Doesn’t seem like a great trade off to me.”

“Yen Sid was making it out to be this fantastic thing—”

“Pretty sure he wasn’t,” Kairi said. She sent a glance to Sora for confirmation, and he nodded.

“Yeah! Pretty sure outside of,” he cleared his throat and in his best Yen Sid voice said: “‘I can’t see anything in the stars now!’ he didn’t say anything about what the future was supposed to be.”

“But he—”

“Yen Sid is a crusty old man who is having trouble adjusting to the idea that life is not dictated by some predetermined script written by some deity or the stars or whatever,” Kairi interjected. “And, if you really cared about his opinion, wouldn’t you be asking him, and not us?”

“Yeah!” Sora echoed.

Riku looked down at his toes.

Sora continued.

“I mean, sure, maybe we all did have some sort of destiny lined out for us. Like I said, we are pretty deep in this monsters and magic stuff.” The Keyblade seemed to itch in the back of his mind as he said it, and the weight of Kano still pressed in his chest, even if their link was stifled right now. “I dunno anything legitimate about telling the future, Riku, but I always thought it involved more probablys than it did definitelys. And maybe my ‘destiny’ was just to defeat Xehanort. Well, I’m still getting there, aren’t I? Pretty sure nothing’s been botched beyond repair.”

Riku laughed a little, but it sounded like a happy laugh. He looked up, a smile on his lips, meeting both Sora’s and Kairi’s gaze for just a second each. “Thank you…” he said.

“No problem,” Kairi said.

“Mmhmm,” Sora agreed, with a nod. “It’s not like you were directly responsible for me falling into darkness anyway.” Maybe jealousy for Riku had been among the things that’d pushed him to do it, but Riku wasn’t responsible for his emotions, he was.

“Yeah, and I don’t care how shiny of a future was written in those stars before you showed up,” Kairi added. “I bet it wasn’t half as good as the one that’s coming to us now, if only because you wouldn’t be here—also because Namine wouldn’t be here either…” Her eyes widened, but then she nodded definitively. “So, yeah, it’d be less than half as good.”

“What do you think, Namine?” Sora asked. She hadn’t said anything this whole conversation, though they hadn’t tried much to include her. And, if Sora remembered right, she always had trouble interacting if they didn’t engage her directly.

“Huh?” She looked up from her smoothie, and, from the expression on her face, her thoughts. “I… I mean, yeah…” She cast a hesitant glance at Riku. “I certainly… don’t blame you, Riku…” She pressed her glass to her lips, mumbling something like ‘existing is better than not existing’.

Sora watched her a moment, trying to gauge what was wrong, also waiting to see if Kairi and Riku had anything more to say… Well, they’d waited too long if they did. “Hey, Namine… is everything—”

“ALRIGHT KIDS, WE’RE DONE,” came the sound of Ren shouting from downstairs. “Time for Riku and Namine to get heading home, I guess!”

Sora and Namine stared at each other for a long moment, Sora wrestling with whether or not he should continue. Then she coughed and looked away, holding out her glass to him.

“Do… you want my smoothie, Sora…?” she asked. “I’m not gonna finish it…”

He stared a second more, then took it from her. “Y… yeah. Thanks.”

Riku and Kairi were already out the door, and Namine was quick on their heels.

“…could always spend the night, I suppose,” Ren was saying as Sora climbed far enough down the stairs to hear. “But they’ll have to clear it with their, uh…?” He stopped short, clearly wanting to finish that with parents, but knowing he couldn’t.

“They’ll have to ask Aerith,” Kairi supplied for him. Sora was at the bottom of the stairs now, just in time to see Riku shake his head.

“Nah, I’ve been missing all day,” he said. “Probably shouldn’t. Namine could, if she wanted…?”

Namine shook her head as well. “N-no, we should both…”

Riku nodded. “Well, alright then, uh, Mickey. Let’s go.”

The three of them left.

Sora waited until Ren moved back into the kitchen, to deal with clean-up of the smoothie mess—he’d taken Kairi’s and Sora’s empty glasses, along with Riku’s mostly full one, intending to drink that himself. Sora still held Namine’s. Anyway, he waited until Ren was in the kitchen, and then he spoke.

“Something’s wrong with Namine,” he said.

“What?” Kairi sent a glance at him, and then continued writing on the calendar on the cork board. After a second, Sora realized she was noting down, on Monday, Sora’s first day of training.

“I dunno, it’s just… she seems…” But Sora wasn’t sure where to begin. It felt like more than how distracted she’d been all evening, the way she’d kept wringing her hands, and listing those things to Kairi seemed silly anyway. “Something’s wrong, Kairi,” he repeated, instead. “Haven’t you noticed?”

She’d always believed him on these sorts of things before, so he wasn’t too worried, but still, all she could do was shrug in response to his question. “There was… a lot going on tonight,” she told him, putting the pen on top of the corkboard, and turning to him in full.

“Well, what about before now?” Sora asked. “I mean, she stayed with you for two weeks just a bit ago!”

“So! You didn’t notice anything then either!”

“Kairi, come on, this isn’t a competition.”

She stared at him a moment, then sighed. “Well… there was…” she began. Her face was scrunched up hard in thought. She didn’t continue.

Impatient as always, Sora pressed her. “What? There was what?”

“There was a lot going on then, too, between her and Riku, for starters!” Kairi said. She crossed her arms over her chest, pulling her lip into her mouth to chew it.

Sora watched her, a knot of anticipation in his stomach, a knot of worry. Something was beating in his chest, something he’d noticed about Namine, but it hadn’t gotten through from his heart to his head yet, so all he could do was wait for Kairi. The reminder that he hadn’t noticed sooner stung, too, because two months was a long time to take to realize something was wrong, and he was sure now that something had been wrong for a while.

“She’s a lot quieter,” Kairi said, quickly. She dropped her eyes from him. There was a tension in her voice. “She’s quieter, and it’s harder to make her laugh, and she jumps at every other little thing. But…” She held her head to the side for a moment. “But… we all went through a lot. She’s probably just figuring out how to… settle, again, y’know? Like we all are. I mean! It’s harder to make you laugh half the time, too! Riku’s the only one of us who seems to be doing a fine, which is surprising.”

Sora nodded. Less at her comment about Riku, and more about Namine.

“Yeah, I guess that’s all it is,” he said. He knew coping was hard. It hadn’t been easy for him, and it’d never been easy for Riku, and if he ever thought Namine wasn’t having trouble, then all he needed to do was remember how she’d broken down with panic at the thought of having to cast offensive magic.

“Do you think… we should try ‘n help?” Sora asked.

“Outside of actually keeping better contact with her and Riku instead of letting weeks pass without seeing either of them,” Kairi said. “I can’t think of anything else we can do right now.”

Sora sighed, but he nodded in agreement.

He couldn’t think of anything either.

He took a cautious sip of the smoothie he held, because it was there, because he’d forgotten about it, because he’d said he would drink it.

“What time do you think they’ll want you there on Monday?” Kairi asked, looking at the calendar again.

Sora shrugged. He hadn’t thought much about that. “Well… I’ll just go over after breakfast, and see if that’s a bad time or what. Hard to schedule when time doesn’t pass the same between worlds, and when I have to juggle with my parents not knowing…”

“That’ll hopefully be fixed this weekend, though,” Kairi argued. “You staying the night?”

Sora nodded. Then he grimaced.

“Uh, well… if I’m allowed to?” he said, raising his voice a little, so that Ren could hear him, since that’s who he needed permission from at this point. The walls weren’t that thick, though, and Sora knew that, so he didn’t raise his voice by much.

“You’re fine,” Ren called back. Then he was around the corner, drying one of the smoothie glasses as he looked between the two of them. Ren had always been a laid-back man, Sora thought, much more than his parents at any rate, and even now he had a lazy smile on his lips, one that Kairi’d inherited. She’d also inherited the fierceness that entered his eyes as the subject became more serious. “For the night, anyway. I want you to try and sort things out, though. Can’t hide you here forever.”

“Yes sir,” Sora said, with a mock salute. He meant it, of course, and Ren knew that. Ren gestured to the glass he was holding, and Sora happily handed it over.

“Mickey mentioned you were gonna try and take your parents to another world,” Ren said, reaching around the wall to put the smoothie glasses on the kitchen counter. “Sounds like a good idea. Any chance I can come?”

Sora and Kairi looked at each other. Kairi’s features were definitely written with a why not? “That sounds fine to me, Dad!” she said.

“We’re still working out the details, though…” Sora said.

“Riku’s just gotta let us know when a good time is,” Kairi explained. “Hopefully he’ll tell us tomorrow. If not, then I’ll call Aerith or Leon.”

“Maybe we’ll shoot for Saturday,” Ren suggested. “I’m off then.”

“Mm, but my dad’s not,” Sora said, with a sigh. “He’s only got Sundays… So, it’ll have to be Sunday. The morning, but, not too early since Hollow Bastion’s, uh…” He couldn’t remember what the time difference between here and Hollow Bastion was, so looked at Kairi for his answer.

“I dunno, just that they’re behind us,” was all Kairi could tell him, though. “Whatever. We’ll just figure it out tomorrow when I call.”

“Or, we could… talk to them in person?” Sora suggested. That would count as ‘seeing Namine and Riku more often’, and with so many people to coordinate, it seemed easier to not try and do it on the phone.

“If you do, can I come?” Ren asked. He seemed very insistent on this. “Unless, oh…” He looked at Sora, mouth scrunched up as he thought. “Do you think it’ll make your parents feel better if it’s a first for me, too, on Sunday?”

“Hmm, probably,” Sora said.

Ren nodded. He scratched at the stubble on his chin as he leaned a shoulder against the wall. “Speaking of, Sora, your dad showed up while you were gone,” he said. “Timing was impeccable. Showed up right after you left, but not soon enough to catch you leaving.

“Of course,” Kairi laughed in exasperation. Ren nodded at her, features twisted like his daughter’s in a way that made it clear he was thinking I know, right?

“What’d he want?” Sora asked.

“Wanted to talk to you, obviously. I told him you were already asleep. He may have believed me.” Ren shrugged. “Then he asked me if I’d noticed anything, uh, off about you.”

Sora swallowed thickly, breathing hard around the sudden clench in his chest.

Ren smiled sympathetically at him, and continued: “I told him no, I didn’t think so, but I hadn’t exactly been looking. Figured I’d leave the magic explanations to you.”

“Thanks…” Sora mumbled, glad that Ren had not said anything to his dad. He probed cautiously for Kano, wondering if the fear sitting in his chest was actually his or not. Kano wasn’t responding, though. Not a big deal. Sora didn’t want to argue with him about his parents anyway.

“You… are alright, aren’t you?” Ren asked.

Sora nodded. “As good as I’ll ever be right now.”

“And Kano…?”

“A magic thing, I swear.”

Ren nodded, satisfied with that answer. He pushed away from the wall and glanced at the clock. “Alright, well, I won’t tell you two that you have to go to bed, but, it is late…” He trailed off with a raise of his eyebrows that said he definitely thought they should go to bed.

“You should go to bed too, dad,” Kairi argued. “You still have work tomorrow.”

Ren waved her worries to the side. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine.”

Kairi sent a knowing look at Sora and rolled her eyes. He laughed a little and rolled his eyes with her. Chances were, Ren would be up half the night anyway. It was a good thing his work never suffered.

Goodnights were said, and Sora and Kairi headed back up the stairs. Sora’d sleep in the extra bed—Namine’s bed, he still wanted to call it, even though she did not live here anymore. Kairi had a pair of his pajamas stashed in a drawer for exactly this occasion, along with a change of clothes, so that wasn’t a problem either, at least.

There was a tension in the air as they got settled, moonlight streaming into the dark room through the curtains. Sora lay staring at the ceiling, waiting for Kairi to say whatever it was she wanted to say. If she didn’t soon, he resolved just to ask her. Thankfully, he didn’t have to.

“About… Kano…” she said, very slowly. She was not looking at him, Sora saw, when he rolled over on his side to face her. He studied her a moment, on her back with her hands folded over her stomach. A heaviness weighed on him with the question, and it seemed to weigh on her, too.

“Can we not tonight, Kai?” he asked, flopping back onto his back. He reached up to rub his head, scowling at the ceiling. The last thing he wanted to do tonight is argue with Kairi again. To say they’d never argued before would be a lie—they’d argued plenty since they first met at age 2!—but an argument had never lasted this long, had never been about something this serious. No matter what he said, he could not seem to change her mind about Kano, and the fact she wanted to pick a fight over it every other time they spoke wasn’t helping.

Maybe it’d be good to try and talk about it while Kano wasn’t here to interrupt, but then again, talking about him was probably the best way to get his attention. It wouldn’t last for long. The literal lack of privacy was Sora’s biggest complaint about Kano being here, or at least, where he was. He hoped that problem would be fixed when they had separate bodies again….

“Alright,” Kairi agreed, voice quiet. “Goodnight, Sora.”

“’Night Kairi.”

He closed his eyes and prepared to sleep.

Chapter Text

Namine jumped at the knock on the bedroom door.

“Namine…?” Aerith called.

“Yeah!” Namine said, then cleared her throat, trying not to think about how strained her voice may or may not have sounded.

She clenched and unclenched her hand a few times, her fingers all stiff from holding her pencil much tighter than she probably should’ve been. The open page of her sketchbook was nearly completely black with pencil, the picture some dark blob with a lone figure drawn with an eraser in the middle. A good way to vent stress. Kind of. Even if the picture would’ve been completely incomprehensible to anyone but herself, she quickly shut her sketchbook so that Aerith would not be able to see it as she opened the door.

“Hi,” Aerith said, smiling at her, as she poked her head in. She opened the door a little further and leaned around it, so she could see Riku’s bed. There was no Riku in it. Aerith sighed. “Gone again, huh…?”

Namine nodded, though Aerith didn’t turn back to her in time to see it. “He was gone when I woke up,” she said. “He’ll probably be back soon, though. He was yesterday.”

“Yeah, he was…” Aerith agreed, distractedly.

“I, uh, sorry I didn’t come down sooner,” Namine said. “I… I just… Uh…” She swallowed, hands falling beside her, fingers running over folds of the bedsheet. She didn’t exactly want to explain how it felt like she’d had a certain… security, here, on her bed, with the morning sunlight streaming through the curtain, and with Riku gone. It would sound silly. And that was if she could even put it in words. A shorter—or even different—explanation wasn’t coming to mind, though.

At least Aerith did not ask for one. She just smiled again, in a patient way that showed she understood Namine’s lack of words, and that it was alright. Namine loved that smile. It never made her feel guilty for not having the courage to say something.

“Well, we couldn’t have gone on our walk without Riku, anyway, so no big deal,” she said. “Though… I guess we could go without him.”

Namine shrugged. “I don’t think he’d be happy….” Riku was the one who’d suggested these early-morning walks to begin with, since the three of them were the only ones up at this time of morning, and he hated sitting still for extended periods of time. “But… It’d serve him right for vanishing every morning.”

“Exactly,” Aerith said. Then she grimaced. “Maybe next time he does it….” She hummed a second as she considered that, then nodded towards the stairs. “I think I’m going to go take care of the garden while we wait. Would you like to help?”

“Uh… maybe,” Namine replied. “I should, uh, get dressed, first.”

Aerith nodded. “Of course!” she said, and then she left, closing the door behind her.

Namine was dressed and outside just in time to see Riku stumble out of a dark corridor in front of the garden. He rubbed at his head as if it hurt while the dark corridor closed behind him, and staggered as he straightened. When he saw her standing the doorway, and Aerith kneeling by the garden, both staring at him, he paled a shade or two, but he smiled and dusted himself off casually.

“Oh, hi!” he said. “Sorry, I got…” He cleared his throat. “Sidetracked.”

“You shouldn’t be using dark corridors,” Aerith said, in a very stern voice.

“Well, how else am I supposed to get around?”

Aerith sighed as she got up. “Remind me to get you that extra star shard we have,” she replied, dusting off her hands and then smoothing her skirt.

“Where were you?” Namine asked. She was still standing in the doorway. Just staring at Riku. At least she’d remembered to close the door…

Riku tugged at his shirt, not wanting to look directly at her. “Uh…. Destiny Islands….”

“Again?”

“What’s so special about there?” Aerith asked.

“Well, this morning, I was awake and decided I’d catch the sunrise there,” Riku answered. “Beautiful sunrises over the water… Maybe we should all go watch one one time. Oh, but that would require getting up at 3 AM. Hmm…” He scratched at his cheek. “Anyway, after that I just lost track of time. Sorry.”

“How can you lose track of time when you have an internal clock?” Namine asked. This question had been bugging her for a while. Her own ticked away inside her head, telling her exactly what time it was. Why couldn’t Riku pay attention to his?

“It defaults to whatever world I’m on,” Riku argued. “So the moment I’m on Destiny Islands, I’m thinking in Destiny Islands time, and it’s not easy managing two separate times at once.”

“You could buy a watch,” Aerith suggested.

He turned to her, a wry look on his face. “Would you believe me if I told you that’s where I was most of the morning? Going from store to store, world to world, trying to find a watch that didn’t make my skin itch the moment I put it on? Because, that’s seriously where most my time went.”

“You could’ve… kept the watch in your pocket…?” Namine said.

“….oh.

“Or we could just get you a phone,” Aerith said. “That’d probably be better. Anyway…” She gestured towards the street. “Walk?”

Riku nodded. Aerith looked to Namine, who nodded as well, moving quickly to join them in the street. They started off in the direction of the Bailey, like they always did, though they’d turn long before they reached it, left down one of the streets, further into the town. It was a different route every day, though sometimes they swung by the market for groceries, and usually Aerith would check the infirmary, just in case, even though there was a sign on the door directing everyone to her house while she wasn’t there to man it.

“Sora’s parents are coming over today, right?” Riku asked. “Should we cover Heartless rounds while we’re out, since they’re gonna show up after breakfast, and that’s usually when rounds get done…?”

Namine felt a clutch in her chest, and she missed a step. Riku looked over to her as she stumbled, for sure, and maybe Aerith did, but Namine had recovered by then. She tried hard to make it look like it had never happened, and took deep breaths to control the panic in her chest as well as she could.

“Hmm, no…” Aerith said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. For starters, I don’t have my staff—”

Riku turned and pointed back over his shoulder. “We haven’t gotten far, though! The house is just back there, I could run and get it.”

Aerith shook her head. She sent a slight glance to her right at Namine, which made Namine’s heart catch again, but then Aerith’s attention was back on Riku, to her left. “Heartless rounds take a while, Riku, and I really don’t want to miss breakfast. We’re starting our walk late enough as it is.”

Riku sighed. Namine felt like she could breathe again.

“Well, I guess I can always go while they’re here,” Riku said. “It’s not like they’re coming to meet me.

“You can’t go alone, though, Riku, you know that,” Aerith said.

“Yeah, I do! Well, maybe Namine could go… with me…?”

He lost all confidence as he finished the question, because Namine was already shaking her head. She hated Heartless rounds. She hated them, she hated fighting, and she was glad Leon had long ago taken her out of rotation for rounds without her having to ask. It was a little embarrassing, just as having Aerith indirectly tell Riku no for her sake now—there was no doubting that’s what it had been—but she was still grateful.

“Maybe Yuffie can help,” Riku said instead. “It’s not like Sora’s parents are coming to talk to her, either. Not really.”

“No, not really,” Aerith agreed. They kept walking.

Of course, just because they didn’t intend to do Heartless rounds, didn’t mean they weren’t going to run into any Heartless. It didn’t happen daily or even often—there were less and less Heartless as time went on, it seemed—but it still happened, and today was one of the unlucky days.

Four Heartless materialized. Each was small, two of them of the same type. Namine didn’t know which was what, she had never learned Heartless names. She just knew that that red flying one was weak to Blizzard. Riku took two of them down with one slice. A well placed blast of Fira from Aerith took down the third, leaving the red flying one. Namine knew it would be easy to cast Blizzard at it, not to mention be a big help, but she couldn’t make herself. Riku jump-slashed it a second later, so it was no big deal, but Namine’s heart was still in her throat.

“You could’ve got that,” Riku said, in a tone that was supposed to sound casual. He banished his blade, and the darkness used in the act hung around his fingers for much longer than it should have. Namine didn’t notice how he swayed where he stood, for just a moment, but Aerith did.

“I- I just,” Namine stammered. She opened and closed her hands at her side. She was almost back against the wall of a nearby house. “I…”

“It’s alright, Riku. We got it,” Aerith said, holding out a hand toward him. “Are you—”

“I don’t want to fight,” Namine said, explained, words falling out of her mouth. Desperately, her eyes fixed on Riku. He had to understand this. How had he not realized it sooner? It’d been months and she’d never once wanted to be near a battle since… since… “I- I don’t want to fight,” she said. “I don’t want to. I don’t like it.” She was seconds away from explaining how it made her feel sick, but just the thought of saying that made her stomach flop. She hated it. “I- I don’t want to…”

Aerith turned to her now. “You don’t have to,” she assured Namine, quickly. There was a twinge of impatience in her eyes, but her face was kind, and her tone twice as much. “It’s okay, Namine. No one’s asking you to. You don’t have to fight.”

Namine nodded. It was good to hear that. Good to be told that outright. She took a shaky breath, reaching up to wipe away the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. She hated this. She hated being such a mess. But Aerith was still considering her kindly, considering her with that look that made her feel perfectly alright for being like this. Aerith was not expecting her to act any different, and even if Riku was scowling at her from behind Aerith, it looked more like confusion than anything else.

“But…” Riku began.

“She doesn’t have to,” Aerith repeated, turning back to him. “No one has to fight if they don’t want to. Now…” She straightened and held herself as high as she could. “Are you—

“Fine,” Riku said. “I’m fine.”

Aerith sighed in a way that meant she didn’t believe it, but wasn’t going to press.

“I- I want to learn how to heal.”

Riku sent that confused scowl at Namine again, and, again, Aerith turned back around to face her. Namine put a hand to her mouth. Her stomach felt tight. She had not intended to say that. She’d been thinking about it for a long time now, a very long time, and she’d rehearsed how she’d ask in her mind, over and over again. She’d meant to ask while she and Aerith were closing up the infirmary, some day, so that it wouldn’t feel out of nowhere, but it wouldn’t interrupt anything more important. This—

But there was no sense stopping now.

“I… I want to help people,” Namine continued. “I don’t want to fight anyone. I- I want to help…”

“Okay,” Aerith said, and she nodded. After a second, she nodded again, like she’d considered it and was certain this time. “Okay, I can do that,” she told Namine. “We can do that. You're already helping out some at the infirmary, and you can start helping some more… Yes. I can teach you how to heal, no problem.”

Relief swelled up in Namine, even though she’d expected a result much like this one. “Thank you…” she whispered. “Thank you.”

Aerith nodded again, pressing a knuckle to her lips as she thought. Riku scowled like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t open his mouth to start anything. Namine stood very still, watching Aerith, waiting for what she’d say next. She slowly folded her hands together.

“I think, though…” Aerith said, pulling her hand away from her mouth. “I think it might be a good idea if you learn some more support magic… You’ve got a pretty good grasp on Reflect, but knowing Barrier better, and M-Barrier, along with spells like Aura—that way you can help out when things like this happen.” She gestured to the area around them. “No fighting, but you’re there to help if we need more than just Cures or Esunas. You could maybe learn spells like Stop and Confuse, too. Nothing to hurt the enemy, just spells to make the battles easier for those who are fighting.”

Namine swallowed. She felt herself trembling, and squeezed her hands hard. It did not help, but it made her feel a little better.

“If you want to,” Aerith continued, quickly. She put a hand on Namine’s shoulder, bending a little so they were eye-level. (Aerith was only a few inches taller than her.) “It’s just a thought.”

Namine nodded. “I- it’s a good thought,” she agreed.

“Is that a yes?”

Namine nodded again.

Aerith beamed at her, and squeezed her shoulder. “Alright! I’ll teach you what I can in my spare time. Or, we could probably ask Leon. He knows a lot of those. Honestly, if I could get a hold of—oh, wait, that’s right. Rinoa’s still busy.” She hummed to herself as she mulled it over, pulling her hand away from Namine, pressing knuckles to her lips again.

“Rinoa?” Riku asked, leaning to see Aerith’s face. “Isn’t that the girl who… I mean, didn’t Leon write to her, like, ages ago?”

Namine remembered that too, vaguely. It had been ages ago.

“A few months ago, yes,” Aerith admitted. “She’s busy with the sorceress training it took her five years to get serious about, so I’m not surprised she hasn’t responded…” She sighed a little as she said it, disappointment heavy in her voice.

“Couldn’t you send another letter?” Riku mumbled.

Aerith sent a partial glare at him. “Trust me, Riku, Leon and I both have sent a few already, to different addresses, but there’s no telling where she really is or when our letters will reach her.” There was no anger in her tone, just that continued twinge of disappointment. “We’ll get a hold of her eventually.”

“Wh- what’s she like?” Namine asked. It sounded like Rinoa wouldn’t be teaching her any magic, and that was fine. But she was curious. Anyone who Aerith was disappointed about not hearing much from seemed like a person she’d want to know. The glint in Riku’s eyes said he thought much the same.

“Rinoa? She’s a good friend of mine,” Aerith replied. “We traveled together for a while, and…”

They ended up spending most of their walk talking about Rinoa.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Aerith, why don’t you go on ahead?” Riku said.

Namine sent a look at him, wondering what he was up to. Aerith sent him a look, too. They were standing outside of the infirmary—Aerith had just checked to make sure no one had been waiting there for her. No one had, so now they were going to head back to her house.

“I just wanted to… ask Namine something,” Riku said.

“Oh!” Surprise, then realization passed through Aerith’s face. She looked between the two of them, looked longer at Namine. It took Namine a moment, but finally she caught on to the fact that Aerith was looking to her for confirmation on whether or not this was okay with her.

“I-It’s alright, go on,” Namine told her.

Her stomach was a knot, and she dreaded to hear what Riku wanted to say. But how was she supposed to say she wasn’t okay with it? Besides, it was just Riku. It couldn’t be that bad.

“Okay,” Aerith said, taking a few steps in the direction of her house, still watching Namine carefully. “Well, someone’s probably made breakfast by now, given how late we were out, so, that’ll be there. And I think that Sora and Kairi and their parents are supposed to show up within the next hour, so, try not to take… too long.”

“We won’t,” Riku assured her. Namine nodded in agreement, not that she really had any idea.

Riku waited until Aerith was out of earshot, then he turned to Namine.

“Hey… I’ve noticed you haven’t been quite… y’know… lately,” he said.

She frowned at him, not exactly sure what he meant by that. She had a pretty good idea, but… “Y-yeah…?” she said.

“And, I mean,” he shuffled his feet, looking away from her. “I was Rewritten too…”

“Oh… Right.”

She turned away from him, crossed her arms over her chest. Bitterness was thick on her tongue.

“So… y’know, I know what it’s like.” He was trying to sound casual. She refused to look at him. “It’s not that easy but—”

“No, you don’t,” she interrupted. Anger roiled in her veins. Her throat was tight. She did not register the half-glare she sent over her shoulder at him, just his partial jump backwards.

“W-What?”

“No, you don’t know what it’s like!” Namine clarified. The words felt like rocks in her mouth. Her fingers curled tightly around her upper arms, fingernails digging into her skin. She hated the monster that reared up inside her so easily, the monster that was currently rumbling in her gut. All she’d done was raise her voice.

“C’mon, Namine!” There was a frustration in his tone, and that made her look at him again. His hands were balled into fists at his sides. He was pouting. “I get I hardly remember it and it was sort of different circumstances, but in the twenty or so times I had my data or my memories messed with in the other universe, don’t think I haven’t been terrified once of being shoved into that dumb pod again.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Bitterness was still deep-rooted in her words and her tone, but she refused to raise her voice again. She dropped her gaze for good measure. Tried not to feel the pounding in her head. It was hard. It was so hard.

“Then what did you mean!?”

“I mean—I MEAN YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO FIGHT SOMEONE YOU LOVED!”

Namine stood there for a split-second, eyes wide and mouth open, horrified. It was hard to bottle this up, hard to keep doing this when Riku didn’t get it—when no one got it. She kept screaming. She couldn’t stop herself.

“YOU DIDN’T HAVE SOMEONE’S ELSE VOICE AND THOUGHTS PUT INTO YOUR HEAD! YOU DIDN’T HAVE HATRED FOR THE PEOPLE YOU LOVED CRAMMED INSIDE YOUR SKULL!!” Her hands fell from her chest, searching the air in front of her for something to steady herself, but there was nothing there. So she curled them into tight fists instead and pressed them hard to her heart, so hard it hurt. “YOU!! You didn’t!! You weren’t….” The words caught in sobs. Her eyes were hot with tears.

Riku was silent for a long time.

His expression was dark.

She could feel how heavy his words were before they left his mouth.

“I had to fight you.”

Namine staggered back as if struck. The air was knocked completely out of her lungs.

She reached behind her for something to steady herself, this time, and in doing so her knuckles scraped the wall of the infirmary. She’d forgotten they were standing so close to it. She pressed her palm against the brick. Took a heaving breath.

He was right.

And she’d forgotten.

“I’m- I’m sorry,” Riku said, quickly. All severity had left his tone, replaced now with worry. Just worry. His hands reached towards her.

“No, no, you’re fine,” Namine told him. She put her whole weight against the wall, tears pouring from her eyes. She squeezed them shut. Hooked her left arm around her stomach. She felt like she was going to be sick. How could she forget this, how could she forget this affected more than just her? “You’re right. I’m sorry. I- I forgot you… I- I just try not to think about it. Any of it. But… you and Kairi were there too…” Her voice broke. She felt horrible.

Riku’s hand was on her shoulder, now, but she weakly pushed him off, then clutched her stomach again.

“Y… yeah…” Riku agreed. “We were…”

“And- and even if you didn’t want to fight, not nearly as much as I wanted to kill you, you—OH!! OHHH!” She made the most horrible sound as she remembered. “I made you promise to kill me if they Rewrote me!!” she screeched. She had to stick a knuckle into her mouth and bite it to keep herself from screeching anymore, though a terrible whine still tore from her throat. She felt like the most awful person alive.

Riku didn’t say anything, and she wasn’t looking at him to see if he responded physically. She couldn’t look at him! Never mind the fact that she was crying way too hard to see anything anyway.

“I’m so s-s-sorry!” she choked. She curled in on herself, bending double, one hand still on the wall, but her head hung low, her hair falling down around her. She was the worst person in all the worlds, the absolute worst.

“Good… good thing Kairi was there, huh…?” Riku whispered, after a long moment. His voice was too quiet for her to hear it crack. “One of us might be dead.”

Namine nodded, registering that he’d probably meant it as a joke, but it was a joke that made her feel no better. She dropped to her knees.

“Wh-what are we su-s-supposed to do?” she sobbed. The world seemed grey around her, and there was a pit of hopelessness in her gut, because how was she supposed to deal with this, how was she ever going to feel normal again? It didn’t feel like she ever would. “How- how do we…?”

The words were burning on her tongue, but they were smothered by tears.

How do we put it behind us? Move on? Stop feeling so horrible?

“I…” Riku began, and then she heard him sigh.

Then he was kneeling down on the ground with her, and holding her by the shoulders. She had no strength to push him away. And it was… comforting. Namine slowly looked up at him, finding his face through her tears. She was still sniveling. She felt atrocious.

“Maybe… maybe it’s not quite the answer you want,” Riku said. “But… look at where we are. Where we’re living.” He turned and gestured in the direction of Aerith’s house. You could see the back of it from here. “I have never been this happy in my entire life. I don’t have to wake up every day, terrified of what might happen to me, I’m…” He licked his lips, sighing a little, but then he looked at her again. It was an expression she hadn’t seen in so long. It was happy, it was loving, and though there was a slight narrow of his eyes, a slight worry for her, he sounded so genuine. Not at all like he was saying this just because she was upset. It felt so nice.

“It’ll get better,” he said. “Alright? Things get better. We’ll work through it.”

Namine nodded.

She was still crying, but she felt better. She felt better. Not the greatest. Not like every bad feeling in her gut was gone—because that definitely wasn’t true—but better, for now. Better. Riku’d been in such a bad spot just months ago, but now he was here, so things definitely could get better.

Just… when would they for her?

“Do… you wanna wait a bit before heading back?” Riku asked her.

Namine nodded.

Riku nodded back at her. He waited until she’d straightened herself out, pushed her hair out of her face and wiped her eyes, then he got up and tugged at her. He did not pull her to her feet after the initial tug. He waited until she was getting up on her own before he did any more tugging to help her up.

“Why don’t we walk around this block here, just real quick,” he suggested, pointing to his right, away from Aerith’s house. “So we aren’t just sitting here and doing nothing.”

“G… good idea….” she agreed.

And so they went.

Chapter Text

Kairi let out the breath of air she’d been holding, relieved that they landed in the right spot. Seeing as Aerith had a garden now, there was no more star-sharding right onto right onto her doorstep anymore, lest you miss and land on the garden. They had to aim for right outside the garden, a spot Kairi was less familiar with, hence why she was relieved they made it there okay.

“Shouldn’t we have all just come together, instead of meeting Sora and his parents here?” her dad asked, pulling at his ears. They were probably ringing. Kairi hardly noticed that hers did anymore.

“It would’ve been real hard getting us anywhere on the same star shard,” Kairi answered. She reached up to readjust the ponytail in her hair. Wearing it up meant it couldn’t get in her face during star shard travel, but star shard travel made even her ponytails a mess.

“Well, sure,” her dad agreed. “But we could’ve all left at the same time, even if using two of these star shard things. And then we would’ve been there to help convince Sora’s parents this was a good idea.”

Kairi scowled, seeing the logic in that. Well, whatever. “It’s too late now,” she said.

“Is not! We aren’t at the door yet.”

“At this rate, Sora’s already in the middle of convincing his parents,” Kairi argued, trotting up to the door just so she could knock on it if her dad argued again. “We’d just interrupt. Now come on. This is Hollow Bastion—” she gestured around them “—and this is Aerith’s place,” she gestured towards the door and the house.

“Chance I can get a tour later? Of the town?” His attention had gone from arguing to looking around him, admiring the change of scenery. That was good.

“Totally,” Kairi assured him. Riku’d probably be antsy if he stuck around during the whole conversation, anyway, so she could talk him into it. Or they all could go. Or… her and Sora and their parents. Whatever. The point was that it was within the realm of possibility for sure.

“Alright, well,” her dad gestured towards the door, making his way over the garden path to join her. Kairi smiled and knocked.

It was Leon who answered. Not that surprising.

“Hello!” Kairi chimed, waving at him. Leon raised his hand in a partial wave back.

“Uh, hello, I’m Ren, Kairi’s dad.”

“Nice to meet you,” Leon said, with a nod. He stepped away from the door. “Why don’t you come inside? We’ll do proper introductions once everyone’s in the same room.” He let Kairi’s dad through first, then looked at Kairi. “Sora?” he asked.

“Should be here any minute,” Kairi told him. “Unless it takes him forever to talk his parents into this.”

Leon raised his eyebrows at her, shutting the door behind her. “Couldn’t you have all just come together…?”

“That’s what I said!” Ren laughed. Kairi sent a scowl at him. He put up his hands and smiled, while Leon sighed. He slipped past them, waving for them to follow him to the dining room.

Leon slid over to his spot, next to Aerith on her left side, also on the left side of the table. He reached out his hand to Kairi’s dad before he sat down. “Anyway… Leon Gainsborough.”

Ren nodded and shook his hand. Aerith was on her feet and offering her hand as well before he could re-introduce himself.

“Aerith Gainsborough,” she said.

Kairi’s eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, hold on,” she interrupted, before Cid, from his seat at the end of the table, could stand up to shake hands, too. “Since when were you two related?” She sent a look at Riku, who was sitting on the right side of the table next to Yuffie, wondering why the heck he hadn’t told her about this. He just shrugged. Either he hadn’t known, or he hadn’t thought it important either.

“Oh… did we never mention it?” Aerith said, as she sat back down and straightened her skirt. She sent a look at Leon, for his input. He shrugged, folding his arms over his chest.

“We never really needed to…” he mused.

“True,” Aerith agreed, with a nod. “We’re all family here, and I guess it just never came up that you and I have always been…”

Leon sighed. He sat forward in his chair. “Well, to make a long explanation short, since we’ll probably have to do this again when Sora gets here—”

“We were both adopted by the same woman,” Aerith finished. “So we aren’t blood related or anything, but—”

“But what’s it matter when we were raised together since birth?”

Kairi slowly nodded, since it was her they were doing the explaining to. Thinking back over the past few months of knowing Aerith and Leon, with this knowledge in mind, she supposed it did make sense. She’d just never thought about it because, like Aerith had said, everyone in this house had already been sort of a family, so she didn’t think twice about Aerith and Leon maybe being closer. And, if anything, Leon and Aerith had reminded Kairi of her and Sora—then again, what were she and Sora besides two kids who had known each other since they were in diapers? How was that much different?

“Anyway!” Cid said, raising his voice to get everyone’s attention on him. “Weren’t we doin’ introductions?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Kairi said, swallowing the next question she’d wanted to ask Aerith and Leon. It could wait.

“Alrigh’, well, I’m Cid. Highwind, since I guess we’re doing that last name thing.” He looked at Ren from across the table, chewing his tongue for a moment. “Uh, d’you wanna shake my hand, or should we just skip that bit since we’re on opposite ends of the table?”

Kairi’s dad laughed. “We can skip it.”

“You know who I am,” Riku said, since he was next in the circle.

Yuffie was the only one left. She was slumped back in her chair, arms over her chest, pouting. “Yuffie,” she said. She didn’t look up. “Just Yuffie.”

Aerith sent her a stern—no, concerned look, a touch of confusion in it. Yuffie didn’t see it, seeing as she still wasn’t looking, so whatever Aerith was trying to convey was lost. Kairi’s dad either didn’t see it, or wanted to change the subject, so he cleared his throat.

“Well, I’m Ren,” he said. He clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “Just… Ren is fine. Uh… is Namine supposed to be here?” he asked, squinting around the table.

“She’s upstairs,” Riku answered, nodding in the direction of the stairway.

“She said she’d skip out on this conversation,” Cid added. “Not a problem, we figured.”

“Guess not,” Kairi agreed. The point of this was, more than anything, have Sora’s parents come to a different world and talk to some other adults about this darkness and monsters and magic business. Namine sitting out would hardly make a difference.

“You can skip out on it too, Yuffie, if you’d like,” Leon said. “Seeing as you don’t look happy to be here.”

Yuffie let out a long breath, slumping down even more in her chair, somehow. “Well, I’m just out here for right now,” she grumbled. “Me ‘n Riku are gonna do Heartless rounds soon, but, maybe afterwards I’ll just… go find something else to do… Not like I’d be of any use if I stuck around anyway…”

“Oh Yuffie, please, I’m sure you’d help out somehow, if you did stay,” Aerith told her. “But if you don’t want to—”

“Yeah right, I’d only be in the way, ‘cause I’m just another stupid kid,” Yuffie scoffed. She turned her head away, sinking down even further into her chair. At this rate, her eyes would be level with the table pretty soon.

Kairi raised her eyebrows. Her dad leaned into her, bending a little so that when he whispered she’d be the only one who could hear it.

“This normal?” he asked. “Also are we… in the way?”

Kairi shrugged marginally. “Yuffie’s like this sometimes I guess,” she answered as quietly as possibly. Hopefully no one noticed. Drawing attention to how they were here and not a part of this household would probably just make things worse. “Complainy and a little grumpy anyway…. I think we’re fine though.”

“If you’re sure…” Her dad straightened again.

“Yuffie, you’re almost 18,” Leon said. “You’re not really a kid anymore.” He didn’t sound angry, but it was hard to tell with Leon sometimes, Kairi’d always thought. He’d always felt like the kind of guy who didn’t let on to the fact he was mad, just to be polite. Kind of like Aerith… oh.

“Sure, but it’s me you’re sending out on Heartless rounds with Riku,” Yuffie argued.

“Well, if you don’t want to go, Cid can go instead,” Aerith said.

“Hey!” Cid sat up so fast in his chair he nearly displaced it. “I went yesterday!!”

“Why not send Namine?” Yuffie asked, with a nod over her shoulder towards the stairs. “She’s already not gonna be down here, and it’s not like she ever does ‘em anyway.”

“She doesn’t like doing them,” Leon argued.

“The rest of us don’t exactly enjoy it either,” Yuffie countered. “I mean, except Riku, but, he’s Riku.

“But the rest of us don’t mind fighting, even we don’t enjoy it,” Leon said. “Namine doesn’t like fighting at all, and if she doesn’t want to fight, she doesn’t have to.”

Something about those words made Kairi grimace, hard. Sora’s words from a few nights ago echoed in her ears. There’s something wrong with Namine. But what did not wanting to fight have anything to do with that?

Regardless, she remembered now: Short of trying to talk to her more, I don’t know how to help. She’d told Sora that. Or… had Sora told her? She couldn’t remember who said it, just that it had been said, and that they’d agreed it was a good idea. And here Kairi was standing here, in the same house as Namine, and she hadn’t even taken the time to see her.

“Where’d you say Namine was?” Kairi asked. She wasn’t too worried about interrupting Leon and Yuffie. The argument sounded like it was nearly over anyway. “Her room?” She pointed at the stairs.

Everyone at the table nodded, well, minus Yuffie. Concern flashed across Aerith’s face. Leon looked like he wanted to say something, though it might have been at Yuffie still. Yuffie was still glaring up a storm.

“Uh… she’s not real interested in talking right now, though…” Riku warned. “You might not want to—”

“Aw, c’mon, just two seconds,” Kairi said. “All I want to do is say hi! It’d be pretty mean of me if I didn’t, wouldn’t it?” She also felt like she needed to ask Namine something, to talk to her about something, but what specifically she needed to ask was a mystery. Should she just leave it at an ‘are you okay? Is something wrong?’ or would that just scare Namine out of talking?

Riku stared hard at her. “I’m not so sure she’d…” he began, but trailed off. There was a slight altering of his features, as he started seriously considering… something. A raise of his eyebrows, a partial nod, as if the idea seemed like a good one. “Well… Yeah, she’d probably be pretty happy to see you. You should definitely say hello.”

There was something else burning in his eyes, though. Something Kairi couldn’t decipher, which was unfortunate. But it couldn’t be helped. There was no time to try and puzzle it out. If she did want to do anything more than say hello to Namine before Sora got here—he should be here literally any second—she was going to have to go now.

After raising her hand in a partial wave to everyone at the table and nudging her dad in a silent sort of be back in a sec gesture, Kairi headed for the stairs, taking two at a time.

Namine was, in fact, in her room, sitting on her bed, drawing. Or, she had been, before Kairi let herself in. She looked startled. In hindsight, Kairi realized, seeing as the door had been closed, she probably should’ve knocked…

“Oh..!” Namine said. “You’re here.” She hastily closed her sketchbook. “Aren’t you, uh… Isn’t- Isn’t Sora…?”

“He and his parents haven’t shown up yet,” Kairi explained, guessing that’s what Namine was trying to ask. “I figured I should come up here and, yanno, tell you hi and stuff. Be mean if I didn’t.” The words I wanted to check on you bounced in her mind, but she refused to say them. Namine didn’t need to know that.

“R-right,” Namine said. She nodded. “Hi.”

“Good to see you.”

“Yeah…”

She seemed really stressed about something. Her eyes refused to settle on Kairi. Kairi chewed her tongue, and wished Sora were here, regardless of that he was supposed to be here about five minutes ago. He would know what to say, right now. He’d probably know what was wrong without even asking.

“Well… how’ve you been?” Kairi asked, trying to make her voice as smooth as possible, like this was really just a casual question and curiosity, another piece of small talk.

“Good…” Namine answered. She fiddled with the spiral binding of her sketchbook. “I’ve been okay…” She looked up at Kairi now. “How about you?”

“Good!” Kairi replied. She could not bring herself to say anything different, or to press Namine on what was probably a lie. She would’ve brought up another subject to talk about, but her mind had gone decidedly blank.

“Uh… I’m not… I mean, won’t Sora be here soon?” Namine asked. “Shouldn’t you…?”

Kairi slowly nodded. It was pretty important to the plan that she be there when Sora’s parents arrived, so that they had a familiar face to latch onto. And Riku’d been right: Namine really didn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. Maybe she’d try again later.

“Yeah, I probably should,” Kairi agreed. “I’ll try and catch you when we’re done. Okay? Oh! Right, my dad wanted a tour of the town later. You wanna come when we go?”

“Uh…” Namine blinked at her a few times. “I- I guess… yeah,” she said.

Kairi beamed. That made her feel a little better. “Okay! Then! I’ll come get you for that,” she said. She reached for the doorknob. She was still kind of standing in the doorway. “See ya in a bit!” she called, then stepped out and closed the door behind her.

She stood there a second, turning the conversation over in her head, wondering if there’d been a clue that she’d missed, a clue as to why Namine seemed so… uneasy. She couldn’t seem to find one, though. Sighing, she headed back down the stairs.

“That was fast,” Riku said, looking up at her in surprise.

No one had moved much from where she’d left them, though Yuffie looked a lot less upset and her dad had taken the empty seat to Yuffie’s left, at the corner of the table.

“I said I only wanted to say hi, didn’t I?” Kairi replied.

Riku scowled at her.

Whatever he’d been trying to tell her before seemed to hang between them. Had he assumed she’d understood? She hoped not.

“How… is she?” Riku asked.

“Not feeling well, like you said.”

“She sick?” Kairi’s dad asked, sending a worried look at Kairi.

Kairi shrugged and shook her head. “I don’t think so…?” She looked to Riku.

He grimaced, much like he really wanted to say something. Not for the first time, Kairi wished she knew him as well as she knew Sora, so that she could understand what he was thinking just by how his mouth twitched. All she got from this was the impression he knew the answer but didn’t want to say it. He was lucky they were surrounded by other people and that Sora was still supposed to arrive any second, or she would’ve tried squeezing it out of him. She’d have to do it later.

“Anyway, shouldn’t Sora be here by now?” Leon asked. There was a note of worry in his tone. “He wasn’t supposed to take that long, was he?”

“Well, unfortunately, convincing his parents could take… a while….” Kairi said, with an aggressive shrug. Her dad nodded to back her up. “I guess I’ll give him ten more minutes, then go get all of them if I have to.”

Leon nodded. Aerith got to her feet. “Do you know if they like tea?” she asked, moving for the kitchen.

“They both’ll drink tea,” Kairi assured her, as she sat down in the chair next to Riku, for now.

“Then I suppose now’s a good time to start making a batch of it,” Aerith said. “Having some might make the discussion go a little smoother…”

Kairi nodded absentmindedly, though Aerith could not see her at this point, and she hadn’t really needed to.

Ten minutes, she’d give Sora. Ten minutes.

 

xxx

 

Sora stood in the front room, his back to the stairs, star shard clutched in both hands, hanging at his waist. He was not trying to hide it, but he was not trying to make a show of it either. He eyed where his mother sat in her corner, sewing, and where his dad was in the kitchen, contemplating lunch from the looks of it, though there was at least an hour to go until lunch time. He took a deep breath, trying to figure out what to say.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d started a serious conversation with his parents, couldn’t remember the last time he’d asked for their attention because he had big news. It’d been at least six months. Maybe it’d been nine. Maybe it’d been longer? This past year felt like an eternity, anything that happened before Riku’d arrived like it’d happened forever ago. Regardless. Lately he’d said something unimportant first, like how was your day, and then they’d started asking questions, and…

Sora swallowed hard.

What do I say? he asked Kano, even though, Kano wouldn’t have any sort of a better idea than him.

Didn’t you spend all night rehearsing?’ was Kano’s lazy reply. There was a hint of laughter in his voice, but only a hint—he felt Sora’s nervousness just as strongly as Sora did.

I don’t remember anything I thought about saying, Sora said.

Kano sighed.

You were gonna phrase it something like “hey I have proof” or whatever? Something about bringing up how this was real proof they couldn’t, like, deny, or….’

Oh yeah! Sora nodded, a little, just a little. He was getting better at hiding his physical responses to what Kano said. Thanks! I don’t know what I’d do without you. He was a little surprised that Kano remembered when he did not, but, extremely grateful regardless. He cleared his throat.

“Hey, uh…” he said, looking between his parents. He was standing in a spot where they both could see him well enough. His dad turned to him, letting the fridge close. His mom only glanced up a second, to show she was listening, before returning her attention to her sewing. Sora cleared his throat again. There was a knot in his stomach.

Kano started to say something inside him, quite a few things, but none of them became words. The intention was clear enough, though—he was trying to figure out how to tell Sora to not worry or that it’d be okay, but in a way that would sound casual, or at least not come off in an I-Legitimately-Want-Sora-To-Feel-Okay-Because-I-Really-Care-About-Him way. It was a warmth in Sora’s chest, and it made him smile. He took a careful breath.

“Alright, well, you know how I spent six months on another world?” he said, to his parents, watching his mom more than his dad. “I thought I’d take you to one, to prove, that, they exist.” He held out the star shard, now. “This is a star shard. You’ve seen me use it before, probably? It can take me wherever I want it to.”

His mom looked up to see it, squinting over her reading glasses. Sora didn’t blame her for squinting. Star shards seemed to catch light and reflect it in ways that made them hard to look at for long. His dad, meanwhile, leaned against the island counter, towards Sora, a humoring smile on his lips.

“I thought I already told you I believed you about them,” he said, with a casual laugh that should’ve made Sora smile. All it did was make Sora’s chest tighten. It’d been like this since the incident on the docks. A few days now. “Or, other lands, or… whatever.” He sent a firm gaze past Sora to his mother. “Our ships go somewhere, Akemi,” he said, before she can argue.

Sora’s mother sighed, a long sigh. She pulled her reading glasses away from her face and rubbed her head. “Sora, please,” she said. She sounded tired. “We already believe you weren’t on this island. Can we not spend our day—”

“There are some really cool places to see!” Sora protested.

You aren’t taking them to any of those, though,’ Kano reminded him, back to his usual snark.

Oh, shut up.

“Besides,” Sora continued, with only the slightest pause for Kano. “You still don’t believe me about the magic and darkness stuff.” His father eyed him in a way that Sora knew meant he was eyeing the scar, and not him. Had there not been a star shard in his hands, he would’ve reached up to scratch it. His mother frowned at him.

“Are you saying you’re going to show us some of that?” she asked, incredulous.

Sora suppressed a groan and managed to only half-roll his eyes. (That had nothing to do with Kano, and everything with his mother thinking it was rude.) “No!” he said. “I was gonna have you meet with some friends of mine who might be able to explain it better than me, because they’ve been dealing with it for longer.”

“Isn’t, uh, dealing with darkness bad….?” his dad asked. Sora really groaned this time. At least his dad was trying.

“I mean, like!! Fighting it and stuff.”

You could probably find some Heartless in Hollow Bastion,’ Kano said. ‘A small amount that you could handle alone and then—‘

No, Kano, I’m not putting them in danger! Sora interrupted, firmly. This was not the first time he’d had to tell Kano this. Of course, Kano had a point, but…

If it’s just five Heartless…’

Kano!

‘How can they deny it when they see Heartless and you fighting them?’ Kano argued.

Sora licked his lips, wishing he wasn’t considering it as seriously as he was. It would be easy, just a walk around town would make them run into a few. Maybe if he landed even further away from Aerith’s house, on “accident” so they had to walk… He ground his teeth together. Sent an internal scowl at Kano.

……if all else fails, Sora agreed.

He pretended that his dad wasn’t scowling at him after that slightly-long pause. Pretended that he didn’t see the way his father studied him like he was the last question on the Sunday morning crossword puzzle.

“So, uh, are we…” Sora cleared his throat. “Are we going?”

“I wish you’d given us a little more warning….” His mother told him, finishing a stitch in her sewing, and then sticking the needle in the fabric to set aside. “But, I supposed you planned this, didn’t you?”

“Uh… yes?” Sora answered, not sure if she was talking about the meeting, or the not-telling-her-about-it-until-the-last-minute part. Not telling her and his dad until the last minute was more so that they couldn’t shoot the idea down a day before the plan was in motion than anything else. That and so the spell wouldn’t make them forget or change their minds overnight or something. He hadn’t done it… maliciously, which is almost what his mother’s tone implied.

His mother sighed again, setting her glasses aside now. “Well, if we have a scheduled meeting,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “Then we don’t want to keep them waiting.”

Sora stared.

“You… agreed to that really quickly?” he said.

His mother pushed herself out of her chair. “No reason to be rude.”

“I’d just go with it, son,” his dad said, in a not-so-quiet voice.

Sora nodded absently.

I’m worried…’ Kano mumbled.

Me too?

“Well, alright, so- uh,” Sora cleared his throat. Waved his father over. “We should all probably link arms, so on the off chance the transportation gets messed up we’ll at least end up on the same world together.” After a second of consideration, he added: “And, try and think about me, I guess. I think that might help prevent you getting separated from me if the transportation gets really botched…”

His parents exchanged glances.

“What are the chances of that happening?” his mom asked.

“Oh! Slim!” Sora assured them. “The worst that’s most likely to happen is it takes us to the wrong world. Star shards are finicky sometimes. We shouldn’t actually get separated—these are just precautions.” He linked arms with his mom, then his dad, and then figuring it wouldn’t hurt them to know, continued: “Plus, I mean, we all have to be touching for it to work to begin with.”

He smiled at them, glad to see they only looked a little nervous. (A satisfaction of Kano’s that they were nervous at all beat in the back of him, but he ignored that.) He held his star shard out in the middle of them, largely just for show.

“Ready?” he asked.

He activated it.

Or…

He thought he did.

Sora looked down at the star shard, as if staring at it could tell him what went wrong. “Uh… huh,” he mused. Then he clucked his tongue.

Didn’t work,’ Kano said.

Nooo duh.

‘Was it that spell?’

Kano, please, let me think!

His parents waited, not saying anything, maybe not sure that something had gone wrong yet. Sora took a deep breath and tried again, imagining Aerith’s living room as vividly as possible this time, wondering if it hadn’t worked because he did not have a very clear image of what the front of her house looked like now that it had a garden. He thought firmly of Aerith and Leon, of Yuffie and Cid, of Riku and Namine. He thought of all that and wished, hard.

But still…

Nothing.

He stared at it in disbelief.

“It… broke?” he said.

“You didn’t say anything, or, like, do anything with it, though,” his dad said.

“I shouldn’t have to!” Sora snapped. “All I need to do is think of a place and wish to be there, and then it does the rest.” He let out a frustrated breath, irritated it wasn’t working, irritated he’d spoken so sharply. “Hang on, let me try and…” He envisioned the play island this time, to see if the problem was Hollow Bastion.

And yet, still… nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“Okay!” Sora pulled away from his parents, tossed his hands up in the air. “That’s great!” His voice was tight. “Let me just! Call Kairi!” He shoved the apparently broken star shard into his back pocket and moved to the kitchen, where his phone was. Kairi’s number was dialed in two seconds. Unfortunately, the line did nothing but ring, and ring… Hey, this is Ren, Mayor of—Sora hung up before the full voice mail message could play out. Kairi must’ve left already.

His parents watched him worriedly, their arms still linked. Sora tried to take slower breaths, so that they would not see how panicked he was. “I’ll call Aerith,” he said. Then he remembered he didn’t have her number. He bit his lip hard so that he couldn’t scream in frustration, though a strangled hmmmmgg still left his mouth.

Just go to Kairi’s house and get the phone number from there,’ Kano suggested, surprisingly calm. There was a note of discomfort that rang within him, though. ‘Or, I mean, I could always have my wolf—’

Kano please not your wolf!

‘If you’re desperate,’ Kano argued.

I’ll run to Kairi’s before I have it come here and take my parents to another world! Sora tried not to think to firmly about how that could backfire, considering Kano could easily tell the wolf to take them who knows where, or the wolf could decide to itself. Kano’d catch that thought, of course—he probably already had—and it was, rude, to think like that, so Sora pushed it out of his mind. Besides, your wolf can only take one person at a time!

‘It could take us to Hollow Bastion to get a star shard or help from someone over there, though.’

Sora frowned. ...fair, he admitted, though. But I’m going to Kairi’s first.

He was already moving to the door—he’d started moving for it the moment Kano suggested going to Kairi’s. His hand was on the doorknob by the time his conversation with Kano was done and he was explaining what he was doing to his parents. “I’m gonna run to Kairi’s real quick!” He tried to sound as chipper as possible, like this wasn’t a huge problem. “She has Aerith’s phone number, and I really need to call someone and—”

“Hang on, Sora, just a second,” his dad said, interrupting him.

Sora paused, and turned, making it look as casual as possible, though his hand did not leave the doorknob. His parents had unlinked their arms, and now shared a similar expression of stern worry. The look they gave him right before a lecture. Sora gripped the doorknob tightly. His stomach clenched.

“Can we… talk about the other day…?” Sora’s dad asked, slowly.

Sora took a slow breath, dreading—but knowing—where this was going. “Whaaat about the other day?”

“I mean, about…” His dad did not want to look at him. “About… Kano?”

Sora swallowed hard.

He tried not to act like the air had just caught in his lungs.

“Wh-who?” he asked. He felt his pulse quicken, but he managed to keep a straight face—a feat that surprised him, impressed him. This was Kairi’s strength. Not his. And it certainly wasn’t Kano’s.

Sora, you don’t have to,’ Kano began. Sora could just picture his wide eyes.

Internally, he sighed.

Out of resignation. As a sort of way to reassure Kano this was alright, this was his choice. That he even had to do this.

Easier this way, he said to Kano.

Of course, eventually, he’d have to tell his parents about Kano. But until they could believe him about Maleficent, or about Xehanort, he wasn’t even going to try. There was no point. And the chances of getting this meeting done today seemed to be slipping out of his fingers. He hated it, but he hardened himself. It couldn’t be helped.

“Someone you were talking to the other day,” his dad continued.

“What other day?” Sora said. “I don’t know anyone named Kano.”

“Sora, please, don’t lie to us,” his mother warned.

“You were yelling at thin air on the docks the other day, and you were yelling at someone named Kano!” His dad’s voice got a little louder, and Sora tried not to flinch. He hated when his dad raised his voice, because he did it so little, and when he did it was like a knife to the heart.

It hurt to do this.

Sora felt like he couldn’t breathe at all.

But he continued.

“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about.”

Sora, seriously! You don’t have to do this!’

Kano sounded touched, but guilt burned hard in him. Sora tried to assure him that it wasn’t his fault, it really wasn’t, but his energy was spent. He could hardly formulate answers to the inevitable questions his parents would ask, and it was such an effort to not outwardly display the heaviness that weighed on him now. He managed. He managed, but his muscles felt like they were burning.

“Sora…” his dad said. His voice was thick with disappointment. It was all Sora could do not to cry.

“I don’t remember that happening,” Sora said very firmly, channeling Kairi with all his might. The trick was to act it more than say it. All he succeeded in was making himself frustrated, and it doubtlessly carried into his tone. At least he wasn’t crying. “Alright? Now, anyway, I think I’ll just, cancel that meeting. We’ll try again next Sunday. How does that sound? Now I’ve warned you about it.”

He opened the door.

Sora, c’mon!’ Kano pleaded. ‘We needed to do this today so you don’t have to lie about training tomorrow!’

The bitterness and tears he couldn’t show all channeled into his internal voice.

Who cares, he said.

YOU do!’

Sora didn’t answer Kano, though the pit in his gut knew Kano was right.

“Sora, where are you going?” his mother demanded. She was right to. He was already out the door.

“For a swim!”

He slammed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Kairi sighed for probably the fiftieth time in the past ten minutes, glaring at the clock. She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. Tried to pay attention to the conversation her dad and Cid were having, but seeing as the conversation itself had been dwindling for the last twenty minutes, that was hard too. She sighed again—that would make fifty-one—and then pushed herself away from the table and got to her feet.

“Alright, it’s been an hour,” she said. An hour in which Yuffie and Riku had gone on and returned from rounds, and in which she’d actually talked to Namine for a decent amount of time. “Sora’s not here, so something must be up.” Something was probably up thirty minutes ago, but, well, her fault for getting up sooner. “I’m gonna check on him. Dad?” She touched him on the shoulder. “You mind staying here?”

“Nah!” he replied easily, flashing a comfortable smile up at her. “I mean, if that’s okay.” He looked to the kitchen for Aerith, though he found Leon first—the two of them were working on dishes. Leon nodded, and Aerith called out that it was fine with her.

“Cool,” Kairi said, digging her star shard out of her pocket. She hardly took the time to step away from the table, and her father, before activating it.

She started to get mad at the sight of the play island as it dropped her, but then she saw Sora out in the ocean. He was swimming—or rather, letting himself get pushed around by the waves close to the shore, something Kairi knew to be one of the easiest ways to get your mind off, well, anything. Between the feel of water crashing around you and having to focus on keeping yourself upright even when your feet could touch the ground didn’t exactly leave room to think about much else.

Instead of cursing, Kairi muttered a quick thank you to her star shard, then shoved it in her pocket so her hands were free.

“SORA!!” she called, cupping her hands around her mouth.

He didn’t appear to hear her.

Kairi squinted out at him, really not wanting to dive into the ocean to drag him back to shore herself. Even if something had gone wrong with Sora’s parents (something had to have, or he would not be here), she still had to go back to Hollow Bastion, even if just to get her dad. Sighing, she cupped her hands around her mouth again.

SORA!” she called, louder this time.

This time he heard.

Kairi dropped her hands to her side, and then after a second, crossed them over her chest and scowled hard. “Okay, what the hell happened?” she demanded, as Sora trudged out of the water and onto the sand. Having been stood up for an hour hadn’t done the best thing to mood, and the anger radiating off Sora in waves wasn’t helping.

“Star shard broke,” Sora answered. He slicked his bangs back out of his face—his shirt clung tightly to his skin, and his shorts sagged with the weight of the water they’d absorbed. He wasn’t wearing his jacket, but Kairi hardly cared where that had gone. Her scowl softened a little bit, though.

“Oh, okay,” she said. That explained a lot. But it didn’t make her feel much better.

Sora still seemed angry, and she wasn’t sure if the vagueness of his eyes was because he just got out of the ocean, or if it was… something else. She didn’t like the feeling in her gut though, nor the itchiness of her skin.

“Do you wanna use mine?” she asked. “It’s not exactly too late.” No one at Hollow Bastion had started making other plans, anyway.

“It’s fine,” Sora said.

Kairi scrunched up her face. “Sora, c’mon, we planned this for a reason, and you start training tomorrow. You gonna lie to your parents about—”

“I’m not in the mood right now, Kairi!” Sora snapped.

Kairi jumped a little, startled, but that quickly became anger.

“Not in the mood!? Sora, this is kind of important!”

“Just leave me alone, alright! I don’t want to listen to either of you right now!”

“Either of us!?” Kairi squinted hard at him, face scrunched up in confusion. Then she realized what he was going on about, and rolled her eyes, hard. “What’s Kano doing to bug you?”

Sora let out a frustrated breath. “Nothing, Kairi. Forget it.”

“Sora.”

“I said forget it.

Kairi growled.

“Oh, is he telling you how glad he is he doesn’t have to deal with your parents right now?” She guessed, voice rising. Anger burned in her veins. “Rubbing it in your face that this backfired? Laughing at your—”

“Actually, Kairi, he’s been telling me to get my head outta the ocean before I accidentally drown myself—like that could happen—and I don’t want to hear it! I don’t want to hear you!” He gestured angrily back at the ocean. “I just! want to swim!”

Kairi stared at him a long moment, as he lowered his hands, fists clenched tightly. His eyes burned just short of tears. Kairi wondered if she should try and press the issue, wondering if it was worth it. She couldn’t say for sure, and before she had it figured out, he’d already moved back to the ocean. He was close enough for her to grab and pull back, but…

She decided to let him go.

After a long sigh and a quick rub of her temples, Kairi pulled her star shard back out of her pocket and activated it. Time to go back to Hollow Bastion and tell everyone the news.

Kairi star-sharded right back into Aerith’s living room this time, not wanting to mess with the door and landing outside the garden and everything. Riku’d come back downstairs, and Yuffie was helping Aerith hand drinks to everyone. Her dad had also, somehow, gotten a sandwich in the two minutes she’d been gone?

“Oh, hey, what’s the news!” Ren asked, as he saw her.

“His star shard broke,” Kairi explained, as she moved into the dining room. Everyone slowly started taking seats—the same ones they’d all been in when she first got here. “And he’s not in the mood to deal with this anymore, I guess?” She shrugged and shook her head, exasperated. “Do I have permission to drag his parents over here, potentially against their will?”

Her father glared at. “No.”

“C’mon, we didn’t plan this for nothing!” Kairi said. If anything, she was just making a fuss so she could hear someone agree with her. Being on ends with Sora really wasn’t good for her.

“We planned this to help Sora,” Leon told her. “And if he doesn’t want to do it anymore, then he doesn’t want to.”

Kairi raised her eyebrows, considering each of their faces. “So, what? Are you telling me that none of you think talking to parents without him around—and more importantly, without Kano around—is a good idea?”

Silence. Odd, considering that’d been a pretty decent joke, and decent point. Even if they didn’t think it was funny, or they didn’t agree, shouldn’t that have been greeted with more than—

“Who th’ hell is Kano?” Cid asked.

The blood drained from Kairi’s face.

Oh yeah.

Kairi braced herself against the table, though that was all she did. Any more, and she wouldn’t be able to blow this off as nothing. How had she been so dumb to forget, even if for a moment, that they didn’t know about Kano? And she’d promised to keep this a secret, too! She gritted her teeth, and ran over a million separate curses in her head.

What was she supposed to say now?

“He’s Sora’s Shadow,” Riku said. Kairi’s head whipped around to him. What was he doing! “Not dead, still alive,” Riku continued. “Sitting in Sora’s heart, or, something like that? I wasn’t listening to all of the details.” He waved his hand dismissively, lounging back in his chair, like this was no big deal.

It was definitely a big deal.

“Riku! What the hell! Sora didn’t want us telling anyone!” Kairi put both hands on the table, leaning towards Riku. Her dad just pushed his chair backwards and away from the table to give her her space. Riku flinched a little at the raise of her voice—that made Kairi bite her tongue, and she resolved to, at least, not shout whatever the next thing she said was.

“So?” Riku asked. Despite his half-second flinch, his what’s-it-matter attitude remained plastered on his face. “More than half of us in this room already know! What’s Leon or Cid or Yuffie gonna do about it?”

All three of them looked about ready to say something—actually, Aerith did too—but Kairi didn’t quite give them the chance.

“Well! Sora wanted to explain it so that he could also explain how Kano’s, not, y’now… bad, anymore, or whatever.” All confidence in her voice was lost as she remembered her own griefs with Kano. Did she really think he was going to hurt Sora? No, probably not, or he would’ve by now (he’d never seemed the patient type to her), but that didn’t change what he’d done in the past…

“Is he really?” Cid asked, with a look of raised eyebrows and disbelief. He swirled his mug of... coffee. Kairi could smell it from here. “‘Not bad anymore, or whatever’?” he quoted.

Kairi did not have to look at her father to see the way his face darkened in Cid’s direction. She raised her hand partway from the table to, well, keep him from saying anything. Cid meant well enough, and this was as much her fault for not explaining so well.

“I- I mean,” Kairi began.

“Sora says his Shadow’s changed,” Aerith offered. “And, I trust Sora.”

“Yeah, but, Shadows…” Leon said, though he trailed off. Whatever he’d meant to end that sentence with seemed clear to Aerith and Cid and Yuffie, because they all nodded slightly, or made a face.

“Well, Kano’s… he’s—” Kairi tried. She racked her brain for anything good to say, or anything Sora would say. All that came to mind were adamant insistences that Kano had changed, that he was different, but, neither of those things would sound quite the same coming from her mouth.

“Maybe you should go get Sora, so he can explain,” Aerith said. “I know he doesn’t want to bother getting his parents, at this point, but he doesn’t need to…”

“Yeah,” Kairi agreed, reaching for her star shard again.

Her dad caught her by the arm. “Hang on, princess. I hate to embarrass you in front of your friends—” his tone said that he did not, really, “—but you hate Kano. Why are you trying to defend him?”

“Sora would want me to—”

Kairi.”

Kairi’s eyes darted around the room. Aerith looked sorry for her. Leon, skeptical, and Cid much the same. Riku didn’t seem interested. Yuffie was scowling, hard. Kairi figured it wasn’t at her, but, at her own thoughts. Hopefully.

“I don’t hate Kano,” she told her dad, though she did not look him in the eye. Her palms felt clammy.

“You certainly don’t seem fond of him.”

“Well, no, but that’s not important! Can we please not do this now?”

“Not important?” Ren laughed in disbelief. Kairi didn’t like the look in his eyes—that was the look he got before he told her something she didn’t want to hear. She hated it any other time, but now, she was scared. If he had something to say about this that she didn’t want to hear… She tried not to squirm. “Yeah, right! Because if I’m worried about anything when it comes to there being a voice in Sora’s head, it’s that my daughter seems to hate it.”

“I don’t hate him,” Kairi protested again, though she was sure her dad saw right through it. Hate wasn’t the right word, of course, she didn’t hate him, but she certainly didn’t— “Dad, really, can we not do this right now?”

“I’m just worried about Sora,” he said. He squeezed her arm a little—it was supposed to be comforting. “If all it is is ‘just magic’, then, fine. But I’m not comfortable with the fact that no one in this room is excited to hear about Kano, or any of this talk about Shadows.”

“They aren’t exactly trustworthy creatures…” Leon admitted.

“He was mean,” Yuffie added.

Kairi glared at the both of them. It was hard when they were on opposite sides of the table, but she managed.

“And what was that other bit?” Ren asked. “Something you said the other night about, oh yeah, Kano apparently has the ability to manipulate Sora’s thoughts?” He looked to the rest of the table, for his answers. “Can he?”

“It… is something Shadows are known for,” Aerith admitted, slowly.

“Try defining trait,” Cid said.

Kairi grit her teeth hard. There was a pit in her gut. “That’s! I- I mean—” It was no use, though. “He said he wouldn’t…” she mumbled.

Her dad looked very firmly at her.

“Do you believe him?”

“I…”

Kairi chewed her lip. What was she supposed to say? She wanted a reason to be mad at Kano, and this was it, even though there were no lies on his face when he protested. Even though she knew how horrible it would be if she was right, and Kano was manipulating Sora. It would be horrible if that was true. And, she still wanted it. She wanted a reason to hate him.

But, she couldn’t sabotage Sora’s trust, either.

A part of her wished Riku knew more about all this, so he could help her out—but then again, seeing how free he’d been with the information of Kano’s existence, maybe not.

“It didn’t… sound like he was lying,” Kairi answered her dad.

He just studied her, and, she didn’t blame him for it. Her stomach was roiling. She regretted every word that’d come out of her mouth in the past ten minutes.

“Look! Fine!” Kairi shouted, heart racing. “You wanna know why I’m mad at Kano?”

Anything to change the subject, honestly. She wasn’t fond of this one. Everyone glared at her—or kind of glared at her—but she kept going.

“It’s because he let me think we were friends,” she said. “And, I’m not even sure if he really wanted to be friends for, some odd reason, or- or of he was just doing it to get closer to Sora. And, I admit! I was an idiot for never asking who or what he really was!!” She did not mention the fact she couldn’t even see him, to begin with, not wanting to make a complete fool of herself. “I just! He let me think we were friends, and he was pretty convincing, but it was probably just an act, and that hurts. Never mind that, if we were really friends, he would’ve just told me he was going to throw the battle with Sora, he would have told me, except he didn’t, because he thought I’d care about the fact he lov—”

She stopped short.

Horror flooded her face.

Her stomach bottomed out.

(That was nearly two secrets she’d promised to keep, spilled.)

“N-nothing,” Kairi said, quickly. She felt like she was going to be sick. “It’s nothing.” But, looking at their faces, the damage was already done. It took a lot of self-control not to wipe at the tears bubbling in her eyes, or press a hand to her mouth, or anything at all, because that would just give her away.

“That he what?” Riku asked. There was an awful, knowing grin on his face, and had there not been two people between them, Kairi would’ve punched him square in the jaw. 

Nothing,” Kairi repeated. Since she couldn’t punch him, she glared daggers at him instead. It was his fault she was in this mess, to begin with, and he wasn’t making it any better now! She was definitely glad he hadn’t known in advance about… this.

“That didn’t sound like nothing,” her father said.

Kairi sent only a glance at him. “Well, whatever! It’s a secret I’m taking to my grave if Sora insists,” she told him. The tears in her eyes burned harder. She couldn’t even believe herself right now.

Leon started to say something, but Aerith put a hand on his arm to stop him. He sent her a look, gently pushed her hand off, and slowly, she nodded. He cleared his throat.

“Backing up…” Leon said. His eyes were narrowed, and he looked… uncomfortable about something? “Did you just say… he lost his last battle with Sora on purpose?”

Kairi blinked. There was still a knot in her belly, but she answered in the smoothest voice possible: “Uh, yeah, something like that happened.”

“Sora never mentioned…” Leon said. His face scrunched up a little more.

“Sora probably didn’t want me to tell you,” Kairi said.

That was another point in the score towards being the Worst Friend Ever.

“Well, I think it changes how we feel abou’ him, for sure,” Cid said. “Or, at leas’ a lil bit. Maybe.”

“He was really mean to all of us, though!” Yuffie protested. She looked pleadingly at Aerith, leaning a little across the table towards her. “You can’t really tell me you don’t remember, Aerith! Leon…?”

“Sora says he’s changed,” Aerith repeated. “And I trust him. Besides, I…” She folded her hands together and rested them on the table before her. “I had the slight chance to interact with him, and he did seem… different. More…” She considered her words. “More scared, than malicious.”

“I thought Shadows couldn’t get scared,” Cid argued.

Aerith shrugged. “I just know what I saw.”

“Why’d he want to lose the battle with Sora?” Leon asked, rubbing his finger along the bridge of his nose as he thought. He did not specifically direct the question at Kairi, but, it was obvious he was asking her. “Or… is that the part you can’t tell us?”

Kairi hugged herself tightly. Technically, no, Sora wouldn’t be happy her if she said this—or, Kano wouldn’t, and Sora’d be mad because Kano was—but. At least it would throw them off the love trail.

“Well, okay, Sora’s probably gonna hate me for saying this, but I guess it’s better he does for this than for ruining how this conversation was supposed to go,” she said. That was something else to get them off the love trail. “Kano- Kano said he didn’t want to be a Shadow anymore. He was tired of doing it.”

There was a second of stunned silence.

And then Cid laughed.

“Bullshit!” he called.

Aerith glared death at him. “Cid!” she scolded.

He slammed one hand against the table, and gestured with his other while he spoke. “No no, look, I don’t care, that’s bullshit. How can a creature like him possibly get tired of the only thing they exist to do? Sephiroth wouldn’t’ve!”

“He’s not Sephiroth, though,” Leon said, calmly.

“So? He’s a Shadow, ain’t he? They’re all the same!”

“Not… necessarily…” Aerith tried.

“Do you really think so?”

Aerith shrugged. She seemed at a loss. “All I know is what I saw, and he didn’t seem—”

“He coulda tricked yeh!” Cid argued, wagging his finger at her. “Coulda tricked Sora, too, righ’ Kairi?”

Kairi swallowed around the lump in her throat. She’d never felt so tense on the spot before. “I- I don’t know!” she said. It was almost habit to say yes, but, she couldn’t do that to Sora! “Look, I’m—this is wrong! This is all wrong!! Sora was supposed be here!”

“Then why don’t you go get him?” her dad suggested.

“He’s gonna be so mad at me…” Kairi moaned, though she pulled out her star shard anyway.

“I’ll go,” Riku offered, before Kairi could even activate the star shard. Everyone looked at him, and he shrugged. “I mean, this is kind of my fault to begin with,” he explained.  And then, before anyone could say anything to him, or protest, or anything, he stood up and formed a dark corridor around himself.

Aerith jumped to her feet once she realized what he was doing. “Riku, don’t!!” left her lips, but it was too late. He was gone. She groaned. “Ohh, he’s just going to make it worse!”

“They’re going to have it fixed soon, Aerith,” Leon told her.

“At the rate he’s acting, it won’t matter if Even has a way to fix it tomorrow!”

“F-fix what?” Ren asked. Kairi felt a little bad for him, for not understanding—because she hadn’t dared tell him about this—but it was hard to compete with the sudden pit in her stomach. Riku… He was…

No. Kairi shook that thought out of her head and activated her star shard. She was glad to be getting out of there, away from that and away from Cid’s probably continuing arguments about Kano, even if now she had to explain things to Sora.

Chapter Text

Riku stepped out of his dark corridor and staggered, his weight shifting the sand beneath and sending him even closer to toppling over. He managed to catch himself, grateful for once for Real Thing’s muscle memory when it came to beaches and sand that did not always firmly support your feet. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited until his head stopped spinning. Then he opened his eyes experimentally. There were still dots in his vision, and the harsh sunlight—it was almost midday—didn’t help. He made himself straighten, though. He had to.

How long did Even say? It was another three weeks, and then he’d probably be—

Using dark corridors isn’t doing you any favors, he reminded himself, sharply. Then, irritated at himself in general, he added: But I don’t have another way to get around, and Aerith forgot to get me that star shard! It won’t…

‘Kill me,’ he nearly finished, but that was…

Riku shook his head. He was here for Sora. To talk to Sora, to tell him what had happened at Hollow Bastion, to drag him over there to explain things about his Shadow—or, Kano. Whatever. He looked around him, wondering where Sora was, anyway. He’d corridored roughly to Sora, and not a specific—oh! There.

Sora was wading out of the ocean, squinting at Riku. He raised his hand in a half wave when he saw Riku looking at him. They were on the play island. A few seconds later, and Sora was standing next to Riku, dripping wet, looking… tired. Riku didn’t think it was because he’d been swimming.

“Uh, fancy seeing you here,” Sora said. His tone was pleasant enough, but he studied Riku in a way that made Riku shift a little uncomfortably. Suspicion was deep in Sora’s eyes. “You aren’t here to talk me into dragging my parents over to Hollow Bastion, are you?”

Riku shook his head. “Nope, not for that,” he assured Sora. “I’m here for, uh—”

There was an explosion of light to the left of them—Riku’s left, anyway, with the ocean on his right—and then Kairi dropped out of the sky. She took only a second to shake herself out from the landing.

“Sora I’m so sorry!” she belted.

Riku raised his eyebrows at her.

“Uh, Kairi, it was totally my fault.”

Sora looked between the two of them, confusion and worry growing on his face.

Kairi turned to Riku.

“But I said his name in the first place!”

Riku shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“And I decided to be a jerk and explain it further to everyone, and, you’re right, Sora didn’t want us doing that.”

Kairi gaped. She seemed completely stunned. “Uhhh, who are you and what have you done with Riku?”

“Geeze, Kairi!” Riku laughed. Sora still watched the two of them, worry growing stronger with each second. “You can’t recognize one of your best friends?”

“You’re preemptively apologizing!!”

“UH, HELLO, I’M STANDING RIGHT HERE STILL?” Sora broke in. “What happened!?”

Kairi and Riku both looked at him, then at each other. Riku grimaced. Kairi seemed to be wanting to ask him if she should tell Sora, or if he wanted to at this point. Riku shrugged a little. He didn’t think it mattered.

Kairi sighed, then turned to Sora again. “We told everyone in Hollow Bastion about Kano,” she said.

“Still mainly my fault,” Riku sang.

“Yeah, but I still should’ve gotten Sora sooner!” Kairi argued. “I let it drag on long enough without him, I just…” She turned her head to the side. Her hands clenched into tight fists. Sora’s eyes had gone real wide, and his jaw completely slack. “I didn’t want to mess it up and have them get all… upset and worried and stuff, so I tried to explain it as best as I could but I think I just made it worse…”

Sora opened his mouth, then closed it. His fingers clenched, and then he made himself unclench them. He stood there a moment, in silence, face swapping rapidly between an expression that looked like he wanted to strangle Kairi, and then a much more patient—though still frustrated—expression. Riku tried not to stare too much, but it was certainly a sight.

“You don’t have to get you parents or anything,” Riku told him, since that seemed like something important that needed to be said. “Just, y’know, come sort things out.”

Sora let out a long breath, and then he spoke.

“How bad is it?”

“Aerith tried to help me defend Kano,” Kairi said. Sora let out a sharp laugh at that, which made Riku raise his eyebrows. What was that about? Was it about Aerith? “Leon’s still a little skeptical, Cid’s definitely not buying it and… honestly I have no idea about Yuffie.”

Sora nodded. “Alright. Well…”

“One more thing?” Kairi said. She wouldn’t look right at Sora, and there was almost a note of fear in her voice. Riku watched her, worriedly.

“Yeah…?” Sora asked, his face darkening with skepticism.

Kairi sent an uncomfortable look at Riku.

“What?” he asked.

She glared murder at him, and then either decided it didn’t matter he was standing right here, or that it wasn’t worth it to try and drag Sora to the side (Riku would’ve still been able to hear them, of course) and so she slumped a little, defeated.

“I…. maaaaay have nearly revealed the Thing?” she told Sora.

He frowned hard. “What thing?”

The Thing,” Kairi said. “About Kano. I- I caught myself, but—”

“YOU DID WHAT!?

That slightly murderous expression flashed through Sora’s face again, and then was replaced with one more akin to someone about to be sick. Riku watched carefully, trying to focus on anything but the slight ringing in his ears. Did one of those expressions belong to Sora, and the other to Kano? He hadn’t interacted with the two of them at length, really, so he wasn’t used to this.

“IT WAS AN ACCIDENT!” Kairi stammered. Looked like Sora’s shout made her jump out of her skin, too. That made Riku feel better. “I caught myself in time and lead them off the trail by telling them that he didn’t want anyone to know about the, y’know, not-wanting-to-do-his-job-as-a-Shadow-anymore thing.”

“I DIDN’T!” Sora—or, Kano?—shouted back. Riku flinched, and cursed himself for it. Sora—or, Kano—wasn’t yelling at him. He should be better than this.

“WELL, BETTER THEM KNOWING THAT THAN—” Kairi gestured widely, first in Sora’s direction, then in Riku’s. Her face worked hard.

Sora grimaced, glared, then sighed. Kairi dropped her arms. Riku pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms over his chest, looking between the two of them, debating on… Should he say it? They were his best friends, so it was in his job description to pry, wasn’t it? But if he was right about what it was, Riku was sure Sora wouldn’t want anyone prying. Or, Kano wouldn’t. It was taking some time to get used to thinking of them separately, or thinking of Kano as existing… at all. Having only interacted with Sora’s Shadow through Sora before all this certainly wasn’t helping.

Still…

Riku chewed his tongue a moment, then nodded to himself.

“…you were going to say ‘because he loved Sora,’ weren’t you, Kairi?” he asked. He decided not to look or sound too smug as he said it. The weight of the question meant this was not, exactly, a victory.

“What! No! I- No!” Kairi protested.

The red of her cheeks and Sora’s face again warring between murderous and on the verge of puking didn’t help her case, though. Riku swallowed. Then he allowed himself a laugh. A short one.

“Please! I’m not stupid,” he said. Oh, shoot, that sounded smug, didn’t it? Well, he felt pretty smug, anyway. “You said half the word and then changed the subject quick enough. Maybe Cid and Yuffie missed it, and your dad and Leon were too worried about other things to catch it, but, me? C’mon…”

Kairi sighed. Sora started pacing in small circles, kicking up sand, looking like he was having a fierce argument with himself. Must’ve been with Kano.

“You think Aerith knows?” Kairi asked.

Riku shrugged, though he should’ve nodded. “She’s not stupid either.”

“WELL THIS IS JUST!! GREAT!!” Sora screamed, starting to pace in a tight line in the sand, three steps one way, three steps the other. “NOW EVERYONE KNOWS!” There was a slight pause, a twist of his neck, and then a quieter shout of: “Kano, please!

Riku had not spent every one of his waking moments contemplating Sora’s current situation, sharing a body with Kano and all, but there’d been a night or two where it was 3 AM and he wasn’t sleeping and it had crossed his mind. He hadn’t imagined, uh, this, however. Watching Sora’s body bounce from Sora’s control to Kano’s was… odd. He wouldn’t even call it interesting, or intriguing (then he’d just feel like Vexen), it was just… odd.

“Look! I’m sorry!” Kairi told him, marching forward a few steps so that she closer to him, though not directly in front of him, because he was already turning so that his pacing meant he did not have to face her. “It was an accident!”

“Aerith won’t say anything about it, anyway,” Riku added, trying to help. “She knows how to keep things private. And if you’re mad at me finding out, well…” He stuttered a second, not sure who to direct this at, not sure which of them was the most upset. Probably Kano, from the sounds of it, he thought, but… “I was gonna find out eventually,” he finished dejectedly. That seemed the safest to say.

“YOU JUST!! HAD TO TELL KAIRI!! DIDN’T YOU!!” Sora shouted—no, Kano, probably, maybe? Riku did not really understand what was going on, but that would make the most sense, he thought. Kairi’d said she could tell the difference just by how they spoke, but, Riku wasn’t hearing it. On another note: he was glad that, since he was expecting the shout, he didn’t jump this time.

Sora did a complete 180 on himself, face twisting into a different shape, hands flying through the air. “I HAD TO TELL SOMEONE!” he argued. “Did you expect me to carry that alone!? If I’d known you were still around, I might not have—”

His words were cut off by another 180 and a half-stifled screech of anguish.

“I’M NOT SUPPOSED!! TO BE!! STILL AROUND! I’M SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD!!”

He kicked angrily at the sand, throwing some of it up in the air, though not as much as if he’d been wearing shoes, at least? This was definitely Kano, though. It had to be.

“Is, uh, this normal…?” Riku asked Kairi.

She swiveled her shocked gaze towards him. “No!!

“Oh.”

Riku swallowed. It felt like there was a rock in his stomach. Sora and Kano kept screaming at each other, which was really distracting, even if it was hard to process all of their words at that volume. Something about Kano getting a body again and that… that was it. That was all Riku could make out.

“Should… I not have said anything?” Riku whispered.

“Um! Probably!!” Kairi answered.

Riku cringed.

He started to mumble an apology, but then Sora was rounding on Kairi.

“HOW COULD YOU!?” he demanded. His expression was horrible, and even though it was not directed at Riku, Riku felt the shame of it weigh heavy on him. He was not sure whether it was Sora or Kano who’d asked, just that Kairi started shaking.

“I’M! SORRY!” she screamed back. “IT WAS AN ACCIDENT! I GOT ALL FRUSTRATED AND IT SLIPPED OUT AND I TRIED MY HARDEST TO FIX IT! OKAY!! SORA, ISN’T THAT ENOUGH!?”

Sora’s expression softened. He turned his head to the side.

“She tried, Kano,” he whispered.

His neck rolled to the other side.

“She betrayed us.”

“It was an accident.”

There was a pause. His fists tightened at his sides, and he was rigid, shaking. When the words left his mouth, they were sharp and spitting, laced with venom.

“What’s it matter when it caused this big damn mess?!

Riku snarled, then grabbed Sora by the shirt. He was tired of being yelled at, he was tired of this argument, he was tired of watching Kano shred at Kairi like this—not to mention it couldn’t be good for Sora’s body. He may not have been the strongest person in this universe, nor at his strongest right now, but there was enough strength in him to drag Sora—and more importantly, Kano through Sora—off the ground by a few inches.

“HEY!!” Riku snapped. “CUT IT OUT! I’m sooo sorry that I decided to bring this up!” The words were more sarcastic than anything else, even if he was sincerely sorry. “But don’t! take it out on Kairi! As far as things went, she did a damn good job at covering it up!!”

Sora’s face contorted in a way that made Riku’s stomach churn.

“YOU ADMITTED IT YOURSELF!” Kano roared, and Riku tensed at how loud it was. “IT PROBABLY WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH!! EVERYONE STILL KNOWS!!”

“Only I know for sure!!” Riku argued. He was shaking, and he hated it. “Aerith might know, but she won’t tell a soul—she won’t even ask you for clarification!! Me? I won’t blab.” Fury burned in his gut, and his voice shook as much as his arm did. Sora dropped an inch or so. Darkness sang in his veins.  “You have my word, and I take my promises very seriously.

Kano glared hard at him, and Riku bit his tongue in frustration, realizing something else—but he had to make sure his promise was clear.

“I have to tell Namine, though. If she asks. I won’t lie to her for you.”

Riku,” Kairi warned, and not for what he’d said.

Riku knew that. He recognized the prickling on his skin well enough, he did not have to see the wisps of darkness out of the corner of his eyes. But was he supposed to do to stop it? Besides—maybe this intimidated Kano a little. He could hope for that.

All Kano seemed to be was angry, though.

“I DON’T WANT NAMINE KNOWING! I DON’T WANT ANYONE KNOWING!”

I’m not keeping secrets from her again,” Riku hissed. “If she asks me flat out, I’ll tell her. I have to. We’re just finally working things out, I’m not sabotaging our relationship for YOUR sorry little sake!!”

The darkness at his fingertips was growing stronger, so he dropped Sora before he could hurt him, and then took a leaf from Sora’s book and paced once in a tight circle. Kairi watched him warily, rubbing her arms, and he tried to pull the darkness back into him, but that was… pointless. It always was. He managed to make it calm a little, but it still burned on his arms. Despite that, there was no fear in Sora’s—Kano’s—eyes. Just that anger. It made Riku laugh. Harshly.

“Why do you even care about people knowing?” he asked, with a slight grin of satisfaction, because he knew that question would make Kano squirm. “What’s so awful about it? So! You love Sora! Big deal!”

“Riku, for the love of—” Kairi started.

Murder flared across Kano’s face, and he jumped to his (Sora’s) feet, arms flying back as he leaned forward into Riku, screaming at the top of his lungs.

“IT’S!! FUCKING!! EMBARRASSING!!”

Riku’s heart pulled a little with guilt, but otherwise he was real glad for this reaction. The darkness on him, in him, roared with delight. Kano still did not look scared, but his eyes were wide with a wild fury, and Riku almost wondered how far he could push before Kano attacked him. That’d be bad, though. He’d have to hurt Sora. And Kairi wouldn’t be happy.

Still, he kept taunting.

“Yeah?” he sang. “Why?”

BECAUSE!! IT’S JUST—”

“HEY!!”

Kairi put herself between them, pushing the two of them back. Kano fell on his (Sora’s) butt. Riku staggered a step, but regathered himself quickly enough. Kairi pulled her hand back, hissing, after she touched him, but that’s all she did before she kept speaking. She looked very serious, and her tone was sarcastically sweet.

“I hate to ruin your party,” she said, “but we probably need to get back to Hollow Bastion and clear things up sooner rather than later. It’s only Aerith on your side, Kano, and Cid’s already made her look pretty silly for defending you. The longer we stand here and argue, the worse it’s gonna be when we get back, so! Stop screaming at each other!!”

“You’re one to talk!” Kano snapped.

Kairi turned on him completely.

Shut up! And give Sora control of his body back, before I punch you!”

Satisfied that that took care of it, Kairi took a step away from them. Riku expected Kano to say something about the fact her punching him was basically pointless, since Sora would be the only one getting hurt. He didn’t, though. Huh.

“Alright,” Kairi said, rubbing her hands together. “Everyone take 30 seconds to calm down. Sora, you get Kano to stop feeling so murderous if you can, he’s gotta be at least a little nice for everyone if he wants to make a good impression.” Sora nodded. Riku assumed it was Sora this time. He looked less angry. “And Riku… you should…” Kairi looked at him, and after a second, just gestured vaguely to his whole body. “Try and stop… that…”

Riku nodded and bit his tongue, then counted to twenty in his head. That calmed the pulsing of his heart, at least, and the darkness stopped singing so loudly inside him. That was all he could do for now. Some of the darkness still danced on his fingertips. He just had to wait for it to stop.

Sora pushed himself back to his feet, after a moment, a look of resignation on his face. Riku wasn’t sure if he should peg that to Sora or to Kano, still, though Sora was very calm when he spoke, at least.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said, holding his hand out to Kairi.

Kairi took it, and then, tentatively, held her hand out to Riku. She only pulled her hand back once, and for all the darkness still prickling between his fingers, Riku didn’t blame her. He did his best to pull it all away from the hand he offered her, so that he wouldn’t hurt her. He wondered if the fear in her eyes had less to do with the apparent threat of the darkness, and more to do with what it meant.

She’d been there, when Even had announced it. She knew. Three weeks wasn’t a very long time.

But there were more important things to worry about now, and he’d delayed them long enough.

With a well-forced smile, Riku asked her what the holdup was, and after a blink of surprise, Kairi nodded and activated the star shard.

Chapter Text

The first thought that entered Sora’s mind as Kairi’s star shard dropped them and Riku into Aerith’s house—in that space between the kitchen and the stairs, so they wouldn’t cause a disruption in the dining room—was how cold the wooden floor was against his bare toes. “Ugh, Kairi, you let me forget my shoes,” he was saying, before he really thought about it.

She looked at him, glared at him. “Honestly, Sora, that’s what you choose to think about right now?”

“Just mentioning,” Sora mumbled, turning his gaze away from her. Thinking about it meant he didn’t have to think about the impending conversation, or the fact Kano was still a boiling ball of anger in the back of his mind. Sora grimaced at the pile of sand that was forming around his feet—he and Kairi always tracked sand through here when they visited, it was unavoidable, but this looked twice as bad. Especially since his legs were coated in sand up to his knees, after all the swimming and kicking sand around. He resolved to offer to sweep it up later, so Aerith wouldn’t have to. Just… later.

Can’t we do it now?’ Kano asked. ‘Rather that than having to… talk to people.’

I don’t think Aerith would let us, Sora replied. And, he didn’t say it, but because he was thinking it, Kano must’ve also known that they couldn’t really afford to put this off. If they were all as upset as Kairi’d made them out to be, then, there was no time to wait.

There was no time to wait, but, it was still hard to move his feet in the direction of the dining room. Kairi had to drag him there, in the end, to join everyone else. Everyone but Namine. Sora frowned as he noticed that, but he didn’t have time to ask.

“What took you so long?” Ren asked.

“We ran into some trouble,” Kairi answered.

“Kano wasn’t happy you’d all learned about him, that’s all,” Sora said. He looked over his shoulder for Riku, and found him at the bottom of the staircase, looking up it as if he was deciding whether or not he’d go up. Maybe he wanted to get Namine…? Sora tore his eyes away. “He, uh… Kano was enjoying being a secret.”

Yuffie laughed. “Yeah, I bet.”

Kano shot a death-glare at her before Sora could control his face. He made his muscles drop the expression, but… Kairi nudged him in a sort of reassuring way. Another look for Riku (because, it’d be nice to have him for support, too, maybe,) told Sora that Riku’d decided to head upstairs after all.

Let’s hope he doesn’t come back,’ Kano mumbled. Sora grit his teeth. There wasn’t time to remind Kano that Riku was also his friend and he should be nice, though.

And, maybe it was for the best if Riku didn’t come back down. Sora loved Riku, he did, but if Kano was going to be unreasonable just because he was in the room, well, that wouldn’t be good. Besides, Sora was just as mad as Kano was at Riku, for prying, there was just nothing he could do about it now.

If Riku does come back down, you can’t be rude, alright? Sora said.

So long as he doesn’t start anything, sure, I’ll try,’ Kano replied, with a sharp edge to his tone. Sora shifted his weight. He looked for a place to sit, maybe, but at the end of the table was the best place to be, so he could address everyone at once, and there was only one chair close enough to pull over. That’d leave Kairi standing, unless she took the other seat at the end of the table, on Leon’s left, but Sora’d much prefer she stay with him. They’d both stand, then.

Sora took another second to judge how everyone was feeling about the news, about Kano. Cid’s eyes were narrowed skeptically, he definitely hadn’t taken it well. Aerith was playing with her fingers, looking nervous, but she smiled supportively at him when she saw he was looking. Leon was rubbing at his head in classic Leon style—no way to tell anything from that. Yuffie was tipping back in her chair, arms crossed tightly over her chest. Either she was frustrated, or she was bored. Ren, meanwhile, looked tired. Concerned. He probably hardly understood what was going on.

Sora took a deep breath. Alright, now, where to start?

Cid didn’t even give him the chance to figure it out. “So, Sora, Kairi said that—”

“Cid, let him speak!” Leon interrupted.

“No! He’s been standin’ there for two minutes now, and he hasn’t said a damn thing yet! I’ll ask my question if I want to!” Cid turned back to Sora, and the manic look in his eyes felt a lot more threatening than normal. “Kairi says yeh think your Shadow has changed or something, is tha’ right?”

Are you SERIOUS?’ Kano seethed.

Sora made himself take a deep breath, so that Kano’s anger would not show too drastically on his face. “Yeah, that’s right,” Sora said. “He has.”

“But are yeh sure?” Cid asked. He put one arm on the table and leaned forward. He looked extremely serious, and like he expected to win an argument—except, this wasn’t really an argument.

Sora bit his lip to suppress a groan.

“I’m pretty sure,” he said, fighting to keep his voice even. Aerith had told him, what felt like forever ago, that everyone here would be supportive of Kano, if they had Sora’s word. Well, clearly, that wasn’t the case with Cid.

“Sora, d’yeh even know what a Shadow is?” Cid demanded, raising his voice. “Or didja forget? And- and what’s all this talk about him not wantin’ t’do his job anymore? Because, frankly, that’s bullshit.”

Sora raised his eyebrows.

“Cid, honestly,” Aerith said, with a tired sigh. She’d never looked this thin on patience in the entire time Sora had known her. ‘Surprising, if she has to deal with this all the time,’ Kano laughed. Sora tried to ignore him.

“Sorry I didn’t warn you he’d be this bad.” Kairi grabbed Sora by the shoulder and leaned over to whisper that to him. “But, uh, he was like this before I left to get you.”

“That’s okay,” Sora told her. Cid had already rounded on Aerith, and was still shouting.

“Kairi brought Sora here so he could give us some answers, and I want some answers!” He slammed and open palm against the table—which made Yuffie jump and her chair drop back onto all four legs, and made Ren turn to Cid, tensing like he wanted to argue. Cid’s attention was only for Sora, though, and he kept shouting, so no one could say anything else. “Do yeh really think your Shadow doesn’t want t’do his job anymore, Sora?”

Kano grumbled about the fact that Cid knew this, but Sora kept ignoring him, and nodded.

“I’m absolutely positive of that,” he answered.

Cid’s nostrils flared. “He’s gotta be lyin’ t’yeh!”

Sora laughed, shortly. Was it his laugh? Kano’s? Who cared. “No, he’s not,” Sora said, very clearly, very plainly, insides roiling because he was so tired of explaining this, and even more tired of the way Kano seized up inside him every time he did. “Look, I can feel it, because he’s in here,” Sora tapped at his chest. “I can feel everything he feels, and hear at least ninety percent of his thoughts, so he really can’t hide anything from me. That means he can’t lie, either.”

Cid glared hard, and took a swig of his drink, slamming his mug back down on the table with more force than necessary. He knew he was losing. That realization filled Sora with a sharp satisfaction, even though, this still wasn’t exactly an argument, and he was fairly certain that was Kano’s satisfaction and not his own.

It’s just good to see him lose that smug glint in his eyes, that’s all,’ Kano said, confirming it. ‘Maybe he’ll stop grilling us so hard.’

Sora knew the look of someone who didn’t want to give up well, though. It was a look Kairi wore often. I wouldn’t count on it, he said.

Cid shook his head. “No, see, he’s gotta be trickin’ yeh somehow, Sora! He’s a Shadow. It’s what they do—

“Cid, come on, I think Sora’s made his point,” Leon said, in a quiet but firm tone.

“Nah, that’s alright,” Sora said. His muscles had gone all tense. He hated this question, and Kano did twice as much, and there was no way they’d back down from it. “There’s a lot of good reasons why he’s not tricking me, the main one being that, oh yeah, he’s given up on dragging me into darkness.” Kairi gripped his arm, and he took it as a reminder to take a deep breath, not that he paused for long. “And, how do I know that? Because, like I said, Kano’s in here—” again, he tapped at his chest “—and if he was tricking me, I would know. I would know. You literally cannot hide things from someone when you’re sharing a heart space with them. Believe me on that.”

Cid let out a long breath, but he didn’t argue.

Finally,’ Kano sighed.

“Can’t he, like, manipulate your thoughts, though?” Yuffie asked. “Any chance he’s just, making you not realize he’s tricking you or whatever?”

Kano’s relief immediately became anger. He snarled hard at Yuffie. ‘Oh, for the love of—I’m so TIRED of this!’ He snatched control of Sora’s body away from Sora, and started his own protests.

“I can’t do that while I’m inside Sora! We’re too muddled together,” Kano explained, voice shaking with a rage that beat hard in Sora’s mind. He crossed his arms over his chest (well, Sora’s arms over Sora’s chest) and turned his attention away from the group, finding a spot on the wall close to the ceiling to look at instead. “And- And even if I could do it, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. Please, you- you have to believe that.”

Sora’s heart seized. Kano’s voice was not just shaking because he was mad. It was shaking because he was scared. Terrified, that’d they’d see through these words, see what he really felt. Sora did his best not to remind Kano of Aerith, and instead tried to reassure Kano:

There’s nothing in what you said that could possibly—

‘Worried more about HOW I said it, Sora.’

Sora licked his lips—a physical action, because he still held some control of his body—Just, take a deep breath. Try not to think about it too much. We’re okay. After a second of consideration, he added: We also should maybe consider practicing a denial speech so that we’re prepared if we’re ever asked flat out again.

Kano laughed sharply—also a physical action—though surprise flared through their link. Surprise, and something that Sora was beginning to recognize as love—a rush of affection and warmth, among other feelings, all bundled up together. He was glad his skin was dark enough that his blushes didn’t show easily.

Yeah, and at least Riku didn’t actually come down,’ Kano said, as if to mask the emotions running through him. ‘Who knows how well he can keep a secret!’

Sora wasn’t sure, but he knew how well Riku could keep a promise. He still thought it was probably for the better that Riku wasn’t down here, though.

“Hey,” Kairi said, quietly, with a nudge. Her expression told Sora that they’d probably gone long enough without speaking, and, it held a suggestion Kano say a little more to tide everyone over. Sora was glad she hadn’t decided to speak for them in their silence, while Kano bristled at the idea of saying anything more. All warmth was gone from Kano’s heart.

Sora started to talk Kano into it, but then Kano opened his mouth.

“I mean, there’s just… no point in this life,” he grumbled. He tried to make eye-contact with either Aerith or Leon (Aerith, patient and concerned and encouraging all the same; Leon, considering more than skeptical; both the kindest faces in the room,) but couldn’t manage. He dropped his gaze to the table instead. “There’s no point in just existing to drag Sora into darkness. What happens when that’s done? What happens if he dies? What happens to me?” He shook his head. Fear made his words tremble. “I don’t like it.”

You’re doing good, Sora told him, pushing encouragement across their link. It was met with another rush of love, quickly suppressed, and then a pile of nervousness in his stomach.

Do they REALLY have to like me?’ There was a frantic note in Kano’s silent voice. ‘Can I please, just, quit now?’

Kano… c’mon, they’re my friends.

Kano grimaced, but didn’t argue. Sora considered everyone at the table. They seemed to be taking this well, now…? Leon was mulling all the information over, from the looks of it. Cid still looked angry, but Sora was beginning to suspect it was because he was losing confidence. The gleam of I won’t give up had all but vanished from his eyes. Yuffie’s face was scrunched up hard. Ren still had his concerned dad look on, but that was mixed with an I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-on-but-don’t-want-to-ask kind of expression. He’d, probably, have to be talked with separately, when this was all over…

Do we have to?’ Kano groaned.

He’s Kairi’s dad.

Kano sighed. ‘And we have to do it for Kairi, yeah yeah.’

That, and he might as well be my second father, Sora added. I owe him an explanation just as much as my own parents. We just have to tell him a little sooner than them, looks like… Hey, he was going to find out today anyway, if things had gone as planned.

‘That doesn’t make me feel better.’

Leon cleared his throat to draw Sora’s and Kano’s attention to him.

“How… how can we believe you?” he asked. It took Sora a second to realize Leon was asking Kano, not him. The good news, was Leon’s voice was empty of nearly everything—no contempt, no judging, just a little skepticism. That was to be expected. Despite his hopes, Sora knew well enough he could not make anyone like and completely trust Kano overnight, and he certainly couldn’t do it in ten minutes. So long as this ended with them believing Kano didn’t mean him any harm, that would be enough.

Sora’s hands clenched into fists again—Kano’s doing, just as it was Kano’s sigh that left his lungs. Sora hadn’t been given full control of his body back yet, and there’d been no reason to snatch it back, either. He let Kano speak.

“Look, I mean, didn’t…” He cleared his throat nervously. “Didn’t Cloud say something about Sephiroth, to Sora? About how he got tired of just being Cloud’s Shadow, how he wanted more than that. Why- why is it so hard to expect something like that from me?”

Sora tried to hide his surprise that Kano was bothering to explain this much, knowing that Kano’d just react badly if he felt it. Unfortunately, as he’d explained so avidly, it wasn’t exactly possible to do that. Kano felt it, and immediately threw his hands in the air.

“But! I mean! WHATEVER! Think what you want. I’m tired of doing this.”

 Kano passed control of Sora’s body back to Sora, then slipped back into a slightly-more distant recess of Sora’s heart.

Sora bit his tongue to stifle a groan, and put a hand against the table so he would not collapse. His knees shook with an exhaustion that was not, exactly his own. But, he couldn’t stop now.

“Sorry… about him…” he said. “He’s just, y’know…” Sora cleared his throat. “Still. He’s got a point. If Sephiroth could want something else out of life, why is it weird Kano does?”

Kairi dragged over that that nearby chair for him. Sora fell into it gratefully, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do, because it was hard to make convincing arguments when it looked like you wanted to pass out. He gave himself just a second—all he could spare—to try and separate Kano’s exhaustion from his own. Kairi squeezed one of his shoulders, and he was glad for that. He was glad she hadn’t interrupted, glad she hadn’t taken one of multiple opportunities to dig at Kano, glad she was here supporting him. She was one of the things he could always count on.

“It’s… it’s less that—” Leon began, but stopped. He looked very much like he didn’t want to continue what he was going to say. He looked at Aerith, and after meeting his eyes, she nodded to urge him along. He took a deep breath.

“It’s less that we think it’s weird, and more that we’re worried it won’t last,” Leon said.

Aerith nodded, with a solemn I-want-to-believe-I’m-wrong-and-you’re-right-but-I’m-just-not-sure look. She’d gotten this look when she and Sora last talked about this. “Sephiroth did want to be more than just Cloud’s Shadow,” she continued, where Leon left off. “But, despite that, he couldn’t, exactly…” She stopped, grimacing, unsure of how to continue.

“Shadows are very purpose driven creatures,” Leon said, for her.

Cid nodded, looking at his coffee like he wanted to drown his bitterness at losing this pseudo-argument against Sora with it. “Without a purpose, they get all confused and whiney and, uh…”

“Irrational?” Aerith supplied, with a small shrug. She was fiddling with her hands in her lap. “It would explain why he felt what he felt when… when he couldn’t find you. When Maleficent—”

Sora nodded, cutting her off there.

He got the idea, and so did Kano.

Kano was bristling in the back of him, all of his emotions geared towards yup, that’s exactly it mixed with a fierce disgust of himself. He was on the verge of saying, They’re right, they’re exactly right, and that’s why I can’t—

But Sora wouldn’t have it. Sora refused to listen to that.

“He- he doesn’t want to drag me into darkness, though,” he argued, as much to everyone at the table as to Kano inside him. Kairi’s grip tightened on his shoulder, and he thought maybe this time it was not to reassure him. Sora chewed his tongue. “If, if he doesn’t want to, isn’t that—”

Not really,’ Kano answered before Leon could even say his bit.

“But once he doesn’t have that purpose—the one he was born to fulfill, by the way—then what does he have?” Leon asked. He pressed folded hands to his mouth, and studied Sora with sharp eyes. Between that look, and Kano’s bubbling despair, it was all Sora could do to not be sick.

“M-Me?” he offered. Then, to make sure that didn’t suggest too much, he added: “His, uh, friends?”

Kano burst out laughing inside of him. (Thankfully, it stayed inside of him). Everyone at the table looked at least a little bemused by the idea. Cid even snorted into his coffee.

Sora scowled. It’d been worth a shot.

“I know…” he whispered dejectedly. He slumped back in his chair and looked down at the ground. The weight of this hurt as much as Kano’s smug I was right, which was really just one part smug and two parts desperate self-loathing. “Cloud- Cloud mentioned,” Sora said, and then swallowed. He wanted to cry. “Cloud mentioned that, even if he stuck around, even if he changed, that there’d be a good chance he’d, uh,” Sora paused, eyes drifting up to where Ren was sitting. Ren had probably heard the worst by now, but Sora still rephrased what he was going to say, choosing a few less violent words. “That he’d kill me in my sleep, and neither of us would see it coming.”

Cid was the only one who mumbled an agreement, but Leon and Aerith both looked like they wanted to. Yuffie didn’t, at least, and surprisingly, neither did Kairi. Still. No one was protesting, telling him no, that’s not right. They all really did think Kano’d slit his throat in his sleep and there was nothing he could do to stop it, nothing either of them could do. And worst of all, Kano offered no support. He just brimmed with a desperate laughter—a laughter that nearly burst from Sora’s lips, because he believed it as much as they did.

Sora shook his head, shook his head hard, at them, at Kano, at Cloud. They were wrong. They were all wrong.

“So, what? Are- are you saying this is some sort of inherent trait?” he asked, voice shaking between Kano’s laughter and his own desperation. He could not bear to look at any of them, so he looked at the ceiling. “That he can’t, like? That he honestly can’t change just because of what he is? Because, that’s just, ridiculous! It’s ridiculous! Nothing about anybody is permanent!”

No one answered him.

No one, except, Kano.

C’mon, Sora, you haven’t forgotten what I am, have you?’

Don’t you dare! he thought back, shaking his head. Don’t you DARE go there, Kano!

‘They’re right, Sora.’

No! They’re not!! Sora lowered his head, buried his face in his hands. He wanted to tear at his hair. Also, he was crying now, so that was great. You WOULDN’T!

‘I wouldn’t want to,’ Kano agreed. ‘But it just takes one moment of weakness. One second where I forget how to control myself.’

Images burned in Sora’s mind, but he pushed them away. He didn’t want proof. He refused to believe anything but that they were all wrong. That all of them, especially Kano, were wrong.

You can’t seriously make me believe that, Kano! he argued. You can’t make me believe that you’d hurt me again. You love me. Maybe he was being stubborn, not to mention insensitive for bringing it up, and there was no denying he’d warred with this in the past, but... But he hadn’t felt everything Kano felt this clearly, in the past. Now, he did, and now, he was sure. Kano loved him. Kano regretted hurting him. Kano’d go out of his way to avoid hurting him again.

Kano didn’t answer for a moment. In that moment, in Kano’s pause, Sora registered someone at the table start to say something, only for Kairi to stop them, to tell them to give Sora a moment. He was grateful. Very grateful.

Then…’ Kano felt hesitant to speak. ‘Maybe I can make you believe that, because I… y’know.’ He still did not want to say ‘love’, and Sora still could not blame him. ‘Because of that, I… If I have to warn you now to make sure I don’t hurt you later, then, fine! That’s what I’ll do!’

Sora laughed, and at it, Kano recoiled. Good. Maybe he’d realize how much having to argue about this hurt.

Warn me now, huh? Sora asked, still laughing. He dropped his hands from his face. And what do you want me to do, now that I’m warned? Kill you again? Get rid of you, so you can’t possibly hurt me? Anger boiled hard in him. You can’t ask me to do that!! You CAN’T.

And then…

To make sure everyone was absolutely clear.

Sora repeated that out loud.

“Even if he might hurt me later, you can’t ask me to kill him again.” His voice shook. He dug his fingers into his knees. “Because I won’t do it. I won’t kill you a second time, do you hear that, Kano?” Of course Kano did. Of course Kano did, and something inside of him churned. Shame. Guilt. Were they Kano’s, for nearly asking this of Sora? Or were they Sora’s, for pushing everyone to this point? Who knew. Sora certainly didn’t.

“You won’t have to,” Aerith said, firmly.

“No, you won’t,” Kairi agreed. “Because, we’re looking for an answer! That’s why we’re doing all this research! It’s not just to figure out how to get Kano his own body. It’s to figure out all there is to know about Shadows. To- to figure out if there’s something we missed, because maybe what we know about them is wrong.” She pounded a fist against the table, all her weight forward, daring one of them to argue with her. “And if Sora says Kano can change, has changed, then I believe him, because he’s never been wrong about this sort of thing before.”

Then, she turned to Sora.

“We’re just… worried about you,” she said, lowering her voice quite a bit. “I’m just worried about you. Kano’s done some pretty nasty things in the past, and I don’t want him hurting you again.” Sora knew it was a little more than that, but, he understood if that’s all she wanted to admit to right now. “But… I wouldn’t ask you to kill him, Sora. There’s definitely gotta be some other way to deal with him, if it comes down to it.”

Sora nodded. “Thanks, Kairi,” he said. And then, because it seemed right, he added, for everyone else’s benefit: “He’s sorry, by the way. Kano is. For what he did to me.” He wanted to assure them that Kano was sorry for everything he’d done to them, too, but, that wasn’t true. “He regrets it more than anything else.”

“I bet he does,” Kairi said, as if it were just the two of them, and there was a great comfort in that, more than in the softness of her voice. And, there was an even greater comfort in everything she’d just said—all of it just to support him, and none of it to drag Kano down.

Sora swore he’d never loved her more than he did right then.

“And… you’re sure he doesn’t want to hurt you, right?” Kairi continued, asking one more time so no one else had to.

Sora nodded. “Positive.” For good measure, he tapped at his chest. “I can feel it.” This show was for everyone else in the room, but he kept his eyes on Kairi.

She nodded back at him. “Of course. Why would he?”

And, though she did not say it, the words he loves you burned in her eyes. She could keep a secret. She really could, so long as she didn’t lose her temper.

“Well, we’ll help you look,” Leon said. He nodded to himself. “For an answer.”

“Mmhmm,” Aerith added, just a heartbeat later. “You can count on us.”

Cid scowled hard, grumbling. “Figures you two would… blasted…” He kept on grumbling, but the only other word Sora could make out sounded, oddly, like the word sorceresses? Strange… He stopped grumbling after a second, though, and said: “I can’t say I like this any more than I did five minutes ago, Sora, but the least I can do is help yeh look for some answers, I guess. When I got time, anyway. Yeh thought about askin’ King Mickey?”

Sora nodded. Kano died a little inside him.

“Yeah. Him and Yen Sid are both on the list.”

Kairi groaned a little at the mention of Yen Sid. And, honestly, Kano didn’t seem too thrilled about talking to him, either.

You wanna figure this out, don’t you? Sora asked him—he couldn’t bug Kairi now, or he would’ve. We have to ask them.

Kano decided not to respond.

Yuffie cleared her throat. She looked a little uncomfortable to have everyone’s attention on her. “You should ask Cloud, too, maybe,” she said. “Maybe he knows more than what he’s told us. And- and, uh…” She scrunched her face up hard, but after a second, she nodded. “Maybe what he told us is wrong. He only knows all he does because he had to deal with Sephiroth, but, this doesn’t—this isn’t at all like what happened with Sephiroth.”

“I’ve… been thinking that, too,” Aerith agreed.

Yuffie nodded aggressively, like she was glad to have Aerith agreeing with her.

“What do you mean by that?” Sora asked, squinting between the two of them. Granted, he was glad to hear this, he just wanted some more details.

“Not much more than just the fact this isn’t what happened with Sephiroth at all,” Aerith answered. She leaned forward in her chair, then back in it, running her fingers together. “But, especially… Especially Kano, well, surviving, and living in your heart. That bit especially.”

“For all we knew, it wasn’t even possible,” Leon added.

Aerith looked at him, nodded, looked back to Sora. “Exactly.”

Sora slowly nodded, too. He’d sort of expected that, but, still. This was good to hear. Even Kano seemed a little relieved, though it was getting hard to tell—from the feel of it, Kano was starting to slip back off to where Sora couldn’t reach him.

“So… you guys all will give Kano a chance, right?” Sora asked. He looked at Kairi, first, and she nodded, though she scowled. Sora got the feeling the scowl was more for him pressing this with her, but, he had good reason to. Her nod was more of a relief than Aerith’s that quickly followed.

“Of course, Sora,” Aerith said, even though she’d already told him this.

“Yeah,” Leon said.

Cid definitely didn’t look happy about agreeing, but he still said: “I can try. Not like I got much choice.”

Yuffie nodded as well.

Sora’s eyes fell on Ren, and for a moment, he stopped breathing. He’d, slightly, forgotten that Ren had been sitting here, listening to all of this. It’d been easier to just not think about, while he was dealing with everything else.

Ren sat with his elbows on the table, hands pressed together in front of his face. Now that he had Sora’s attention, he lowered them a little. “I hate to say this, Sora, but you’re going to have to explain everything again, this time to someone who has no idea what any of this magic stuff is,” he said. “I definitely trust your judgement—like Kairi said, you’ve never been wrong before—but all I really understood of that is that Kano might have at one point wanted to kill you in your sleep, and none of you are surprised by the notion, and, I just…” He paused, mouth working for words. He tapped his hands twice against his chin, then sighed. It didn’t seem like he was going to find the words, but his point had been made well enough.

Sora’s first response was a strained, low whine. It only lasted a few seconds before he realized what he was doing, or rather, what Kano was doing through him, and made it stop. The large knot in his stomach wasn’t so easy to get rid of, though.

We were going to have to do this, anyway, Kano. Besides, it’s practice for my parents, since we’ll eventually have to tell them, too.

‘That isn’t comforting!!’

“Here, we’ll take care of this,” Kairi said. For a second Sora’s—Kano’s—hopes skyrocketed, but then he realized she was not talking to him, but everyone else at the table, so they plummeted again. “You guys can, go do whatever. We got it.”

She took the chair that Aerith vacated—only after Aerith had asked twice whether she was sure, and so on—and then she looked to Sora, clearly expecting him to start. It was all he could do not to groan.

Chapter Text

Riku ended up going upstairs for a couple reasons. First was to ask Namine if she wanted to maybe be around for Sora’s explanation, even if he doubted she did. Second was to just, plain, check on her. And, because he wasn’t sure if he himself wanted to stick around for Sora’s explanation. He got most of the important details. And, knowing his big mouth and the way he’d acted back on the Islands, he was a little worried he’d mess something up for Sora. That would be bad.

So, Riku went to check on Namine.

He knocked first—he was getting into the habit of that, with her—even though it was his room, too. Leon had mentioned that they technically had two spare rooms, and he and Namine didn’t have to share, and as much as Riku loved Namine, he was seriously considering it. She needed her space, lately, and maybe he could afford to have his, too. He just, hadn’t gotten around to actually moving rooms, yet.

Anyway, he knocked on the door, and after it had been ten seconds without a response, he poked his head in. Namine was not drawing, like he’d sort of expected her to be. Instead, she was lying on her bed, back to the door. He would’ve assumed she was sleeping, except she sat up just enough to glance over her shoulder at him, before flopping back down. Maybe she’d been sleeping…? Somehow, he doubted it.

“Uh, hey,” Riku cleared his throat, and stepped the rest of the way into the room. It was not how he’d meant to start this conversation, but he still ended up saying: “Are you okay?”

“Tired,” she answered him. She sounded wide awake.

“Right, well…” Riku cleared his throat again, idly cracking his knuckles. A new habit he’d picked up. Better than others. Namine flinched a little at each crack, but, he couldn’t just stop halfway through. “Sora showed up. If, uh, if you want to—”

“I heard, and, no. I don’t wanna.”

“Right.” Riku nodded. “Right.”

Of course she’d heard. They’d all been yelling, and even if her hearing was not as good as his, it was still above average. These walls weren’t that thick, anyway. No amount of shouting could be contained by a closed door.

Riku opened his mouth, wanting to say more, to talk to her more, about anything, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Anything good to say, anyway. Darkness seemed to fizzle under his skin—it would be at least another ten minutes before it would calm down completely after what had happened on the Islands—and it reminded him of his mortality. The words three weeks hammered in his head. He wanted to talk to Namine about that, more than anything else, but…

No. He couldn’t.

“I’ll just, uh, get a few things,” he said, “and then I’ll…” He swallowed before he could finish. Saying get out of your way felt like it would just put a wedge between them, and that was the last thing he wanted. So, he just didn’t say anything. Instead, he moved to the beaten up bookshelf behind him, at the foot of his bed.

The bookshelf was small, coming up to his waist. Each shelf was only big enough to hold ten books, maybe fifteen if they were thin, and the thing was missing a shelf and half its backing. It was a recent addition, salvaged from the ruins of someone else’s house. It held the next couple of books Riku planned on reading, along with all the books he and Namine had grabbed to look through for Sora, and the notebook Riku was taking notes in. Outside of the stack of sketchbooks and pencil case on top of the dresser on the other side of the room, it was the only character this room seemed to have.

Riku considered the shelf a second, then grabbed the notebook and the book he was currently looking through for Sora, and after some quick deliberation, the novel he was in the middle of, as well.

“I guess I’ll let you know when they’re gone?” Riku said, turning back to Namine. She hadn’t moved. “And then, um, maybe we could… do… something?” He wasn’t sure what, exactly, but, something.

“Maybe. Thanks.”

Riku swallowed, feeling very odd to leave it at that. He couldn’t think of anything else to say, though. He tucked the books under his arm and headed back downstairs.

Everyone was too focused on Cid and Sora yelling at each other to notice him as he slipped away from the dining room and into the living room. Riku settled—quietly—on one of the couches, then sighed. Rather than open the research book, he opened the notebook instead, and started adding to the list of things he knew about Sora’s Shadow—or, Kano. The list was the only thing in the notebook, because research had otherwise been a dud so far.

There wasn’t much to add to the list when it came to their conversation on the Islands (it wasn’t like Riku was going to write down Kano loves Sora), but there was plenty to add, if he just listened now. He could hear every word spoken in the dining room from here, and so without disrupting them, he could just take notes on what was being said, no problem. It was a good use of time, Riku thought. It wasn’t like he’d have been able to focus on either of his books with all the noise, anyway.

He’d filled just over a page by the time they were done talking. Leon left to go deal with a Restoration thing, Cid trundled up to his room, and Yuffie plopped down on the other couch and started playing one of her video games. Sora and Kairi stayed in the dining room with Kairi’s dad, carefully explaining to him just what a Shadow was. Riku read over his notes again, deciding whether or not he should write anything Sora and Kairi were currently saying down, but then Aerith was clearing her throat to get his attention.

“Here,” she said, holding out a star shard to him. She did not force it into his hands. “Now you won’t have to use dark corridors to get everywhere.”

“Oh. Thanks,” Riku said. He took it from her.

Aerith smiled and looked cautiously at him. “You know how to use it, right?”

“I got the general idea.”

Riku set the star shard on the couch next to him. Aerith studied him a moment longer, and then she was nodding, and she kept smiling like nothing was wrong. Like nothing was wrong.

“That’s good then,” Aerith said. She sent him one last encouraging smile—he tried not to grimace at the sight of it—and then she headed off.

Riku swallowed hard. There’d been a tightness in her eyes. Something between worry and fear, and it was there almost every time she looked at him, lately. The words three weeks pounded in his head again. He tried to shake them out.

“Hey, Riku,” Kairi said, tapping him on the shoulder. He jolted a little, glared at himself for a second, then looked up at Kairi. He made himself stop glaring murder, but he still sent a pretty annoyed look at her. “Sorry,” she said. “My dad wanted a tour of the town. Wanna help me out? I have no idea where to go.”

Riku stared at her for a moment, though he understood well enough that she was asking, hey, please come with me, without actually saying it. “Uh, sure,” he said.

Kairi beamed. “Cool!” She turned and, in a voice thankfully suitable for indoors, called: “Sora, you coming?”

“I should really sweep up this sand for Aerith,” Sora called back. “And also get my shoes probably.”

Kairi rolled her eyes, and reached into her pocket. “I’ll go—” she began, but Riku caught her by the hand. He let go the moment he had her attention.

“Actually, can I… talk to you?” he asked. “Alone, I guess.” His heart beat in his throat. He felt a little queasy, but those words kept pounding in his head, and… “Please?”

Kairi studied him, then shrugged.

“Here, Sora, take my star shard,” she said, heading to give it to him. “Dad, stay here a sec. Me and Riku shouldn’t be long. If we do take too long, though, Sora, can you tell Namine? She said earlier she’d go with me on the tour, but…”

Riku closed his notebook and sighed. He understood Kairi’s hesitance when it came to Namine. Maybe he should also talk to Kairi about—no, it could wait. Just a little. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he said, though.

“Yeah,” Kairi agreed, with a heavy sigh of her own. She opened her mouth, then closed it, and shook her head a little. Clearly she’d decided against saying whatever it was. Instead, she said: “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

Riku piled his books on the coffee table and started moving for the door.

“C’mon.”

He led her to a spot around the back of Aerith’s house, though well away from the back door. Close enough to be found in an emergency, but not close enough they’d be overheard.

Kairi studied him with narrowed eyes once they arrived. She almost looked like she expected the worst. Maybe she was right to.

“Alright, spill it,” Kairi said.

Riku swallowed. His heart felt like it was in his throat more now than ever. He made himself cough, to clear his throat, to make it easier to breathe. It kind of helped.

“Look, I, I’d talk to someone else about it,” he said. “But, I just… I don’t want to bug Namine, and I can’t even try to talk to Aerith about it because she won’t listen.” Maybe this wasn’t the best way to begin, but, he’d already started. “And, as much as Yuffie and Cid are family, they aren’t, they’re kind of lacking in the emotional support department…”

That left Leon, but… Well, it wasn’t that he didn’t like Leon. Leon was alright. But approaching Leon about anything wasn’t as easy as approaching Aerith or Namine, and, since Kairi was here now, that seemed a lot easier.

“Okay, got it,” Kairi said. She put her hands on her hips. “Are you gonna spill, or what?”

“Well…” Riku sighed. He just wished he knew she wouldn’t take it too hard. “Listen, I know… I know that Even’s working on it and stuff, but, that doesn’t really change the fact that, I mean—I’ve only got three weeks. If this doesn’t work out, I’ve- I’ve only got three weeks.”

“You aren’t going to die, Riku!” Kairi said, almost before he’d finished.

Riku chewed his tongue. Caught himself picking at one of the patches of dark suit embedded in his arm, stopped, squeezed it instead. He was glad she hadn’t burst into tears or anything, or changed the subject, but this was almost as bad!

“Kairi, please!” he shouted. “I know that they’ve got time to figure it out, and I know that Even knows what he’s doing and that chances of me actually dying are slim, or, whatever. I know.” He glared at her, hard. Her expression softened a little. “I just want someone to actually acknowledge it might happen. I just want someone to talk to me about what happens if I do. Three weeks isn’t that long, and you know it!”

Kairi licked her lips.

Slowly, she nodded.

A dread seemed to settle in the air around her, but that didn’t change the fact that she had nodded. She was willing to listen. To give him straight answers. To just talk about it, and Riku was almost overjoyed.

“Are you talking, like, in a metaphysical ‘is there an afterlife’ sense?” Kairi asked, hugging herself. There was an unsteady laugh in her voice. “Because, I’m definitely not the person to ask about that sort of thing.”

Riku forced himself to laugh with her, so that she would know he understood that as a joke. He did not think it was very funny, though. He did not think she did, either.

“No,” Riku assured her. He had to pull his hand away from his arm to keep himself from picking. Clenching his fist in front of his chest wasn’t really the same, though. “I just mean, like… afterwards. If I do. What… what will you guys do?” That’s what he wanted to know more than anything else. “I just- I just wanna make sure everyone will be okay.”

Tears welled up in his eyes. Kairi watched him, worry crinkling her face. Riku bit his lip to keep it from trembling, and then, once he was sure it would not tremble any more, he continued speaking:

“I… I know you’re not, really, thrilled about the thought of me dying.” Or, Kairi hadn’t been too thrilled the last time the subject had come up, but, then they’d been talking about suicide, so, perhaps it was different. She raised her eyebrows and nodded slightly, though. Riku kept going. “And… I’m sure Namine’d never forgive herself.”  It was not her fault, but that didn’t mean anything. “And- and Aerith—”

There was a catch in his throat. His heart stopped for a second. He grabbed at some of the skin on his arm and pulled, trying to distract himself from how hard it was to breathe. He had to keep going.

“She- she’s finally able to live with herself after what happened to Zack. Wh- what if I? What if I die? What happens to her then?”

Kairi stared at him for a moment, eyes watering. Then she turned away, pressing a hand to her face.

Riku watched her, waiting. Waiting. He made himself let go of his arm. Shoved his hands in his pockets. He felt stupid doing it, felt stupid standing here holding a serious conversation with his hands in his pockets, but it was the only way he could think of to keep his fingers from his arms. Those spots really itched, and his skin still burned from where he’d pulled. He was going to really hurt himself if he wasn’t careful, and the last thing he wanted was to explain bruises or broken skin to Aerith.

Finally, Kairi turned back to him. She balled her fists at her side. Her shoulders shook.

“I… I don’t know, Riku,” she said, like each word was an effort to form her tongue around. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know what…” She just shook her head, and kept shaking it.

“It’s okay,” Riku told her, maybe too quickly. He always did that. He just hated seeing his friends upset, especially because of him. He swallowed. “I’m… It’s okay. Sorry I…” But maybe he shouldn’t apologize for wanting to talk about this. “I mean, I just—I just wanted someone to acknowledge the fact that- that I can die, that this might not work out, instead- instead of pretending like everything’s gonna be just fine.”

“No one wants to think about that possibility, Riku,” Kairi told him. Her voice was grim.

“I know.” Riku nodded. His hands worked inside his pockets. “I know. I don’t want to think about it either, really. But I…”

He had to think about. There was no avoiding it. He trusted Even, of course—at least, more than he trusted Vexen—but with even a chance he could die…

He had to think about it. He had to.

Kairi nodded. She understood, thankfully.

“Yeah…”

She licked her lips. Hugged herself again.

“If- if it doesn’t… if you do…” Kairi worked for the words, but they wouldn’t come out right. Rather than trying, rather than saying it, she just shook her head, and continued. “We’ll all… miss you. A lot. A- and…”

She took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I just want to make sure everyone will be okay…” Riku said.

Kairi nodded again. Shrugged.

“I just, I can’t really, speak, for anyone?” she said. “I mean, if- if you do, it…” She shrugged again, harder this time. “I don’t really think that, any of us, would, forever… y’know…”

She couldn’t seem to finish. Riku nodded at her, to show he understood what she was getting at.

If he did die, she didn’t think they’d grieve him forever.

That was good to hear. He didn’t want anyone’s lives to come to a halt because he’d…

He cleared his throat.

“If, uh… if, I do…” He coughed. Grimaced. Looked at the ground instead of Kairi. It wasn’t just her. He was having trouble saying it, too. “Can- can you look after Aerith, maybe? And- And Namine, for sure.” Riku grimaced harder, but for different reasons now. He looked up at Kairi. “She’s… been going through a lot, lately. Even without me, y’know, about to—she’s having trouble. Namine is. After being Rewritten.”

Surprisingly, Kairi nodded. “Right. Yeah. That… that makes sense.”

Riku raised his eyebrows. Kairi waved the matter away with her hand. Her expression told him he wasn’t going to get any more out of her if he asked.

So, instead of asking about that, Riku said:

“Though, I guess… I should ask—when it comes to Namine—if you could… look after her. Despite me… y’know.”

Kairi nodded.

“Got it.”

It felt like he should leave it at that—Kairi was definitely starting to look uncomfortable—but there was just one more thing he wanted to say. Just one more thing.

His voice trembled as he made his mouth form the words.

“Kairi, I’ve- I’ve never been this scared of dying before…!”

Tears burned hot in his eyes. He’d wipe them away, but he kept his fists clenched firmly in his pockets, instead, and let the tears fall. He figured Kairi’d get this, more than anyone, since she was the one who’d confronted him about suicide—not that he would’ve, of course! But she’d get this fear, inside him. She’d get it.

“I’ve… I’ve never—” Riku licked his lips. Tried again from a different angle. “Before I, I didn’t really care much about it because it never really felt like I had, well, much to live for?” It felt weird to say, but he didn’t stop. “But- but now. There’s soooo much. There’s so much, and I- I don’t wanna… I don’t wanna die.” He could feel himself shaking. “I don’t wanna die!

“I don’t want you to die, either!” Kairi told him. She was crying, too, and her voice was sharp enough to make Riku jump. She took a second, a sob of laughter, and then: “But… But Even says he’s gonna fix it. Alright? He’s got time. You’re- You’re not… There’s time to fix you.”

Riku let out a shuddering half-sob through a clenched jaw. Then he said the one thing that scared him more than anything else.

“Three weeks isn’t that long.”

Kairi nodded. She didn’t even argue.

“Let’s just hope it’s enough.”

Riku nodded back at her. He blew out the air from his lungs. Counted to ten. Then he reached up and wiped his eyes. Kairi started talking again.

“I- I think if another week goes by, though, and Even hasn’t, like, figured anything out yet?” she said. He nodded, to show he was following. “I think you should talk to someone besides me. About this. Namine may be going through a lot, but I think she’d want to know. And, I don’t know about Aerith, but, I mean…”

She did not, but Riku was sure she wanted to say Aerith would want to know too.

“Yeah,” he said. “I gotcha.”

“Good!” Kairi smiled at him. She reached over and pushed his shoulder, playfully. “Hey, feelin’ any better?”

Riku nodded again. He finished wiping his eyes, shoved his hand back into his pocket. “Yeah. Loads. Thanks.”

“Sure. And, hey.” Kairi looked at him very seriously. “You’re not gonna die. Because, if you do, I’ll kill Even. I will!” She punched her fist into her other hand a few times to emphasize her point.

Riku laughed a little.

He was touched, even if that was impractical, and, knew she probably wouldn’t actually do it.

“Thanks, Kairi.”

She grinned at him.

“Don’t mention it!”

They headed back for Aerith’s house.

“Hey, by the way,” Kairi said, after only a few seconds. “Is, uh? Is Namine not wanting to fight at all connected to her, well, being Rewritten?”

Riku thought for a second, then nodded. Yeah. That would make the most sense. He hadn’t really thought about it before now, but now that Kairi was asking, and he was considering what Namine had said this morning… “Yeah, pretty sure,” he said.

Kairi nodded with him, then she stopped walking entirely. “Oh, wait, what the hell!” There was a fierce frustration in her voice. “I knew that!” She smacked her forehead, then scoffed with disgust at herself. “I mean, honestly, how different is ‘I don’t want to fight Heartless’ from ‘I hate conflict at all’? Geeze Louise!”

Riku stopped walking as well, since Kairi apparently wasn’t going to start again.

“I can’t believe myself!” she said. “I literally cannot. I shoulda known all this!” She threw her hands in the air, starting to pace as she raved. “Sora says he notices something’s wrong with Namine, and I knew it’s because she’d been Rewritten, but I just go and forget about it this morning? What is wrong with me!”

“Uh, Kairi,” Riku began. He didn’t know quite what to tell her, but, he should probably try to say something.

Kairi just shook her head. “No no, don’t worry about it,” she said. She sighed. “Not your fault, and not much I can do to fix it.” She nodded forward. They both started walking again. “Guess I just forgot with everything that was going on with Sora.” She rubbed her hands together, then looked at Riku expectantly. “How is Namine doing…?”

“Well…” Riku shrugged. “She definitely hasn’t taken being Rewritten well, that’s for sure. I mean, obviously. She’s.” Riku bit his lip. “She’s jumpy all the time, and…” Except, he didn’t know how to put it into words. Just the sense he got around her, that she wasn’t okay, though it was in much more than just how she moved (slower than normal) and how she spoke (less than normal). Instead, he went with: “And… she’s mad at me because I don’t really know, exactly, what she’s going through so she thinks I can’t help.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Well, it’s not like I do know how to help, though.”

Kairi considered that, then considered Riku. Slowly, she nodded. They’d reached Aerith’s front door by now, but they stayed outside, finishing their conversation.

“Good point,” Kairi sighed. Sounded like she didn’t have any bright ideas either. “Just… be there for her? Don’t let her completely curl in on herself. I dunno. That’s all I got.”

“Alright.” It was a start. “Should we make her come with us around town?” Riku asked. “I mean, if you think so, then alright, but we kind of had a fight this morning—” it wasn’t, exactly, a fight. But, still. “—and I think she just wants her space?”

“Well, we’ll see if Sora’s gotten her to agree to come,” Kairi answered. “If not, we’ll leave her alone. I’ll drop by tomorrow. When, uh, there’s time. Sora’s got training, and since there’s only one star shard between us…”

“I can come get you, maybe?” Riku offered. “Since, I’ve got a star shard now…” He’d left it on the couch, though. Oops.

“Sounds good,” Kairi agreed. Seeing that was the end of it, Riku opened the door.

Surprisingly, Namine was standing next to Sora and Kairi’s dad at the dining room table. She wasn’t looking at anyone, and her hands were clutched tightly in front of her, but, she was there. She cracked a small smile at the sight of Riku and Kairi. Riku smiled back.

“Oh, we ready to go?” Sora asked, once he saw them as well. He moved to join Riku and Kairi, Namine and Kairi’s dad not far from behind him. Sora squinted as he got closer. “Whoa, hey, you two okay?”

Riku looked at Kairi for her lead. She just put on her widest smile. “What, yeah! We’re fine!” she said. She laughed and stuck her tongue out at Sora. He stuck out his tongue back. Riku smiled, and Kairi’s dad laughed, too. Namine didn’t say anything, but, Riku thought he saw her smile…?

“You showin’ us around town?” Kairi’s dad asked, looking at Riku.

Riku nodded. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. “One sec.” He went and picked his star shard up off the couch, shoved it in his pocket. “Alright. I guess we’re good to go?”

“Never pictured you as a tour-guide!” Yuffie called, from the couch.

“Aw, shut up,” Riku told her.

She grinned toothily at him. He grinned back.

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Kairi was already back out the door. “We don’t got all day!”

Riku waved at Yuffie, told her they wouldn’t be long—she could pass that on to Aerith—and then nodded for Sora and Namine and Kairi’s dad to follow him outside.

Chapter Text

Namine awoke the next morning to Riku shaking her gently. Except… it wasn’t morning. Her internal clock told her it was almost 3 AM. It was a little hard to see Riku in this darkness, but her eyesight was better than a human’s, so she could see the smile on his face, if not the brightness in his eyes.

“Hey,” he whispered, once he saw he had her attention. “You up to going somewhere? I wanna show you something.”

Namine blinked a few times at him. A part of her wanted to tell him no, that she’d rather sleep—not that she needed the sleep—but he sounded so eager. She sighed and sat up, nodding. “Alright. Sure. Do I need to get dressed?”

“Nah, I’m not. Not like we’re going somewhere where there’s people.”

“Okay.” She swung her feet out of bed. Riku grinned at her. “We gonna be gone all morning?” Namine asked. “I don’t wanna worry Aerith.”

Riku shook his head. “Should take an hour, tops, and I left her a note, just in case.” He grabbed her by the hand, then grabbed the star shard Aerith had given him off his bookcase. “Ready?” He waited for her nod of approval, then activated it.

In hindsight, she should not have been surprised to see Destiny Islands.

“C’mon.” Riku pulled her a little closer to the shoreline, then sat down. He stuck his feet out, so the waves lapped at his toes. Namine sat down as well, though she did not stick her feet in the water.

It was much brighter, here, than it had been in Hollow Bastion. It was later in the morning, though, and there was a glimmer of sunlight on the horizon. Just a glimmer. He’d brought her to see the sunrise. The thought made something warm swell in Namine’s chest.

They sat there, waiting, neither of them saying a thing. That was something she and Riku were good at. Quietly enjoying each other’s presence. After a couple minutes, Riku reached over and grabbed her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. She let him. Then, she did something she had not done in a long while. She leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. He didn’t say anything, just pressed his cheek to her hair for a moment, before straightening again.

“Any minute now,” he whispered.

It was much longer than that by the time the sun was high enough to really see, but it was well worth it. The way the light sent pinks and streaks of gold across the water was absolutely breathtaking.

“Oh… it’s beautiful!” Namine gasped.

“Isn’t it?”

“I guess I understand why you started coming here every morning.”

“Not every morning!” Riku protested. She could almost hear him grimace a second later. “Okay, well. It’s… It’s a great way to start the day…”

“I bet.”

Namine shifted her weight against Riku, but didn’t move. She kept her face turned out towards the ocean, eyes drinking in the sight before her, trying to take in every detail. She wanted to capture this moment, this feeling in her chest. She wanted to hold onto it forever.

“Thank you…”

 

xxx

 

Even leaned back in his chair, eye closed, breathing deeply and waiting. Thankfully, the program he’d written to translate Riku’s Code—so they wouldn’t have to keep doing it manually—looked like it was finished. Or, it would be soon. 7 was looking over it now, and Vexen still needed to recheck it, since Even had made changes since he’d last checked. But, they were coming along. Soon. It would be soon.

And, after Riku’s Code was translated, then they just had to install the Darkness Protection Protocols. That might not fix all of his problems, but it would be a start. 7 was working on the rest, anyway, and if anyone could figure it out, 7 could, for sure.  Even would leave him to it.

“Ah, Alpha, there you are!” 7 said. Even did not move, but he did raise his eyebrows. Alpha, here, of all places? “I was wondering if you could look over—Alpha?”

Even opened his eyes now, swiveling his chair towards the doorway. He turned just in time to see a glimpse of Alpha as he left. He let out a long breath. That was not surprising.

“Alpha, hey!” 7 called after him. “I just have a quick question! Surely you can’t have something more important to—”

“I’ll go deal with him,” Even said, pushing himself to his feet. He had a feeling he knew what this was about, at any rate. It was always the same. He just wished Alpha would stop acting so childish. No, he may not have really been that much older than a child, when it came down to it, but Zexion—and Ienzo—had always been so mature, so it was a little exasperating to see one of his Replicas act this way.

“Alpha!” he called, once in the hallway.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” Alpha called back, turning the corner ahead.

Even sighed to himself, though he hadn’t expected much different. He picked up his pace to follow. “Alpha, please,” Even said. And then, to make it sound like he had less personal reasons for chasing after Alpha, he added: “Listen, I’ve managed to be told from various people what all happened while I was gone, but each and every one of them suggested I should talk to you as well.” He had to raise his voice for it to carry to Alpha, which he regretted terribly. “At the very least, I would like to—”

“I said, I don’t want to talk to you!!”

Even grimaced, then closed the distance between him and Alpha at a brisk pace—he would not run—so that he no longer had to yell. This was to save Alpha some embarrassment as much as anything else.

“Alpha, you are a grown man,” he said, in a tone just short of scolding.

Alpha stopped walking entirely. He stood rigid for a moment, shoulders shaking, and then he rounded on Even. “And you are not my brother!” he hissed.

Even blinked a few times, rather taken aback. He understood, though. This was not the first time they’d had this argument, this was just the first that Alpha had been so to the point with it. He started to speak, but then paused, reconsidering.

Alpha took his silence as an opening.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you tried to do,” Alpha threatened. He took a step towards Even, pointing an accusing finger—his distress was clear in his wide eyes, if not in his carefully guarded tone. “Ienzo became Zexion, and Zexion left you in the dust for Xehanort, so you Replicated him in order to get your favorite brother back.”

“That’s not true,” Even said. He tried not to scowl or to sound too defensive. He didn’t think he succeeded. Still, he had not made the Zexion Replicas to replace the real Zexion. Only a fool would try to do that.

“That’s how you treated us!” Alpha argued. He was shouting, now. Shouting. What had happened to him? He’d always had a good control of his emotions before this whole Rebellion thing. And, there was an almost paranoid glint in his eyes that would not seem to go away. Even had not noticed sooner, but then, he had not had the chance to talk to Alpha before now.

“You treated each of us like we were Ienzo!” Alpha continued. His voice shook. “But we are not Ienzo! I am not your precious baby brother.

“I… I know that, Alpha,” Even said. It was an effort to keep his voice calm.

Alpha’s eyes flared wider. “Stop treating me like it, then.”

“I’m not trying to.”

Alpha considered him for a moment, then nodded. He sighed, straightened. “Alright,” he said. He watched Even as if he expected that wasn’t the end of it, though. “Then, if you’ll excuse me, sir, I have other things to do.”

“Of course,” Even told him. He did his best not to cringe at the contempt that sir had carried. He cleared his throat. “May… May I ask you one question, though?” He’d pieced together enough of what had happened in his absence to not really need to ask Alpha for any details, except regarding one question.

Alpha looked very much like he wanted to say no—and Even wouldn’t blame him if he did—but he thankfully relented after a moment.

“Yes, sir?”

Even cleared his throat again. Just because he wanted to know the answer did not mean he was eager to ask the question. “I was… told what happened to all the other Zexions,” he said. “That they were Deactivated. No one seems to know the hows or whys, though, except that you are the person to ask. Could you tell me… Alpha!?”

Alpha had seized as if struck. The cautious mask of emotions on Alpha’s face shattered again, revealing despair.  Alpha swallowed a few times to get his mouth working, and then he spoke. Even could not have possibly been prepared for what he said.

“I… I executed Emergency Protocol… uh, 3…”

Even staggered. He’d expected no good news, especially considering how shifty Amaryllis had been on the subject, but he had not expected this. He could not have expected this. Emergency Protocol 3? And only on the Zexions? Had… Had he even given the Emergency Protocol passwords to Alpha?

“You- You Deactivated them?” Even asked, when he had the air in his lungs to do so. Suddenly, Alpha’s paranoid glances and overall lack of composure made sense.

Alpha only nodded. He appeared to be on the verge of tears, and put an arm against the wall next to him for support.

“Only… the Zexions?” Even did his best to keep his voice steady, to treat this as professionally as he could manage, though he much wanted to ask Alpha if he was alright, comfort him, do something. But he had told Alpha he wouldn’t.

“I- I had to hack into the Program I had no passwords and I had to do them each one at a time,” Alpha explained in a rush. “I in-intended to get around to everyone else, as well, maybe, but, but I—” He took a few breaths, but spoke no further.

Even’s stomach bottomed out. One at a time.

One at a time.

Alpha’s behavior definitely made sense now.

“You didn’t have to…” Even began.

“I couldn’t let Saix have them!” Alpha shouted, cutting him off. “I couldn’t bear the thought of working for him, of letting him be in charge, and to think some of my brothers were okay with it!?” He was trembling, his face a contorted mess of emotions. “I know it wasn’t my choice to make, and I know I shouldn’t have, and I know that if I did it I should have at least had the decency to Deactivate myself with them!”

“Alpha! Don’t you dare speak like that!”

Even could not say he approved of the actions or the decision, but there were plenty of things that had happened while he was gone he could not say he approved of. And, just because he did not approve did not mean he should take it out on Alpha, or let Alpha carry on like that! It wasn’t his fault. It was none of their faults. Even was the one at fault, for not ensuring that there was a rigid enough structure in place to sustain the Program in the event of his death. Over one hundred lives, and he had managed to fail them all…

“But I should have!” Alpha argued, and he was still screaming. “I should have! It wasn’t my choice to make. I had no right to Deactivate the rest of them. I don’t deserve to—I… I shouldn’t have done it. But I was angry. I- I was scared.

“Alpha…”

“Don’t touch me!”

Even pulled his hand back before it reached Alpha, swallowing hard. Alpha had asked him not to, but he wanted to. He wanted to. He’d do anything to comfort Alpha—and perhaps Alpha was right, in a way. He had not made the Zexion Replicas to replace Ienzo, but he could not help to see him in them. He did not mean to treat them the same way he’d treat Ienzo, it was just second nature sometimes, and it was hard to see that face so distressed and not do anything about it.

“Couldn’t we always… Reactivate them?” Even suggested, in an attempt to cheer Alpha up, a little. It didn’t work.

“Yeah, if we could find their bodies,” Alpha retorted. “I only know for certain where Delta’s is, and—” He cut off, glaring hard. Strange, when he and Delta had been such good friends. Maybe something had happened…? It would be no surprise, amongst everything else.

Even swallowed. His next words were familiar ones. “You… You should be less hard on yourself, Alpha.”

“Less hard on myself?” Alpha repeated, then he laughed, bitterly. Tears glistened in his eyes, and they made Even’s chest ache. “Less hard on myself? I killed them…”

It was all Even could do not to grab Alpha and comfort him. It was all he could do.

“From what I understand, what happened when I was gone was nothing short of a war,” he said, cautiously. Alpha may not want him to say it, but he’d be damned if he didn’t do something, even if it was only as little as this. “Deaths are unavoidable, in a war.”

Alpha just shook his head. “I didn’t have the right…” he said, again. He sounded exhausted now.

“What’s done is done,” Even told him. You couldn’t take your actions back so easily. You couldn’t change the past. Surely, Alpha understood that.

Alpha only shrugged and headed off, rubbing at his head. Even let him go, though it was not easy. That was all he could have done, though, all he could have said. He just hoped it was enough.

Chapter Text

“Hey, you gonna stick around?” Sora asked, as he and Kairi made their way up the stairs to Yen Sid’s study. Last time they were here, there’d been three sets of stairs, but this one looked completely different from any of those. Sora desperately hoped this was a shortcut. “Because, I mean, if Yen Sid fixes my star shard, then it’s not like you have to.”

Kairi turned to him with a dropped jaw and a faked offended expression. Sora laughed a little. “What, you don’t want me sticking around for your first day of training!?” she demanded. She was mostly—mostly—just teasing.

“I don’t care!!” Sora insisted, punching her lightly in the shoulder. “You can stick around if you want to—I just don’t want you getting bored!”

“If it gets boring, then I’ll just leave, duh!” Kairi said. She punched him back, much harder, but that was to be expected. “Otherwise, I’m sticking around, and no one can stop me!!”

Sora turned to grin at her. “Not even Yen Sid?”

Especially not Yen Sid…” Kairi replied. Her excitement trailed off at the end of the sentence, though, replaced with something that sounded like confusion. “Alright, Sora, why the heck do you keep staring at the ceiling?” she demanded.

Sora jumped, surprised, and quickly stopped, dropping his gaze back to the stairs in front of him. He grimaced. He hadn’t even realized he’d been doing it until Kairi’d mentioned. Weird.

“Must’ve been Kano,” he told Kairi.

“And why was he looking at the ceiling!?”

Sora shrugged, sent her a sheepish smile. “Dunno,” he said. Then he figured he could always ask Kano. He looked over a little to his right, away from Kairi, though he carefully didn’t look over the very-small banister. He doubted falling here would actually lead to harm, since this place was magic and all, but he still didn’t want to think about the drop. Hey, Kano, why were you looking at the ceiling? he asked.

No reason,’ was the tense reply.

Sora scowled. He knew better than that.

Rather than ask Kano again—because he wasn’t going to get an answer if he did—Sora just took a few moments to dig through Kano’s thoughts. Forget it being an invasion of privacy, this was important. It didn’t take him long to find the explanation, and when he did have it, his jaw dropped. He stopped walking.

“Are- are you serious?” he asked, aloud, a little too surprised to speak silently. He pointed at the ceiling, at the spot Kano had kept staring at. “Right there?

Kano growled. ‘No, Sora, I was just staring there because I liked the color of the ceiling—of COURSE right there! Obviously.’

Sora deemed not to say anything about Kano’s bitterness, or his sarcasm. He was too busy laughing in disbelief, anyway.

“What?” Kairi asked, starting to sound frustrated. She always did when Sora and Kano left her out of a conversation, so, frequently. Sora wondered why she wasn’t used to it by now, and Kano wondered the same, though with much more annoyance than Sora did. “What’s right there!?” Kairi demanded, squinting between Sora and where he was pointing.

“Ven,” Sora answered. “Ven’s right there!” He laughed again. This was ridiculous! And, uh, maybe a little creepy if he thought about it too much—but otherwise, it was kind of cool? “I’m pointing right at him. I mean, obviously, he’s a couple floors up, but—”

Kairi gaped at him. “Are you kidding me!?”

“No!”

How?”

Sora kept laughing. Kano bubbled with irritation.

“Kano can feel him,” Sora explained, lowering his hand. He kept his eyes fixed on the spot, though. “And, I mean, I can too, now that I’m trying. Guess it has something to do with him being in my heart for seven years? Oh, but, then again…” He frowned a little, as he considered this. He still didn’t really understand it. “There’s something else going on between Ven and Kano, I think?”

Me being able to feel where he is has absolutely NOTHING to do with that!’ Kano protested, fruitlessly, because Sora didn’t pay him any attention.

“Something about, uh, Vanitas,” Sora said, as he started walking again. A dread beat inside him as he continued, which he now knew not only belonged to Kano, but was also directly related to them getting closer to Ven. Yeah, there was definitely something going on between them.

I’m NOT Vanitas!’ Kano said, so suddenly and so fiercely that Sora jolted nearly out of his skin. If Kano’s adamancy was not enough to startle him, then the rage suddenly beating in his chest was. He pressed a hand to his chest and carefully took deep breaths.

“Sora?” Kairi asked.

“It’s fine,” he told her, hurriedly. He pulled his hand away from his chest to keep her from worrying any more. Who- who said you WERE!? he asked Kano.

VEN did!’

That didn’t help!!

When- when did Ven say anything about

We met in your heart a while back,’ Kano explained. He was bristling. ‘And he kept calling me Vanitas and I’m NOT.’

Sora turned that over in his mind a few times. If he dug enough, he thought he could see some of Kano’s memories of that meeting—but they were harder to see than most of Kano’s memories, and there seemed to be some fuzzy and angry feeling attached to them. Kano’s distaste for the meeting, probably? Sora wasn’t sure, and, there were other things to worry about.

Why… why would Ven think you were? he asked.

Hell if I know!’ Kano said. Sora could just see him pout, and picturing that didn’t help Kano’s mood at all. ‘Something about us looking the same? Whatever! I’m not—’

I got it.

Sora knew Kano well enough to know that there was more to the explanation than that, he just wasn’t eager to give it.

“Are you two done having your conversation?” Kairi asked, keeping Sora from trying to press Kano into telling him anything more. “What’s going on with this Vanitas guy, and why does the mention of him make your face look like that?” To tease, though it was clear she was still angry, she pointed at Sora’s face.

He tried not to scowl in reply, since it’d only prove her point. “Kano,” he said, which, technically, was a good explanation for both things. Still, he relayed the rest of what was going on to her. “But, uh, Ven said Vanitas and Kano look the same and Ven may apparently think they’re the same person. That’s what I’m getting from Kano, anyway.”

It was getting harder to make his feet move forward, he realized. Kano really didn’t want to have to be around Ven right now, or, ever, from the feel of it. Sora caught himself glaring at the ceiling, too, which now was more like glaring at the wall in front of him, since they were coming level with the floor Ven was on. They really were getting close.

So?” Kairi said. “I mean, I don’t know anything about whoever Vanitas is or a lot about Shadows but, Kano looks like you, doesn’t he?”

Sora nodded. “Basically.”

“Well, if Kano also looks like Vanitas, then I guess that means Vanitas looks like you?” Kairi continued. She didn’t sound too confident in herself, but Sora followed well enough. “That only proves they’re connected to you, not each other, right? And, besides! I think Riku’d fight you on the whole ‘same person because they’re identical’ thing.”

She laughed at that, eyes gleaming. Sora laughed back. Riku’d definitely fight someone over that—and, had, probably, at one point. Kano didn’t laugh along with them, but Sora didn’t think he got it. And, they were getting really close to Ven.

“Also, oh my gosh? What about Roxas?” Kairi said, laughing even harder. “Ven can’t say Kano and Vanitas are the same just because they look alike! He’s met Roxas. He knows—”

“It was more than just that they looked the same,” Sora interrupted. Though, he agreed. “I don’t know all of Ven’s reasoning, but…” He did know one thing, one thing that was really hard to forget. I think I know where the other half of my heart is, Ven had said. That sobered Sora’s laughter easily. “He, uh, he seemed pretty sure he could feel Vanitas, like, inside me?” he said. “I dunno, and, hey, we’re here.”

There were still ten steps between them and the door, but that was close enough for Sora. Kano’s distaste for this conversation was making it hard for him to want to continue it. Maybe they’d try later, when they were well away from—no. He wasn’t going to let himself think like that. Kano could hate Ven and dislike being around him all he wanted. Sora refused to let it rub off on him. Ven was a nice guy.

Kano glared through the wall to where Ven was standing for a moment. ‘Look, if you need me, yell really loudly or something,’ he said. ‘Maybe I’ll answer. Maybe. But, as long as you’re around Ven, don’t count on it.’ That said, he cut off connection with Sora. Probably for the best.

I’ll let you know when we’ve left, Sora told him, even if he couldn’t hear now. He eyed the large door in front of him. “Do we knock?” he asked Kairi.

“Who cares!” she replied. She pushed it open with probably more force than necessary.

Yen Sid was, per usual, sitting at his desk. It looked like he and Aqua (who was standing in front of his desk) had been discussing something, but they stopped the moment Kairi opened the door. Ven stood over to the side of the room, on the right. He offered Sora a half-wave and an uneasy smile. Sora returned them. Kano, predictably, stayed silent.

Just as Kairi’d pushed the door open with more enthusiasm than necessary, she greeted everyone with more enthusiasm than necessary, as well. “Hi!” she said, waving at everyone. Why did she look so smug? Did she count her being here as some kind of victory? It sounded just Kairi enough to be right.

“Uh, hi,” Sora echoed, less enthusiastically. “Sorry if I’m late. We didn’t really set a time, and time passes differently between worlds anyway, so I just came over as soon as I was done with breakfast.” He wasn’t sure if Yen Sid’s eyes were narrowed because he disapproved, or because he just… always looked like that. At least Aqua didn’t look too upset. Sora scratched his neck. “And, uh, before we do anything else, I think my star shard broke?” He pulled it out of his pocket, and moved to offer it to Yen Sid. “I was hoping you could look at it…”

Can those things break?” Ven asked, inching closer to Yen Sid’s desk himself. He started to squeeze himself in between Sora and Aqua, but Aqua pushed him back for getting in her line of sight, so he settled on the other side of her, instead. Sora tried not to be relieved. It was Kano who should feel that way, not him, and he couldn’t feel anything Kano was feeling now, so he shouldn’t be relieved. 

“Well, Sora’s won’t take him anywhere anymore,” Kairi said, pulling Sora out of his roundabout thoughts. “That sounds pretty broken to me.”

“How odd,” Yen Sid said, slowly. He took the star shard from Sora, his eyebrows more deeply narrowed than ever. “Ventus is right. They should not break.”

“Is he just using it wrong?” Aqua asked, leaning closer to watch Yen Sid as he began fiddling with the star shard. She looked like she was trying to drink in every detail about how Yen Sid examined it, so that she might repeat the actions at a later point.

Sora tried not to glare at her for her question, seeing as she was supposed to be his teacher and all. “I was using it how I always use it,” he said. “It just wouldn’t activate no matter what I did!”

Kairi joined the rest of them as they crowded around Yen Sid’s desk, all watching avidly as he studied Sora’s star shard. Yen Sid turned the star shard over in his hands a few times, then held it up to his eyes, squinting hard at it. After a bit of mumbling, he placed it on his desk, and let out a long sigh. He looked at Sora very seriously.

“It is not broken,” he announced.

Sora refrained from asking how Yen Sid could tell that just by looking at it, because, maybe Yen Sid could tell just by looking. It wasn’t like Sora perfectly understood how magic worked. Honestly, he hardly understood magic at all. “What do you mean it’s not broken?” he asked, though. He frowned.

“It is not broken,” Yen Sid repeated. He handed the star shard back to Sora.

“If you’d like to try it out to be sure, I wouldn’t mind,” Aqua said. “Your training can wait another minute or so.”

Sora blinked at her in surprise, then nodded. “Oh! Yeah, thanks. Just one sec.” Trying it out would be a good idea. Maybe it had just malfunctioned yesterday. He backed away from everyone and waved at Kairi, who waved back. Sora looked down at the star shard, then thought of the play island, and—

It worked. The familiar tug pulled him out of Yen Sid’s study, dragged him through the sky, then dropped him onto the shores of the play island. Sora stared around himself, almost not believing it. That was good, though! And weird. Why hadn’t his star shard worked yesterday?

He shook the thought out of his head, because there was no point dwelling when he wasn’t going to find an answer. To be safe, and determine that this wasn’t a problem like he just couldn’t star-shard to Hollow Bastion, he pictured the outside of Aerith’s house and activated his star shard—

Again, it worked. He landed just outside her garden without effort.

“SWEET!” he shouted, doing a little dance. Then he remembered where he was. Hopefully no one inside Aerith’s had heard him. He hastily activated his star shard again and headed back to Yen Sid’s, aiming for a spot to the side of the room that hopefully no one else was occupying. He landed rather unceremoniously, and thankfully, not on anyone’s head.

“It works fine!” he announced, as he straightened himself out and pocketed the star shard. He walked back towards Yen Sid’s desk. “Weird… I wonder what happened yesterday…”

Kairi was the first to respond, with a shrug and a bitter smile. “Do you think it was the spell?” she asked. “Maybe it went ‘oh! Sora’s gonna do something with his parents! Better make it so he can’t!’” She laughed, a sound just as bitter as her smile. Sora laughed with her, in a similarly bitter tone. This whole situation sucked, but it was kind of funny when she put it that way.

“What spell?” Aqua asked, frowning between Sora and Kairi.

“We think there’s a spell on our island,” Kairi answered automatically. Sora let her. She was better at explaining it, anyway. “I mean, we aren’t completely sure there’s one, but, like… It’s almost impossible to convince anyone that other worlds are a thing, and people start forgetting you exist if you’re away long enough? It’s weird. And annoying.”

“I know there are World barriers and all, but, that’s not normal, is it?” Ven asked.

“No, it is not normal,” Yen Sid agreed, with a long sigh.

“Hey, didn’t you say you’d look at it?” Kairi asked, leaning a little towards Yen Sid. She fixed him with the stare she used to break her father down into letting her have her way. Sora tried not groan.

Aqua cleared her throat uncomfortably. “Well, is now really the time…?” she asked. “I mean, Sora and I do have to start training eventually.”

“Yeah, but, me ‘n him—” Kairi jerked a thumb at Yen Sid. Sora cringed. “—could always go check it out while you and Sora stay here and train.”

“I suppose we could do that,” Yen Sid agreed, very slowly.

Sora raised his eyebrows, surprised. He was actually saying yes? Sora may not have known Yen Sid for long, but this seemed unlike him. Even Kairi was startled, though wide eyes quickly became a smug smile. Sora hastily grabbed for Ven and pulled him aside a few paces.

“Hey, Sora, what’s—”

“Can you please go with Kairi and make sure she’s not too rude to Yen Sid?” Sora said, as quietly as he could while still being heard. Aqua sent a worried glance over her shoulder at them regardless. Sora bit his tongue. He wouldn’t ask if he didn’t have to, but he really didn’t trust Kairi alone with Yen Sid. Ven fixed him with a look that was either confusion or discomfort. “Please,” Sora begged.

Ven sighed a little, but nodded.

“Yeah, alright,” he agreed. He tugged at his ear. “I’ll do my best.”

Sora smiled gratefully. “Thanks.”

Kairi sent him a look like she knew what he was up to, but she didn’t say anything. She and Ven and Yen Sid all left shortly after that—Yen Sid used his magic to teleport them, leaving Aqua and Sora behind. Sora considered, for a moment, pulling Kano out of wherever he was, but decided against it. Ven might have been gone for now, but he’d be back eventually, and Sora didn’t think Kano was that fond of Aqua either.

“So… we gonna get started?” Sora asked, looking over to Aqua. She hadn’t said anything yet. She just stood there, looking kind of at him, but more to his left, playing absentmindedly with her fingers. “Aqua?”

She turned to him abruptly, as if startled out of her thoughts. “Um! I… I’m sorry,” she said.

Sora blinked.

“Is… is something wrong?”

Aqua hesitated a moment, then firmly shook her head. She put on a smile. Sora tried not to look too skeptical, but, he knew a forced smile when he saw one. “No, I’m fine,” Aqua assured him.

Sora studied her for a second more. Then his smile drooped. He had a feeling he knew what this was about.

“You don’t want to train me, do you?” he asked.

Aqua looked shocked he’d suggest such a thing. That was reassuring. “What?” she said, then realization seemed to it her. She closed her eyes for a second, and sighed. “Oh, no Sora, that’s not it at all. I don’t mind training you! I just…” Her face scrunched up and her voice got a little quieter. “I don’t think I’ll be very good at it.”

Oh! That was another matter entirely.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, it’s not like I’ve ever had any other training,” Sora said. “So, I won’t be able tell. I don’t have anyone to compare you to!” He put on his most winning grin, and Aqua laughed slightly. Sora continued, a little more seriously: “And… I’m really excited about this, by the way. I… I think it’d be really cool to be a Keyblade Master someday.”

“Well... in that case…” Aqua smiled at him, and kept smiling. It was good to see. “I’d be honored to train you,” she said, giving him a partial bow. Her smile and the tone of her voice made Sora pretty sure she was just teasing, but, he bowed back, playing along. Aqua stifled a giggle.

Sora straightened, bouncing in his excitement. “Ok!” he said. “Where do we start?”

 

xxx

 

We’ll start with a spar, so I can figure out how much you know,” she’d told Sora. He’d seemed perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the idea, but in reality, it’d just reminded her of Ven, so she didn’t mind so much.

Aqua lead the way out of the tower, seeing as they couldn’t spar inside it. Well, Master Yen Sid probably had a place somewhere suitable for sparring and training, but since he wasn’t here, she couldn’t ask, and she didn’t dare try looking herself. She had no idea how the magic of his tower worked. Outside was fine, anyway. There was enough room, and she quite enjoyed the perpetual view of the stars. Maybe not as much as Ven did, but…

She positioned herself at roughly the center of the area they had, summoning her Keyblade. “Alright,” she told Sora, as he summoned his own Keyblade and dropped into his stance. A solid stance, from the looks of it. That was good. She nodded at him. “Go ahead.”

Sora stared a second, as if surprised, but then nodded. He rushed at her, swinging. Aqua sidestepped, brought her Keyblade up to block as he twisted to follow her as she moved. He jumped back.

Aqua nodded to herself. There was a good strength in his blow, but he was definitely putting too much focus in his arms, and not enough in the rest of his body.

“Don’t stop!” she called, as he hesitated before attacking again. He nodded back, gritting his teeth with determination. He ran at her.

His choice of attack this time was a combo—downward strike, horizontal, diagonal, horizontal again, this time with a spin. Well executed, Aqua noted, but his footwork was pretty shoddy. She supposed she shouldn’t expect anything more, since he’d had no formal training.

She stayed on the defensive for a while, letting him strike her. He was doing really good for someone who’d taught himself, but there was room for improvement in a lot of areas. He was able to get his Keyblade to the right places at the right time with no problem, but he didn’t give much thought to his feet. If this had been real training, and not an assessment, Aqua would’ve pushed him down a good four times now, just to prove how bad his footwork was.

His magic was good, though. Not as powerful as it could’ve been, but he seemed to have a good control of it. That was all she could hope for. More than anything, she anticipated being bad at teaching magic. It was hard to teach something that you didn’t even have to think about before doing. Not having to lecture him in magic control was a blessing.

“Good!” Aqua said, shifting her weight, preparing to launch at Sora. “Let’s see how you block!”

She switched to the offensive, running at him with a quick string of blows. He blocked them all fine—she just had to back off before he tripped over his own feet. Proving a point wasn’t her focus, right now.

She went at him again, this time striking once, backing off, striking again from a different angle, from a different side, quite a few times. He blocked these ones as well—but, it was his footwork that was the problem, and he didn’t have to do much moving to block an attack like this. He even went as far to sneak in attack at the end, which would have hit, but Aqua threw up her barrier, sending the both of them skidding away from each other.

Aqua blinked a few times, grimacing to herself. She probably should’ve let him hit. She’d only thrown up the barrier because her reflexes had kicked in. She thought about apologizing, except Sora didn’t even seem to realize there was a problem. Aqua cartwheeled backwards instead, and then sent a quick round of magic at him.

He blocked the Blizzard. Rolled out of the way of the Fira. Out of habit, Aqua followed up with a Thundaga, which should’ve hit while he was mid-roll. He managed to toss up a Reflect before it did, though.

“Good,” Aqua said, a little stunned. Had he gotten lucky, or were his reflexes good enough to pull that off regularly? Either way, she wouldn’t complain. “Good!” she repeated. “I think… I think I’ve seen all I need to.”

Sora raised his eyebrows, like he was surprised, but he relaxed anyway. “Really?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Aqua nodded. “Your magic is good, and overall you’re doing okay, but you put too much weight in your arms, and your footwork…” She paused a second, making a face, then continued in a tone that would certainly convey she was largely just teasing: “Well, it’s atrocious.”

Sora grimaced. “Is it?”

Aqua nodded again, then raised her Keyblade. “Here. Come at me again.”

Sora shrugged, but ran at her, as told. He started with the same attack he did last time, which Aqua easily sidestepped again. This time instead of blocking, she attacked. He stumbled in his attempt to get away from her. She reached out with her free hand and pushed him in the chest, sending him toppling to the ground—just like Master Eraqus would’ve done to her.

“If you’d had a wider stance when you first attacked me, you wouldn’t have been so unsteady,” Aqua explained, as she looked down at him. “And you hardly seem to know what to do with your feet when you’re dodging at close-quarters. It might work on Heartless, but…”

“Not on someone who actually knows what they’re doing,” Sora finished. “Got it.” He pushed himself to his feet.

“Good,” Aqua said, even though it didn’t feel like the right thing to say. “Um, I guess we’ll start working on forms now.”

Sora nodded with something close to enthusiasm, and Aqua tried not to laugh. Forms were important, of course, but she doubted Sora would be so thrilled with them in about an hour. They set to work.

Chapter Text

Magical teleportation was actually a pretty nice way to travel, Kairi decided. It was like you didn’t move at all—you stood still, and the world moved instead. The colors of Yen Sid’s study all melted, swirled around, then reformed in the shape of Destiny Islands. The play island, Kairi realized, after just a second or so. She wondered Yen Sid knew to come here, versus anywhere else on the Islands. She definitely hadn’t told him, and Sora’d been too busy getting Ven to promise to look after her. Ha! Like he’d needed to.

She sent a sideways glance at Ven, who quickly looked away from her, tugging at his ear. The motion of turning away from her brought his attention to the ocean, though, and Kairi watched with a smug little smile as he stopped dead, hand falling from his ear. She couldn’t see his face, but she could imagine the slack jaw and wide eyes.

“Never seen the ocean before?” Kairi asked, sauntering over to him. She folded her arms over her chest, and nudged his shoulder with hers—he was about her height. He staggered a step, and looked at her, a little surprised. Then he shook his head.

“Oh, no, I mean- yeah. I have. Neverland just looks a lot different, though… the beach isn’t quite like this.” Ven scratched the back of his neck. “It’s nice here,” he said.

“Nice living here,” Kairi said.

Ven laughed, flashed her a quick grin. “I bet!” His grin looked a lot different than Sora’s, but the way he did it still reminded her of him. Kairi sighed, then looked over her shoulder at Yen Sid.

He was frowning in the direction of the main island, humming deeply to himself. He seemed to do that a lot when he was thinking. Kairi headed over to him with a little less swagger, Ven quick on her heels. Kairi rolled her eyes.

“What’s the verdict?” she asked Yen Sid. She thought about being rude just to spite Sora—payback for getting Ven to ‘keep an eye on her’, rather than just asking her to be nice—but figured that would cause too many problems and probably wasn’t worth it.

“I am not sure…” Yen Sid said, slowly. His attention did not move from wherever he was staring. “There is another spell here that is quite distracting. Perhaps we should look at it, first.”

Kairi shrugged. “Sure,” she said. Like she had any clue which would be better. Yen Sid was the expert here, at least on magic.

“Sounds good!” Ven echoed. “How we getting there?”

“I will teleport us over there—it is much too far to walk, and I do not see a boat to cross the channel, either…”

Kairi shook her head, confirming that there wasn’t a boat. There might still be an emergency boat on the play island somewhere, maybe, but she couldn’t remember where, and why bother when they could just teleport?

Yen Sid waved his hand through the air, and the teleportation spell took just like it did the first time. The melting and swirling of colors was less dramatic, since it was all the colors of the same world, but the sight they were greeted with when everything settled made Kairi’s jaw drop.

“Uh, this is Sora’s house?” she said, voice squeaking a little.

She almost wished she was mistaken, and this wasn’t Sora’s house—except, she wasn’t mistaken. She couldn’t be. Sora’s house always looked like this. Small and square and two stories, like every other house on Destiny Islands. The white paint was old and dull, chipped in various places; most noticeably, around Sora’s window, which were actually marks from rocks Kairi’d thrown, and not natural chips. Sora’s window was on the front of the house, right above the door, and was currently wide open, so Kairi could see inside. The grass around the beaten dirt path up to the door was neat, if getting a little long, and the bush pressed against the front wall by the door looked like it always did this time of year: like it was dying. A few months from now, it’d get a second wind.

Kairi stared at the house for a second longer, then rounded on Yen Sid, demanding: “Why are we here? Is that spell- that spell you said you felt—it’s here?”

Yen Sid nodded in that slow way of his. “Indeed. We are standing right in the middle of it.”

Kairi swallowed. Okay, fine, she’d get answers on the spell in a moment. More importantly—she mentally ran through Sora’s parents’ schedules. Sora’s dad was working, because he only ever had Sundays off. Sora’s mom was… probably just sitting inside the house. Mondays were usually completely free for her.

“Um, I think Sora’s mom his home, by the way,” Kairi informed Yen Sid and Ven. “Do I need to go distract her while you check this spell out? I can, but you’ll have to make it quick.”

Yen Sid seemed completely unperturbed. “That will be unnecessary,” he said. “I have already cast a perception spell on us—so long as we don’t cause a ruckus, no one will even notice we are here.”

“Oh.” Kairi blinked a few times. That was good, of course, but she still glared. “Coulda told me that,” she grumbled, then louder, added: “Well, don’t cause any trouble, then. Being noticed by her is the last thing we need.”

“I thought you wanted to convince Sora’s parents about magic and stuff,” Ven argued, as Yen Sid started moving his hands through the air as if feeling for something. Kairi kept one eye on him, and one eye on Ven.

“Yeah, we do,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But, with our luck,” and our reputation, she added, silently, “Sora’s mom’s just gonna think it’s some elaborate prank. I really don’t want to have to deal with that!”

Ven held up his hands in surrender. “Ok, fair. I didn’t know!”

Yen Sid suddenly started walking. Kairi sent him a hasty look, then looked to Ven, who shrugged. Kairi decided she’d rather not let a wizard—respectable or no—just wander her islands to his heart’s content, so she trotted after him. Ven followed, but that was to be expected.

Yen Sid ended up only walking in a large circle around Sora’s house. He muttered to himself the whole time, and kept moving a hand through the air like feeling for something. When they reached the spot they’d started at, Yen Sid nodded to himself.

“Okay,” Kairi said. She raised her eyebrows at Yen Sid. “You got anything?”

Ven shot her a warning look. Kairi rolled her eyes and bit her lip to stifle a bark of laughter. Yen Sid didn’t comment, which Kairi counted as a victory.

Yen Sid thought it over, then at length, said: “I believe I have just discovered what was wrong with Sora’s star shard. Or, rather, what was not wrong with it… The spell here, around—you said this was Sora’s house, didn’t you?” Yen Sid looked to Kairi. Kairi nodded. Yen Sid lowered his head, running a hand through his beard. “Troubling. Very troubling.”

“What’s the spell?” Ven asked. “And, why is it troubling?” Kairi considered giving him grief, except, that was perfectly not-rude question. She decided to glare over the fact he’d asked it before she could, instead.

“I cannot be completely sure without further study,” Yen Sid said. “But it seems this spell is… blocking star shard travel, I suppose we shall say.” Yen Sid cast a dubious glare around the area. “Kairi, you have a star shard, do you not? Perhaps you should test it. Stand there.”

Kairi shrugged and did as told, though she tried to make it look like she wasn’t in a hurry about it, or anything. Activating her star shard provided… Nothing.

It didn’t work, at all.

Yen Sid nodded, looking entirely unsurprised by this outcome.

“I thought so.”

“Well, you gonna do something about it?” Kairi asked, pocketing her star shard. “We can’t just leave it here.”

Ven shot her a glare like death, and for once, Yen Sid actually looked a little ruffled by her attitude. He didn’t answer right away, though. Instead, Yen Sid turned and frowned at the air, running a hand through his beard, then through the air, again like he was feeling for something. Was he feeling for the spell? Kairi’d never seen magic done like this before. (Admittedly, she’d never seen any non-combat magic done, but that was beside the point.)

“It is a very complex spell,” Yen Sid said, finally. He seemed to sigh. “I could probably have it taken down by sundown, however…” He turned back to Kairi, his perpetual scowl a little deeper than normal. “Considering its strength, and its nature, I believe it is safe to assume whoever put this spell up will notice when it is no longer active. They might even decide to put up a stronger one. Sora will just have to star shard from another location,” he declared, as if that settled it.

Kairi wasn’t completely convinced it did, but, how could she argue? “Okay,” she said. She scrunched up her face as she thought about it a little more. “Who’d put a spell like this here, though?”

Ven cleared his throat. “Do… do you think Xehanort did…?” he asked, cautiously.

“I think it would be unwise to assume he did not,” Yen Sid admitted.

Kairi’s face wet slack. Worry crept down her spine. Xehanort was a name that came up often enough, but he was distant, there in the sure he exists and we’ll have to fight him way but, not close. Not really real.

But now he was putting a star-shard blocking spell around Sora’s house.

Kairi swallowed hard. She felt like she’d been violated—like her home had been violated. This was not her house, not her first home, but it was easily her second. And these islands were hers. And Sora was hers. She wished she knew enough magic to tear it down herself. Maybe Yen Sid was right, but it made her skin crawl to just leave it here!

Then she noticed Ven watching her carefully—he sent her a reassuring smile when he saw she was looking. She bit her lip and glared. Then she took a deep breath. She would not look worried. Not in front of him.

“Well, we’ll have to warn Sora,” she said, faking a confidence that kept her voice from shaking. She was always good at that, no matter how scared she was or how deep the pit in her stomach. It was handy, especially now.

“Certainly,” Yen Sid agreed, with no hesitation. “And, now that I have seen this, I believe it is best if we go back to where we started. I will try and decipher the other spell that rests on this world from there. Come.” He waved his hands, and the world shifted until it took shape of the play island.

Yen Sid stepped away a few paces, and started running his hands through the air again, just like he had before. This must be how he did magic. Kairi left him to the mumbling and hand waving. There was no point in watching, and pestering him with questions would probably just slow him down. Kairi started considering the best way to shove Ven into the ocean, instead, because that was the best way to really make new friends, in her opinion. Plus, it would totally get him back for agreeing to spy on her for Sora.

So, should she try the classic shove from behind? Go for something a little more… risky? A tackle might work, but this far away from the water, her options were pretty limited…

She was pulled out of her thoughts by Riku’s arrival via star shard. What was he doing here? And, why did he look so surprised…?

“Oh,” he said, vaguely.

Yen Sid looked over his shoulder, but once he saw it was Riku, simply went back to his work. Ven sent Riku a questioning look. Kairi raised her eyebrows at him.

“Um.” Riku cleared his throat. “I came to, y’know, pick you up. Like we’d planned? But, if now’s not a good time…” He sent a glance over at Yen Sid. Kairi sighed.

She’d forgotten entirely about the plans she and Riku had made, yesterday. He was supposed to come get her and bring her to Hollow Bastion, so she could spend time with Namine. She’d been so wrapped up in the idea of Sora’s training, and then busy with getting Yen Sid here—she’d completely forgotten. She felt awful.

“No, it’s not, sorry,” Kairi said, grimacing hard. She hated to have to say this, but… “I’m not really comfortable with leaving—” she nodded at Yen Sid “—alone here. So, unless you wanna go get Namine and drag her here…”

She trailed off, though. It didn’t seem like the best idea to her, but, if Riku thought it was okay, then…

“You could always go, and I could—” Ven began, but stopped at just a glance from Kairi. He held up his hands and backed way, to give her and Riku space for the conversation.

Riku shook his head at Kairi, ignoring Ven. “Nah, I don’t think that’d, well, be good,” he said, sighing.

“I’m really sorry,” Kairi said, and she meant it. She felt horrible right now. Namine could use the company, the distraction. “If this wasn’t so important… How about tomorrow?”

Riku shook his head again, raking a hand through his hair.

“I’ll be at C.O. for most of tomorrow,” he said. He didn’t look or sound happy about that idea. “Even’s gotta check my data, give a progress report, etcetera.” Kairi tried not to think about the bags under his eyes.

“Oh.” Kairi frowned. That put a damper on things. She chewed at her lip for a few seconds. “What about Namine?” she asked. “Will she go with you?”

Riku shrugged. “Umm, probably not.”

“Then I could just go visit her,” Kairi suggested. “Sora’s star shard isn’t actually broken, so, I’m free to. Me ‘n Namine can hang out, um, without you.” That’d kind of been her plan all along, actually. Had Riku known that? If not, then, uh… oops.

“Well, that’s up to you,” Riku told her, with a slow shrug. He turned his star shard over in his hands. “I should probably get going, though.”

Kairi nodded at him. “Yeah, of course!” She hesitated a moment, then added: “Here’s to good news tomorrow!”

Riku nodded back. “Yeah, definitely.”

“And, y’know… let me know. The news. Any news.”

She’d hope for good news, of course, but there was no sense in not hearing bad news, either. The way Riku grinned was a thousand times worth the comment, anyway. He seemed really glad she was invested in this—but, of course she was invested. He was one of her best friends.

“I will!” Riku assured her.

He left.

Ven approached Kairi almost immediately after he was gone. “Is he okay?” he asked.

“Who, Riku?” When Ven nodded, Kairi forced a laugh. “Yeah, he’s alright.”

“He looked tired…” Ven said. His brow was furrowed with worry, which, was funny, because why would he care? He’d met Riku, what, once? Maybe he was like Sora, and cared about everyone, but…

Still, Kairi laughed again. Ven didn’t need to know. “He probably just forgot to sleep last night—he’s a Replica, so it won’t kill him, but,” she shrugged and smiled. “You know.

“Uh, sure?”

Ven didn’t look convinced, though. He really was like Sora. Kairi let out a short, frustrated breath of air. Then, before Ven could press, she flashed him her most mischievous smile. “Hey, Ven, you ever gone swimming before?” she asked.

He fixed her with a skeptical look, rather than a worried one. Good.

“Yeah?” he answered, like he was surprised she was asking. “Duh.”

Kairi grinned wider.

“Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean, though?”

“I mean, in Neverland, kinda…” He trailed off, squinting in a way that made him seem uncertain. He cast a nervous glance at the ocean, then at Kairi. Then his eyes went wide. He shook his head. “No way!” he said.

“Too bad!”

Kairi lunged at him, but he was quicker than her. Much quicker, surprisingly quicker, actually. He stepped out of her way with ease, which put her between him in the ocean. Drat. She glared at him, and he held up his hands.

“C’mon, Kairi! I don’t wanna swim.”

Kairi rolled her eyes. Like he had a say! She was getting him into the ocean, whether he liked it or not. And if she couldn’t shove him in, then she could drag him. She lunged again.

This time a gust of wind caught her in the side, tossing her into the sand. Ven had only stepped another pace backwards. He was completely unruffled.

“You don’t want to start this,” he warned her.

His tone was kind enough, but there was a glint in his eyes. Kairi took it as a challenge.

She jumped to her feet, and rushed again.

Eventually, she did get him in the ocean. It took the better part of an hour, because it was hard to compete with a guy who could control wind. She’d probably have bruises all along her side from being tossed to the ground so many times, but ultimately, it’d been fun. She and Ven were both laughing by the end of it. And, besides, she got him into the ocean. That was all that really mattered.

Chapter Text

Practice consisted largely of going through the same exact movements, over and over and over again. He had to perfect his stance, learn to place his weight in the right ways when he swung his Keyblade. That was all fine and dandy, Sora thought, but boy his arms hurt from repeating the same exact swing for about an hour.

They also hurt because another hour had gone to repeating the same block—complete with Aqua striking at him—over and over again to make sure he learned how to place his feet right.

It… It could’ve been worse, though.

They’d finished up about ten, fifteen minutes ago, and Sora was currently lying on his back in the grass, staring up at the perpetual stars above him. He couldn’t recognize any of the constellations, and that stunk. He thought about asking if Aqua knew any of them (she was sitting in the grass not far from him), but then there was a slight tug on his chest.

Ven.

Sora sat up, peering towards the doorway of the tower. He expected Aqua to question, but she was already looking that way, too. Ven came through the door first, but Kairi was on his heels. Thank goodness.

Sora raised his hand in a wave. Kairi grinned at him and started running over. She looked like she wanted to tackle him to the ground, but Sora managed to wave his arms at her soon enough to keep her from actually doing so. She flopped down in the grass beside him instead.

“How’d it go?” she asked, greeting him with a wide smile.

“Good,” he told her, trying not to sound too exhausted. “You definitely would’ve got bored, though.”

Kairi nodded. “Yeah, Ven said I might.”

Sora sent a glance over to Ven. He was bugging Aqua. If Sora listened, could hear what they were talking about—Ven was just telling Aqua he knew she’d do fine in the teaching business—but t