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"Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

~Professor Brand, Interstellar, 2014

He was a warrior. Not born into it, but...perhaps he'd call it fate that drew him in; his friends just happened to join the ride and develop their own journeys. The three of them had gone from regular teenagers to warriors of light in the blink of an eye. And now...now what?

When they arrived in the Badlands after all their training, ready to put an end to it all, they knew it'd be a difficult battle, that no one would escape unscathed. There may be broken bones, damaged psyches, even horribly bleeding wounds with the threat they were about to face. But not even for a split second had he thought they'd get picked off one by one in a matter of minutes. No one expected the tornado of Heartless to be so much stronger than all the others combined; for three of their numbers to fall at the drop of a pin by the one they used to call 'friend'; that he, usually the most optimistic one of them all, would collapse frozen in fear as he watched everyone be ripped away before him, before he himself shared their fate. They'd died. Plain and simple. It wasn't a death like the ones they were used to seeing, where the heart eaten by a Heartless would return to its Nobody shell and re-complete a person. No, they'd actually DIED: drowned in the darkness, had claws and blades run through them, watched their own blood drip from their bodies. Then he found himself in purgatory, searching for the countless fragments which made him whole, so he could stop the killing before it began. At the start he was successful in his mission. One by one the sentinels of darkness were consumed by the light. Some remembered their lives before falling to darkness; others held true to their devious wills and perished with them. Two or three at a time they were beaten. And then, they faced their final threat.

They'd only just gotten her back, and in an instant, Kairi was slain - her body bursting into millions of pieces as she faded, never to smile or say their names again. Never before had such rage and despair coursed through the one they dubbed Sunshine. His optimism was gone, even with Xion's reassurance that she was still there. His heart - his physical heart, and the heart that was his soul - he felt them breaking with every passing second she was gone. And when he was face-to-face with the man who brought on all the chaos for over a decade, the sunshine was eclipsed, and his comrades witnessed their friend unleash hidden rage onto Xehanort. His strikes were brutal, much more than the old man expected from the pure-hearted boy. The swings of his Keyblade against the other twelve embodiments of darkness showed mercy; Xehanort only saw a thirst for vengeance. It wasn't until they were both on the brink of collapse, even with the companions of sunshine offering assistance, that his mind calmed. It wasn't until Terra emerged and delivered a devastating blow onto the man who ruined his life for eleven long, miserable years, that Sora ceased the fighting. And through Terra's blade, Xehanort was unable to stop the influence of the individual he once considered a dear friend burrow into his own heart. Unable to resist for long he soon fell to the light. Kingdom Hearts was restored. All was saved... All but one whose light was snuffed out before her time. Sora couldn't accept her absence. He vowed to bring her back at any cost. His friends all begged him not to go, that he might perish if he ventured into the unknown to save Kairi, but none could shade themselves from the Sunshine's resolve. They regretfully watched him leave in silence, listened to his last words of affirmation, promising that both he and Kairi would return in one piece.

In the end, only the princess made it back home.

Her knight had paid the ultimate price to save her, and he'd done so with a smile on his face. His lips mouthed words that haunted her night after night following the end of the war, that left her face soaked with tears every time she woke up. He did what any warrior would do: risk life and limb for the ones you loved no matter the cost. There wasn't anything anyone could say to her, offer her, that would fill the hole now bored into her heart. Sora was gone. He was gone because he wanted to save her. Because he always wanted to keep her out of harm's way. Because somewhere down the line, his heart decided it couldn't live in a world without her. And now because of his selflessness, she had to go on without him. The sun had set, and it would never rise again. She would have to continue living, breathing, smiling, loving without him. Sora now existed only in her memories.

The lump in her throat persisted when they returned to the Destiny Islands. All the desire she had to explore the cosmos as a young teenager were gone, swallowed in the pit that used to be her inner light. She hid from the others in the secret place to mourn alone, not wanting them to see the despair dripping from her eyes...or to see theirs. Right now the wound was too fresh for her to allow others to share her pain, even though she knew they too were suffering from the loss of Sora. He wasn't just the sunshine in her life. He was Riku's best friend. He was Ventus' protector for over ten years; the other half of Roxas; the reason Xion came into existence... He was someone's son, missing for three years, and now... And now... She would have to tell his parents that he was never coming home. She and Riku were reluctant to return to the main island when they made it back, afraid to see the faces of all the neighbors, friends, and family members they left behind in exchange for adventure. For all the main island's residents knew, the three teens had perished in some freak storm that consumed the island they played on day in and day out. Riku found memorials set up all across the beach for the three of them, and it was too much for even the stoic one of the trio to handle. For now they'd shelter themselves on their little island, and come up with a plan to return to the main island as discreetly as possible. No making a scene. Land ashore under the cover of night. After that...who knew.

Riku prepared their raft for departure. He secured the sail in place and raised a hand to feel the wind. "Strong enough," he murmured; if the gale weakened he could always cast an Aeroga spell to keep them moving. The sun had just set and indigo stretched across the orange glow left behind by the star, allowing millions of other tiny lights to illuminate and glitter the night sky. It was nice to be able to do this again: just sit on the beach, feel the sand beneath your feet and the salty ocean water creep up the shore to meet your skin. He'd missed this. Turning left, Riku saw a memory of himself and Sora as children come to life. They chased each other up and down the shoreline, wooden swords in hand, trying to best one another day after day. He couldn't help the smile that crept onto his face. They spent years repeating the ritual, keeping score one summer after another. It was nights like this he reminded himself why he'd fought so hard against Xehanort and the Organization. Despite the resulting casualties, it was worth every second of every battle. As nice as the solitude on the beach was, Kairi was taking a lot longer than he thought was necessary. He rolled forward and stood, slapping the sand off his pants. "Kairi. Kairi, come on. We don't have time to waste."

The princess emerged a minute later from the shack under the bridge, "Sorry for the delay," she apologized, "I was finishing up the sandwiches. Can't go hungry out on the open waters."

"We've traveled through space to other worlds, and you're worried about a little water. Cute." Riku swiped strands of hair away from his eyes and met Kairi halfway to take some of the supplies from her. "I wish you'd have been this thorough the first time around," he teased.

"Oh, ha ha. And I suppose the raft won't fall apart like the first two?"

The way his face scrunched in response made her giggle. "Those were the trial rafts. Be grateful I was thorough enough to inspect the build, because you would've been in the water before you can say 'paopu fruit'." She hummed behind him as she tied the last of the bags to the mast. The tide would be coming in soon.

"Hey." Her word caught his attention. Riku spun around and met Kairi's eyes. The playful spark she had moments before was gone, overtaken by a serious gaze. "...What are you gonna tell them?"

His breath caught in his throat. He'd been thinking about it since their return to the islands, practicing conversations in his head - even out loud sometimes to a palm tree. Facing his family for the first time in years would be difficult. Even the sight of his father when Riku would enter the living room, his mother's wide green eyes staring back like he was a ghost, the younger brother he didn't get to see grow up, might be too much for him to handle all in one night. In the back of his mind he hoped they wouldn't be home when he snuck inside and hid in the room that was once his. Would the sheets on his bed feel the same? Was the game he played before everything went to hell still shoved under the bed? Was his closet still a mess? His clothes... It hadn't crossed his mind. Riku had grown a lot in three years and had no doubts that nothing in his closet would fit him. Oh, that would be a show for his mother. She'd use it as one part of three years' worth of excuses, lies, and heartbreak to keep her firstborn joined at her hip, never wanting to lose him again. "Honestly, I have no idea. What could I even say? It's not exactly the easiest thing to talk about how many times you nearly died at the hands of magic and fate, and all that noise." For a second he looked away from Kairi and watched the waves flow against the sand. "They won't believe a word of it. No one will. For all we know, they probably think we're dead."

He didn't realize what he'd said until the tiniest gasp left Kairi and her pupils retracted. Riku immediately shut his mouth. Explaining how he and Kairi went missing only to return three years later would be difficult. But it was a walk in the park compared to what they'd say when they went to Sora's childhood home. How do you even begin to explain how your best friend, the light of her life, their son wasn't coming home? That there wasn't even a body to have a proper funeral for? The breath still trapped in Riku's throat became a hard lump he couldn't swallow. He never thought about it; now he'd be forced to relive the final battle and tell Sora's family that he'd died, and no amount of preparation would help.

Riku averted his gaze. "It's almost time to cast off. You got the GPS ready?" Kairi nodded and dug in her pocket for her gummiphone... Sora's gummiphone. Just holding the device was surreal. She could still feel the warmth his hand left behind from the last time he touched it. She shook the raw emotion from her thoughts and returned to the task at hand. A few clicks on the screen pulled up a map with markers placed all over.

"We're good to go." With a nod to one another the two got behind their raft and started pushing it closer to the water. It was heavier than they expected it to be with the supplies they packed, and took some effort to finally get it to move. Halfway into the water, both of them paused. The shadows the night cast on their bodies was fading, lighting up faster than they could track. Their attention was drawn to the sky, where they noticed one of the stars brightening at an unusually quick pace. They'd seen this happen before. Another world was being erased from existence. "Wait... I thought everything was okay now."

"It should be." The light flashed. They shielded their eyes from the sudden intensity. It dimmed momentarily, allowing the two to exchange glances, each hoping the other could explain the strange light. It couldn't be the moon with the way it rapidly flashed...and then they noticed the light growing in size, as if it was getting closer- "Oh shit! Kairi, duck!" The moment moved in stills as Riku shoved Kairi forward and jumped on top of her, covering her body with his when the ground began to tremor. Sand bounced into their clothes. They felt the temperature around them rising as if it were the middle of the day. It was just like the night everything went to hell. Their world would be ripped apart again, and this time, they didn't have Sora.

The mass of light crashed into the ocean. Its force pushed the water out in all directions, creating huge ripples and a following shockwave that violently shook the trees. Waves fell over the pair and soaked them to the bone. They waited for everything to stop, to calm...to explode out of existence, if that was their fate. Seconds ticked by, then minutes, and when Riku could count to ten without anything hitting his back he peeked from behind his arm to investigate their surroundings. The ocean was choppy but nowhere near the tsunami that almost came to be. That was relief enough for Riku to stand up and pull Kairi to her feet. "You okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine." Hesitantly, Kairi balanced on the tips of her toes and peered over Riku's shoulder to look at the water, hoping to see whatever had crashed. She only saw water flying up and plopping back down into the ocean. The two returned their focus back to the raft, inspecting it for any damage. "It looks okay. Don't see any splits in the wood." She knelt next to it and leaned in closer, squinting her eyes. "Our supplies are still in one piece. I think we're good to-" Her breath halted when something emerged from the water and touched her knee. Kairi sucked in a sharp, uneven breath when she unfroze and scrambled backwards on her hands and feet. Riku's attention was immediately back to her, assuming she'd either found damage to the raft, or an injury to herself. He bent down on one knee next to her, his hands hovering over her frame before resting on her shoulders. She appeared fine. He was satisfied until he noticed tears streaking down her face, picking up in volume the longer he stared. His lips parted to ask what was wrong. A high-pitched noise sounded from her throat. Kairi raised a trembling arm and pointed to the water, and before he understood why she was crying, the girl pushed past him and crawled back to the ocean. She tried forming words but her tongue tied as her emotions went beyond her control. Her hands slipped under whatever had washed ashore and poked her, fingers running through brown locks she thought were lost forever. "RIKU!" Kairi shrieked. She didn't need to say anything else when he crawled forward. The tears welling in the corners of his eyes told her all she needed. Riku knelt in the muddy sand, unsure of what to do with himself. All he could manage was a faint chuckle and the water flowing down his face, staring down at the one they thought they'd lost forever.

His best friend.

The light of her life.

Sora returned home.

Chapter Text

“You are my best friend as well as my lover, and I do not know which side of you I enjoy the most. I treasure each side, just as I have treasured our life together.”

~Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook

So this was how it would end. Being scattered to the wind, the world fading before his eyes, the girl that started it all as his last sight. She cried out his name, tears dripping from her cheeks as she reached out for him, unable to catch his hand in hers. It happened in a flash. Sora found Kairi, semi-conscious and being sucked into a dark pit that scratched her skin with every passing second. He flew into the swirling mass of Heartless and Unversed without a second thought. He swam through the creatures, trying his best to ignore them scratching his arms and face as they did Kairi's. The closer he got the further in she fell, until only her hand and forearm stuck out. Sora dove deeper into the pit, the mass of monsters beginning to feel like the thick water he'd been trapped in the first time he lost his heart. It was near impossible to speed up as the Heartless squeezed against each other to suffocate the humans struggling within, but he did reach his princess, and yanked her up and out of the pit of darkness. He pulled her to solid ground and knelt beside her, begging, "Wake up. Please, Kairi...wake up..." It took a moment for him to realize why she wasn't responding: her heart had been torn from her body, leaving her an empty shell once again; only this time, he couldn't sense her presence in himself. Sora dashed toward the pit again and jumped back in, and searched through the darkness and glowing yellow eyes for his precious light. It was sucked all the way to the bottom, slowly sinking downward and vanishing the lower it got. The Heartless squeezed and scratched and bit the Sunshine, sensing his heart and wanting to devour it. He kicked and punched them out of his way, not caring when one's claws swiped at his face and split his lip, or of the tattered remains of his jacket that caught on the teeth of the Unversed. He was so close to it. The warmth was growing.

Sora leaped out of the pit and hurried to Kairi's side, his steps halting when a nasty gash in his calf began to burn. He powered through the pain and limped until she was beside him once more, and he carefully lowered the shimmering crystal to her body. The second it went in her skin gained color, her chest rose and fell, she sucked in a deep breath, and her eyes fluttered open. Sora was the first sight she had, the soft eyes staring down at her with a smile to match. "Sora..."

"Hey." Hesitantly, he laid a hand on her cheek and circled his thumb under her eyes, before scooping her up with the other. Kairi sat up next to him and leaned into his touch. "I promised I'd come back for you, and I don't break promises." His sincerity and selflessness formed a lump in her chest, catching her breath, watching a golden aura glow around him. He really was her sunshine. "Kairi... I..." He didn't get to finish whatever he'd planned to say when the princess rushed forward and crashed her lips into his. His eyes widened at the feeling, his hands freezing in the air when Kairi's snaked around his body and held onto his shoulderblades for dear life. Sora sank into the warmth of her kiss and his eyes closed, his hands resting on her cheek and waist. He'd never been one for fairytales, but in that moment, with the heat surging in his face and chest, all he could focus on was the princess' lips against his, her arms caressing him, her knight. The cold of the darkness surrounding them began to dissipate, and when they parted for breath, there was nothing but one another hand in hand.

"This is three times I have to thank you for," she said to him. "You've saved me from the darkness over and over again. How can I-"

A finger pressed on her lips silenced her. Sora shook his head. "Don't worry about it. I told you, I'd do anything for you."

Her heart skipped a beat. "But why?"

"Because..." And then the words left his lips, the three words that would haunt her when she returned home alone. All she heard after that was a yell of pain, Sora's agonized moans as he fell forward into her, his breath labored. "Sora!" Behind him she saw the source of his pain: an Invisible, a large Heartless hovering inches over the ground, a long sword in hand. And on the sword's edge, red liquid dripped from the blade. Her breath hitched. Kairi held Sora upright and dragged him backwards, as far away from the Heartless as she could get. Her back hit a boulder. They were trapped. She shuddered, eyes wide and unable to pull away from the Invisible, until she felt something wet under her hands. Kairi lifted her left and shrieked at the sight of her palm coated in red. He was bleeding. This wasn't like the other wounds she'd seen on him. Kairi snapped back to reality when Sora groaned and squirmed in her grasp, hands planted on the boulder behind her to push himself up. "Are...you okay?"

Was he for real? "Are you serious? It sliced you open!" She kept him propped up when he lost balance and fell into her again. "We have to run before it attacks again!" Kairi raised his arm and wrapped it behind her neck, gripped his wrist firmly, and held him by the hem of his pants. It was deja vu for him; he'd done the same for Riku after defeating Xemnas, and he knew they wouldn't be fast enough to escape from that class of Heartless. Sora struggled against Kairi's hold on him, flexing his hand open to summon his Keyblade and defend them both. He wormed his way out of her grasp and spun around on heel, and fought the pain as he sank into his battle stance. "Sora, no!"

"I've got this. Find somewhere to hide." The Invisible crept closer and raised its sword. Yellow eyes blared out of the ground and rose with the surrounding shadows to form the menacing foot soldiers that scrambled into formation on either side of the leader. Sora grit his teeth as the number of enemies multiplied. He glanced over his shoulder at Kairi, who stared back at him with fear in her eyes. "If any get past me, you've got your Keyblade. I'll take care of these guys in the meantime." When she didn't reply he gave her a confident smile, and watched until she ran off. He brought his attention back to the Heartless once he felt she was safe and raised his Keyblade above his head to gather fire at its tip.

Kairi found a hiding spot when he fired the Firaga spell at the horde of monsters. She sank behind a collection of rocks and poked her head out the side to keep an eye on Sora. He seemed so fearless, taking on the massive group by himself. He rolled sideways to evade the Invisible's dark sword swinging down, swiping his own weapon at the mass of Heartless waiting for him. Sora fought the creatures for years now, and not once did he ever reveal a hint of terror coursing through him. He destroyed the small fry with single hits, forcing them to explode when he went for their heads. But the more Heartless he destroyed, the more that crawled out of the small dark portals forming on the ground. Even reflecting their attacks back at them didn't stop their numbers from growing faster than he could exterminate them. And what was she doing? Hiding from the monsters like a coward. She was buried under them in Hollow Bastion. She fought against them in Organization XIII's headquarters alongside Riku. Why couldn't she do it now, where it mattered most? Kairi's hands curled into fists and she hit the ground. She couldn't be the damsel in distress forever. A growl uttered from her throat and she summoned her own Keyblade, and jumped out from behind the rocks. She swiped wildly and ran toward Sora, reaching him in a matter of minutes. He let out a startled gasp when he noticed her presence, nearly distracting him from another oncoming attack from the Invisible. "Kairi-"

"I said I'd be the one protecting you this time." Her tone was firm as she held her Keyblade tight in both hands and widened her stance. She guarded his back and followed his lead, destroying line after line of Shadows. Though it was two against countless numbers they seemed to gain the upper hand in the battle, and soon even the Invisible fell and dissipated into smoke, leaving the warriors alone. Kairi was the first to exhale in relief. Her arms fell slack and her Keyblade vanished. "See?" she panted. "I told you... I'd protect you."

Even Sora had to take a moment to regain his breath. He chuckled with each inhale and lowered his weapon. "You did good. Just wait until you get more experience. It'll become second nature to you." The optimism in his voice halted when the gash on his back started pulsing. Sora grit his teeth and sank to a knee, immediately sensing Kairi's presence by his side. "I'm fine. I'll have Aqua patch me up when we get back to them. And speaking of..." Sora stood up and held out his hand for her to take. "Let's get going. The others are waiting for us." The smile spreading across her face told him she was ready to head out, and they started to walk.

Kairi observed their surroundings. Everything looked the same, in her opinion, and she had no idea how he'd navigated through this wasteland. Her fingers tightened around his hand. "You sure you know where you're going?" Sora nodded with a hum. "How much further?"

As if on cue Sora's steps halted. "This is a good spot." Sora double-checked the immediate area for enemies, and when he was satisfied with what he saw, he summoned his Keyblade again and held it in both hands. "I'm gonna open a gateway. It should lead us straight back to the Land of Departure." He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He trained his focus on the weapon in his grasp and beckoned the light to guide them out of the dark realm. The tip of the blade began glowing and sparkling. Slowly he raised his arms until they and the Keyblade were parallel to the ground. The light shot out and formed a keyhole in the air. He twisted the Keyblade left until a click echoed, and the light forming the keyhole expanded into a doorway glimmering in the dark. "There we are." Sora turned to glance over his shoulder at Kairi, ready to let her step through first. His pupils contracted in a split second. His princess had the sweetest smile on her face, dimples pressed into her blushing cheeks.

And behind her, another Invisible held its sword pointed toward her back, mere moments from cutting her down.

Everything after that happened in a flash, Kairi's mind couldn't keep up with whatever happened. She'd fallen to the ground - no, Sora pushed her forward, to the edge of the gateway - and he stood motionless, teeth gritting, eyes squeezed tight, and when she looked down, Kairi saw the damage. He'd saved her a fourth time. Saved her from getting stabbed by the Invisible's sword that now poked into Sora's abdomen, and drilled straight through until it poked out from his back. His hands opened and his Keyblade disappeared. The Invisible rammed the sword further into the warrior's body until a scream erupted from him, and as he got louder, he coughed violently, and blood droplets flew out. Kairi froze. She couldn't move a single muscle, not with the sight of Sora bleeding in front of her. The warrior hunched forward and grabbed the blade sticking out from him. His breathing became ragged as he coughed again. Kairi started trembling. "SORA!" she screeched, and readied to dash to him.

"S-stay back!" he ordered her, stopping her before she could take a step, holding his free hand up. "You've...you've got to... Run, Kairi, get out of-" The Invisible tore its sword from the warrior's body with a single pull and hovered past him, setting its sights on Kair as Sora dropped to the groundi.

Move.

It raised its sword vertically, pointing to the sky.

Do something.

Its shoulder rolled back, preparing to swing.

MOVE!!!

The Invisible stopped moving, its sword and arm frozen in the air. Not even its tail moved. Kairi heard grunting behind the monster and saw Sora dragging himself towards her, his Keyblade in a trembling hand, a purple aura flowing from its tip and attaching the the monster. Why was he still fighting? Those injuries were serious. He needed medical attention. The thoughts flowed through her mind but caught in her throat when she attempted to speak, matching the tears welling in the corners of her eyes. Sora noticed her on the brink of crying and gave a weak, breathy chuckle. "Don't...cry..." he struggled to say. "You're...going to make it, Kairi... You'll see... all our friends again..." Why was she still frozen? Kairi shook her head and readied to run to him a second time. Right foot out, she wasn't prepared for the gust of wind which threw her backwards, further into the gateway. Through the salty tears obstructing her vision she saw Sora's Kayblade pointed at her. Between them the Invisible began twitching. "There...isn't much...time..." His arm lowered. "Get out of here... while you still can... Don't...worry about me..." Her lower lip quivered. "...I always...make it back..." Sora fought against the pain as the Invisible began breaking free from his Stop spell and raised his Keyblade again. He didn't say anymore; he only met her squinting eyes with one eye closed. He grinned wide, ignoring the taste of iron in his mouth, and with his remaining strength, Sora turned the Keyblade right.

"SORAAAAAA!!!!"

The gateway closed.

That was the last memory he had before everything went dark. His body ached, the wounds burned, his chest tightened...but Kairi was safe. That was all that mattered. The first time he died was painless. The Heartless tornado swallowed him and his comrades whole, probably ripped to shreds. He wasn't quite sure of what happened; all he recalled was racing to restore himself so he could restore the others and prevent the shadows from consuming them. Sora questioned if they'd really died the first time, if instead their souls were sucked into a near-death experience that would wake them. This time was straightforward. He FELT it. He'd heard of what it felt like to be stabbed from Cloud, but never imagined it would happen to him, that a Heartless was capable of more than tearing your soul and body from each other. He never thought he'd meet his end so soon. He'd hoped to at least to Cid's age, if not longer.

But if this was the price to pay for Kairi's safety, then so be it.

Just as he was getting used to the idea of death, Sora swore his body was shaking. That made no sense if he'd expired. No, not shaking... More like pressure. It was centered in his chest, a pushing sensation that wouldn't stop. If he were honest, it was kind of annoying. And then there were those muffled noises: two of them, going back and forth... And why was everything bobbing up and down? If he were alive he'd be sick by now. The noises were getting louder, sounding less like he was underwater, and they sounded close. REALLY close. The pressing sensation on his chest stopped for a minute, then continued in the same pattern.

"...ere any fas - need a do-:

"...as fast as i - t's a lot of bl-"

"...ku, please!" The pressing stopped like before, then started again. Combined with the floating sensation he thought he'd puke - if he was still alive. Maybe it was just purgatory again, minus the weird cat and sentient collections of dust. "I need another rag! This one's soaked through!"

"Kinda busy here!" Were the two noises - voices - arguing? "You want me to get us there faster, or are you taking over? Casting the same spell over and over is draining!"

Spell? "Don't you know any healing magic?"

"Don't you? It wouldn't work anyway. His injuries are too severe. He needs a proper doctor." What the hell were they arguing about? The guy's voice had gone sarcastic for a moment, while the girl's had a hint of fear in it. And that constant pressing on his chest was getting annoying.

And the girl seemed to grow vexed, too. "Don't give me that look! I've never had to give CPR before?" CPR? Is that what the pressing was? Someone was administering CPR...why? "Hey, I think he's waking up! How close to shore are we?"

"About five more minutes. Just keep at it!"

It was too dark at first, then it was a dark purplish indigo peppered with tiny white dots. Was that...the sky? And that light a little off to the right... That was the moon. Then something obstructed it, something really close to him and dripping. Slowly, Sora's eyes peeled open all the way. "He's awake!" the girl's voice trembled. Something cupped his face, forcing his focus on the obstruction that became clearer the longer he stared. Two glassy eyes, a nose, a pair of lips... "Sora! Oh my god, you're alive! Thank goodness!!"

"Kai...ri...?" His throat was on fire, the burning enhanced with each slow, heavy breath pulled into his lungs. First a dry burn, then one paired with a wet cough he couldn't control. Why was his body numb? He couldn't feel a thing below the neck. Sora moved his eyes as far to the side as his strained body allowed, pain rippling through every movement, and caught a glimpse of the second person. "Rik-" A cough took over his voice.

"Glad to have you back, buddy," he heard the person say, though they didn't turn to look at him. "Just hang on. We're almost to a doctor. We're gonna get you patched up. Don't try to move; you're in horrible shape." Sora blinked, wondering if it was all a long dream entertaining him on his way to the final world. Though he couldn't feel his body below his neck, he was able to feel his soaked clothes, sticking to his skin like glue. Kairi's hand was on his cheek; it was hot to the touch. Either she was sick or he was frozen to the core. She caressed his chin and pulled his head into her lap to stroke his hair. It was soothing, despite the sharp burn on his lip and the tender spots across his skull. Maybe that last fight was the dream and he'd woken up on the beach, similar to that one time Kairi startled him when they were younger. But then why couldn't he feel or move anything? And patched up? A doctor?

And then it hit him all at once. Somehow he was still alive...or he'd come back to life; either way, that didn't explain how he was back with Riku and Kairi. Did they come back to the dark realm to rescue him? No, that sky was void of any stars. It had to be home. But his mind wasn't ready for so many questions. He was beyond exhausted. For the time being, Sora closed his eyes and settled in Kairi's lap, the corners of his mouth curving up for just a moment, enough for Kairi to be reassured. Running her fingers through his bangs, she began to hum the song she knew his mother would play to keep the nightmares away as a child. He wasn't going anywhere this time, except wherever Riku and Kairi brought him. The smell of the salty ocean was a delight for Sora, reminding him that he wasn't dreaming or in danger anymore. He'd returned home.

He made it back to the Destiny Islands.

Chapter Text

“When he looks at me, the way he looks at me... He does not know, what I lack... Or - how - I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I - am, as I am. He's happy - to see me. Every time. Every day.”

~Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

He couldn't breathe. The pit of darkness was swallowing him again, swirling and twisting his body beyond his control. His lips parted to scream, to make his presence known so someone would help him, but he couldn't utter a sound. His throat burned with every attempt he made at breathing or yelling, the fire within so hot that he thought he'd burst from its pressure. The only light came from beady yellow eyes glowing in the twister the farther down he sank. It was saving Kairi all over again, only this time he was the one in need of rescue, and no one was there to hear him. He stuck his arm above him, trying with what little strength he had to dig his way out, but the limb vanished as it reached out of the pit. He began falling apart: first his hands, then his arms, legs following, all turning to dust as the shadows squeezed him. Every part of him, down to the tiniest molecule and strand of DNA, broke and scattered as they were consumed by the darkness. An arm cast in shadow snaked up his torso and curled around his neck. Its clawed hand ripped lines into his skin, leaving a red trail on its ascent to his head. The shadow split in two. One section bolted through his hair and covered his eyes as the other slithered into his mouth, enhancing the burn still in his throat. He was alone in the darkness, falling deeper and deeper, and there wasn't a soul around to save him.

Sora awakened with the scream he couldn't let out in the darkness, his heart pounding and his body coated in cold sweat. High-pitched whines echoed into his ears and rattled his skull. His eyes darted in all directions as pain seared through his entire body when he jumped in the bed. Figures broke through a barrier around him and hands were all over him immediately, pushing him down, poking and prodding, holding his flailing limbs. The sirens around him were silenced by the scream even as he began to relax his body. His throat burned something awful. His mouth tasted like iron. The area directly around him was boiling and the hands were stabbing pains pricking him all over. Something cool was draped across his forehead and Sora turned his attention to his left. Relief washed over him when he saw Kairi sitting beside him, her fingers running through his hair, shushing and soothing him to the best of her ability. "It's okay, Sora," she said to him in the calmest tone she could manage. "It's okay. You're safe. No one's hurting you."

"...Kairi..." A tear slid down his cheek. Sora fought against the figures holding him down and nearly tackled Kairi out of her chair. He buried his face in her chest, his body shaking as she rubbed his head and hugged him tight. "You're alive," his muffled voice whimpered, "you're really here." She felt tears stream from his eyes as his hands kept her close, not willing to let go even for a second. The high-pitched noises around him calmed to steady beeps and Kairi silently nodded to the others in the room, and a minute later she and Sora were alone. She let him continue crying in her arms. She couldn't begin to imagine the extreme pain and fear he'd experienced in the dark realm all by himself. The last time she saw him, Sora had saved her life nearly at the cost of his own. She still remembered the stab wound the Heartless gave him, the blood seeping between her fingers when she held him up, the red dripping from his mouth when he used an Areoga spell to throw her into the gateway... Even thinking of that day herself sent shivers down her spine. He eventually calmed down, sniffling when he reluctantly pulled away from Kairi, and rubbed his already puffy eyes. "Sorry," he said to her. "I'm just so happy to see you're alright." Whatever sadness had overwhelmed him upon his waking seemed to subside enough for Sora to relax back into the pillow and mattress he'd just started to realize were under him.

Kairi saw the confusion in his eyes. She took the remote hanging beside the bed and pressed one of the buttons, and the upper half of the mattress started rising. She stopped it when Sora was still able to sit up and fluffed the pillow behind his head, then straightened out the blanket that had been covering him. The nearby curtain shifted and both teenagers watched Riku walk into the room, his steps halting when he saw his best friend awake. "Sora..." Riku smiled at his friend and slowly approached him. He immediately noticed how red and puffy Sora's eyes were. "Glad to see you awake. How're you feeling?"

"Riku..." Sora shot forward, ready to pounce on his friend, but the teen shook his head and held up his hands to tell him no.

"You've got to take it easy. You're in bad shape." Confusion was quick to spread on the brunet's face. A sigh left Riku as he settled in the empty chair next to the bed and leaned forward, his hands knitted together and elbows balanced on his knees. His mouth opened but quickly shut as he wrestled with what to say in his head. It might be better to see what he knows first, he told himself. "Do you...remember anything from before?"

Sora raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean? You mean from the final battle? Or anything after that?" Riku's gaze narrowed at the last question and Sora took it as a confirmation. He held his head in his hands and closed his eyes. "I remember watching you and all the others leave the Badlands together. You all had this look on your face that said 'you shouldn't be doing this', like I was making a mistake... And then I was in the realm of darkness. I tracked Kairi down just in time; she was being swallowed by a vortex of Heartless." Kairi winced at the mention of her name. "I did it. I managed to rescue her alive and made sure she got home. After that..." Sora tensed, a hiss escaping his lips. Trying to think of anything after that gave him a horrible headache.

Kairi and Riku absorbed every word he said, the former biting her bottom lip hard. Technically speaking she'd been the last one to see him alive before he fell from the heavens and returned. That last sight of him, crawling to her and biting back the pain surging through him, the red trail following his body and staining his face and hands, was one she wished she could forget. It was a reminder of all he'd given to rescue her...of how she did nothing, instead sat back and watched him be skewered and slashed. Kairi's eyes dropped to her hands curled in her lap. Some Keyblade wielder she was. She wanted to ask how he made it back to them when he was laying half-dead on the cold, hard ground of the realm of darkness, but knew he wasn't ready to dive that deep. Her hands twitched, nails digging into her palms the more her fingers tucked in. Even taking one look at him now, laying in a hospital bed with needles shoved into his arms and body covered in nothing more than bandages and a hospital gown, inflated the guilt rippling through her.

Riku sensed the tension in the air and cleared his throat. "I'll bring you up to speed on everything. It's 1:40 in the morning. You're on the Destiny Islands in Harmony Hospital. You had exploratory surgery on your abdomen to make sure nothing got destroyed; all your organs are intact. You got off extremely lucky. Your X-rays and scans are alright..." His words trailed off.

Sora stared at him. "What are you not telling me?" Riku sucked in a long, deep breath and averted his gaze, his hands trembling against his chin.

"When..." How was he supposed to tell him without scaring him? "When we found you, you'd washed up on the shore like a beached whale. Kairi and I were lucky to have waited to cast off, otherwise we might've missed you, and..." Nothing scared Riku, but thinking of what almost happened had him shaking. "We pulled you onto the raft and hurried to the main island as fast as we could. Kairi took off her sweater and held it against your stomach to staunch the bleeding. Halfway to shore we realized you weren't breathing." Riku swallowed a lump that formed in his throat and sucked his teeth, his eyes squeezed shut tight. "Sora, you were gone. You were technically dead until Kairi revived you with her CPR. If we hadn't found you..." His voice began to crack.

"You almost left us again on the way here," Kairi continued in Riku's place. "We ran in just in time to save you. It's a miracle you're alive."

"That's one way to put it," Riku mumbled, still unable to look his best friend in the eye.

"So..." The truth sank in. "So I was really..." His face paled. He stared down at his hands and flexed his fingers, imagining the Keyblade in his grasp when he sealed off the gateway. It sent shocks through his head. He'd only just begun to notice the bandages around his limbs, feel the needle of the IV shoved into his arm burn every time his fingers moved, feel his head throb and his lip burn. The worst of it all, though, came when he sucked in a shaky breath, and his gut screamed bloody murder. Flashes played in his head of the Invisible aiming to stab its sword into Kairi, of himself pushing her out of the way and taking the blow, of the Heartless shoving the blade deeper into his body before twisting and ripping it out of him. He stared down at his abdomen, focusing on the exact area the weapon ran through him. He'd never experienced such brutal agony before, and adding on that for a short time, his heart stopped beating and he had no pulse, nearly stopped it again. His hand rested on his chest, waiting to feel each thump of his heart to validate that he was actually alive. It was surreal.

He was still so pale. Kairi shuffled out of her chair and pat Sora's shoulder. "I'm gonna get you some water. You look parched." She hurried out of the room without another glance at him.

Sora didn't catch on right away. Relaxed, Riku shifted closer to Sora and leaned back in his seat. "She feels horrible about it."

"Hmm?" The brunet's mind returned to his friend.

"Kairi was the last one to see you alive before we thought you were gone for good. She tried describing what happened to me at least five or six times; she never managed to finish. Her only coherent sentence was always the same one, whether she was numb and curled into herself or sobbing uncontrollably." Riku hesitated. "'It's my fault'. That's the one thing she's kept on saying since we arrived on the islands. Every day she'd sink into a deep depression and hide in the treehouse until nightfall. It took her a week and a half to come back to her senses. But I can still sense the guilt smothering her. Even when she's joking around I see it in her eyes: that one tiny thread of shame tightening around her spirit." He half-chuckled. "I've never seen her like this before. Even Aqua couldn't soothe her."

After looking away for an extended period Riku turned back to Sora and met his gaze. "Maybe you being back with us will help her out." It was when Riku raised his arm to rub the back of his neck that Sora noticed a white bracelet around his wrist.

"What's that?"

Sora pointed to the item and Riku followed with a sharp exhale. "Oh yeah, that. While you were in surgery Kairi and I were pulled aside for our own examinations. Apparently we looked malnourished and beat up or something. They tried admitting us but we turned them down; having one of us stuck in a bed is torture enough."

It was all real. The pain surging through every fiber of him, the hard mattress below, the bandages and sounds echoing into the room from the door halfway open, the pulse monitor clipped to his finger, all the machines beeping around him... He wasn't dreaming or in purgatory. He was alive, and so were his friends. He imagined the others were as well. Sora wanted to see them all, let them know he was okay, see their smiling faces, hear what they've been up to since the end of the battle. He wanted the happy times to return and never leave. "How's everyone else doing?"

"Oh, that's a tale and a half." Riku crossed his arms, much calmer than before. "Namine is living in Radiant Garden. She's still getting used to her new body but she's adapting well. Ienzo and Ansem the Wise are looking after her. Aqua and the guys went back to their home with these huge grins on their faces." He suddenly recalled something. "You missed something hilarious. Ven and Roxas never really had a chance to talk in the Badlands, but once we were all gathered on our island, they were poking and pinching each other like cats. Xion couldn't stop rolling her eyes and Lea was cracking jokes the whole time. Now everyone's calling them the 'twins', and they're bickering over who's the better looking one." Sora couldn't help the laugh that surfaced from the scene playing in his head. "Lea had it coming to him, though; it only took one day for him to get a sunburn. He didn't hear the end of it from Roxas until a few days ago."

"I'd love to see them sometime soon. It feels like it's been years since we were all together."

"Baby steps, Sora. First we need to get you up and moving. The doctors said you'll make a full recovery, but don't think you can go straight into training. You have to let your body recuperate after the hell you've been through." Kairi returned with a paper cup and handed it to Sora. The water flowed down his throat and stung a bit but refreshed him at the same time. All the tension from earlier dissipated as the three friends found comfort in each other's presence. But for a moment Kairi felt her heart skip a beat. Did he remember the kiss? Thinking of his lips against her spread a red flow across her cheeks. She wanted to ask him, to see what he would do about it. It would have to wait, though, until he was fully healed and had time to get settled back into his former life.

Thirty minutes later Sora woke up from a mini-nap and got into a deep conversation with Riku about traveling to the other worlds in the future. He was eager to revisit all the places he'd explored throughout his journey, the Land of Departure and Twilight Town in particular. He'd only been to Aqua's home world for a short time and felt he didn't get enough out of it. Kairi listened from the side while writing in her journal. All was at peace.

The curtain was yanked aside. The three teens were startled, distracted from their activities, at the sight of four adults gawking at them. They froze at the edge of the room, trying to register the sight before them. Four jaws dropped. Seven pairs of eyes widened. One of the women's lips quivered. Riku forced down a swallow. "Shit," he tried to whisper, though it came out loud enough for all to hear.

Their parents.

Chapter Text

"Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for."

"You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die."

~Casablanca, 1942

The first time Kairi returned to the Destiny Islands, she was alone. The island they'd disappeared on was rebuilt as if it was never swallowed by the darkness, and when she sailed to the main island its entire population gathered to welcome her back. She was thought to have been lost to a giant, terrifying typhoon that struck the night she and the boys vanished. She was bombarded about the incident for weeks. Where were Riku and Sora? How did she make it back home? What happened while she was gone? Kairi couldn't answer many. She didn't know where her friends were, or how to explain the magic that saved her and sent her off as Sora's hand reached for her. The whole thing seemed like a long dream. And then she threw her own questions to the islanders. What happened to the islands when they were sucked into the dark vortex? How did they all survive? But they all looked at her with concern, asking if she was okay or had hit her head when she was swept away. "The islands never disappeared," the mayor told her when she was settled in her room again. "Like they said, there was a massive typhoon that approached the islands. A category 5, they predicted, and it was supposed to hit the entire island chain. But for some unknown reason it veered off its predicted course and nearly destroyed Isle Belle. Then you and the boys went missing, some of the rowboats were gone..." His voice trailed off as he gauged her reaction to his words. "Kairi... You were gone for three months."

Three months? Had it really been that long? The whole experience only felt like a few days, from what she recalled, though she didn't know how much time had passed between that fateful night and when she woke from her petrified state, and she never bothered to ask Sora. Kairi didn't have any answers to give the citizens and press, and eventually everyone moved on - except for Riku and Sora's parents, who interrogated her every chance they could. And then at some point, when their demands for answers ceased, she forgot all about the boys and their adventure through the cosmos. The memories of restoring Sora to his normal state, going on her first gummi ship ride to Traverse Town, of watching Riku's spirit ward off Ansem until they got away, were all gone in the blink of an eye. Then she mysteriously regained her memories, and soon after she was kidnapped by a tall man with red hair; she never thought she'd come to befriend Axel/Lea once he was re-completed. The three of them were together on the islands for less than a day when they were summoned away once more, never getting the chance to see the main island's inhabitants.

And now they were together for what they hoped would be the last time they'd have to fight to be reunited. And with their elusive homecoming came a tsunami of emotions.

The parents remained silent as they gawked at the teenagers, unable to register the three people, the ones staring right back at them and the entire region had spent countless resources on tracking down, were actually in front of them. The woman all the way on the right end of the group was a statue, eyes wide, the thermos in her hand shaking. Her stare lingered on Sora, who met her eyes with just as much shock. Her breath coiled in her throat, her eyes rolled up, and the woman fell backwards to the floor. The adults' focus immediately went to the woman passed out, two nurses and the doctor treating Sora rushing to get her onto a bed. "Eva!" the man holding her hand exclaimed. Once she was taken care of the other couple returned to the little room and lingered in the doorway, afraid to walk in, afraid to say anything to the young man who rolled out of his chair and stood up. The air was thick, no one knowing what to do. The woman clinging to the arm of the man next to her, platinum blonde hair cut to a bob, stared at the person who looked so much like her eldest son, and tears welled in her eyes.

"...Riku..." the woman finally said, still believing the person with her son's face was a figment of her imagination. Her hand reached out but immediately pulled back in when he took a hesitant step toward her. Those eyes... They were the same eyes she saw every day when waking him for school, scolding him for something bad he did, wiping the tears from his cheeks when he broke his arm. They were the same eyes as her boy's. This was real. Her lower lip quivered before she sprinted forward and wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him tight against her body, and cried hysterically into her son's shoulder. "My baby... My baby boy..." she repeated when his hands pressed onto her back and returned the hug. He closed his eyes and rested his cheek on her hair, not knowing what he could say, if anything; she was releasing nearly three year's worth of fear and sorrow. The man who stood beside her took slow steps closer to his wife, face pale as her knees gave out and she sank to the floor with her son in tow.

The other woman regained consciousness, and when she remembered the reason she'd gone to the hospital, she sprang out of bed and dashed back to the room Sora resided in. The man followed right behind her and both parents rushed to his side to hold him. The woman buried Sora's face into her chest and bit her lower lip. Sora was still in shock and stayed quiet as the man and woman held him tight and rocked him back and forth in their hug. None of them knew what to say first, but after several minutes of silence Sora's eyes shut and he turned his head so his ear laid over her heart. "...I'm sorry..." He was the one who started crying first. "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm so sorry..." Kairi fought against her own tears and wiped them before they could fall. This is what she wanted ever since the first time she came back to the islands: to not be alone, for Sora and Riku to be reunited with their friends and loved ones, to not have to fight anymore. And the dam holding back her own emotions burst when she was pulled from the chair and into the embrace.

When everyone finally relaxed Sora's doctor entered the room. Riku's mother refused to let him go even when her husband tried helping her up. "I'm happy to see everyone's alright and smiling," he began. He noticed the way Riku looked up at him, seeing the disdain manifesting in his glare. He knew the teenager was mad at the very least, and began to explain everything. "When the three of you rushed into the ER I couldn't shake the feeling of how familiar you looked. So I searched through missing children reports and found out who you were, then called your parents while you were being treated." Riku's gaze narrowed. He'd hoped to plan a little more before returning to their families. "Needless to say, we're all elated to see the three of you alive and well. Kairi." She glanced up when she heard her name. "The mayor's on his way here to see you."

Her heart stopped for a moment. She knew what was coming. He'd walk in and interrogate her on where she'd run off to this time, why she never called, if anything was wrong. Blah blah blah, just like the first time. Mayor Cross was a kind man; she could never thank him enough for taking her in when she had nowhere else to go. Though the thought of sleeping in a warm bed in her own home was soothing, she knew what would come afterward, and she wasn't looking forward to anything once she walked into his estate. The physician's focus shifted to Sora and he approached the family, who separated just enough where they could still hold their son and pay attention at the same time. "Sora's fine for the most part. He has what looks like a rather large stab wound to his side clean through his body, but everything's alright. No organ damage, no broken bones. All his scans were normal. The worst thing on him is probably the bruising. Other than that, he can start walking and moving around whenever he's ready. Just take it easy; your stitches are still fresh." When everyone seemed to understand the circumstances he gave a nod, adding, "I'll get the discharge papers ready," and left the room.

Riku searched the room. "Where's Aoi?"

The mention of his younger brother pulled his mother's mind back to reality. She turned to her husband and nodded, and het let out a long sigh. "Aoi's staying with a friend tonight. We didn't want him walking in and seeing..." Riku understood. If the kid ran into the hospital just to see his brother dead on a gurney he might lose it. He wondered how much the kid had grown in his absence. "Clara?"

His mother sniffled and rubbed the remaining tears away. "Riku, we have a lot to discuss. Everyone's been worried sick about the three of you! The whole archipelago gathered and did a massive search after the typhoon. They never found you, and after a month...they called off the search." She was on the verge of sobbing again. "Wait until they hear you're back, that you're alright! The whole town'll be in an uproar!" Clara pulled Riku back into her arms and cradled his head, swaying back and forth, and he let her do as she please despite the tension building in his neck and back from being forced into such an uncomfortable bend. Her eyes wandered the room and landed on Sora and his family. Eva, Sora's mother, had been her dearest friend since they were children, so it was only natural that their own kids would form a similar bond. He still had the same innocent deer-in-headlights gleam in his eyes when Eva pinched his cheek with the warmest smile she'd seen on the woman since their disappearance. Then her gaze shifted to the right, past Sora's father Liam, landing on Kairi. Her stare hardened at the sight of the girl. Ever since Kairi was seemingly dumped on the Destiny Islands with nary a trace of information tied to her, the boys' personalities expanded in a way Clara deemed unsafe, especially when they began to hang out on Isle Belle. After Kairi returned the first time Clara was there for the girl and helped her settle back into her routine as much as she could. But then she vanished again, and though she brought her Riku home this time, Clara was convinced his disappearance was her fault. She wasn't going to let Riku out of her sight now that he was back for good, let alone allow him to hang out with the girl without a surname.

At 2:35am two sentries escorted a man through the hospital and rode the elevator up to the room where the three missing teens lay. Plastic fold-up chairs were brought into the small room for him and the parents to sit, though Sora's mom opted to sit directly next to her son on the bed. A nurse came in and started unhooking Sora from the machines monitoring his health, then took out his IV, and closed the door when she left with a silent nod. Mayor Cross cleared his throat. His expression was unreadable even to Riku, and his body tensed as he felt his mother's arm snake around his waist when he stood beside her. "Sora, Riku, Kairi... Where do I even begin? We're very happy to have you with us alive and well, despite whatever injuries you received when you were gone. The citizens built memorials in your honor after we thought the three of you had perished in the typhoon." He watched all three of their faces, observing their expressions for some sort of hint as to what could've possibly happened to wipe them off the map without a trace. There were missing persons reports; that much, he knew. But none left the entire archipelago as perplexed as their disappearance. His hands laced together in his lap. "As you'd assume, we have hundreds of questions about the whole circumstance. Kairi was unable to provide much information to even form a plan of action when she first vanished and returned. I know returning home after so long must be a lot for the three of you to take in; I also know you're physically and mentally exhausted and want nothing more than time to rest. We all are. So let's take a day to recuperate and get some rest. Especially you, Sora." The brunet's head perked up at the mention of his name. "After things calm down and everyone's brought up to speed, we can work on getting you back to your lives as they once were. We'll reconvene Saturday at noon in my office." The mayor got out of his seat and turned to Kairi. "Come, Kairi, let's get you into your bed."

"Actually, Mayor Cross," Eva stepped in, "if it's alright with you, Kairi can stay with us until the meeting. I don't think it's a good idea to separate the kids so soon after their return. We don't want to damage their psyches any more than they might be." The princess let out a relieved huff at the offer.

The mayor held his chin in thought, and after a minute his eyes closed and he nodded. "Alright, if it's not too much trouble. It'll give me time to prepare for the time word spreads across the islands. Riku. Sora." Mayor Cross laid a hand over his heart and gave a gentle bow, then opened the door and departed with his guards. Riku and Sora exchanged glances and smiles, both knowing Clara would cling onto her firstborn the entire night. It was a good thing the two lived next door to each other.


Terra awoke in a cold sweat. His chest was heaving, his arms trembling, with every blink and stare at the ceiling. It was happening again. The nightmares had come back to haunt him, to remind him of the decade of suffering he'd endured. He knew Aqua and Ventus also suffered, though he couldn't imagine how even when they told him everything that happened up until he reclaimed his body. Once the war ended, Terra suddenly found he had no strength. He woke up tired and went to sleep tired. He couldn't wield his Keyblade the same way he used to. He could deal with the exhaustion, but the rest was more than he could take at times. Every morning since returning to their estate in the Land of Departure he performed the same routine: go to the bathroom, hold the sides of the sink, blast the cold water, splash it onto his face, and stare at his reflection. He had to make sure every sight, sound, smell and sensation was actually felt by his own body, and not one made of armor or trapped in a dark cloak. Was it his toe he stubbed on the corner of the bed frame? Was it his tongue he accidentally bit when eating too fast? It was like he'd gone blind and suddenly regained his sight. Just one of the many side effects of being possessed for twelve years, having the squatter's spirit and body separate to form two devious entities, of feeling his soul be squeezed in his armor - his last resort to remain in the world. He thought after two weeks he's start feeling normal, or at least partway like himself again, but day in and day out he felt like an invader in his own body.

"I need a drink," he murmured to himself, and rolled out of bed to leave his bedroom. Even walking the halls of the castle felt foreign to him - the halls he'd grown up running through. Terra walked to the kitchen and grabbed a glass, holding it under the faucet as he filled it with water. He downed the entire glass in an instant, momentarily forgetting about his breath as he poured a second. A headache began rumbling in his skull; he'd have to remember to take some ibuprofen on his way back to bed. He leaned against the counter and rested his forearm on top, cycling through the last moments before he lost control of his body. He remembered the tension between himself, Ven and Aqua after Master Eraqus' death; the fear rippling through him when Vanitas and Xehanort made their move; his breath being forced out of his body when the darkness coiled around his neck; hearing Aqua's anguished cries to him...

Feeling guilty for subjecting your friend to years of torture? How unfortunate.

The glass slipped out of his hand and shattered on the floor. His head whipped to the right and searched for the source of the voice sending chills down his spine. The kitchen began to take on an indigo hue which spread in all directions and crept ever closer to him. Eyes wide, Terra backed away from the murky shadow following him and halted when he found himself in the corner of the room. The shadow wouldn't back down. The darkness was taking over him again. He was still weak.

"Terra!" He didn't realize he'd squeezed his eyes shut until a pair of hands held his shoulders tight and shook him. Peeling open, the blue eyes saw another staring back at them. One hand moved up and caressed his cheek. Aqua's head tilted sideways and she drew in closer. "Terra, are you okay?"

"Aqua..." The purple spreading across the room was gone, as was the sensation of the temperature dropping around him. Terra sank to the floor, Aqua following, and held his head in his hands. "He's coming back, Aqua. He's trying to take over again."

"Terra," she repeated his name. Both hands held his face until he was forced to make eye contact with her. "You're safe, Terra. Xehanort's dead. He can't hurt you anymore." Slowly Terra relaxed and stood up. Aqua ran her fingers through his hair to smooth it behind his ears. "There you go."

He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. "...Thank you," he said to her. "Sorry. I'll clean that up." Terra walked over to the broken glass and began gathering the fragments as Aqua ran to the supply closet for the broom and pan. She joined him on the floor just as he flinched and shook out his hand. "Dammit." The girl next to him seized his hand to inspect the damage: a shard of glass poking through a cut in his palm.

She helped him stand and held his hand over the sink. "Stay still." Carefully, Aqua pulled the glass out of his hand and threw it in the trash before running the water over his wound. He hissed from the pain, and when he shut off the water Aqua had finished cleaning the broken glass. The mess was tossed in the trash and she held his hand again. Pressing two fingers onto the gash, her eyes fell shut and a green glow seeped into the injury, stitching it together. "There you go." It was in that moment when Aqua and Terra realized just how close they were standing to one another, her hands cradling his between them. Their gazes connected.

"...Hey..."

"Hey."

Something about having Aqua so close was calming. She was always the most level-headed out of the trio, even when she wandered the realm of darkness all alone. It took a lot to scare her. "Uh, this is going to sound ridiculous, but..." Terra rubbed the back of his neck and averted his gaze. "Would you...possibly...spend the night with me?" Her eyes widened. He immediately felt awkward. "Forget I asked. I know you're probably just as exhausted as I a-"

A finger over his lips silenced him. His eyes returned to Aqua, who smiled as her hand dropped back to his. "Of course I will."

Chapter Text

“There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.”

~Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

He didn't know how he was going to convince her to let him stay over Sora's house for the night. His mother was always clingy to him and they had a special bond when he was a child; but Riku was nearing eighteen, a fact he knew his mother would take forever to get over - if she even could at this point. Hell, she even sat in the back seat with him in the car while his father drove them home. Their car followed Sora's, and he could easily see his two friends chatting away like nothing ever happened, as if Sora hadn't been on death's door mere hours ago. His brother was over at a friend's house so it'd be just the three of them. And if Riku was really honest with his parents - knowing the way his mother was - he'd rather be surrounded by people that did whatever possible to make their return feel just like any other day. The last thing he needed right now was to be smothered and reminded of leaving his family behind in exchange for dark powers and one existential crisis after another. "Something wrong, sweetie?" his mother asked, her head lifting from his bicep when she noticed her son had gone silent. "You look awfully tense."

"Uh, Mom..." Oh man. She was giving him the giant puppy eyes. He could never talk to her when she did that.

"You want to stay over Sora's tonight." Both parties turned their attention to the driver's seat. Riku's father turned down the block, his focus completely on the road. "I get it. You're still in major shock from whatever you've been through, and being surrounded by people who've shared that experience will help you cope." Aoiro glanced at them through the rear view mirror.

"Aoiro..."

A sigh left the man. "Come on, Clara. He's damn near eighteen. You can't keep smothering him like he's still ten. He needs room to breathe." As his father went on, Riku's eyes widened in surprise. The family had just been reunited after almost three years; hearing the man agree with his silent thoughts on spending the night away from them was more than shocking. The way Clara's hands curled around his arm told Riku she wouldn't give in so easily. One quick glance at her had him immediately turning away. Her eyes were glazed over, ready to release another flood of tears - he couldn't handle her crying again. "Clara..." her husband called to her as she buried her face in Riku's shoulder.

Riku cleared his throat. "Mom, it's only for tonight. And we live right next door to each other. I'm not going away again." That last sentence released the flood gates. Riku groaned in defeat.

"...Alright." His eyes widened sharply and focused on his mother, who was avoiding his gaze, her hands still tight around his arm. "But only for tonight. And you're coming straight back home after breakfast." Riku blinked, stunned. His mother never gave in like this. His stare lingered on her as he raised an eyebrow, not sure if he should believe her, then darted to the rear view mirror. His father looked back and silently told him to roll with it. Drawing in a deep breath, Riku pat his hand on top of Clara's when she sniffled. It was the most he'd get out of her for the time being.

"I'm not going anywhere. Not ever again."


"Okay, nice and slow. One foot in front of the other. No need to rush." Sora was way too exhausted to rush, anyway. Not to mention the pain that began surging through every fiber of his being. Whatever meds he had pumped into him from the IV were wearing off, and he slowly started to feel a burning line where he was sure he'd been run through by the Invisible. Kairi and his mother each had an arm around their necks to help him walk up the path to the front door, which his father held open for them. Once inside Eva released him and gestured to the nearby couch. "Set him down in the living room, Kairi. I'll be right back." Kairi and Sora watched the woman dart back out the door to the front passenger seat to grab the bag containing Sora's clothes. When the discharge papers were filled out the teen expected to put on the clothes he'd arrived in. None of the three knew their parents would be called to the hospital, and with the adults came whatever fresh clothing Eva pulled from the laundry basket. A small part of him was glad they'd come. One look at the special attire Yen Sid had tailored for him to combat the darkness, and Sora knew it was smarter to not throw them back on. They were soaked through with sea water, torn all over, the hood of his sweater looked like it'd been shredded, and every inch of the fabric was covered in dirt. And then there was the blood stains. Dark red patches lined the rips in his shirt and pants, but none rivaled the long diagonal line cut in the left side of the shirt's lower half and the thick red frame around it. His shoes and wristbands were in the best shape, though he doubted he'd get to wear those anytime soon.

Kairi led Sora to the couch as instructed and eased him down to the cushions. "You can move faster," he reassured his friend, "I'm not made of glass."

"Oh, no," she retorted. "I won't be responsible for popping your stitches. You can do that by yourself." Kairi hopped to the adjacent couch and took some pillows to rest behind his back before sitting next to him. The two sat in silence while the adults settled in the house, running from room to room to take care of whatever prep they were busy with. "What are they doing?"

Sora shrugged. "Who knows. Usually it's just Mom jumping around like this; I guess coming home makes it 'special'." The brunet fell silent with a soft sigh. He was home. He was actually home, sitting on his couch in his living room, listening to his parents shuffle through the house, to pots bang on the stove and the fridge door open, the remote to his television on his coffee table. This wasn't a dream, the scene didn't change when he blinked. Should he pinch himself just to be doubly sure? No, the pain rippling through his body was proof enough.

A hand rested on his shoulder. Sora slowly turned around to find his mother standing behind them. "How are you feeling?" As his lips parted to answer the pain suddenly tripled and his eyes squeezed shut. Wincing, he heard her say, "I thought as much. Hang on," her voice lowering the farther away she walked. Eva returned a minute later with a glass of water and an orange pill bottle, and shook out a small white pill onto her hand. "This should help with the pain." She handed her son the medicine and water before offering Kairi a second glass, and leaned on the couch while watching the two of them drink. Just seeing them in front of her was enough to bring a smile to the woman's face. The night Sora vanished was the darkest of Eva and Liam's lives. A storm had rolled in, and once the clouds dissipated and the lightning ceased, she learned that Kairi and Riku had also mysteriously disappeared. Eva couldn't help reaching for the teens and running her hands through their hair in slow, soft passes, and they seemed to enjoy the contact just as much. "You two look hungry. I'll whip something up real fast." With slight reluctance Eva let go of the kids and spun around to race to the kitchen, and halted her steps halfway there when the doorbell rang.

Her husband shooed her away and rushed to the door, not all that surprised to find Riku and his parents on the other side. He stepped aside and let them in without a second thought. One look was all it took for Sora's father to catch on. "I see she gave in." Liam ignored Clara's partial sneer. "You know, you're more than welcome to spend the night here, too. Eva and I don't mind." Aoiro was ready to protest, to say it was okay for Riku to stay over on his own, but Liam wrapped his arm around the man's shoulders and led him down the hall. "Come on. You and Clara can stay in the guest room." As the men wandered off to another part of the house Riku sauntered into the living room and sat in the chair to Sora's left. He watched his mother through his peripheral vision, prepared to have her practically sitting on his lap, and was both astonished and relieved when she went into the kitchen to help Sora's mother prepare the food.

"Guess it's one giant sleepover now," Riku said to his friends as he leaned back in the chair and got more comfortable. "What's on the menu?"

"No idea. Mom just said she was making food." Sora finished his glass of water and set it on the coffee table before reaching for the remote. His hand hovered over the device for a moment as he imagined the Keyblade materializing in its place. When was the last time he held a remote, or held anything not having to do with combat? The gummiphone didn't count; while it wasn't a weapon, the device was created for communication between the participants of the final battle for Kingdom Hearts. Every time he held out his hand that way, fingers relaxed, palm raised and facing down, he was summoning his Keyblade. Sometimes it appeared the second he got into a defensive stance, but it worked the same way.

Fingers snapped in front of his eyes and broke the trance. Kairi leaned in and studied his expression. "You okay?" she asked, to which Sora instantly nodded. But he could tell she wasn't buying it. She picked up the remote and placed it in his still hovering hand, eyes staying on him, and guided his fingers around the plastic base. He remembered what he meant to do and turned on the television, skimming through the channels until Kairi pat his thigh. "Ooh, I love this movie! Leave it on!" The princess snatched the remote from Sora and turned up the volume a few pegs, keeping it low enough to not disturb anyone else in the house. Riku kicked off his boots and propped his feet on the small table. His attention snapped Kairi's way when he heard her suck her teeth. "Do you have to do that? At least change your socks."

The elder's brow furrowed. "If you're volunteering to run to my room and grab a pair, I'll gladly change them," he snickered, and Sora was unable to keep down the laugh threatening to escape him. His hand curled around his stomach. "What?" Kairi joined the laughter soon after, then Riku was sucked into it, and the three friends felt any remaining tension in the air dissolve in the calm.

As the movie played Kairi subconsciously pulled her legs in and wrapped her arms around her knees, her chin resting on top. Sora couldn't find a comfortable position with the way his bandages were tied, and the small prickles of pain that made it past the medication left him wriggling in his seat after only a few moments. Riku was the complete opposite, his legs crossed and hands tucked behind his head. They nearly forgot about the moms preparing food until the two women emerged from the kitchen with three full plates. "Here you are," Eva told them. "This should help you regain your strength." Riku was the first to dive into his meal, ignoring the scoffs his mother let out when she saw the way he shoveled food into his mouth. Kairi changed positions and laid the plate on her lap before digging in. The two were none the wiser to Sora staring down at his own plate, his breath caught in his throat. Mashed potatoes, sliced pork, gravy, and a side of green beans. Eva cooked his favorite meal... The same one that was still on the stove when he climbed out his window and headed for Isle Belle the night it all began. He was sure she'd called him downstairs when dinner was ready, but he was probably long gone by then. He imagined a full plate sitting on the table, steam rising from its contents, as Eva ran back and forth across the house in search of him. He nearly dropped his fork when his chest tightened. "Sora?" The teen met his mother's gaze when she whispered his name. "Is something wrong?"

He blinked furiously. No, he wasn't going to cry. Damn it, it hurt, but he wouldn't cry in front of them again. "Mom..." His voice shook, threatening to crack completely.

"Ssshh..." Eva leaned in and kissed his forehead while patting his hair. "It's alright, Sora. We can talk about it when you're ready. Just rest for now." She stepped away from her son, blew him a kiss, and bid everyone good night. "Don't stay up too late." Clara left a few minutes later, but only after squeezing Riku's shoulders when she hugged him from behind, nearly forcing his food back up his esophagus. The only sounds in the living room came from the movie still playing and three forks clinking against the plates with each new serving of food. Eventually Sora relaxed and ate, savoring every scoop he fed himself. He was hungrier than he realized. Still, he had to pace himself; the injury and stitches may have avoided his stomach, but the attached muscles passed the pain through every nerve in the area. Kairi grabbed the glasses and hopped off to the kitchen to get everyone a refill when the movie cut for commercial.

While she was busy with the drinks, Riku set his empty plate on the table and readjusted his position. They half-listened to the advertisement, not really paying attention to it. "You were imagining holding your Keyblade, weren't you?" Riku's voice pulled his focus from the screen. His friend's eyes stayed on the television as he continued, his voice low. "I can read you like a book, Sora. I know when you're seeing things." The elder teen shifted in his seat so he fully faced Sora, his elbow balanced on the arm of the recliner and hand propping up his head. "We don't have to fight anymore. Xehanort's dead; you saw what Terra did. There's no longer a reason to watch your back." Sora didn't register Kairi returning to the living room or her taking the empty plate from him. "Yesterday we were warriors. Today, we can be ourselves again - the people we were before this whole shitstorm started."

"No." Their attention switched to Kairi, who'd pulled her legs back in. "You're wrong, Riku. We can never go back to being those people."

"Kairi, this has nothing to do with wh-"

"I know!" she snapped suddenly, her stance calming seconds later. "...I know. That's not what I meant." The movie was long forgotten and only served to illuminate the room. "We lost three years of our lives. I don't know how, it feels like time ran differently in the other worlds, but those are three years we can never get back. Who were we before the darkness swallowed us whole that night?" She gestured her hand to Sora. "You were a daydreamer, always with your head in the clouds, and always competing with Riku. I know about that bet you two made - the one with the paopu fruit." Whatever calm surrounded the boys was gone. Kairi drifted her hand to Riku. "No offense, Riku, but you were kind of an asshole." His eyes widened. "You were still our friend, but you always had to prove you were better than us somehow. The paopu fruit, naming the raft... I can count several more times. And I..." The boys heard Kairi choke back something. A whimper? A scream? "I was useless. Standing on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to make the first move." Her hands curled into fists. "And as a result I was turned into an empty shell for three months, kidnapped THREE times-" She stopped herself before she brought up Xehanort slaying her in front of everyone and Sora nearly sacrificing himself to bring her back. Her shoulders fell when she calmed. "My point is, with everything we've experienced, we can never go back to being those people. I don't want to be the damsel in distress anymore. And I'm sure, Sora, that you're tired of being someone's pawn; and you, Riku, of having to fight with your subconscious to decide what's right or wrong."

"I get it." Their attention turned to Sora, whose hand returned to its spot over his wound as he stared at the floor. "We've been through too much to just pretend it never happened. I know we'll all need some time to readjust to the lives we used to have, but that shouldn't mean we have to revert back to our younger selves. We're stronger than back then, smarter...though I know I'm still a little impulsive sometimes." The serious tone lightened up a little when he chuckled. "This old life...this new life..." He didn't know how to put it.

Riku let out a sharp exhale. "...Yeah, I guess I was an asshole."

"Nah, you still kind of are one." Riku shot Sora a dirty look that he couldn't hold when his friend started laughing again.

Kairi scooted closer to Sora and reached over his lap for Riku's hand, pulling him off his chair and onto the arm of the couch. "But you're our asshole."

The elder gave them a cheeky grin. "And you two are the bane of my existence." Kairi yanked a pillow from behind Sora's back and hit Riku in the face with it. He groaned into the pillow and snatched it from her, tossing it on the recliner. Though the matter of their identities was put to rest, the three of them knew there was something else they had to discuss. "...We have to be careful from now on." Sora rested his head against Riku's arm, Kairi laying her on Sora's shoulder. "Even though we're much stronger than we used to be, we're back in a world where things aren't like the other places we've been to. Our current normal isn't the same normal we had when the three of us were just islanders. Our families and neighbors won't understand things like magic or Heartless. They won't get that we were fighting to protect the balance of existence for all the cosmos." He closed his eyes and sighed again. "We have to make a pact, between the three of us. No matter what they ask, we can't talk about our journey. Not our enemies, not the other worlds -" Riku raised his hand and summoned his Keyblade. "And we definitely can't let anyone see us do that. No Kayblades, no magic, no supernatural crap. We've scared everyone enough already."

"One thing, though," Sora intervened as Riku's Keyblade dematerialized. "Even though Xehanort's gone and balance was restored, something tells me that didn't wipe the Heartless or Nobodies out of existence. And now there are Unversed." That was something Riku had suspected as well. Between Sora running off to look for Kairi and their return to the Destiny Islands, Riku paid Yen Sid one last visit. The old mage said the same thing - the end of the battle didn't mean the end of darkness and negative emotions in people's hearts. For all the teens knew, any one of the three species of enemies could emerge without warning. Then what? Would they be forced to reveal the powers they obtained in order to protect their kin? Would their families and the other islanders accept them for who they were?

"I hope it never comes to that...but if the Heartless ever reappear here, we'll have no choice. Saving lives takes priority over keeping this secret." Riku stuck his arm out in front of Sora, palm facing the floor. "Agreed?" Kairi and Sora didn't hesitate to lay their hands over Riku's and lace their fingers together. Whatever the circumstance, they were in this together.

Chapter Text

“Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.”

~Forrest Gump, 1994

Was he really meant to exist? Roxas kept asking himself that same question. It was the first thought in his mind every morning when he woke up, and the last every night before falling asleep. What happened in that long, arduous battle was real - that much he was sure of. He hated thinking about what might've happened if he somehow didn't become his own person and interfere with Axel and Saix's fight. He retained his memories of the life he lived in Twilight Town, despite the short amount of time it was: hanging out at the spot he and his three best friends claimed as their own, practicing for the upcoming Struggle tournament, working odd jobs over the summer to save up munny for a beach trip. It was a regular life until weird things began happening around him...things he didn't realize would impact his life the way they did. The laughs, the ice cream dripping from his hand onto his shoe, the fist bumps with Hayner - were they even real memories? Diz - Ansem the Wise - whoever the hell that blond guy was claimed to possess the ability to create a simulation of Twilight Town. Those seven days he recalled were confusing when the paranormal began popping up randomly; who's to say that man hadn't fabricate the teen's memories of that time as well? Then, once things began settling down, he and all the others were forced to confront the remaining issues. Would they be able to seamlessly sew themselves back into the lives they once had, or into a new life? Would Ven feel guilty about his absence for a decade when he could've helped somehow? And speaking of Ventus... When the two had a chance to actually talk to one another, it was like looking in the mirror. It was probably the most uncomfortable he'd ever been in whatever time span he lived. Everyone joked around, saying they were twins, and while Roxas laughed on the outside, the revelation made him question his existence even more. Ven existed way before him. He had a childhood, a family, life experiences, a past to reflect on. All the former Nobody had nothing had were memories of an alternate reality and magical abilities most of Twilight Town's civilians couldn't comprehend, of dark shadows and talk of ripping out people's souls in a quest for power. Roxas was still able to summon a Keyblade; he had no idea why. There was no longer a need for him to wield one, and he could say the same about Xion. She existed for even less time than he, and the second everything calmed down, she fit herself into the group perfectly. How the girl was able to adapt to a regular life so easily baffled him. Lea - Axel told him to stop overthinking it, to just relax and enjoy the peaceful times they worked so hard to get, but he couldn't help his wandering mind. The redhead suggested they join up with Hayner and the others for the afternoon, thinking a few hours of Struggle practice and sea salt ice cream indulgence would calm the teen's frayed nerves.

The hopes for working out his self doubts with a little sparring were dashed when the friends discovered the square was closed for construction. "Now what are we supposed to do?" Hayner groused, throwing his hands dramatically in the air. "It's gonna be closed all week!"

Pence pat his friend's shoulder twice. "Relax, man, it's not the end of the world. Why don't we check out the museum instead? It'd give us a head start on our assignment, and a little culture never hurt anyone."

"And what the hell does that mean?" Olette and Xion, walking to his left, rolled their eyes at Hayner. One exchanged glance between the girls had them giggling. "Are you two making fun of me?"

Xion leaned in close to Hayner, balancing on her toes. "MAAAAAAYBE. What's the matter? You wouldn't be able to participate anyway." The teen muttered at the girls' laughter as they skipped ahead of them up the hill. They seemed to forget that he couldn't chase them thanks to the injury he got when he tried kicking that guy in the black cloak. It was a miracle he'd only broken his leg, but being stuck in a cast and forced to use crutches to get around was really getting on Hayner's nerves. Roxas and Pence stayed beside him, Axel between them and the girls as they trekked up the steadily increasing incline.

"You sure you don't want me to just carry you?" the redhead offered for the third time. "It'll keep your head from exploding with all the hot air in there." Hayner grit his teeth and averted his gaze. He'd refused the offer initially because he didn't want to look helpless or give any passersby any funny ideas. But he knew Axel made a good point with the stress of walking playing a big factor in his sour mood. After a good minute of wrestling in his head he nodded with a pout, much to the guys' alleviation. "About time you caved, Blondie."

"I still have a good leg to kick you with," Hayner warned, though they all knew it was an empty threat. He hobbled over to where Axel crouched and handed his crutches to Pence before looping his arms around the man's neck. Arms scooped under his legs and he was lifted like he weighed nothing. As much as he hated to admit it, it was nice to not worry about getting left behind. He wished the city workers would finish construction on that tram already so he wouldn't have to hike ever again, cast or no cast. The walk up the hill was quiet, save the usual hustle and bustle of the town in the early afternoon. The girls were long gone, and no one paid much attention to the boys, and they were thankful for that. Roxas dashed off for a second to grab some snacks from the nearby bodega for them, telling the others he'd catch up with them. Continuing their ascent, Hayner couldn't help staring at Axel's reflection from a window to their left. "...You ever think about it?"

"Hmm?" The redhead turned, the blond in his peripheral vision.

"About going back to that place you told us about? The one with the castle where you were born? We know you have history there, and probably a lot of people who miss you-"

Axel shook his head, his hair accidentally whacking Hayner when his focus returned to the street. "There's nothing for me back home, nothing but bad memories. Isa would agree with me." The mere thought of setting foot in Radiant Garden ever again sent chills down the man's spine. The beauty of the kingdom hid all its dark secrets from inside the castle: tile shined to perfection cloaking the test tube and machines, freshly painted houses and fields of flowers on top of every detail of the horrific experiments that took place there so long ago, all because of one man. He actually preferred the abandoned and desolate look it took on; it suited the air better. "Besides, I've got Roxas and Xion, and Isa, and now you three. I'd take kicking back and watching the sunset with some ice cream over running from Heartless and the past any day." The boys listened in silence, both feeling the tension in the air as Axel kept on. Before they met Roxas and lost their memories of him, they would've never believed any of this talk of monsters and magic. Those only existed in fairytales, as far as they knew at the time. But it wasn't being thrust into a world of chaos and fantasy that got under their skin. Not at all. It was when they learned of the simulated Twilight Town, of virtual copies of themselves made without their consent... Of learning their own memories may have been tampered with. What kind of person would do such a thing to so many people?

The computer in the mansion basement was constantly on Pence's mind. He'd been the one to search its database and hard drive for answers, the one who opened the pathway for Sora. He practically dismantled the machine after the pathway closed, curious to see how it was capable of pulling such a feat. Pence, usually the most level-headed of the group, lost some of his patience when he was left with unanswered questions. The whole ordeal left him with a knot of vexation curled in his soul. "I just can't believe someone made a virtual Twilight Town and put us all in it. It's so creepy to know our lives were nothing more than information and programming. What kind of person would come up with something so...so horrifying?" If Pence was bothered by the issue, they all knew it was a problem.

Axel shrugged. "Honestly, I got nothing for you on that. The only things I know have to do with that nutcase Xehanort and his clones." Seeing more than one copy of the madman was enough to make him shudder.

By the end of the self-questioning Roxas caught up with the guys near the top of the hill. "We've got chips and fruit for the train ride, so long as the girls don't hog everything." The grin on his face fell when he noticed how somber the others were. "Uh, did I miss something?"

"It's nothing," Axel reassured him. "Hayner was just being a baby again." And Hayner flicked the side of Axel's head at that comment. "Ow! You know I can just drop you right here." Pence was laughing again while Axel and Hayner went back and forth with their banter, but Roxas still sensed something was off. Even when they finally made it to the train station and listened to the girls complain about how long they took to get there, even as they boarded the train and found their seats, he knew they weren't telling him something. He wouldn't push; he didn't want to pry and make anyone mad. He'd just wait until he, Axel and Xion were home to lay out his questions. Hell, he had questions about himself he wanted answered, but he knew the chances of him getting any were near zero.

Roxas was never one to mope. Sure, he had his angsty moments and displayed the stereotypical teenage mood swings, but the return of his existential crisis kept him from really engaging with his friends. They arrived at the museum and gave the teller a donation, then marched in with the throngs of tourists, classes, and history buffs. Hayner was back on the ground with his crutches, which he began to like once it allowed him to skip the lines for certain exhibits. He'd definitely take advantage the rest of the day, even if Olette promised to make him feel bad about it later. They wandered through the halls in search of a good place to start looking. "Is that it?" Xion asked, gaining everyone's attention.

"Yup. The exact spot we need." One by one the entered the hall of human evolution. Their biology class was given an assignment on exploring not only the cycle of evolution, but their own genealogy as well. The professor wanted an essay along with a family tree mapped out with a minimum of four generations to make it just challenging enough where the students would have to work hard for a good grade. They were also encouraged to head to the library to search through their family history; bonus points were offered if they discovered they had an ancestor known for something impactful. Their steps slowed as they began viewing the various displays and setups near the hall entryway. No matter how many times he went there, Pence was always fascinated with the collection of information gathered from as far back as possible. He was all smiles, and took the lead of their group to examine everything they could before returning home.

A low whistle escaped Axel. "Damn," he mused, "I don't think I've set foot in a place like this in years. It's like learning how to ride a bike all over again." Xion raised an eyebrow, lips parted to ask what a bicycle was, but the redhead's chuckle stopped the words before they could come out. "I'll show you later, Xion." He gestured for her to quicken her pace, not wanting to lose Pence in his trance of knowledge and break up the group. She skipped past him and caught up to Olette, and as Axel turned to join them, he noticed Roxas staring at a display near the corner of the room, frozen in place in front of it. "Hey." Axel whistled again to get his attention. "Roxas." The blond didn't move. He stole a glance from Olette over his shoulder and gestured that they'd catch up with them later, then sauntered over to his best friend. "Find something interesting?"

"...It's funny. There I was, arguing with DiZ about being my own person and refusing to hear anything he had to say about Sora. I was so oblivious." Roxas' stare was fixed on the video playing, watching the DNA models unfurl and switch to a person's genetic makeup. "That first day I was in the Organization is still a blur. I remember pieces of the beginning, particularly you and Saix. Then the memories started clearing up. I could take in what was going on around me, make my own decisions." He finally turned to face Axel, and the redhead swore he'd never seen such sadness in the blond's eyes before, not even during their last fight. "On our first mission to Twilight Town's main plaza, I was charged with clearing up all the Heartless, but I wasn't really focused on that. I was watching the people going about their day. There were kids running beside parents, couples walking hand in hand... There were families living their lives: getting married, having kids, spending time with their relatives. I wanted that so bad. I began to wonder if I had a family of my own, if I was lost and they were searching for me." The corners of his mouth turned up for just a second. "I like hanging out with the gang and all, but at the end of the day, they have to run home, to their parents. Don't misunderstand me. You and Xion are the most precious people in my life..." His eyes drifted down to his hand, watching his fingers flex. "But when it comes down to it, Xion and I... We don't exist the same way you and everyone else do. We're just memories and souls that never stopped growing. You have DNA and genes; what do I have? What does Xion have?"

The room grew cold. In a sense, Axel had to admit Roxas was right. He and Xion weren't 'born' the same way he was. Xion was a puppet created by Vexen manipulating memories Namine took from Sora. In retrospect, she was literally a figment of his imagination. Roxas, on the other hand, came to be when Sora unlocked his heart. He was half of Sora... Or was he half of Ventus? He was the kid's spitting image, after all. Xion's existence was starting to make a lot more sense than Roxas'. A heavy sigh left the redhead. He scratched the back of his head and shuffled over to a bench, patting the empty space beside him to beckon the blond. "Roxas..." Where was he supposed to begin? How was he supposed to begin?

Roxas observed the way Axel hunched over, elbows on his knees. He looked nervous. And Axel was like an older brother to him- Roxas' face scrunched. "You're not gonna give me the sex talk, are you?"

Had Axel been drinking something it would've sprayed all over the place; instead, he choked on his saliva. "Wha- I- NO!!! Where the hell did you get that stupid idea?"

A shrug. "I overheard Hayner complaining about his older brother giving him 'the talk'. I didn't wanna go through the same thing." Axel stared at Roxas with wide eyes, then burst out laughing, and ruffled the blond's hair.

"You're something else, Roxas." His laughter died down and he wiped a stray tear from his eye. "Do you remember Namine?"

"Of course I do. She lives with Ienzo now."

"She's like you, though her existence is an anomaly on its own. Xion, too." He pointed to the television they'd been watching. "That monitor is real. Hell, every non-sentient thing in this building is real. And that's because they were made to be real. Maybe the intentions behind your creation weren't the best; you shouldn't let that bother you. You're your own person. You proved that to me once. "Axel quieted down at the mention of their fight. It wasn't something he really wanted to remember, but that was the last time he saw Roxas before all the calamity came to a peak. It was also the last time either showed any raw emotion to the other. He was sure Roxas felt the same, and hesitantly, Axel laid a hand on the blond's shoulder. "My original name was Lea, then I got split apart and became Axel. I've grown so used to people calling me that name. And now that I'm whole, I find myself correcting them if they call me Lea, because Axel became the identity I wanted to own. And that's exactly what Xion's doing. Her life is based on someone else's memories; now she's put them on the back burner so she can create her own." He chuckled once. "Although in my opinion, I don't think Olette's a positive influence on her-"

"Ohhh, is that so?" A familiar voice sing-songed in front of them. The guys shifted their attention to Xion, who stared at them with impatience, her hands balled and on her hips. "I'd say she's a better influence on me than you are on him, Axel, which is why I came back to see if you two were still in the building."

Axel waved a casual hand at her. "Yeah, yeah, we're coming."

"Damn straight!" Those two words, coming out of Xion's mouth? The guys suddenly looked scared for their lives. Xion paid no mind and skipped back through the hall, knowing they wouldn't lag behind her a second time.

"You see what I mean?" the redhead told his friend while gently elbowing him in the ribs. "She's become such a firecracker - because that's who she wants to be." Axel raised from the bench and began to follow after Xion, gesturing for Roxas to hop to it.

The two were close behind enough to Xion where she could still see them in the hordes of museum-goers scrambling about, and she felt comfortable enough to continue ahead. Halfway through the hall, the grin Axel gave Roxas waned. "There's still one problem, though. I don't have anything to go by for my assignment. No lineage, no crazy weird uncle...nothing!" A twinge of panic set in. "I'm gonna fail!"

"Why do you think I'm sticking around, because I like you?" Axel flashed a smug, toothy grin at his friend's pouty face. He shook his head and waved off the worry. "I got this, Roxas. Just follow my lead."