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Heart From The Ashes (Axel x Reader)

Chapter Text

 

They can take your heart.

Cut you lose from all you know.

But if it's your fate…

 

The Radiant Garden was once ruled by a king whose research was held in high regard and whose word was equally as respected. He allowed very few people into his Castle: researchers and scientists who would make the world into a better place. Why would anyone think that behind those pristine walls lurked unimaginable horrors? Their king was good and just - there was never a reason to think that his own research had doomed them all. And then darkness consumed Radiant Garden.

It ravaged the lands so completely the only name fit for what remained was the Hollow Bastion. No-one knew what had happened or why the darkness had come. All we knew was fear.

Life in Hollow Bastion wasn't easy with the Heartless waiting to pounce on you at any given moment. Even so, we persevered. It didn't matter how long it took to dispel the darkness. If banishing it brought back the home I'd once had, it was enough for me.

Yuffie and I were on our way back to Merlin's house, our arms laden with paper bags filled with parts that Cid had asked us to bring him, when those very creatures materialized out of the air.

Ghastly things, all spindly arms and unbalanced movements. Or the bell-shaped floaters that struck you with different elemental attacks. There were so many variations of them that no-one knew how many existed. But really all that mattered was that they were all bad news. We were just lucky the tall, snow-white ones with zippers for mouths weren't here.

"They never give up do they?" Yuffie said as one of the Heartless swiped at her. We jumped backward, dodging their long claws. I pushed her down the street and guided her around the corner. She almost lost her footing due to the heavy bag in her arms shifting to the side and pulling her along with it; I stepped forward so she fell onto my back to support her. Gritting my teeth, I straightened and made sure she was fine before we continued. "Thanks, I didn't expect these to be so -

"Let's go," I lightly pushed her right as a stream of Heartless skirted around the corner and leaped at us.

We had no time to engage them. If we did, reinforcements would only replace their fallen comrades. Thankfully we had more than each other to rely on as we ran with all of our might from our pursuers: in mere seconds we heard the Claymores obliterate one of the Heartless behind us with a satisfying sizzle. The discs of light travelled like moonlight sliding on water over the cobblestones, entrapping the darkness in death beams.

That wasn't to say that Yuffie and I couldn't fight. It just wouldn't do to lose any of these parts when munny was already tight for the Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee - HBRC for short. Cid said that protecting the people was our priority and I couldn't agree more. After we made sure the people were safe, then and only then could we focus on destroying the evil.

The Heartless tailed us like our own shadows stretched thin in the waning daylight. A cramp started to sew stitches into my side. You'd think with all of the running around we did that inconveniences like these weren't an issue. Well, they were for me.

"Your call," I said to Yuffie as we skidded around another corner. It wasn't much farther from Merlin's, but coming up was another small residential area the Heartless favored. Most folk preferred to keep themselves locked up safely in their homes while the Claymores burned the Heartless like bacon on a frying pan. And we were heading straight for the greasy middle.

Yuffie's mouth became a tight line, as if she were wondering if I were trying to somehow trick her into being able to fight alongside her. My chest squeezed at that. "What did Merlin say?" She settled on.

She didn't need to ask me that. Merlin had forbade me from ever engaging with the Heartless. He'd explicitly told Cid and the rest of my friends as such. It hurt, wanting to be of help but being forbidden to do so. Still, self-pity never did anyone good.

In response, I grabbed the paper bag from her. It was just as heavy as mine, a weight that made me double over as I struggled to hold them both against my body. Trembling from the weight, I huffed and forced myself upright. I said, "Some day he's going to let me fight with you guys. So in the meantime, make them wish the Claymores had gotten to them first."

A distraction was all we needed for me to get to Merlin's. She was great at that, though sadly no-one gave her much credit for her efforts. One of these days I'd make sure Leon saw just how much of a badass our Yuffie was.

"We'll figure something out," she said, reaching out a hand to stop me before I could take off fast as a jetstream of water shooting out of a spicket. "Merlin's just worried about you." She let go of me and prepared to fight the Heartless as a film of anguish shuttered over my vision at her comment.

And then I was racing on jelly-legs while Yuffie leaped into the air, a four-point shuriken in one hand. She was a fantastic fighter who made up for her lack of brute strength in speed. My feet pounded over the cobblestones as her parting words echoed over and over again in my head.

Charging straight for the red-roofed house ahead, I immediately went on high-alert. Merlin's house attracted Heartless like no other area. Four steps more and as if on cue, more Heartless sprang into existence to bar my path. I cut sharply to the right. The momentum carried me straight through a gap in their ranks, the heavy weight of the two bags in my arms a force that yanked me forward. Stumbling toward the house, I adjusted my grip on the supplies, believing I'd made it to safety.

Something zipped past my peripheral and then one of the flying bell-shaped Heartless dived for me. I had only a split second to register the bright yellow color of its body before I threw myself to the left.

I rolled over three times and collided hard against the doorstep. The impact nearly ripped the breath from my lungs. With a gasp, I got to my feet. "Open up, Leon!" I yelled as loudly as I could. I scooped the bags back into my arms and braced myself to swing one of them at the yellow Heartless that had swooped down in front of me. Its body was encased in a dangerous cloak of electricity, sparks zapping the air with heat.

Actually, that was a horrible idea. If it struck me while I was carrying a bunch of spare metal parts…

"LEON!" I roared as its body became a white-hot flare.

The door behind me flung open and Leon's gigantic sword knocked the Heartless out of the air. It skittered along the cobblestones, crackling as a volley of electricity burst from its body and electrocuted its own comrades. Then like prey in a spider's web, it was devoured in the Claymore's jaws.

I pushed past Leon and into the safety of Merlin's house, straining to keep the supplies aloft in my arms. I'd feared my little tumble would've sent some of them spilling out but the shopkeeper had liberally fastened the opening of each bag. Before my body slumped in relief and I dropped them onto the floor, I crossed the distance to Cid's desk and set them at his feet.

Merlin's house was cozy and snug with a little fireplace constantly warming the area. I often settled on the rug before it, curled up with a book and a cup of tea. The scent of flowers permeated the air, adding to the blissful atmosphere. Although he could do with cleaning up some of the mountain of books he'd stacked around the place. Much as I appreciated all of them, my toes sure didn't whenever my foot accidentally jammed into them.

Raking a hand through my hair I said, "That should be all of it." Cid just gave me a concerned look, his brow crinkling as I fought for breath. "Any reason so many Heartless like to zap us?" I continued as he stared at me silently. Finally seeming to understand my near-death experience, Cid's eyes widened a little.

"Bunch a pinheads," he grumbled.

"This pinhead got you your parts," I countered good-naturedly. Cid made a sound at that and rifled through the bags, inspecting each one as a jeweler might a stone.

I jumped when Aerith placed her hand on my forehead. Her skin was cool against mine. "Are you sick?" She asked me.

"Not been sleeping well," I admitted. When she looked at me as if for an explanation I said, "Been having these strange dreams lately."

"Strange?" Cid repeated.

With a shrug, I said, "You know how dreams are. For some reason this one keeps repeating itself. Drowning in water, lots of stained glass windows, giant heartless trying to squash me with a hand. Must be those books I've been reading, come to think of it. Merlin has one about these churches with stained glass windows. Can you believe they're made out of sand?" Cid would know of course but I could hardly contain myself.

Cid swiveled his chair back to face his monitor. He nodded every now and then at something I said while his fingers danced a complicated tune over the keys. Whether he was actually paying attention or not didn't bother me. He was always like this.

But then he surprised me with a comment. "Maybe you shouldn't be readin' them books no more."

"Why not?" I asked him.

Cid bent down, sunk his hand into one of the paper bags, and rummaged about their contents. Withdrawing an oddly bent metal piece, he squinted at it and said, "Well, if you been havin' bad dreams cuz of them it'd make sense you'd stop having them if you quit readin' them, am I right?" He said it so nonchalantly that Aerith immediately agreed with him.

Yet Cid's strained voice belied his calm suggestion. He seemed frazzled by what I'd said.

I opened my mouth to say something when the door opened so suddenly that it slammed into the wall. Yuffie rushed in with Leon behind her; he locked the door behind them with a displeased frown on his face. His usual look.

Yuffie looked mildly embarrassed as she approached Cid. "I left your coin purse with the shopkeeper."

"You what?" Cid groaned, swiveling around to look up at her. Yuffie giggled nervously. "What're you doin' here then? Go on, that's all we have for fundin'." I started to follow her out the door, wondering when and how we'd been so careless when Cid called out, "Maisie, stay here. Yuffie can get it herself."

My friend glanced up at me, a strand of her short black hair sticking to her cheek from perspiration. I smiled at her encouragingly and shrugged as if to say there wasn't a thing I could do. With a weak smile in return she headed outside, unsheathing her shuriken.

I could feel everyone's gazes hot on my back. We'd all grown up together - mostly. We knew each other's ticks and tells and they were kind enough not to remind me too often of Merlin's rules. Even when the reason for it had never been explained to me. I'd tried so hard to learn why a few years ago and all that'd resulted in was me crying myself to sleep, thinking that I wasn't needed. Or that they didn't like me. Or any number of terrible things a little girl thinks when she has no-one to confide in. But as I'd gotten older I'd begun to realize something else had to be the cause. And it was indeed worse than anything I'd ever considered.

Merlin was scared of me - or of something that had to do with me. If he wasn't, he'd have spoken to me about it. Not awkwardly brush me off and then get annoyed with me when I pressed the issue.

Aerith eased the tension with a soft inquiry, "Do you think we'll see Sora again?"

"Sora," I murmured. Lately he was the hottest topic in the HBRC because for some inexplicable reason all of them had forgotten his very existence at the same time. And all of them had remembered him at the same too.

Apparently he was but a child when he'd been chosen by a keyblade. He'd been searching for his friends across many different worlds. What I wouldn't' give to be in his shoes. With the powers he possessed maybe I'd be able to make a difference. Maybe I too could travel to other worlds.

Maybe...I could find my parents. I squashed away that tiny ember of hope burning in my chest. Merlin and Cid and all of my friends had promised to look out for them but as of yet there'd been no sign of them.

Leon folded his arms and drawled, "Who knows? If the kid ever turns up he could sure help us out."

"Yeah," I agreed absent-mindedly. Then I perked up. "Cid, if those parts can upgrade the Claymores can't we send them down to the Hollow Bastion?" There were a ton of dangerous Heartless prowling the skeletal premises of the castle beyond the bailey. No-one dared ventured out there but if we had backup perhaps something could be done.

Cid scratched the back of his neck. "It's too far away. I'd lose any connection to them."

"So it can only defend the town then," I sighed. "Do you think Sora can do something?"

Leon nodded and his hair fell into his eyes. "With that keyblade of his he'd make quick work of the Heartless. Though that's if he ever visits again."

"You can't just make him work as soon as he stops by," Aerith protested. "He should take some time to rest and hang out with us all."

"Hate to break it to you but we don't have that kinda time," Leon simply said. "We can only keep up the Claymores for so long. And once those go away…"

All of us glanced over at each other with downcast expressions.

"Then we just have to keep trying," I said firmly. "Whatever it takes. We'll find a way."

The door opened again and Yuffie skipped across the expanse to slam Cid's coin purse down onto his monitor. Her spurt of exuberant energy astounded him and I had the feeling he was about to say something like, 'if you're this happy about fixin' a simple mistake why don't you not make it in the first place?' but then the door opened for a second time.

A young teenage boy I'd never seen in town before appeared. The midday light lit the tips of his impossibly spiky brown hair white like snow-capped mountain peaks. His attire was...unique. His shorts were cuffed near his knees and on his feet were the most baffling shoes I'd ever laid eyes on. They were lemon-yellow bordered in black and decorated with zippers.

As the door shut closed the light caught the length of a huge key gripped in his right hand right before it vanished into nothingness.

A Keyblade. A kid with spiky hair. Who was traveling with two strange companions. One was a duck wearing a blue hat and a shirt festooned with zippers and no pants. I wondered if he was related to Scrooge - he sure looked the spitting image of him. An anthropomorphic dog slouched awkwardly beside the boy in green. Two square buck teeth protruded from his top lip as he bashfully regarded us all.

Yuffie raced over to the newcomers, folded her arms behind her back and leaned into his line of sight. "Meet the Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee!" She welcomed him cheerfully by sweeping one arm out toward me, Leon and Aerith who were crowded around Cid at his desk.

Aerith twirled around and pressed her palms together before her. "We missed you!"

Cid turned his chair around and flicked his nose with his thumb. "Well, if you ain't in top shape," he said, the cigarette in his mouth bobbing around each word.

"I knew it," Leon declared proudly. Even his expression had gone soft at the sight of the boy and his companions.

"Knew what?" The boy asked, coming forward to speak to him. The duck and the dog fanned out on either side of him. I couldn't stop staring at them.

Leon said, "A while back, everybody suddenly remembered you guys, all at the same time."

The three jumped at that before the boy recovered his composure. "You...remembered? Wait! Does that mean you forgot about us?" He spread both of his hands out and I had to sympathize with him. I couldn't imagine what that must be like, having your friends completely forget you existed.

As I was counting the spikes in the kid's hair, the duck let out a jumbled sound like an accusation. I shook my head and placed a hand over my temple. What on earth had he just said?

Yuffie, who was standing to the right of the dog said, "So where've you guys been all this time?"

The dog responded with, "We were sleepin'."

Okay, so the dog could talk but the duck? Maybe I'd not been paying attention.

Cid said, "Where? In cold storage?" And while that would've been funny the trio nervously glanced at each other and looked reluctant to elaborate the situation.

Aerith immediately jumped to their defense. "It doesn't matter. This is great. Everyone's together again!"

The boy smiled at her before he asked, "So, um...we're trying to find Riku and the King. Have you seen them?"

All of my friends shook their heads no. I stood there, unsure of what to even say or do as I continued to stare at the newcomers with wide eyes. In particular, I kept glancing back at the duck. Would he try and speak again? Maybe I'd understand him better.

Cid caught me in the middle of an internal overload and nudged me as if to snap me out of it.

"Right," the boy said, lowering his head in disappointment.

Aerith was quick to console him. "Sorry. But let us know if there's anything we can do, okay?"

"Okay, thanks."

Cid flew out of his chair as if a gummi ship had landed in front of him and he couldn't wait to inspect every inch of it. Clasping his hands together he squatted down to the boy's height and said, "Don't go thankin' us just yet." The poor kid took a few steps back.

Leon said, "Hollow Bastion's got a problem. A big problem."

To my left, I could feel Aerith's disapproving glare directed at him for dumping a cartload of errands onto the kid so soon.

The boy leaned around Cid to see Leon. "You mean like, Nobodies? And Heartless?"

Nobodies?

"That's right," Yuffie said.

"Sounds like you could use our help."

"Then let's cut to the chase," Leon continued. He took two steps closer until he stood before the three newcomers. "Sora, Donald, Goofy. We were hoping the three of you might give us a hand around here."

So this is Sora.

Sora proudly thumped a fist against his chest. "Like we're gonna say no?"

An amused smile curled Leon's lips. I'd had a huge crush on him because of how cool he was and whenever he decided to smile it was like the sun had broken through a cloudy covering. Now all I could see was a big dork. Not that he wasn't cute but now that I'd grown up he seemed more like an older brother figure to me.

And then the duck spoke. His string of sounds were an unintelligible garble and I knew I'd never be able to understand him.

"Just think of it as a sort of 'Leon compliment,'" Aerith said and I turned to her, flabbergasted. She could understand him? What was going on?

Leon had strode over to the door and said, "Follow me to the bailey - there's something you need to see." Then without waiting to see if he was being followed he strolled on out outside.

Sora turned to me and I frowned. He was just a teenager and yet in a few more years he'd overtake me in height. I had about a good two heads on him now but a tall stature was not in my stars. He held out a hand and smiled. "I don't think we've met. I'm Sora and these are my friends, Donald and Goofy."

His companions greeted me as Sora shook my hand and I smiled back. He had a genuine warmth to him, the infections kind. "Nice to meet you Sora. I'm Maisie. Sorry to dump you into the water so suddenly."

"It's nothing," he said but there was a spark of pride in his blue eyes. "Well, I should get going. See you later -

Right as he turned around to follow Leon, a puff of white smoke curled into the air with colorful bursts of magic. Merlin, the great wizard, popped out of the air. He was short and slight and his long white beard stretched nearly to his ankles. Baby blue robes covered his frame, accentuating his slim limbs and softening his appearance into that of a genial grandfather. But that would be a huge disservice to the great wizard, for he was more than his age. Although most wouldn’t know it if they took one look at him. His caterpillar eyebrows arched in surprise at the sight of the newcomers and he adjusted his spectacles. "Oh! I thought it was you. Right on time," he said.

Donald quacked at the wizard but if he understood him, Merlin gave no sign.

Yuffie said, "Sora and the gang said they're gonna help out."

"Splendid! We'll count on you."

As Sora and his friends nodded enthusiastically, Merlin asked Aerith to give them the HBRC cards while I edged closer to Cid's chair.

"Um okay," I began. "This is the Sora guy you were talking about, right? Why can't I understand anything Donald is saying?"

"No-one knows what he's sayin'," Cid replied in a hushed tone and we both looked at Aerith in wonder. "Either that or I'm old."

"Oh no. We're supposed to be at the bailey!" Sora said and I shared a knowing look with Cid. Leon never waited on anyone. He just went and expected you to follow him. "But what about our magic? We haven't been able to use any since we all slept."

How that worked, I had no idea. Then again I wasn't a wizard. Merlin smiled patiently at them and gave them some of his own spells to use.

The second the trio had left his house, Merlin's gaze landed on me.

Aerith, Yuffie and Cid all looked around for something to do. Merlin was usually a really happy-go-lucky kind of guy but whenever I came into the picture he was like this. The wizard's caterpillar eyebrows nearly kissed as he frowned. Gripping his wand so tightly his knuckles bled white, Merlin took a deep breath and said, "And how goes things?"

Cid replied while he typed away, "The Claymores should run for a little while more now that I got them parts. Really helpful to have them."

Aerith said, "And Sora's come to visit. Though I worry that Leon will only make him do chores the whole visit."

Yuffie glanced over at me before saying, "Everything's great, Merlin."

But the wizard only watched me. Unable to bear his disapproving glare any longer, I spoke up. "Merlin, I'd like permission to go with Sora and Leon."

"And why on earth would you want to do that?"

"You say there's been no sign of my parents. I'm very grateful that you're still looking for them -

"But?" he said quietly, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

"But," I swallowed. If I didn't ask now I'd lose this chance! "I know he's travelled to other worlds before. If I can just ask him to look out for -

Merlin waved a hand as if shooting away a fly. "Don't bother them with that, dear. They've plenty of important things to attend to."

"Every day I wonder if there'll be news about my parents and that day never comes. If I can just ask him - even if he never looks for them - I'd feel much better about it all rather than having to bug you and everyone else about when I'll ever see them again."

"Child," Merlin said as if he were exhausted. "Those three don't need the burden of keeping an eye out for them. I can assure you your parents are out there somewhere. When the darkness swallowed Radiant Garden and Cid grabbed you and your friends and flew you to safety, I was there helping the people escape. And your parents made it out alive."

He'd told me this same story time and time again. At first I'd been so relieved to hear they'd escaped. He'd said my parents were smart people who knew their way around in a gummi ship. Surely they'd have travelled to this world by now. Surely they'd have looked for me. My breath lodged in my throat. They were the only thing I wanted more than anything.

"Maybe they're dead," my voice cracked but I shouldered on. "Maybe I'll never get to see them again. But please, just let me speak to Sora. You can talk to him later and tell him never to worry their heads about my parents but I can't just sit here when someone who could know something about them are right here!"

Merlin's scowl darkened and Cid turned around in his seat to cut the wizard's next words off. "Child? She ain't some child no more, Merlin. Look at her. She's an adult! She can make her own decisions but she still follows your rules to the T. Why not just amuse her for a change, huh? If it'll put her heart at ease maybe I can teach her a thing or two about how to help me keep the Claymores stable. We all know I'm gettin' old and I'll need someone to help out soon."

Cid held Merlin's gaze and tapped a rhythm on the back of his chair. Then, quite reluctantly, Merlin's shoulders drooped and I saw the wizard as I'd first known him. Old, whimsical and a little goofy. But beneath it all was a layer of utter exhaustion. And something else, like regret.

"You are not to fight. You are to make sure that if you come across an enemy you have Leon and Sora defend you." Everyone was always defending me. I hated it. But I wouldn't dare say that now. "Furthermore I expect you back before the sun sets."

"Understood!" I nodded, my eyes bright with tears. "Thank you, Merlin. I won't forget this!"

I raced past him and out of the door, giddy with happiness and hope. I'd treat Cid to his favorite coffee. I'd let him teach me all about the Claymores, I'd do anything.

If only I'd known that beyond the bailey something worse than even a Heartless awaited us. If only I'd never tried to speak to Sora, maybe I'd never have gotten wrapped up in something more terrifying than a simple struggle against the Heartless devouring our town.

Chapter Text

I made it to the bailey with little trouble. The walls were shadowed in purple and the little cut-out window in the wall that faced the remains of the Hollow Bastion was warmed a tangerine hue. A light wind carrying the scent of chilled soil wreathed around us. By all accounts it should've been a lovely evening.

But Merlin had given me until the sun had set. This was all but a ticking clock.

Leon was pointing at the graveyard of Radiant Garden. Sora, Donald and Goofy all stared in stunned silence at the hulking remains of our home.

I took my place beside Sora as Leon said, "We want to restore Hollow Bastion to what it used to be. Who knows - maybe even something better. There's still a lot to do but," he broke off for a split second when I joined them. "But I'm sure we can handle everything. Except...for that…"

Leon gestured below at the blue stone path leading up to the castle grounds. Smack dab in the middle of the road two of those frightening Heartless stretched their tentacle-like limbs and swayed like tipsy dancers across the pathway.

I said, "Sora, can you really do something about them?" Cid was so focused on protecting the town that he'd never come up with a plan for if and when we managed to pave the way to the castle. That was the most disheartening part. If he didn't believe it was possible then the members of the HBRC stood no chance.

The sun dipped halfway beneath the horizon, staining the sky orange. Sora observed the creepy waltz of the Heartless, the sunlight shining like garnets along their pale white bodies. Then his blue gaze slid to mine. "We'll handle them," he declared. His voice rang confidently throughout the bailey and filled me with a calm unlike anything I'd ever known. All at once I understood how everyone could rely on a boy who was so young. I met Leon's approving glance over Sora's spiky hair and relaxed.

"Well, that's good to hear," my friend told Sora.

"Very," I agreed. With a wistful sigh I looked back out at the castle. The sunset was beautiful. Even if it was partially hidden by the graveyard of my home. "Sora, I have a favor to ask of you."

"What's up?" Sora asked me.

"When I was just a kid, I was separated from my parents. I have no idea if they're even alive anymore. And I heard you've travelled across many worlds." I felt Leon's stare on me as I fought to keep my voice as neutral as possible. He knew how much this meant to me. But even admitting it was like opening an old wound. One that cut deeper than a sword through a Heartless.

Sora's eyes rounded. "Oh, okay. What do they look like? If we see them we'll let you know right away, right guys?"

Donald and Goofy agreed - well that's what I thought Donald's shriek was.

"What do they look like?"

"I...I'm not sure, really. It's been so long I can't even remember," I explained.

Sora cupped his chin in one hand. "If we find anyone who looks like you we can ask them. Or maybe we could look into any rumors about people having escaped Hollow Bastion...or something?" the boy turned to his friends as if pleading for guidance. No doubt Leon had filled him in on the attack on the castle.

"Don't trouble yourself. Just...if you come come across anything I'd appreciate it."

Sora's sunny disposition folded into a thoughtful study. If he was out traveling worlds with his friends then what of his parents? Before I could ask him he said, "Okay, leave it to us!" His smile was dazzling.

"Thank you, really." Relief spread through me. Even if Sora never saw a sign of them I'd taken a step forward. Merlin might discourage me from pursuing answers but I needed them as much as I needed my friends. The people who'd stuck with me when I was up in the wee hours, screeching my head off as phantoms lunged for me in my dreams. Merlin had once been kind to me, but then one night, after a visit to Yen Sid's, he'd started to treat me...differently. He was always on edge.

Leon reached over and ruffled my hair like he'd done when we were kids. I'd hated it back then but now that we were older it was like a balm on my frazzled nerves.

"So, Sora - do you know what's going on then?" Leon asked.

Immediately the boy's gaze hardened. "There's this guy - Pete, who's been going around plotting with the Heartless. But he's not smart enough to tie his own shoes. The ones we need to worry about are the Nobodies."

There was that word again. "Nobodies?" I repeated but Goofy cut in before Sora could explain.

"And those Organization XIII guys in charge, too!"

"Wait," I appealed to Leon. " I thought our biggest problem were the Heartless?"

Sora grimaced. "Not exactly. The Organization -

A silvery voice resplendent with power boomed throughout the bailey. "You called?" It swept a chill up my spine at the same time that it tempted me into obedience.

Sora and his friends whirled around, checking the area frantically. They raced deeper through the bailey and out through a different exit; Goofy held a shield in front of him and Donald raised a staff into the air.

Leon stepped in front of me protectively.

I placed a hand on his arm. "We need to help Sora."

For a moment he hesitated. "If he finds out that you-

"I never said I was going to jump into the fray. But I'll defend us if need be."

"Guys protect the girls."

With a huff I stepped in front of him. "Why did I ever have a crush on you?" I voiced aloud my disappointment and Leon barked out a surprised 'what?' at that. "I expect a thorough explanation about all these Nobodies and everything else you've neglected to tell me, by the way."

My friend stepped up beside me and levelled his weapon before him.

The voice spoke again, a touch of amusement seeping into its rich baritones as Sora continued to fruitlessly search for its owner. "You're doing well." My toes curled in their boots at their dulcet tones. Was this a normal reaction to one who was obviously the enemy?

"Who's that?" Sora demanded. His Keyblade materialized in his hand in a flash of light.

"This calls for a celebration…" My flesh reacted as if someone had skimmed the palm of their hand over me. Yet, it was pleasant. Soothing. Inviting even.

Sora's head turned as something we couldn't see from our position caught his attention. I tensed. And then two of those horrifying snow-white Heartless slithered into the bailey. Sora chased after them, raising his Keyblade high.

The gates leading into the town slid shut as the Heartless triggered the defense system; Merlin was going to be furious at the situation I'd put myself in.

"Watch out!" Leon yelled and I barely had time to throw myself out of the way as three more launched toward us. I landed hard on my side. Leon jumped in front of me, brandishing his sword.

To my right, Sora faced off the first two Heartless with Donald and Goofy. They worked together as if they'd been doing so for years.

One of the Heartless slipped past Leon and swung an arm at me. I ducked, rolled over and caught its leg with a sweep of mine. It lost its balance only for a moment before it fell forward, slipped into the ground and reappeared in front of Donald's staff. The duck let out a victorious sound as a hail of ice struck it point blank in the face.

"Stay close to me," Leon said.

Why was I forbidden from fighting? I wanted to scream in sheer frustration from it all.

Then the Claymores activated. It was like a dance. The Heartless slunk in and out of the discs of light, twirling around Leon and the trio. Donald's magic reigned lose and set them on fire.

One of the Heartless was knocked flying my way. With a gasp, I shoved it and sent it tumbling into Leon's path. It's body felt like smooth, cold plastic. Leon's sword made quick work of it.

"Is that all of them?" Sora raised his voice as the last of the Heartless faded into oblivion. I straightened.

Only for Leon to shove me down as something came shooting out of the air at me. This cloaked Heartless wielded its own sword. And there were multiples of them. Shoving off of the ground I positioned myself so that I was back-to-back with Leon. If I left the bailey something worse might attack me. Sticking close to Leon was my best option. It would only distract him if I got caught up in something else.

One of the Heartless threw itself at him, sending him stumbling back into me with a grunt. I fought to hold my ground and then I glimpsed another Heartless coming for me. He said, "Damnit, how many of them are there?"

"Behind you!" I warned him. I only had time to raise both of my arms in front of my face and brace for the sensation of the Heartless' blade slicing through my flesh. In a flash, two things happened at once: a searing line of heat ripped down my arm and a blinding spark of ice hurtled past me and collided with the Heartless. It flew back a few feet and flopped to the ground; Sora slammed his Keyblade down onto it. The body disappeared into nothing.

Leon grabbed my shoulders and spun me around. My heart hammered in my chest at the realization that I'd almost been skewered then and there. "Are you alright?" He was frantic. Completely unlike the usual stoic man I'd known. "Dammit. If you were allowed to fight you'd never have been in this -" he caught himself but not before the words bubbled from his lips. The scar slashing down his face became a wavy line as his face crumpled with emotion. "I'm going to talk to Merlin again. This isn't right."

I raised my arms and caught sight of a red line skating down my skin. "I'm fine, just startled. And it's not like Merlin will suddenly let me. You've seen how he gets whenever I ask." I tried to reassure him. But I couldn't stop myself from trembling. It wasn't simply from the fact that I'd almost been killed. It was because the ones we'd been forced to fight were the white Heartless. Something about the way they moved terrified me. It was almost instinctual how fast my body reacted to them. And that fear had only locked me in place this time. "I'm fine, really." I said again, as if to convince myself.

Leon didn't look convinced at all. "I don't know why he forbade you from fighting but it's only placing you in danger. If you fought with us, we'd be able to clear out so many of them in town. Everyone can see it. You were trained just like us. I don't understand it."

I was honestly a little surprised. For the longest time I'd thought that everyone had known the reason and had been sworn to secrecy. Now I could see it was an awkward situation for all of us. It didn't make sense at all.

Sora rushed past us and back out through the other end of the bailey. The voice appraisingly said, "The Keyblade. A truly marvelous weapon. Were it only in more...capable hands."

The voice smoothed into a ripple of laughter. And then several more joined in until it was a symphony of waves threatening to drown us all.

"Show yourselves!" Sora demanded.

They did so. First one sole figure appeared clad in a black cloak. Their hood swaddled their face in shadows. Raising their arms as if to embrace the sky, five more figures emerged from cocoons of black pulsing energy behind them. They stood atop a high ledge and stared down at us all from the shadows of their hoods.

"Is that?" I was so stunned I couldn't finish my sentence.

Leon's eyes narrowed at the sight of them.

"Organization XIII!" Goofy exclaimed, answering my question.

Sora made a fist. "Good, now we can settle this."

Where were the other members? "Leon, do you think the Claymores would attack them?"

"I don't know. They're designed specifically to exterminate the Heartless but these guys don't look like good news," he murmured. Adjusting his grip on the pommel of his sword he followed my gaze and said, "Wait, shouldn't there be more of them?"

"That's what I was about to ask you. We should guard the gate." Right as I moved toward it, the cloaked person at the forefront of the group spoke and my friend stopped me.

"What a shame." He was clearly their leader by the way he presented himself. "And here I thought we could be friends." His comrades laughed jeeringly as they all disappeared into their cocoons of shadows. The echoes of their voices rang throughout the bailey like a haunting choir.

Donald jumped up and said something that I guessed meant 'stop' and took off to the right. Leon and I raced to the exit and watched as the duck nearly slammed into one of the cocoons, which had sprung up in his path. The cocoon vanished as a cloaked figure took its place. Donald took one look at them, then back up at the place where they'd all been gathered and, perturbed, raised his staff threateningly at the figure.

"Oppsy-daisy," the figure said mockingly. He had an accent I'd never heard before, one that lent him a carefree image. As if he weren't seconds away from a powerful, seething duck-mage from blasting a smattering of ice shards at his face.

Sora said, "Move!"

As if he were chastising a petulant child, the Organization member spoke deliberately slow and gesticulated grandly. "Now do you think that's polite, shutting me down like that?"

Sora was understandably annoyed. He slashed a hand through the air. "I said get out of the way!"

"As if!" the man taunted him. "You can talk all you want but that won't change a thing."

Donald jumped back in line with Sora and for the first time since I'd met him, I finally was able to understand his garbled words. "Then we're gonna make you move." He was pretty gutsy. After seeing his skills at work, I was inclined to believe he had what it took to back up his words.

"See, that would work - if I was just any old dude." A gulf of silence stretched between them and the man's next words took on a more menacing tone. "'Cept I'm not. I'm with the Organization. Nothing 'any-old' about me."

"Careful," Leon murmured. Who he meant that for I didn't know, though it was likely directed at all of us. That strange feeling danced over my skin again, raising gooseflesh in its wake.

Sora continued to brazenly talk back to the Organization member, gripping his Keyblade with both hands. Leon circled around him for back up, leaving me staring in utter shock and horror at the lick of violet energy pulsing around my forearms. They were shackles cuffing around my wrists, languidly tasting my flesh. There was no pain. Only a gentle, tugging sensation. As if it were sapping all of my reserves from my body.

With a gasp I brushed frantically at the shackles. They only climbed higher along my arms. No! Leave me alone. Just like that, they vanished.

Shaken to the core, I looked over at Leon as if begging for some kind of explanation for what had happened. But he was busy judging their situation. I was seeing things. I'd almost been killed today, of course my fears were messing with me.

The Organization member's hooded face looked right in my direction. With a snort of laughter, he said, "Oh dear. What have we here?"

Leon tensed at that and slid in front of me.

Sora said, "Tough talk for someone who stood on the sidelines while all of his Nobody flunkies did all the fighting."

"I think you got the wrong impression. Why don't I remind you just how tough the crowd you're dealing with really is?"

"Get ready," I said to Leon.

Sora braced himself.

The Organization member flung his head back and roared with laughter. "That's right! He used to give me that same look." He seemed thrilled by Sora's reaction. With a jab of a finger my way, he pointed down at his wrist and said, "Oh how interesting you all are." Planting his hands on his hips, the embers of darkness spread high above him and formed a cocoon. Right before he vanished in its shell he said, "Be a good boy now!"

With a battle cry, Donald threw himself after the man. The cocoon closed tight and disappeared and Donald landed hard on the stone ground where it'd been seconds prior.

"That was weird," Sora said. "Who gave him the same look?"

Goofy tried to reassure Sora by saying that the guy was only trying to confuse him. But as they were mulling over the events, Leon's eyes rounded and he reached out and grasped my arm in his hand. A skate of violet shadows shimmered around my wrist. "What...is this?" he breathed and I tore out of his grip.

Clutching my wrist to my chest I shuddered. It felt wrong, like I shouldn't let anyone see this. But it was too late. "I don't know. I thought I was seeing things."

He frowned at that and fell silent. Then he ran a hand down his face. "We're not going to tell Merlin."

"Why not? He needs to know."

"Maybe you're right. But don't you think this might have something to do with why he doesn't want you fighting?"

I shook my head adamantly. "This is the first time something like this has ever happened before."

His shoulders sagged. "That guy could've been trying to psyche us out. It looks just like that thing he vanished into."

The flames of violet sputtered into nothing and then my arm was free from its prison again. Leon was right. They did look the same. "Yeah, that's probably it."

But if that were true, why bother scaring someone who was without a weapon? Someone who wasn't a threat at all? Had it just been for fun and games? His entire disposition seemed to suggest as much, but he'd specifically pointed at me - he'd been surprised at seeing them on my wrists. Was it all just a joke? An act?

Or...was something really wrong with me?


Far away, tucked safely in the Corridor of Darkness, a man with fiery hair raised like a lion's mane stopped dead in his tracks. The darkness at his booted feet trembled and the stagnant air flickered with warning.

A warning he otherwise would've taken heed of. But no longer was the light the hunter. The man's eyes narrowed and he looked around, searching through the dark for the origin of the source. A tugging sensation threading from the center of his torso pulled him to the left and he rolled his shoulders back as the location of his prey slowly revealed itself.

Bingo.

Sora was in that direction. Somewhere down this path, the light awaited him.

"Roxas, I'll set you free," he said aloud to the darkness.

The man set forth at a brisk pace, his strides measured like that of a soldier's. He'd told himself he'd set his friend free no matter the cost. If he had to force Sora into a Heartless to do it then so be it. But if he failed to get Sora soon he'd have to take more drastic measures. He'd need to - he was no longer the only hunter.

He had to make his time count.

Sora held one person more dear to him than anyone in the world. She was a last resort. The man almost regretted his decision because he knew the pain of losing someone you cared for so deeply it hurt -

Ah, but he didn't have a heart. So then what was this burning heat searing through him? Propelling him to do what he knew was wrong?

He never wanted to lose this semblance of feeling again. So he had to find Roxas.

Chapter Text

Sora and his friends had opened a pathway between the worlds with the power of his Keyblade; before he left he gave us both a huge smile and told me, "I'll let you know if I find your parents." Then the trio disappeared in a burst of white light.

Leon hefted his weapon to the side and nodded at me after giving the area a once-over. "We should hurry back."

The sun had almost completely sunk below the horizon, bleeding its rays over Hollow Bastion. As I looked up at the sky to where the boy and his friends had disappeared into a Keyhole-shaped portal I wondered if the Organization members were gone too. "Right," I said.


I expected Merlin to be waiting for us in the middle of the room, his arms folded over his chest and his foot tapping an impatient rhythm on the ground. Instead, he was nowhere to be found.

Yuffie and Aerith were settled by the fireplace and when we stepped inside the house, their hushed voices dipped into silence. "Guys, where's -

My breath caught in my throat. Cid's empty chair drew attention to the center monitor which featured a single line of text. I braced my hands on the desk and read the string of letters on the screen: Back later. On the screen beside it the town's defense system had been switched to auto. Cid couldn't be away from his controls for too long or else the Claymores wouldn't work efficiently. What on earth could have pulled him away from the HBRC's number one priority?

"Did something happen while we were gone?" Unless it was an emergency, Cid wouldn't leave Hollow Bastion's defense systems on auto. In fact this was the first time he'd ever done so.

Aerith was the first to break eye contact; her wide green eyes sought Yuffie's gaze as if for help.

"Can you make some tea?" I asked Leon, who was assessing the situation with a rather intimidating glare. The poor guy always scared people off. "I need to talk to you guys."

His jaw tightened. "About?" His gaze lowered to my arms meaningfully.

"The giant elephant in this room. Remember to put some honey in Aerith's drink."

He rolled his eyes at me but he went over to the little area near a stack of books in the corner of the room where Merlin kept tea cups ready. The clinking of the china as he placed them onto the wooden desk was the only other sound apart from the crackle of the fireplace.

I picked my way around the mountain of leather-bound books and sat down directly in front of the fireplace so that it warmed my back. This position also forced my friends to look at me head on. Yuffie drew her knees under her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. The orange of the flames lit her aglow in burnt gold.

Sensing that something huge had transpired during my absence I decided to test the waters with a safer topic first. "Sora's an interesting kid. I had no idea he was that strong."

Aerith said, "He was chosen by the Keyblade. It must've known he was perfect for the job. Where is he though? "

"He left with Donald and Goofy just a little while ago. What do mean by 'chosen?'"

"He's gone?" she threw a glare in Leon's general direction and raised her voice for him to hear her every word. "This is what happens when you force guests to work. They leave to find someone more hospitable." Leon didn't try to correct her. He just unscrewed the honey jar and plopped a sickening amount of the amber confection into her tea. Aerith hadn't noticed and I hoped she liked her tea sweet. Straightening out the material in her dress, Aerith continued, "Anyway, not just anyone can wield the Keyblade," she said as if it were common knowledge.

Yuffie buried her face in her knees. "I hope they can help us get our home back to what it used to be."

I swallowed, trying to fight the tightness constricting in my throat. "Me too." I wished I could've been more glass-half full about it all but frankly I wasn't sure it was possible. Sure, Sora was like a beacon shining a path for lost ships at sea but as Leon had said...we didn't have much time. But we couldn't give up either.

Leon joined us right as an oppressive weight fell over us. He handed steaming cups of chamomile-scented tea to me and Aerith; he set one down beside Yuffie when she didn't make to grab hers. I cupped mine between my palms, letting its heat seep into my bones. With the flames hot on my back and the soothing waves of steam curling about my face, I could almost forget the tension threading itself throughout the room.

How should I snip that thread?

Yuffie asked, "Did you get to ask Sora to look for your parents?"

"I did. I doubt he'll find them but I feel so much better that I asked him to." Taking a sip from my cup, I sagged with weariness as the tea warmed me from the inside out.

Yuffie scrubbed at her nose and sniffed harshly. "Sorry," she murmured, startling everyone. Leon stilled, Aerith's eyes rounded and I paused midway through another sip of my drink. "I know you're hurting just as much as all of us, Maisie. We all want to see our families and friends again...but we have something to distract us from that pain. We get to go out and forget everything for a little while but you can't."

I scrambled to say something, anything to stop her destructive train of thought. "It's not your fault -

My friend talked over me, her voice rung high with desperation. As if she'd been wanting to say these things to me for a long time. "Merlin treats you like you're still a kid when you're the same age as Aerith. You're like family to me but I just sit there while Merlin throws all of these rules on you. It's unfair."

"We are family," I told her. Setting down my cup on the floor, I gathered my friend into my arms and held her as she silently weeped. "And I'd say I rather hit the jackpot with you."

"What?" she sniffed.

"You're a crazy good fighter, you're really smart -

Yuffie pushed away from me and laughed awkwardly. "Oh come on, as if," but then a small blush colored her cheeks and her dark gaze cut accusingly at Leon. "Someone here still thinks girls can't fight."

As one we all turned disapproving looks on Leon.

"Seriously?" was all he could say.

"Just because you're the oldest doesn't mean you're automatically the best at everything, you know," Yuffie told him, arching her brows.

Aerith set down her cup and smacked her lips together. Leon watched her over the rim of his cup, his ice blue eyes sparkling with mischief. She smiled softly to herself and then said, "That was the best tea you've ever made." It was an effort to keep from snorting at her classy dismissal of his childish prank. Aerith took one more sip before she addressed me. "Merlin started arguing with Cid about you after you left. He said you weren't supposed to venture out. Cid was pretty angry on your behalf." She paused, as if bracing herself. "Then Cid mentioned that dream you've been having and Merlin told him they were going to see Yen Sid together. Merlin seemed really worried."

"Why would Merlin need to talk to Yen Sid about that?" I couldn't wrap my head around it.

Neither could my friends. It seemed Aerith had already filled Yuffie in on what I'd confided in Cid about. Though Leon didn't know the details he stayed silent, like usual, but every now and then he'd frown as if he'd thought of something. I said, "Do you have an idea?"

"Wizards know about things we couldn't even begin to imagine. Maybe there's something to yours."

Vague, but he wasn't wrong. Oddly enough, my stomach clenched at the idea that somewhere, something within me was the cause for Merlin's general dislike for me. I wanted to scoop it out and cast it aside. Yet if I did, I felt that it was almost as if I were denying who I was.

Not everyone was going to like you in life. That was indisputable. I only wished I knew why someone who'd once lovingly cared for me had changed so completely in a single night.

We fell into the gentle rhythm of a much lighter conversation - not because the former topic wasn't important but rather because it was pointless to fret over something we barely understood. Dreams were dreams. Some people viewed them as a form of entertainment while others sifted through the myriad collection of images to learn what one could improve upon in their daily lives. As Cid had once told me, dreams sought to remind you of your weaknesses and of your strengths much like a drunken foreteller would: all riddles and no clear answers. But for a wizard the likes of Merlin maybe the meaning was all too transparent.

Sitting there together with everyone eased the strain throbbing along my temples. Everyone's smiles and laughter and embarrassed stories about each other soon discarded the tension from earlier. I was content in these little moments. When the world stopped for my friends and I - even for just a second - it was everything. It reassured me that no matter what happened I wasn't alone.

Yuffie had long since passed out on the floor after she'd gone and downed one of Merlin's bottles of wine while Leon and Aerith had moved to occupy the high-backed plush chairs around the table. I watched her snore loudly, the wisps of her short black hair rising and falling with each breath. Then I got to my feet, stretched and made myself another cup of tea. Grabbing a small lilac blanket from a drawer, I went to the front door.

As Aerith nodded off to sleep I raised my voice just loud enough for Leon to hear. "I'll be on the roof," I said. Besides me, he was the only one of us left awake.

"Do you want some company?" he asked, rising from his seat.

"No thanks," I said. "I just need a moment alone."

He settled back into his chair without protest. Opening the door to the cool night breeze, I grabbed a hold on the edge of one of many wooden crates piled near the corner of the house. So as not to spill my drink I carefully climbed up the stack until I was only a pull-up away from the roof's edge. Setting my cup on the same tile I always trusted, a straight square piece in direct contrast to its curled brethren, I hauled myself onto the rooftop.

Situating myself against the chimney, I leaned my head back against its brick body to stare up at the blanket of silver-flecked indigo. To the far right the moon shone like a Claymore. The air was cool but refreshing and carried a hint of Gummi Ship oil on its waves. Here I could quiet my mind and just be.

Socializing drained me mentally and emotionally. It wasn't that I hated it. I simply needed to recharge afterward. Thankfully my friends tried to understand that and let me crawl onto Merlin's roof to do so. Though the great wizard himself was loath to let me out on my own he'd made a huge fuss about anyone implying his house couldn't keep away the Heartless. He sure prided himself on his magic. And so I was allowed to spend a short hour up here whenever I needed it.

I drained my tea and pulled the blanket about my shoulders. "Mom, dad," I whispered to the stars. "Please be out there. I miss you. More than anything."

With a heavy weight in my heart, I got to my feet. A harsh, sudden wind pushed me backwards and I clutched at the chimney as the wind buffeted against me. In the process the blanket ripped from my shoulders and flew into the air.

I spun around and reached for it.

Someone had already caught it before it sailed away into the night. Clad in a black robe, their hood a mask of deep shadow, the figure held out the blanket to me. The soft lilac material was like an olive branch in his gloved fingers.

I snatched my hand back. "Who are you?" I demanded in a stronger voice than I'd expected.

"Now that's not very nice," the man replied. I recognized his voice. It was the same guy from earlier. Gravelly and accented, a touch of painted-on deception belying his words. "I was only gonna give this back to you. But if you don't want it…"

"I asked you a question."

The man raised both of his hands into the air and feigned surprise. "My, what a brave girlie we have." Somehow that didn't feel like a compliment.

Sliding back his hood, he revealed a face that defied any mental image I'd had of him. He was all hard planes and edges with a scar slicing down one of his cheeks and his ears were pointed at the tips. An eyepatch covered one of his eyes, leaving the uncovered one a focal point of burning gold. His silver-streaked ebony hair was pulled back into a severe low-ponytail and the padded shoulders of his cloak were sharp but sagged. Everything about him reminded me of a predator.

This man was bad news. More so than I'd thought. So why did I feel a pull toward him?

"Sora's not here and if you're looking for a fight -

"As if," he interrupted me. "Don't go tryin' to smash my head in with that little tea cup girlie. Pretty sure that's expensive. What I'm here for is to ask you a question."

"Answer mine," I snapped. "Who are you?"

His lips stretched into a grin and I caught the glint of sharp incisors in the moonlight. "How long have you been fighting the darkness?"

"Excuse me, I asked you a question. Now who are you -

In one step he grabbed my wrist in his hand and raised it in front of me. Any protest I'd had died right there in my throat. Violet tongues of shadow danced along my arm, flickering with some kind of energy. The same kind that was now swirling around him.

With a desperate shove, I ripped free of his hold and nearly tumbled off of the rooftop in my haste.

"Oh, don't be like that. Come on. Stay and talk, girlie. Not everyday you're blessed with the darkness. Lucky you." His grin only grew wider and his eye only glowed fiercer until all I could do was scream.

A wolf. He was a wolf. Hunting his prey. I raised my tea cup in my hand and chucked it with all of my might at him.

"After I told you this was an expensive piece?" He caught it easily in one hand. But I didn't look back to see what else he did; I was already climbing down the wooden crates, slipping over the edges. I fell into a heap at the bottom.

Right as I picked myself up, Leon burst out of Merlin's home with his sword at the ready.

"Are you alright?" he asked me.

"That guy - he's back. On the roof."

Leon's face tightened. "Your arms."

"Nevermind that, we need to protect Yuffie and -

A cocoon bloomed right in front of us in the middle of the square. Leon moved in front of me. "Alright girlie. Maybe not tonight then," the man grinned. Then the darkness swallowed him up.

"Get in," Leon told me and we flew inside the house to find Yuffie and Aerith already on guard. Aerith gripped the podium that usually showcased Merlin's special book in both hands while Yuffie spun her shuriken. Its points caught the flames from the fireplace and twirled like a shooting star.

"When do Merlin and Cid get back?" I asked them.

Yuffie said, "No idea."

Wonderful. A menacing member of the Organization XIII - whatever that was exactly, was prowling around our town. And he wanted something from me.

The darkness on my arms had winked out before we'd gone inside, so Yuffie and Aerith hadn't seen. But Leon knew as well as I did now that whatever was going on it wasn't good.

"We don't mention this to Merlin," I said. "When they get back we pretend like nothing's wrong. I'm going to talk to Merlin and if doesn't want to listen to me then I'd like your support. Then we'll tell him everything."

It wasn't the best way to go about things but it was all I could think of. Merlin had some answering to do.

"Of course. We want to know what's going on too," Yuffie piped up. Her hair was mussed from sleep but she was on high-alert.

After a good hour had passed without any sign of danger, we retired to the clutches of sleep. Aerith, Yuffie and I huddle together in the single small bed while Leon slept in one of the chairs. He'd dragged it to the front door and and he kept one hand on his sword. When I'd pointed out that he looked suspicious, he'd said that he'd say they couldn't trust the Claymores with Cid gone.

Come tomorrow, I'd confront Merlin. I willed my nerves to calm and my eyes to grow heavy with sleep.


When Xigbar returned to the throne room aptly called, 'Where Nothing Gathers', he was immediately sucked into pointless a debate between several of the Nobodies. He would've preferred it if Flamesilocks had assassinated a few more of them - they ran their mouths far too often and all that came out of their maws was wasteful air. But Flamesilocks had gone soft on the Roxas kiddo and now the rest of them had to snuff out the last of his stray embers before his weakness lit the others up.

"Oh now you show," Demyx whined, shaking his head at him. "Tell him you've seen me do my missions. I'm getting sick and tired of hearing him say I don't do anything but play my Sitar!"

Saix only stared at him with disapproval.

Xigbar was seated below Xemnas and so he had to tilt his head back to address him. One day that seat would be his. For now he played along with his little game of master and servant. "So turns out the girlie may be of use," he injected a hint of excitement to his tone.

"Go on," Xemnas' low voice echoed about the chamber, silencing everyone seated.

Xigbar donned his theatrics and set to work weaving a far more promising recount of his meeting with the girlie. To be honest, not much about her was remarkable or even memorable. Except for two things: From the little snooping he'd done in the span of the few hours after Sora left had Hollow Bastion and she'd gone up onto the roof, Xigbar had used his spatial control to eavesdrop on her and her friends. He'd even been lucky enough to snag a few snippets of the old coot Merlin arguing with the other old coot called Cid. And on top of that the darkness had decided they quite liked her. Should she accept it, the Merlin dude would be pretty pissed.

If she really was what he thought she was...there was so much to gain. But he didn't need to play all of his cards just yet. He only needed to entice them.

When he was done, the Superior didn't answer him immediately. When he did it was only a confirmation of what Xigbar had expected to hear: "Test her." His golden eyes became slits as he turned his head to peer down at his audience. "Gentleman, I doubt this needs repeating but even so I shall ask that we all be on the lookout for the traitor. When you come across him you will not hesitate to destroy him. He is no longer one of us."

Saix didn't even flinch as his leader ordered them to eliminate Flamesilocks. Xigbar practically sneered at the blue-haired man. To think those two had been inseparable buds...still, it didn't take a mastermind to deduce that Saix would be the one with his nose stuck on Axel's trail like the useless dog that he was. Xigbar didn't need to waste his energy on them - there were many other things he needed to plan out.

Chapter Text


Merlin didn't return that morning and would likely not be back in town for a while. According to Cid, he was currently on business. Vague as always. Following suit, Merlin's reason for whisking Cid away to visit Yen Sid yesterday also hadn't been explained to any of us. Although all of us knew it had something to do with my dreams. Unable to get an answer from Cid, my friends had left early that morning tasked with checking up on the Claymores. 'Make sure they're at peak performance' is what he'd said.

I sat on one of the high-backed chairs that I'd dragged over to his work area and frowned at the diagrams of the Claymores I'd drawn in my journal. Cid continued to type away, having rested for but an hour after his return. How his retinas didn't shrivel up from staring fixedly at the monitors all day was a miracle. Perhaps that was why Merlin had made sure to supply him with tons of caffeine. Cid guzzled it all day long and said it kept him awake and ready for anything.

He broke through my reverie with, "Did you get all that?" This morning he'd taught me the basics of the Claymore defense system. The people of Hollow Bastion relied on him to protect them from the Heartless. While I hated the thought, it was true that if something happened to him we'd need a replacement.

Understanding everything was another matter altogether. It was unbelievable just how much knowledge was required to do his job. A job that one day might be mine to manage. No biggie, right?

I couldn't afford to let my doubts rule me. I'd get there in due time. "I have some questions," I said.

He scratched his nose and sniffed. "Oh, do you? Great. Shoot."

I had several: some had everything to do with the Claymores and the rest had everything to do with Organization XIII. Still, I didn't want to be rude and ignore all of his lessons from earlier. To start with, I pointed to a rough sketch I'd made of the Claymore's inner workings. "Is there a way to infuse them with the sun?"

He balked. "The sun?"

A blush spread over my cheeks as I fumbled to explain what I'd hoped wasn't an idiotic grasp at straws. "You said that the Claymores absorb daylight which is then released in a burst of energy against the Heartless. Isn't that just a form of electricity we're shooting them with?" According to one of Merlin's books on the natural world, light was comprised of several different kinds of colored wavelengths. For example, our sun was made up of all of those colors combined and was actually a white disc in the sky. "Red light travels the farthest so if the Claymores absorbed them maybe we could reach the Heartless around the Castle." If harvesting direct sunlight were feasible, the possibilities were endless. Before I could stop myself from yammering on, I concluded my idea rather lamely with, "At least, that's what I've read. Not too sure I understood everything it was saying to be honest with you."

Utter silence met my harried rambling. Right as I was about to ask Cid to forget what I'd said because he was staring at me as if I'd lost my marbles, he sat up straighter in his seat. "Not sure what kinda books you been readin' cuz you're all over the place. Red may travel the farthest but it doesn't have the highest energy concentration, you got that? Furthermore, light can't simply pass through the bailey. It's only plausible when you don't have a barrier that can scatter the light. Well, you can infuse ultraviolet light with red light to make it more powerful and maybe it can pass through..." He pulled his cigar out of his mouth and tapped it against his chin. "We don't got the munny for that kinda fancy-pants tech and you don't have the background for this kinda thing. Not yet at least. So we gotta improvise."

Stunned, I folded my legs up onto my chair and leaned forward. "You're saying I wasn't completely off the mark?"

"What'd I just tell you? Your foundation's all over the place. But no. Not completely off the mark." He grinned and I couldn't help but grin like a fool right back at him. Then Cid squinted at me. "Don't girls, I don't know, read about romance and stuff?"

I laughed at that. "Merlin doesn't exactly have a lot to choose from." While my friends were out on errands and fighting the Heartless, I had to stay inside. To keep myself busy I'd started sifting through his collection. Most of it was dedicated to his craft or were biographies of other wizards I'd never heard of before. While few in number, he also owned some books on stained glass windows, science and oddly enough, fairy tales. Ones in a different language. The illustrations inside their pages featured people in flowing robes and ornate animal masks defeating monsters to restore their lands. They intrigued me utterly and completely, for they were doing what the HBRC was doing.

Cid only said, "Let's see how far your mind will go. How about some math?"

"Sure," I replied, happy to oblige him. Strings of code on the monitors became blurry texts after only a short while. How did Cid stare at them all day long - let alone understand them?

The front door opened and in waltzed Yuffie. Leon and Aerith followed behind her at a leisurely pace. Along with my friends slipped in a refreshing evening breeze from the outside. I stretched and rubbed at the back of my neck, blinking in surprise at the tangerine glow of the sky. My stomach growled loudly. "What time is it?"

Yuffie leaned down and made a face at the open journal in my lap. Its pages were a mess of numbers and Cid's corrections in a heavier, near illegible scrawl. She exclaimed, "Oh gross, you're making her do math?"

"This math is gonna save our hides," Cid told her but Aerith was already rescuing me from the existential crisis I was undergoing. She combed her fingers through my hair, detangling the strands and instantly loosening the tension from my scalp.

Despite my resolution to stick it out and learn what Cid was trying to teach me, I hadn't retained much of anything. Cid must be a wizard in his own right.

"She's broken," Yuffie said, clinging to my arm. "The numbers are infecting her mind! Did you even eat at all?" My stomach growled again in answer.

Cid grumbled and shooed her away. "Alright, next question."

Patting Yuffie's arm to placate her, I said, "Sora was attacked by the Organization the other day. I thought the Heartless was our main enemy."

"From what Merlin's told me they're a buncha of psychopaths. Nobodies who can control the Heartless," he said with a heavy sigh.

Leon, from his place leaning against the wall by the monitor, noted my confused expression and explained the details for me. "When a person loses their heart to the darkness they become a Heartless. At the same time they also create a Nobody: a shell of who they used to be."

Well that made zero sense but it was better than nothing, I supposed. "Bad news then. Okay, I got that much." For good measure I made a note of it on a separate page of my journal.

Cid continued, "Cruel lot, the whole of them. They'll try to trick you into thinkin' they have emotions but it's all lies. They can't feel anything but they sure as heck pretend they do."

The crazy guy from last night had been so animated and lively. "They were pretty different from the Heartless, though. They're not mindlessly attacking whatever's in front of them like animals." It was as if they were still human - not the empty husks Leon had described them to be.

Cid folded his arms across his broad chest. "That's what I mean. You can't trust the darkness, you hear? No light anywhere in those suckers. They're nothin' but bad news so don't be goin' after them."

"Go after them?" I repeated sharply. How could I and why was that even a concern of his? My friends all shook their heads to confirm what I'd feared: no-one had breathed a word about last night's late visitor on our rooftop. Who was Cid referring to then?

His gaze wavered beneath my scrutiny for a split second before he said, "I'm only sayin' to be careful."

At that I got up from my chair. Cid raised an eyebrow as I stared down at him.

"You're like a father to me but I hate the notion that you're hiding something from me. That you don't trust me -

"That's not it," he interrupted me, raising his palms up as if to calm down an angry animal. "I'm just doin' what Merlin asked."

I sucked in a deep breath to keep myself in control. It had been a long day and I was awfully hungry. There was no need to take that out on him. However, "I'm tired of being some pet bird of Merlin's. I want to go out there with everyone and do my part."

"Your part is managing the Claymores," he said matter-of-factly.

"That decision was made to convince Merlin that I'd be a good little girl and stay inside all day. Don't lie to my face. You know more than you're telling me and that really hurts."

When he didn't respond I knew I'd hit the mark. I didn't have time for him to sit there looking sorry about the situation. He'd had years to tell me what was going on but he'd left me hanging. Somewhere out there in the web of many different worlds, my parents were searching for me. I needed to make certain that when they returned, they had a safe place to come back to. "Anyway, I'm starved and I'd like to stretch my legs after sitting down all day. Thanks for the lessons. Does someone want to go with me to pick up some food?"

Someone had to accompany no matter what but I wanted to pretend even for a moment that I was making my own decisions. In the recesses of my mind, the part of me that had tried to rebel against Merlin's authority in the past whispered sweet temptations: Rip the Heartless apart. They destroyed everything you ever loved. Make them pay for what they did. If Merlin and Cid have a problem with that, then too bad. Do it -

"Me!" Yuffie raised her arm into the air and jumped up and down in place.

Cid shot her down. "Leon, go with her. I'm not ready to see if Miss-forgetful over here can bring our munny back."

Yuffie went bright red and practically shouted, "That was one time!" while Cid handed Leon the coin purse.

She was still arguing with him while I walked together with Leon out through the front door. The moment it closed behind us I groaned and squinted against the starburst of color staining the sky. "Was I too harsh?"

Leon brandished his weapon and guided me around the Heartless hotspots. Several sprung up and gave chase but they were instantly set upon by the Claymores. He cut down the stragglers. "You were fine. It's about time he and Merlin acknowledge that you have more to contribute. Not sure how you've stuck it out for so long cuz I'd have just up and left."

With a doleful smile I said, "I did a few times but you weren't around to see Merlin rage at me for leaving the house. He scared the light out of me."

"I have seen him yell at you. All of us have. Maybe not for that but it was enough to make us all angry on your behalf," he cursed and scratched his neck. "Sorry for not speaking up during it."

Taken aback, I glanced up at him. "You know, I've been keeping you guys at a distance. I've been afraid to let you all know how scared of Merlin I am and how scared I am of going against him. Now I can see that all of us are just unsure how to deal with this whole mess." With a huge sigh I added, "Thanks for hearing me out."

He shrugged. "That's what friends are for, right? Though, I guess they don't just stand back while one of them is getting chewed out for no reason. Sorry for that," he added quite sheepishly.

"Like I said, I think we're all just unsure how to proceed. But I appreciate it."

We rounded a corner and he made a cutting joke, "What's on the menu?"

Hollow Bastion had so few resources that we could barely make do with what we had. It was only through Merlin's travels that the town was able to survive, though efforts were being made by Scrooge to stock up on more ingredients.

"Better make sure your imagination's the best it's been," I answered. We both laughed at that. Food was food but eating the same assortment of ingredients three times a day was enough to drive anyone mad. "Did Cid upgrade his Claymores or something?" I asked as we rounded another corner. "It's oddly...peaceful for once." Not a single Heartless greeted us at this hotspot. When and where Cid could've saved up enough to do so was a mystery, because as far as I knew we were broke. Yet here we were in one of the hotspots and not a single one of those buggers were popping into existence. Either the Claymores had permanently scared them off or a miracle had blessed Hollow Bastion's barren lands.

We stood in the middle of the clearing, unsure what to do.

The sky was a blend of lavender and red with a cheery yellow glowing like a lemon drop in the center. Contentment filled my chest at the sight. Purple was my favorite color and it only displayed its royal hues during certain times of the day. The most dangerous times to be exact. Meaning I was stuck indoors. A light breeze drifted past, lifting my hair in its caress.

Leon clicked his tongue. "He'd have mentioned it. We're broke, aren't we?"

"Very," I confirmed for him. "We better let him know about-

A heady scent hit me full-force. One that burned and weight me down with a dry heat. I choked on my words, inhaling something like oakmoss and cinnamon. It was so strong I could taste it. Thumping a fist against my chest to catch my breath, I blinked tears from my eyes. The very air was oppressive, sucking out all of the moisture.

"Get back to Merlin's," Leon murmured so quietly I almost didn't hear him. Glancing up, I saw a sea of Heartless were crawling out of the ground and flooding the previously empty clearing. So much for a miracle. Even with Leon's skills, we wouldn't get past this many. The Claymores slid along the cobblestones but couldn't take out even a single Heartless. These guys were much more formidable than usual. "I'll catch up. Cid'll need to know how capable these creeps are."

"Alright, be careful," I warned him, nimbly jumping over a bubbling mass of Heartless rising up out of the ground like frothy waves.

Leon charged into battle, swinging his giant blade at the Heartless. The clash of metal against claws rang loudly in my ears. I took off around the corner as Heartless crawled out of the walls and scuttled like spiders along the earth.

Just as I skidded around the corner, a white Heartless dropped out of the sky and into my path. Its supple limbs knocked me right into its companion behind me. An iridescent stripe of blue slashed down both sides of its body and shimmered like water.

Shoving it back hard, I tried to slip past the one barring my way but two more sprung up out of the ground and lunged for me. The scream in my throat was smothered by pure, unadulterated horror as they wrapped me up in their cold, plastic arms.

Out of nowhere, terrifying images flashed through my mind: a dark room. Harsh white lights shining into my face. A feeling of weightlessness. People leaning into my vision and messing with me as I lay strapped to a table, unable to move. I'd never known such fear.

Having lost all sense of where I even was, the Heartless successfully dragged my inert body like a rag-doll behind them. More visions assailed me and I all but lost consciousness as I was dumped like trash onto the cobblestones.

The sounds of the white Heartless slithering in and out of the stone ground, of the little zippers at the corners of their mouths clinking as they swayed - everything struck such raw fear into my core that I became an unhinged mess. I tried to stand, only to crash to my knees clutching both sides of my head, fighting against the imagery flashing through my mind: foreign objects digging into my flesh, a suspension tube holding me afloat - I curled into a ball and hoped the ground would swallow me whole. Sweat slicked my underarms and beaded down my temples.

Someone help me! Someone get me out of here! I cried out in my mind as if it might stop my personal hell.

A scent singed the air. The same one from before that tickled the back of my throat and made my olfactory senses itch. Like magic, it snapped me out of the despair I was sinking into. I sucked the heated air into my lungs as if I'd been drowning. Hot tears trailed tracks down my cheeks and I scrubbed at them, confused at the empty area before me. Where were the Heartless? Why hadn't they hurt me? Had they been using some kind of illusion against me?

Calm down, think. Leon's somewhere out there and you know this town like the back of your hand.

Keeping my senses on high-alert, I surveyed my surroundings. The Heartless had discarded me in the farthest drudges of Hollow Bastion, a small area to the south-east that had been abandoned after countless of the Heartless had staked their claim. Now it was completely deserted. The squalid buildings were dilapidated and their windows were smashed to shards. They leaned against each other's frames so heavily it was a wonder they hadn't crushed each other to rubble.

Except it wasn't so deserted after all. A scritch-scratching sound broke through the silence like a blade against stone. The only exit was blocked by two white Heartless. They peeked around the corner of the building and bobbed up and down.

Spotting a sorry-looking branch amidst a pile of trash, I clambered forward and scooped it up from the shadows. It was bone-white and peeling but it had enough heft to it. Darting out into the dying sunlight with it clenched between my hands like a child's toy, I struggled to pull myself together. Rushing into battle was equivalent to running head-on into a brick wall.

Why on earth had the Heartless taken me here? The uncertainty of it all made me a bundle of nerves. Psychologically and mentally messing with their prey was too smart of a plan for the Heartless to devise. Meaning something - or rather someone - had planned this whole fiasco.

"From what Merlin's told me they're a buncha of psychopaths. Nobodies who can control the Heartless." Cid's words echoed in my ears. The man from last night had hinted at coming back for me, hadn't he? Where was Leon when I needed him?

"LEON!" I raised my voice as loud as I could. Whoever had done this already knew exactly where I was. I needed all of the backup I could get. I continued to call my friend's name until my voice cracked. The Heartless mindlessly watched as I paced around the area, my makeshift weapon my only hope.

Just run straight at them and knock them down. There's only two of them! My mind screamed, but I knew there was one more hiding somewhere I couldn't see. You know they can slip in and out of the ground. They'll dodge you so easily you won't be able to do a thing if they go for a fatal-blow. You've been trained with everyone but it doesn't mean squat when they have the upper hand. Especially when it's been years since then.

The Heartless just rocked in place. They were waiting for their master's orders.

"Wolf-guy, show yourself! I'm right here!" I yelled. Gooseflesh rose along my exposed arms and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I wasn't alone. Something akin to a hot wind brushed past me. Whirling around, I raised my laughable weapon before me - but nothing was there.

"Wolf-guy? Not sure who you mean but you're sure not Sora," a voice said to my left.

A man in a black hooded cloak stood a few feet away with one hand on his hip and the other on his forehead in a very dramatic pose. He looked every bit as put out as someone who'd been told they had to take out the laundry. Great, someone entirely new.

"Clearly not," I snapped back, albeit rather shakily. "What do you want?"

The man lowered his arm and considered me for a long moment, lingering on my weapon before moving on to the rest of me. He was a striking person, his slender figure clad in a cloak that molded to his arms and torso like a second skin only to loosen at his hips and down the length of his legs. Legs that were enviously long and strapped into knee-high leather black boots. His green eyes were rimmed in plum liner which fanned into wings at the ends while two reverse-tear drops marked the tips of his cheekbones right below his eyes. Most mesmerizing of all was his thick, shoulder-length mane of flaming red hair.

If the last Organization member had reminded me of a wolf, this man was the very image of a lion sizing up his next meal. He circled around me with slow, indolent steps. "His light's all over you," he mused. His voice was a unique mixture of deep, playful undertones and higher pitched lilts. "Oh boy, I can't even sense him in this world anymore…" The tall man scratched his head. "I can't have gotten this rusty, can I? Talk about disappointing. Now I gotta start all over again." Despite his words, a wild and untamed energy sparked about his demeanor, causing me to take an instinctive step back. He wasn't simply a lion of a man - no, he was a fire ready to raze down the universe.

"You're a Nobody," I croaked, unable to form a coherent thought. Of course he was but I didn't think I'd see another one again so soon - especially a completely new one.

With a derisive chuckle he snapped his gloved fingers. "Bingo. The name's Axel. Got it memorized?" He pointed a finger at his head and a dangerous smile played about his mouth.

I glowered at him to keep from cowering beneath his intimidating gaze. "So? What do you want?"

"Man oh man, talk about blank with a capital B." Axel snapped his fingers and the white Heartless emerged from the ground to encircle me, bobbing like ocean waves. "Whaddya say you tell me where the Keyblade Hero went, hmm? I'm not exactly in the mood to drag this out any -

With a roar, I raised the branch up high above my head and spun about in a wide arc to the right. The branch's forked end caught the nearest Heartless in the neck and sent it flying into its buddy. Immediately after, I brought it down again on the fallen monsters. The pair retreated into the ground like water seeping into parched soil.

Screw what Merlin had told me. It didn't matter anymore whether I fought or not - I had to protect myself. To see my parents again, to see my friends again.

The Heartless continued to rock back and forth where they were and I moved onto the next one - knocking them down in a row. Each of them sunk into the cracks in the cobblestones, reappearing after I struck the next one. As I did, I made as much noise as possible. Yelling and screaming in fury, in frustration and in sheer desperation. If Leon didn't hear me someone else would. Hopefully they'd get help.

Mid-swing, the branch exploded into flames in my grasp. The heat was so intense it disintegrated my pitiful weapon to ash in an instant. In the process, it blazed across my skin. I jumped back with a weak cry as pain scored through me. An angry red mark shone on my palm. I'd once burned myself on the stove, but it was nothing compared to this agony.

It took all of my willpower not to cry out a second time but a pained moan slipped through my lips nonetheless.

"Like I was saying," Axel continued nonchalantly, "I'm not in the mood to drag this out, m'kay?" He crossed the distance between us in three long strides. His Heartless swarmed around me and I could do nothing but stare up at the man looming like a column of fire over me. With a snap of his fingers, hot flames danced around him in a flurry much too close for comfort near my face. It lit his emerald eyes ablaze with orange and sent my hair flying back in the gusts. Bewilderment slackened his expression and the flames sputtered out. "Well isn't that something," he remarked.

I followed his line of sight and nearly lost it then and there. The ripple of darkness had spread up to my bare shoulders until they were sleeves of violet embers. For once I felt relieved to have a power beside me, bad or good.

Axel murmured, "Found a replacement already, did they?" He laughed quietly, his shoulders quaking. "Guess the boss man hasn't found you out yet. This is just one hell of a story, isn't it?" He reached out a hand and dragged a gloved finger through the violet embers and his eyelids fluttered closed. "Tell me. What's your dream, huh?"

What was up with this guy? He had to be messing with me. "If you're trying to catch me off guard -

He straightened to his full height and snorted. "You think I need to? I can burn ya to cinders so fast you couldn't do a thing. Wanna try me?"

I held my ground and leaned into his space. Anger and bitterness seethed through my veins and the darkness writhing along my arms exploded in a sudden burst of energy. Axel didn't even budge; he just watched me with his piercing green gaze over the darkness. "Why am I wasting my time here?" He said as if to himself. "Listen up little lady. If you got a dream you better stick to it - they're meant to be chased after all. If you really wanna let the darkness take over ya then don't say I didn't tell you so."

Heedless of Cid's warning, I found myself unable to resist posing a question. "What's your dream then?" If he really didn't have a heart and couldn't feel, then whatever his answer was would be all too transparent.

Axel was the very picture of a man haunted by some past regret. His jaw clenched and his gaze fell to the ground.

"If you're really one of the Organization then you're doing a poor job at getting information," I taunted him. Why? I wasn't sure, but the way he was moping around reminded me of myself. It struck a chord in my heart. It was foolish of me to even sympathize with someone who probably couldn't even do the same but in that instant I felt as if I understood him on some level. Absurd.

"You got that right." His words were heavy with pain. Cid had said they were acting but it sure didn't seem that way. It had to be the darkness in me, seducing me into a false sense of security. Then why did I see myself reflected in his pain - fake or not? His next words were so unexpected I couldn't respond. "Sora took away someone who meant everything to me. Because of him, I lost my dearest friend." When he raised his gaze to mine, a swirl of emotion pooled in his eyes.

"You're lying," I stammered. "You're a Nobody -

He dissolved into a fit of exaggerated laughter. "Oh, how you've wounded me! Is that how you normally react to someone spilling their guts out to ya? What a Heartless little lady you are - pun intended," he grinned but I could tell I'd struck a nerve. His smile never met his eyes. They shone with bitter hatred.

Somewhere in the distance, I heard my name being called. "Leon? LEON! I'm over here!" I yelled back with all of my might.

The darkness rippling around me slowly died away and I readied myself to dodge any attack Axel might throw my way. Even if he could burn me right where I stood, I'd not let him take me down so easily.

Leon's form raced toward us, the glint of the sunset shining along his weapon.

Axel simply said, "If you have a dream, don't throw it away for power. Got it memorized? Later." Then he raised his arm and darkness threaded out from his fingertips into a cocoon of shadows. As Leon broke into the clearing, Axel disappeared in the swirling black shell.

And he left me questioning everything I'd ever known about the darkness.

Chapter Text

 


 

Axel lingered in the Corridors of Darkness seeking a light far greater than the one that had led him to Hollow Bastion in the first place. Sora's light. He rubbed the back of his head and grumbled when two points of interest appeared. "I really have gone rusty if I mistook some random girl for the little Keyblade Hero."

He withdrew the leather-bound book his Heartless had swiped from the girl's possession. It was dyed a royal hue of purple and emblazoned with a shooting star smack-dab in the center. The Organization members all owned one of these babies, though they weren't half this cool to look at. Each member of the Organization was supposed to use their own in order to 'understand yourself.' A whole lotta good that had done him. He did learn quite a lot about himself, so he guessed it had done its job; the most important thing being that he had someone he cared about. A dear friend.

Then the Organization had destroyed his dear friend's life. To add to the icing on the cake, Axel had been forced to help them do it. He always got the nasty jobs...The Superior knew just how to break him. Sooner or later, he'd be killed for treason. Or he'd be turned into the one thing he feared most: a Dusk.

A shadow of emotion scorched through him at that: anger. It was what had given him the strength to turn on the Organization in the first place. Maybe anger would be the only thing he'd ever know. That suited him just fine then.

Filled to near-bursting with notes, drawings, and a whole bunch of papers crammed in between their pages, the girl's diary was a monstrous purple thing. "Must've learned a lot about herself, huh?" He whistled as he snooped through its contents. "Ouch, she sure sucks at art. Namine can do better than her," he said. Blurry renditions of people were smudged in ink on some of the pages. Axel could hardly discern any noteworthy features apart from height and build.

Numbers covered a majority of the most recent portion of the book. Axel recalled a keenness for math and science. Or rather, he remembered he'd liked it.

Those discs of light that relentlessly attacked the Heartless in Hollow Bastion had been roughly sketched onto the pages accompanied by tiny notes in a pretty, looping hand. A separate, heavier one had almost gouged through the paper to imprint numbers atop her delicate diagrams. A shame to do them dirty like that, he thought. She couldn't draw people to save her life, but these? Not bad at all.

"Guess she's actually got a brain in her skull after all," he remarked. Everything she'd done when he'd cornered her had screamed she was high on adrenaline. She'd known how to fight but her fear had wiped any sense of rationale from her mind. Roxas had been like that too, when Axel had been forced to capture him in Diz's data Twilight Town…

He shuddered; he didn't like thinking about it. How his best friend had looked at him with wide, disbelieving eyes as he'd fought back against him. Axel guessed that was the reason he continued paging through the diary. To stave off the emptiness attempting to claw through his unfeeling, hollow chest. She'd called him a Nobody and she was absolutely right about that. So why did that title make him uneasy?

He leafed through one last page, his brow taut, when something rendered him stupefied. First it had been the darkness coiling about her like flaming vipers, and now this? She was full of surprises, it seemed. With renewed interest, Axel held the diary up close to his face and read the passage:

Sora said he'd make sure to bring me back any news he finds. I can't begin to describe how grateful I am! Even if he doesn't look for them, his reassurance made it easier to sleep that night. Well, so much as I could with one of those Organization XIII guys outside our door. Nothing that guy said to me made any sense - he was trying to scare me. That's all it was. Right? When Sora visits, I want to make sure that Hollow Bastion has improved somewhat. It doesn't matter what news he brings me. Hollow Bastion comes first. After the people here are guaranteed a better life, that's when I can be a little more selfish…

Axel didn't need to understand everything because all that mattered to him stood out like stars in the night sky: Sora was coming back to visit her - maybe even very soon. The next surprising tidbit was that the Organization had been in contact with her. No wonder she'd been so skittish. Well, not like it mattered to him what they did anymore. Unless they found him. Then it would matter very much.

Too bad for them. He didn't intend to go down any time soon.

Closing the diary shut, Axel slipped it back into his pocket instead of tossing it into the dark abyss. This girl could come in handy. It's not like he had many options other than tracking Sora down. That in and of itself was a bit of a trifling task when he was struggling to determine which light was his target. He didn't even know when the Organization would catch up to him. How he'd fallen from his title as an Assassin.


Leon swung his blade down through the cocoon of darkness just as it sputtered into a mist of shadow. The Nobody was gone. My friend's shoulders heaved and sweat shone along his brow.

"Thanks for coming to help," I said softly. Waves of uncertainty threatened to drag me to the ground. "Wow, this sucks. That makes two now - of the Organization creeps I mean." Keeping up a cheerful pretense was much harder than letting the moment get to me but I didn't want to be weak now.

That guy - Axel - could've roasted me on the spot. Thankfully I hadn't been his main objective, as he'd practically announced it to me what with his constant mutterings to himself on the issue.

Without thinking, I blurted, "I'll understand if you say no after everything. I want you to come with me to see Yen Sid." 'Borrowing' and then piloting Cid's Gummi Ship was the least of my concerns. Should Cid raise the alarm, for he certainly would, Merlin would be after me like a furious tornado whipping across the lands. Alone I stood no chance. With Leon however, I could buy some time.

"Of course," he agreed without any hesitation.


 

To reach Yen Sid, we needed access to a Gummi Ship in order to traverse The Ocean Between. This was the vast space connecting the various worlds of our universe. I knew little beyond the basics as my information was pulled directly from Merlin's own writings on the subject. According to one of his diary entries, Yen Sid's world, the Mysterious Tower, resided in the realm-between which was unbound by the normal constraints of time. The Tower could also move from one area of The Ocean Between to another as Yen Sid deemed fit.

Naturally, locating the Mysterious Tower would've been impossible had Cid not preprogrammed the Gummi Ships with a special navigation system. The only issue was Leon's confidence in my piloting skills. Merlin had often proclaimed that my parents were both skilled Gummi Ship pilots and so Leon took this to mean I knew what I was doing.

I'd tried to warn him.

Manning the controls provided me a full view of The Ocean Between in all of its chaotic glory of floating debris and stars, but there was so much visual stimulation to absorb that it nearly overwhelmed me. An asteroid to my right came rushing at us; I jerked the lever up hard, banking to the upper left. In the process, the ship flipped over twice and smacked hard into a smaller but still quite concerning piece of one. The impact rocked the ship so hard that Leon clutched his armrests as if for dear life. Above me, the ship's emergency system screamed at me to watch where I was going.

"I think I'm gonna be sick," Leon groaned from his seat next to me. Then he sat bolt upright and shouted, "Watch out!"

With lightning-fast reflexes I steered us to the right and somehow down at the same time, successfully dodging the debris. "Whoops," I strained an embarrassed smile as the ship balanced out on its own and we crossed through the world's Gate. The Mysterious Tower captivated me in its surreal, crooked beauty and wiped away our anxiety from earlier. "It's like it's from a picture book!" I exclaimed excitedly as we zoomed closer.

Situated on a floating island dotted with trees and fitted with its own courtyard, Yen Sid's Tower curved gracefully to one side like a tree's boughs weighed down by a summer breeze. A blue turret-shaped roof capped the tip of the fantastical golden tower, decorated with a smattering of stars and moons. A fortified barrier of trees stood sentry around the back, but it didn't conceal the twinkling of orange and gold between its foliage.

I said in a low voice, "It's almost as if there's something beyond the forest."

The glow of that sunset lit the mysterious eddy of mist around the island orange and warmed the horizon. And the sky deepened into indigo studded with silver stars. When we'd left Hollow Bastion, the town had snuggled into the peaceful blanket of night. It was one thing hearing that Yen Sid's home was free of time's rules but seeing it with my own eyes was unreal.

Our landing was none too graceful: the ship did all but crash-land, skidding like an unbalanced kid on a skateboard and turning up clods of dirt. Screeching to a sudden halt against a sparse patch of trees, we both flew forward in our chairs and would've collided with the control dash had it not been for our seat belts. The ship's parts settled back into place with a screech like metal rending in two.

That didn't sound reassuring.

"We're here! Alright let's go; no time to lose." I proclaimed, hitting the button that opened the doors with a faint whooshing sound. After that whole mess I was surprised we'd made it at all. Letting out a breath of relief, I glanced over to my friend -

Leon glowered at me from between strands of his dark hair. Yikes. "Merlin said Cid taught you how to fly this thing."

"That was years ago," I protested. "I did warn you ahead of time." Cid had only gotten me through a few lessons before Merlin had made him stop. Why? If only I knew.

He staggered out of his seat and practically tumbled out of the ship's open door and onto the grass outside. "Remind me to never let you fly me anywhere," he grumbled. Nervously, I clambered outside and found my friend hunched over with his hands on his knees. "Holy crap I thought we were gonna die."

"Next time won't be that bad."

"Next time - ugh," he deflated when he realized that I was the only one of us who could get us back home. He'd get the both of us killed. "Yen Sid, magic me back. Please." I doubted the great sorcerer would deign to lift a finger for our sake. With a sidelong glance back at the crashed Gummi Ship, I wondered how angry Yen Sid would be that I'd wrecked his property. Wasn't the best entrance to make when seeking someone's help, but there wasn't a thing I could to fix it now.

"We're not dead," I offered as if it might be any consolation for him. "I promise to sail smooth as a baby on the way back."

"Whatever, let's see what the guy has to say-

A small gang of pitch-dark Heartless shot up from the blades of grass and swiped at his ankles. Without hesitation, I kicked it square in the face and knocked it back into its comrades. "This way," I told him, racing up the small flight of stairs and opening the Tower's huge set of doors. Leon followed me into the circular entryway. Curling upward like a wisp of smoke, a spiraling staircase led into the higher floors of the Tower.

We took the stairs two at a time. To my surprise, Heartless manifested on the white marble steps; Leon pushed ahead of me and cleared the path with giant sweeps of his sword. When we reached the landing we took the portal before us and entered into a round room. The door across from us leading into the next room had a bright star above it. Placed at regular intervals along the wall were displays of similar glowing yellow star statues.

More Heartless pushed up through the stone floor but I didn't have time for them. Kicking aside the ones leaping for my legs, I flew through the star door. Behind it was a room boasting a silver moon motif. "Nice design," I commented aloud, gunning for the door. Leon kept close behind me, knocking the Heartless away like trash.

I expected another room decorated with the sun beyond the door. Instead I stumbled straight into Yen Sid's personal study. The door slammed behind us, shattering the tranquil silence with a deafening thud.

Compared to Merlin's humble but messy abode, Yen Sid's study was like a carefully pruned garden. His possessions were there to enhance a sense of serenity and displayed a keen taste for atmosphere. Cute little wooden cutouts dotted the sapling-colored walls, their bellies filled with leather-bound books - a stark contrast to Merlin's collections piled all over the floor. Huge clay pots hugged the wall by the door we'd come through, containing what I could only imagine to be magical ingredients.

A gigantic polished wooden desk with a single unlit candle resting in its holder sat front and center in the middle of the study. Lording over it all was a grand figure draped in rich ocean-blue robes. A figure whose legendary skills were second to none. It was an effort to keep from gawking at the man.

Yen Sid simply watched us come to terms with our situation as I fixed my gaze on the star and moon cone hat atop his head. His well-kept gray beard fell to his chest and shone soft as down in the light. His irises were like pinpricks in their sclera and his eyes were shadowed beneath an impressive pair of bushy caterpillar brows. A pair which were now downturned in disapproval.

Before I could stop myself, I murmured to Leon, "Are you sure they're not related?" Two magic users with brows like that? Either it was in style or they had to be related.

Leon rolled his eyes heavenward at my unfettered observation.

Merlin had described the great sorcerer as a man of perpetual shrewdness and possessing a constant stern disposition. I'd say he was on the mark. Despite his intimidating presence, the great feats he'd accomplished only inspired awe within me. I dropped into an awkward curtsey, my mind going blank as the realization of where I was dawned on me.

Leon respectively dipped into a bow by my side.

Yen Sid's first words followed an exasperated sigh. "I must admit I'd expected you to rebel much sooner. Though I suppose it's for the best you've reigned in that spirit of yours until this moment."

"I'm sorry?" I said lamely, doubting my own ears. Leon however folded his arms and grumbled to himself about his poor decision making in agreeing to come along with me.

The great sorcerer didn't bother to explain. He simply said, "Merlin has chased other distractions to avoid taking responsibility for the problem at hand. As you full-well know, light is our only hope and darkness our only doom."

Not what I'd been expecting but I'd take this over any other scenario. I couldn't waste any time then. It was time I was told the truth. "With all due respect," I started, "before Merlin gets here I need to ask you a few questions."

The man didn't seem bothered by my frantic plea in the slightest. "Merlin has yet to learn of your absence. Now. You were quite...young when last you visited me." The man paused and his mouth drew into a tight line. He continued. "As such I doubt you have any recollection of it, brief as it was. Still, I wonder how Merlin thought to leave you so vulnerable. No matter his reasons, you need guidance. Yet he has failed to fulfill that role."

I'd visited Yen Sid before? I sure couldn't remember that. I must've been very young then. "My friends have taken over his role." I informed him with a bitter edge to my tone.

"Tell me, if you are to let your heart fall to darkness what shall become of you?" He changed the subject.

I answered instantly, "I'd become a Heartless, sir."

"Then you already have the answers you seek."

What?

"No, Yen Sid. Merlin's ordered me to never engage in combat without an explanation. I have to know why! Sitting back while my friends do all the work - it's beyond frustrating. Especially when he's trained us all." Why was it so hard to voice my situation now, when I needed to more than ever?

Yen Sid raised one hand and a ray of white light appeared before me. From within, a snow-white Heartless took form. I balled my hands tight into fists at the very sight. Yen Sid spoke calmly, soothing my frenzied nerves with his rumbling tones. "Merlin has been remiss to inform you of so many things. A grave error on his part. However, you are right to be cautious," he commended me.

Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to examine the creature up close. If I let my fears control me then I had no right to insist on helping the HBRC protect our home. The Heartless swayed like a current of water, the shimmering blue lines running along the length of its body rippling as if with moonlight. Its zipper-mouth flapped open to reveal a strange purple bulb in place of a tongue and on its forehead was inscribed a strange bold symbol. Everything about this Heartless seemed eerily...human. Almost as if it were a person beneath a hooded white cloak. Like a Nobody.

"At times, if someone with a strong heart and will - be they evil or good - becomes a Heartless, the empty shell they leave behind begins to act with a will of its own," Yen Sid continued. "An empty vessel whose heart has been stolen away...a spirit that goes on even as its body fades from existence. For you see, Nobodies do not truly exist at all."

They didn't exist? When the wolfish looking guy had grabbed my arm, that had felt very real. When Axel's flame had burned my flesh that hadn't been an illusion either.

"Nobodies may seem to have feelings, but this is a ruse - they only pretend to have hearts."

Exactly as Cid had said. Even so, I recalled how the guy with the eyepatch had laughed deliriously at Sora's confusion back at the bailey. How Axel had crumpled in on himself with regret and sadness at the loss of his friend.

A friend who he claimed was gone because of Sora, of all things...

Yen Sid's voice dipped low with warning. "You must not be deceived." My gaze snapped up to his guiltily and I wondered if he could he see the doubts swirling in my mind like a wave. With a popping sound of magic, several more of those snow-white Heartless appeared around me and Leon. "Now then...the being you see before you is known as a Dusk. They are the most common form of Nobody."

This was a Nobody? My mouth opened in shock. They did share a resemblance but never would I have guessed this to be the case. Right as I was about to ask the sorcerer for clarification regarding Axel and the other guy, he said, "But there are others - some larger, some with frightening and unique powers. Be vigilant. From what Merlin has told me, an alarming number of Dusks surround the remains of Radiant Garden. They will all attempt to do you harm. As they have already done so," he threw a pointed look down at my arm. A red line cut across my skin from the attack in the bailey.

Swallowing the lump forming in my throat I said, "You're saying all of the Dusks have different forms? Like the Heartless do?"

Yen Sid merely inclined his head in confirmation. "Still, they are nothing but empty shells, destined to return to darkness." What he summoned next froze me in place: people shrouded in black cloaks that towered over even Leon. Their faces were swathed in an impenetrable shadow. Yen Sid's voice became a snarl. "The beings you see before you now are different. These powerful Nobodies have formed a group called Organization XIII. It commands the lesser Nobodies."

Leon shared a look with me. No doubt we were recalling the demonstrations of their power in the bailey as well as when I'd been captured by Axel's minions. When I returned my gaze to the Nobodies, my arms prickled in response. Could Yen Sid see the darkness in me? Could he heal me?

Do you want that? To lose whatever power would even make the Nobodies leave you be? Something so powerful could maybe even help you out in other areas. A voice lapped against my heart, echoing through my entire being.

"While Heartless act on instinct, Nobodies function in a higher manner," Yen Sid continued. "They can think and plan. And it seems they are working towards a goal. What that goal is, we do not know." Then the phantom illusions disappeared and Yen Sid said, "Now then. Merlin shall soon be here. That is all I have to say on the matter."

"You didn't answer my questions," I told him, clenching my burned hand. The heat licked through my skin and sharpened my words like a forged blade. All he'd done was go into detail on why the Heartless and the Nobodies were bad news. Not why I couldn't join in the fight against them.

"Those aren't mine to answer. While I disagree with Merlin's choices, he must take responsibility." It was like he'd slammed a bolted a set of steel bars around me. I wasn't supposed to be involved in anything. Just sit tight and be a good little girl...that's all everyone had ever wanted of me.

What would it take for someone to answer my questions? Did I have to show them the darkness within me?

Unless…

Cold fear washed over me. What if the darkness within me was the reason for everything? I was too rattled to even meet the sorcerer's eyes and my throat closed up. I suddenly couldn't breathe and my vision dotted with black spots.

Leon reached out to place a comforting hand on my shoulder but I pushed away from him. "I need some air," I croaked and then I was racing down the stairs, stumbling over the steps and clutching a hand against my chest where my heart thundered. I needed to get out of here.

Before the tears could streak down my cheeks, I burst out of the Tower and staggered onto the lawn. I sucked down lungfuls of the fresh air and made my way toward the crashed Gummi Ship. No Heartless came to greet me and I snorted in disgust. Now they decided to give me a break?

With each step through the manicured lawn, the angrier I became.

I had lived my entire life according to Merlin's rules. And for what? To be told that someday soon my parents would come to visit me - but that he had no idea when? That they were still alive - but he had no idea where they even were? How did any of that make sense? Why had I allowed myself to believe any of that when I knew full-well that he was a wizard capable of so much? He knew everything and he hid it all.

A tidal wave of agony threatened to drown me and it was all I could do to think of something else to keep myself afloat. Yuffie and Aerith's faces came to the forefront of my mind. I wanted nothing more to see them. So that I wouldn't sink into the darkness. That's what I told myself at least.

But maybe I had jumped into it anyways.

Skirting around the fallen ship, I made to open the door when a voice broke the silence.

"Hey, girlie!" Right beside me, the wolfish guy appeared out of a black cocoon. Or rather, the Nobody. The shadows lingered about his shoulders like a ghostly embrace before evaporating into nothingness. My eyes bugged in their sockets. His lips peeled back to reveal a set of pearly whites. "Knew I was onto something with ya."

The Nobodies were the reason my parents had been ripped apart from me. I knew that. So why wasn't I quaking with murderous rage at his mere presence? Instead, a mixture of apprehension and oddly enough, relief, hit me. The betrayal of my own feelings regarding his very existence pushed me into a frenzy. I backed away from him so fast my spine connected with the hard metal wing of the Gummi Ship. I pressed a hand against the sore spot and threw him a dirty look. "There's a powerful sorcerer living here. I think you should leave before he gets rid of you," I said the only thing I could think of.

"Oh, come off it. That old coot's not anything to worry about."

"Yen Sid will whoop your-

"As if," he cut me off, closing the gap between us. I side-stepped and backed away toward the tree line. Oh great, what a smart move I chastised myself. Now I was cornered. "What's your name?" he asked me. Something in his tone was slick as oil, like he'd been preparing for this meeting for a while now.

"None of your business. Now get out of here before he comes down here."

"'Cept it is, girlie." His golden eye burned like a fallen star exploding in a burst of dying light. "Ever since Flamsielocks spent himself it's been a pain dealing with everyone else. Don't get me started on the Sitar nutto. Though I don't think you're the kind to let yourself go to waste, yeah? Just don't burn out too fast. Candles never made for long lives." He stopped a few feet away from me and his grin grew sharper.

Could I summon the darkness to my side again? "Come again?" I stalled for time, feeling for the lick of violet embers somewhere within me. Nothing. Help me out, I internally begged the darkness. I should be resisting the idea of their aid but here I was, wanting their help. My stomach swirled and I went white as a sheet.

The Nobody pointed a finger at my chest and exclaimed, "I'm saying to let go and just be. Let the anger claim your heart."

"Not sure what you're trying to get at here," I snapped back at the Nobody. Oh but I knew all too well what he was implying. It terrified me. Because deep down a part of me wanted to do just that. "Are we done now? I have enough things to worry about already."

And then, from far above us, someone called my name. Merlin. The wizard rushed toward us on a cloud, magic sparking around him in colorful bursts that threw a harsh glare against his specs.

The Nobody snapped his fingers and a cocoon bloomed behind him. "I'll be back when you've reached rock bottom, you hear? Shouldn't be too long once those old farts slip up. I almost feel sorry for you. Almost." He flashed me a wicked grin that cut his features apart and stretched his scar taut.

If I were being honest with myself...the darkness didn't feel so wrong. If anything, everything was too black-and-white with the darkness and the light. Surely there was an in-between?

The darkness will do all it can to seduce you, don't fall prey to it! Merlin's teachings echoed in my mind. I knew that yet I wasn't so sure anymore. I'd held onto the infallible belief that Merlin's teachings were absolute. But if the man himself wasn't above error then neither were his lessons.

The Nobody slipped into the darkness' jaws. If he was telling the truth, then he would come back for me when I'd been shattered like a tea cup dashed upon a tile floor. A part of me said that it was all a lie - but I'd been hurt too many times by Merlin to count. And if the Nobodies were already so powerful, then they could be capable of anything. Perhaps they knew as much as Merlin did.

I shook my head up at the man I'd trusted with my life. Who'd done nothing but shun and seclude me. Then I kicked off of the ground in a leap and ran the rest of the way into the yawning cocoon.

"Mais-

Merlin called after me. Then the cocoon snapped shut and the world became shrouded in inky blackness.

The Nobody was gone. It was as if someone had swallowed the stars and plucked the moon from the sky like an apple from a branch. All that remained was a darkness so deep I couldn't even see my own hands in front of me. I stumbled forward blindly, holding both of my arms out. There was no point in dwelling on my stupidity. I'd followed him for a purpose and I'd follow it through.

Except I'd had truly no idea what awaited me beyond the cocoon. I'd expected this to be a doorway to another world. Not endless...nothingness. The air had a bite to it that tasted my flesh and sapped my strength. It sucked out the breath from my lungs in white puffs. There was no sound but that of my harried breathing and my drumming pulse. The uneven tempo of my footsteps.

At first I'd decided not to call out for the Nobody for the fear that something else was lurking in this place. Until panic overtook me. I lost all track of time and it seemed as if I was growing weaker by the second.

First my steps became leaden. Then my legs went numb. Finally I crashed to the ground. Try as might, I couldn't move more than my fingertips. And then they too lost their strength. This was all just a bad dream, right? I'd had plenty of these before. A gigantic Heartless would soon burst from the ground and crush me beneath its hand, and I'd wake up to my friends starting a new day of fighting the Heartless.

Except nothing of the sort happened.

The cold seeped through my cheek, pierced through my body, and froze me slowly from the inside out.

"Mom..dad," I cried out. The sobs shook my body and I screamed in agony when I tried to move but couldn't. I'd never known how vicious the cold could be. Maybe the Nobody had lied to me after all and the darkness only wanted to claim me. Maybe it would freeze me and leave my body to be food for the Heartless. "Don't give up," I told myself. "You're gonna make it." Tears streamed down my cheeks and I focused on stretching out one arm. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead.

Somehow, I managed to move a little. With a cry of triumph, I dragged my body forward. It was like I'd been turned into a block of ice. My teeth chattered so hard I could feel the reverberations in my skull. And when I could pull myself forward no longer, I dug my fingers into the floor, trembling.

I was going to die. No-one would ever find me again.

"Axel…" the Nobody's name poured from of my lips like a prayer. His flames could melt away this darkness, could melt away this cold.


Axel had been alerted to one of the lights suddenly shifting in the Corridors of Darkness. Normally it wouldn't have concerned him, except that it had moved a great distance at a speed so great that he couldn't ignore it.

It was Sora.

Much as he'd rather wait for Sora to pay her another visit and then trap him there, he was impatient. Roxas needed him. He needed Roxas.

So he'd given chase, his hollow chest seeming to tighten at the prospect of reuniting with his friend. He'd never given pause to check to see whether the girl's light was still blinking somewhere in Hollow Bastion.

Why would he need to?

"Oh great," he drawled, rubbing the back of his neck. He'd travelled as discreetly and as fast as possible through the Corridors, something he himself was quite proud of. Now he was stunned and annoyed.

Because a little distance away was the faint shape of a human girl splayed on the ground. Her long hair fell around her like limp seaweed and her skin shone with a layer of sweat. Her chest rose and fell weakly and the sound that wheezed through her parted lips was pained and erratic.

"Why do I keep running into you, huh?" Axel muttered aloud. She was supposed to be in Hollow Bastion. How the hell did she get into the Corridors? A human at that. Dumbfounded, Axel sauntered closer and peered down at her.

He felt for her diary in his pocket. Normal people couldn't travel through the Corridors without protection from the darkness. Yet she'd just waltzed right into them for God knows why. Still, there was no way a dead human would be of use to him. He'd have to find another way to lure Sora out.

Axel withdrew her diary and made to drop it beside her body when a name squeezed out of her agonized moans.

"Axel," she cried. His name. He must've misheard her. Then she spoke again, her teeth chattering on each syllable. "Please get me out…Axel..." She was going crazy, he thought. The darkness was feasting on her for sure.

The former assassin glanced down at her diary in his gloved fingers, then back down at its owner, sprawled lifeless on the floor. Soon she'd be consumed by the darkness. A tasty snack for them. But why had she called for him?

He shouldn't get involved. There was no reason to. Roxas was the only thing that mattered.

But she was just lying there like a puppet without strings. Axel didn't know why that specific image hit him so hard. It just did. He slipped her diary back into his pocket, stooped down and scooped her up and into his arms.

His gaze roved over her, searching for the reason he'd decided to save her from her fate. Nothing came to mind. Wonderful.

"Hey, you there," he said to her, shaking her a little. She didn't budge. Axel rolled his eyes and said louder, "You dummy, you can't just go into the Corridors like that. What were you thinking? How did you even get in here anyway, huh?"

Slowly, her eyes opened and she gazed up at him with glassy eyes. A lazy smile curled her lips up and she let out a small sigh, snuggling against him. He realized then that she was shivering and her hair was damp with perspiration.

So this is what happened to humans when the darkness sapped away their lives. Kinda grim, he thought.

He didn't expect her to be able to speak to him, but she struggled to collect herself and she said, "I'm so tired."

"That's what happens when idiots jump into the darkness. Now then, I'mma drop you back home, whaddya say? The correct answer is yes, got that?" Stubbornly, the girl shook her head. "You're not gonna make it if you dawdle here any longer. So in a way I'm kinda doing ya a favor. You owe me now, got it memorized?"

She reached out weakly and grabbed a fistful of his cloak. Her hand was so small.

Irritated, he started at a brisk pace for Hollow Bastion. Her voice cracked with her next words and he halted in his steps and looked down at her with wide eyes. "All I wanted was to see them. It hurts so much. Why is my heart breaking like this?"

Roxas.

"I'mma take you back home," he told her in a gentler tone. "Got it?"

"No, don't. Please," she begged him, confusing him even more. She even pushed herself up a little bit to grab a hold of his chest. She was trembling so badly, she must be horribly weak. What the heck was up with her? "I can't go back there again. I need to talk to you."

Good grief, did she never stop surprising him. Axel shook his head and tried to appear calm and collected even though he was utterly lost. "I don't got time for that and you don't got time to stay in here."

"Then make time," she argued. "I'm sick of all of the lies. Maybe if I give in to the darkness, I can control it. Maybe it can give them back to me."

He didn't know what she meant by that but he did know that that wasn't the best idea.

Axel was about to reprimand her but she sagged in his arms and drifted off into la-la land. He sighed dramatically and hung his head.

He should get rid of her. Drop her off somewhere. But he couldn't find it in himself to be that cruel. Even after how he was treated by his own kind. He was tired of it all.

So Axel, with a furrow between his brows and a spark of his flame softly warming the girl in his arms, carried her to a place he had once cherished. A world of sun sets and sea salt flavored ice cream. Just for now, he told himself. He would give her one little break before he resumed his search. He wished he knew why he'd done this.

Chapter Text


 

My dreams were normally devoid of comfort; I was always struggling to stay alive in them or fighting to stay sane. How then, had I slipped into a peaceful slumber? How could I stay like this forever?

But like all things, nothing was meant to last forever.

Slowly, the spell of sleep sloughed off of me like layers of bedding. There was a veil warmth on my skin and a faint lull in the air. Much like how it must be like in a town near the ocean, as described in Merlin's books. Odd.

I opened my eyes and promptly found myself at a loss for words. Glittering like the stained glass windows showcased in Merlin's dusty books was the most gorgeous sunset I'd ever seen. Except no glass rendition could replicate the soft golden rays gilding these clouds. No glass could make them feathery soft, not as I was looking at them. Which meant that I was looking at the real deal. I wasn't locked behind Merlin's walls, wishing to catch a glimpse of something I'd seen only in the pages of his library.

All other thoughts vanished from my mind. I scrambled to my feet and made to find a better vantage point with which to admire the sky - only for something to snag my wrist and yank me backwards.

"Whoa there - I didn't go and save your butt for ya to decide ya weren't gonna talk to me after all. Sheesh. Talk about rude."

"Axel?" I gasped, whirling around to look up at the Nobody with the fiery mane of hair. Beneath the sun's rays his emerald lambent gaze shone like gemstones. My mouth went dry. Why was he here?

His hand slid up from my wrist to grip my upper arm.

I stiffened at his touch as a torrent of imagined grisly ends froze me in place. Would he burn me alive? Roast me like a pig on a spit for fun? Devour me with those impossibly white teeth of his? I hoped not - they looked pretty sharp.

My inner thoughts must have betrayed themselves on my face for his expression changed from concerned to disgruntled and then finally settled on something akin to mock playfulness. Like he'd had to choose what should naturally come next. His feline eyes narrowed slightly and one corner of his mouth quirked up sardonically. "Oh, so you got it memorized after all? Axel it is, little lady. A quick learner we got here." He tapped a gloved finger appraisingly against my temple.

I ripped myself out of his grasp and tried to put as much distance between us.

"Hey, whaddya think you're doing? Stop it you dummy!" Axel leapt forward and grabbed my other arm.

"Let go of me!" I protested, but he dragged me back down over a small ledge and into a narrow walkway. "I said let me go, dammit!"

In my struggle to free myself I caught a glimpse of the view over my shoulder. The words died on my tongue. I - no, we - were standing atop a huge building overlooking a town. Or more accurately, we were on the precipice of said building. If Axel hadn't reigned me in like he'd had - I swallowed loudly.

Instinctively, I pressed myself against the Nobody to get as far away from the edge as possible. Perspiration slicked across the back of my neck. It didn't help that we were currently being blasted directly by the sun. Its rays poured down onto the landscape and bathed it in shades of golden-honey and burnt orange. Had he not been here, would I have been too entranced by it all that I would have unknowingly fallen off the edge in my effort to admire it all?

Axel carefully guided us back into the walkway. His vice-like grip loosened around my arms until he let go of me altogether. I glared up at him in an attempt to conceal my rattled nerves.

"Sorry to disappoint ya but no, I wouldn't perish into oblivion if we nosedived and splattered against the ground. Only you would," he said nonchalantly. With a shrug of his shoulders, the Nobody settled himself down into the walkway, crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back to admire the sunset. If that was a bluff to scare me I was none the wiser. However, his intended effect hit me hard.

I cast a wide-eyed gaze about my surroundings. We were up awfully high, the wind was teasing me closer toward the ledge and there was no one else here but the man who could grill me alive and snack on my charred remains as he watched the sun set.

Did Nobodies eat humans?

When the silence had stretched thin, Axel threw me a bemused look. "What's up?"

My jaw practically fell to the ground. "What do you mean, 'what's up?'" What was I supposed to say to that?

Axel held up a finger. "Beating around the bush ain't gonna leave me in suspense. I don't got all day ya know."

"Why did you bring me here?"

"Oh jeez," he grumbled. "Did you forget how you almost froze to death in the corridors? How you told me that we had to talk? Because I sure do. Just my luck, too. Shoulda left ya there for all your gratitude."

My gaze fell to the ground. Yeah. I had nearly died back in that pitch black place. The pain had been unbearable and all I could think to get out of there was Axel. His flames could melt away the ice encasing my body. And I'd rambled a lot too, stricken with pain. "Maybe you should've left me," I muttered.

I hadn't expected him to hear me but then again, this was a Nobody I was dealing with. "Wow, you're welcome."

My voice cracked. "There's nothing left for me. My parents are likely dead, the man I thought of as a father completely shunned me and I -

I clamped my mouth shut. I'd said too much. And I hated feeling sorry for myself. But after everything that had happened...was it worth living a lie? Every day ate at me. Every night chewed me up and spat me out worse for wear.

Axel watched me, a peculiar expression shading his face. "You...remind me of him."

Well that made zero sense. "What's that supposed to mean?"

With a groan, he sat up and looked down at the city. There was something bittersweet about it all. The Nobody hunched over himself and turned his face away from me. "Nothing. Forget I said anything. Anyway, here ya go." He reached into his pocket and tossed something to me without even glancing in my direction.

I scrambled to catch it. Glittering in a thin plastic wrap between my cupped hands was a glacier-blue frozen treat. "Ice cream?" I said dumbly.

Axel turned his face to see me and rested his cheek on his knees, his own treat caught between his lips. He jutted his chin at me, and I hesitated. "Calm down, it's just Sea-Salt Ice Cream," he said around his own bar. "Don't tell me you haven't had one? Jeez, you haven't lived." The Nobody got to his feet, and before I could even move, he'd taken mine from me and unwrapped it for me. "There you are - open wide."

"Wait hold on - mph!" He jammed the ice cream into my open mouth. An explosion of flavor hit me: salt and sugar. True to its name. I hadn't eaten in a while...My stomach growled and with some reluctance, I bit off a chunk of the blue treat. "Wow," I said.

A ghost of a smile twinkled in his eyes. "That's what I call the 'icing on the cake.'" The Nobody stood beside me, munching on his desert. I tried my best to keep my cool as I awkwardly partook in this strange meal with him. All the while, I couldn't stop thinking of Merlin. How he'd chased after me, shouting for me not to follow the wolf-like Nobody into the portal he'd opened. How Yen Sid had told me that Merlin had had his reasons for treating me as he'd done, but whatever that was, he wouldn't say.

Suddenly the ice cream was too sweet. I held it before me and stared at the salt crystals shining along its surface.

Axel noticed, but instead of commenting on my dejected mood, he said, "I can't take you with me." I glanced up at him with alarm. It had never been my intention to ask to tag along with him...but now that he was rejecting that possibility I couldn't help but feel even more trapped. What on earth was I to do now?

He continued. "Remember how I told you that you need to chase after your dreams? Well, I got my own to catch." He thumped a finger against his chest for emphasis. "But I'd reckon leaving you here on this lovely sunlit tower might be a tad inconvenient for ya. Since you can't exactly climb down and all. Hey, why are you backing away like that? I'm not gonna throw ya overboard."

I threw him a dirty look. "So what then?"

"I'm saying I can leave you here if you want."

"That's nice of you but I don't know anyone here. And I don't even know who I should turn to for help. I feel so torn…" Man, I'd never been this honest before in my life. It'd taken a lot out of me to confess feeling so helpless with the HBRC, and perhaps it was because they were my family. With a stranger, I didn't feel so liable to being scrutinized.

Axel released a dramatic sigh.

"I asked to talk to you because I thought maybe you could shed some light onto this whole mess. Damn it, I'm so stupid." The darkness coiling about my arms had given him pause, and then later, when I was at my lowest, the guy had rescued me. Perhaps it was naive of me to hope that he may be willing to extend a hand to me once more. "You're confusing."

To my surprise, Axel nodded. "Fair point. But I don't think it'd be wise to dig too deep, dear."

"Then who's going to explain?" I snapped. "Because it looks like no one will. That other Nobody gave me more of an answer than anyone ever has. And he sure doesn't look like good news." Neither did Axel, but I figured that would only weaken my argument.

The Nobody raked a hand through his hair. "I hear ya loud and clear. Trust me, I understand what you're going through. All too well."

"You know nothing about me."

"You said you wanted to let the darkness consume you, in the corridor. That's all I need to know. I don't care how desperate you are. The darkness isn't something to play with. If you want to control it, you do so at a cost. And it's too steep a price for whatever you think it'll give you." His green eyes flashed with hatred. It was like he was seeing straight through me. "Once you lose your heart you lose everything." A haunted expression stole over his countenance, cloaking him in shadow.

My breath hitched in my throat. "You said Sora had done something to a friend of yours."

"Ah, the keyblade hero." His lips curled with contempt. "Yeah, I'm sure erasing my best friend is worthy of a standing ovation, huh?" Erased his friend? Before I could ask for clarification, he scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "Never-mind."

This Nobody...he really didn't seem like someone without a heart.

"I'm grateful that you came to me when I needed you," I said slowly. "But as far as I know you're the bad guy here. I don't know what happened to your friend, but Sora doesn't seem like he'd do anything bad. He's just a kid."

Besides, the other Nobody with the eyepatch had insinuated that Axel had turned coat against the Organization. Which made the whole situation doubly confounding. Did that mean Axel was floating somewhere between the light and dark?

The fiery Nobody looked at me as if I'd said something I shouldn't have. Then he grumbled something unintelligible and reached for my hand. His gloved fingers encircled my wrist.

Perhaps he really was going to throw me over the edge of the tower.

His green gaze bore into mine, searching for something. Then he brought my hand up to his face and he ate the rest of my ice cream bar in one quick bite. I was so shocked by his nearness that I completely froze. Axel's pink tongue darted out and lapped up the remains of the ice cream on the popsicle stick.

To my horror, my middle finger, which had been resting against the base of the blue desert, was met with the warm sensation of his tongue. It was an honest accident, judging by the way we both looked at each other in reciprocated disgust. "My bad," he murmured. "It was gonna melt anyway."

He wrested the popsicle stick from my fingers and his frown became a downright scowl. With a snort, he snapped it in half and dropped the remains at my feet. The word 'Winner' had been painted on its surface.

I couldn't help it. A laugh bubbled up from my diaphragm. "You're such a child," I snickered.

Axel's own popsicle stick was clutched between his fingers. No such congratulatory word branded its face.

If I was losing it, I didn't care. For the first time in a long while, I felt completely at ease. I couldn't stop laughing. When my giggles had finally subsided, I found Axel staring at me. I smiled at him, unsure of what to say. I probably seemed like a loon to him, switching back and forth through my emotions.

His mouth parted and his eyes rounded. Then the moment was over. Axel quickly turned around and bent down into a crouch. "You seem better."

"And you seem a tad off guard," I said.

Axel sheepishly glanced at me. "It's been a long day, y'know." He languidly rose to his full height and planted his hands on his hips. "So, whaddya say? I can take you back to Hollow Bastion."

My smile died on my face. "I - I'd rather not," I admitted, wringing my hands together.

"Ya sure? Cuz I'mma peace out after I take you down there. That cool with you?"

I'd never been surer of anything in my life before. "So how do we get down?"

A downright devious smirk played across his mouth. "You could jump. Or I can take you down, if you don't mind."

I'd expected him to pick me up and jump down but instead he took his time in floating down to the town. The sun bathed everything aglow like it was covered in honey. There were people bustling about and kids running around. It was so foreign to the life I had lived in Hollow Bastion.

Axel kept one arm around my middle as we slowly sank down to the ground, his sharp scent wreathing around me.

When my feet touched the cobblestones, Axel let go of me and swept into a bow. "Thank you," I said.

Darkness rippled around him. "If you have a dream, don't throw it away for power. Got it memorized?"

And then the jaws of darkness swallowed him whole.


Axel bit the inside of his cheek the moment he stepped into the corridors. He hadn't known what to expect after he'd rescued her from certain death, but this had been altogether alarming.

Rummaging about his coat pockets, he withdrew her journal. He was going to give it back to her. After all, he doubted Sora would ever think to look for her here. But did she need a reminder of the pain she'd endured?

"Why does it matter? You need to get Roxas back," he told himself.

He'd shared ice cream with her, like friends did. Like he'd done with Roxas. Why?

Axel shoved her journal back into his pocket. Her smile had caught him off guard. It had been so pure and raw, like Roxas' had been. It sent a stab of pain through him at the memory.

There was no time to waste.

If he was going to get Roxas back then he couldn't wait for Sora. It was time he paid a visit to this girl he cared so much about.

Kairi.