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From The Ashes

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I.

Death is easy.

I feel beautifully hollow; a crystalline shell of myself as I lay, suspended in nothing. Floating is peaceful, soothing. For the first time, there is nothing to fight. For the first time, I do not need to be strong for anything or anyone else. There’s only me, alone, stuck somewhere between light and darkness. This could be home, and I would be perfectly content with that.

But there’s something missing.

Something is devastatingly cold--sub zero. There’s an absence where a fire used to burn, and discomfort starts to spread through me. It’s not especially unpleasant, akin to a pinch or stubbing a toe; mildly annoying and yet, livable. This could be it, I think. I could stay here, forever. I could be okay here, restful, drifting aimlessly through the void. I could lay this way forever and never have to think, move, or feel again. This would be such a good place to lay my head down, finally.

But I cannot shake the thoughts of fire, searing through my veins, lighting me up like a shooting star in the night sky. There’s a brilliance in the fire, a burning daydream that is infinitely more appealing than this hazy nothingness. I think about reaching out, trying to take hold of the fire, but there is an apathy bleeding into my brain, rushing over me. I lose sight of the fire, and that’s okay. I simply do not have the will to care.

This is how it ends, and that’s alright by me.

A bolt of light slams into my chest and pounds me into the floor. My eyes fly open.

The room I’m in is white, made purely of blinding light. I look around, searching for the source of the impact.

I have very little time to wonder much else though. Memories come flooding back and it takes every bit of my concentration to take them all in. A little girl with blonde hair. A home in Radiant Garden. A man, a godfather, a pilot, caring for her. Other children, a girl with dark hair and eyes. Her presence is a smile, a silly sort of kindness. A boy with blue hair and cyan eyes. His presence is darkness, overwhelming as I shoulder the weight of it. A boy with golden hair and blue eyes, a would be prince charming. He is the light, but barely a player in this story. And then, a pair of emerald green eyes. A cat like grin.

‘I want everyone I meet to remember me. Inside people’s memories, I can live forever.’

‘Got it memorized.’

That voice!

Axel!

I choke on the air that floods my lungs as I sit up straight. The light is gone, but the fire is burning. I feel my heart pounding in my chest. A real heart, pumping blood and life through my body. I’m sore. My body aches in new and divergent ways. My back hurts from the fall…but where did I fall from? And where did I fall to?

I look around and the answer to the latter of the two questions comes easily.

This is the cleaning shed I woke up in, nearly a dozen years ago, in Transmute City. I am no longer a nine year old girl with inhibited memories. Instead, everything is restored. I remember death, both times. When the Neo Shadow took my heart in Radiant Garden, and when I begged Roxas for release in The World That Never Was. I died.

Shit, I died. So, what the fuck am I doing here? I place a hand to my chest and count the beats.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

I didn’t have a heart. For eleven years, I had nothing. I was empty, a husk. A Nobody. But I feel what beats beneath my palm and I know this isn’t a phantom sensation. Have my heart, my body and my soul, all found their way back to one another? Or were the past eleven years just some sort of fucked up dream?

I look myself over, in the light that creeps through the cracks in the door to the shed. This body is mine, without a doubt, clad in a black coat that I never wanted to adorn in the first place. My items belt is missing. That’s not a surprise. Saix threw it into a portal that led to who knows where, when we fought last. The thought of him makes my skin crawl. I want to shed this coat and those it represents, the way a reptile sheds its skin, but I know where I am. Transmute City. Home. Why does my journey always begin here?

Regardless, it’s going to be cold as hell outside of this shed, I’ll need this coat to keep warm.

Warm. Fire. Axel.

Fuck. A tear slides, hot and heavy down my cheek as I stand, reaching for the door.

I remember the two of us sitting at the clock tower, in limbo, or whatever the hell that was, I remember us promising to find each other. But I am not patient enough to sit around waiting for him to come save me. Right now, all I need is to get the hell out of here and find a way to get to another world. If he’s searching, where would he be? Twilight Town? Radiant Garden? The Destiny Islands? My thoughts are erratic, and I haven’t even left this fucking closet yet. I heave a sigh and curse, just to prove to myself that I still have a voice.

“Fuck.” Well, at least I can still say my very favorite word.

I need to get to a Gummi Ship, unless…

I think about Twilight Town. Visualizing the clock tower, the weight of my legs dangling from it, the feeling of the wind rustling my hair. I picture the beautiful orange sky, the sun, always on the brink of rising or setting. I swear, I can feel the world’s very essence, curling in the palm of my hand. I wave my hand. A whole lot of nothing happens.

Well, apparently, dark corridors are off limits to me now. Guess I really must have my heart back. The thought of it should make me giddy, borderline delirious, but right now, there’s so much, I cannot even process this joy. Axel isn’t here. I need to get him back. That’s what matters. Not my fucking heart. Not my voice. Not my body. Him.

I open the door to the shed and am met by a penetrating cold. It’s snowing in Transmute City, something that rarely happens, despite how bitter the weather always is. For the most part, the world is constantly dry. Just chilling and dark, but now, with white fluttering through the sky, there’s something about the air that almost twinkles with rebirth.

I’ve become such a fucking sap.

As fast as my legs will take me, I dart toward the Gummi Repair Shop. I can pick the lock on the back door. If I can just sneak in through there and take off with one of the ships Amaya is working on…yeah, it’ll be bad for business, but I think my very presence will be worse for Del and Amaya than a missing ship.

It’s dark, the only source of light that crept through the shed must’ve come from the street lamps. It’s cold, but otherwise quiet. No sign of Heartless or Nobodies in sight. For a moment, I think I’m safe.

But only a moment. I hit the ground, knees shaking, holding myself up on all fours. Fuck. Struggling to take a breath, my eyes dart around. What the fuck knocked me—

Oh. Nothing. Just my ragged body, failing me. What a joy. I choke as I sit back up on my haunches, assessing myself. Under the street lamps, I can see a very clear gash in the abdomen of my coat and…

Oh, hell.

Blood is crusted to the fabric, it’s starting to heal into my skin. Gingerly, I try to tug at it, an attempt to free it, but the pain is excruciating. I see spots, it feels like needles are pressing into my flesh. My hands ball into fists as I try to stand upright. Come on, Rueki, power through, I urge myself. With great effort, I stand and take another step only to wind up with my hands pressed to the side of a building while I struggle to catch my breath. I’m alive, that in and of itself is no small feat, but I’m exhausted. I may very well be whole again, but my being has taken the kind of beating that one does not just recover from. I’m not an empty shell anymore, able to exert itself in the extreme, I’m lucky I even woke up at all.

The cold wind pierces me, whipping my hair in a spiral. I just need a minute. Just gotta sit down, drink a potion. I’ll be fine if I can just—

My world bleeds together like watercolors, my head starts to fall back, but I clench my fists so tight that my fingernails bite into my palms. The stinging sensation is a momentary distraction, but one that keeps me awake, nonetheless.

“Fuck.” I whisper again, blinking back the exhaustion that starts to flood through me. Maybe I need more than a moment to rest my tired shell. Maybe I need to flat out nap. The very thought of sleep fills me with warmth, and before I can even stop myself, my body works on instinct, legs taking me the place I was trying so hard to avoid going.

My home.

The bathroom window doesn’t lock. I can sneak in there, take a shower, get a few hours of sleep, I’ll be in and out before Del or Amaya wake. It’s fine. They won’t even know I’m there. Everything is going to be alright.

My tired body doesn’t move fast enough, and by time I have hoisted myself up onto a trash can and have crawled through the tiny bathroom window—how my wide hips manage to get through, I am unsure—I am beyond thankful to be met by an overwhelming heat. Heat. Fire. Axel.

My hands start to shake as I pull the window back down. I try to convince myself the feeling of being gutted has everything to do with my bodily injuries and not his absence.

Now isn’t the time. I’ve got to keep my mind off of him until I can actually do something productive. Whatever this second chance at life is, I’m not bringing the crippling panic attacks into it with me. Those are going to stay in the past, no matter what it takes.

I’m so fucking sick of crying.

As quietly as I can manage, I shut the bathroom door and turn the light on. Inside of the bathroom mirror, I’m finally able to assess myself fully. The corpse of a woman stares back at me, with skin too pale and shadows too dark beneath her visible, sea green eye. My bangs hang over one eye, as always, but there is debris intertwined in the golden blonde tangles, not just of my bangs, but the rest of my hair. A ponytail didn’t help salvage anything, and I know it is going to take at least an hour to work out the knots. Dried blood is crusted to the corners of my mouth, and down to my jaw, covering the mole beneath corner of my lips.

But this isn’t even the worst, I know. I look down at where my coat has started to fuse to my skin. I try pulling at it again, just slightly and have to bite down hard on my lower lip to keep from making any noise. The last thing Del or Amaya need is to come running into the bathroom after hearing me scream, only to see me bleeding out on the floor.

My entire body trembles as I struggle to catch my breath. No more playing nice, this has got to be like ripping a bandaid off, right? I look around the bathroom and grab a hand towel off of the rack, before setting it down on the sink in front of me. This will be a hell of a lot easier with two hands, I decide, as I pull Survivor off of my arm. It feels old, heavy, like it is on the verge of shattering. I suck in a breath. Oh please, no. Not this, not the weapon he gave me. The coat is destroyed, but please…

Very carefully, I set the claw on the fluffy area rug Amaya had placed in this bathroom years ago. It’s old, dirty, surely they won’t notice whatever stains my weapon transfers onto it. Satisfied that Survivor hasn’t crumpled to dust, I look down at the wound on my abdomen. It almost looks as though it is mostly healed, which means this is going to be a bitch and then some. I run the hot water in the sink, counting the seconds that water trickles, like sands in an hourglass. Come on, faster. Can’t wake Del or Amaya up. Once the water warms up, I place the edge of the towel into it, allowing it to get wet. And then, I pat the soaking towel against the parts of my skin that the leather is fusing to. Anything to free it up.

It takes effort, patience, and more time than I want to spend, but the edges start freeing up. I turn off the water and ball up the dry edge of the towel, before shoving it into my mouth. I take a deep breath through my nose, pinch my eyes shut, and on the exhale, I tear the coat.

The pain shoots through my core, and I swear, it feels as though I am skinning myself. My eyes cross, and I cry out, though it is muffled by the gag that the towel created. Tremors shake my body, and when finally, the last of the coat is freed from my skin, my head falls back, in pure relief. I shed the coat quickly, letting it drop in a heap on the floor. Fortunately, it appears that the only unhealed wound is the one on my abdomen. The rest of my body looks like it has been painted with white scars crisscrossing all across my limbs.

Focus, Rueki, I remind myself. I need to dress this injury. I need to clean it and guzzle a Potion like my life depends on it. Because it very well might. And I know exactly where the Potions are. In a cupboard in the kitchen. Fuck.

I step on the heel of my boot to yank it off, and then, do the same with the other one. This will be quieter barefoot.

I know exactly where to step, which floorboards to avoid so that I don’t make a sound. Nothing about this tiny house has changed, and there’s a brief feeling of comfort from that. With the lights still out, I reach out to open the cupboard, when suddenly, a sound perks my ears up. The slightest brushing of bare feet against carpet. If I wasn’t on my toes, paused, mid reach, I’d have missed it.

But then, there’s someone charging at me. A body crashes into mine slamming me into the countertop. I exhale sharply, eyes going wide. In the darkness, the figure is only a silhouette and panic courses through me. No. No. Not again.

I grab the figure’s head and bring my knee up, slamming their face against it. They cry out, a broken grunt of a sound and throw a punch. It’s poorly timed and ill placed though. I catch their fist in my hand and deliver a blow of my own, a kick straight to their abdomen. They huff.

“Damn!” I know that voice, somewhere in the clouded state that my adrenaline has put me in, I recognize the speaker. But I don’t hear sounds, I don’t see shapes, my mind puts me inside that wide open hallway that Saix and I stood opposite. I don’t think that whoever this is, probably isn’t a threat. I charge at them the way I would the Luna Diviner, and take them to the ground. I fly through the air and tackle them, my whole body feeling like absolute hell. But my mind is screaming fight or flight, so loud that I don’t register the pain. Hovering over the figure, I slam my fist down straight into their face, when suddenly, a light comes on.

“Del!” The light blinds me. I blink back spots. It is as though I have been ripped straight from the safe comfort of darkness, too abruptly, I cannot adjust. But I pause, just for a second, and somehow, that is all it takes to thrust me back into reality.

“Del…” I’m straddling his torso, my arm cocked back to deliver another blow. Beneath me, his nose is definitely broken, his lip is split. Amaya stands at the doorway, at the light switch, eyes wide with horror.

“I thought you were an intruder.” Del chokes.

I fly off of Del, eyes growing huge. Suddenly, the pain in my abdomen is too much to take. A cry rips from my throat and I crumble, to the ground onto my knees. My Nobody body was stronger. With darkness coursing through me, I was explosive, with unrivaled stamina. Even before I knew I was without a heart, I guess I just never realized how tiring being human is.

Breathe. In one, two, three. Out one, two, three.

Fuck. My body starts shaking. I curl in on myself, knees to my chest as I fall to my side. This hurts, this fucking—

Dammit!

“Rueki!” Amaya is at my side, trying to help me up. “Del, grab a Hi-Potion!” She orders.

“Fuck, okay.” Del’s voice sounds like he’s underwater, but I hear him fumbling through the cupboards.

“Jeez, Rueki, this wound is infected, what did you do?” Amaya gasps, as my body flattens out against the ground. “Del, get the alcohol out of the cabinet, too.” She orders. I go to shake my head, to try to beg her to stop. This is only going to hurt worse, soap will be fine…maybe… But before I can even form words, Del hands her the bottle of alcohol and she pours it over the gaping wound in my middle. A scream tears from my lips as convulsions shake me. I’m spasming on the floor, in her arms, and I wonder if this pain is going to kill me.

“Hell, Rueki.” Del whispers as he comes skidding over to me. I feel his hands on the back of my head as he tilts me upward. It is with great effort, I am sure, that he fights through the spasming and tilts a Hi-Potion back into my mouth. It is all I can do to swallow it, but instantly, the tremors stop. My breathing is still shaky as the phantom pain lingers on, but I know the reality of the situation is that my wound is probably closing up right now. Completely clean.

“I told you she wasn’t dead.” Amaya whispers, rubbing my arms, soothingly.

“It’s not like this is much better.” Del murmurs, taking my hand in both of his. He’s warm, but not the kind of heat that I need to radiate off of another. My stomach twists.

“I did.” I choke out, my voice sounding ragged after the scream. Two sets of green eyes find mine as I cough. “I died. Didn’t stick.”

“What do you mean it didn’t stick?” Amaya chokes out.

“Maya, come on. Calm down.” Del urges, voice surprisingly even keel.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want you guys to find me, I tried to be quiet. Del, you usually sleep like the dead.” I say.

“Get her another Potion.” Amaya orders.

“Amaya, it’s not gonna be good for the baby if you keep freaking out like this.” Del says, looking from me to Amaya, and the weight of his words come crashing into me. My eyes go wide.

“Baby?” I’m not sure how I didn’t feel the warmth of Amaya’s pregnant belly pressing into me before, but certainly, I realize it now. She’s barely showing. She looks like me after a cheeseburger, which isn’t fair, but also not the point. What bothers me most, is that I visited here right before I died?

Which begs the question, how long did I spend in limbo?

“You’re pregnant?” I choke.

“Not the point. Come on Del, get her a Potion or so help me!” That’s all it takes to send Del scampering back over to the cabinets, my hand now cast aside on the floor.

“Maya, how long has it been since I was here?” I ask.

“Come on, Rueki, you know that.” She urges as Del comes to kneel beside us. This time, I push myself up and take the Potion out of is hand. I ache, from head to toe, but that’s about all it is, is an ache. This, I can live with.

“Maybe she doesn’t…” Del looks to me with nervous eyes. “Rueki, it’s been almost seven months, what happened? And where is Axel? Is he hurt too?”

His name, falling from Del’s lips sends me over the edge. Panic shoots through me, tears streak, an unending stream as they fall down my cheeks. I try to brush them away, but the more I try, the faster they fall, and before I know it, I’m having a different series of convulsions. Shaking with agony as Amaya pulls me into her arms. Del wraps himself around my back, and together, the hold me as I weep, hysterically.

They care for me, my friends. Del fetches me a pair of sweatpants and a holey sweater that I left behind, and it is both comforting and disturbing that my friends haven’t gotten rid of my clothing. Amaya brushes out my hair, gently, making faces at the mess it is.

“You’re going to need a haircut, Rueki. I can’t get all of the tangles out.” She says, her voice gentle, on the edge of breaking.

“Fine. Whatever.” Is my response. I sit silently, trying so hard to swallow my tears, trying to forget about the very new and very raw pain that seems to imminate from my core at the incantation of Axel’s name. Del hands me clothing, Amaya cuts my hair, a straight line with kitchen scissors, nothing compared to the sleek, salon haircut I got with Shiki in Shibuya. I watch broken, golden strands fall to the floor and try not to feel like I’m falling apart. She finishes by trimming my bangs to the corner of my mouth and quickly ties my hair into a braid. Del looks away as Amaya helps me change clothes, and eventually, Del scoops me up and carries me to the couch. I offer no help, the pull of gravity is so intense, and my body, even after a Potion, is broken. His arms are warm. Not warm enough.

I want to feel scorching heat dragging lazily across my skin. I want to feel my name burning upon the lips of the person I love the most. I want to feel the security that only a blazing fire offers me. I want my eternal right, my payment for all of the suffering, all of the hell I have endured. This is not my privilege, this is my entitlement. I deserve something, anything, to make up for what I have lived through, I shouldn’t have to hurt any more, I’ve done my fucking time.

I hate the tears that fall as I blink up at the ceiling. Del and Amaya press endlessly for information. They beg for answers that I do not want to offer. They yearn to shatter the illusion that I am trying so hard to keep in tact for them. I don’t know who the truth will crush more, them or me. But then, Del does what he is so very good at doing.

He pushes me one step too far.

“Fuck, Rueki, we’re trying to help you, but you’ve got to level with us! This affects us all now, come on, have a heart!”

The room goes cold as I see a desperate look to retract his words, flash through his eyes.

“How dare you?” Amaya whispers to Del, face contorting. I snort.

“No, no. I mean, I get it. After all, I didn’t have a heart for ten years.” I mutter. My friends are suddenly very quiet. Del looks at Amaya for answers that she doesn’t have. Amaya looks at me, nimble fingers straying delicately to her stomach.

“I’m sorry, I was being a jerk.” Del whispers. I shrug, looking away from them and back to the ceiling.

“You were right though. Well, kind of. I mean, when you called me a cold bitch. I wasn’t cold hearted though, Del. I was flat out heartless. I’ve got all my memories back now. I remember my life, my childhood, and most of all, the night my heart was snatched from my chest and my body found its way here. Kinda funny, it just took dying to bring everything back.” My thumb absently traces a knotted, angry scar on my thigh. Everything is eerily still, and this doesn’t bother me at all. I’d rather this, than the tears, the screaming, the need to explain.

But in the end, an explanation is what falls from my lips. I skim on nothing, I start from the very beginning, from my earliest memories of bedtime stories with Cid, of playing dolls with Yuffie. Of the blond boy, Ventus, my Prince Charming. Of Isa, who was once polite to a fault and grew up to be the absolute bane of my existence. Of Lea.

Don’t leave me, Lea.

I relay, in graphic detail, every grizzly experience with Organization XIII, of watching Zexion fade at my own hand, at Larxene grabbing me by the hair and electrocuting me. Of Luxord manipulating me to murder, of Demyx, dying after he set me free. Of losing Roxas, and then, letting him go, just to keep him safe. Of Axel, endlessly about Axel, about the pleasure and the pain. Of Saix, tearing me apart.

Of limbo, and then, of waking up in a shed. And coming here.

I’m not certain Del is breathing by time my story is done. Amaya is sobbing so hard that her shoulders heave. And I care, I genuinely do, and I feel dirty beyond compare. I have soiled the beautiful memories that the three of us have, of playing, laughing, growing up, so codependent, of growing apart and then returning, with smiles lighting our faces. The darkness I cast with my very presence, I know will overwhelm them, and that hurts, more than I have words for. These two that I love, these two, my family. They will be safer when they discover I am so tainted, they have no choice but to cast me aside. I love them enough to let them go.

“Del, last time we talked, you said you could handle the darkness. So, enjoy, you two. Handle this.” I whisper, bitterness creeping into my words like bile.

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Amaya’s fists are clenched and shaking. Tears are streaming down her cheeks. She can’t even meet my eyes, but that doesn’t stop the words from pouring out of her lips. “Heart, no heart? Does it even matter! You’re acting exactly like you always have, Rueki. We’re not your kids, you don’t need to push us away the second things get bad, how many times are you going to do this before you realize it always leads to trouble for all of us? You think Del and I are completely helpless? You think we don’t have access to a Gummi Ship, where we can get away from any danger that might come our way?”

I blink as I look at her, trying to process her, trying to buy this new, much angrier Amaya. She’s not happy with me, she never is when I pull this card, and she’s right, I do it all the time. But I’ve never heard Amaya even raise her voice until now. I look at the slight bulge in her otherwise flat stomach and wonder how much of what she’s saying is the hormones talking.

“You don’t understand the kind of danger…you see every fucking scar on my body. They did this to me because they were pissed at Axel. They punished me because he defied them. And they wanted me alive. Can you even begin to imagine how bad things could get for both of you? They don’t need you, they don’t want you. You’ll be collateral damage, they won’t even think twice.” Because how utterly daft could she possibly be? How little can she value her safety? She doesn’t want to play the damsel, that’s fine, I get it, but neither of my friends are equipped to handle this hell. “You’re being an idiot. You’re about to have a child, how many more risks do you want to take?” I snort.

“Exactly! We’re about to have a child!” Oh? We, as in her and Del? “We’re about to be raising a person, creating a life that will need to learn to grow up to be strong and smart and kind and good. Don’t you realize, Rueki, if we can do that, we can shoulder one more burden.”

“We’d do anything for you, Rueki.” Del nods, his sandy hair flopping.

I think they’re a bunch of fucking idiots. I chew the inside of my cheek, wondering what I can say to push them back, wondering how I can prove to them that this is above what they can handle. But I look at the two of them, Del with the determined optimism that I am certain he never will shake and Amaya, who is being so incredibly brave, but her hands are trembling. I know this is taking incredible courage, I get it, and it’s not like I’m not proud of her. I’m not who I was, I’m not utterly unsympathetic, but it changes nothing. I love these two far too much to put them in the kind of danger they seem to think they can handle.

“I’m leaving in the morning. Don’t try to stop me, or I’ll sneak out while you’re asleep.”

They both know I’ll have trouble moving on my own. They both know I clearly cannot sneak through the house without waking either of them. They both know that in my pajamas, with a weapon that is about to fall apart and a litany of scars all across my body, some from barely healed wounds, I am in no position to be doing any type of traveling.

But they still sleep on the living room floor, right in the way of my path out.

Chapter Text

II.

I wake up in the middle of a town. I wake up in the middle of brick pavement and flashing lights. ‘Accessories’, ‘Items’. I wake up in the middle of an utterly unfamiliar place.

I know exactly where I am.

I know, because Sora knows.

The tunnels of my empathy link are dusty, dimly lit. A path grossly overgrown, that has spent far too much time, untraversed. But the route is familiar, I know the way, and despite some haziness, some difficulty, his heart opens itself up to me, freely. Perhaps I do not comfortably live here, the way Roxas does, but Sora’s heart recognizes me as a welcome visitor, and blooms.

I see memories of Saix hitting the ground and fading away, shortly after me—with utter pleasure—I see memories of Xemnas fading. I see memories of a beautiful redheaded girl with twinkling indigo eyes, greeting him with a smile so full of light, it could strip the darkness from all worlds. I see a message in a bottle, the girl’s brow is furrowed, her eyes full of fear. I see her wrap her arms around Sora and insist that he don’t keep her waiting long, again. I hear her voice in my head.

“You’ve still got my lucky charm, don’t make me wait another year to get it back, understand?” She’s got her hands on her hips as she leans forward, pink lips pressed into a pout. She’s bossy, she’s playful, she’s charming, she’s stubborn and she’s got a huge heart. I see her in Sora’s eyes, through his heart, through his mind and think that if I spend too much time in here, I will fall in love with her too.

Kairi, she’s got to be Kairi.

I see a wizard, I see Riku, I see Sora nodding his head, so utterly sure that he and Riku will absolutely ace this Mark of Mastery exam. I know what the exam is, I know Sora is asleep. I think I could spend hours more plucking through his brain, probably because I now have a heart to actually connect to his, instead of just my mind. But I don’t have the chance to sift through the daydreams of a teenage boy much longer.

“Riku? Helloooo! Rikuuuuuu!”

“Shut it.”

I know both of those voices.

My heart leaps.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Am I dead? Are we dead?

But we’re not in Shibuya, we’re in Traverse Town, and there is no timer etched into the palm of my hand.

“Huh?”

“Talk about noise.”

Sora tumbles off of the ledge of the building he stands on, crying out as he hits the ground with a thud.

Neku leaps gracefully down from the roof of a building and as he hits the ground his eyes meet mine.

“Rueki.” The boys breathe my name in perfect unison. Sora clambers off the ground and throws his arms around me with such a force that I go stumbling back into a light post. Sora is here. Sora is safe. Sora is on his way to becoming a full fledged Keyblade Master, and Roxas is safe inside of him. It’s thanks to the both of them, that I have my heart back. It’s thanks to the both of them, that I’m even here right now, that I even get this second chance to search for Lea. I wrap my arms around Sora so tightly, crushing him against me.

“I thought you were dead! You asked me to kill you, and I didn’t want to, Rueki, I don’t even know what overcame me, I swear, that wasn’t me! I would never—”

“I have my heart back.” Sora stills in my arms, and then pulls away, hand lingering on my arm, as though he is looking at me for the first time. He looks simultaneously older and younger. Timeless, despite it all. “When you finished me, I must have gotten recompleted. I don’t know how but I’ve got my heart back.”

Sora just blinks at me, and suddenly, the weight of all of this comes smashing into me. In Sora’s eyes, I see Roxas, I see my best friend, regarding me, knowing I now have a heart. I see Neku, standing uncomfortably by, unsure of what to say, so very confused. I see two people that I didn’t know how terribly I missed, until right now, and suddenly, it is all I can do to not cry.

“Rueki, that’s awesome.” Sora looks a little overcome by emotion too, though Sora or Roxas, I do not know. I already know that I can pull a reaction from Roxas, through Sora. Hell, at this point, nothing about the strange connection I have with Sora’s heart, would surprise me.

“It’s something.” I nod, scratching the back of my head. I look to Neku, who is looking at me with very hard eyes, hiding his mouth in the cowl of his shirt. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Shibuya or something?” I ask him.

“Why are you wearing pajamas?” He mutters. I look down and realize that yes, as a matter of fact, I am still wearing the sweatpants and baggy T-shirt I fell asleep in. Which is just, you know, awesome.

“Fuck off.” I say. He shrugs.

“Shiki would kill you if she saw you now.” Neku says. And my heart lights up again. Shiki! Now there is someone I miss to pieces. I adore the bright, bubbly fashionista. Beyond compare. Even though Neku is right, she might very well kill me if she saw me in pajamas.

“You two know each other?” Sora asks, cocking his head to the side.

“Unfortunately.” Neku rolls his eyes.

“This kid’s the worst.” I flip Neku off. I catch him cracking a smile that he clearly doesn’t want to be caught with. He looks pointedly away and rubs the back of his head.

“You’re Sora, right?” Neku asks Sora, who nods.

“Yeah but, uh…how do you know that? And how do you and Rueki know each other? And Rueki, what are you doing here?”

But I don’t get the chance to answer any of that. Neku is as rude and to the point as ever. He grabs Sora’s wrist, yanks his hand forward and flips his palm.

“Looks like you’re not a Player.” Neku mutters.

“Oh, Sora’s got bitches all over him, he’s a player.” I say. Neku’s eyes flick up to mine as he casts Sora’s hand aside, and regards me with an expression that suggests that he is interested in skinning me alive.

“Ugh. In the Game.” Neku grumbles, stomping away, like a petulant child. All things considered, it’s precious. It’s quite enjoyable that Neku hasn’t changed at all, and that I still can manage to push his buttons decently. “Players are marked with a time limit. And this Game, I can’t afford to lose. I need my Game Partner.”

But that begs the question, if Neku is still playing the Reaper’s Game, why isn’t he in Shibuya? Where is Shiki? And what about that strange ashy haired boy who was so desperate to keep Neku and Shiki in the game?

What does Neku remember? And why won’t he meet my gaze?

“Okay, I don’t know about any game…” Sora trails off, looking between me and Neku. “But how can I help?”

“What? Time out. Do you trust every total stranger you meet?” Neku raises an eyebrow.

“He does, it’s kind of his thing.” I say, dryly, putting a hand on my hip. Sora pouts.

“Hey! Do not!” Sora insists, which makes him seem all the more innocent.

“Right, sorry. Sora doesn’t trust people who wear black coats. Anyone else is fair game.” I smirk. To my surprise, Neku pales, skin turning the color of chalk, before he turns away.

“Well, neither of you are any good if you’re not a Player. Besides, my pact is with someone else.” Neku mutters.

“Shiki?” I ask. Neku doesn’t respond, which answers that for me. Again, I wonder, where the hell is she?

“Are you a Player?” Sora asks me. I shake my head. I remember, vividly, the feeling of a timer being burned into my palm. It’s not a feeling I’m itching to relive soon.

“That’s a negative.” I say.

“Okay, so neither of us can be your Partner. Why don’t we just help you out as your friends?” Sora asks.

“Oh, now we’re all friends?” Neku snorts. “It’s not that easy.” Little turd.

“Not saying it is, but you could make it easier.” Sora offers and I smirk.

“That’s not his thing. He’s a little prick.” But, like, in the coolest way possible. Truly, I do like Neku and wouldn’t be harassing him if I didn’t. But Neku looks so stiff, so anxious, so annoyed. He just waves his hand.

“Yeah, sounds great. Whatever.” Neku says.

“Cool!” Sora nods. “Lead the way!”

Without another word, Neku does some strange thing where he swings around the lamp post that Sora and I crashed into, mid hug. With a great leap through the air, Neku lands somewhere behind the Accessory Shop. Sora laughs, a huge smile spreading across his face.

“The fuck was that?” I ask.

“Flowmotion! You should try it!” Sora says, as though it is so very simple.

“It looks a little ridiculous.” Says the girl who used to be able to summon dark corridors.

“It’s fun though!” Sora insists. The thought strikes me, I don’t know how long it has been since I’ve done something fun just for the sake of having fun. I’m not sure how much time has passed since joy has been my prerogative. For so much of my life, I felt I needed to look after Del and Amaya. And then, once I left Transmute City, it seemed around every corner, was something or someone that wanted to use me or kill me. Survival became my only focus. I think back to Shibuya. To sitting in Wildkat with Axel, Shiki, Neku and Sanae.

‘Surviving should enhance who you are, not inhibit it’.

I have been flying by the seat of my pants, scheming, trying to stay ten steps ahead of a lunatic and his guard dog for, well, it would be about two years now. And I’m so completely over it. I’m free. I’m safe. For the first time, since Sora left Transmute City, we’re on the same side, fighting together. Not with me on the sidelines, trying to push Axel’s agenda. I’m going to find him, if it kills me, I’m going to find my lover, but now, I know who I want my allies to be. I want people like Sora by my side, people that do things just for the fun of it. People who make being human again, worth something.

I bite back a smile.

“Okay, show me what to do.” Sora takes my hand, I feel his pulse, I feel mine, I feel alive as he sprints toward the lamp post. I keep pace, easily, though I do notice how tall he has gotten. He’s at least six inches taller than me, his voice is deeper. He’s growing up so fast and I don’t know whether to be proud or to hate how time seems to pass too fast, fleeting between my fingers like sand. A burst of light seems to pop beneath us, and suddenly, he’s spinning around the pole, and I am flying with him, an extension of him. We are like a moon, revolving around a planet. I feel the wind whipping my hair, my face. I feel the energy, the light beneath us. I feel so beyond alive, I glow from head to toe, and just when I think this sort of euphoria could reach no further peak, we go flying through the air. I am weightless and too heavy all at once. My stomach backflips, I watch the world soar beneath us, until we land, with perfect grace, just behind the Accessory Shop, just like Neku.

Sora releases my hand and I put my palm against my heart, just to feel it beat. It flutters, a hummingbird in my chest. Elation doesn’t feel so very different from when I didn’t have a heart, but it is still such a welcome feeling.

“So?” He asks. I laugh, feeling breezy.

“Yeah, that was fun. Thanks kid.”

“No problem, old lady.” Sora grins. I roll my eyes, but then realize…

“Oh, hell. I am old. I’m probably twenty now…” I mutter.

“Probably?” Sora asks.

“I mean, I was dead for a little while, I literally just woke up in Transmute City.” I shrug. “Which, um…have you seen any other members of the Organization wandering around anywhere?”

“You mean Axel.” I don’t know why he needs to state it so explicitly. My lover’s name clutches my heart and yanks.

“Of course I do.” I sigh. “If I faded and came back, why not him too?” In my own ears it sounds almost too optimistic, and when Sora nods in agreement, I truly fear that it is.

“Well, maybe he just came back to life in another world? He didn’t end up in Transmute City when he lost his heart, maybe you’re just a special case.” And he does have a point there, but that only raises another unanswered question. I’m not special, so why the hell am I the exception?

“Maybe.” I shrug.

We catch up to Neku just inside of the Second District.

“Hey!” Sora waves at the other boy, who simply huffs. “Um…I didn’t catch your name.”

Before Neku can respond, or I can taunt him for having manners as bad as mine, a group of strange, colorful creatures appear. Dogs, cats, bats, I don’t know what the hell these things are supposed to be, but they certainly aren’t Heartless. Or Nobodies.

“Dream Eaters!” Neku’s eyes go wide as he gets into a defensive stance….But still, no Shiki? How is he going to fight? If he’s playing the Reaper’s Game, he’s screwed without his partner.

“That’s a weird name.” Sora chuckles, and dear Twilight, if the boy were any goofier, he might not be able to function.

“Not me, them.” Neku rolls his eyes, which I feel on a deep level.

One lunges at Neku, and honestly, I just react. I don’t think about the fact that Neku couldn’t make it this far if he didn’t have another combat strategy, I don’t think about how capable these two boys, my two friends, certainly are. My protective urges kick in and I fly in front of Neku, hand up to block. The creature slashes across my palm and it stings like hell.

“Shit!” I cry out, shaking out my hand, looking at the slash. It isn’t particularly deep, but it’s bleeding pretty good. Still, an artificial wound like this, in light of all I have endured, is about as bad as a paper cut…which is still pretty bad.

“What the hell, Rueki?” Neku snaps, summoning a strange, bouncy, cat like creature. I raise an eyebrow as I regard it, feeling like, with the current set of enemies and summons, that I am somehow in a cartoon.

The cat like creature begins to prance down an alleyway, leading some of the other strange, colorful creatures with it. Neku looks between Sora and I with fierce eyes.

“Don’t let em’ surround us. Let’s split up.” Neku suggests, though I can see a misplaced need to protect both me, and Sora, in his eyes. What a reluctant little hero. And while normally, I know I could hold my own, I sincerely doubt I can just summon one of those strange cat creatures, I don’t have my weapon on me and…Maybe through darkness I can summon it? The dark corridor was off limits, but maybe not all of my dark powers are gone?

Survivor is in terrible shape, will it make it through this battle?

I imagine a whirl of darkness, I imagine Survivor placed perfectly on my arm and a whole lot of nothing happens.

Cool, so I’m a damsel in distress. Fuck this.

“Got it.” Sora nods at Neku. “Hey, Rueki, follow me!” Sora seems to understand my predicament and is a much more seasoned and less reluctant hero.

“Wait!” Neku holds a hand up, looking uneasily between Sora and I, a million unspoken words hanging in the air. I forgot how bad he is at emoting. Not that I’m one to talk. “Um, it’s Neku, by the way.” Whatever he wanted to say, he’s clearly decided against, and I know that any attempt to press him won’t help matters. He reminds me way too much of my younger self. And regardless, it’s a shit time to get into an argument, with these colorful monsters bouncing around us.

“Huh?” Sora asks.

“Neku Sakuraba. You asked.” Neku shrugs.

“Neku Sakuraba.” Sora smiles. “That’s a mouthful.”

“No, it’s really not.” Neku mutters. I snort loudly.

“Fuck.” I laugh, patting Neku on the shoulder as I pass him to approach Sora. “Don’t tell the others, but you’re my favorite.” Neku raises an eyebrow.

“You weren’t even trying to be subtle.” Neku rolls his eyes.

“That’s the point, kid.” I smirk, finally next to Sora, who has the good grace to laugh with me.

“Alright, let’s take em’!” Sora nods.

Sora slashes with his Keyblade, Neku sends the bouncy cat after the other creatures, and I do my best to be the least useless damsel ever. If I can’t fight, the least I can do is stay the hell out of the way.

When the last of the Dream Eaters disperse, Sora turns, looking at the bouncy cat that still stands beside Neku.

“These things with you, they’re Dream Eaters too?” Sora cocks his head, crouching down to look over the cat. Neku nods.

“Yeah. If I’m gonna survive the Game, I’m gonna need some extra help.” He confesses. My eyes flick to his.

“Is that how you’re still able to fight without Shiki?” I ask. Neku just turns away from me, hiding his face in the cowl of his shirt. Seriously, he’s always terrible with emotions, but especially right now. What is his deal? And did something bad happen to Shiki? The very thought makes my stomach clench, as though someone is squeezing it.

“Sora, do you think you could control them?” Neku asks.

“Sure, I guess.” Sora nods. Neku looks between Sora and I again, with the same sick expression on his face, and I swear, if he doesn’t say something soon, I am going to punch him. It isn’t necessarily his fault, but I’m pretty over people keeping secrets from me.

“Listen, if you don’t fucking—” I start, but Neku quickly cuts me off.

“Let’s keep going.” He says, and before Sora or I have time to get a word in edgewise, he takes off. Little fucking prick is definitely hiding something. I turn to Sora, mouth set in a pout, but he just looks so perfectly comfortable following Neku around, blindly.

In his defense, he hasn’t spent the past two years, getting bamboozled by a skinny redhead.

We chase after Neku, who seems to always be at least five steps ahead. No matter how fast we go, he moves faster, and he doesn’t offer a single word to me or to Sora. No questions for the Keybearer, no ‘how’s it going’ for me. Nothing. If I could catch this smarmy little fucker, I would—

“I brought you Sora! We had a bargain!” I don’t know who Neku is shouting at, but he instantly comes to a stop in the middle of the third district, pale hands clenched into tight fists.

A black portal swirls on a ledge and my stomach drops. I grab Sora’s arm, skin pulled tight across my knuckles. No. No, no, no. I can’t…

I feel every bit of my new heart, hammering in my chest, trying to climb up my throat, trying to flee my body, which is no longer a shelter, but a prison.

The figure that emerges from the portal is on the shorter side, though still taller than me. About the same height as Sora, but hooded. My immediate instinct though is that it isn’t Roxas. For how quickly my empathy link with Sora seemed to connect, I feel like I would know instantly if this were actually Roxas.

“No way.” Sora chokes.

“You little fuck. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” I snap at Neku, my senses suddenly coming back to me, my panic ebbing just enough.

“You don’t get it, Rueki.” Neku barely whispers. I release my grip on Sora, who summons his Keyblade, just in time for the figure to leap off of the ledge. “Hey! That wasn’t the deal! You said you wouldn’t hurt him!” Neku insists.

“Yeah, assholes in black coats like to lie a lot.” I snap, throwing my hands up. Before the person in the coat has time to attack Sora, Neku dives in, arms up.

“Don’t, Neku! They’re too dangerous!” Sora insists. And I want to tell him that Neku has made his bed and that he’s grown enough to deal with the consequences. I want to summon a weapon and leap to Sora’s defense. I want to chastise Neku that he’s better than this, and too smart to be making deals with the devil. I want to save these two boys from their idiot selves, but something else takes hold of me.

My vision goes black. I hear Sora whisper

“What? Why am I so sleepy…?”

Fuck. No. Whatever is happening to Sora is effecting me, pulling me from this world, infecting my limbs with an impossible weight. In the blackness of my vision, there is an impenetrable fog, so thick, I think the blades of Survivor couldn’t cut through. I try to swim past it, to push through. I can do this, I’m strong enough, and weapon or no, I am the only one of the three of us that is experienced in shouldering the darkness. They need me.

Abruptly, I hear a man chuckle, though try as I may to look around, I see nothing and no one.

“Oh man, looks like you made it after all. Great job, little Rueki. I knew you had it in you.” I know the voice. Through the fog, through the haze, as I grasp desperately for a purchase in this dream, I try to cling to the voice.

“What are you talking about?” My voice comes out in a breathy choke, it doesn’t sound like me, too delicate, too dizzy and I hate it. I can do this, if I just push through a little further, I can dive deeper into this dream.

“Wouldn’t do that if I were you. Gets pretty dangerous diving into dreams, kiddo. I need you around a little longer than this.” The voice warns, and despite the words, I don’t hear even a note of protectiveness.

“Sora needs me.” I insist. But even as I say it, the pinprick of clarity I once had, disappears, surrounding me in something warm and cloudy. I could fall into it. It would be so easy.

“Yeah, and I bet he’ll need you again next time you take a nap, too. You dive too deep into a dream, you might just brush the edge of death. Don’t think I can pull you back from that one.” The voice says.

“Fuck death.” I reply.

“You’re not that stupid. Or suicidal.” And the voice is right.

“I’ve. Got. To. Do. Something.” It takes every bit of my effort to speak. My body feels so incredibly heavy. My grip on this realm is slipping.

“Oh, you will. Give it time. Your role in this is bigger than you think.” The voice taunts.

“You’re a fucker.” I say.

“Ha, wouldn’t be the worst thing you’ve ever called me.” The voice laughs.

“I know you, then?” I ask.

“You already know the answer to that.” The voice says.

I wake, limbs snapping, body jolting, as though I have just been yanked out of an ice bath. My heart hammers into my temples. The room is warm, a fire is still lit, Del and Amaya are still asleep on the floor near me—idiots.

So that was a dream?

I search the tunnels of my heart and can feel Sora, still. He’s not as vibrant, opening up for me the way he once was. But I can certainly feel him, I can still sense the same memories.

So, maybe this was all a dream. But does it make it any less real? I’ve had strange dreams before, gazes into the past, gazes into Sora’s mind. So why not this? If he’s traversing the sleeping worlds, then why should I not be able to visit his sleeping heart in my dreams? Certainly, stranger has happened at this point. Believing this is impossible would be more foolish than I care to be.

A sharp pain in my hand stills my thoughts. I toss aside the comforter it is under, seeing that my abdomen is now completely healed, with only yet another angry white scar left in its wake. But this is not the most interesting thing that catches my eye. My eyes flick to my palm, the source of the pain, where I see a fresh, shallow gash. It is still bleeding.

Right in the place I blocked the Dream Eater’s blow.

Chapter Text

III.

I can walk on my own in the morning. I can shower on my own, and as the water hits my skin, blistering and not hot enough, all at once, I watch scabs fall off, dried blood, grime. I scrub away traces of my past as much as I can. I try to erase the memories of my life as a Nobody. I try to cling to memories of my childhood, in Radiant Garden—Hollow Bastion’s true name—afraid to lose them again.

This doesn’t feel real, none of this.

Not staying with Del and Amaya, not the strange dream of Sora. Not the healing wound on my hand. Yet again, I catch myself placing my hand against my chest, just to feel the beating of my heart.

It’s the only thing that keeps me clinging to reality, the only thing that doesn’t send my thoughts spiraling back into my previous life. That was then, this is now. Plain and fucking simple. The gravity of this situation, the fact that I don’t have Axel back, burns me. I feel as though my nerve endings have been severed, they hang raw, waiting to be mended. Waiting for his return.

Completely clean, I wrap myself in a towel and heave a sigh.

I am in a house with my old clothes, I have no munny, no weapon, no supplies, no belt for supplies. My body still aches, sore, throbbing from head to toe. I want to leave. Clearly, I can be injured in my dreams with Sora, the last thing I need s Del and Amaya being woken to the sight of me being torn apart. And yet, despite how restless I truly am, deep down, I know my body’s limits. Physically, I am not ready to depart.

Wrapped in a towel, I emerge from the bathroom to see Amaya, sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming mug caught between her hands, which are covered by the sleeves of a thick, fluffy, white robe. Her eyes don’t even flick to mine as she speaks.

“I thought you were going to be gone in the morning.” Her voice is breathy, soft, like windchimes during the slightest of breezes. Del snores quietly from the living room floor. It kills me how gentle this moment is, how much I know I would like this to feel like home. But after my dream, after tasting, yet again, what adventure feels like, this very sweet life I could have with my friends feels meaningless and shallow.

“I should probably stay around for another day.” Doesn’t mean I don’t wish that I could be content with all of this.

“You’re still having a hard time getting around, aren’t you?” She accuses, though her voice stays level, gentle, and her eyes certainly do not meet mine.

“I can walk.” I say. She makes a soft sound with her lips still pursed together. This is much more characteristic of the Amaya I used to know. She rarely gets mad, but when she does, it’s all static. Eerie silence, an avoided gaze. She’s never done conflict well, even last night, I recall the trembling in her body, the tears prickling her eyes. I pull out a chair and sit across from her, sighing.

“My heart is connected to Sora’s. I can walk in and out of it like it’s a different room in the house. I can see into his mid, his heart, his memories, and now his dreams.” I lay my palm out across the table, facing upward, revealing the gash across my hand. Her head snaps, her eyes interested, her purposefully aloof face now soft, concerned. “I can interact with him, I can watch what happens to him, I can fight with him.”

“How is that even possible?” She breathes, eyes wide and frightened, like a doe.

“Some sort of voodoo magic.” I reply. “I’m not even sure how it works, really. It started out as me just being able to feel what Sora felt, and only in my sleep. And then I started to feel things when I was awake. And then it extended to Roxas, his Nobody. With a little bit of practice, I was able to find their hearts and minds all on my own, and then, project thoughts and feelings of my own onto them. Now it’s almost like a gateway. I can see into Sora’s heart as easily as my own.”

“You’re not safe.” She murmurs, setting the mug down on the table. I see a tea bag floating inside of it. With gentle hands, she reaches across the table and takes my wrist between her fingers, looking over my palm. “You’re going to need a weapon to bring into your dreams, something to keep you safe.”

I shift, uncomfortably, taking my hand back from her. That was hardly the reaction I was expecting. I gave Amaya so little, a brief additional glimpse into the hell that my mind has become. And in return, she offers me a mile. I’m an absolute shit friend.

“And some new clothes, too. All of the stuff I have here is old, and not exactly made for fighting.” I say. “Not to mention a place to store items.”

“Well, I need to pick up some things for the nursery.” Amaya tucks her hair behind her ear, delicately.

“Maybe we should go shopping.” I shrug. Even though I have no munny. Fuck. “Um, on second thought, I’m broke.” Amaya giggles.

“Del and I make a lot of munny, Rueki. Now go put some clothes on, let’s get out of here before Del wakes up and feels obligated to come along.”

Shopping with Amaya is infinitely easier than shopping with Shiki, though also a lot less entertaining. Fifteen minutes after entering a store, I walk out with a pair of high waisted, white denim shorts, a black, high neck, sleeveless crop top, with geometric cutouts along the bottom, a pair of opaque, black tights and some red and white sneakers.

We go into a weapons store. A clerk sits behind the desk, popping her bubble gum. She looks up, boredly, arching an eyebrow.

“Oh, hey.” Is her very professional greeting.

“What do you have as far as weapons go?” I ask. She pops her gum and points to a nearly empty wall on the side of the store. “Jeez, you guys look like you got raided.”

“Nah, we just don’t really have to stock up anymore. Haven’t seen a lot of customers since the Keybearer cleared this world of Heartless.” She rolls her eyes as though this is some great inconvenience.

“You’re welcome.” I mutter. She snorts.

“You’re not the Keyblade Master.” She says.

“No, I’m his best friend.” Well, kind of. She just pops her gum louder. I pick up a pair of dusty looking, black, leather fingerless gloves off of a shelf, blow them off and decide, hey, why the hell no?. I grab a black leather belt with a pouch for accessories on the hip and when Amaya and I get over to the weapons, she purses her lips.

“They don’t have any Claws.” She says. And she’s right, and it’s nice to know that she hasn’t forgotten my preference.

“We got Knuckles.” The clerk shouts. That they do, but my defense is already absolute shit. At least with a Claw, my arm is sheathed, safe.

“I don’t fucking like Knuckles.” I mutter.

“Well, wouldn’t that be more convenient to take into your dreams?” Amaya asks, tilting her head to the side. She’s right, Knuckles like that, I could easily pack into the pouch on my belt. I look over their names, their styles. L’avarice, La Paresse, L’envie.

“Since when have you had to critically think about how to fight?” I ask, my voice wavering slightly. I look at Amaya’s prosthetic arm, I look at the barely visible, pale scars on her face. Her will is stronger than it was when I left, that is certain. She is braver, but I remember the delicate girl she was, the one caught in an explosion, the one who needed me to protect her. The Heartless are gone, I hate the thought that she might have felt unsafe at any point in my absence. Amaya shouldn’t have to defend herself. This fucking world should just be good enough for her.

“Since Del decided to dabble in every style of fighting possible, after you left.” Her lips are pursed. Did she just roll her eyes? There’s an agitation in her tone at the mere mention of Del that I am not quite comfortable with. It’s unfair, but in my mind, they’re still a fairy tale prince and princess. After finding out Amaya was pregnant, I didn’t even once consider that there might be some tension. I never paid any mind to the fact that Del wanted her back so badly after she broke up with him.

“Speaking of which, what is the deal with you two? Are you together? The baby is his, right?” I raise an eyebrow, picking up a pair of shiny, black Knuckles with long spikes protruding from them. La Luxure. I lace my fingers through the holes and take an experimental swing. I cannot deny, I do like how lightweight these are. I will be fast, deadly.

“Yes, it’s his, of course. But I don’t need him. I mean, I want him to be involved, but I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking she has to be with someone she doesn’t love, out of obligation. I can’t deny, of course I know he wants us to be together. And it would be so easy being with him. But Rueki, I don’t love him, no more than I would love a brother. He deserves better, and so do I. I can’t just keep doing what’s easy because I’m scared or because I want other people to be happy, I get that now. I have to. My child needs someone to look up to, and I want to be that person.” Amaya huffs, pretending to busy herself with a pair of silver Knuckles--l’orgueil. I watch her roll her lower lip back and forth, between her teeth. Oh? I raise an eyebrow and lean against the wall.

Bubblegum smacks her gum.

Amaya won’t meet my gaze. She runs her fingers across the holes of the Knuckles and when she finally speaks, she looks toward the door. “It happened the night you left. You and Axel. I was just so worried for the two of you, I was so emotional, and Del’s just so…familiar. It was comforting. You show up with all of these scars, and this new man and this exciting life and it was just so much to handle. I didn’t know what to do, you never let us help you. You just keep taking on more and more. Pushing me to open the Gummi Shop, pushing us to get the house, fighting alongside Sora, fighting alongside heroes or villains or whatever Organizations XIII was—”

“A bunch of cunts.” I respond and to my surprise, she huffs out a laugh. She pauses a little, her prosthetic hand resting on the slight bulge of her stomach, the Knuckles dangling limply from her real hand.

“You always have so much, Rueki. I’m not dumb, I know you’re not here with Del and I still because you want to be, you’re here because you still feel terrible. I know you don’t think we can do anything, and maybe we can’t, I don’t know. I just wish you’d understand that this is still your home. And even if I can’t fight off Heartless or Nobodies, even if Del only dreams of playing the hero, but isn’t strong enough to be one, I just want you to remember this is where we grew up. This place is safe. If I can’t create a safe place for you, how am I supposed to create a safe place for her?” Her eyes stray on her stomach, her shoulders start to tremble, visible even in her bulky coat. I reach out and wrap my arms around her, careful not to brush the Knuckles against her.

“Can’t you fucking see, I’m trying to keep everyone safe. I’m not safe. You, Del, your baby, you all deserve to be.” I remind her.

“Then why not you too?” She asks. I squeeze her tighter.

“Because there’s something I need to do that’s a lot more important than being safe. I know this is my home, Maya. I know you’re my family. I know you guys always think I try to act like I’m better than you, but I know I’m fucking not. I’m an asshole. You guys deserve better than getting in the crosshairs of my actions.” I pull away from her, squeezing her shoulders. “I will come home. One day, I will. I promise. But right now, there’s someone I need more than anyone else.”

“Axel.” She nods, and I see her trying to blink back the faintest stream of tears. It’s disgusting, how Amaya can look so much like an angel, pregnant, dressed up in too many layers, with still choppy hair and tears streaming down her cheeks. I love her anyway.

“You’ve grown up so much, Maya. You can do this with or without Del, and you’re right, you both deserve to be happy. But I don’t want to do this without Axel. I don’t even want to try. I need to heal up, I need to find him, and I need to do my damndest to help Sora for the time being.” I tell her, hoping that I’m coming across as sincere, as genuine, as utterly candid, because this time, I am. For the first time, I’m not acting as her protector. I’m not trying to push her away to keep her safe. For the first time, I look at her, and I don’t see the little girl who took my hand and pulled me out of the broom closet. I see a woman, expecting a child, a woman that I have grown with. A woman that needs me to lay all of my cards out on the table and offer her nothing but my honesty. And so, this time, I do.

She reaches out, her prosthetic hand resting on my back. My friend, my equal.

“One day, you will come home.” She says.

“Yes, I promise, Amaya.” I insist. Finally, shakily, she nods.

“Then let’s get you healed up.”

And by time I fall asleep that night, I am. I drink a regular regimen of Potions, twice an hour while I sit in the Gummi repair shop, assisting Amaya as she toils away at something called a Teeny Ship for me. It will be perfect, she insists, made for speed and stealth, which admittedly, sounds great for me. I change into my new outfit, pulling on the tights, the shorts, the shoes, the shirt, the gloves. I loop my La Luxure to my belt and my belt through my belt loops, the pouch now loaded with Potions from the closet at home. I pull my hair up and tell Amaya about my dream. I get everything off my chest, to my friend, to someone who wants to be my safe place to trust, and I am all too happy to let her become that. I realize, this is, yet again, something I am doing for sheer pleasure, and it just feels so damn good. I need to expel the pain, the darkness that I can still physically feel creeping at the edges of my being. I need to force enough light into my life to push out the fear that slithers in the second a shadow shifts the wrong way. I need a blinding ray of sunshine and Amaya is not that, but she is something.

By the end of the night, my Teeny Ship is ready to go, and Amaya squeezes my hand before tucking me in on the couch. I hate it, I protest, I try to tell her it is unnecessary, but in the warmth of the securely tucked blankets, I fall easily into a dream.

--

When I drop, I don’t meet up with Sora, though as Traverse Town comes flooding into my vision, my empathy link nearly glows. Sora is nearby, for sure. But instead of greeting him, I see another spikey haired boy, standing only a few feet from me, on the roof of a building.

“You stupid fuck.”

Neku flinches and whips around, looking uneasily at me.

“I didn’t want you involved.” He tries.

“Go fuck yourself.” I snap. “You spent more than fifteen seconds with Sora, that’s all it takes to realize he’s a good kid, if even I could figure that out, so can you!”

“You don’t get it!” Neku sighs, shaking his head.

“You don’t know the fucking lengths I’ve gone through, to keep him alive, I know I haven’t seen you in forever, but I didn’t realize you became a little fucking prick since—”

“It’s not like I wanted to!” Neku’s hands ball into fists as he narrows his eyes at me.

“And I swear, if a single hair on that boy’s head was harmed, I will—”

“They took Shiki from me.” Neku’s words nearly crush me. But it makes sense, it makes perfect sense. The Dream Eater he fought with, the fact that he won’t say a single word about Shiki. They didn’t have a fight, he isn’t just being elusive. Neku is mourning. Neku is me, expecting the worst, not daring to hope, because when you care for someone, when you trust someone with everything you are, and suddenly, they are torn from you. Hope isn’t safe. There’s only one option. Getting dirty, doing anything in you power to get them back.

“Fuck.” I get it. “The guy in the black coat took her?”

“I don’t…I don’t know, he promised he’d bring her back to me, Rueki. I can’t find her, but I can feel her, and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do. I get it, I was dumb, I screwed up, but I don’t know what to do anymore, she’s my partner!” He smashes his fists to his temples, a wild, horrified look painting his features. I’m reminded, instantly, of watching him break down in the Composer’s Pad. I reach out, knowing Neku is like no one else in my life but me. He doesn’t need a hug, in fact, he doesn’t want one. He wants exactly what I want. A solution, and I cannot offer that, so I offer the next best thing. I commiserate.

“Axel’s gone. Turns out, both of us didn’t have hearts. He died, he left me alone. So, I died to save Sora. Now I’m back, and I have no idea if he is or not, but I’ve been stuck in my home world for two days, healing and it’s driving me nuts. I need him back. And I’m going to get him back if it kills me. And you’re going to get Shiki back, we’ll fucking figure something out.” I insist, wrapping my hands around his wrists, gently pulling them to his sides. He looks into my eyes, the wild look slowly dissipating, though it is replaced by something skeptical.

“You can’t know that.” He mutters.

“No, and I can’t know Axel is alive. But…don’t be a dick.” I murmur. Neku successfully bites back a smile, drop my hands from him.

“I just want the two of us to go home.” He whispers.

“Neku, why are you here?” I ask. He shakes his head.

“I don’t remember much.” He confesses. This doesn’t surprise me, in fact, what surprises me more is that he even remembers me. The ashy haired kid, the prissy looking boy, the Composer, he mentioned something about wiping Neku and Shiki’s memories again and again, a thousand times, to play the Reaper’s Game with them again. “Things just come back randomly. I forgot about you and Axel, until I saw you, and then that whole week came flooding back.”

“Yeah, you had that same issue the week we were there. Right before I got attacked by that Shark Noise, you had some weird flashbacks.” I nod.

“Yeah…” Neku mutters, sighing. “I just…I remember Shiki and I at the Composer’s Pad, and my friend, Joshua—” Oh that’s the fucking prissy kid!

“He’s the Composer.” I say. Neku shrugs, and to my surprise, he seems to have recalled this already.

“Yeah, he’s a dick.” Oh, maybe Neku does remember him just fine. “But, I mean, at least he’ll admit it. He just told Shiki and I that he messed something up, and that taking us here was the only way to keep us safe. So, we’re just…here.”

“Are you still dead then?” Although, I have no idea if he knows he’s dead, but I really am over the whole secrets nonsense. Thankfully, he does seem to remember this.

“Yeah. Lucky you, it doesn’t stick.” He rolls his eyes.

“Shit, dude, if you want to not have a heart for a decade, like, be my guest. It’s a free ticket to come back to life.” I snort. He bites back a smile, but looks over me.

“Is that what happened to you?” He asks, voice barely audible. In this outfit, my scars are visible. I think this is the most exposed I have ever felt. No one else’s gaze makes me shift so much. I think it’s because I see a younger me, so hurt, so unsure. Before I answer, we hear footsteps.

“Neku! Rueki! You guys are alright.” We turn, me with my arms crossed to my chest, Neku with his eyebrow raised as we regard Sora, who is now toting around a young girl.

“Sora…what, you still trust me?” Neku asks.

“I already told you, that’s kind of his thing.” I remind him.

“Of course, I do!” Sora nods, bobbing his head in time with his footfalls.

“But you know that I tricked you, right? That guy in the black coat, he said he could send me home--me and my partner--but I had to bring you to him first. Sorry.” Neku’s eyes dart away.

“No big deal, when it really mattered, you stood up for me. And besides, we’re friends, right?” Sora asks.

“Friends…” Neku says, seeming to weigh the words, trying to figure out exactly what he wants them to mean. He exhales, heavily, looking to me, almost as though he wants my input. Which is probably the most flattering compliment I could ever expect from Neku.

“Oh, hey, Neku. This here is Rhyme. Is she your Game Partner?” Sora asks.

“No. Sorry, I’m teamed up with somebody else.” Neku replies.

All it takes is one second. The blink of an eye, a quick breath. Suddenly, Rhyme is gone, evaporated into the air.

“Huh?” Neku asks at the same time I mutter “What the hell?”

“What? Rhyme?” Sora chokes out.

In that same instant, a figure in a black coat appears, the same one that met Neku, I am certain. Just the build alone has me convinced that whoever this is, is not a member of the Organization XIII I knew. Whoever it is is too young, too slender, but not young enough to be Roxas. This person is a stranger. I detach La Luxure from my belt and lace my fingers through the Knuckles. Sora summons his Keyblade. But Neku? In an utterly uncharacteric move, he takes off, charging at the cloaked figure, a hatred burning deep in his eyes. And I don’t try to stop him, instead, I follow him, grip on La Luxure, like a vice. As much as I was upset at Neku for selling Sora out, as much as I was beyond irritated with his rashness, I cannot pretend I wouldn’t have acted the same. Anything for Axel. Everything for Axel.

And everything for my friends who keep having their lives destroyed by darkness.

Neku goes to slash a beam of light across the figure, who knocks him away with ease. The boy cries out and goes flying across the rooftop, limp body slamming against the edge of the roof.

“Neku!” Sora cries.

“You’ll pay for that.” I snarl, rolling my shoulders back as I close the distance between me and the figure. He doesn’t knock me away, the way he does Neku. Instead, he leaps back. Gritting my teeth, I lunge forward, Knuckles first, extending my range as far as my limbs will allow me. The spikes of my Knuckles brush his coat. I hear a soft, derisive snort, and for a moment, I am reminded so thoroughly of Marluxia. But it’s not him, I know. Marluxia was cocky, even if he were recompleted, there’s no way he wouldn’t have arrogantly sought out a fight, after reigning victorious over Neku. “Who are you?” I hiss.

“Well, wouldn’t you like to know?” An unfamiliar voice taunts.

“Yeah, obviously, that’s why I fucking asked.” I take another long step forward, punching, La Luxure angled for a particularly devastating blow. Instead of being a good little asshole and taking the brunt of my attack, the figure leaps back, just far enough to be out of my reach.

“Rueki! Be careful!” Sora warns. The figure raises his arms, high above his head, and from the sky, it seems as though a portal is opening. Through it, falls the largest, strangest looking Dream Eater, yet. A giant, multi colored monkey. I can nearly feel the smirk radiating off of the cloaked figure, who summons a dark corridor of his own, and then abruptly disappears into it. “Huh? Hey! Wait!” Sora cries out, chasing toward where the dark corridor closes up, only just out of my reach. But I don’t dare trespass into it. My heart aches, I stop dead in my tracks. I don’t know how, if it’s just because I’m in a dream world, or if I’m just now more sensitive to my body’s reactions, but I swear, I can feel darkness, wrapped tightly around my heart, like a chain. I’m not consumed by it, it does not control me, but whether an external darkness, or remnants of my own dark past are left behind, I know it is there. And I’ve got a gut feeling that if I rush, headlong, into the darkness, that those chains will crush me.

The giant, strange monkey hops in front of us as Sora skids to a halt in front of me.

“Out of the way!” Sora readies his Keyblade. I tighten my grip on La Luxure. The Monkey leaps around, in a gesture that is supposed to be threatening, but this fight is nothing for Sora and I.

I throw myself, full speed, at the Nightmare, and am thrown by how swiftly I am able to move. Without a Claw to weigh me down, nothing inhibits me. This speed is blinding. A grin flick at the edge of my lips. The Monkey sends a fist, flying out, but I leap off of it and backflip, midair. With a quick swishing of my arms, I slash across it, savoring the feeling of La Luxure tearing through the creature.

I don’t like Knuckles. I do wish I had a Claw. But truly, the way these spikes shred through the Dream Eater, is so satisfying, I almost feel as though this weapon was made for me.

The Monkey throws its fist forward, rocketing toward me, and with absolutely zero defense, I do go sailing back, skidding across the glass roof.

“Rueki!” Sora cries out, but charges at the Monkey, who pummels a fist at him. Sora raises his Keyblade, and the weight of the blow deflects with a loud ‘clang’. I stand up on shaky feet, roll my shoulders back and thank whatever powers that rule this dream, that my dream self isn’t suffering the effects of coming back from the dead. I watch, as Sora trades blows with the Monkey, who seems to draw its gloved fists into a box on its chest, almost like a demented sort of wind up toy. It flails its fists around wildly, screeching, before sending a powerful attack at Sora. Never once, though, is it able to block his attack. The Monkey staggers gracelessly around, trying to find its footing, with each of Sora’s attacks. I might have no defense, but neither does this thing. I can work with that.

Sora smashes into the Monkey with his Keyblade, I duck, low, into the fastest sprint my body is capable of. Wind whips past my hair, the Monkey is so utterly focused on Sora that it doesn’t notice me, until I close the distance, leap into the air, and send a barrage of attacks at it. Clawing, slashing, gashing with La Luxure. Finally, I deliver a kick to its boxy chest. The Monkey screeches so loud, I genuinely worry that I might go deaf, for a moment. It pounds against its chest, before sending a fist after me. But I see the move coming a mile away. I simply cartwheel aside. Sora rolls opposite me and when the Monkey draws its fists back into its chest, we exchange a victorious look. I sail in, La Luxure drawn back as Sora charges with his Keyblade. The sheer might of our combined blows is enough to cause the Monkey to start sputtering. Darkness licks away at the edges of it.

Just like Zexion. Just like Axel.

No, no, fuck no. I can’t. I freeze, my body starts shaking, I can only see in patches, the rest of my world becomes consumed by fog that I cannot break free from. I don’t want to have a panic attack, not now, please not now.

I am so blinded by the desperate need to fight my way through my anxiety, that I don’t notice the Monkey, in one final move, smashes its fists against the glass ceiling we stand on.

I topple through into blackness. I fall forever, I fall for lifetimes. And then--

“You’re doing well.”

“I know you.” This time, through the inky black haze, at the edge of the dream world, I can make out a silhouette, equally as black, barely the sketch of an outline. But it’s something, it’s a body and not just a misplaced voice, taunting me in the void.

“Sure do, kiddo.” I reach out to touch the silhouette, but it is just out of reach.

“Why can’t I figure out who you are?” I ask.

“Sleep magic is kinda funny. Makes everything all hazy. Nothing like you’ve ever experienced before. And not something you should keep playing with. Wake up, little Rueki. Things get dangerous when you cling to a dream long after it’s over.” The words are anciently wise and flecked with playful youth all in one. But the words resonate, deep. I feel them stir in the pit of my stomach, and with the wave of my hand I clear the fog, to see the silhouette standing opposite me. The void I am in is still dark, but I can make out the leather trench coat with the hood up.

Only one person has ever called me ‘little Rueki’.

“Take off your fucking hood, Xigbar.”

I swear, I can feel him grinning, deep into my soul, as though there is something that connects us, winding us just as tightly as my empathy link with Sora, and yet, so very different. But he does as he’s told, and I’m met by a familiar, scarred face with a glowing, golden eye.

“Can’t say I didn’t expect you to figure it out, eventually. It’s easier this way, I mean, haven’t you had enough secrets kept from you?” He smiles his wolfish smile and my grip on La Luxure tightens.

“Fuck you.” I spit.

“Glad to see you’ve still got your temper. This would’ve been boring without it.” Xigbar laughs.

“You were recompleted, then?” I raise an eyebrow.

“More or less.” He replies, with the wave of his hand. There’s a darkness shadowing his presence now though, the closer I look, the easier it is to see.

“You’re still working with Xemnas.”

“Xehanort, actually. But close enough.” He replies. “And to answer the question that I know is just burning you up, your boyfriend was recompleted too. Congratulations, you two kiddies can have your happy ending. But you’re a good girl, aren’t you, Rueki? You know you’ve got another job you’ve got to finish before you get to play with him again, right? You’ve gotta take care of Roxas.”

“You know, for as fun as it was to be manipulated by you smarmy pieces of shit the first time, I think I’m gonna have to pass.” I raise La Luxure, draw them back and charge. I ghost straight through Xigbar, a phantom in this dreamscape. I hit the ground behind him, on my knees. I hear him chuckle, it fills the room in the most disorienting way ever. This feels exactly like the time we spent in Wonderland together, him shifting planes, distorting gravity, tearing me through time and space. I don’t think this has anything to do with sleep magic, this is all Xigbar.

“Oh man, and here I was, about to tell you how to find red. You’ve got one hell of an attitude on you, don’t you?” He laughs as I stand and he turns to me. My legs shake as I struggle to cling to the dream, despite how dizzy he is making me. “Just like your mom, through and through.”

“Cool, right, whatever, you knew my parents.” And I do recall him mentioning that once to me, but it means nothing. He inclines an eyebrow.

“Huh, funny.” He mutters. “Guess I thought you’d remember, when everything else came back.” He shrugs, though I can see a deep disappointment in his visible eye.

“You know, for someone so insistent that I’ve had enough secrets kept from me, you’re a terrible hypocrite. Try some consistency, you know, like a normal human being?” I offer.

“Ha, as if. I gave up humanity. Don’t need it.” He says, as blithely as one might behave when discussing throwing away old clothing. I look to him with wide eyes and he just chuckles. “Damn, you really are special, so special, kiddo. Cuz you’re just not, but like, look at the lengths your heart will go to!” He shakes his head.

“I’m done, I’m not interested in talking to you when you just say vague, random shit.” I wave my hand. “I’ll find Axel on my own, I don’t need you, I don’t need Xemnas, I don’t need anyone.” To my surprise, he doesn’t fight me in the slightest, instead, he closes the distance between us and pats my cheek. How he is able to touch me, when I can’t touch him, I do not know, but as I release my hold on the dream world, I hear his voice, a whisper.

“May your heart be your guiding key.”

Chapter Text

IV.

A Teeny Ship has just enough space for me, another seat, and well…

Nothing else.

Amaya packs me a sandwich, Del gives me a tight hug and tells me that I better come back home for the birth of his and Amaya’s child, they throw more munny at me then I know how to spend. I promise I’ll do what I can, but an unspoken truth hangs between me and Amaya. There is a very good chance I will not be home for a long time.

I take off into the atmosphere and instantly think, if I could keep my ship here, soaring through space for my entire life, this could be it for me. I could be happy. The constellations, the rocky landscapes, the treasure spheres, they’re breathtakingly beautiful to me, everything I’ve ever wanted. I shift a gear, pull a lever and take off, at the speed of light. The force on such a small ship whips my hair back. The G Force isn’t nauseating at this level, but exhilarating. For a moment, my brain goes blank, my body goes numb as I focus on the feeling of being light years above any and everything. This is what real freedom feels like.

But suddenly, Xigbar’s voice is in my head again, reminding me that Axel has awakened somewhere, possibly anywhere. And despite having no information to work with, I do have an idea.

The familiar feeling of orange sunsets. Sea salt ice cream. The glow the town seems to radiate, from the view atop the clock tower. I know exactly where I would take off and wait for Axel, if I were the waiting type. I know where I’d want the two of us to reunite.

With the slight turn of a wheel and the press of a button, my navigation map is up, and I am cruising, at an impossible speed, in the direction of a place I once built my entire future with Axel around. Twilight Town comes into sight and the second I am close enough to land, I do, disembarking right in the Main Street: Tram Common.

The area is bustling, unlike that week Roxas and I spent, on summer vacation, in the data Twilight Town. A crisp breeze ruffles my ponytail. A child laughs at their friend and says they’re craving ice cream.

I hear a haughty laugh.

“Huh. I don’t remember welcoming any outsiders into my town.”

I roll my shoulders back and roll my eyes in turn, as I angle myself to where Seifer, Musclehead, the white haired girl, and Vivi stand.

“Mmm, so you’re just as annoying as ever.” I offer a petty smile.

“Strangers.” The white haired girl says.

“Yeah, if we knew you, Seifer woulda said something, ya know?” Musclehead asks.
“Well, intellectually stimulating as this conversation has been, I’ve got other things to focus on. So, Crop Top, have a nice.” I twiddle my fingers as I make a move to leave, but apparently Seifer is even more of a dick, along with being slightly older and mildly more muscly. He wraps a huge hand around my arm. I tense. “Did I ask you to fucking touch me?” I feel the weight of my Knuckles as they dangle off my belt. I wonder if they tear through enemies in real life as beautifully as they do in dreams.

“I don’t know what kind of manners pass, where you’re from, but that kind of attitude isn’t tolerated here. Have some respect.” Seifer sneers.

“Oh, was I supposed to courtesy?” I ask. Seifer snorts and drops his hand away from me, which is probably the smartest choice.

“You don’t belong in my town.” Seifer says. “Get out of here, don’t waste my time by causing trouble.” Perhaps Twilight Town wasn’t the smartest place to start. I’m tired, diving into Sora’s dreams has left me a little antsy, as though I have gotten half the amount of sleep I should’ve. I’m irritable as all hell as a result and Seifer is the human equivalent to a cheese grater on my nerves.

My body is healed now, I can take this fucker down no problem.

“I’m a little busy to be handling some whiny teenager. Why don’t we just part ways and call it a day?” I ask. He can make as many comments about me being rude as he wants, but no one is going to accuse me of not trying to be the bigger person. I’m probably twenty now, I remind myself—and fuck, I should look at a calendar—I really have no business picking fights with teenagers. Even particularly annoying teenagers like this.

“What did you call me?” Seifer scoffs.

“Beatdown.” The girl crosses her arms to her chest.

“Huh, maybe.” Seifer grins. “Maybe first we’ll give the girl a minute to apologize.”

“It’s Rueki, not ‘the girl’, you pompous fucking prick.” I have sufficiently decided that Axel can wait another minute. I really can think of no better way to let of steam than to kick this fucker to the ground.

“You don’t know what your getting yourself into, ya know? Seifer is tough, ya know?” Musclehead asks. I purse my lips.

“Damn kid, I didn’t realize you were such a little bitch and need your friends to fight your battles for you.” I offer Seifer a half smile. His eyes go wide, his nostrils flare, there is a palpable rage, and I feel so damn successful, having pushed his buttons.

“Sandlot, now.” He orders.

“Oh, what, do you draw your power from that mystical place?” I ask. “Cuz I don’t need to leave this spot to fight you.”

“No, I just have enough courtesy to not pick a fight in the middle of town. That’s called having some manners.” He informs me. Well, at least now he remembers I’m all ass, no class.

“Oh, wow, real cool, Seifer. Picking fights with girls a foot shorter than you.” My ears perk up at the voice, and although I know they won’t recognize me, and I know that even if they did, the week we spent together was so very tainted by lies, by my own burden hanging heavily on me. But there’s a kinship I feel when I turn to see Hayner, Pence and Olette striding forward.

“This time, my issue isn’t with you, blondie. Move along.” Seifer scolds.

“You’re being a bully.” Olette crosses her arms to her chest, and I am slightly thrown by the look she grants me. My entire body is covered in jagged, white scars. I’m sure the bags under by eyes are quite pronounced. I must look weak or ill, because I recognize the look of pity she casts me.

“That’s kind of his prerogative.” Pence reminds her. I crack a smile.

“Why don’t you lamers stay out of this?” Seifer barks.

“Oh man, so you can have your friends fight for you, but I can’t call for backup? That’s pretty intense overcompensation there, sorry about your dick.” I say and I swear, the shade of red Seifer turns is unhealthy. Hayner might actually be choking to death on laughter too, that’s a thing. I bite down the grin that threatens to consume my expression. These kids might not remember me, but I certainly remember how much I like them, especially Hayner. My backup best friend, as I once called him.

“Hopeless.” The white haired girl sets a hand on Seifer’s arm. He seems to mull over her word and finally decides that I am not worth his time. He waves a hand and rolls his eyes at me.

“Whatever, I know a lost cause when I see one.” And with that, he stomps off, his entourage so far up his ass, I’m surprised he’s not picking them out of his teeth.

“I’ve never heard anyone talk to Seifer like that.” Pence shakes his head. “I mean, Hayner tries to, but he usually gets so mad, he can’t form a coherent sentence.”

“Hey!” Hayner whines.

“King Crop Top is a fucking dick, you guys should remind him of that more often. I swear, his head is even bigger now that Roxas isn’t around to beat him up with a fucking bat.” I shake my head. The trio regard me as though I am speaking another language altogether and my expression falters. Damn, this sucks. “Sorry.” I shake my head.

“No, uh, we just really aren’t sure what you’re talking about. But, um, I’m Olette!” The green eyed girl offers me her hand.

“I know. And he’s Hayner, and he’s Pence.” I nod. She looks between the two of them and Hayner raises an eyebrow.

“We haven’t met before.” He reminds me. I shrug.

“It’s not really worth the explanation, but let’s just say we were friends in another life.” I say, and man, do I ever sound like a cryptic asshole. My time with Organization XIII is more than obvious now. I better cut this shit out. No more secrets, no more bullshit. I’m not the guardian of worlds, I don’t need to lie to these kids to pacify them.

“Oh! You must be talking about the data world!” Pence’s eyes light up, much to my surprise.

“You guys know about that?” I ask. And I mean like yeah, these kids definitely acted like junior sleuths, but never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed they’d be on the look out for something that actually matters.

“Yeah, we helped our friend, Sora cross through it like six months ago.” Hayner nods. And I reach for Sora’s heart, finding it so incredibly cloudy, outside of my dreams. It seems like I have to swan dive into the depths of his memories just to recover the thought of him, Donald and Goofy discussing passwords for the data world, with Hayner, Pence and Olette. But sure enough, there it is, and, not for the first time, I am so thankful for the empathy link, connecting me and the Keybearer. But in the depths, I notice an ache, a longing, a pain that begs me to stick around in this town for as long as possible. To be near Hayner, Pence and Olette for as long as I can, to have ice cream with them, just one more time.

Roxas. I set my hand to my heart and hope that it is the equivalent to wrapping my arms around my dearest friend.

“Is that where you come from?” Olette cocks her head to the side, her shaggy hair shifting with her movements.

“No, definitely not.” I laugh. “I just spent some time with the versions of you guys over there. And some time with Sora too.”

“Oh, so you’re friends with Sora, too?” Olette asks.

“Well hey, a friend of Sora’s is a friend of ours.” Hayner nods, though I’m certain my jab at Seifer is what won him over in the first place.

“Cool.” I nod, because despite the three of them not making a huge impact in my life, I can feel Roxas reaching out to them, pulling me harder than he ever has before, harder than I expected him to be capable of. “I’m Rueki, by the way.”

“It’s nice to re meet you, Rueki.” Olette beams, ever so politely and damn, she is infinitely more adorable when she isn’t haranguing her friends about doing homework.

“Yeah, it’s good to see you guys again.” I nod, and despite Roxas, begging me to spend another moment with them, I know I cannot. Roxas’ screaming in my heart has nothing on the searing sensation in the back of my mind, in the depths of my soul, reminding me over and over again, that something is missing. More than that, that someone is missing. None of this feels right without Axel’s hand in mine, and the longer my thoughts linger on him, the harder it becomes to breathe, the darker my world feels. I shove aside an impending panic attack, trying to find anything else to focus on. Words, use words, speak, there’s got to me some sort of distraction that can change this. “But I’ve got to do some looking around. I’m trying to find someone important to me. Tall, skinny, spiky red hair. You guys seen anyone like that around town?” And maybe waiting for me with a bar of ice cream at hand, ready to welcome me back with open arms? The hope nearly takes my breath away.

“No, you’re the only new person walking around here.” Hayner shakes his head. My stomach drops. My hopes crash so hard against the jagged rocks of reality.

“But we’d be happy to help you look for him, if you think he’s here?” Olette offers. I don’t know what I think, and I’m truly so dejected that it’s all I can do to nod limply. Fuck, what the hell is my problem? I’m not weak, I’m not pathetic. I’m not a victim and I’m not going to lay down and die without him at my side. But fuck, do I want to.

What the hell is wrong with me?

“Um, sure.” Is my very excited response, but for their efforts, they’re good kids. They do help me search, up, down, all over town. We go to the Old Mansion and look around and find no trace of Axel, not even in the bedroom we holed up in just after the two of us left Organization XIII. We search the beach, Sunset Hill, the Sandlot—where Seifer is currently pouting—and we find absolutely nothing. We search the Clock Tower and there’s not even a stray strand of red hair on the ledge. My hands shake as I sink down onto my butt, in utter defeat. A breeze chills me, and it takes everything to hold back tears as I cannot escape the absence of warmth.

“He’s not here.” I finally decide, because we have searched every square inch of this place, only to warrant nothing. For a moment, I doubt Xigbar’s words. Maybe he was taunting me and Axel didn’t make it back.

The prospect of being alone in this world, without him, could kill me. I wonder about Shibuya, momentarily, about Neku’s presence in Sora’s dreams and what that could mean for those souls that would otherwise be playing the Reaper’s Game. Is that where he’s trapped? And could I even get back to the UG without dying, now that I no longer have control of darkness?

“Well then he’s probably in another world, right?” Hayner breaks through my reverie. I shrug.

“I dunno, but I can’t stop until I find him.” I press my lips together, eyes narrowed, staring out at the hazy, orange sky.

“He’s really important to you?” Pence raises an eyebrow.

“The most important person in my entire world.” Ew. What an utterly cringe worthy statement. What an utterly true statement.

“Then I’m sure you’ll find him. He’s probably out looking for you, too.” Olette offers, and she might very well be right. It would be so like Axel and I, to run parallel to one another, to miss each other at every opportunity, to arrive just as the other is leaving. But I know myself better than to think I could possibly sit still and wait for him. I’d be left wondering, all of the time, where he was, if he was staying put, waiting for me to find him.

“Yeah.” I agree. “But I promised I wouldn’t keep him waiting long. I should go.” But it is more effort than I can exert, to stand up straight and be on my merry way. It’s as though Roxas’ heart is suddenly an anchor and is attempting to tether me to this world. Not that I’d mind, not at all, Seifer or no, there’s something in the almost but never quite setting sun, that makes me feel so incredibly at home.

“What about ice cream?” Pence offers. “It’s almost time for dinner, we’ve been searching all day, might as well get some ice cream. Who knows, it might make you feel better.”

“Ice cream is great at mending a broken heart.” Olette promises. And truly, these kids are so endearing, it almost kills me. When I was trying with all of my might to get through to Roxas, or to push him forward on the path to Sora, or even when I thought my only option was to kill him, it felt like these friends of his were my competition. Now, the moment between the four of us is untainted by jealousy. They took me at my word, that I’m Sora’s friend, and spent their entire day searching for an absolute lost cause with me. It really is so very tempting to take them up on their offer. I think of once sitting with three other friends up here, eating ice cream—

Three? No…it was just two others. Me, Axel and Roxas, right? A pleasant fog creeps into my mind and I am so worn, I relax into it without hesitation.

“Sorry.” I reply, but I reach into my pocket and offer them some munny. Hayner grabs it out of my hand without a second thought, and Olette’s eyes go wide in fury. I laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m a freeloader too. My rich friends gave it to me, it’s more than I can spend. I want you guys to have it, treat yourself to some ice cream. My thanks for helping me.”

“Rueki, are you sure?” Olette asks.

“Hey, she wouldn’t have offered it if she didn’t mean it.” Hayner says, and I bite back a smile.

“The kid’s right. I’m an asshole, if I didn’t like you guys, you’d know it by now. And I sure wouldn’t be buying you ice cream.” I reply. Pence snorts.

“You know, you and Hayner are a lot alike.” He laughs. I don’t even try to argue. He’s comparing me to a grumpy, spiky haired teenage boy. Wow, what a concept.

I depart the world with promises to return, as soon as I find the person most important to me.

--

My next stop is a world I have been to only a very small handful of times. Funny, all things considered, now that I remember growing up here.

Radiant Garden. I knew it as Hollow Bastion, as a Nobody, but then again, what, of my life without a heart wasn’t a big fat fucking lie?

Now, when I step onto the grey, brick pavement, there isn’t anxiety, there is familiarity. For a brief window of time, nostalgia overcomes me, and I long to retrace the steps of my childhood. To find Cid’s house, to find the library that I used to sneak into, to draw on something with sidewalk chalk. There’s just as much bliss in setting foot here, as there was in Twilight Town, though a totally different kind. I am nearly overwhelmed by the emotion that comes with Radiant Garden and my restored memories.

But I won’t deny, I am too afraid to seek out my past. If Cid Highwind died, if little Yuffie died, if the memories of my childhood are soiled immediately after I’ve regained them, I will not be able to bare the emotional impact. I hide my face in my hands, taking a breath as I try to calm down. Nothing is slipping away from me, I’m not losing any of my loved ones, this is going to be okay, and I’m going to fucking find Axel here, in the place we grew up together, in.

I search the world from top to bottom, leaving no stone unturned, scouring every bit of town that I can remember. At the edge of everything, the place I once stood with Axel, where he examined fresh, new scars on my body, I see a castle. It is across such a deep ravine, I’m unsure of how to get to it, but figure if I cannot cross it, then certainly Axel wouldn’t be there, right?

Defeat overwhelms me as I head back to my ship.

I’m about to call Radiant Garden a failure, when I hear my name.

“Rueki.” The voice is familiar, registering instantly in the back of my mind, in the depths of my childhood. I’m reminded instantly of allowance for ice cream and sidewalk chalk and story time. I freeze. My heart, my real heart skips a beat. I pinch my eyes shut, unprepared for the tears that threaten to pop up.

For a second, I don’t want to turn. I don’t want to see what age has done to his face, I don’t want the decade that we have missed with each other to be so very palpable. And most importantly, I know what I must do. I know the path I’ve chosen is dangerous and I know I cannot stay put long. I don’t want us to lose each other the second we have found each other. But I’m greedy and the lust for fulfillment grips me so tight. I want to feel good, I want to feel happy, I want to feel real.

I turn around and meet Cid Highwind’s very blue eyes.

At first, I think he looks so very much the same. But then I see that his blond hair is flicked grey, his face is creased with wrinkles that weren’t there in my childhood. His hands are weathered, from years of hard labor.

“Well I’ll be damned.” His voice catches as he closes the distance and wraps his arms around me. I break down into a fit of sobs, shaking in his arms, feeling so very small and so much like a child. His arms tremble as he grips me too tight, so afraid to lose his would be daughter, yet again. I feel wetness on the top of my head and know that we are both grieving the time we lost. “Fuck, kid, fuck.” He mutters and I laugh, hollowly, thinking of how even without conscious memories of him, Cid has left his mark on me. My fingertips press into the fabric of his white, cotton shirt. He smells of cheap coffee, bar soap and Gummi fuel. It is so, overwhelmingly familiar, gripping my heart in a vice. “I thought you were dead, kiddo.” He murmurs, voice heavy. I choke on a sob.

I want this moment to be pure, I want this moment to be safe, to be beautiful. But everything anyone has ever said about me having no self control, everything about me being a weak, pathetic slave to my own emotions is so very true. And I don’t care. The verbal vomit spews out as I cry into my godfather’s arms, for the first time since I was a child.

“I was, I died, I lost my heart to darkness the night our world was consumed, I tried so hard to find you that night. But I just couldn’t get past the Heartless, there were too many of them, they overwhelmed me, Lea tried to fight them off with me, but they got both of us and I—” My breath staggers. “I woke up in Transmute City, and I didn’t know I didn’t have a heart, but I didn’t and I was Organization XIII’s pawn, and I died trying to save Sora and I’ve just gotta find Axel, I can’t do this, I can’t be without him, it’s killing me, I—”

Nothing I say makes sense. And it’s totally out of Cid’s wheelhouse. He never comforted teenage me over a heartbreak. He never had to handle a period of time where I understood the weight of my parents’ death. Any tears I’ve shed in front of him have been over silly, shallow things. We were robbed of this growth, it was captured from both of us and has left us both so stunted. We pull away. I wipe my eyes with the back of my glove. Cid pulls a toothpick from a case in his pocket and starts chewing anxiously at it. My eyes find the ground. I don’t want to look at him, not like this.

“You ain’t making sense, kiddo.” He tells me. I nod, chewing my lip.

“I usually don’t anymore. I’m a fucking mess.” And it’s so sad, but it’s so true. I see regret in his eyes as I look up at him, and I’m certain he’s blaming himself. I don’t know how to tell him this isn’t his fault, he doesn’t know how to confess his feelings to me, to allow me to comfort him. So, we stand there, silence hanging heavily between the two of us.

“Yuffie’ll wanna see you, kid. Why don’t you come home for a meal?” I don’t even have to think twice.

Cid’s home is the very same home I grew up in. The brick shack of a house with mismatched furniture and very little in the way of décor. He’s got a computer in the corner of the main room and there are more people than I know what to do with, littering his house.

“I should’ve known this would be a group event. Your idea of a fancy dinner was mac and cheese.” I mutter, and hey, why not another thing I got from Cid. Neither of us can cook for shit. He flicks the toothpick between his teeth.

“See you never grew outta being a brat.”

“See you never grew outta picking up strays.” I mutter. A woman looks up, she’s got vibrant green eyes and long brown hair. She offers me the gentlest of smiles. I’m immediately reminded of Amaya.

“Oh? Who’s this?” She asks as she sets an old, rickety wooden table with silverware. A man stands in the corner with long brown hair and many belts. When he looks at me, his face hardens.

“You.” Oh, cool, he remembers me, why not? But Cid chooses to ignore him.

“Hey, Yuf!” From a doorway, a vibrantly smiley face, framed by short, choppy, black hair appears. For a moment, fog creeps into my brain, such pleasant, beautiful memories of sea salt ice cream, of pep talks on the beach and laughing at nothing at all, fill my mind. Fog threatens to consume them. I choke on my breath. There’s something, someone….

But it’s so easy to fall into the delightful, numbing sensation of the fog. When finally, it overwhelms my brain, I am met by clarity and familiarity.

That vibrant smile reminds me of summer days. Of playing dolls and dress up and living in worlds of make believe. I’m reminded of innocence and outgrowing her. Of choosing ice cream with Lea every chance I got.

I guess I would’ve grown up to be an asshole, regardless.

“Rueki!” Yuffie barrels out the door and throws her arms around me, knocking me into the door that is now shut behind Cid and I. She’s at least six inches taller than me now, and is lithe and athletic, every muscle in her body feels hard and tight as she hugs me with all of her might. Everyone at this point in my life is a hugger now, and I don’t altogether mind it. Especially because Yuffie literally bounces back from me, the big goofy grin I remember so fondly, never leaving her face. She, unlike Cid, has never grieved me. She was too young when we lost our world, she may remember my absence, but she has never felt the true loss of my presence. “Cid, how did you find her?” Her eyes dart from me to him and he shrugs.

“Got lucky, I guess. She’s built just like her damn mom. Just took one look and called out her name and the rest is history.” He shrugs.

“You’ve always been a shit story teller.” I nod.

“Stop fucking cursing, kid.” Cid rolls his eyes.

“I learned from the best, old man.” I remind him, a grin tugging at the corners of my lips. I’m eight again. Untamed, unburdened. So happy and so free and so wrapped in the safety my godfather has created for me in a world I once called home. It’d be so easy to fall into all of this, easier than staying behind with Amaya and Del, easier than staying and eating ice cream with Hayner, Pence and Olette. I look at the loved ones I have been shorted so much time with, and I think this is the greatest temptation of all. But the brunette man clears his throat and looks at me with hard eyes, and it breaks me from this beautiful trance I want to bury myself in. A world without pain. What a concept.

“I remember you.” He says.

“Yeah.” Is my response.

“Leon, have some manners.” The brunette woman warns, and damn, she’s even more Amaya than I could’ve expected.

“She scattered the pages of Merlin’s book.” Why not? Why would he not remember that?

“She’s my goddaughter.” Cid counters.

“And my friend!” Yuffie replies with a dramatic wave of her hand. “Besides, Sora found all of the pages.”

“No, I was a shit person.” I shake my head. And I don’t try to defend myself further. Because I hate watching myself become a victim in my own story. I can handle being blinded by Axel, I can handle making stupid choices, but I have never been a damsel and I refuse to cast my own responsibility aside and chuck the blame upon Organization XIII. I did what I needed to stay alive, I did what I needed to keep Axel close, I don’t regret that, I hardly intend to start now because a man in leather mistrusts me. Yuffie and Cid haven’t seen me in over a decade. I was a little girl the last time I saw either of them, they owe me nothing. If I get kicked out of this place, I get kicked out. It is no one’s fault but mine.

“Rueki…” Yuffie pouts, eyes narrowed. “Don’t let Squall bully you.”

“That’s Leon.” The brunette man grumbles, shaking his head.

“Well, dude, whatever you wanna be called, if you wanna hate me, that’s your prerogative. My hands are dirty as all hell. I did a lot of terrible things for the sake of survival, or to keep someone I love safe. I tried to make it right, I tried to help Sora out in the end, to make sure he took down the Organization. I don’t know if there are some sort of magical scales in the universe that can tilt the balance, and I don’t if the good was enough to outweigh the bad. But…like…I’m fucking trying, okay.” I run a hand back through my bangs, which still flop down in over one eye.

“You’re friends with Sora?” Leon inclines an eyebrow. I shrug.

“Yeah. He saved my world. I’m pretty much best friends with his Nobody, our hearts are tied, it’s kind of a thing. He’s a good kid. I’d do anything to help him.” And I have. Leon sighs and shifts his weight. I watch a catlike smile curl across Yuffie’s features.

“I knew it! You’re such a sucker for Sora! Even you have a soft spot for him and his friends.” Yuffie teases him, which I’m sure doesn’t help, and suddenly, I feel our two year age difference, aggressively. Leon’s eyes narrow as he looks me over once more.

“You know, I don’t just remember you from the book. I remember Sora shouting at Organization XIII to let you go.” He mutters, which, to be honest, I forgot about. In my defense, there was a lot going on that week. “I guess I could understand, if we got to know you better, maybe what you—”

“Yay!” Yuffie takes this as reason to celebrate. She throws her arms around me and laughs, high and obnoxious. “So, you’re staying for dinner?” She asks.

“It’s my damn house, Yuf, she’s staying as long as she wants.” Cid rolls his eyes. I flash him a grateful look. “But let me tell you, Rueki, something you said rubbed me wrong.” He says. I raise an eyebrow.

“What?” I ask, my stomach drops as I prepare for the worst. I wonder how these strangers as well as the familiar faces, will look at me when I have to admit I killed people.

“You said you did some shit for someone you love. Girl, you can’t be more that twenty, who the hell do you think you’re in love with?” He crosses his arms. I choke on a laugh. The girl with brown hair giggles.

“You remember Lea, don’t you?” I ask. And for a moment, Cid doesn’t remember. But then his eyes widen, his jaw drops, his toothpick falls right out of his mouth.

“That little shit redheaded boy you always used to chase around?” He chokes.

“Yeah. We’ve kind of been together for like, two ish years now?” I think.

“Oh hell…” Cid shakes his head. “Dammit all, didn’t I tell you to stay the hell away from him?

--

Part of me thinks I need to carry on with my mission and get the hell out of Radiant Garden. I need to find Axel, finding my would be family, aside, his absence is still enough to make me ache. It’s almost enough to make me cringe, how needy I feel, as though a part of me is missing, as though a limb has been amputated and I am desperately searching to sew it back on.

But there is another part of me, a stronger part that desperately needs sleep. And of course, to check on Sora. I settle into the guest bed in Cid’s house, prepared to be met by visions of Traverse Town. What a surprise when I am not met by Traverse Town, but by a pitch black room that begs me to rest. To lay my weary head down and come apart, piece by piece.

It is so tantalizing.

“Awe man, what a touching reunion.” A voice drawls. I know now, instantly, who it belongs to and whip my head around to see the owner, who offers me a wave in greeting. How he knows about my reunion with Cid, I’m not sure but it doesn’t surprise me at this point. “Well hey there kiddo.” Xigbar is stretched, mid air, arms folded behind his head, and even in this pose, I find him to look incredibly feline. He tilts his head and offers me a smile with very sharp teeth that only reinforces this.

“Where’s Sora?” I ask. Because he’s become my reoccurrence. I close my eyes, I fight monsters at his side, I have the boy’s back, through this Mark of Mastery exam and beyond.

“What, you think that’s a right? More like a privilege, little Rueki.” He replies, still floating.

“Our hearts are connected.” I remind him, crossing my arms to my chest, shifting my weight. It does make me cringe, internally, to think about how campy and stereotypically heroic my words sound, in light of all of my moral ambiguity. How many times did I toe the line between right and wrong, whether at Axel’s requests, or for my own needs?

“And, cute as that is, you can’t just go traipsing in and out like his heart is your vacation home. Have some manners, kiddo. Plus, you think the boy’s going to pass his Mark of Mastery exam if you keep butting in? As if, let the kid assert a bit of autonomy, or someone is going to accuse you of mothering him.” He waves his hand, and, without gravity, the motion looks heavy, as though he is kicking inside of a pool. Unintentionally, my head tilts to the side. Xigbar has shifted space on me before, I still recall our first and last trip to Wonderland together, with much nausea and little nostalgia. And yet, the zero gravity thing looks infinitely more appealing and totally different than shifting planes, the longer I look at Xigbar.

“Piss off, otherwise someone is going to accuse you of giving a fuck about Sora, too. What does it matter to you if he passes or not? Wouldn’t it serve Xemnas better if he didn’t?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“As if.” Is Xigbar’s response, which, at this point, I should’ve expected by now. I huff a sigh.

“Yeah, you’re really fun to talk to and all, but uh, maybe consider giving me a straight answer.” I snap. He snorts.

“Really now? I thought it just got you going when guys in leather hid things from you.” A second jab at Axel, I notice and decide to just catalogue that for the time being.

“Oh no, I hate it. Axel got a free pass because I was fucking him. What’s your excuse?” I raise an eyebrow.

“Hey, we can correct that whole situation right now. You ever do it on the ceiling? I can promise you it just feels better.” I look to where La Luxure is connected to my belt loop and wonder how fast I can pull them off and put the spikes into his throat. It might be worth the emotional scarring.

“I fucking hate you.” I say, flatly.

“And why’s that? What have I ever done?” He raises an eyebrow.

“Oh, do you want me to count the ways?” I scoff and point to a particularly nasty scar on my body, and then to another. “One, two, three. You know, I can keep going.”

“Hey, that was the Berserker, not me.” He reminds me. As though I need it, as though panic at the mere thought of Saix’s presence doesn’t send me dangerously close to the edge.

“Yeah, well I definitely overheard that fun little conversation you had with him and Xemnas, and you were all team ‘let’s use Rueki to do our dirty work’. So, fuck off. I didn’t want anything to do with your test. I don’t know what the fuck you all think you’re going to do now, I don’t know what plan he convinced you would be so great, you should abandon your humanity. But you’re a fucking moron. And there’s not one of you I’ll feel guilty about plowing down.” I detach my Knuckles from my belt and slip my fingers through the holes, gripping them tightly.

“Oh hey, I wasn’t here to fight kiddo.” He laughs. “But hey, good to know that baiting you did work after all. You really are too nosey for your own good.”

“I don’t know what you expect from all of this. You’re forgetting, I’ve been in your position before. You don’t think I went and taunted Sora, like an asshole, in Castle Oblivion?” I ask.

“No expectations. Just here to remind you to stop playing with sleep magic.” He says. “You’ve got a role to play, just like Sora and his little friends. Can’t have you disappearing on us before you have time to really step up and steal the show.”

“I don’t know what role you think I’m going to play, but good luck on that, I’m shit for cooperation, now that you’ve lost your biggest bargaining piece.” Axel, he’s free from them, and so am I. “And I don’t know what the hell sleep magic is, but—”

“What you’re doing right now. Diving deep, with a purpose. Shut your damn eyes, kid. Not sure if you’ve heard of a concept called ‘resting’, but that’s what you need. Otherwise, you’re useless.” He says.

“Go to hell. And also, mind your business.” I’m sure he’s right, truth be told, and that bothers me. Because as it stands right now, he is the scariest thing I’ve encountered with my eyes closed. Panic has already started to creep in while I wake, the prospect of facing nightmares again is not something I am equipped for. Not without a very familiar, very warm body next to mine, holding me close. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do without Axel, but I am reminded instantly of the month he spent in Castle Oblivion and my rapid deterioration. I fear an impending crash and am willing to do anything to fight it off.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, whatever injuries you sustain in your dreams, come back to haunt you in real life, but it’s more than that. You’ve gotta be feeling the effects of dream walking by now.” He says. “Tired, irritable, emotional.”

“You literally just described my personality in three words.” I roll my eyes.

“Sleep and death are two sides of the same coin, kiddo. That’s not a line you wanna walk.” He reminds me.

“It’s not cute, you trying to fuck me in one breath and parent me in the next.” I insist.

“You know, it’s really damn sad, how afraid you are of what lurks in your dreams. You’re not exactly subtle with your lashing out.”

Just to spite him, I release my grip on this room, plunging into a true sleep.

I muffle my screams with a pillow as I wake, trying so hard not to disturb Cid.

Chapter Text

V.

My hands shake as Cid and I drink coffee. He makes it like sludge, it’s barely drinkable, but I am tired. Deep into my bones, I am tired. Not having Axel is worse than I expected, though I’m not totally sure his absence is to blame for all of my exhaustion. I’m certain, if Xigbar is to be trusted—instinct says fat chance, but logic tells otherwise—that my interactions with Sora haven’t helped, but I cannot shake the undeniable, and utterly cliche feeling, that half of me is missing. I realize how easy it would be to slip into my old ways, to push everyone aside, to be cold, eerily so. Because right now, I am having a hard time giving a quarter of a fuck about anything. Perhaps my behavior with Del and Amaya wasn’t just me trying to keep them safe. Maybe I was just resorting to what feels easiest without a fire to keep me ablaze.

“You know, I heard ya, up screaming in the middle of the night.” Cid mutters, and I’m not even a little bit surprised this is his way of approaching things. I take a sip of the coffee and nearly gag. “Kid, if you don’t like it—”

“It’s fine, I just need some caffeine.” I shake my head. Silence lingers between the two of us for a minute before he finally tries again.

“So, you gonna tell me what had you shrieking like a banshee?” He asks. I snort.

“You’re better off not knowing.” I murmur.

“Hell, kid, don’t pull that shit with me. You wanna act like you’re all grown up, do that on your own damn time. But you’re forgetting who raised you to be this kind of asshole, don’t think you can try to beat me at my own game.” Cid snaps, and I catch myself flinching, retreating into the coffee mug as I try to block out memories of my nightmares.

Zexion laughing as I turn to dust. Saix with a blade, carving into my flesh. Axel crystalizing, fading away entirely.

“And I know it’s been a long time, but I remember what you look like, Rueki. And you sure weren’t covered in all of those scars when I saw you last. What the hell happened to you?” He asks. I draw in a shaky breath, set my coffee down and cover my face with my hand.

Take a breath. In, one, two, three.

Out, one, two, three.

“A lot.” I whisper, my voice sounding meek and afraid. Cid shifts his weight, shoulders square and tense.

“You’re pretty shit at talking about things, kid.” He reminds me. I smile, though it doesn’t touch my eyes.

“I know. But if memory serves me right, I get that from you.” I remind him. He reaches across the table and messes up my hair.

“Don’t follow in my footsteps, Rueki, you’re bound to run into walls.” Cid tells me. I smooth my hair back into place.

“Oh, I do that on my own, I’ve got this amazing talent for fucking things up.” I say. Silence hangs over us. Cid’s eyes are very prying, but there’s nothing I want to offer him. I am nothing if not stubborn, and there is no way in hell he’s going to find out what I’ve been through. My unintelligible blubbering yesterday was a mistake. It was enough to pour myself out to Del and Amaya, but the three of us grew up together. They do not remember me as a child, grinning with my two front teeth missing. Cid does, I’m not ruining that, not only for him, but for me. If he wants to look at me with pity, if he wants to assume the worst, that’s his prerogative. But I will never confirm it, because I still need a place that’s safe, I need a place that I can slip into with some level of anonymity.

“Those scars all over you…that’s not from that Lea fellow?” I can hear the anxiety in Cid’s voice, so familiar, he’s never known how to handle the difficult things. Which is fair, if Del and Amaya left their child to me, I’d have no idea how to parent it.

“No, definitely not.” I shake my head. “No, he’s the one thing in my life that isn’t consistently shit.”

“But ya got all dinged up, going on adventures with Sora?” Cid asks.

“Well, Sora was a pretty small part of my adventures. But no, this was kind of my own thing. I’ve seen so many places though, that’s kind of cool. I woke up in a place called Transmute City, after our world fell. I was raised as an orphan, and me and two of my friends from the orphanage opened up our own Gummi Repair shop. I’m a damn good pilot.” I grin, toothily at him and am pleased to see him beaming just as wildly as me, for the moment allowing the mess that I am to be forgotten.

“Course you are, always said you were gonna grow up to be just like your dad.” Cid nods. “Jasper was a good man, Rueki, he’dve been proud of you.” And there’s no way Cid can know that, and I have no attachment to parents whose faces I cannot even remember, but the sentiment is kind.

“I met someone who knew my parents.” I say, mostly because I want to test Xigbar’s words. He knew my mom and dad? Really? Let’s check the sources and see if maybe anything else he said could possibly be trusted.

“Yeah? Who?” He asks.

“Some guy named Braig.” At least, I’m pretty sure that was Xigbar’s real name. Cid’s face suddenly losing color does not help anything.

“What’d that slimy asshole tell you?” Oh, well clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree that raised it, because ‘slimy asshole’ is exactly how I would describe Xigbar.

“Just that he knew my mom and dad and was in the guard with them, that’s all…” With narrowed eyes, I watch as Cid takes too long of a swig of his nasty, sludge coffee. He drums his fingers on the side of the mug as he sets it down, I hear the sound of him tapping his socked foot against the hardwood floor. He’s afraid of something. “Why, what should he have told me?” I ask. Cid’s eyes are suddenly gazing very intently out the window, as though he is quite interested in the rising sun. Not that I can really fault him, I just used my parents as distraction fodder. We both really are the exact same type of asshole.

“Listen, kid.” He sighs, still staring out the window. “What your mom did before your dad and her got together, that’s her own business. Mayris was her own damn woman, loved herself above all others, and that ain’t a bad thing. But uh, from what I understand, she loved a lot of other people along the way.”

Oh fuck.

“Ew. No.” I plead.

“’Fraid so. That asshole, Braig even tried to convince your mom you were his kid, which no way in hell would your mom have screwed around on your dad. She just wasn’t like that. Wouldn’t put it past Braig to try to corner you and convince you that you were his.” Cid says.

“But I’m not right?” Because I’m having a hell of a time processing the fact that the man who offered to fuck me in my dream last night, once fucked my mom. Ew. Fuck. Ew.

“Definitely not. You might’ve grown up to be built like your mom, but you don’t look like her beyond that. Full lips, that mole below em’, sure. But your dad was the blond with green eyes. You got the same pointy chin, the same bump in your nose. You’re definitely Jasper’s daughter.” Cid confirms, which I guess is mildly less nauseating, and hell, I guess Xigbar has a type. Scrawny upper body, no tits, giant ass. Cool. What a fucking treat. I push away my sludge coffee, knowing if I drink any more of it, with these delightful thoughts percolating through my mind, I’m gonna puke. “And even after you came out, looking like the spitting image of your father, he still acted like he had some kinda claim to you. Got all pissed off when your parents named me your godfather. I contemplated skinning the bastard alive when he sent you a book of fairy tales as a kid. Wrote some bullshit on the inside ‘may your heart be your guiding key’, like I didn’t know his fucking handwriting.” Cid grumbles. My eyes widen.

“What? He knew me that well?” Because I know Xigbar mentioned knowing me as a kid, but my memories have been restored. Why do I not ever remember meeting Braig?

“Oh hell no. I wouldn’t let him around you with a ten foot pole. I think he just sent you the book to piss me off. He was smarmy like that, really loved to get under your mother’s skin and mine too, thought it was funny.” And apparently he thinks the same of me. How many times can I think the word ‘ew’ before it becomes repetitive? “I really thought about throwing that book away, but you loved it so much. It was huge, had every story in it that you could’ve hoped for and you told anyone that would listen that you belonged in a world of fairy tales…you sure about that Lea fellow? Don’tcha wanna wait for an actual prince and save me a damn heart attack?” He asks. I laugh.

“If I could’ve gotten rid of Lea, I would’ve. But like, the more I try to shake him, the more I realize I love him. Which, I know, ew, gross.” I smirk a little, and this time, thoughts of Axel...or Lea don’t leave me cold and hollow, but warm, glowing.

“That’s gonna take a minute to get used to.” Cid exhales slowly. “I really thought you died, kid.”

“I told you yesterday. I did.” Because there’s no use taking that one back. Cid got the abridged version of my life story yesterday, and that will have to suffice.

“Then what the hell happened?” He asks me, sincerity cracking his voice. But I’m all nonchalance because I cannot tread down this road.

“It didn’t stick.” I can tell Cid wants a more satisfactory answer than that, but after a moment worth of silence on my end, he seems to come to terms with that being my answer.

“Yeah, well, make sure it keeps not sticking, alright? I ain’t going to no funerals, kid.” He orders.

“Yeah, yeah, old man.” I smile ever so softly at him. I trace a finger around the rim of my half full mug of coffee. “So what ended up happening with the castle? The one my parents guarded?” I ask, raising an eyebrow, because despite my best efforts yesterday, I found no trace of the high gates that Lea and Isa used to try to scale.

“What, you mean you didn’t find it? I thought you said you were searching all over God’s green earth for that Lea of yours.” He says. I narrow my eyes.

“Dude, I haven’t lived here in years” I mutter. He snorts.

“Watch the attitude, kid.” He warns, though with no threat in his voice.

“I learned it from you.” I remind him. He chuckles.

“That, ya did. Well, it doesn’t really surprise me that you couldn’t find your way to the old castle. Can’t get in the same way, the path your little boyfriend and his buddy used to try to sneak up has been sealed off. You gotta go through the Bailey now.” He says.

“Oh, so you expected me to remember a route that didn’t exist when I was last here, which mind you, I was nine. You’re such a dick.” I murmur, smiling still. Cid throws his head back laughing.

“Damn, I sure am glad I didn’t have to go through the teenage years with you. You grew up to be one serious pain in the ass.”

--

And after infinitely more ribbing, and then politely allowing me to shower and get ready for the day, Cid has the good nature to escort me to the castle gates. I chew my lips, staring up at castle. This is definitely not what I remember. I’ve never been inside this castle, and the only part of it I recall, the outside, looks so much different. I have no idea where to even start.

“You want me to come with you?” Cid asks.

“No.” Because I don’t want him to see me potentially have a mental breakdown. Not that I’m preparing for one, but based on the pattern of castle’s I’ve spent time in, all bets are off.

“You sure?” He asks.

“What, your old knees getting too tired for you to walk back home alone? You trying to tag along so that I can help you limp everywhere?” I tease, trying to brush his concerns aside. He chuckles and mutters something about me being a pain in my ass.

“You best bring Lea back to my house when you find him, I gotta interrogate this boy properly.” Cid says, and I know why he is worried. If we’re as alike as we seem, he knows without a doubt, that if I fail at this, I am going to disappear without another word, onto the next world.

“Sure, sure.” Is my response, though truly, I do only intend to stop back to see him if I find Lea. He’s right to worry. I will disappear without a trace.

But with that, he squeezes my shoulder and allows me to begin my search alone. It’s nice to know, he’s already come to terms with me being a lost cause. It’ll make everything easier in the end.

It takes me hours to scour the castle. There are mazes, hidden doors behind picture frames, locked doors that I try to force my way into and then finally, a huge library.

The room is so enormous, spanning an entire floor, with winding book shelves. I sigh running a hand back through my hair, when I hear a voice call my name.

I recognize it instantly and wheel around. My blood runs cold. To men stand opposite me, one only a few years younger than me and slightly taller. The other, an absolute giant.

“Rueki.” My name falls from the younger ones lips.

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

No, no, no.

No.

The face of my nightmares stares back at me, head tilted to the side, mouth parted very slightly as he gazes over me.

“Zexion.” My voice cracks, shifting an octave. My hands fly up to my face covering my mouth, as though if I hide my face this scene will disappear. And why not? I must still be inside a nightmare, I’ve got to be trapped. Maybe I’m dead, maybe Xigbar’s warnings were valid, maybe I’m walking the tightrope between life and death and the first person I murdered is at the edge, beckoning me to the other side before I even have time to find Lea. I can’t…I can’t do this, I …

My body is reduced to tremors, a violent vibration. My eyes sting, tears feel as though they are literally burning my eyes. My throat is so tight, and somehow, it seems like I’m breathing too much. Am I hyperventilating? Am I suffocating? I cannot tell, but suddenly, it feels as though my insides are falling out, desperate to escape a body that is no longer safe.

“No…I…please don’t…I can’t die, not yet!” I scream, stumbling backward. My legs betray me, my knees buckle and I hit the floor. The room is spinning, my vision swims. I tuck my face between my knees, feeling the heat of my tears as they stream down my cheeks.

“Rueki…” Zexion’s voice is gentle as it caresses my name, but I know this is a trick, a nasty game my own mind is playing, luring me to my death. But this can’t be the end, not yet, not until I know Lea is safe, I don’t want to live without him, but I don’t want him to have to live without me either, it’s not fair, none of this, dammit—

“Don’t!” I beg, and then I feel a hand wrap around my wrist. Cool, yearning to soothe.

It does the opposite. I shriek, my limbs jolting as though I have been electrocuted. My head pops up, Zexion’s one visible eye is incredibly wide as I scuttle backward, a scream tearing through my throat that frays my vocal chords altogether.

“Don’t kill me!” I plead, my voice sounding jagged as I run into a bookshelf. Has the room gotten smaller? I’m certain it has, my dreams are so nasty to me. Despite all of the nightmares I’ve had about Zexion, I swear this one is the worst. The others were violent, graphic, disturbing but this one is the most realistic and I think it is the worst form of torture yet.

“Rueki, I’m not Zexion.” Zexion insists, sinking to his knees, holding up both hands, palms facing me. “Please, please, calm down.” I wait for his face to transform into Saix’s, I wait for my nightmares to morph, but they do not. Instead, Zexion crawls just a little closer to me. My body retracts, curling up tight again. I fumble, despite the haze of panic curling around my brain, I am cognitive enough to know I need to be able to defend myself before he wraps his hands around my throat. I try to reach for La Luxure, but my body seems unwilling to cooperate. I’m shaking too violently, I cannot seem to get a grip, I can’t, I just—

The terror alone is going to kill me, the hopelessness, and fuck, why can’t I seem to catch a breath?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t kill me, please don’t kill me!” I cry out. Zexion reaches out to touch my face. My vision becomes a tiny pinprick. All I can see is his one visible eye. This is it, this is how I die.

“Aeleus, please. An Esuna might help.”

Suddenly, Zexion has a hold on the back of my head. I’m at the edge of blacking out, something cold passes through my lips, and abruptly, I’m engulfed in a warm, white light.

I am relatively certain that I am dead.

But the scene doesn’t change. My nightmare doesn’t budge.

It dawns on me immediately that this is not a nightmare. Something is cutting through the panic, so sharp, so blindingly bright. Unlike what I am so good at, my pain is not being pushed further into the depths, but rather, illuminated, exposed, cut through. It’s such a brief flash and is only the equivalent to a flashlight in the deepest depths of darkness, but despite how miniscule the effort is, it feels so nice. Numbing, so much like the laughing gas feeling I am used to when odd memories creep in. My muscles uncurl. This is nice, very, very nice. My limbs buzz with pleasure.

Zexion is still in front of me. But this time, I am looking my panic head on, accepting it. I am not suddenly brave enough to not be worried, but alternatively, I am not so far beyond the point of no return that I cannot think straight. There is clarity, and in that, I can face my fears.

“Rueki, my name is Ienzo, I’m not Zexion. Not anymore. All thanks to you.” He offers me the gentlest of smiles. My hands curl into fists, so incredibly tight, that, were it not for my fingerless gloves, my palms would be a bloody mess. My heart jackhammers, pounding too hard and too fast, I feel blood pumping in my temples, but still, this is a breath of fresh air, compared to the distress that coursed through me only minutes ago. I see Lexaeus crouched down behind Ienzo, shoulders squared, eyes hard, as though he needs to defend the boy from me. And maybe he’s not wrong, all things considered. But I am still convinced that if I don’t do something fast, I’m going to die here.

“I killed you.” I whisper, and it grates on my very sore throat.

“You recompleted me.” He corrects, and as the haze clears away, I struggle to grasp what those words mean. Recompleted. I died and came back. Apparently Xigbar and Lea did too…why not Zexion? Lexaeus…

“I didn’t mean…I just wanted to help Axel, I loved him so much, I would have done anything for him, I’d still…I’m just trying to find him, please don’t kill me, please!” I whimper. Ienzo’s brow puckers, barely visible through his tangle of hair.

“And perhaps I’d be upset at you…but Rueki, you don’t understand…I lost so much of my life, to the Organization, to research. And because of your actions, however painful at the time, I have my humanity back. What I wanted most of all.” There’s so much sincerity in his voice, in his face. I swear, I must be hallucinating, but I hear emotion weighing on his tone.

“I never wanted you to die, I’m so sorry, Zexion, I’ll do anything, please, just don’t kill me, I need to find Lea, I just want to be with him again, I—”

“Rueki!” His voice is suddenly far more stern. It cuts through my words, tearing the breath straight from my lungs. “Please, please, stop faulting yourself. I’ve come to terms with what has happened between the two of us. And yes, you are the woman who killed me. But you are also the girl who offered me ice cream and dreamed about other worlds with me. You allowed me to be a child when no one else would, you allowed me to die, to come back to be my truest self. Every waking second of my life as Ienzo and Zexion, people have watched out for me, desperate to protect me from pain. Can you not see, you’ve offered me a kindness, allowing me to feel it, because consistently, you always bring me back to a place where I’m allowed to feel. And that is a beautiful gift, Rueki.”

Remembering us as children, watching the sunset, talking about being orphans nearly shatters my heart. So very much would have been different if my memories had not eluded me for so very long. Ienzo shifts, clearly unsure of what to do. And I just can’t stop crying. I don’t deserve to. I’m weak and pathetic and I should be the one offering kind words to Ienzo, not behaving like a victim. But every word he said as he faded was true.

“You were right. What I did…it’s going to haunt me forever. I’m so sorry.” I shake my head. His visible eye widens, and I think in his gaze, I see a teenager, a boy forced to behave like a man, someone who has made too many mistakes and traveled too far down the path of calculations and cruelty. I see a boy who wants so much so to make up for what the past decade has lost. And to that, I relate so deeply.

“Please, Rueki. If I can offer forgiveness for what you’ve done, I beg you offer me forgiveness for my words. We were both not our best and…” He sighs. “I’m human again. Words cannot express how utterly grateful I am to that.”

“This is a trick.” I say. It’s got to be, if not a trick then a nightmare, this cannot be real.

“What must I do to prove to you this is real?” He asks.

“Slap me.” I answer, flatly. Aeleus answers that call instantly, without Ienzo asking him to, his beefy hand knocking me back. “Fuck!” I choke out, but it is exactly what I needed. A rough, crashing wave of reality. Unrelenting. I look between Ienzo and Aeleus. Shadows do not creep in, the scene does not twist and change. I do not wake up.

I shift my weight, crawling forward, closing the gap between Ienzo and I. He tenses, Aeleus flinches, coming forward, but Ienzo beckons him back with the wave of his hand. Finally, my hand rests upon Ienzo’s chest where I count the beats.

One, two, three, four, five, six.

This is real.

I cannot control myself. I throw my arms around his neck and pull him in close. I am all repentance, not only for the woman who killed him, but for the girl who broke her promise and was unable to have ice cream with him again. If I woke up in The World That Never Was with the rest of them, if I became a real member of Organization XIII, I know, without a doubt, things would have been so different between the two of us.

“I’m sorry, Ienzo. I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s alright, Rueki. We’re only human.”

And we are, we so, truly are.

“Lea told us about what Isa did to you, before he left to find the two of you. You’ve been punished enough for what you’ve done. I think we all have.” Ienzo squeezes me very hesitantly, but I remember the little boy, afraid to give me an answer that Even hadn’t fed him, and I know Ienzo is trying with all of his might to meet me back, just as warmly as I’m meeting him.

His words give me pause, however.

“Lea was here.” Lea, Axel. I delight how his name feels on my lips. My heart does a backflip, and despite my failure, I feel a rush of warmth spread through my heart. He was here, my heart might not have had the timing right, but it knew exactly where to lead me.

May my heart be my guiding key.

I pull away from Ienzo as Xigbar’s words shoot straight to my core.

“He left merely hours before you arrived.” Ienzo confirms. My stomach drops. Dammit. It’s not like I was sleeping properly last night anyway, if I had just left Cid’s house a little faster and come to the castle a little sooner, I could’ve found him. I could be inside his scolding hot arms right now, his skin searing into mine. I could be home.

“Fuck.” I choke.

“Language.” Aeleus scolds. I chew my lip, offering a sheepish smile. Ienzo chuckles.

“Aeleus, I’m not a child anymore.” He corrects. “In fact, I’m eighteen now.” Which means I’m definitely twenty, cool, good to have some sort of confirmation. Aeleus grunts, eyes hardening as he stands tall. Ienzo helps me to my feet. My legs still shake.

“Did Lea say where he was going?” I ask, wasting no second further. This moment with Ienzo has been beautiful and cathartic, but it has just been that, a moment. I have no time to enjoy the journey, I need to focus on the destination. Ienzo purses his lips.

“Just that he needed to find you and Isa.” Ienzo shakes his head. Isa. Saix. My blood curdles, like spoiled milk, like rotting meat, just the thought of him leaves me sour beyond compare. Ienzo can forgive me for his death as Zexion, but that makes him a better person than me. Heart or no, I didn’t kill Zexion to be cruel. But everything Saix did to me was out of pure, untainted hatred. Even if Axel and I hadn’t loved each other so profusely, even if I had never seen Roxas cry, Saix alone would’ve been confirmation that Nobodies do have feelings. No one can loathe another so much, without being able to feel.

“And you haven’t seen Isa?” I ask.

“I’m afraid not. He, Braig and Xehanort were all missing when we woke. And Even and Dilan are still unconscious.” Ienzo says.

“Braig is Xigbar again.” I say flatly. Ienzo’s eyes widen.

“Are you certain?” He asks. I nod.

“Tragically, I dream of the bastard every single fucking night.” I run a hand back through my bangs. “He told me himself that he chose to become a Nobody again over being human, that him and whoever Xehanort is have got big plans. He’s insufferable as all hell.”

“Curious…” Ienzo mutters. “Tell me, Rueki, when did you begin to dabble in sleep magic?” He asks. I shake my head.

“I’m not, at least, not intentionally. Naminé linked mine and Sora’s hearts at one point.” And for the life of me, I can’t remember why, but I certainly do welcome the laughing gas feeling the floods my brain and dries the last of my tears. “I’ve been playing with the empathy link a little, I can imprint thoughts on Sora, I can track him, and now, he’s in the middle of his Mark of Mastery exam, he’s going through several sleeping worlds, and if I dive deep enough, I can find him.” I explain. Ienzo’s visible eye goes huge, even Aeleus looks a little ruffled.

“As far as I was aware, empathy links were the talk of myth.” Aeleus says. “None of us were ever able to successfully complete one.”

“Naminé did, I assumed it was because of her weird magic powers with Sora’s memories.” I confess.

“Still, that sort of power is above and beyond what a Nobody should be capable of.” Ienzo taps his chin.

“Well isn’t Naminé a special sort of Nobody?” I ask. Ienzo pauses for a moment, looks at Aeleus who is utterly stoic, then looks back to me and shrugs.

“Perhaps. Still, it is quite a feat, you being able to manipulate that link. And to dive into the realm of sleep.” Ienzo says. “Tell me, Rueki, have you dabbled in any form of magic, ever?” He asks.

“Xemnas had me summoning lesser Nobodies, opening portals, pretty much by the end of my time as a Nobody I was flexing my power to the fullest extent.” And I recall how very good it felt. Like a fucking orgasm. I roll my shoulders back. I just need a good lay to tide me over, I swear. If I could just fucking find Lea…

Lea. He has his heart back, so do I. Xigbar was not lying to me, he is safe. For the first time, there is promise. For the first time, our happy ending could be possible.

“Interesting.” Aeleus mutters.

“Quite.” Ienzo agrees. “Stranger things have happened.”

“What?” I raise an eyebrow, and hey, I sure didn’t miss how these guys love to talk in riddles. But these two at least don’t seem to be doing it intentionally. While I was reading fairy tales and drawing with chalk, these two were researching. They were scientists while I was a child. For as smart as I like to think I am, I have spent so much less time delving into the mysteries of the heart, than they.

“Simply put, it seems you have quite an affinity for magic. Most times it requires years of study, but like anything, there are those born with specific talents. Some children run faster than others, some are smarter, some are more creative.”

“And some can just dive into the hearts of a teenage boy.” I mutter. Lucky me. Ienzo cracks a smile.

“I wonder if perhaps spells come as easy to you.” He says. I fight back a smile.

“I’ve always wanted to learn magic.” And I have, but with limited information and no one to teach me, alchemy was the best I could do. Now, with the Knuckles, I cannot even synthesize. No transmutations for me, for now. Ienzo looks to Aeleus, who nods, and I am quite impressed by how much these two are able to communicate with just a look. Aeleus retreats to a bookshelf, grabs a grizzled, thick tome and thrusts it into my hands. The book is dusty with crinkled pages. I’m so intrigued. I set it down on a table nearby and open it up to a page in the middle. “A spell book?” Despite having little knowledge of magic, I know one when I see it.

“If you are able to toy so easily with interpersonal, sleep and dark magic, I’m curious what you could be capable of in the realm of light.” Ienzo confesses. “You were an alchemist in one life, no? Magic is infinitely less taxing on the body than alchemy.” That in and of itself is enough to tantalize me. But still…

“Thanks, but I should get going with this.” I nod. “I…I’m not trying to be an asshole, I promise, and I’m going to come back, and I swear, I’m going to buy you fucking ice cream and make things up to you, Ienzo, but I need to find Lea.”

“Rueki, I don’t believe you need to leave to find him.” Ienzo says. I make a face. Is he fucking with me?

“You just said he left, did he say he was coming back?” I ask.

“No, but did you not just mention that Braig had chosen to become Xigbar, to aid, Xehanort, or, as you knew him, Xemnas, in some task?” Ienzo asks. I nod, cautiously. What is he getting at? “Well, it had always seemed to me that Braig, although loyal to Xehanort, was apprehensive and would not have gone along with his orders if not properly persuaded. Can you think of someone infinitely more loyal to Xehanort?” He raises an eyebrow.

“Saix.” I answer, easily. “Fuck, you think he chose to become a Nobody to follow along with Xehanort?” And I have to admit, it makes perfect sense. I forgot, even as a member of Organization XIII, I liked Zexion, if for no reason other than his intellect.

“I wouldn’t doubt it. And if Lea fails to find him, or worse yet, discovers his friend is working against him, my hypothesis is that he would return to somewhere he knows is safe, somewhere that he knows he has allies.” Ienzo explains.

“You think he’d come back here?” I ask.

“Lea is notorious for returning to what he knows.” And I think of how he and I hid in Twilight Town, in the old mansion, and how Saix said the very same thing about him. I look between Ienzo and the book of spells and sigh.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt to wait.”

Chapter Text

VI.

Two days after receiving the book of spells, I cast thunder for the first time.

I’m muttering, finger tracing over words that I am struggling so hard to understand. My brain feels like it is about to burst, my eyes are tired. I won’t pretend I’ve been sleeping properly, I won’t pretend I have even the slightest handle on self care. But I’ve popped in to eat dinner with Cid, Yuffie, Leon and Aerith every single night, and have spent the rest of my time in the castle. When the only company I keep are scientists so used to neglecting their their physical health in favor of producing results, no one offers my ragged state a second look .

My head is throbbing and I’m about ready to chuck the spell book halfway across the room and disappear off to get sea salt ice cream, when I whisper an incantation.

“Thunder.” The word leaves my lips, a muffled, annoyed murmur. I’ve said it a thousand times, I’ve recited the necessary words for every single spell in this book a thousand times. I expect nothing. So when, half awake, I mumble ‘thunder’ and the entire room lights up in a blaze of lightning that knocks Ienzo out of his chair and sends Aeleus scuttling wildly into the room, I nearly have a heart attack. A real, honest to goodness heart attack. I slam my hand against my chest, feeling it beating wildly. “Fuck!” I gasp. I stand up, my body is sore with exhaustion and it hurts just to be on my feet, but I feel like I owe it to both Aeleus and Ienzo to help Ienzo to his feet.

“I see you’re learning your spells.” Ienzo mutters, face slightly reddened with embarrassment at his own reaction. Which, like there is absolutely zero reason for. I would’ve reacted at least that dramatically and probably would’ve cursed a lot more.

“Yeah, I’m really sorry, I didn’t think that was going to happen.” I confess, offering Ienzo a hand. Aeleus is still giving me a dirty look, which is totally fair.

“What was different this time? If you want to summon thunder again, and in a more controlled manner, you’ll certainly want to keep that in mind.” Ienzo says, and truly, I do like him a lot. He’s smart, and although not a mage, he’s an excellent teacher.

“I don’t know.” I confess. “I was more tired this time.”

“Was your concentration stronger?” He presses.

“I feel like it was weaker, it was a pretty half assed attempt.” I sigh.

“Then perhaps you’re trying to hard. If magic truly is your natural born talent, perhaps you need to rely more on your instinct than you do on intellect.” Ienzo offers. I laugh, dryly.

“Yeah, relying on my instinct has a tendency to get me killed.” I respond.

He doesn’t argue with me.

--

Four days after receiving the book of spells, I have completely mastered thunder, and can call upon Thundaga without even breaking a sweat. Aeleus and Dilan, who is now awake, have escorted me into a room deep within the lab. There are no Heartless anywhere around, but it is a much more secure space to practice magic. Other spells still evade me, but thunder I can cast in my sleep. Despite being told that I’m dangerous as I train, Ienzo still sneaks into the basement to visit me, to throw empty beakers or other disposable items at me to cast thunder on. I’m surprised by how right he is and how much instinct is involved in magic. While alchemy is a very exact science, magic is an art, it takes finesse, there are no definitives. I cannot decide if that drives me crazy or not.

“Be careful not to over exert yourself.” Ienzo warns me, after my third casting of Thundaza. I’m crouched down, my heart hammers, and to my surprise, I’m quite sweaty. I shouldn’t be surprised, certainly. I know very well how taxing alchemy is, magic although not as exhausting can’t be too much different. I cannot rely too heavily on it without giving myself time to recharge.

“That one took out more from me than I thought it would.” I confess, rummaging through my pouch for a Potion.

“Well of course, Thundaza is quite the spell. You don’t really need to push yourself beyond that.” He insists. For a moment, I think he’s telling me to just be happy that I’ve mastered thunder. And then, I realize, he isn’t.

“Are you trying to say there’s stronger magic than the fourth tier?” I ask.

“Infinitely.” He nods. “Mega spells, Tera spells, and beyond that, ancient magic, from the era of Fairy Tales, rumors of Zetta spells. Spells one quadrillion times more powerful than Mega spells.” For a second, I think he must be joking, quadrillion doesn’t even sound like a real number. But his expression doesn’t shift at all. My eyes widen. His face finally contorts. “Rueki, being power hungry isn’t what I would call safe, especially for a new mage.”

“Okay, but if a Zetta spell is that much more powerful, can you imagine what it would do to help Sora? If Xemnas or Xehanort or whatever the fuck he wants to go by is back, he’s going to be a threat. So let’s take him down in one swoop, before he has time to plot.” I insist, because I know what Xemnas is capable of, when left to his own devices. I know what sorts of schemes he can concoct and I do not plan to give him any time for that. Not with the prospect of settling into a life with Lea being so tangible.

“The cost could easily be your life, if the stories are to be believed. Rueki, no one has used such powerful magic in centuries, if the rumors are even true. You’re an alchemist, you know better than most that you cannot simply reap the benefits without paying the cost.” Ienzo reminds me. I purse my lips. I don’t like his answer, I don’t like the fact that he’s willing to give up, even if it is the safer choice. I’m not interested in playing anything safe at this point. My past was a secret to me for so long, I was a pawn to some bastard without a heart, in the prime of my life. No one is taking anything from me. “How strong do you need to be?” I know Ienzo means to ask it rhetorically, but I have an answer.

“Strong enough that I don’t hurt anymore.

--

But a week and a half into learning magic, I hurt worse than ever. I don’t know if it is overexertion from practicing magic or if it has something to do with the fact that I can only manage a few hours of sleep a night before waking up, shrieking, convinced that I am being impaled by Saix’s Claymore. But I do know what is weighing heaviest of all on me .

I have wasted a week and a half of my life, stationary, in Radiant Garden, without Lea. There is no sign of him returning soon. I feel twice as empty as I did without a heart. Yuffie notices, I am certain. As I sift through soup that I have barely touched, she watches me, looking antsy, wanting to intervene but unsure how.

“We should get ice cream, Rueki! You, me and Ienzo!” She suggests.

“Do it, kid. You need a break, ya look like you’ve aged a decade in the past week.” Cid insists. I snort.

“I'm good.” I’m well aware that I look like shit. “I’m gonna go for a walk.” I shove myself away from the table. Aerith looks at me with worried, green eyes.

“You’ve barely touched your food.” She says.

“I’m just not hungry.” I shake my head.

“Well, I’ll come on the walk with you! You look like you could use some company.” Yuffie offers, but I shake my head.

“I’ve got a lot on my mind, I just want to clear my head.” I reply.

“Well, wouldn’t talking about things help?” Yuffie asks. I don’t mean to snort derisively, but I do. For a moment, I freeze, caught in utter shame at my own behavior, and then, I flee, taking off into the brisk air of Radiant Garden. The sun is on the brink of setting, my own footfalls do nothing to ease my weary mind.

I see the fountain in the middle of the square and remember lying beside Axel, in his bed, a crooked half smirk on his face when he confessed that my fixation with Ventus made him want to push me into said fountain. My mouth presses together, a hard line.

“I just want you to come home.” I whisper, pinching my eyes shut. With my eyes closed, there is a deep, introspective moment, where I swear I can feel my own essence. I’m sleep deprived, I’ve been playing with magic too much, I’m an utter wreck of a human being. I’m certain, that my soul has been ripped apart, jagged, a huge chunk is missing. My eyes fly open, and nothing is amiss. I’m just some girl, standing in the middle of the empty town square. I’m just some idiot, convinced her loneliness means something much deeper than it actually does.

Sometimes pain is just pain, I remind myself. Not everything needs to be empathy links and heart connections and magic.

But I don’t sleep at all that night, I sob, pathetically, because the emptiness I feel has taken a physical toll.

--

I cast a sleep spell on myself and dive deep into the world of dreams. Not my own, someone else’s anyone else’s. I’m not even upset when I meet Xigbar in the pitch black room. This is a break from my own mind, an escape from myself and that in and of itself is a blessing.

“Well aren’t you just a wayward little mess?” There’s amusement in his voice but I don’t even have it in me to argue with him. I feel like hell.

“That’s an understatement.” I mutter, sitting on the ground, folding in on myself. “Please, tell me, have you seen Lea?” I’m not proud, at this point, I will beg, and as my eyes search his visible one , I think he realizes this. He sinks to the ground, crouching down to my level.

“Come on, you’re not that boring. Since when are you a damsel who needs her little boyfriend to keep her sane?” He asks.

“I don’t have a witty comment for you. I can’t fucking sleep, I’m miserable all the time, I can’t figure out a way to make any of this go away. Roxas isn’t here to hold my fucking hand, Lea’s not here to keep my nightmares away. I just...If you know where he is, just please tell me. At this point, I’ll do anything.” It’s such a terrible offer to make, but I’m beyond the point of caring. I cannot last another week like this, sleeping in fits and starts, missing him desperately, body feeling cold and tired and sore, as though I have the flu. He looks me over with his head cocked to the side.

“Careful who you offer that kind of thing to, kid. You wouldn’t want a favor in the wrong hands.” Xigbar warns. My eyes widen.

“Are you looking out for me?” I ask. I’ve got to be hallucinating. That, or this isn’t actually Xigbar.

“More like looking out for myself. But that’s not really here nor there.” He replies, with a dramatic wave of his hand. “Point is, I have no idea where your little boyfriend is. What’s with you? Come on, you’ve usually got a little more bite in you! At least make this fun for me, don’t turn into a whimpering mess the second he leaves your side.”

“Fuck you.” I mutter. “I can’t sleep without him, it’s just...everything...the darkness is too much.”

“Really? That’s all it takes to reduce you to--” And then, mid taunt, Xigbar freezes. I watch his expression morph, from playful, to curious, to concerned, to something desperate yet unreadable. “Listen, kiddo, you’ve got a lot of marks on you, so I’m sure you lost track somewhere along the way, but did Axel ever leave some sort of scar on you? Maybe a burn or a brand? Probably a fingerprint, maybe the side of his hand?”

My entire body tenses. I feel as though breath has been vacuum sealed straight from my lungs. Both Axel and I had come to terms with the fact that we were never going to figure out what caused that reaction, how could Xigbar possibly predict…?

Absently, I fumble for the spot on my hip where Axel’s thumb print is seared. Xigbar’s visible eye goes huge.

“Oh, hell. Now that’s brutal….I didn’t even think it was possible, all things considered...but why not? Nothing’s ever fair, is it?” He shakes his head, looking flustered. Too bad he makes absolutely zero sense.

“What is the mark?” I snap, voice hostile and demanding. I mean to be pushy, but my tone just makes him laugh.

“You’re in for a hell of a time, little Rueki. I mean, jeez, maybe I shouldn’t have told you to make your heart your guiding key. Maybe you’re the exception, maybe you just need to be a good little girl and follow the path destiny has laid out for you.” He shakes his head, suddenly turning away from me. His entire demeanor changes, abruptly anxious, like there are too many thoughts flying through his mind for him to even begin to keep up with.

“I’d say fuck that, I’m in charge of my own destiny.” I say, flatly. He snorts.

“Ever the cynic. Doesn’t matter though. Nothing I can’t work through.” He shrugs.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I groan, but he decides this is the perfect opportunity to change topics.

“You’re in for some serious pain, sweetheart. You’re right about the dark being too much. You’re gonna need a crazy powerful source of light to combat it until you find him.” He informs me, though he still keeps his back to me.

“You know, I think you keep forgetting that I don’t trust you.” I remind him, my tone cautious. It would be easy though, to take him at his word. In my desperation I want to trust him. I want something I can lean on entirely and my would be family in Radiant Garden is not equipped for such a task. He shifts his weight and tilts his head back toward me.

“You really love looking a gift horse in the mouth, don’t you?” He asks.

“Well go figure, every gift anyone from Organization XIII has ever offered me has exploded right in my face. You can’t blame a girl for learning from her mistakes.” I reply. He snickers, shaking his head, as though I am utterly exasperating and am just making this difficult for him. He should know better though, I could certainly make this far more difficult for him.

“Go to The Destiny Islands. Find Kairi, Sora’s little girlfriend. She’s one of the seven Princesses of Heart, the seven purest sources of light. If you keep her around, I’m sure she’ll shine a light bright enough to cut through all of that darkness.” Xigbar finally offers.

“And why the fuck would I listen to you?” I ask, with eyebrows raised.

“Okay, whatever, make this hard on yourself, if you want. Your darkness won’t technically kill you, so if you wanna live miserably, that’s up to you, little Rueki.” He waves his hand and casts me back into my own dreams. When I wake up, sobbing, I wonder if maybe I should trust him long enough to take the leap.

--

The second spell I learn, is Zero Gravity. It is yet another spell that I struggle with for so very long, trying to use the perfect amount of concentration, trying to cast it with so much focus, with no success. And when I am met with success, it is abrupt, on a complete whim. One moment, Im curled on the floor of the lab basement, pouring over the spellbook, the next, I’m floating completely suspended mid air, as though I am being held up by wires. My hair floats, my ponytail tickles my face, my limbs feel as though I am floating through water.

Maybe Ienzo was right, maybe my instincts aren’t so utterly broken, maybe I’d be smarter to trust them, maybe I’m--

Maybe I’m high on anti gravity.

The feeling is quite unlike the high I got off of dark magic. Instead of feeling in control, powerful and unstoppable, I feel powerless, but blissful. Up here, in the air, I am untouchable. My muscles uncurl, a kink I didn’t realize was in my neck, releases. Immediately, I try to calculate how I could possibly maintain this spell in my sleep, because if there were any way for me to dream peacefully, it would be like this. And yet...thinking is just so hard.

Everything about Xigbar makes sense, his leisurely behavior, the fact that he randomly spends time on the ceiling, his complete lack of disorientation at the shifting in space. I realize he is probably right about sex being better without gravity, and I know, in my heart of hearts, that my first thought should be how aggressively I am going to enjoy this new ability with Lea, when I find him, but it’s not. The first thing that comes to mind, is that this is the secret to how I’m going to survive without him, without anyone. I’ll stay high like this, all the time, I’ll find a way to never come down, I will numb every bit of pain.

If he’s not going to come back home then--

I hit the ground abruptly, with a crash that rattles my whole body. After all, I have not mastered any high tiers of this spell, surely I could not expect the effects of it to last long. My back aches with impact.I groan as I struggle to sit up.

I know I should be upset at myself for being resigned so easily, to being without Lea. But something new is stirring within my own personal darkness.

I’m not some sad little girl, content to cry her nights away, Xigbar was right about that, at least. I’m not that boring.

What I am, is pissed.

--

I lay in my bed, in the dark, and count the minutes I am awake.

One, two, three.

I’m here, alone. My bed is terribly empty nothing warms it, nothing warms me.

Four, five, six.

What I’m feeling isn’t right, I tell myself. Lea has not abandoned me to search for Isa, he’s out looking for me, too. Axel lied to keep me safe, over and over again, he chose my safety over everything else, knowing full well that I would be pissed at him, but he cast aside his own need for self preservation, to care for me. Because he loved me, because he still loves me. He would sacrifice anything and everything for me. He is not only my lover, but my best friend, my greatest ally. My partner. I trust him beyond anything.

Seven, eight, nine.

But it doesn’t matter, because try as I may, I cannot quell the rage that bubbles inside of me. All he had to do was stay put, I told him I would find him. He’s not out looking for me, he’s looking for the man who tortured me, who beat my body to a pulp, who would’ve been responsible for killing me, had I not begged Roxas for death. Even if he is out searching for me, in tandem, finding happiness both in his friendship with Saix and in his life with me, is mutually exclusive. Isa, Saix, it doesn’t matter what name that bastard wants to go by, his hate for me, and the lengths it drove him to are unforgivable. Lea cannot have a life with both of us. But with every single lie he told me, with all that he hid from me, no matter how violently I swore that we could not be together if he withheld the truth from me, ever again, I wonder if a life with me is really all that important to him. Does he truly love me as much as I love him? Or am I trapped in some cruel twist of fate, where the person I love the most and will choose, above everything, will cast me aside the second his childhood friend comes around? I trust him, beyond anything, but am I a fool to?

Ten, eleven, twelve.

And I am so weak, because for how long he lied, and the lengths he went to, to keep such an important truth from me, the second I saw Axel in limbo, I crumbled for him. I cast my anger aside, too weak to stand my guard, too weak to shout what I believe in. Axel has made me weak, I’ve cast aside so much of myself, all just for--

Thirteen.

I tear out of bed, stumbling with all the grace of a newborn fawn. The floorboards of Cid’s house creak, my heart hammers, a drum pounding all the way into my temples. I don’t even try to look for my shoes, I don’t try to look for where my belt or La Luxure have been discarded to. In the dark, my thoughts are wild, and I am so very afraid of what I am becoming. I need to get away from this, as far as my legs can take me. Logic fails me, my instincts have kicked in and have urged me to flea no matter what the cost.

I leave my bedroom and barrel straight into Cid. In the dark, I cannot tell it is him. I reach out to swing just as he turns a light on. I freeze, trembling, panting. My poor, hummingbird heart is about to give out, before I even have the chance to use it.

“The hell, Rueki?” He cries out, I drop my fist, body going limp. No, please no. I wanted so badly to keep this from him, from everyone in Radiant Garden. But my panic has pushed me over the edge, far beyond what I can backtrack from. I struggle for breath as I stare at him with wide, horrified eyes.

“I--I just…” I cannot come up with a good lie. “I must have been sleep walking.”

“Don’t bullshit me, kid, I ain’t stupid!” Cid snaps, grabbing my shoulders into his calloused hands. My heart skips a beat, as my body still urges me to run, not fully soothed. I don’t know whether it is the shrinking of my pupils, the trembling of my body or the fact that I am holding my breath, maybe it is a combination of everything, but Cid seems to understand just how petrified I truly am. “Kid…” His voice grows gentler, his grip on me slackens, his brow creases with worry. Tears start to sting the corners of my eyes. I shake my head.

“I can’t do this, I need to go, I need to get out of here, I’m losing my fucking mind sitting still.” My voice crackles, wet and heavy.

Nothing could prepare me for Cid wrapping his arms tightly around me, letting me sob into his shoulder.

“Okay kid, okay. In the morning, you can head out. You’ve gotta get some sleep, okay?” He pats the back of my head, so unprepared for the onslaught that his would be daughter is unleashing upon him. I am not Cid’s daughter, he didn’t choose to have me, I was thrust upon him, and even if he did choose to have me, he surely could never have expected I would come with this much baggage.

“I can’t.” I shake my head. “I keep trying, I’ve tried for weeks, I just...I keep having nightmares. All the fucking time, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get the hell away from them.”My voice is strained, broken. Cid squeezes me tight.

“Lucky you then, you found your way back to me.” He says. Suddenly, he releases me, tapping me twice on the shoulder. I stand, lifelessly by as he disappears into the kitchen. It is several minutes before I can force myself to follow him, and by time I do, he presents me with a mug of something piping hot, that stinks of cinnamon and dirt. I take the cup from him and drink, without hesitation. The liquid sears my throat, but the heat is comforting. Nearly gagging on the overly earthy aftertaste, I offer Cid the now empty mug and he gazes at me, a quizzical look on his face. “Not even going to wait for me to tell you what it is? Or for it to cool down?”

How do I tell my godfather that I wouldn’t even be a little bit upset if he were to poison me, at this point in my life?

“Eh.” I shrug, voice still breathy. “So, what did I just drink?” I ask, clearing my throat, trying to ignore the fact that my tongue feels crisp and dry, like sandpaper.

“Some sort of knockout tea. You’ve got about ten minutes before I’ve gotta drag your ass to the couch. Keeps you down for at least eight hours, no dreams at all. At least, if Yuffie wasn’t fucking with me.” He shrugs.

“Yuffie?” I raise an eyebrow.

“She lost her parents, the night we lost our world. She saw em’ both go, used to have wicked nightmares about it for years. This was the only thing that kept her sleeping through the night.” He confesses. My eyes widen.

“Fuck.” I sigh.

“I know.” Cid nods.

“You and Yuffie got close.” I say. His mouth suddenly presses into a frown. I realize just why they were so close the second the words leave my mouth. Fuck. “I’m sorry.” Cid thought he lost me, Yuffie lost her parents, it only makes sense that he cared for her, whether to absolve himself of guilt, or out of the kindness of his own heart.

“Yeah, well, you’re here now, kiddo. Can’t blame me if I don't like seeing ya like this.” He replies, gruffly. I sigh, wrapping my arms around him in a quick hug.

“You’re a good dad, Cid.” I say. It makes me uncomfortable, the sudden display of emotion. I know he doesn’t particularly know how to handle this, but it needed to be said. Or, rather, he needed to hear it. And not just for me, but for Yuffie too.

“Don’t make this weird, kid.” He says, so I punch him in the shoulder before I go back to bed.

And he’s right. True to what he told me, true to what Yuffie told him, I sleep like a rock, the first real sleep I’ve gotten since…

Since regaining my heart.

I forgot what it felt like to wake up well rested. My limbs are heavy and warm, I am so utterly comfortable, stomach pressed to the mattress, face smooshed against the pillow. Nothing around me matters. Not the fact that I’ve cocooned myself in the blankets, not the fact that sun is streaking through the windows, not the--

Fuck!

Suddenly, I leap out of bed, my reaction time infinitely better than it has been in a hell of a long time. What do you know, sleep actually is beneficial. Despite my newly refreshed reflexes, I am tangled too tight in the blankets, and I land on the bedroom floor with a thud.

“Shit.” I curse. Cid cracks open the door.

“You decent?” He asks.

“Never.” I respond, and I’m so pleased at how much more vivacious I sound. No longer do I feel like a corpse. I am not on the brink of death, walking the line. I’m me again, perhaps more me than I’ve been since before I regained my heart. And the darkness? Well, it is safely caged up, away from where it can affect my thoughts, my heart.

Still, nothing has changed. In fact, being more awake now, I realize just how much energy a well rested person can have to dispel. I need to get heading out to search for Lea, or I’m going to end up right where I started. Besides, the darkness although caged, still resides in my heart. I intend to extinguish it.

“Was wondering when you’d be crawling your ass out of bed.” Cid snickers.

“How long was I out for?” I can tell already that I’m gonna hate the answer.

“Something like thirty two hours.” Cid replies, all nonchalance.

“Fuck.” I curse again. He snorts.

“Not real surprising, considering the way you were acting. Gotta be at least a week since you slept properly.” A week? That’s cute. “That Ienzo kid popped in to check on you, he’s got a good heart, that one. You sure you don’t wanna just drop Lea and settle down with a good little science geek?”

“Says the man who spends more time fucking around with a computer than anyone I’ve ever met.” I grumble, finally untangled from the mess of blankets. Casting them aside, I stand tall, delighting in how my body feels.

“You still leaving?” Cid asks, and despite my determination, I pause. I didn’t want to leave Transmute City. I didn’t want to leave Twilight Town. But above and beyond, my very being begs me to stay here, to stay home, with Cid, with Yuffie, with Ienzo.

“Yeah, I really should get going.” I nod. Because as much as I want to stay, I want to come back to my makeshift family--and not just Cid, Yuffie and Ienzo, but Del and Amaya too-- as a real, coherent person. Not the mess I was before. I need Lea back, and soon. “Can I get some of that tea to go, though?” I ask. Cid snorts.

“Already packed you a bag.” Cid says, and the sheer effort he put in, warms my heart. The two of us might be utterly emotionally stunted, but fuck, I am so happy to have my godfather back in my life. “You’d best come back soon. I don’t wanna hear any excuses, kid.”

“I promise, you’ll be the first person I return to after I find Lea, old man.” I nod as I quickly find my belt and strap it on, La Luxure dangling from a tie on my belt. “Don’t tell all my other friends, but I like you best.” I offer him a cheeky smile.

“You sure are a pain in the ass, Rueki.” He says, voice gentle.

“Some things never change.”

I offer him a quick hug, grab my bag and depart.

Chapter Text

VII.

I hate myself for following Xigbar’s advice, but I do. I pull up the map from within my Teeny Ship and take the fastest route to the Destiny Islands. And not just in search of a light to pierce my darkness, but in search of Lea, as well. When I think of the happiest time of my life, I think of the two of us, spending the day on the beach, laying in the sun, talking, laughing, holding each other. I think of the day we spent on the Destiny Islands. If he really is out searching for me, the Destiny Islands might not be a bad place to start.

I land my ship in a hunk of sand and when I disembark, I am greeted by two girls. The first has flippy brown hair, green eyes and a disgusted look on her face.

“You!” Her eyes flash something that certainly isn’t dangerous, but rather quite catty. One hand is on her hip, her other hand is jolted forward, finger sticking straight out as she points at me. I bite back a smile. Wow, how hard her life must be that me cursing a few times was enough to mar her precious little existence.

“Sophie, right?” I grin. I swear, if looks could kill. The other girl tries and fails to stifle a giggle. Her indigo eyes twinkle with undying youth. Her smile shines twice as bright as the island sun. Her dark red hair falls, silkily onto her freckled shoulders. She might be the single most beautiful creature I have ever laid eyes on.

“Kairi, seriously?” The brunette, whose name I truly cannot recall, huffs, eyes narrowing. Kairi. Sora’s memories don’t do her justice. Xigbar’s warning about her light doesn’t feel enough. She isn’t a sparkly little princess, she is a vibrant goddess and I am blessed to be in her presence. “She’s a vulgar jerk. Just here to cause trouble, I’m sure.” Oh. The brunette girl is talking again.

“I mean yeah, that’s kind of my motif.” I offer a cheeky smile. The brunette’s eyes dart around and suddenly, a devious smile spreads across her features.

“What, your boyfriend’s not with you this time? Did he leave you for a girl with some self respect?” She taunts. The slut shaming little bitch. And tragically, she confirmed what I feared most. Lea isn’t here. It’s almost enough to turn me right back around but...I have no doubt that Kairi’s light could easily tame my darkness. I don’t know her, all I have to go on are Sora’s memories, but I would gladly staple myself to this girl’s side, if she would only cast some of her warmth onto me.

“I don’t have time for you, brat.” I wave a hand at the girl, because truly, the last thing I want to do is waste a witty response on a fucking child.

Oh, hey, look at me, I’m growing up.

“Um, it’s Selphie!” The girl finally huffs. Hmm, probably should’ve been able to figure that one out on my own. “And no one wants you around here, right, Kairi?”

But Kairi, though she only appears to be a year or two older than Selphie, carries herself almost regally in comparison. She smiles her best, enigmatic smile and cocks her head to the side.

“Sora and Riku aren’t here.” She informs me, crossing her delicately muscled arms to her chest. She cocks her hip to the side, ever so slightly, defensively, as though she is the great protector of this island. I am reminded, momentarily, of the chief’s daughter from Motunui. Did I ever catch her name?

“What makes you think I’m here for Sora and Riku?” I ask, setting a hand on my hip. Because something about her tells me that she has no respect for delicate flowers who back down. Then again, she did grow up holding her own against two boys.

“You’re in a Gummi Ship. The only visitors we’ve ever had, who travel that way are always here for Sora and Riku.” She says. “They’re busy though, taking their Mark of Mastery Exam.”

“Well, lucky for you, I’m not here for them. I’m looking for someone.” My boyfriend, you know, the guy who kidnapped you, princess. For a moment, I contemplate not properly introducing myself to this girl, in fear that she will associate my name with Axel’s, and immediately distrust me. Even though that reaction would be totally fair, the whole kidnapping thing was my idea. “I’m Rueki. I’m friends with Sora.”

“Rueki…” She mulls over my name for a minute, pretty eyes narrowing in concentration. I hold my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Oh, right, you were friends with Roxas, too.” She nods.

The incantation of my best friend’s name surprises me. “I didn’t know you knew Roxas.”

“Sort of. Yeah. It’s weird” She offers.

“That’s a good summary of my life since I met Sora.” I nod, and at this, she finally cracks a big, toothy smile. I take a great sense of pride in seeing this reaction. Whether it is Kairi’s light, Sora being drawn to her through me, or my own individual feelings, I do not know, but I don’t necessarily mind. Selphie seems to decide this is the proper time to huff and stomp away, muttering something about Blitzball.

“You lost your heart, you were a Nobody.” Kairi reminds me, I scrunch up my face and look away.

“I mean, it’s back now.” I shrug, halfheartedly. Kairi doesn’t even miss a beat.

“I know. I would’ve been able to tell if you didn’t have one.” She says. I raise my eyebrows. “It’s a weird thing. My heart is made purely of light.”

I wish there was a more subtle way to tell this girl that I’ve had some nasty run ins with weird thin a and that her being made purely of light is hardly shocking even without my inside knowledge. Instead, I settle on

“Your Nobody did a thing to my heart and Sora’s and now I can see into his mind. Believe me, I get weird.”

“You’ve met Naminé?” Her eyes light up.

“We were friends.” I nod, because I do think, at the end of the day, that is the best word I can use to describe Naminé. I think the number of slights we’ve had against one another have balanced themselves out in the eyes of the universe. I didn’t properly save her from Organization XIII, and she urged me to kill my best friend when she--

Wait, what?

Fog creeps into my brain, I cannot grasp whatever it is I seem to be forgetting.

Kairi chews on her lower lip, brow furrowed, in a gesture that might be the most precious thing I have ever seen.

This is it, I’m gonna steal Sora’s girl. Bye, Lea. Guess my type is cute redheads.

“Tell me about her, I’ll buy you some ice cream.” She offers, and that is not an offer I turn down, on principle.

--

We sit in the sand, me regretting wearing tights, Kairi fanning herself with the hand that isn’t holding a stick of sea salt ice cream. I decide firmly, that while I don’t mind sitting on the beach with a cute redhead, I absolutely cannot handle the tropics long term. Kairi looks perfect, a flower blossoming, sweat seems to glisten against her perfect skin. I, however, look like a melted popsicle as I recant my story to her, leaving out very explicit details. Major details. Taunting Sora in Castle Oblivion, my relationship with Axel. The fact that it was my idea to kidnap her.

No big deal.

She bites straight into her ice cream, without fear, and I cringe as I watch her. She doesn’t even seem to notice me watching. Or if she does, she makes no show of it. Instead, she draws a knee to her chest and slips off her shoes, dipping her toes into the warm water as I speak.

I’m never wearing tights again, fuck.

“And then you asked Sora to kill you.” She finishes for me, eyes still not meeting mine. I flinch, because her words bare no lost love. She’s mad at me, and I can’t-- “He locked himself in his room for two days after he got back home, I’ve never seen him so upset.”

My stomach twists, a mangled knot, as I visualize Sora, someone I’ve always considered so vibrant, so full of good, coming undone. Because of me. Because I was selfish and couldn’t let Saix win.

“I wasn’t a good person. I’ve done a lot of terrible things.” I confess, watching Kairi, intently, as though this is some grand test, and I do not want to fail by not taking responsibility. Just as I told Leon, my choices were my own, nothing can take away from that. I need to own every second of my life, no matter how difficult. This is my weight to shoulder, no one else’s. I cannot blame anyone.

Not even Lea.

“I was so jealous. I really thought... “ Kari is struggling. Her brow is knit together, she licks her chapped lips as she struggles for words. Oh!

“Um, no. Definitely not. I’m way too old for him. And I’ve got someone.” Seriously, what is it with people thinking I’m screwing the Keybearer? Or his Nobody. Maybe Saix is right, maybe there is something about me that just makes people think I’m a whore.

Fuck. Scratch that. I want to dip my brain in battery acid to purge those thoughts. Saix, right. Ha. Disgusting.

“Yeah, I know. I yelled at him.” Kairi’s eyes finally flick to mine. She smiles, wickedly, toothily so very proud of herself. “Plus, you’re a lot prettier than he described. If Sora liked you, he probably would’ve gotten all tongue tied.”

“You mean, like he does when he talks about you?” I raise an eyebrow. Kairi turns approximately the same color as her hair.

“Um, no, it’s not like that. We’re just really close friends.” She confesses, suddenly bashful as she sets her clean ice cream stick down

“Hope you let him down easy then, sweetheart. Because you are literally a goddess.” I tell her. Somehow, she turns even redder and laughs, nervously. Fuck, she’s cute. Well, Sora’s outta luck. I’m about to straight up steal his girl. Lea who?

“Omigod, no. It’s just…” She bites her lip, seeming to try to decide what sort of level she wants to let me in on. In her eyes, the light begins to fade, ever so slightly. I see a hesitation in her gaze, she falters, and this is when I realize--this poor girl has been left alone so long, by the two she considers her very best friends. She needs someone, anyone to connect with on a level that is probably deeper than people like Selphie can comprehend. I offer her what I hope is my most reassuring smile, and that’s all it takes to break down her very thin walls. “We just haven’t talked about our relationship like that. I mean, I want to. I’ve felt like this for so long but like, of course I do. He's always been so nice to me, he always wanted to protect me, and it’s not like Riku didn’t, but I think it took Riku a lot longer to figure out who he was at heart, but not Sora. Sora was always so genuine and so wonderful and just...ugh.” She hides her face in her hands, completely overcome by the intensity of her crush, and hell, this is cute. She is so into him, it hurts. “But we were so young, before everything happened with the Keyblade, and now I'm ready to talk to him, I'm sick of waiting. But he’s never here. He’s always got the world to save and it’s just like...fuck!”

My eyes go wide, and then, I remember, she’s a sixteen year old girl. And I didn’t go three seconds without cursing at that age, not that I’m much better now. Her face is red when she comes up for air. She starts toying with her hair, nervously.

“I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“Fuck! Are you kidding, that was the first word I said when I came back to life.” I laugh. She laughs too, and I find that the sound lights me up from the inside, a flashlight in the dark. Somehow, it is enough.

“Oh, good. Riku used to be the worst, he used to curse all the time, until he came back, all grown up and mature. And Sora, I mean, he used to just try to copy Riku, but he always just whispered when he cursed. So when they came back to the Island, they both acted like I was the most vulgar person they ever met! Like fuck you guys!” She grins, flashing perfect white teeth at me.

“Exactly, fuck them. Fuck boys. They’re the worst.” Because the way she talks about them, even though I can tell she’s trying to be funny, sounds so wistful. How dare those boys put anything above this angel? I look at her, and I vow not to. Wherever I go, from this point forward, if she wants to come with me, she can. I will not be yet another person that leaves Kairi behind.

“Like your boyfriend?” She raises an eyebrow. I bite back a smile.

“He is the actual worst. I hate him. Most annoying person in the history of ever.” I roll my eyes.

“Hope he’s cute.” She grins back at me, and I’m thankful she gets my terrible sense of humor. For being so fucking pretty, I really thought Kairi was going to have no personality whatsoever. I am so, so pleasantly surprised.

“Ugh, yeah. He’s super hot.” I roll my eyes. Kairi starts to toy with her hair again, suddenly.

“Well then, you’ll probably want to go off and find him, won’t you? Since Selphie said he wasn’t here...that’s the person you’re looking for, right?”

Right, and if he were here, you’d hate me.

I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know I will need to tell Kairi just who I am in love with at some point, before she finds out on her own. I don’t want to watch this girl’s heart break if my secrets catch up to me.

“Yeah...but…” I stare at Kairi, in the light of the beaming sun. I want to reach out and hug her or squeeze her hand or do something that would be so inappropriate, considering how short a time we’ve know each other.

I don’t know why I say what I say. I do need to leave, I am restless, I need to find Lea. I have sat still for far too long. I know what happens to my mind when I spend too much time stationary.

But then again, maybe I do know why. Because I look at Kairi, at a girl who has spent too much time stationary, thinking, waiting. I see anxiety in her gaze and such a deep fear of being left behind. I wonder how many nights she has spent choking down tears, meanwhile, someplace else, I scream myself awake. I look at Kairi, and I know beyond her light, that we could be good for each other.

I wring my hands.

“He’s supposed to be looking for me too. This seems like a pretty good place to wait.”

Kairi’s eyes light up as though the breath has been torn from her lungs. Her eyes literally glisten, a fairy tale princess in the wake of her happy ending. Her smile could bring tears to my eyes. I am so embarrassed, I have to look away.

“You can stay with me, if you’d like. My house isn’t big but...I’m an orphan. It’s just me.” She confesses.

Fuck, if there were anything that could endear this girl to me any more…

“Yeah, lead the way, I need to get out of this heat.”

 

--

Kairi’s home is a mess of single serve meals and photos without her in them. Here’s a picture of Sora on the beach, there’s a picture of Riku catching a fish. Every square inch of her tiny home is well kept, and yet, almost too much so. It feels untouched, not lived in, hollow. She doesn’t miss a beat as she nearly bounces inside, offering me a smile.

“Are you hungry? I’m not a great cook but I could make us some mac and cheese.” She offers, tucking her auburn hair behind her ear. Her words are sweet enough, but I hear a desperation in her voice.

Please Don't Leave Me.

A mantra is left unspoken between the two of us. A split second flashes that I hate Sora and Riku for leaving her behind. Constantly, without hesitation. Nevermind that I’ve done the same to Del and Amaya and Cid and everyone from my past. This girl is an angel, I want nothing more than to plaster her to my side, protect her or teach her to hold her own, whatever it takes to keep her close.

“You can’t be a worse cook than me.” I grin. She meets me back with a smile twice as bright.

“Bet.”

We spend the evening looking at recipes, trying to piece something edible together. A pinch of salt here, a dash of garlic there. Kairi gets heavy handed with the flour. I decide watering the recipe down is the best bet. I don’t know how we end up up with an inedible mess of paste, but we do. She looks quizzically down at a ball of dough and then chucks it at my head, I cannot stifle my laughter. I pick up a ball and throw it at her. It lands, with a wet flop, square on her forehead. She’s suddenly a mess of giggles, doubled over. She wads up some more dough.

In all of seven minutes, her kitchen is a complete mess and we’re laying on the linoleum floor, in hysterics, smearing mushy dough across each others faces. This is so stupid, so utterly idiotic. And so much fun. There’s no way I could’ve ever realized just how much I needed a friend like this. Del and Amaya--no matter what I try, no matter how they grow, we still have too much history to leave behind. There will never be a day that I do not want to protect them with every square ounce of who I am. Sora, Hayner, Pence, Olette--all of them are wonderful rays of light and yet, I will never be close enough to share secrets with any of them. And Roxas? Who I love with my whole heart? Everything we ever had was tainted by his fate and my obligation.

When Kairi and I have both finally settled down from our hysterics, she looks at me, trying to bite back a big, cheeky grin.

“You look like a paper mache art project.” She tells me.

“Funny, I was thinking you look like a ceiling that got hammered with spitballs.” I reply. She snorts, loudly.

“Go take a shower, the bathroom’s down the hall, there are towels in the closet.” She waves a hand at me.

“I don’t have any other clothes.” I tell her, though I suppose I could fashion a towel into a dress, for the short term.

“You can borrow some of my clothes, we’re definitely gonna need to do laundry.” She nods.

“Dude, you weigh five pounds, my ass isn’t going to fit into anything you own.” I remind her. She rolls her eyes at me.

“Bet.” She replies, again.

We crawl off of the floor, I hop into the shower, and when I get out, a white tank top with purple straps, and a pair of pink, unicorn sweatpants are folded up right outside the bathroom door. I purse my lips as I look them over, but to my surprise, when I yank them on, they do sufficiently fit. The sweatpants are as tight as legging on me, and they probably hang loosely off of Kairi, but they’ll suffice. The tank top, however, fits nicely, and though that should be assuring, all I can think is ‘cool, my boobs are as big as a skinny young teen’s’. Because that’s fair.

I emerge from the bathroom, in cozy clothes, with soaking hair, to see Kairi pulling a premade pizza out of the oven.

“Dude, there’s not mushrooms on that, is there?” Is my very adult reaction. She turns to me as she sets the pizza on top of the stove.

“I’m not a monster.” Is her response. I grin.

“Cool, you go shower, let me be a not shitty house guest and clean up this dough mess.” I offer.

“Okay, but only because I’m trying to ease your guilt for ruining my kitchen. This is for you, not for me.” She teases.

“Oh, of course, your highness.” I dip into a low courtesy. She snickers and nearly skips down the hall as I begin wiping dough off of every visible surface.

By time she has emerged from the bathroom, the pizza is at an edible temperature and I have finished mopping her floors.

In no time at all, we settle in on her couch--a grey, upholstered loveseat--and watch girly movies while we eat. Flicks that I would otherwise avoid, Kairi selects, and despite not wanting to watch anything about a young woman finding love in the big city, Kairi’s infatuation somehow makes me mildly more interested. After two or three movies that I mildly hate, and she very clearly loves, she offers to braid my hair, and I do not tell her no. We talk endlessly about how we both grew up on Radiant Garden, about the things she can sense as a Princess of Heart, about how I am learning magic and she can summon a Keyblade. By the end of the evening, we both have painted toe nails and have made a bed of blankets on her living room floor.

“You know, you can sleep in your own bed, this is your house.” I remind her.

“I know. But this is a sleepover, this is fun.” She shrugs, stretching out on the floor. I bite back a smile. A sleepover with chick flicks, junk food and pedicures. The very thought is so girly, so normal, and I realize there is a good chance that both Kairi and I were deprived of this kind of sweet, estrogen filled bliss. She, who grew up an orphan with Selphie as her only female friend, and me, in an orphanage, feeling as though I had to defend Del and Amaya with all my might.

“Yeah, it is.” I say.

“Thanks for hanging out with me, Rueki.” She smiles, so genuinely, eyes crinkling with her grin. My heart throbs. She thinks she needed this, she thinks I’m her savior, but I think about Xigbar’s words and Kairi’s light, and realize that it very well may be the other way around.

I reach out and squeeze her hand, and despite knowing her for a day, the gesture doesn’t feel forced, it doesn’t feel odd. She doesn’t pull away.

“Any time, kid. You’re stuck with me now.”

I fall asleep, clutching her hand and, for the first time, without help from any special tea, or Axel’s presence, I do not have nightmares.

Chapter Text

VIII.

I am well rested, I fall asleep with ease. I fall asleep, and I drop.

Deep. Deeper than before.

I feel my body drift down the familiar path that Sora’s heart has laid, so generously, out for me. A twist here, a turn there. I haven’t entered his dreams in over a month at this point, I am unprepared, clad in pajamas, barefoot with no weapon. But my subconscious doesn’t care, and whisks me straight into the middle of Traverse Town, where I come face to face with Neku and Shiki.

I have never been simultaneously so excited and horrified to see someone.

“Omigod, Rueki, what are you wearing?” Shiki nearly shrieks, clapping her hand over her mouth as she clutches her stuffed cat with her other arm. I turn to Neku, who is trying so hard not to meet my eyes as he smirks.

“Good timing, Sora just swooped in to save us. But you knew that, didn’t you?” Neku raises an eyebrow. He’s right, here in the depths of Sora’s dreams, his thoughts come as easily to me as breathing. I can sift through them, sorting out all of the memories that I have missed.

“It’s good to see you guys too, you know, you suck at making conversation, right?” I roll my eyes. Shiki giggles and closes the distance between the two of us, hugging me tightly.

“Oh don't be sassy, Rueki. You don’t need to take your bad fashion choices out on us. When Neku and I get back to Shibuya, I’ll take you shopping again, okay?” She asks. I snort and hug her back.

“Technically I’m sleeping.” I say. Shiki takes a step away from me, head cocked to the side.

“I don’t understand...and where’s Axel? Are you guys not together anymore? I was really rooting for you.” Her words are like knives, piercing straight through me. I clutch my abdomen. Kairi’s light is strong, and so am I, but my momentary distraction has made Lea’s absence all the more painful. My very being is serrated.

Neku’s eyes flick to mine.

“Shiki, stop.” Neku says, a lot harsher than he needs to. And Shiki, to her credit, doesn’t put up with it. She places a hand on her hip.

“Rueki’s my friend too, Neku, I'm allowed to talk to her.” She retorts. I offer her the most pathetic smile I can muster up.

“No, it’s...he’s trying to have my back, Shiki. You know how good he is with feelings.” I say. Neku doesn’t even fight me on this one.

“About as good as you.” Shiki nods, which is totally fair.

“Yeah, you got me there…” I say, my eyes flicking up to hers. I meet her curious gaze and, hell, I like Shiki, really I do. But I am so beyond thankful for Neku, who I can suffer silently with, who will not ask me the questions I don’t want to answer, so long as I return the favor. I chew the inside of my cheek and reply with the most tragically cliché statement known to mankind. “It’s complicated.”

“You can’t just leave it at that.” Shiki huffs.

“Come on, she’s obviously having a hard enough time already.” Neku rolls his eyes.

“Since when did you two become best friends?” Shiki wheels around to him, just in time for Sora to cry out, from around the corner.

“He got away!” He whines, and I jump a little. I assumed Sora was nearby, that his heart guided mine safely into his dreams. But, under the haze of my own misery, I nearly forgot he was around. Shiki’s eyes are still intently gazing at me, so I decide now is the perfect time to go find the Keybearer. I round the corner and watch his eyes light up as he sees me. “Rueki! I haven’t seen you in forever, I was so wor--” Suddenly, his eyes shine brighter than I’ve ever seen them. A huge grin breaks out across his face. “That’s Kairi’s shirt.” Dear fucking Twilight, those two are so cute, it hurts.

“Yeah, we're friends now. By the way, stop fucking leaving your girlfriend behind, or I’m gonna snatch her up! She's adorable and cool as hell, she deserves better.” I throw my hands up. Of course, this is the same time Neku and Shiki follow behind me. Sora’s face turns about fifteen different shades of red before his eyes finally meet Shiki’s, mostly to avoid mine.

“Uh, hi, you must be Neku’s game partner.” Sora offers her a tiny little wave, but Shiki doesn’t miss a beat. She strides right over to him and offers her hand, which he shakes, promptly.

“Yeah, I’m Shiki! Nice to meet you. Neku told me all about you.” She says, and then casts me a very pointed look, informing me that Neku did not, however, mention my shitty life story to her, and that she is not done grilling me.

“Cool. But you should’ve seen him. He looked everywhere for you.” And Sora is so sweet, so earnest, it hurts. But that is so not Neku. The orange haired boy hides his face in the cowl of his shirt, shakes his head and waves his hands with a flustered sense of urgency.

“Hey, Sora!” He admonishes, nearly choking on his words. “Stop talking!” I bite back a laugh, because truly, Neku is so much like me, it hurts.

“Hell, kid. Seriously, you are my favorite out of all of the teenagers I’ve adopted.” I say to him. He narrows his eyes, shooting me a deadly look, which Sora cannot seem to comprehend. I suppose that is one of the consequences of wearing your heart on your sleeve.

“But Neku, you said you need her. That’s a good thing.” Sora tries. Shiki, to her credit, at least tries to make light out of Sora’s embarrassing over sharing. She tucks her hair delicately behind her ear and looks to the ground. I don’t like myself for thinking it, but if Shiki does manage to corner me with the whole Axel thing, I am throwing this moment right back at her.

“That’s sweet, Neku.” She replies. The ginger haired boy clears his throat and rubs the back of his head.

“I need you to stop annoying me.” Which is probably the sweetest thing Neku is going to say to her face. Shiki seems to realize this, as a brighter, bolder smile starts tugging at her pink lips.

“Mmm, well, I still think it’s sweet.” She say, lightly, toying absently with her stuffed cat. “It’s nice to be needed.” I can think of a million and one disagreements for that statement, but before I even have the chance to pick an unnecessary fight to distract a teenage girl, light footsteps begin to tread toward us.

“I’m sorry, is this a bad time?” A tenor voice rings out, and within a matter of seconds, the shadows of the world seem to part, making way for an impish looking boy with ashy hair...The Composer. “Because that Dream Eater we’re after has retreated to the other imagining of this world.”

My eyes dart to Shiki, to Neku, to Sora, and to the Composer once more. Neku called the kid a dick, but the way he spoke about--what was his name? Joshua? Yeah…--Joshua, led me to believe that maybe there had been some sort of reconciliation. And Shiki seems to look at the boy with familiarity, so has this Joshua kid finally come clean, with the secrets he held when Axel and I were in Shibuya? Does Neku know the Composer, for weeks on end, killed him and brought him back to life, for his own pleasure? And if so, how the hell are these two even on speaking terms right now?

“Other Imagining? You mean, where Riku is?” Sora asks, and as the words leave his mouth, I dart into his mind--which somehow seems slightly hazier, odd--sifting through the memories I need. Riku is here, with us, on a different plane, or a different realm. A different imagining.

“Yes. He and our other friends will do what they can. But we’ll just run ourselves in circles at this rate. We need to trap that thing in one place, and then we can finish it.” Joshua explains, eyes flicking to me. Then to Sora, then to me again. “And who, pray tell, is our new guest?”

“Oh, you don’t remember me?” I snap. My hostility rolls across the boy, as though he is covered in oil. He shrugs, blithely.

“In my time, I’ve seen a lot of faces. Trust me, yours isn’t the prettiest.” And he offers Neku a wink, which makes the redhead hide his face in his hands, as though he would be perfectly happy to crawl out of his own skin.

“She and her boyfriend appeared in Shibuya when you had us playing all of those penalty games.” Shiki explains, her tone so easy, as though she is merely discussing the weather with this boy. What the fuck? Joshua’s eyes widen, and I am surprised to see a hint of horror in his violet gaze.

“Oh, well this is embarrassing.” He shakes his head. “You certainly didn’t see me at my best. Alas, I’ve made amends with my friends, you can wipe that angry look off your face.” He says, which only serves to make me more defensive.

“Fuck you.” I reply. He laughs, high and haughty.

“Well, you certainly have a temper on you. Anyhow, long story short, I got penalized for playing too many games with my friends, we had to flee Shibuya, now we’re here.” Joshua says, which literally explains nothing. I see Neku roll his eyes and understand immediately, the ashy haired boy probably constantly speaks in riddles. He’d have fit right in with Organization XIII. “Rest assured, I am doing everything in my power to get us back home.” I still don’t like Joshua, I cannot shake the thought of him wiping Neku and Shiki’s memories, killing them, just so he didn’t have to be alone. He still strikes me as a slimy little douche, but he seems genuine, at least, in wanting to get everyone home safely. “Anyhow, if there are no further questions, I suggest we proceed to the third district.” Like he wasn’t the one that started asking questions in the first place.

“Okay.” Sora nods, unshaken. Shiki offers him a small smile, and the two take off in a sprint toward the third district. Neku, however stays put. So does Joshua. I offer Neku, who looks hesitant, a protective look. He puts a hand up and shakes his head, and I don’t know whether to be proud or not, that he doesn’t seem to need me.

“You forgave him?” I ask Neku, not caring that Joshua is only a few feet away from me. I look to the two boys, who seem to hold no aggression toward one another and wonder how this is possible. Axel did me dirty, he lied to me, he cast my needs aside in attempt to protect me, and when I genuinely needed protection the most, he told me I could handle myself. I look at every scar visible on my body, and while Axel was not physically responsible for any of them, I wonder how much different things would be if we had somehow figured out how to communicate better.

I feel the darkness, the resentment creep into my heart again, though now, well rested, with a source of pure light right beside my physical body, I am not consumed by it, I do not fear it. Instead, I know I need to acknowledge it to conquer it. I resent Axel. I’m mad at him, I’m hurt by everything he’s done to me. None of that is going to disappear overnight...But if Neku can forgive Joshua, who literally killed him, then, shouldn’t I be grown enough to offer the man I love, despite all of his wrongdoings, the very same?

“Yeah.” Neku replies, leaving a lot to be desired.

“How?” I ask.

“Doesn’t matter.” Neku mutters, trying to push my display of emotion aside. Were it only the two of us, I’m sure he’d be at least a tiny bit more forthcoming, but with Joshua standing by, he’s embarrassed, I know.

“It does to me.” I insist.

“Why?” Neku asks.

“Because she’s trying to forgive someone who betrayed her trust too.” Joshua offers me a very knowing smile that doesn’t touch his eyes in the slightest. Again, I am reminded of the crippling loneliness that I once saw in his gaze.

“Axel.” Neku breathes. I look away from him, knowing he will understand without spoken words.

“I didn’t have a heart, he hid that from me, and that ended with me looking like this.” I wave a hand across my body. “He thought he was protecting me, but when I needed him most, he left me behind. He gave away his life, like it didn’t matter, like he didn’t think it would destroy me. I just...I want to find him more than anything else in this world, but I need to know how not to hate him.”

Neku pauses, body tight and nervous as he struggles to find answers for someone he shouldn’t have to offer advice to. I’m older than him, I’m supposed to be wiser, and yet, I feel as naive as I was at his age.

“It’s okay if you hate him.” Neku finally says, eyes firmly fixed on the ground, though whether he is trying to avoid my burning gaze or Joshua’s, I don’t know. “It’s okay to be hurt, you’re allowed to feel that. They’re your feelings, you’re entitled to them. But, he’s your partner. You’ve got to trust him, even if you don’t forgive him. And hey, maybe you should tell him that. Whatever. Just...if you want him in your life, more than you want to be angry, that’s a choice you have to make, every day until the anger starts to fade.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.” I confess. The air between us suddenly feels very heavy. My eyes flick to Joshua, who looks so sick to his stomach, and Neku, who looks like he wants to completely disappear. Maybe Neku hasn’t forgiven his friend, but maybe it doesn’t matter.

“Well, just punch him and scream at him, that might help things along. You know you like to do that.” Neku offers, looking up at me through his lashes. I snort.

“That I do.” I agree. I look to him, and my heart feels like it is glowing. I don’t know how to properly come up with words sweet enough to thank this kid without embarrassing the both of us. “I’m going to hug you now.” Is as eloquent a statement as I can come up with.

“Please don’t.” Neku smirks at me. I do anyway, wrapping my arms tightly around the kid. At first, it feels foreign, but I feel Neku relax, however slightly, and count that as a victory. “You’ll visit us in Shibuya when we get back there, right?” He asks. I pull away, offering him a half smile.

“I promised I would last time I saw you, didn’t I?” I ask. He snorts.

“I don’t remember, that was years ago.” He rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, well, I was busy dying, brat.” I snark.

“Don’t you have to go help Sora or something?” He asks. I grin.

“Probably. I wasn’t really prepared for this whole dream dropping thing. I should probably go to the Accessory Shop and grab a few grenades, so I’m not utterly useless.” I say. “But I’ll meet you there.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Which almost sounds affectionate, coming from Neku.

But I don’t make it into the third district. Instead, I buy as many grenades as I can fit into the pockets of Kairi’s pink unicorn pajama pants, and a pair of black guards for my forearms, that will serve as an acceptable defense. When I leave the Accessory Shop, I am met by a very familiar, very scarred face.

“That’s a great look for you, kiddo.” Xigbar is grinning, cockily at me as he leans against a lamp post.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I ask, because up until now, the only contact I’ve had with him, has been at the edges of dreams, in the dark room. He shrugs, looking up at the night sky.

“Just checking to make sure you’re still on the right track. I know how you just love to deviate.” He says, and I hate that I can’t even disagree with him on that.

“Uncooperative is kind of my thing.” I concede. “What do you want?” Xigbar’s eyes roam me, a smirk curling at the edges of his lips like burning paper.

“You’re supposed to be protecting the kid. Seems like he’s doing a hell of a job protecting you though. I mean, what kind of guardian shows up to a fight without a weapon?” He asks.

“I haven’t dropped into Sora’s dreams in a long time, I wasn’t exactly prepared.” I sneer.

“That’s your first mistake.” Xigbar cackles.

“I mean, hey, if you’re really concerned about my ability to defend myself, I can shove one of these grenades into your mouth and we can go from there.” I narrow my eyes, patting my pocket tauntingly. Xigbar snickers.

“There’s the Rueki we all know and love.” His eye sparks, deadly, like a cannon about to blow. “Tell you what, you wanna play with explosives, I need to make sure you’re up to snuff, I think we can find a way to satisfy both of us.”

I ignore the inherent sexual implications in his tone as he summons his weapon. Suddenly, he teleports, out of my line of sight, I see a laser, aimed directly at me, and at a speed that I can barely comprehend, a stream of bullet rain down around me. As fast as my legs can take me, I dart out of the way, raising my arm up above my head. A stray bullet slams into my arm guard and ricochets back at him. I hear him cry out and a victorious smirk lights my features.

The hit I unintentionally landed on him gives me enough of a pause to pull a grenade out of my pocket, find him standing on a balcony above some sort of cafe, and send the grenade sailing at him. As quick as I move, he teleports away, teeth gritted as he finds a new hideaway on the roof of the Accessory Shop. I wish, so deeply that I had La Luxure with me, because I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that close range combat is where his weakness lies. And where my strength resides.

An idea lights in my mind. Can I...in my dreams…?

“Zero Gravity.” I whisper, and suddenly, I’m mid air, sailing toward Xigbar, whose visible eye is as wide as a saucer. He didn’t expect this, and high on the suddenly euphoric feeling of anti gravity, I cannot help but smile like an idiot. He recovers from his surprise a lot faster than my high fades, though. He shoots me, mid air, bullet tearing through my shoulder. A scream rips from my lungs, and as quickly as I found my way into the air, the effects of my gravity spell disappear. My stomach reels as I plummet toward the ground. My heart hammers, and in a move of sheer adrenaline, I throw my suddenly too heavy body toward the roof that Xigbar stands on. I catch the edge of it with my fingernails, swallowing the sickening feeling as they buckle under pressure. With all of my might, I push myself up, onto the roof, working as fast as I can. Not fast enough though, Xigbar teleports onto the Item Shop’s roof. My eyes narrow as I regard him. My shoulder is burning, gushing blood. My hand flies over it, trying to stop the free flow as much as I can possible manage.

“You think a little gravity spell is gonna screw with me? As if, you still don’t know how to handle the high.” He snickers. I purse my lips and roll my shoulder back. He’s right, I don’t know how to work with gravity, not completely. Not the way I know how to work with….

“Thundaza.”

I have cast this spell in the safety of the lab in Radiant Garden, but in the confines of a cell, this spell felt underwhelming. Now, in a wide open space, the air literally crackles around me. The buildings rattle and vibrant blasts of lighting pound from the sky, hitting every surface in their wake with enough force to decimate. Even Xigbar, for all of his speed, cannot outrun the sheer force of Grand Magic.

When the sky clears, I stand tall, still clutching my bleeding shoulder, but he is doubled over on all fours, looking up to me, struggling to catch his breath, with a scrunched up face.

We pant as our eyes meet. A smile creeps across his features.

“Well look at you, not utterly helpless after all.” And with that, I feel his power push me back, shoving me to the surface, far from Sora’s dreams.

I wake with a jump, wheezing. Kairi wakes too. She is curled into my shoulder and her eyes go wide as I nearly clock her on the head with my sharp movements.

My shoulder sears. I look and touch the back of my shoulder, thankful that the bullet seems to have gone all the way through me. But Kairi isn’t thankful, instead, she is horrified.

“Rueki, what the hell happened?” She chokes out, and in the light of the rising sun, creeping through the window of her living room, I see horror has consumed her features.

“It’s a long story, I need a Potion, now.” I clamber up, but she’s quick, right at my heels, brow knit together. I realize, with a twist in my stomach, that this is surely not the first time one of her friends kept her in the dark. And much as my nature encourages me to protect her, I know how unfair it is to her. If I want to be the change this girl needs, if I want to offer her what she deserves and not what she is constantly given, I need to level with her. “Remember what I said about my heart being connected with Sora’s? Well it’s not just that I can read his thoughts, I can enter his mind, and apparently his dreams. And turns out, the injuries I acquire in my dreams follow me when I wake.” Which is a more dangerous predicament than I care to think about and certainly is more troubling now that my injuries consist of more than just a slash on my palm. Xigbar, for how much I loathe him, is right. I cannot go in unprepared, ever again. I look down at my arms and realize the arm guards I bought in my dreams have followed me into my waking life, which is at least nice.

“What happened? Are you okay, is Sora?” She chokes, voice crackling as I disappear into the bathroom, where my items belt still is. I open up the pocket, guzzle a Potion and watch my injury disappear.

“Yeah, no he’s good.” Probably. I sincerely doubt Sora was inhibited by a Dream Eater in Traverse Town, though something strange happens when I go searching for his heart. The empathy link is cloudy, overwhelmingly so. I expected a bit of haze, as he is still asleep and I’m not, but now, as I wake, I can barely feel him. He is a tiny blip on my radar. This doesn’t feel right, in fact, it feels terribly endgame. My breath hitches, but I try to keep my face neutral as I look to Kairi, who still looks beyond horrified.

This place would be great to wait in, and I would be so content to spend my days relaxing with Kairi but…

If something is about to hit the fan, I need to find Lea, immediately.

“Look, Kairi, I know we literally just met, and you have every right not to trust me, so like, do what you’ve got to do. But, I can’t wait around anymore. I’ve got to go find my boyfriend. This sounds completely fucking nuts, but I feel like we're going to need to prepare ourselves for something big, and there’s no one that I trust to have in my court, like I trust him.” Though I have not forgiven his wrongdoings, not by a long shot. But I find Neku is undoubtedly right. Lea is my partner. Whatever I’m about to get into, I need him by my side, no matter what I feel.

Her expression falls, the light behind her eyes shatters, she touches her heart, and I fear it is breaking...does she think…?

“I understand. Be safe.” She whispers, voice barely audible. Oh, this poor girl. She doesn’t get it.

“You don’t want to come with me?” I ask. Suddenly, her light is restored, she’s so delightfully transparent.

“You want me by your side?” She asks.

“Can you fight?” I ask. She bites back a smile.

“I can hold my own.” And that’s all the answer I need.

“Then what are we waiting for?”

Chapter Text

IX.

For weeks, Kairi and I search.

We search across every world that comes in our path. ‘Have you seen this skinny redhead?’ I feel as though I should be posting ‘missing’ posters across every space I can find. And though she knows nothing of the man I am searching for, Kairi is undyingly loyal, summoning her Keyblade and slashing across Heartless any time they darken our journeys.

We’re in the streets of a desert world, me sweltering, Kairi glistening. I do not understand how she constantly manages to remain perfect. It must be hard to be so very gorgeous.

“You’re telling me you woke up without memories too?” I ask. Because as it turns out, Kairi and I grew up in the same world. I wonder if perhaps her strange journey to the Destiny Islands could be the key as to why I keep ending up in Transmute City, but unintentionally, she is unhelpful.

“Yeah, I mean I started remembering some things, but for the most part, it’s just tiny details. What it felt like to stub my toe on the brick pavement, how the roses smelled in the garden by the castle, the taste of my grandma’s cakes. A story she used to tell.” Kairi huffs as she parries a particularly nasty Heartless, a strange bandit type creature, weilding a sword.

“What kind of story?” I ask, my eyes widening slightly. Was her grandma some sort of sorceress, perhaps? One who cast a spell, protecting the parentless girls of Radiant Garden?

“Just about ancient times and the Keyblade War. How it started because everyone loved the light so much, it made them greedy. They all wanted it to themselves.” She says, biting her lips in concentration. I tear through a herd of Shadows, watching them evaporate in a single blow from La Luxure. I may be adept in crowd control, but the way Kairi fights the trickier creatures is mesmerizing to watch. She twirls away from her enemy like a ballerina, she moves delicately, elegantly, and evades blows like an expert. When I --constantly--manage to get hit, she blesses me with a halfway decent curing spell, which is more than I can say for myself. For all of the time that I have my nose tucked into the spell book--which is pretty much any time we are not sleeping or searching--defensive magic consistently evades me. Offensive though, I can handle.

“Sure, makes sense.” I nod, pointing La Luxure in the direction of a Fat Bandit. “Freeze!” A passable blizzard spell bursts from the tips of my Knuckles, and while it does not do huge damage, to the massive creature, it does enough where Kairi can one shot it and finish the job.

“I dunno.” Kairi shrugs, taking a breath as I wheel around, spinning in a circle, tearing through the closing ranks of several more Shadows.

“What’s not to get?” I ask her, because although she cannot say the same, I have spent long enough in the dark. I know what the lasting effects to darkness can do to a heart, and I know what sort of relief her light has already brought me in the few weeks we’ve known each other. When I look at her, I see that her brow is knitted together, her eyes evade mine. A Shadow scrambles for her and she yelps, smashing her Keyblade down onto it like a hammer.

“Dammit, can’t these things give us a break?” Kairi groans.

“We’ve just gotta clear a path back to the ship, if he were here, we’d have found him by now.” I grunt, holding up La Luxure. “Freeze.” A Bandit buckles enough under my spell that I have a chance to slash into it, and send it straight back into the darkness.

“Rueki, you were a Nobody, right? So you could manipulate the darkness?” Kairi asks, swinging her blade around.

“Yeah.” I nod.

“How did that feel?” She asks. I remember instantly and my whole body tingles.

“Amazing.” I breathe, pleasure tickling through my limbs. I flush as Kairi’s eyes dart to me, and instantly clear my throat. “Powerful, unstoppable, intelligent.” And after so long with only the high of anti gravity offering me pleasure, the very thought of darkness is enough to tighten the hot coil that my insides have become. Not only do I hate the side effects Lea’s absence has on my mental state, but on my physical needs as well. It’s a damn shame Xigbar is the only person who has propositioned me, because he is just the worst and I am far too in love with Lea to actively seek out a placeholder. Stupid, sexy redhead. He should’ve just stayed the fuck put in Radiant Garden.

“Light is the opposite.” She confesses, slamming her Keyblade into a Scarlet Tango. I raise an eyebrow. “Like don’t get me wrong, I’ve never really utilized it to do anything crazy, I’m sure you can, but, I also know how...just fucking shitty it can be.” My head turns to her as I slash at yet another Bandit, like seriously, where the fuck are these things coming from?

“What do you mean?”

“When you lost your boyfriend, and you started to remember losing your heart, it hurt, right?” She asks, which seems such an odd question, I thought I was very obviously a complete mess of a human being.

“Of course. More than anything.” I reply. “Ugh, fuck these things.” I grab a grenade from my pocket, make a move for Kairi to get back and toss the explosive directly into the heard. It disintegrates and finally, finally, disappears.

“Light is different. And my heart especially, because it is made of pure light. I don’t have an ounce of darkness...so when something…” She struggles, licking her chapped lips as the dust from my detonation settles. “When something hurts, my heart shuts it out, shines a light so bright, I don’t get to hurt. I know what it’s like. I understand it, the light leaves these phantom pains behind, but before I get the chance to fucking feel something real, it just…” Her hands ball into fists, so tight, her bones are nearly visible beneath her skin.

I haven’t know her long, she owes me nothing, and even if she can’t hate, I know she’ll find a way to make an exception for me when she finds out who the man we’re searching for is. I think she’s a complete fool for wanting to feel pain. I’d be content to feel nothing at all. I think of the days I worried I was too cold, and I know how desperately I crave their return. But my feelings aside, I see this beautiful, bold, amazing girl, deep in her frustration, and I cannot help myself. I wrap my arms around her and pull her tightly into a hug.

 

We’re both soaked with sweat, but she still hugs me back.

She’s taller than me. Only by an inch or two. This isn’t fair.

“Let’s get back to the ship, kiddo.”

--

We searching, and in the throes of our search, a loud jingle interrupts our conversation. Kairi’s eyes light up, I raise an eyebrow. The jingle persists.

“What is that?” I ask.

“I don’t know, it’s your ship.” Kairi says. “Are you low on fuel?”

“Dude, I wouldn’t let my ship get low on fuel.” I purse my lips, trying to brush aside the fact that I feel insulted. It’s totally unfair to Kairi, how much of a pain in the ass I am. But she handles it with perfect grace, sticking her tongue out at me.

The jingle grows louder.

“Rueki, seriously!” Kairi whines, and she takes it upon herself to open up my glove compartment, face scrunched in concentration.

“Ignore it, and it will go away.” I offer. She snorts.

“Is that your way of fixing most things in your life?” She teases.

“No, it’s my way of fixing everything in my life.” I deadpan. She chokes, looking at me as though she is waiting for the punchline. When she realizes there isn’t one, she sighs and thrusts some sort of fancy looking phone at me.

“You ever heard of self care?” She sighs.

“Dude, we did pedicures the other day.” I wave a hand at her.

“You are an absolute dumpster fire.” She says.

“Says more about you that you like hot messes, than it does about me.” I turn the phone upside down in my hand. “I can’t figure this thing out.”

“Oh, give it back.” Kairi huffs and quickly presses a black button on the bottom middle of the screen. In my peripheral vision, I see Ienzo’s face pop up on the screen. He raises his eyebrows.

“Oh, are you a friend of Rueki’s?” He asks.

“I’m her girlfriend.” Kairi says, perfectly straight faced, then turns to me. “Hey, this isn’t your boyfriend, is it?”

“Fuck, you think if I could just call him up, we’d be searching all over the realm of light?” I scoff. Kairi shrugs. “Hey Ienzo.” I call, loud enough that I hope he’ll hear.

“Rueki, you’ve been doing an abysmal job at answering your phone.” Ienzo chastises, and I swear, these fucking teenagers, trying to scold me, are going to be the death of me. Or at the very least, the cause of a very unpleasant meltdown.

“Okay, so first of all, fuck you, I’ve been busy.” I say, to which I hear Aeleus mutter something about my foul language in the background. Ienzo chokes on a laugh. “And second of all, this isn’t my phone. I have no idea how it got in the ship, but--”

“Oh, Rueki, all state of the art Gummi Ships are equipped with Gummi Phones nowadays.” Ienzo says, as though the mere thought of a standalone ship is archaic. I roll my eyes, exhaling slowly.

“Anyhow, Ienzo, this is Kairi, Sora’s girlfriend.” I say.

“He’s not my--” Kairi begins, but I cut her off, because he so is her boyfriend. Her shitty boyfriend who leaves her behind on an Island, but her boyfriend nonetheless.

“Kairi, this is Ienzo, former member of Organization XIII, now devoting his life to the pursuit of knowledge and helping out the good guys.” I say. Ienzo’s eye goes wide. Kairi chews her lip.

“Organization XIII…” Kairi mulls over the thought, mouth a firm line. My heart shatters, watching her expression harden, as though the mere act of being a part of such a group is unforgivable. She’s going to hate me when she finds out about Lea. She’s going to hate me and there’s going to be no salvaging this friendship and that hurts on a level that I am unprepared for.

“Ex Organization XIII. I was merely a child when I lost my heart, all I wanted was to research a way to get it back. Not all of us were cruel without purpose.” Ienzo insists. Kairi shrugs, but her expression softens slightly. Whether it is because her heart is urging her to forgive against her will, or because she genuinely can let this slide because Ienzo never personally wronged her, I do not know.

“What are you calling for, Ienzo? Is he back?” He. I’m sure Ienzo doesn’t require further explanation of who I mean, but I do pray that he doesn’t use my boyfriend’s Nobody name. Kairi will find out eventually, I know she will and I know, if I want there to be any chance of earning her wilful forgiveness, I need to be the one to tell her. And yet, I just cannot bring myself to. Not yet.

“I’m afraid Lea is still gone. As is Isa. However, um, you have someone else who requests your return.” Ienzo replies, sheepishly.

“Lea, that’s your boyfriend?” Kairi asks, eyes curious and naive. Because she doesn’t know the awful truth.

“Yeah.” I nod as Ienzo passes the phone over to--

“Didn’t I tell you not to stay gone long, kid?” Cid snaps, dangerously close to the phone. Kairi nearly jumps and juts the phone over to me.

“Listen, old man, I’ve been busy.” I snap, one hand on the wheel, the other holding this fancy new phone.

“Gonna give me a fucking heart attack, that’s what you’re doing.” He shakes his head, as though I am the absolut bane of his existence. “Did I hear you right? You got company? Who’s your co-pilot?”

“Say hi to my godfather, Kairi.” I flash the phone to her. She smiles.

“Cid and I met in Traverse Town a few years ago.” She nods.

“Ahh, right, when Sora needed that special Gummi Block. You tell that kid not to be a stranger too.” Cid nods.

“Sure, sure. Now why are you bothering Ienzo to harrass me?” I ask, turning the phone back in my direction. I’m glad I do, I sincerely doubt Cid is yearning for Kairi to watch a broken, vulnerable expression cross his features for the briefest of moments. Oh, hell.

“Yuffie keeps whining that she wants to see you, that’s all.” Cid mutters, rubbing the back of his neck, uncomfortably.

“Cid…” I don’t know how to let him down easy. I’ve searched every world I’ve ever been to and then some. I have found no trace of Lea, but if he still hasn’t returned home, then I have no business doing so either.

But Kairi, for how cute she is, is always ballsier than I expect her to be.

“Home. You’re from Radiant Garden too, right?” She asks, looking at me with her tempting eyes. She already knows the answer to this...

“Yes…” I begin, cautiously.

“Cid, we’re on our way to see you.” Kairi beams, wearing a smile that could stun. I choke a little. A lot.

“I like your new friend, already, Rueki.” Cid chuckles. I hate them both.

“Kai…” I start, looking to the other girl, who just beams at Cid on the phone.

“See you soon!” She waves and then promptly hangs up.

“Dude, I spent almost a month in Radiant Garden, I’m not gonna make any progress if I go back there.” I insist.

“And you’re not making progress now. So be good to your godfather. You know, you give Sora shit for leaving me behind, but you’re doing the same thing to Cid.” And Del and Amaya, but Kairi doesn’t need to know that. She looks huffy as all hell.

“I’m gonna come home when I find Lea, I already promised him I would. And it’s not like I’m neglecting him, I told you, I wasted so much time doing nothing there, other than working on my magic. I made no progress and I--”

“Do you hate him or something?” She asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Why would you even--”

“Because you are doing everything in your power to not stop and see your loved ones. Life isn’t meant to be lived alone, and even if it were, it isn’t worth it. I know you want to find your boyfriend, and I know we’ve only known each other a few weeks, but I know you well enough to know your heart doesn’t work so singularly. You’ve given me so much, and I appreciate it, I’m not trying to be ungrateful. But Rueki, we haven’t found Lea yet. And we’ve searched through so many worlds. Would it really hurt for both of us to return home and just...be happy for a few days?”

I think of the flowmotion with Sora, of playing with anti gravity. Of spilling my feelings to Amaya for the sheer pleasure of not carrying a burden on my own. I think of the time I’ve spent giggling with Kairi over stupid, girly nothings, and how they surely do not feel like stupid nothings.

Quite the contrary, these moments, these beautiful moments are everything. A sanctuary, where fears and lies melt away. I’ve never had anything so pure in my entire life.

I can’t find Lea, I haven’t found Lea. No matter what I’ve tried, I haven’t gotten any closer. My frayed nerves have not healed in the slightest, I feel completely ragged, and I do want to feel good, I want to feel happy. Above all, I want to feel the way I felt during those golden days I spent with Roxas and Axel on the clock tower. I can continue choosing to flog a dead horse, of course I can. I can continue wearing myself to the bone, it comes so very easily to me. But so does pain, so do panic attacks, so does isolation.

If I want anything to change, if I want this new lease on life to be a happier one…

Shouldn’t I make an effort to actually be happier?

“Okay. Okay. Let’s go. But Cid is a shit cook.”

--

And Cid is a shit cook, but lucky for Kairi and I, when we arrive in Radiant Garden, Aerith is cooking and humming a familiar tune.

“You’re here!” Aerith chirps. Leon raises an eyebrow from where he sits, reading a book at the kitchen table. His eyes are still hard as he sees me, but soften as he regards Kairi.

“I didn’t expect to see you again.” He says. “Especially without Sora.”

“Sora’s always off on some sort of adventure. It was time for me to set off on my own.” Kairi shrugs. I don’t know how well she knows these people, but I’m certainly not complaining at the easing of tension that her presence brings.

“Hope you brought an appetite, ladies.” Cid’s voice sounds off from behind us and Kairi and I turn in perfect unison, her arms linked behind her back, my hands on my hips.

“Only because Aerith is cooking.” I reply.

“Hi, Cid.” Kairi smiles. He looks between the two of us, debates a moment, then smiles.

“So Kairi dragged your ass back here?” Cid asks me. I narrow my eyes.

“I’m the fucking pilot.” I remind him.

“Yeah, but your stubborn ass has always needed someone that can bully some sense into you.” He says, with the wave of his hand. “Glad your new friend has some balls.”

“You both suck.” I mutter. “Leon, you’re up.”

“For what?” He grumbles from the table.

“I need a new best friend, Kairi’s a traitor.” I reply with a purposefully dramatic sigh.

“No thanks.” He mumbles. Dick.

“What about me?” Yuffie huffs, walking to the table with her arms full of plates.

“You know what, you’re the only one who hasn’t let me down. You win, Yuf. You’re my new best friend.” I tell her.

“Hooray.” She laughs, though as she sets the table, she pauses to think. “Hey, Aerith, are we best friends or can I hire a new friend?”

“You’re not taking applications.” Is Aerith’s response from the kitchen. Yuffie shrugs.

“Sorry, Rueki. That’s what you get for disappearing as kids.”

“Cool, I’ll try not to die again.” I roll my eyes. “You’re all a bunch of dicks. Why did I let you talk me into coming here, again?” I ask Kairi, who giggles.

“Um, because you don’t want to be a miserable gremlin who avoids her family?” Kairi offers.

“Are you sure? I’m pretty good at being a miserable gremlin.” I remind her.

“Well, you’ll have to change your stripes, kid. You two staying here a while?” Cid asks, and before I can tell him no, Kairi interjects.

“At least a week. That’s how long it’ll take Rueki to figure out a better plan for finding her boyfriend.” Kairi says, and then, seems to remember her manners, though not on account of me. “That won’t be a problem, will it?”

“Nah, the more the merrier. But you girls’ll need to share Rueki’s bed or one of you will have to take the couch.” Cid says, and it makes me equal parts pleased and uncomfortable that he has already dubbed his guest room as my room.

“Well we appreciate it. Thank you.” She replies with a smile so bright, it could put the sun to shame.

“I don’t appreciate you assholes bullying me.” I grumble, though without venom. Because this does feel nice. Idle, unhelpful to my cause, borderline useless. But this feels like a home. A few faces are missing, but does that mean I truly must put aside my own happiness until those I love are assembled completely? Is that fair at all...to me?

“If you’re all done bickering, dinner is ready.” Aerith calls from the kitchen, and that is that. The night is peaceful, we laugh, we all stay up too late talking, and when the time comes for Kairi and I to crawl into bed, I sleep like a baby.

But I sleep with my normal clothes on and my weapon at the ready. Even in this moment of peace, I wait for a fight, one that doesn’t come.

--

“Again!” Kairi insists, lunging at me, Keyblade at the ready. I’m faster than her, and quickly slide out of her way, cartwheeling along the wall of the room in the lab she and I have been using to train in. She’s stunning as she moves, intoxicating to watch, but has a great tendency to not hit nearly hard enough. Her Keyblade smacks me in the middle, I barely grunt and have enough energy to kick her feet out from under her. She hits the ground, whining, but never gives up. Instead, she rolls out of the way.

“Sword up.” I order. She follows suit, preparing to block. “Fira!” I cry, and though she blocks my attack, the strength of my spell is impressive. I’m getting better. Little by little.

Within seconds, Kairi is back up, charging at me, swinging her Keyblade back, with both hands. I bring my forearm up, bracing myself for the attack with the guards on my arms. She grunts, throwing her entire body into this attack, and I know she’s giving this her all, but I see the failure in her footing. I see weakness in her stance, which she was so willing to sacrifice for a more brutal attack. I kick her feet out from under her, once more. She hits the ground, but the smarmy little fucker grabs my ankle and spins, knocking me down beside her.

She’s prepared, I’m not. She scrambles to her feet, draws her Keyblade over her head and slams it down onto me. Quickly, I create an ‘x’ with my arms, which absorbs the brunt of her attack. I grunt.

“That was a good one, kid.” I offer her. She grins, cheekily at me, sets her sword aside and offers me a hand.

“Wanna test out your blizzard spell again? See if it’s gotten better?” She offers, and I do. But we’ve been at this for hours, I’m tired as hell, and though the smile has never left her face, I can tell she shares my struggle.

“Can we get ice cream first?”

--

Kairi sits, hair twirling, auburn silk on the wind as she eats ice cream.

“Is Sora...okay?” The words leave her mouth tentatively, the weight on them seems to be almost too much for her to carry. I’m not thinking about how it is too soon in our friendship for me to reach out and grab her hand. I just do. There’s something so perfect about this girl, even after seeing her fight knowing full well she can hold her own, I feel such a deep protective instinct when it comes to her. She smiles softly at me and squeezes my hand back. I let go of a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.

“Fuck, kid, don’t smile at me like that.” I shake my head. She puts on a really stupid face, I release her hand to shove her, playfully. “What if I have bad news? You look up at me like some big, cute doll and I have to--”

“Oh just tell me!” She laughs. I laugh too, fumbling for an empathy link that I cannot seem to grasp. Abruptly, my laughter stops, my expression hardens. What the fuck? Her laughter starts to falter as she sees my expression shift. I draw a knee to my chest and narrow my eyes, focusing. I’ve had a harder time connecting to Sora awake than asleep since the day I came back to life. It did seem like I dove deeper to get to him the last time I infiltrated his dreams. Perhaps this is a good sign? Perhaps this means Sora is approaching the end of his Mark of Mastery exam. Maybe Xigbar was right, and I do need to butt out and just let him succeed on his own.

Ew.

Xigbar is not right, definitely not. Instead of giving up, I push harder, trying and failing once again to find my link to Sora.

“What’s wrong?” She asks, voice intense.

“Nothing. I’ve just had a hard time sensing Sora when I’m awake, since the start of his exam. He and Riku are traveling through sleeping worlds, which, I’m pretty sure, is why I can interact with him in his dreams. I’m sure I’ll be able to find him perfectly when I go to sleep.” I insist, because I believe it. Anything else is unnecessary worry, panic that I don’t have time for, panic that I need to cast aside. I have Kairi with me, shining her brilliant light over the shadows in my heart. She is my friend, perhaps one of my closest friends, already, she makes me better than I am, better than what my constant panic wants me to be. I am a mess when I am desperate, at the edge of an anxiety attack. I don’t ever want to be that person again, crumbling like ruins.

“Oh.” She draws a breath, mouth twisting.

“He’s fine, Kai. I promise. I’m sure I’ll see him again in my dreams tonight, and I’ll yell at him some more about how he needs to hurry up or I’m gonna steal you from him.” I say. She offers me a weak smile, one that I worry her heart is forcing on her. I wonder, is she truly happy, does she truly trust me, or is her perfect little heart pushing our friendship onto her? I find that I particularly hate this sort of anxiety and brush it away quickly. Right now is my turn to cast away her doubt, not the other way around.

She seems to let my word hang in her mind for a moment. She rolls her lower lip, back and forth between her teeth, anxiously. Finally, she meets my gaze and nods.

“Okay, I trust you.” And for a second, I don’t think twice, I‘m happy my friend trusts my words, I’m glad she can find comfort in them. But reality is so harsh, and so cold as it tears me away from these pleasantries. Kairi trusts me, but she shouldn’t. Truly, she shouldn’t. I don’t deserve it, for everything I have been apart of. For the things I’ve done that she is unaware of. For Axel. I inhale sharply, looking at her once more.

“Listen, Kairi. There’s something you should know about my boyfriend.” Something she deserves to know, something that I, as her friend, should’ve already told her.

“What about him?” She asks, hair spilling across her freckled shoulders as she tilts her head to look at me.

“It’s just…” He used to go by Axel, he kidnapped you one time, but don’t be mad at him, that was my idea, we were just trying to get our best friend back. Sorry! “At one point, he and I were not very good people. We did a lot of really fucked up things, for the sake of staying alive. I told you that Organization XIII used me, but they used him too. They had us both so trapped, and in order to survive, other people and their feelings had to be cast aside. It...none of it was good, Kairi. I wasn’t good, and neither was he. But I’m trying, and I know he is, so very hard, to make up for everything. I don’t know if we can tilt the scales but--” She cuts me off by grabbing my wrist in her free hand, her face so very gentle.

“Your dying act, was trying to take out Organization XIII to help Sora. He adores you Rueki, and so do I. At this point, you’re kind of my best friend. You can’t change the past, none of us can. All any of us can do is try to make the future something a little brighter.” She rubs a thumb across one of the many scars that litter my arms. “I kind of figured you didn’t have an easy go at things, you’re too strong to have just let someone do this to you. Whatever you did, whatever you were, you’re better now. I trust you Rueki, really. I wouldn’t be here with you now if I didn’t. And as for your boyfriend? If he’s good enough for you to love, that’s enough for me. You deserve to be happy, it’s your right as a human being.”

Her words are so kind and I do not deserve a single one of them. A best friend that I will not be assigned to kill, forgiveness for sins that she does not even know of. I don’t deserve this and I don’t deserve her. But perhaps I’m wise enough now not to take this moment for granted. I do not wait for the other shoe to drop, I don’t try to taint her light with any more of my darkness. Instead, I hug her tightly and promise to try keep both of our futures as bright as the sun.

I might not deserve a friend like her, but perhaps, with enough effort, I can become a person who does.

--

I spend the night trying with all of my might to drop into Sora’s dreams. No matter how deep I dive, I am met only by failure. Not even Xigbar appears to taunt me.

I wake and look to where Kairi sleeps peacefully beside me. I’m not going to soil things for her, not yet. Perhaps there is a reason I can’t feel Sora. Perhaps this is a vital part of his exam that I have been shut out from, so that he can succeed on his own.

There’s no reason to alarm her.

At least not yet.

--

I’m in the middle of pouring over my spell book--my fire spells have gotten a lot better, thank goodness--when Kairi suddenly shrieks. My eyes go wide, I throw the book to the floor and stand up, searching for her. I find her instantly, sitting at another table in the massive castle library, playing with my phone.

Instead of horror warping her features, something close to elation graces them.

“Yes?” I raise an eyebrow. She beams up at me.

“Rueki, your phone has a camera!” It is something so simple, so pure, the kind of joy that could be brought only to a teenage girl. But even I can’t help but grin.

Our once studious afternoon turns into hours worth of taking photos of the two of us--the camera can face front or backward, what the hell?

It is easy to forget, laughing and smiling like this, that I haven’t set foot in Sora’s dreams in nearly a month. That I still, for the life of me, cannot feel him.

--

Kairi and I settle into bed after a long day worth of training. My eyes shut, something grabs my heart by its strings and yanks. The pull is brutal, crashing downhill on a rollercoaster. I fall for lifetimes and seconds and when I land, the gut wrenching sensation that something is very wrong creeps into my veins.

Something is of, of course it is. Because I am standing in The World That Never Was. Rain does not pour from the sky, instead it is eerily calm. Lea can’t call to me, I’m sure, otherwise the two of us would’ve found each other by this point. No, Sora is the only one who could’ve led me here, and I dread to think what could have possibly brought him here. Strangely, I feel him the second I think his name. He’s here, somewhere in this world, without a shadow of a doubt. But why here? This doesn’t seem right…

“Wait...isn’t this…” I hear the boy’s voice and take off into a sprint, trying to sift through his mind. But even this deep in his dreams, something is blocking our empathy link. I struggle to fight through the fog, to find the truth. What the hell is happening here?

“Sora!” I cry his name as he comes into view and he whips around, eyes huge.

“Rueki, what are you doing here?” He asks, terror creeping into his voice. And not because of my arrival. I know, the second our eyes meet, neither of us are supposed to be here.

“Sora, something is wrong, can you wake up?” Because Mark of Mastery Exam or not, nothing is worth the danger I’m sure he’ll be in if we keep on this path. I close the distance between the two of us and grip his arm, just to prove to myself that he is really here.

“I am awake though? Aren’t I? I sealed the Seven Keyholes.” He tells me, like this is supposed to mean something to me. And it should, because our hearts are tied, but hell if there isn’t a knot snagging our connection. Panic grips me as my hold on Sora tightens.

“Kid, I can’t feel your heart. Awake or asleep, and when I dove in to find you, I fell longer than I ever have. I don’t know what’s happening, but Xigbar warned me, if you spend too much time in the realm of sleep, you brush the edges of--”

“Hey now, sweetheart. Can’t have you spoiling the epilogue when we haven’t even gotten to the final chapter yet.” My body tenses, every single hair on me stands up straight, as though I am caught in an electric current

“Who’s there? Show yourself!” Sora cries out, but I already know who is there and position myself immediately between Sora and the red light of a laser, as Xigbar puts us in the crosshairs of his arrowgun.

“And spoil all the fun? As if. We jumped through a lot of hoops to get you here, kiddo.” Xigbar cackles, from somewhere unseen. “But it looks as if it’s gonna pay off.”

I don’t know why, it’s utterly idiotic of me to think this way, because he's already shot me once. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he tried to discourage me from over exerting myself in the realm of sleep, but I’m genuinely shocked when some sort of bullet made of pure energy comes sailing toward Sora and I.

“Reflect!” I cry out, but instead of being able to properly conjure a defensive spell, I watch as the bullet comes closer and closer, finally throwing up my arms, creating an ‘X’ in front of me. The guards I wear intercept the brunt of the attack, but I still collide with Sora, my back hitting his chest. The sheer force sends the two of us skidding across the pavement, and finally, I tumble away from him, hitting the ground rather than crashing into him.

Hoisting myself up onto one knee, I watch as Xigbar teleports onto the ground, in front of us, arrowguns at the ready. But not pointed at me. I react like a lioness, desperate to protect her young and leap throwing myself into his line of fire--in front of Sora. I don’t know if this is some sort of additional test, to see if my strength is up to par, but if it is, this test, I will pass. With rapid fire movements, I maneuver my arms in time with each bullet, watching each one ricochet off of me, and to the ground. When the smoke clears to reveal Xigbar’s smirking face, a familiar and dangerous glint lights his eye.

“What the fuck do you want?” I growl, low and menacing at the same time Sora shouts out “You’re a part of this?” And it dawns on me, Xigbar’s taunts must have been focused on me, if Sora had no idea about his involvement. My stomach curdles. I should’ve said something, anything to make up for all of the danger that I constantly put this kid in, whether intentional or not. In this life I want to atone, in this life, I long to protect him.

“Hey. Let's hit these plot points in order, Rueki, Sora... Roxas. First, you must be wondering about your revised itinerary. ‘Why am I here, not back home?’ The answer's simple. We brought you to this place! Hijacked your little slumber party before it started. And ever since, we've been both your companions and your constant guides.” Xigbar grins, so self assured, so utterly proud, it is all I can do to stay beside Sora and to not lunge out and wipe the smile off of the Freeshooter’s face.

“Before it started?” Sora’s brow comes together as I turn to him. Suddenly he gasps. “The man in the robe! So, that guy in the black coat...and Xemnas…” Once more, I reach for our empathy link, trying for any trace of Sora, but the connection is weaker than ever. His very lifeline is weaker than ever.

“Bingo. You were able to go back in time to just before your home became a Sleeping World, only because a past version of you already existed there.” Xigbar explains, taking a step closer to us. I feel Sora falter behind me and I square my shoulders in front of him, thunder spell on my lips. “And I can see in the past, you already met Mr. Robe Guy. He was there then to make sure you ended up here now.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Sora scoffs.

“It sure is. It's too perfect. Who'd ever believe it? Which is why you idiots never saw it coming. You thought you were off doing some kind of test, right? Well, test this--how come you're wearing the same clothes if you're already back home? You are not gonna wake up, okay? Look--there's no real versus dreams anymore. There's just you, us, and this.” Xigbar taunts, and then, to me “And you, little Rueki, are so damn good at walking right where we lead you. We lay the bait, and you take it every time, without fail. I mean all I had to do was tell you to keep Roxas safe, and here you are, leading him right to us. And you barely even babysat his dreams. Kudos to you, sweetheart.”

“You can get fucked if you think you’re going to lay a finger on him.” I seethe, shoulders tight with rage. “I don’t think you can even begin to understand how sick I am of you people thinking you can get away with whatever the hell you want. This ends now.”

“You think you two have got some grand role to play? As if. You’re only here as a vessel and a messenger.” Xigbar snorts. I gesture my arm behind me, to guide Sora back, to beg him to let me handle this, because by the second, I feel him slipping. He will not make this fight, and I have to do something, anything to wake him up. “If you wanna fight then...who wants to go first?”

“Shut up!” Sora snaps from behind me.

“Oh, so the kiddo thinks he’s a full fledged Keyblade Master. Still has that angry look down. Kinda reminds me of…”

“Go ahead, if you want to waste your time.” I snap, unhooking La Luxure from my belt, lacing my fingers through the Knuckles. “Keep bringing up irrelevant shit, play your mind games. It’ll never work. It’ll only make it that much worse for you when we prove we’re stronger than you.”

“Ha, never would’ve guessed you’d remind me of her.” Xigbar leers, offering zero explanation. His visible eye flicks to Sora. “Fine, little Rueki, you wanna fight? Let’s do it. But let’s make this an adults only occasion, huh?” He teleports straight in front of me and sets his index finger on Sora’s head. Before I can make a move to react, he whispers “pleasant dreams, kiddo.”

Simultaneously Xigbar teleports away, before I can ram the spikes of my Knuckles into him and Sora hits the ground behind me.

For a moment, it doesn’t matter what he did to Sora, it doesn’t matter where we are, it doesn’t matter that I seem to keep missing Lea. All that matters is that I see Xigbar’s blood on the pavement.

Sprinting forward, I quickly close the distance between myself and Xigbar, but not as quick as he moves. I have always considered speed my ally, but just as La Luxure is barely slashing distance from him, he teleports, upside down, just out of my reach. I blanch and scarcely recover in time to cartwheel away from a bullet. A barrage of them rain down on me, and I crouch, dipping low to the ground, blocking myself with my arm guards. Bullets ricochet as I move, lightning fast, keeping pace with him as best as I can. My heart hammers in my chest as I scan for him, but just when I think Xigbar has found a spot to remain stationary, he moves, and I am left searching once more. It is all I can do to wheel around and deflect his shots. Bullets seem to rain down for a lifetime, I cannot find a moment’s reprieve. And then, when all looks hopeless, something miraculous happens.

“Fuck.” He hisses. “Gotta reload.” His voice is dangerously low, clearly not meant for me to hear. My eyes flick up. He’s not close by, I don’t know how I’m going to reach him in time, but I don’t worry about that. If I don’t take a chance now, I will spend this entire fight, playing defense.

I sprint forward, flying across the pavement at a deafening speed, the sound of wind roaring in my ears. Adrenaline fuels me, and when I see him finish reloading, before I am close enough to land a blow, I scream.

“Thundaza!” Instantly, I’m tired, weary, my limbs are sluggish. This spell does not normally wear me out quite so severely but nothing about this dream is normal. However, my exhaustion is not all for naught.

No matter where Xigbar tries to teleport, my thunder spell slams into him, again and again, popping through the air, lighting up the black sky until the world itself is blindingly white. I fish for a Potion and knock it back. My spell dissipates and as it does, Xigbar works fast, teleporting high above me to the roof of a skyscraper I surely cannot reach.

His crosshair locks onto me, I am certain.

Bullets come raining down, and again, I duck as low as I can manage, onto the ground, covering myself to the best of my ability. One evades my arm shields and grazes the side of my neck. The pain is minor, but the burning sensation is enough to cause me to cry out. From high above, I hear him cackle.

“You’re putting me to sleep, sweetheart!” He taunts. And I know, he thinks he can get me to do anything by egging me on. Maybe he can, maybe my temper is my weakness, maybe I am bound to do his and anyone’s bidding with the right button pushes. But that takes away nothing. Everything I am doing is my choice, utterly on me. So when I stand, a fire burning in my eyes, and decide that he is not going to keep me on the defensive, it is not because he is teasing me.

It’s because I’m fucking sick of hearing him talk.

“Zero Graviga.” I shoot into the air, at a speed that makes me reel. My stomach twists, I am going to be sick. And then, all at once, I am riding a wave of euphoria, almost too blissful to remember myself. Bullets come flying at me, and I struggle, pushing past the high, pushing past the rapture. With slightly slowed movements, I raise my arms, guards at the ready. A bullet slams into my left guard. Another into my right, and that is all of the force it takes to snap my mind back to reality. It is not easy to keep focus. It takes everything I am to maintain this anti gravity spell, but the payoff is beyond worth it when I take a step onto the rooftop he stands on.

“Well damn. You clever little sneak.” His lips curl into a sly grin as he regards me, his eye glinting wickedly.

“Thundaza.” Again, and he writhes, as I rain lightning down at an unstoppable force. I hear him scream, a broken, trembling noise, and, through the storm, I sprint toward him, not stopping until I secure my arms around him. “Gravity.” And with that, the two of us crash to the ground, wind twisting through my ponytail and his. I feel him try, with every ounce of his energy, to shift beneath me, to break free, to find an angle in which he can shift, but I refuse to grant him anything. We slam into the ground so hard that pain shoots from my knees, to my back, up my spine and to the base of my skull. I cry out, so does he, but through the pain, I fight and slam La Luxure against him, tearing at his coat, across his flesh. He grunts, a strangled noise before throwing himself against my might, wrapping his legs around my waist and twisting us so that he hovers above me. His weight is not something I can fight back against, despite being rather lithe, he is so solid, and I am a feather in his grasp. He grips my wrists and slams my arms to the ground, so hard that La Luxure falls, limply from my hands. I buck my hips, but he plants himself so firmly against me, as though gravity itself is working in his favor, pulling him like a magnet to the ground.

I kick violently, I twist my hips, my arms vibrate as I struggle to move them beneath his grasp.

My eyes dart, to where Sora lays on the ground, several yards away from me. My pulse pounds, I’m sure Xigbar can feel it through the leather of his gloves.

“You really thought you had this? Didn’t you, kiddo? As if.” Xigbar snickers, mouth hot at my ear as he leans in so that his body is parallel to mine. An idea comes to mind, something dangerous, utterly idiotic. If this doesn’t kill me, it will be nothing shy of a small miracle. But I feel Xigbar against me, I know Sora is still unconscious here with me, and I just have to do something.

I have to do anything.

I draw a shaky breath and press myself to Xigbar, as tight as my body will allow, breasts flush with his chest, legs like a vice around his waist. I push my forehead against his and then finally, tilt myself so that my lips smash into his with enough force that our teeth click.

It is like this, so, so dangerously close that I don’t know where I end and Xigbar begins, that I murmur a final “thundaza” against his mouth and grind electrical current straight into him.

Immediately, the force is enough to launch Xigbar into the air, sending him flying backwards until his back smacks into a skyscraper. He is spasming as he hits the ground, I can see out of the corner of my eye, but so am I. I twitch and thrash, seizing violently. Yes, I knocked him off of me, yes, he must’ve sustained a sizable amount of damage. But I am not unscathed. After all, I had to electrocute myself to grind pure electric current into him.

A metallic taste floods my mouth, my vision goes purely white, my head hammers with a pressure that I cannot contain. I scream.

And when finally, the haze clears, the world seems to spin. With shaky legs, I push myself up. My stomach drops when I realize Xigbar is on his way to me, limping. Drawing a tremulous breath, I wince. I can cast another spell, I can knock him on his ass, I can finish this for me, for Sora. But I try to recite a spell, and the cry that spills from my lips is pathetic, post verbal.

“Reckless.” Xigbar wipes blood from the edge of his mouth. “You shocked yourself, didn’t you?” He mutters, mirth creeping into his tone. It doesn’t matter that I’m trying to bring him to the edge of fading, it doesn’t matter that the world must be spinning for both of us. It doesn’t matter that if I didn’t use ground current, I very well could’ve paralyzed him. Xigbar is, as always, just amused by the challenge.

“Doesn’t matter, I still have enough in me to finish you off.” I make a move in his direction, but my knees buckle and I hit the ground, my body broken and exhausted. No, come on, I urge myself, clawing across the pavement, trying to get close to him. And yes, Xigbar is still moving, so very close to me, but I can tell he isn’t doing well. His shoulders seem to shudder with every step he takes, he’s got one arm wrapped around his middle, holding himself together, the other is out, probably in an attempt to balance.

“I keep forgetting--don’t mess with the over protective big sister type.” He cackles. I grunt as my legs, which feel like jelly, scrape across the pavement. Fuck, this isn’t working. La Luxure is laying a few feet away, I could probably reach them...or… “Well, he wanted me to buy time. And I’d say, he got it.”

“What?” My eyes go wide. Something tightens around my heart, a vice like grip that yanks, desperate to tug my beating heart straight from my chest.

Images flash through my head. Sora in Traverse Town, running desperately after Donald and Goofy. Sora chasing Naminé through the streets of The World That Never Was, screaming her name. When he finally catches her, she morphs. A half remembered face floods my mind, a young girl with dark, choppy hair and eyes bluer than the sky. She cries, Sora cries, tears that I cannot control spill from my eyes as I draw a sharp breath. The girl tears away from Sora, pulls on her hood and sprints away. When finally Sora catches her, she morphs again, to Roxas. His eyes flick past Sora, to me. He smiles, eyes so very warm, I could catch fire. Sora turns back to me, but he’s not Sora, not anymore. He shifts, into the face I want to see most of all. A tall, lanky man with spiky red hair and emerald green eyes winks at me.

“Roxas! Lea!” I cry and tumble forward, gracelessly, heart hammering as I take their hands in mind. Lea offers me a grin and cocks his head to the side. And just as I have finally found him, just as I have taken ahold of the man I have given my entire heart to, he morphs. Blue eyes stare back at me. His spiky red hair becomes brown, his skin darkens. My heart shatters, I turn to Roxas for reassurance but...he’s not Roxas anymore. No. The change is subtle, barely noticeable but I recognize him as “Ven.”

“Aqua.” Ventus beams at me.

“Aqua.” The brunette man breathes my name like a prayer. I mean to correct the both of them, but when I look down at my own body, I realize, it is not mine anymore. Gone are the vivid, white scars. My painfully pear shaped figure is replaced by the body of my dreams, clad in drapey clothing. I catch the reflection of my hair in a skyscraper and realize it is no longer blonde, but blue. My breath hitches, but as quickly as my appearance changed, it shifts back. I feel Sora, at the edge of my heart and hear a voice scream.

“Sora! Don’t! You’ve gotta wake up, Sora!”

Roxas.

The very thought of the boy’s name, sends me over the edge, doubling over back onto my side, clutching my chest as reality shifts violently back. I scream, back arching, eyes flicking to where Sora still lays, limp. Roxas needs me. Roxas has taken ahold of our empathy link and is screaming for me.

It hurts to move, the world spins in front of me, but through it all, I force myself to my feet. Potion, I need a Potion, but my hands shake too hard for me to even reach into my pouch. I take a breath that feels as though I am drawing glass into my lungs.

“Sora!” I rasp out, eyes stinging as though the very air in this dream is turning poisonous. “Move! Wake up!” I plead. “Goddammit, Roxas!” He doesn’t even twitch. When I reach into my heart, searching for our empathy link once more, the path is closed. Sealed off.

Completely dark.

“No.” I choke, knees buckling just in time for a pair of arms to catch me. I know who they belong to, but this time, I don’t try to fight him. “Bring him back, don’t do this.” I plead, voice rattling.

“Not my doing, little Rueki, but hey, I like your conviction. It’s a damn shame you’re so reckless, you really could’ve been something special.” Xigbar chuckles.

“Yes, a resilient vessel indeed.” The air in The World That Never Was shifts, suddenly, the cool air goes dangerously cold, a dramatic drop in temperature. Never would I have expected the man I just ground electricity into, to be the safest person near me.

But I never expected to hear Xemnas’ voice, again.

“No.” I choke, shoving myself away from Xigbar. I hit the ground immediately, the knees of my tights shredding along the pavement. My vision is back, but my body is limp, spent to its very core. If I don’t wake up soon, I’m going to die, I know, but I also know this dream is different than the others, deeper, and I am not strong enough to claw my way out of the depths. Not now. “Sora, please! Fucking wake up!” My voice sends a tremor through the air, Sora twitches, eyes fluttering open. My body grows weaker. He had to use my energy to pull himself into any sort of conscious state in this impossibly deep dream.

“Oopsy Daisy!” Xigbar laughs. “I tell you what, it’s not easy pulling one person into a second sleep, but hey, thank goodness for Rueki here, huh kid? Your friends really are your power.”

Sora’s eyes dart to me where I lay, empty. Hollow.

Death is easy.

So, so easy. Like falling asleep, but twice as fast, and incredibly painless.

My mind starts to bleed, my thoughts seeping into one another.

“Rueki!” Sora cries, but he can barely bring himself to his feet. He crawls along the pavement until he reaches my side, grabbing my head in his hands. “Come on, take a Potion, don’t do this!” He begs. I want to tell him that I cannot move, but words fail me. My lips feel too heavy, as though every particle of my being is trying to move through sand. I feel hands on my head, something against my lips.

I can barely swallow, and I choke on half the Potion, but it gives me enough energy to lurch upward, pounding my chest as I struggle for air. I grab another Potion out of my pouch and down it, hoping another will clear my airways.

My throat feels as though I have drug sandpaper across it, but I’m alive. I can see. I can move, and I remember a reason to stay. I reach to Sora, grabbing his hand in mine, eyes hard as I look to Xigbar.

“What the hell did you put in our heads? The girl with the blue hair and her friends? And who was that other girl? The one in the black coat?” I ask. His visible eye widens and a smirk spreads across his features.

“Oh man, you think either of us are equipped to put anything in your head? As if. Whatever you conjured up was on your own accord. Or maybe his.” He looks to Sora, head cocked in amusement. “Why don’t you ask his heart. See if its got a clue.”

I turn to Sora, wild eyed, breath baited.

“Well, my heart was aching, that’s why I kept going.” He answers, as though it is just that simple. And I cannot tell if there is more, because try as I may, I cannot find a trace of his heart in mine, even now.

“Oh...well, thank you Sora’s heart for pushing him right into our clutches.” Xigbar cackles, and then, directly to me “aren’t hearts great? Steer us wrong every time.”

But I don’t get a moment to try to decipher that.

“You know, right, because you all have hearts! Axel, Rueki, Roxas, Naminé, and that other girl. I felt what Roxas felt and...they laughed together, got mad, and they grieved. You have to have a heart to cry!” Sora insists.

I wait for someone to tell him he is wrong. I wait for someone to tell him he is naive. Instead, something truly wicked warps Xigbar’s features.

My fucking soul shatters, scattering to pieces.

“It’s about time you noticed” Xigbar laughs.

“Indeed.” Xemnas finally offers, his voice booming across the air like thunder. “A heart is never lost for good. There may have been variances in our dispositions, but a number of us unquestionably showed signs of a burgeoning replacement. Once born, the heart can also be nurtured. Our experiments creating Heartless were attempts to control the mind, and convince it to renounce its sense of self. But understand, one can banish the heart from the body, but the body will try to replace it the first chance it gets, for as many times as it takes. And so I knew, even after we were divided into Heartless and Nobodies, it was just a temporary separation.”

Something in me is broken. Something that even another rebirth cannot recover. Something gives me the strength to come to my feet, and charge. I sprint forward, scooping La Luxure off the ground, draing my Knuckles back and ramming them, straight in the direction of Xemnas’ throat. Xigbar intercepts me and knocks me to the ground, though not before I pierce one of the spikes of my Knuckles straight through him--barely below his collarbone.

“You lied!” I scream, my voice crackling. In my veins, I feel an electric current buzzing, upon my skin, a fire blazes. In my eyes, a blizzard threatens to engulf this very world in an ice age. I feel the magic that Ienzo swears resonates deep inside of my heart, come to a head. I watch Xigbar’s eye widen, excitement sparking. “I knew it! You fucking piece of shit, you didn’t value any of us! You lied, you gaslighted, you toyed with the emotions you knew we had! Did you feel our hearts breaking and get off on it, you sick fuck?”

“Oh, what does it matter, little Rueki? What did it change? You thought you had a heart right up until the end. You acted like you did, Twilight knows your little boyfriend did too. So what does it matter in the first place?” Xigbar scoffs.

“It mattered to all of us! That was all Roxas wanted, was to understand his heart! And Axel--” Was so empty, was so easily manipulated, was so twisted when I met him that he truly had lost sight of right and wrong. “You took away his humanity, stripped him of everything that made his heart strong, just so you had another fucking pawn on the chessboard!”

“Why would you do that?” Sora asks Xemnas, voice high and strained. “Why would you lie to them?”

“Xemnas and Xehanort formed the Organization for a specific reason--round up a bunch of empty husks, hook them up to Kingdom Hearts, then fill them all with the exact same heart and mind. Translation--they were gonna turn all the members into Xehanort.” Xigbar explains, eye still on me.

“The throne room.” I breathe, realization hitting me with the force of a landslide. “My role. You wanted me to be his vessel, I heard you two and Saix talking, he didn’t think I could…”

“Congratulations, sweetheart, you’re more than just a pretty face. It’s been fun playing, for a second I didn’t think you were going to figure it out.” Xigbar throws his head back, laughter shaking his shoulders. I leap up once again, La Luxure drawn back, and take him to the ground. I crank my fist forward, but before I can land a blow to his smarmy, scarred face, I feel gravity shift. I’m on my back, floating, midair, and there is no pain. There is no doubt. Even this new knowledge of how convoluted these plans have been, does not bother me. My body tingles with pleasure, I am so comfortably numb. Xigbar’s eye blazes as he climbs to his feet. “Fun as it’ll be to tell your boyfriend that you planted one on me, I’m not looking to relive that whole experience again. Having several thousand volts of electrical current course through my body was something I only needed to feel once. But hey, looks like everyone was right. You do fight just like Larxene.”

“How can you be on his side? Aren’t you scared of turning into someone else?” Sora asks, though his voice sounds millions of miles away.

“Me? I’m already half Xehanort.” Xigbar grins, but his words slide right off of me as I float.

“That’s insane!” Sora sputters.

“However--through weakness of body...weakness of will...or weakness of trust--most of the original members we had chosen for the Organization were inadequate. Thus, naturally, they never had a chance to attain their goal. Yet, even this was to be expected.” Xemnas explains. Distantly, I think perhaps my defiance was my saving grace. “We have learned of the heart's folly, and we have achieved our other goals. This last excursion has proven to be a worthy closing assignment for the Organization.”

“Just stop it!” And like the hero he has always been, Sora leaps to his feet and comes flying toward us, standing right in front of where I float, idly by. “You treat people’s hearts like bottles on a shelf, but they’re not! Hearts are made of the people we meet, and how we feel about them--they're what ties us together even when we're apart! They're what...make me strong.” I struggle through the fog of anti gravity, through the delicious high. It is so beautiful, I want nothing more than to cling to it but--

Sora needs me.

Beyond that, Roxas needs me. My best friend. I cannot let him down again.

“Duh! You're strong because of the ties you have with other people. As if the Keyblade would choose a wimp like you.” Xigbar scoffs. “But no pouting. We see much bigger and better things in your future...once you side with us.”

And this is all the push I need.

“No!” I scream, limbs lurching as I tumble through the air, crashing into Xigbar. The effects of his gravity spell wear off and my weight sends us straight into the ground, but for how spent I am, he is so much quicker than me. He takes me to the ground with ease, on my stomach, twisting my arms and pinning them tight behind my back. I scream, kicking, thrashing. Maybe he’s stronger than me, maybe I am in no state to be fighting, maybe we’re in his realm, not mine, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do everything in my power to keep my best friend and the boy housing him safe. “I won't let you touch a single hair on his head!”

“Oh not me.” Xigbar assures me, lips at my ear. “Xemnas, he’s all yours.” The Freeshooter announces.

“Sora, no!” I cry out, jerking beneath Xigbar’s weight. I felt Sora drain my strength, however unintentionally once. There's got to be a way I can lend it to him again.

“And as for you, kiddo...time to wake up.”

I wake with a jolt, shrieking, eyes flying around the dark room. My body drips with sweat, my heart hammers, a drum that reverberates at my temples.

“Unnhg, Rueki, what--” Kairi mutters beside me as I tear out of bed, snapping a light on. “Hey! Rueki, what the hell? What happened, are you okay?”

“Kai, put real clothes on.” I toss her dress at her, where she lays in the bed and she makes a groggy noise. “Do you know where Sora and Riku went? To take their Mark of Mastery Exam, I mean?”

“Um, yeah, I think…” She rubs her eyes and draws in a deep breath.

“Come on Kai, I need you to wake up, be alert. Now.” I plead. Her brow knits together. “We have to go, Sora’s in danger.”

And that is all it takes to draw her to action.

Chapter Text

X.

With a quick note scribbled to Cid, Kairi and I rush to my ship and make record time. I chew my lips, my heart hammers in my chest, so loud that I can barely hear my own thoughts.

“Where am I headed?” I ask. If I didn’t like Kairi before, I like her now. She doesn’t hesitate, she doesn’t waste time telling me she’s scared or begging for comfort.

“I don’t know for sure, Mickey told them that the location of the Mysterious Tower changes, constantly. But I’m pretty sure he mentioned something to Sora and Riku about a Moogle constellation.” She says, which, of course we’re headed to a place that can transcend space and time. Why the hell not?

But a constellation is something I can work with. On the screen of my ship, I search and find the constellation Kairi mentioned, plug in the coordinates and set the ship into auto pilot. I don’t like the idea of this, I don’t like setting my life in anyone else’s hands, especially a poor girl who deserves a lot better than everything everyone in her life has thrust at her.

We take off into the atmosphere. This is the only way.

“Listen, Kai, my ship’s saying this’ll take us a little over and hour. I need like...at least forty five minutes of sleep to be able to do what I need to. So just do me this favor, hold my hand through this, don’t wake me until we’re close or something happens.” I order. This time, I’m facing her, I can see the questions in her eyes. She nods though and reaches across the miniscule distance in my ship to squeeze my hand.

“You owe me an explanation when this is done.” She insists.

“I owe you a lot more than that, kiddo. Ice cream, my treat this time.” I say, squeezing her hand back.

It seems like the second I shut my eyes, Kairi has my shoulder in her hand and is shaking me awake. Being torn from a dreamless sleep is more brutal than I could’ve expected. I’m hazy, groggy, my head throbs. I jerk, trying to soothe myself by running a hand through my hair.

“Rueki, something’s attacking the ship!” Kairi’s words thrust me into consciousness. In front of me, is a particularly nasty looking cluster of ships

“Oh, hell, we do not fucking have time for this!” I snap, grabbing the trigger to the ship’s firing system. My fingers move rapidly, so fast that they begin to cramp. The cluster goes down easily, with one hit. “Press that green button.” I order her, and Kairi does, slamming her palm down onto it. With a lurch, the ship shifts out of auto pilot. “Hang on.” I waste no time, steering the Teeny Ship out of the way of the cluster, eyes darting to the map on my screen. We’re close to the Moogle constellation, I must’ve been out longer than I thought. But if I can’t lose the Heartless ships, the world surely will not grant us passage to land.

A ship follows us, I shoot, unyielding until the thing explodes.

“What the hell is that?” Kairi cries.

“The worst kind of vermin in this fucking realm. Heartless ships are nasty, I don’t know what the fuck pilots them, but they sure don’t have any issues shooting Gumi Ships down.” I growl, stomach clenching as I spin the ship, firing at another, far nastier looking ship.

“Shit!” Kairi chokes. “Rueki, we’re close. I don’t know how, but I can feel it.” Of course she can, her mystical light powers are still perfectly intact. That’s why I needed for her to grip my hand tightly and guide me through the darkness, and away from the wicked nightmares my own mind always manages to conjure.

Our ship takes a hit, I am slammed back in my seat, so is Kairi, who grits her teeth and scrunches her face.

“I’m going to need your help, kid.” I say, rigorously firing back at the ship. “I need you to twirl that blue rod as fast as you can when we get fired at, but only when we get fired at, okay?”

“Yeah, blue rod, got it.” She chokes. I hammer at the trigger, scanning the enemy ship’s health, watching it slowly but surely deplete. Brightly colored lasers shoot out from the ship, in our direction, and Kairi follows orders perfectly, whirling the blue rod at lightning speed, creating an impenetrable force field around us. The lasers ricochet off of us and beam right back at the Heartless’ ship. The Heartless’ ship starts to creak beneath the force of the attack. I pulse away at the trigger to our lasers, once more and watch the ship burst, dissolving into particles of light. “Holy shit!”

My heart hammers in my chest, I have not suddenly forgotten how frightening or dire Sora’s situation is, but nothing will ever beat the elation of victory behind the wheel of a Gummi Ship. I love flying. Like so fucking much.

Doubting me in any other situation is fair game, but I’m a damn good pilot.

Like clockwork, light starts to sparkle in the distinct shape of a large, crooked tower. Within seconds, the world has formed, and recognizes our ship as that belonging to an ally and not an enemy. Its gravitational pull sucks us in. Kairi and I brace ourselves for the impact of landing, and the second we touch ground, we both unbuckle and scramble gracelessly from the ship, her looking very much like a newborn doe. I don’t even want to know what I look like.

I race her up the tower and when we throw the doors to the highest room open, we are greeted by Donald, Goofy and a wizard who appears old as time and anciently wise. I am disoriented, momentarily, never have I met anyone who radiated pure power on this level. But Kairi has more focus than me. She all but plows me over.

“Sora’s in trouble!” She screams.

“Kairi!” Goofy’s eyes widen.

“Rueki! We thought you were dead.” Donald says. “We know Sora’s in trouble, the King just went to find Riku to help him save Sora!”

“And I’m sure there are a lot of introductions that need to be had and a lot of catching up we need to do, but Kairi told me the boys were here, which means someone powerful enough to send them into the sleeping worlds is here.” I say, eyes darting to the wizard. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

“Rueki, have some manners, that’s Master Yen Sid, he’s the King’s teacher!” Donald scolds, which only serves to make me clench my jaw. I really don’t have time for tiptoeing around etiquette right now. But Master Yen Sid is definitely a valuable asset, and someone I don’t dare cross. At least not without a halfway decent reason and a deep seated grudge.

“Apologizes for my curt behavior, Master. But I need to get to Sora. Something bad is happening to him, and you’re going to need someone with a clue of what’s going on to be a part of this rescue team.” My eyes dart to Kairi. I grab her hand and squeeze so tight. “Xehanort, Xemnas, Xigbar, at least those three, probably more have teamed up. They’re trying to fill thirteen vessels with Xehanort’s essence, and they need Sora to be their thirteenth. My heart is linked to his. I think that if I’m close to him, I can reach in, grab our link and wake him.” I watch Kairi turn a sallow, sickly color.

“Rueki…” Kairi chokes.

“I know, I know kid, but we’re going to get him back. I died once for his ass, I’m not letting him put me in that predicament again.” I insist.

“Alas, young Rueki, we were previously aware of Sora’s predicament. The King, I know, feared Donald and Goofy’s interaction, wanting their protection. But I think, in this specific situation there is a strength in numbers. If you feel equipped to infiltrate Xehanort’s plans, I think it would only be pragmatic to send you.” Yen Sid agrees, and I flourish.

“Me too.” Kairi insists. “If Sora’s in trouble, I want to help, I’ll fight anyone I need to.”

“No!” I hear myself before I even register that the worlds leave my mouth. Kairi turns to me with wide, hurt eyes. I can’t lie to her. I can’t hurt her further. “Kai, I’m going to be busy enough worrying about Sora, I can’t worry about you too.”

“I can defend myself, Rueki, you know this!” She insists, and she can. And she could heal me better than I could heal myself if things get tricky. Kairi and I would be a fantastic team. But this changes nothing.

“If I can’t protect Sora, if something happens, you can’t be there to see it. It will kill you.” I whisper. “If you watch the person you love most die, it will change everything you are, I can’t lose you.” My words are barely above a whisper as I speak. I am so mortified to confess this, in front of people I normally wouldn’t confess a thing to. Kairi bites her lip. “Let me do this, and when I get back, I’ll tell you everything that happened. Let me do this, and when I get back, you and I will train for lifetimes, until we’re so strong that we can protect the people we love. I know it’s a lot, but please, just trust me on this. Let me leave you behind once, and then I never will again. I promise.”

Silence. And then

“You’ll tell me everything?” She presses.

“Everything.” Even the dark, dark secret I’ve been keeping about the man I love being her kidnapper. She takes a breath and then nods.

“Be safe, please, Rueki.” She urges. I nod.

“Okay. Send me.” I tell Yen Sid, who looks to Donald and Goofy.

“If Rueki fails, are you prepared to assist, in her stead?” He asks. I think to ask how they will know if I fail, but one look at Yen Sid and I am convinced he is at least a bit omniscient in some way.

“Yes, Master Yen Sid!” The two say, saluting in unison.

“Then Rueki, brace yourself. For travel by light is nothing like what you’re used to.” Yen Sid points a finger at me. A spark of light begins at his finger tip, and before I have time to question him, the beam extends and quite literally engulfs me.

And Yen Sid is right, this is nothing like I’m used to. It is aggressive, tearing through my core the way teleportation did, but simultaneously soothes and refreshes me. I think to myself, that this is the single greatest means of travel in the universe and has no bad side to it. But I land in an all white room with weak, shaky legs.

I however, am not noticed. Instead, a bald man with glowing golden eyes is mid monologue. I do not know this man, I have never met him, but I look at him and know instantly who he is. Because he reminds me, somehow, so much of Xemnas that I can barely compose myself. This is Xehanort.

“In ancient times, people believed that light was a gift from an unseen land by the name of Kingdom Hearts. But Kingdom Hearts was safeguarded by its counterpart, the X-blade. Warriors vied for that precious light, thus beginning the "Keyblade War." The violent clash shattered the X-blade into twenty pieces--seven of light, and thirteen of darkness. And the only real Kingdom Hearts was swallowed by the darkness, never to surface again. I once tried to create my own pure light and darkness to forge the X-blade, but the attempt ended in failure. In my eagerness, I had lost sight of the correct way to achieve my goal. I acted rashly. I can admit that now.” The bald man replies. From the thrones, I look up at him, at an unconscious Sora, at several other cloaked figures who do not even regard me and then, at one specific person. Xigbar. His visible eye flicks to me, and I am alarmed by how unsurprised he is to see me. This does not feel like a good sign.

“Don’t stop now, old man. But I think you might’ve just won our bet. Little Rueki is here after all.” Xigbar snorts. The old man’s eyes find me and a demented smile creeps across his features. An attractive boy with silver hair looks to me, squares his shoulders and then back to Xehanort. He can’t be much younger than me, but he’s nearly a foot taller and all business. From what I remember, there is no doubt in my mind--this is Riku. And beside him, the oversized mouse, that must be the king.

“Rueki, what are you--” The King starts, but I put a hand up.

“Introductions later. Save Sora now.” I lace my fingers through La Luxure and take a step forward. Xigbar cackles.

“Aren’t you still reeling from our last fight, kiddo? You really itching to get your ass handed to you again?” Xigbar taunts.

“I dunno, how much worse do you think ground electricity feels outside of a dream?” I snap. He makes a face, but this time the old man, Xehanort laughs.

“The girl’s impulsiveness will be her demise. Just like the wielders past.” Xehanort replies. I roll my shoulders back.

“What you did back then, your mistakes, changed the destinies of three of my friends!” The King cries out.

“Ah, but destiny is never left to chance. I merely guided them to their proper places. The broken boy who failed to be the blade...the misguided master who sacrificed herself for a friend...and the feckless youth who became my new vessel.” Xehanort recalls. Something stirs, deep within me. A corridor in my heart that I haven’t ever felt before. An extension of Sora, perhaps? I’m not sure, but it wrestles inside of me, and suddenly, my mind flashes back to the dream. To the blue haired woman and her friends.

The wielders past.

“I couldn't find a way to save 'em. But I wanted to believe that their sacrifice stopped you for good. Why? How was I so blind? I should've seen it, as soon as Maleficent started gathering the seven princesses of heart.” The King mutters.

“Yes. They were all my doing. I used the evil fairy to find seven pure lights for me, just as I prepared thirteen vessels to fill with pure darkness.” My blood runs cold at Xehanort’s words. Princesses of Heart, pure lights. Kairi. No, he’s not touching her, he’s not laying a finger on her. Whatever he’s trying for, I’m not certain, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will find himself impaled by the spikes of my Knuckles before he lays a finger on any of these kids. Each forced to grow up too fast because of him. Not unlike me but...I’m older. I’m an adult, part of growing is pain, but these children should not know anything of the pain that this man or his vessels are capable of inflicting.

I’ve done some awful things, in the name survival. Maybe I haven’t completely made amends for all of them, but ending him seem as good a place to start as any.

“But you failed!” Riku cries out. “Sora stopped you in you tracks on both counts.”

“And now the three of us are going to finish what he started.” I snap. Riku seems to cast me a look, something unsure that eventually finds resolve. I think this might be something akin to acceptance, and hell am I thankful for it. No longer am I plagued by ambiguity.

I am a big damn hero.

“Yes, he did. That dull, ordinary boy--a Keyblade wielder so unlike any I have ever seen. However, I have not abandoned my ambitions--the seven guardians of light and the thirteen seekers of darkness.” Xehanort insists, and I look around, at the thrones above us. I don’t need to, though. I know this room like the back of my hand, every throne is filled, which means he’s assembled all thirteen darknesses. With horrified eyes, I gaze up at Sora. If Riku and the King can just keep this old bastard monologuing, then I can--

Certainly not sneak past without Xigbar’s one eyed gaze following my every move. He’s perceptive as all hell, and he’s right, I don’t feel great after our last battle, I’m hardly in a state to take on him and any of these other darknesses.

“Seven guardians of light? Well, for Keyblade wielders, there's me and Riku and Sora. And my three missing friends, that's six. Then the seventh would be…” The King counts, eyes suddenly going wide. He gasps, confirming what I’d already feared. This X-Blade, whatever it is, I am still unsure, but I doubt any of us are safe if it is in Xehanort’s hands. “That means...the thirteen seekers of darkness…”

“Yes, little king. Perceptive. But Sora and another on your list belong to me now. And that puts you three guardians short. But worry not. All of the pieces are destined to appear. Your seven lights just like my thirteen darknesses, whose final clash will beget the prize I seek.” Xehanort taunts.

“The X-Blade.” He and the King proclaim. Xehanort’s eerie golden eyes move across the room, to Sora.

“But first, the thirteen darknesses shall be united. All the seats have been filled. And now the last vessel shall bear my heart like the rest!” Xehanort calls out, waving his hand. At that, Sora’s throne begins to rise.

“No!” The King cries.

“Sora!” Riku shouts.

“Not fucking happening.” I hiss, and the three of us take off.

My legs move the fastest and I am closest to the throne first, but Xigbar also moves at a rapid speed. Before I know it, a bullet from his arrowgun knocks me back and onto my ass.

“Get down here and fucking fight me, you coward!” I scream, scrambling to my feet.

“Ha, as if.” He scoffs. But I can work with that. I fumble, trying to find a grenade in my pocket, just as Riku is slammed into me, by a dark skinned man in an open coat. The two of us cry out as we hit the ground. The King isn’t having any better luck either, in fact, as I look up to see him, I watch Xemnas slam him into a throne.

“Three against twelve is shit odds.” I mutter, from beside Riku.

“If we could just wake Sora…” He starts, and although the odds aren’t much better, I’d certainly like them more with Sora alive and kicking.

Sora’s throne begins rising and rising. I push myself to my feet and extend a hand to Riku.

“I can reach him if I have something to launch off of. You mind letting me use your Keyblade as a springboard?” I ask as I hoist him up.

“Sure, but be quick, I can’t hold these guys off for long.” Riku says. Fortunately for him, quick is my specialty.

Xehanort holds up a Keyblade and waves a hand over it, the weapon pulses with some sort of deep, red energy. He raises it high and points it at Sora. I take off in a sprint, breath caught in my throat, just in time for Xigbar to nail me with another bullet to the shoulder. The force knocks me onto my back, tearing the breath from my lungs. My spine hurts, my head is sore, my hands shake and tears spring to the corners of my eyes.

No, no, we failed. I failed. I--

A heart shoots out of Xehanort’s Keyblade and flies toward Sora. It nearly hits him, but as quick as we failed, we are saved.

An explosion rattles the throne room. Flames erupt on Sora’s throne, violent vivid. Smoke obscures my view but the King’s eyes widen.

“He made it!” The King exclaims. Xemnas’ features distort, twisting into a nasty scowl.

“You.” He growls. I try not to hope, I try not to make assumptions, I try not to feel the heat that seems to be spreading up my limbs, crawling dangerously close to my heart. I don’t even risk a breath.

The smoke clears.

Axel...No, Lea stands, Sora tucked under one of his arms, a Chakram twirling in his other hand.

My heart, my real heart, a heart that has been real from the very beginning, is so loud I think it may cause an earthquake. Or does it stop? I don’t know, but for a second, danger doesn’t exist. The marks under his eyes are gone, but otherwise he is the same. So breathtakingly perfect. I could stare at the man for hours and this wouldn’t be real. I could crumble right here, I could move mountains.

“Axel!” Xigbar shouts. My insides flutter. This is real, he is real. Dear fuck, he is real.

“Axel Please? The name’s Lea. Got it memorized?” His voice is enough to bring me to my feet, my legs are good again, I am not just steady, but strong. The ragged edges of my heart have healed over, so beautifully, smooth and shiny. Kairi’s presence has been a bandaid, a treatment, but Lea is the cure.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” Xigbar snaps, his visible eye flicks to me, then back to Lea, almost in accusation, but Lea doesn’t once gaze at me.

“Promises to keep. I’ll always be there to bring my friends back.” Lea manages to shrug, and then, with a grin that makes my stomach backflip “what, bad timing? You had your perfect little script, but you kinda forgot to write the sequel. Now let’s find out what happens!”

Xigbar slams his fists against the arm rests of his throne.

“What now, you old coot?” He snaps at Xehanort. “Our time is up.”

But Master Xehanort doesn’t look disturbed, not in the least. Instead, an eerie smile curls onto his lips. His golden eyes flick to a hooded figure who rises, on command. An obedient dog.

A guard dog.

Fuck

No, no, fucking no. No, no.

The figure lunges, sailing across the divide. I am so unsurprised when he summons a Claymore. I am somehow less surprised when he smashes his Claymore into Lea, who barely has time to raise a Chakram in defense. The sheer force knocks Saix’s hood back.

His face is the very same, his eyes cold with pure hatred. I choke on panic.

Lea blanches.

“Isa.” He breathes, skinny arms buckling under the force of Isa’s attack. Between holding onto Sora and trying to fight with one hand, the effort is almost too much. Lea pushes back, gritting his teeth. It is effortless, though, for Saix to press more of his weight into the attack. I hear weak little noises coming from Lea as he struggles, with all of his might, eyes fragile. He can’t let go of the past long enough to fight his friend. Saix did not leave deep, violent scars across his body.

Maybe Lea cannot let go of Isa, of the polite boy Saix used to be.

But I can.

“Firaga.”

Not as powerful, but infinitely more controlled than my best Thunder spell, an enormous ball of fire shoots from the tips of my Knuckles and pummels into Saix, knocking him into the back of the throne. His nostrils flare, his eyes go wide as they flick to me.

A wicked grin curls across my lips.

“Rueki.” Lea breathes my name like am some sort of pagan goddess, come to life. Euphoria floods over me. Victory.

“That one was for me.” I call to Saix.

Simultaneously, the King manages to find victory over Xemnas. Riku slashes at the man with the open coat. The two teleport away, finding sanctuary behind Xehanort. Several sets of golden eyes find where Riku, the King and I meet, in the middle of the floor. Lea looks at me, and his eyes glow. Gauchely, he stumbles over himself, onto the ground, as if his body cannot find mine fast enough. There’s a moment, a long moment where I genuinely think he is going to drop Sora on the ground and take me into his arms. I cannot say I would be heartbroken.

“Why are you here, Axel?” Riku asks, reminding me that reality exists. That time has not stopped for Lea and I, that this beautiful reunion does not suddenly make us exempt from the roles we have chosen to play.

Big damn heroes.

“No, I already told you, my name’s…” Lea looks to Riku and sighs “Ugh, whatever, Axel’s fine. Now let’s get out of here.”

“Right.” The King nods, but Lea’s words are for me, for me and no one else.

“I dunno, Axel hid a lot of shit from me. Lea on the other hand...he seems pretty okay.” I breathe.

“You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to hear you say that name, sweetheart.” I have tunnel vision again as Lea looks at me. He is everything, nothing exists outside of him, outside of this.

In that instant, the man with the open jacket swoops in and, using some demonic looking guardian, scoops up Riku and the King. Riku cries out, struggling against what binds him, and then, abruptly, stops. I cannot figure out why--

But then, the sound of screaming distracts me too.

Donald and Goofy come raining down from the ceiling, and slam straight onto the demonic guardian. It retreats, dropping Riku and the King, in turn. Donald rubs his head, drawing in a breath.

“Were we supposed to do that?” He asks.

“I think so.” Goofy laughs. Riku laughs too.

“Goofy, Donald! You saved us!” The King cheers. Xemnas looks to us. So does the man with the guardian. Saix’s malicious eyes find me. Xigbar’s eye glints. And then, like smoke, they begin to fade away.

“We are out of time. Neither the union of light nor darkness has been achieved, and we must all return whence we came. But, the gathering of the seven and thirteen is nigh.” Xehanort says. What appears to be a younger version of Xemnas locks eyes with Riku. Saix looks to Lea. And Xigbar? Just before he disappears, he winks at me.

“Let us finish this at the fated place. Once your lights and my darknesses join together.” Xehanort finishes, before disappearing with the rest of them.

I look at Lea. He looks at me. Between the two of us is a spark, a pull so magnetic, I can scarcely breathe. I connect my Knuckles to my belt. Lea’s eyes flick to Sora, as though he is looking for a place to set his limp body. My arms twitch, desperate, burning to touch him, to love him, to hide away forever with him and make up for the two months we have been apart. Xigbar didn’t lie to me. Lea came back, and he’s here. Beside me, he’s safe. He’s mine. This is real.

This moment is what we have waited so long for. So fucking long.

“Rueki.” I could get high on just the way he says my name.

“Lea…”

“What happened to introductions later?” Riku looks from me, to Lea, to Sora. Cheeky fucker. “Let’s head back to the tower.”

If he thinks he can out snark me, the joke is on him.

“Okay, fine. But you get to apologize to Kairi when we get back.” I say. Riku goes pale, all of his composure falls away.

“Kairi’s there?” And I don’t think of the implications surrounding that, I don’t think of how this will effect. I just shrug and smirk at Riku. “Fuck.”

Chapter Text

XI.

Riku scurries nervously into the Mysterious Tower, and I can practically feel the pending heart attack radiating off of him.

“She’s gonna be so pissed. And when she sees Sora...Shit.”

Sure enough, upon our arrival, Kairi’s eyes flick up.

“Sora!” She cries out, as Lea props the boy against the wall. She scrambles to him, and I don’t even think about her reaction. I don’t even think about how she will surely hate me, I don’t think about the fact that Riku is a nervous wreck, struggling to keep his cool and collected demeanor around his friend, or that we are in a room full of people. The only coherent thought that crosses my mind is that Lea’s arms look entirely too empty.

He whips around, eyes burning into mine. I don’t know who moves faster.

He crouches down to my level, I grab his face into my hands. We crash together, waves knocking into the shore. My mouth pops open, his teeth crash into mine. A groan bubbles from his lips, crawls its way out like a wild animal from the depths as he pulls me in impossibly closer, by the back of my head. The world disappears, the heat of his mouth, his body, it is home and I have finally returned. With every second that passes, his lips against mine, I can feel the darkness being burned out of me. I can feel my jagged nerves being repaired, cauterized.

His gloved fingers glide down my neck, my shoulders, the tops of my arms, as though trying to cover as much of me as possible, as though trying to prove I am real. And I am no better. I lace my fingers through his spiky hair and yank, just to hear a cry pass from his lips.

He smells the same. Like bonfire, like smoke. Thank fucking Twilight.

“Fuck, Rueki--” He begins. I am panting as we pull away, struggling desperately for breath, my grip on him still vice like.

“I searched for you for so long, I didn’t think I was going to--”

“What the hell, Rueki?”

The world exists outside of Lea and I. The world exists, and so do the consequences of my actions. My grip on Lea slackens, my hands waver. I draw in a shaky breath. His eyes are quizzical, his brow is furrowed, and though I am beyond elated to have him at my side again, finally, I forgot to dread this moment. I was supposed to have told her already. I should have told her at the very beginning, I shouldn’t have kept any of this from her.

I release Lea and turn to where Kairi sits, crouched beside Sora, hands balled into fists. Her eyes are slits as she looks at me, she’s struggling to contain tears, but her gaze is hard and betrayed. Riku, Donald, Goofy, Master Yen Sid and the King are all bent together, talking in low hushed tones while Kairi fusses over an unconscious Sora. I can only imagine how this looks to her. Sora still isn’t awake and I am far more concerned with locking lips with her former kidnapper.

I exhale, slowly, with purpose I look to Lea, squeeze his shoulder and then release him before I duck down to Kairi.

“Xehanort’s been a busy little asshole, Kai. He wanted to put his heart inside of Sora, and we stopped that, well, Lea stopped that. Riku, the King and I got our asses handed to us.” I confess to her. She scoffs, shaking her head.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it. And why the hell are you calling Axel, Lea? Do you have any idea what he did to me? He kidnapped me! And if he hadn’t been such a half ass captor, Saix wouldn’t have gotten ahold of me.” She begins to chew her perfectly pink lips as she twists her hands. I reach out and snatch up one of her hands, squeezing it in mine, but she tears it back and looks away. “You knew, didn’t you? That he kidnapped me, at least? You knew that we were searching for my captor, for someone who ripped me from where I was safe, and because of his sloppiness, I ended up locked up in a cell in the Castle That Never Was. He kidnapped me Rueki!”

I want to reach out to her again, part of my thinks this will be easier if I could just hold her hand or hug her, if I could try to quell her anger with gentleness, with care. But I don’t. I take a breath so deep, my shoulders heave. Here goes nothing.

“It was my idea, actually.”

No more lies, no more hiding thing from those I love. The weight of my words crash down onto her with a force that I cannot imagine. Her eyes fall to the ground, she puts a hand to her heart, her brow knits together.

“Kai, neither of us wanted to hurt you, we were both being kept by Organization XIII. We were assigned these ridiculous, nonsensical suicide missions. There was no running away, the only chance we had at getting out, was getting Roxas back and on our side, and Sora too, and the only way to get Roxas back was to turn Sora into a Heartless.” I explain, though the words sound almost dirty coming from my mouth. At a lightning speed, I try to convince her, but the more I talk, the less convinced even I am.

“You think any of this sounds better when you say you wanted to turn Sora into a Heartless?” She snaps.

“It wasn’t going to be permanent, that’s why we needed you. You brought him back once when he was a Heartless, we needed you to do that again.” I insist. She sneers. “Kai, we were desperate, do you think I came out of the womb scarred up like this? This is what happened when I didn’t give up Axel when he disappeared to go get you…” I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear, struggling with the weight of this truth. I know what happened, I lived through it, and yet, relaying it to someone else is an entirely different struggle altogether. “This was what happened when they wanted to test, to see if I had it in me to be a worthy vessel.”

“Why would you even come find me? If you knew what you did, if you knew what he was…” She sputters, wiping tears with the back of her hand. I am instantly reminded of our conversation in Agrabah, of how no matter how hard she tries, feelings like anger, sadness and resentment get expelled from her body at such a force, it is like she is being sedated. She’s trying so hard to be upset with me, it’s got to be hurting her, but doesn’t she deserve to feel her feelings? Isn’t it her right to be upset at me, upset at what I’ve hid from her? After all, this is my fault. I want to mend the bridge between us like nothing else, Kairi has quickly and easily become one of my dearest friends. But it isn’t fair for me, as her friend, to deprive her of such a right.

“I was looking for him.” Tell the fucking truth, I remind myself. She deserves it, above all, she deserves it. “But there was so much darkness in my heart, I needed something, a light more powerful than my dark to outshine everything that still hurt inside of me. And your light...fuck, Kairi, even if I didn’t like you, I’d still sew myself to your side just so that I could feel as good as you make me do.”

“You used me.” She says flatly. “Just like Maleficent wanted to.” I don’t quite know what she’s referring to, and without Sora’s memories readily accessible, I just nod, in defeat.

“Yeah.” I sigh. “I wanted to be better, this time around, now that Organization XIII doesn’t have a hold on me. But I’m pretty great for ruining everything.” I murmur. “I’m trying though, Kairi, and I’d do anything to earn your trust back.”

“You know I’m going to forgive you and that I physically do not have it in my heart to hold a grudge, so whatever, Rueki. Do what you want, you know you’ll get away with it. I don’t even care.” She sniffs, wiping her eyes once more. I clench my fists, feeling my fingernails biting into the flesh of my palms, even through my gloves. It’s just like Roxas in Twilight Town, it doesn’t matter what my intentions are or how incredible the love for my friends is, if I keep going at this with a tainted heart, with the darkness guiding my way, willing to do whatever it takes to come out on top, I am going to lose everyone. Everything. I wish there was some sort of way to properly convey to Kairi my remorse, I wish I could concoct beautiful words that would make her more willingly accept the forgiveness that her heart will inevitably grant. I wish hers was the heart mine is connected to, and that I could push my thoughts onto--

Her heart spent time in Sora’s.

Not for long, and not at the time that my heart was connected to Sora’s. This is a hell of a long shot, but I see this girl, crying angry tears that her heart can barely manage…

I see my new best friend, so broken and all because of me. If I could make her understand, if I could make this easier for both of us, then it is worth this shot in the dark.

“Can I try something?” I ask. She snorts, mouth curling into a pout.

“I don’t even know why you’re asking. You clearly think you can do whatever you want, as long as you and Axel get by unscathed.” She snaps. I sigh, reaching out, setting my hands on her shoulders. Her eyes widen.

“I never meant to hurt you, Kai. Ever.” I insist. Her face, her betrayed expression is skewed in disbelief. Her tone wavers as she speaks.

“I don’t believe you.” She says.

“I know, and it’s okay. I deserve it.” I agree, leaning forward. I hear her breath hitch. I press my forehead against hers, my hands move up into her hair. I could envelope myself in her light, right here, bathe in it and never hurt again. Her heart is open, her mind is open. In her shocked state, I swear, I can feel a passageway opening from my heart, to Sora’s, to hers. It is a stretch, and being that he is down for the count, not only is the path hazy, but unkempt. It is nearly impossible to traverse, but I push through, bracing myself as her heart fights against my intrusion. This is brutal, beyond difficult. Everything she is, is made to reject everything I am. But like the monster I am, I grip the tunnels of her heart, refusing to let go, refusing to let up. And instead, once I have sufficiently weathered the storm, I feel a calm settle in. This is all the window I need to take my very consciousness, and shove it as far into her heart as I can. She gasps, grabbing my arms.

“It’s okay.” I promise, and it is. Because her heart was made to mend itself, even from my pain, even from my memories. One by one, I feel our minds bleed together. Not only do I feel my thoughts flooding her mind, but I feel hers infiltrate mine. I understand the comment she made about Maleficent. I feel the resentment that the light tries to strip away from her heart, and not just for me, but for Sora, for Riku, for those who have left her behind, solely because she doesn’t have a breakable heart. I feel the pain at my betrayal. I feel her shed tears, hot and heavy as she understands my life, my mind, my heart.

When my hands fall away from her hair, we are both brought back down into reality. We settle pleasantly, a leaf on the wind. I brush a thumb across her cheek, wiping a tear away. She looks at me with eyes like saucers.

“What did you do?” She asks me, in a voice that trembles.

“When I told you my heart’s connected to Sora’s, it’s kind of like that. I can read his thoughts or imprint my own onto him. Our hearts aren’t directly connected though, I had to use the connection of your heart to Sora’s, and your heart, not sure if anyone has ever told you, is hella strong. It fought me every step of the way.” I explain. “Kind of intense, huh?”

“That’s one word for it.” She sighs, leaning back, setting a hand on her heart, as though she is checking to make certain it still beats. “Those were you memories.” She murmurs. And it is a lot to take, I know it is, because I am still reeling from the insertion of her memories into my head.

“And my thoughts, my feelings.” I nod. She chews on her lips and tucks her hair behind her ear. “And I felt yours too.”

“I kinda thought so.” She nods. “I don’t know why you did that though, you know I’m going to forgive you anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Yeah, I know. But, I mean, if you want to yell at me for like an hour first, or something, I wouldn’t hate you for it. I’m pretty good at the whole yelling about stupid shit, thing.” I remind her. She snorts, biting back a smile, and not a smile that she is forcing or wearing because her heart is coercing her. She is genuine. And that is everything.

“Yeah, you definitely are.” She cocks her head to the side, and offers me a gaze that is just warm enough to awaken my heart. She seems to debate on something, she looks to Lea, looks to me and leans in. “You guys were kinda cute, and you know my heart is going to make me forgive him, but um, I’m still gonna give him hell.” She confesses, loud enough for him to hear.

“Hey!” He protests, heaving a sigh. “Listen, Kairi, I--”

“I’ve done enough making nice for today, Axel.” She says, ice in her voice. Lea looks at me, anxiety flashing across his features, his perfect, angular features, and hell, he is everything. “My best friend is too good for you.” She tells him, and my heart flutters. I reach out and throw my arms around her. She hugs me tight, laughing a high, musical laugh.

“I still get to be your best friend?” I ask.

“Well, I mean, you’re still the only one who hasn’t set me in a corner and ditched me to go an adventure, so--” Kairi’s eyes flick to Riku, who finally breaks away from the circe he is in, and sighs.

“Kairi, I promise, Sora and I both owe you an apology.” Riku says, a note of exasperation in his voice. “And we will both give it to you, as soon as I get him back.”

Kairi’s expression suddenly goes deadly serious.

“What’s the plan, chief?” Lea asks. Riku makes a face.

“Don’t call me chief.” Riku murmurs. “I’m going to dive into Sora’s sleep and pull his heart out of the darkness.”

“You can do that?” Kairi asks, cocking her head to the side. She looks at me and Riku. “Am I the only one here who doesn’t have some strange sort of heart diving power?”

“Nah, you and me are in the same boat, princess.” Lea shrugs, though Kairi shoots him a look that could petrify a grown man.

“Don’t attempt to rope us in together.” She scoffs. Lea purses his lips.

“You really just okay with your best friend hating me? Sounds like a seriously complicated twist in our relationship, Rueks.” Lea says. I don’t even break a sweat.

“Isa.” Is all the argument I need to cause Lea to pale.

“Have I told you that you look beautiful, today? Because you do.” Lea offers. I smile, even Kairi grins.

“On a more serious note, is that safe, Riku? Because even I can’t sense Sora right now.” I say, mouth twisting. “It’s...it’s like he’s just not there.” And were it not for the traversing of Kairi’s heart, I would be worried that my link to Sora had closed off altogether. Riku runs a hand through his hair.

“It’s our best shot, me going in. I’ve dove into Sora’s heart once before.” He explains.

“But so have I, and so has Rueki.” Kairi says. Riku chews his lip, as though he is unsure how to pacify Kairi properly.

“No offense to either of you, I’ve got a little bit more training with the Keyblade, and a lot more experience shouldering the darkness.” Riku confesses. And while I do disagree, I’m certain Lea and I have spent much longer playing with darkness, I think Riku is able to control his own personal darkness a lot better than any of us. Darkness works as his ally, a tool for his success. I know that if I get a taste of it again, it will control me.

“If you don’t bring him back, I swear--” Kairi starts, but I squeeze her hand.

“It’s okay, kid. Riku will bring Sora back. And if he doesn’t I will personally hold him down while you punch him.” I tell her. She snorts.

“Okay, you’re forgiven entirely. Seriously, you are such a good friend.” She giggles, eyes flicking up to Riku’s. “But seriously Riku, please, the both of you, be safe. I can’t...I can’t lose you guys again.” She breathes. He nods, crouching down. Gently, tenderly, he kisses her forehead, the gesture is so non romantic and totally platonic, but above all, it is sweet.

“I promise, we will be, Kai. Sora and I will be back soon.” Standing up, Riku summons his Keyblade. A light from within Sora’s unconscious body seems to glow as Riku opens a portal with his Keyblade. He looks to the group of us, nods, and departs.

As the portal closes up, I feel Kairi tense up.

“It’s going to be okay, Kai. I promise.” I tell her. She grants me a tiny little half smile.

“I know. I still trust you, Rueki.” Trust your partner. If I ever have to go back into the Reaper’s Game, I want this girl at my side. I turn back to where Lea stands. He tilts his head to the side and seems to understand my invitation. Slowly, as though he is approaching a wild animal, he crouches down to me and Kairi. Her lips fix into a pout, her eyes narrow. “This is going to take some getting used to.” She mutters.

“But you saw--” I begin, but she shakes her head.

“I saw your memories, but Rueki you were already my friend.” She reminds me. And I suppose that does count for something. I was never the face she associated with her kidnapping. I was never someone she bore resentment to. My mouth twists into a frown, I look to Lea who shrugs.

“Hey, you don’t get to spend the last eleven years being a villain and not deal with the consequences. I mean, I won you over after everything that happened in Oblivion.” Lea reminds me, and then looks to Kairi. “Guess I’ll just have to pull out the old charm.”

“Ha, yeah right.” She snorts, defiantly. Lea’s expression falls, ever so slightly, just enough to make me certain that his heart is shattering.

“Or, maybe I’ll just have to apologize until you believe me.” He presses his lips into a tight frown. Kairi chews on her lip. She looks away from Lea, too conflicted to meet his gaze, which is fair. I suppose this is better than her yelling at him. I remember her words as we sat in Radiant Garden, eating ice cream together. Neither Lea nor I can take back the past, all we can do is try to make the future brighter, and despite the anger I once felt toward Lea, the relief I am experiencing, just looking this man in the eye, just feeling his warmth beside me, is enough to restore my faith in him. Everything we are about to become, will be better than everything we have been.

“Um, Rueki, could you maybe fill us in on Sora’s dreams and Xehanort’s plans and...like everything?” Kairi raises her eyebrows.

And so I do. I skim on no details. I explain, graphically, the inner workings of my empathy link to Lea and Kairi, I detail my journeys through Sora’s dreams, the travels Kairi and I embarked on to find Lea. Donald and Goofy plop down beside me and my two beautiful redheads. The King--whose name is apparently Mickey-- eventually joins us. Master Yen Sid listens intently from his throne.

“I really thought I was gonna lose, but then I played a dirty trick on him and ground electricity into him.” I explain. Donald’s eyes widen.

“You can do that already?” He, the mage, seems quite baffled by this. I bite back a prideful grin.

“I’m only really good with thunder spells. My fire and anti gravity spells are getting better, I still can barely cast a passable blizzard spell. And definitely don’t count on me to cure you in any battles.” I admit.

“It appears that your talents lie more in the realm of black magic than white magic.” Master Yen Sid observes.

“Meaning?” I raise an eyebrow.

“You’re better with offensive magic than defensive.” Mickey says. I nod, drawing a knee to my chest.

“Yeah, you’re not wrong there.” I nod. “But that’s why Kairi and I have been working so well together. The girl can cast a damn decent cure spell.”

“Oh, come on.” Kairi flushes. “It’s barely decent. Besides, I’ve gotta make up somehow for the fact that I don’t hit as hard as you.”

“Yeah, but you can actually, you know, evade an attack.” I roll my eyes. Kairi snorts.

“You are pretty terrible at that.” She agrees.

“My girl can take a hit though. Nothing keeps you down long, does it, Rueks?” Lea asks, placing a kiss on the top of my head. I could burn up, here and now, from the feeling of his skin against mine. Kairi makes a face.

“You two are going to be nauseating to be around, aren’t you?” She sighs.

“Please, like you and Sora won’t be the same when he wakes up.” I taunt. She colors, turning nearly as red as her hair.

“Shut up.” She mutters.

“All I’m saying is that you’re super cute, when he wakes up, just have the courage, take his face in your hands, say ‘you’re my boyfriend now, dumb dumb, stop leaving me behind on the Island’, and plant one on him.” I insist.

“Rueki, stop being so embarrassing.” It takes a moment for me to register who the voice belongs to. My eyes go wide, so do Kairi’s, so do everyone’s. A warmth floods my insides as the closed off tunnels to Sora’s heart suddenly reopen.

“Sora!” Kairi cries out and throws her arms around him, knocking him back, impossibly further into the wall.

“Kairi, it’s so good to see you.” He hugs her back tightly, body responding immediately before his brain seems to process what is happening. “Hey, are you crying?” He asks.

“Screw you, you’re crying.” She sniffles into him.

“It’s okay, Kairi, I’m okay.” He assures her, just in time for her to draw back and punch him in the shoulder. He makes a face. “Ouch, you’ve gotten stronger.”

“Yeah, no thanks to you. Rueki brought me along on her adventures, we trained together...I can fight now, so stop leaving me behind on the Island!” She snaps, and then turns to me. “That was good, right?”

“I’ve never been more proud of anyone in my life, kiddo. You could slap him though, adds some dramatic flair.” I offer.

“Please don’t.” Sora swallows dryly, looking between Kairi and I, as though he is seriously questioning everything in his life.

“Oh, you’re screwed now, kiddo.” Lea laughs.

“I think I’ll spare you. For the time being.” Kairi smiles at Sora and reaches out to take his hand. “I’m just so happy you’re safe.”

“I’m happy to see you. I missed you so much, Kairi.” He breathes her name and it sounds almost musical. These two are too precious, really.

“What about us? Donald squawks and Sora grins.

“I missed you too, Donald, Goofy.”

“Speaking of missing people, where’s Riku?” Mickey cocks his head to the side, looking at Sora with wide, curious eyes. Something tells me we all have a lot more to go over in the way of introductions.

“He’ll be back soon.” Sora nods, without a doubt clouding his heart. He rises slowly. Kairi helps him to his feet, and in return the rest of us rise. Donald and Goofy seem to take this as a prime opportunity to attack Sora with hugs as well. “Guys!” Sora laughs, but hugs them back just as tight. Kairi giggles, lacing her fingers together. Lea and I stand, arms around each other. Behind us, Master Yen Sid smiles, a palpable warmth in his dark eyes.

“Ahead of us lie many challenges however, I believe this success calls for a celebration.” With the swiping of his hand, Yen Sid conjures an enormous table, equipped with desserts of every kind, as well as tea and coffee. Party hats in assorted colors decorate the table. A pair of tacky looking fake glasses with a tiny mustache attached to them sits at the edge of the table, and before I can make a snide comment about nobody wanting to wear those, Sora’s eyes light up.

“Cool!” He puts them on, laughing. He puts on a party hat, turns around and smiles the goofiest smile, as though he wasn’t just unconscious moments ago.

“You are such a doofus.” Kairi laughs.

“Yep, that’s Sora!” Goofy agrees, but Sora just offers the two of them the warmest smile I have ever seen. He retreats to the table, grabs a pink party hat and walks over to Kairi.

“It’s so good to have you here to celebrate with, Kairi.” Sora beams, placing the party hat on her head. She colors slightly, linking her arms behind her back in a shy gesture.

I figure, now is probably the time to behave like a good friend and give the lovely couple some privacy, so, while Donald and Goofy start in on the table of sweets, I turn to Mickey, hand on my hip.

“So what’s the deal with this whole X-Blade thing?” I ask. He gets as far as detailing what it is, the connection it has to Ventus and his two friends Terra and Aqua--and it is not lost on me that Ven and a brunette man called me that name in the depths of Sora’s dream--and how we will need to find them to clash with Xehanort and his darknesses. The King explains as much as he can, in graphic detail, before Riku appears, wild eyed and ragged looking.

“Sora!” He cries out. But Sora is certainly not paying attention. I offer Riku a knowing smile while Sora shouts at Donald.

“Hey Donald! Come on, you’re hogging it all!” Upon hearing Sora’s voice, Riku raises an eyebrow, peering over where we have all gathered around the table of desserts.

“Aw, calm down Sora. And drink your tea.” Donald insists.

“Gawrsh, it sure is yummy.” Goofy laughs. Riku starts to look increasingly more flustered, I bump Sora’s hip with mine.

“Yo, kid.”

Sora’s eyes go wide, he looks to me, I gesture, with my head, to Riku. Sora’s entire expression lights up. He quickly takes off his party hat and glasses as he regards his friend.

“Riku!” He cheers, Kairi turns around too, grinning wickedly at Riku.

“You’re safe!” She chirps.

“Wait, haven’t we got this backwards?” Riku asks. “And why are we having a tea party?”

“Awe, come on, live a little.” Lea teases. “We’ve got plenty more moments to worry about all of the serious stuff, got it memorized?” And I do have to agree with him on that. My eyes flick up to Lea’s, as Sora, Riku and Kairi reconnect. Lea raises an eyebrow. I shake my head.

“I needed this, that’s all.” I tell him, quietly, because I don’t know how to properly convey the hell these past two months have been. There’s blame, of course, still residing in chambers of my heart that I do not dare touch. Despite Kairi’s initial displeasure, nothing has tainted this day, this victorious, glorious day. The high of success and above all, of finding him completely override any high I have felt in his life. I look into his eyes, and he is everything. It is simply more than my heart will allow.

I do wonder how many more of these moments we will have left. Xehanort’s words have not left my mind. He wants to form a super powerful Keyblade with the ability to summon Kingdom Hearts and essentially reset the world as we know it. Today, he was nearly victorious, and despite his defeat in this battle, he seems quite content to play the long game. I look at the group of us. A too cheerful boy and his animal companions. A mouse king and his brooding friend. Two cute, reckless redheads. And me. There is no denying we’ve got heart, but I have a deep feeling that emerging victorious from this war is going to require a lot more logic and a lot less grit. We need to train, each of us. We need to buff and perfect until the lot of us become a well oiled machine. An unstoppable force. Utterly impenetrable. I doubt there will be much time for relaxation before Xehanort attempts to draw together seven lights and thirteen darknesses, once more. Of course, I am utterly inclined to throw away this beautiful gift of relaxation in favor for progress. But I feel Lea’s hand drift to the small of my back and decide progress can wait. I lean my head into him and nearly melt.

I am allowed to enjoy this. Above all, I am allowed to enjoy him. I have more than earned this.

“Oh! Yeah, did we pass the test?” Sora suddenly interrupts my reverie with wide eyes and eager questions. Master Yen Sid meets him with a hard, unreadable gaze.

“More than anything, I am grateful to have you both back from Xehanort's deception unharmed. I am grateful to Rueki, whose link to your heart, Sora, aided us greatly. And I am grateful to Lea, whose spontaneous actions turned the tides. I am also deeply sorry, for failing to perceive the danger and throwing you headlong into a perilous test.” Yen Sid begins. “This experience has revealed many hidden truths, and we must gird ourselves for the great clash with darkness that lies before us. I believe we need a new Keyblade Master, one with a new kind of power. Sora and Riku, you both deserve the honor. However, one of you braved the realm of sleep again to unlock the final Keyhole and save a friend. Riku, I name you our new true Keyblade Master.”

The words crush me momentarily, and then, suddenly, excitement courses through me. I place a hand against my heart, overwhelmed by the surge of emotion. Then, I see Sora’s awestruck gaze. Such happiness for his friend, despite an initial disappointment. After so long with it being shrouded, I forgot what it felt like to have our empathy link fully functioning.

“Way to go Riku!” Sora beams.

“I knew you’d do it.” Kairi giggles. “We both knew Sora was bound to spend the entire exam napping. Who’d have known his laziness would be so dangerous this time.”

“Hey! Come on Kairi!” Sora huffs. She simply sticks her tongue out at him and turns back to Riku, who looks baffled.

“Really? I’m a Keyblade Master?” Riku murmurs, shaking his head, as though the very thought seem impossible. A quick search into Sora’s heart, and I’m overwhelmed by images of Riku, battling darkness, Riku sacrificing himself to shut the door to darkness. Riku changing and growing from an arrogant, cocky kid to someone with such deep, internal strength. Someone who is learning to accept even the darkest parts of himself. I think of my own darkness and wonder if this boy’s strategy is the secret I need to absolve Lea of blame. Perhaps between he and Neku, I could learn something. I can accept the pain, the hurt as part of me while still moving forward to something happier. Perhaps I do not need to go great lengths to burn away the shadows of my past…

“Congratulations, Riku!” The King extends a hand to the older of the teenage boys. Riku takes his hand with a look of intense gratitude spreading across his features. Sora has saved the worlds in tenfold. Sora is my own personal hero, without a shadow of a doubt. But Riku? Just looking at him I can sense the sort of wisdom not to self sacrifice, the bravery to conquer even the deepest darkness, the strength to lead. Sora is an amazing kid. I certainly couldn’t be objective enough to not grant him the rank of master. But I look at Riku, and despite barely knowing him, I can’t say I don’t get it.

“Thank you, Mickey. I owe it to my friends.” Riku nearly chokes, looking at the group of us.

“Ah, I’ll catch up with you in no time flat.” Lea taunts.

“What? You wanna be a Keyblade Master?” Sora asks. Lea shrugs.

“Yeah, I mean, I came here to learn how to wield one.” He admits. I laugh loudly, dramatically, wheezing. Kairi bursts into a fit of giggles. Lea, on the other hand looks irked.

“Dude, come on. What are you going to catch up with? You don’t have darkness on your side anyone, you’re going to have to totally start from scratch when it comes to combat.” I set a hand on my hip.

“Oh yeah, sweetheart? Tell me more, since you know everything.” He laughs. I smirk.

“You know, I’ve been studying magic. If you wanna play, I can show you exactly how well developed my blizzard spell is.” I bat my lashes at him. Kairi sets a hand on her hip.

“You do realize Keyblade’s aren’t guaranteed prizes for participating in a battle against darkness, right? You actually have to earn one. You heart has to be worthy.” And despite the venom in Kairi’s words, she is right. At least, from what I understand about Keyblades.

“Hey, thanks for the vote of confidence.” Lea rolls his eyes. “You know, I was gonna come swooping in, Keyblade in hand! But I just couldn't get mine to materialize. Must be in the snap of the wrist or something.” He holds the hand that does not rest on my back, up in front of him. Flames pool at the edges of his arms, this is not new, this is something I am quite used to. He’s always summoned his Chakrams in the very same manner.

But then, abruptly, the flames shift, taking shape, forming in the palm of his hand. A curved blade with a circular handle, quite similar to his Chakrams, materializes in Lea’s hand, and although the shape is unique, it is, undoubtedly, a Keyblade.

“What the hell?” Kairi balks, looking quite offended that her would be kidnapper is now considered good enough to wield a blade of this magnitude. A smirk curls at the edges of my lips, because, despite my best friend’s apparent annoyance, I am impressed. Not that I’d ever admit it aloud. Lea’s ego is big enough without my assistance. I look at the curvature of the sword and how it fits so perfectly, curled into his hand. He’s perfect, fuck is he perfect. It is disgusting, but the mere thought of him wielding such an elite weapon is enough to turn me on. I’m willing to blame two months worth of a dry spell on these feelings, but I immediately begin thinking of how quickly I can shove him into a bed…

We could stop in Radiant Garden and defile my childhood room, or go to Transmute City and--

Fuck. I do some quick math in my head and realize that if Del and Amaya’s child is not born already, it will be soon. Yeah, I definitely need to make Transmute City my next stop.

“Um what the fuck? I spent months searching for you, and you’re just over there, learning how to play with Keyblades?” I laugh, momentarily pushing aside worries that Del and Amaya will admonish me for my poor timing. I bump my hip to Lea’s, the hand he has set on my lower back travels to my waist and squeezes. His lips find my temple, I melt into his touch.

“It’s okay to admit you’ve got a thing for Keyblade Master’s, sweetheart.” He teases.

“Technically, Riku is the only Keyblade Master here.” Kairi says, brushing her hair over her shoulder. I choke on a laugh. Lea heaves a sigh.

“You know, the whole you two being best friends thing would be a lot nicer if you weren’t ganging up on me.” Lea shoots me a sheepish look.

“You’re telling me.” Sora looks apprehensively at Kairi, who throws her head back laughing.

“That’s what you guys get for leaving me behind. You should’ve known one day I’d have a strong, independant, badass woman come rescue me.” Kairi winks at me.

“Is that really how you see me?” I ask, setting a hand to my heart, so touched.

“Of course.” She beams. My eyes flick to Lea.

“You know, you really better toe the line. I’ve found another cute redhead to replace you with.” I inform him. He rolls his eyes and then presses his lips to my ear, breath so hot against my skin that I would surely get chills, even without his words.

“Let’s not pretend like you aren’t just aching for my cock, sweetheart.” He whispers, low enough where only I can hear, and I do shudder, grabbing his arm, trying not to react too dramatically. He drags the tip of his finger along the outer hem of my shorts. I swallow, dryly.

“Master Yen Sid, I’ve been practicing with my Keyblade too. I’ve been trying to learn defensive magic, but I know I still have a long way to go before I’m caught up with Sora and Riku… If there is someone that is able to train Lea...may I be trained as well?” Discomfort seems to hang in the air with Kairi’s words. She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks sheepishly at the wizard. He strokes his beard, eyes narrowed as he ponders.

“I think it is undeniable, we require as much additional help, on the side of light, as we are able to get. I do believe it would be prudent to further your and Lea’s training with a Keyblade, Kairi, though you are not the only ones who require further training. Rueki, you were an alchemist initially, but a budding magician now. The person best equipped to aid all three of you, is the wizard, Merlin. Seek him out in Radiant Garden, where he may aid you in your training.” Yen Sid says. I see an apprehensive look pass between Kairi and Lea, and am thankful that I am their buffer.

Finally, Kairi straightens herself and nods.

“Yes. I want to learn, I want to train. Whatever it takes.” Determination burns brightly in the eyes of the girl who will not get left behind again.

“Master Yen Sid, how pressing is time?” I raise an eyebrow. When every set of eyes in the room falls on me, I heave a sigh. Cool, that sounded stupid. A crazy old man wants to end the world and I’m asking if time is a concern. “A friend of mine just had a kid, and she’ll skin me alive if I don’t at least go and see her.”

“Life is a celebration, one I would not deprive you of, but I encourage you to make haste, Rueki.” Yen Sid nods. I offer Kairi and Lea a smile.

“You wanna go meet the people I grew up with?” I ask Kairi. She beams.

“Of course I do!” She nods.

“Who had a baby?” Sora asks, face contorting.

“Amaya.” I say. His head cocks to the side. I smile. “Best not to know, kid.”

“Amaya? Since when? She was still thin as a rail when I popped in.” Lea says and these words surprise me. A smile lights my features. He did have a plan for finding me.

“When did you stop in Transmute City?” I ask.

“Just after you left.” He confesses. I sigh.

“Shit timing on our part. I got to Radiant Garden hours after you left. Ienzo and I are cool now, by the way.” I say and a smile, a genuine, warm, heartfelt smile sets his face aglow. Fuck, he’s beautiful. “But I mean, hey, we’re good now. For a second, I was wondering if you were even looking for me in the first place.”

I mean it as a joke, but there’s something in his stance that makes my blood run cold. He bites his lip, the muscles in his shoulders visibly tighten. He cannot meet my eyes.

Mother fucker.

“You weren’t looking for me.” The weight of the words seem impossibly heavy as they leave my mouth. My very heart seems to sink. I take a step back, letting his hand fall limp between us. His eyes flick up, his head is still bowed.

“It wasn’t that.” He says.

“Tell me what the fuck it was then, Lea!” I snap. “Because I searched for you for months. I woke up bleeding and hysterical, and forced my ass into high gear to find you. So tell me, please, what was so important that you couldn’t come looking for me!?”

“Rueks, don’t do this.” He pleads, running a hand through his hair, and now that his eyes finally meet me, he is exasperated. Oh, he thinks this is tiring? Perhaps the time we’ve spent apart has just made him stupid. He should know better, just how I can wear him out.

“Then just answer my questions, it’s as easy as that.” But I’m throwing my hands up. All eyes in the room fall on us. This is ridiculous. For every bit of resentment I pushed aside, for all of the forgiveness I was willing to offer, for how desperately I was seeking out a way to correct my own action, in order to show him more love than bitterness, it is disgusting that I am met, once again, by a man who is willing to wrong me.

“You said you were coming to find me, you’re my partner, you can hold your own. So sue me for trusting you to do what you promised and come fetch me. Which hey, you did.” He reminds me, as though this somehow exonerates him of everything. I could tear my hair out in frustration. How the hell does he still think he can talk me in circles to get himself out of trouble?

“Yeah, but go figure, I thought the person I love would be trying to meet me halfway!” I roar. “You’re so fucked. Do I mean anything to you, I mean, have I ever? Or do you just stick around long enough to twist me around your finger, and--”

“Stop acting like I manipulated you, Rueki! I haven’t, and I haven’t lied to you. I didn’t look for you, whatever, I’m a jackass, I’ll take responsibility for that, but I didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to!” He insists.

“Oh, cool, thank you so much for treating your girlfriend with the basic human courtesy of telling the truth and not acting like an abusive dick. Congrats babe, you’ve really outdone yourself.” I roll my eyes. “But did you ever once think about what was happening to me while you were off, dicking around?”

“I wasn’t dicking around. And of course I did!” He swears.

Sora clears his throat. Kairi clenches her fists and makes a movement forward but Riku grabs her shoulder and draws her back.

“Really? So you thought about the fact that I spent the last year of my life as a Nobody screaming myself awake from nightmares? Maybe you thought about the fact that your little fucking boyfriend, Saix, beat me to the point where Demyx had to pump Potions into my system for a week, just to get me to stop bleeding, just before I died and that I might still be struggling with those injuries? Or the fact that I had crippling panic attacks that only you or Roxas were ever able to talk me down from? And hey, we all know Roxas is a bit unavailable at the moment, but what’s your fucking excuse?” When he doesn’t answer me and begins to look flustered, it only serves to fuel the storm inside of me. “What was so important that you decided it required more of your effort than the person you are supposed to love the most?”

Lea is silent for a long moment. Everyone in the room seems to reverberate from my words, desperate for Lea to offer a satisfactory answer, and to be honest, I am too. That is all I want. All he has to do is come up with something that I can forgive, and I will. I would be happy to push this all away and lock my arms around him, but I know if I forgive something that my heart screams in protest against, the darkness inside will consume me, twist me, warp me. I love him and want him above any and everything, but if I am not true to myself first and foremost, I will lose myself.

Lea takes a tremulous breath.

“When I woke up, Isa was missing. You were too, but I kinda figured you would be. You didn’t wake up with the rest of us in The World That Never Was, so why would you have woken up in Radiant Garden? I went to find you in Transmute City, even ran into Del and Amaya, asked them if they’d seen you and I just missed you. They didn’t know where to find you and I didn’t even know where to start. But...I had a...theory, about Isa. That he still wasn’t himself. I couldn’t track you, but I could track the darkness, and I thought, hey, if it leads me to something else, fine, but if it leads me to him...I just didn’t want to lose my friend again and I knew you were safe and--”

My fist connects with his jaw, hard enough to send him reeling. He looks very much like he has just been electrocuted, and, were there not a room full of witnesses, he very well might be.

Shockwaves begin to pulse off of my skin, my nostrils flare, my pupils shrink. There’s no good I can do, right here, right now. This is Castle Oblivion all over again, and I need to get as far away from this man as possible.

“Come on, Kairi, we’re going.” I snap, wheeling around. She is quick to react and all but scampers over to me, keeping pace easily.

“Dammit, Rueki, come on, I’m sorry, I never meant to--”

I turn back around, stopping dead in my tracks.

“I kissed Xigbar.” And with that, I stomp, Kairi in tow, back to my Gummi Ship.

Lea curses, loudly, but follows us anyway.

Chapter Text

XII.

What follows mine and Lea’s argument is the most awkward Gummi Ship ride of all time. He tries to apologize multiple times, profusely, sincerely. And I don't even need to cut him off or offer him a biting remark. I fume while Kairi fights my battles for me. Every time Lea opens his mouth she tells him, without remorse, that no one in this ship wants to hear a word he has to say. She isn't wrong and he knows exactly how much trouble he is in with me, so he doesn't even attempt to argue with her. Each time she silences him, he simply clears his throat and looks out the window at the stars. By the time we disembark in Transmute City, Lea has not gotten a word in edgewise, I am still irritated at him, and Kairi has more than proved herself as my new best friend.

The wind whispers against the three of us, far less brutal than it normally is, but Kairi completely vibrates, shaking violently in a cold she is not used to. When we enter my former home, she whimpers with relief. Fire burns brightly from the living room.

“Kids, I'm home!” I call out. Amaya comes scrambling out from the hallway the bedrooms are in. Her green eyes are warm but weary and I notice dark circles are settled deep beneath them.

“Rueki, I am so glad to see you but please, can we keep it down? Del just put Lucidia down for a nap.” Amaya’s voice is soft, gentle and yet somehow sterner than ever. I purse my lips.

“You already had the baby?” I ask. She nods, nearly glowing from head to toe as she approaches.

“She came a few weeks early but she's healthy and strong and...Rueki she's perfect.” Amaya sighs, her eyes literally twinkling. My heart sputters momentarily. The only time I've ever seen a look so devoted is in Lea’s eyes as he regards me. In the wake of my anger with him, a wave of discomfort washes over me. I should feel nothing fond for him.

“I'm sorry Maya, I tried to make it in time, but--” I start, but Amaya shakes her head and quickly wraps her arms around me, silencing my apology.

“You kept your promise. You came back home as quickly as you could. That was all I asked.” She squeezes my shoulders as she pulls away, eyes flicking to the redheads who are both now standing in front of the fireplace. “You brought guests.”

“Yeah, you remember Axel. He's Lea now.” I say, purposefully brushing over his name rather than caressing it.

“Oh I know. He stopped here a few days after you left. I tried to get ahold of you, but you didn't answer your phone.” She sets her real hand on her hip.

“How was I supposed to know there was a phone in my damn ship?” I snap. Immediately her eyes burn.

“Rueki, hush!” Amaya all but growls. I color and tuck a strand of hair behind my ear.

“Sorry.” I whisper. “Anyhow, the girl is Kairi. She's Sora’s girlfriend.”

“Am not.” I hear Kairi mutter, teeth still chattering. I bite back a smirk.

“Anyhow, she's my friend, we've been adventuring together.” I explain. Amaya nods, smiling, just as Del begins to traipse away from the bedrooms. His hands are in his pockets and abruptly he looks up, eyes darting to each of us. His entire expression brightens, he breaks out into a jog and all but tackles me in a hug. Lea knows there's no reason to be jealous of Del, I sincerely doubt he has ever been jealous of Del. Even now when I am nine kinds of pissed at him, I am certain he is aware he has no competition. Yet, I still find myself very thankful for Del’s affectionate display. Competition or not, Lea needs to be reminded that there are people in the world that do put me first, that I am not asking too much.

“It's so good to see you!” Del says, grinning from ear to ear as he pulls away from me.

“Shush.” Amaya sighs, her mouth pressed into a hard line.

“Sorry.” Del chuckles, running a hand through his floppy hair. For the two years that have passed since I lived here, he looks just as young as ever. He takes a few strides over to Lea and shakes his hand, vigorously. “Lea, good to see you, man.”

“Yeah, you too Del. How’s the little one doing?” Lea asks, and suddenly Del is alight, shining brighter than the sun.

“Oh man, she’s awesome, you should see--” And that is all it takes to get Del off on a tangent. A little bit of attention from someone he thinks is cooler than him. Kairi takes a step away from the fireplace, linking her arms behind her back as she approaches Amaya.

“Kairi, it’s nice to meet you.” Amaya smiles. “I’m Amaya, Rueki grew up with Del and I.” Amaya holds out her real hand, which Kairi shakes.

“Nice to meet you too.” Kairi nods.

“Would you guys by chance, be hungry? I just put away some stew.” Amaya says. Lea’s eyes light up, he turns to Amaya with a vibrant grin on his face. Ugh, fuck, why is he so beautiful? Why am I so impossibly drawn to him when all I want to do is lift up the coffee table and throw it at him? The fucking jerk, the gorgeous fucking jerk. He’d best count his blessings until I get him alone, sans witnesses. When I give him a piece of my mind…

Damn, that is what I need to do. Talk to him, explain to him how deeply he has hurt me. And if all else fails, punch him in the face again. I am livid, incomprehensibly so, but I am not foolish enough to believe that I will not forgive him altogether under the right circumstances. Time apart from one another has been devastating, cripplingly so. I would much rather attempt to have a civil conversation to keep him in my life than lose him completely again.

Kairi and I catch Del and Amaya up on our journey, about traveling to different worlds together, about how Sora is okay, about how things are still dangerous and the two of us and Lea need to head out tomorrow and start training, but I am very adamant that it was my idea to come and see the two of them, that I wanted to be here for them. That I wanted to congratulate the two of them on the birth of their child. They both look incredibly thankful, but especially Amaya, who I leveled with the last time I was here. Her eyes glisten as she looks at me for the rest of the evening, even as Del pries Lea, with a excited expression. In light of everything, I do take comfort in knowing that some things never change. The things that matter about this place are left untainted. Pure, welcoming. We discuss rooming situations and how Amaya can move the baby into her room and free up what used to be my bedroom. I offer it to Kairi, saying that Lea and I will take the livingroom floor. He looks at me, intrigued, quizzical, and I refuse to meet his gaze, but we both understand that redemption is in the air. Because the more I look at him, the more I resolve to talk to Lea by the end of the night, to fix things for him and me both. I’m so sick of hurting.

“Lucidia needs to be fed, Rueki, would you like to meet her?” Amaya asks after dinner, and I am all deer in the headlights. Suddenly, I feel a deep pang of sympathy for Cid and the responsibility that was forced upon him. Me. The prospect of being asked to even hold a child is overwhelming, but I nod, because I feel like I’m supposed to. Kairi is helping with the dishes, Del and Lea are stoking the fire. There is no one here to save me.

My hands tremble right up until the moment Amaya walks out with a little alien looking creature. I’m not sure what it is about newborns, they just don’t look human, which makes it simultaneously more and less horrifying when she sets the creature in my arms. My heart is a hummingbird, my pupils shrink. Lea’s head whips around, eyes on me as Amaya pulls a bottle out of the refrigerator.

“Rueki, can you transmute something to heat this up evening, it’s a pain to heat up--”

“Yep!” I quickly thrust the child back at her, take the bottle into my hand and say “fire.” The bottle heats quickly, and, seemingly to Amaya’s surprise, quite evenly. She unscrews the lid, tests the liquid and nods, quite appeased.

“Oh, your daughter is so cute! Can I hold her?” Kairi dries her hands on a towel and scrambles over to Amaya. My heart is still hammering as I back away from the scene, thoroughly freaked out. Holding something like a life in my hands is horrifying on an entirely different level when the life is defenseless. I am no stranger to defending those I love, but this is unnerving and stressful and--

“You look like you wanna pass out, sweetheart.” Lea claps a hand on my shoulder, but still looks tightly wound, as though he is expecting me to rebuff his affections altogether, but I am still trying to shake my discomfort. Damn, I need to get out of here...and I need to fix things with Lea.

“Go for a walk?” I raise an eyebrow. His features soften completely, the tension in his expression releases.

“Yes.” He takes my hand in his, an instead of lurching away, I squeeze. His eyes are molten, I would be ever so content to drown in them. The familiar, bitter wind hits us, but with Lea in tow, radiating as much heat as he did as a Nobody, I find relief as I shiver closer to him. The hand that once was laced through mine grasps my shoulder, yanking me close. “Listen, Rueks, I’m fucking sorry. I love you, I fucked up. This was my bad, you can hate me if you want, that’s fine, but I just need you to forgive me in the end, cuz this whole having a heart thing isn’t worth it without you.”

Oh. Oh fuck. He doesn’t know.

“We had hearts.” For a moment, my words do no set in. He doesn’t even react, we keep walking, through the wind, toward the shed I have a tendency to keep waking up in. “Xemnas lied to us. We had hearts the whole time.”

And just like that, he skids to a halt. I have to take four steps to keep up with his two, and my legs are still moving as fast as they will take me, so I nearly topple over. I have to use his hold on me to keep from falling flat on my face. My eyes flick up to his, I chew on my lips as I take in his completely gutted expression. He looks as though he has been stabbed, his hold on me tightens, painfully so. And then, he tears away from me, running his hands through his hair, pinching his eyes shut.

Oh fuck. Oh fuck. I have accepted this, at the very least, I was not lied to for nearly as long as he, at least not to that extent. I was not the one who, in their early teens, watched their best friend get brainwashed by a lunatic. I was not the one who had to repress painful memories of failing to defend a young girl. I was not the one who was dehumanized for over a decade, to the point that morality meant nothing. Axel lied to me, of course he did. But I see the expression on Lea’s face right now, and I wonder if perhaps that was not such a bad thing. If I spent half of my life believing…Only to realize…

“Come here.” I wrap my arms around him and pull him in tight. His body is limp against mine.

“There’s no way. Xemnas...he told us..How can you be sure?” He chokes, and I feel his heart, feeble as it beats against me.

“Sora accused Xemnas of lying to us, said you had to have a heart to cry. Xigbar pretty much confirmed it.” I whisper, trying to keep my voice gentle, despite everything. Yes, I do still want to yell at him, yes, I do need to properly convey to him just how deep my hurt runs. He is my partner, between Neku and Kairi, these fucking kids are right. Life is not meant to be lived alone, and Lea is someone, the one I need to trust above all others.

“Fuck. Fuck. Dammit.” Lea chokes, and suddenly, he grasps me, fingers pressing into me hard enough to bruise. I don’t tell him that I was right from the beginning. I don’t remind him that I swore there was something more inside of us, keeping our emotions alive. I don’t offer a single petty, underhanded word so that I can count myself the victor in this argument. Because this shouldn’t be me versus him. This should be us against the world, and I cannot win if he loses.

“The things you felt, the words you said to me...the love, it was real. It’s been real the entire time. Nothing can take that away from you. Xemnas lied to you the entire time, but you were strong enough to find the truth. You’re better than him, Lea, you always have been.” I try, rubbing soothing circles on his back as I breathe in the smell of him. Fuck, this is home. This is everything. Pain washes away from me with ease, hurt burns up. My desire to balance the scales and wrong him the way I feel he has wronged me almost disappears completely. In the wake of this agony, of this miserable truth, my desire to heal him becomes everything.

“You’re right. Nothing can take away what I did.” But there’s a weight to his words that I do not trust.

“Stop.” I urge.

“You know exactly what I did, who I betrayed, how many times I was okay hurting people that didn’t deserve it--hurting you, all under the shield of being without a heart. I let Xemnas turn me into...Isa turned into…” He tears away from me, reaches around and punches a building, but his very human body is not capable of the force his Nobody body was. His fist makes contact with the wall and a sickening roar spills from his lips. His face twists, he shakes out his hand and turns away from me, unable to meet my gaze as I speak.

“I hurt you too, I knew I had a heart until almost the end. People do shitty things with good intentions all the time.” But I know it is more than that. I remember Axel in the beginning how cold and cunning he was, how little he cared about anything beyond his own agenda and how lucky I was that keeping me alive was on it. He was something wicked and sinister, but he’s not anymore and he hasn’t been for so very long. Between Roxas and I, from the times we spent on the clock tower laughing and eating ice cream, to the times the two of us spent comforting each other, offering reprieve that the outside world so thoroughly denied, he changed, he grew.

And not just him. Me too, through it all, what I assured him of in limbo is true. We are undoubtedly better because of each other.

“I shouldn’t have told you any of that. I should’ve kept my fucking mouth shut about you being a Nobody, it only did more harm than good, it only upset you and--”

“It gave me a second chance on life, one I wouldn’t have gotten if you hadn’t pushed me to act. And I wasn’t pissed about being a Nobody, by then I knew myself well enough to know Xemnas could never manipulate me. I was pissed that you lied to me. I’m not angry about our circumstances, Lea, I’m angry that you always think you can get away with keeping secrets from me. I always find out in the end and it always breaks my heart, because no matter how far we come, we end up ten steps backward. Don’t you realize I’d rather you hurt me with honesty than mislead me with a lie?” I ask, heaving a sigh.

“I’m not trying to mislead you.” He mutters. “I never...I just fucking hate seeing you hurt, Rueks.”

“Don’t you think the secrets hurt enough?” I ask in a voice so small it surprises even me. We’ve had this argument a thousand times, it is nothing new and I am so good at yelling at him and getting violent with him. But he’s hurting, he’s broken and I am the person he counts on to collect the pieces, the last thing he needs, the last thing we need, is for me to be nasty to him when all he needs if for me to be soft, just for this moment.

“The secrets don’t keep you up at night or make you scream yourself awake. The secrets don’t give you panic attacks that bring you to your knees in the middle of a battle.” He murmurs. My heart suddenly feels as though someone has their fist wrapping around it and is squeezing. I place a hand on my chest, my breath hitches.

“I can handle it, Lea. I can’t handle you lying to me anymore. And I can’t handle you consistently putting other people first. Especially...Especially Saix.” I remind him. He turns to me with the expression of a wounded animal.

“He was my best friend, Rueki.” Lea pleads.

“And he tortured me because he could, because he hates me all the way into his bones. You can’t change how much he loathes me, and you can’t change the fact that I will never forgive him. I don’t want to be the person to ask you to choose, but you could never possibly have the both of us in your life.” I insist. “I’m not going to forgive him, you should count yourself lucky that Xigbar had me occupied so I couldn’t skin that bastard alive.”

Lea steadies himself, he clears my throat. I tense, unsure of what to expect and why he suddenly looks like I killed his goldfish.

“Listen, you and Xigbar…” Oh fuck. “Whatever the two of you were, I don’t know if I can.. I just want to know what was--”

“Dude, I was kind of just talking out of my ass to piss you off.” I run a hand back through my hair, meeting him with an uneasy gaze.

“What do you mean kind of?” He asks.

“I kissed him, I guess, if you want to get technical about it. But it was more like...I ground electric current into him and needed to get as close as possible to generate a force that threw him into a building.” I confess, rubbing the back of my head. Lea raises an eyebrow. I shrug and slowly, I watch a smirk curl across his features. He throws his head back and bursts out laughing. The sound is so fucking warming, my heart comes to life, my body is alight. The tension dissipates, my anger fades. I close the distance between the two of us and wrap my arms around him. He holds me tight, and all feels right, all feel settled.

“You’re a nasty son of a bitch.” He chuckles.

“You didn’t realize that back when I called Ventus Prince Charming and you laughed at me so I kicked you in the shin?” I smile against the leather of his coat. For a moment, he hesitates, and it dawns on me so very abruptly that we haven’t had time to catch up on anything at all. He has heard the abridged version of my journeys with Kairi, but he doesn’t know that I woke up with all of my memories intact. His body stiffens as he pulls away from me.

“You remember?” He chokes and I nod. His hands grip the top of my arms suddenly, brutally, but the expression that graces his features, under only the light of the stars and the street lamps is enough to take my breath away. Pure elation looks so beautiful on him.

“Everything, down to those frisbees you used to carry around.” And just like that, he sweeps me into his arms, lifting me off of my feet. Quickly, I lock my legs around his waist, heart hammering as he kisses me with the same intensity he did in the Mysterious Tower. An intensity that can only exist, in the light of all of the hell we have been through. I drag my nails acros his scalp, he clutches the fabric of my shirt, the leather of his gloves trail up my abdomen. Everything inside of me clenches, tightens, beyond what I am capable of handling. After all this time, I am still a complete mess for him.

“We should head back home.” He breathes against my mouth. I shake my head.

“We’ll never get any privacy there.” I shake my head, because the floor of the living room of the house I once shared with Del and Amaya is hardly the place I want to have this reunion.

“Rueks, we’ve got to find somewhere.” He insists, and I don’t disagree.

“I can think of a place.” And it also is not the place I want to have this reunion, but it is certainly preferable to a house filled with prying questions. I climb off of him, take his hand and don’t stop walking until we find our way inside the shed I woke up in.

I slam the door to the shed shut behind us and immediately twine my arms around Lea’s neck. He grabs the tops of my legs, lifting me into the air and then presses my back to the wall of the shed. The wall is cold against my skin, but his hands are so very hot as the grasp and graze my flesh. My skin prickles, my hips shift against him.

His lips are so fucking soft.

Lea exhales, pressing his forehead to mine as he pull away from me.

“Don’t stop.” I grab the tassels at the front of his robe and yank him forward, smashing his lips to mine. I am baffled, by after all this time, how he meets me with such perfect familiarity. As I tug at his lips with my teeth, he slides his tongue against my lips, dragging along where our lips meet, slipping ever so teasingly into my mouth. I grab his hair in handfuls, pressing my nails against his scalp. A growl starts at the base of his throat and every muscle in my body uncurls, one by one, at the very sound. He’s beautiful, he’s so fucking beautiful and here he is, arms around me, wanting me and only me to bring him to the edge.

Possessively, his hands find my ass, which he squeezes hard enough to make me gasp. Little noises leave my mouth, when his hands roam and he finds his way to the hem of my shirt, which he promptly yanks over my head. I press my chest to his, pert nipples flush against the leather of his coat, thanks to the cold weather. With me wedged safely between him and the wall, Lea’s hands dance across my newly exposed skin, along the curve of my waist, up my back, onto my neck and finally into my hair. He grabs my ponytail, winds it around his palm and yanks. With a cry, I arch into him, malleable in his hands as his lips crash down onto my neck. I savor the feeling as his teeth graze my sensitive flesh, his lips find my pulse point and he sucks. I groan, not even trying to stop myself as pathetic, needy sounds spill from my lips.

“Fuck, Lea, I can’t wait to feel you inside me.” I breathe, and just like that, he stops, abruptly, slamming his palms on the wall behind us. He pants, so do I, my chest rising and falling as air floods my lungs, too much and not enough all in one.

“Rueks, I’m not gonna...it’s been so long..” He struggles.

“Spit it out.” I snap, because I’m wound so tightly, I’m already soaked. I need this.

“I’m not going to last long at all, so if you want this to be worth it for you, we’re going to need to--” He doesn’t need to say anymore. I unhook my legs from his waist and sink to the ground, grabbing the zipper of his coat in my wake. It yanks him forward, giving me the perfect angle to mash my lips into his. I’m all tongue and teeth, against his hot, wet mouth, violent and visceral in my actions. I hear him sigh as I drag my lower lip down his jaw, his neck, sucking and scraping as I tug his zipper down. He helps me, finishing off the zipper of his coat and shrugging it off.

Withdrawing my mouth from his skin, I shove him back. He staggers, but I catch him by his hips as I sink to my knees, eyes locked onto his the entire time.

“Fuck, Rueki.” He breathes, running a hand back through my hair. Boldly, I take the zipper of his pants between my teeth and yank it down, slowy, refusing to break eye contact with him. He’s achingly hard, I feel his cock twitch, desperate beneath my touch as I unbutton his pants and yank them down to his ankles. He makes quick work of his boots and pants and then looks at me, expectantly, as I begin to palm his cock, through his boxers. His hips jerk, involuntarily. “Dammit!” He grabs my head, fingernails biting into my scalp in the most delicious way possible, as he squirms to find some purchase. He wasn’t lying to me, I can feel wetness against his boxers, his cock is weeping, dripping with precum. My stomach twitches as arousal burns through me. I could have so much fun with him. A grin like a razorblade cuts across my features, his eyes widen.

“How bad do you want this, Lea?” I tilt my head to the side, tracing the outline of his cock with a teasing finger. My touch is feather light. His hips spasm, I watch the muscles in his arms go rigid, perfectly tense.

“You saying my name is not helping anything, sweetheart.” His voice cracks, I can hear the need in his tone the pleasepleaseplease. But instead of granting relief, I trace the tip of my tongue along the outline of his erection, through his boxers. He whines, a pathetic, beautiful little mewl that curls even my toes. “Rueki, baby, please.” He begs.

“You gonna scream for me?” My eyes flick up to his once again. He takes a wheezing, gasp of a breath.

“Sweetheart, I will do anything for you.” He assures me. I ponder, chewing my lip as I take his still clothed erection into my hand. I pump up his shaft and swipe my thumb across his head. He cries out, a gutteral sound and throws his head back. “Rueki!” His voice shakes as he says my name.

“Not loud enough.” I circle his head, through his boxers, with the tip of my tongue, watching as he thrashes beneath me.

“Dammit, Rueki, what the fuck do you want?” He cries out, voice shattering. I put just enough distance between my mouth and his cock, to make him whine once more. Batting my eyelashes, I stare up at him with innocent, doe eyes.

“Just to hear you scream the name of the person most important to you, that’s all. You see, I just need some reassurance.” I walk my fingers up and down his thighs, brushing my nails across his perfect skin. He chokes, face contorting.

“Rueki!” He begs, loudly, as though every fiber in his being depends on it. It is not enough.

“That doesn’t really sound all that convincing if you ask me.” I tease my tongue along the slit in his boxers. His breath shakes.

“Rueki, please!” He’s louder this time, so very wanton.

“You’re gonna need to do better than that if you want--”

“Rueki, please, let me fuck that perfect little mouth.” He screams. Victory fills me with a whole new sense of pride. I yank his boxers down, cover my teeth with my lips, and slam him into the back of my throat. He screams so loud, his voice shatters. I think I could cum from that sound alone. But instead, I do exactly as he begged, I grab his hips and guide him forward, my mouth descending on him with slick, sloppy motions. I swallow around his cock, watching him watch me. The pace I set is brutal, and were it not for the fact that he was already on the edge, I certainly would not have attempted to let him throat fuck me like this. But it is only a matter of moments before, engulfed in the wet heat of my mouth, that an orgasm rips through him. His face scrunches up like he has been met by an electric shock. He sputters and jolts beneath me, coming in my mouth. And, for all of the hell I have put him through, I am at least kind enough to swallow his seed, swollen lips still wrapped around his cock.

After he rides out the aftershock of his orgasm, I pull away, wiping saliva from my lips. He looks so perfectly undone, so completely satisfied from where he stands above me, but still, my conscience weighs on me.

“That wasn’t too much, was it?” I ask, brow coming together. It is like that, with him hovering over me, that I watch a dark expression cloud his features. I have seen this look on his face only a small handful of times. When unleashing Dusks on the Wizard in Oz, when confronting Marluxia. The man standing above me may no longer be a Nobody, but he is so very familiar with how delicious darkness can be.

In a movement too swift for my eyes to keep up with, he sinks to the floor and slams me on my back. Breath is torn from my lungs, and as I gasp for air, he tears my shorts down my legs. I hold my breath, fearing the buttons will pop off, but the fabric has enough give that he is able to fully remove them from my body.

“You wanna act like a little bitch, Rueks?” His tone is experimental, devious, and yet anxious. He needs my confirmation, and this is a side of him that I need to see.

“Oh there’s no act. I am a bitch.” I leer back. He grabs my ankles and drags me along the dirty floor of the shed, niping the skin of my calves with his teeth. Promptly, he sets my legs on either side of his shoulders and descends, grabbing the thin fabric of my panties between his teeth. I wince, heart fluttering. His eyes on mine, he sets a very warm, very wet tongue against my panties, right at my cunt and slides it up so there’s just enough--but not enough, not by a long shot--pressure on my clit. My hips lurch and he shoves them down, with a bruising force.

“If you want to be a bitch, you better be prepared to get fucked like one.” With taunting movements he slides his fingers up and down my pussy, feeling the wetness as it soaks through my panties. The heel of his hand presses against my clit, but refuses to move. He grins at me, a twisted, crooked smile that would already have my stomach in knots, were he not between my legs. He lets his hand up, I wince, clenching as I try to buck my hips forward, but once again, he shoves them down. “You can dish it, but you can’t take it, sweetheart?”

I can’t, he knows I can’t, and I remember what it feels like too have his tongue tease my clit. Pleasure climbs each rung in my spine as I formulate a desperate plan.

“Please, Lea.” I whimper, and his eyes go wide as I whimper his new name. I hear his breath sputter, watch the smile on his lips grow into something more genuine and less taunting. Arrogant fucker.

“You trying to be good, all of a sudden, sweetheart?” He asks, choking on his words as he slowly slips my panties down my legs. The sudden burst of cool air on my soaking pussy is enough to leave me gasping, but I manage a shaky nod. He meets me in return with a wolfish grin, examining my soaked panties. My insides backflip, I realize what he is about to do, just as he licks my juices off the scrap of clothing.

“Fuck.” I choke, my voice cracking. He chuckles.

“Oh, sweetheart, I don’t think you understand how nice it is to watch you come undone.” He leers.

“Then make me, Lea” I urge. He smirks, tracing the lips of my pussy with newly ungloved fingers. I clench again, wiggling my hips desperately against him. In the faint light of the shed, I can still see his fingers, glistening as he traces them across my slit. He’s so close, it’s almost enough, almost...but then he pulls his fingers away, before even the tips are inside of me. “Fuck!” I beg, arching my back, slamming my fists into the ground.

“You think you can just tease me and get away with it?” He asks. My next move is desperate, borderline pathetic, but I need this. I chew my lip and bat my eyes at him.

“Baby, I just wanna come now, so that I squirt when your cock is inside of me.”

I watch all of the color drain out of Lea’s face. He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing.

He looks so fucking beautiful.

“You’re good, Rueks.” He concedes, ducking his head between my legs. The sudden explosion of wet heat as his tongue slips along my clit is enough to make me scream. With slow, deliberate movements, he draws my aching bud between his lips and gently sucks. My eyes roll back, the muscles of my body go rigid, like the strings of a bow, drawn too tight. He nods his head, back and forth, lapping my juices, drawing as much of my wetness into his mouth as he can. He moans against me, the vibration of his lips sends shockwaves that radiate across my skin. I cry out, lacing my fingers through his hair, watching as he flicks his tongue across my clit. The slow lazy circles he traces are almost enough, almost.

And he slips a finger into me.

“Oh!” I am so unbelievably tight around his finger, panic shoots through me as I wonder how I am possibly going to be able to take his cock. But with languid movements, Lea works me open, his mouth sucking, licking, drawing me in, fingers working deeper, deeper--

Until finally, I clench around him, throwing my head back as I scream, my orgasm washing over me as a white light washes over my world.

I twitch and sputter as I come down, eyes hazy as they meet his. He wipes his damp chin as he looks at me and climbs up, mouth finding mine with ease. I wrap my arms and legs around him, pushing myself so close to him, impossibly close until I feel his already hardened cock against my stomach.

That didn’t take long.

“You’re so fucking perfect, Rueki.” He breathes, forehead pressed to mine as I feel him lining himself up, I bite my lip, bracing myself to accomadate him.

“I love you.” I whisper, feeling his head brush my entrance.

“I love you too, sweetheart. Now this time, I want to hear you scream my name.” Without any further warning, he slams his cock inside of me and a scream rips through my throat that I cannot hold back. The sheer effort that it is taking him not to jackhammer into me, although greatly appreciated, already has him dripping with sweat. He’s perfectly still, just for me, trying to give me a moment to adjust to the very new, very full sensation. Realization dawns on me. With the time we were dead, it has been nine months since I’ve felt him inside of me. Fuck, no wonder this is all too much--and just enough, fuck.

“Lea, move.” I urge, face contorted, and this is all the permission he needs to snap his hips into mine. The feeling of him stretching me is wicked, despite how utterly drenched my pussy is, but I find reprieve in digging my nails into his back. He’s unrelenting, unable to slow himself as he pounds into me, and within minutes, I hear him making little noises, trying, desperate grunts. This is also, approximately how long it takes for me to adjust, just enough, to find pleasure in his movements. He still fills me, but now, the sensation is not so impossible, but rather breathtaking. I shift my hips, clutching him desperately, but now, I rock in time with his movements, meeting him half way.

“Fuck.” He breathes, lips finding my neck. I sigh, throwing my head back as he works into me, hips nudging my legs further apart. The shifting in our positions has me spread open, savoring every inch of him. We settle into a pace that leaves me needy, growing wetter by the second, longing to take as much of him as I can. For the initial pain has been altogether swept away and is now met with an allconsuming pleasure. I feel as though I could drown in him, as another orgasm starts to build. Lea groans, gripping my hips animalistically. The jerking of his hips slows, becomes irregular. I pull just enough away that I can see his face contorting with effort.

“Come on, Lea, cum inside me.” I murmur, but he shakes his head, inhaling sharply.

“You first, Rueks.” But I’m not close enough yet. I know his body well enough, I know exactly what to expect of him and unless--

Huh…

“You still not afraid to play with fire?” I ask. His eyes spark and the grin that he meets me with is enough to make me weak in the knees. He draws away from me, just enough to tease my nipple, and I watch as the shed we are in is illuminated by the flames he traces across my skin. I had forgotten how earth shattering this sensation is. The delightful, hot tickling is enough to make me go cross eyed. He uses his other hand to trace the inside of my thigh, a fire igniting against my skin that tips me over the edge. I scream his name as I come undone and he picks back up, immediately, fucking me through my orgasm and into his.

We lay there, sticky skin pressed against one another. He heaves and I watch the rise and fall of his shoulders above me with the sort of reverence one might reserve for a diety.

“We should get rough with each other more often.” I laugh, voice light and breathy. He cackles, pressing a kiss to my forehead. In a swift movement, he hooks his arms around my waist and roll us over so that his back is pressed to the floor and I can rest easily atop his chest. The damage has been done though. Dirt is stuck to my sweaty back, but the gesture is certainly appreciated.

“Yeah? You think so?” He asks. “Cuz last time I checked, you couldn’t take the heat.” But as he speaks, his fingers walk along my spine and flames dance across my skin. I bite back a giggle or a moan or some combination of the two as I press my cheek into him.

“Fuck you, I can too.” I insist.

“You were begging within in seconds, sweetheart.” He snickers.

“You weren’t any better, screamer.” I reply. He squeezes me a little tighter and presses his lips to my temple.

“Are we good, Rueki?” He asks. I tense a little against him, but nod.

“We’re good. We were always gonna be, it’s not like…” I take deep breath, trying to figure out what exactly it is that I want to say. Or rather what is safe. Can I really utter these words without them getting abused, or, more to the point can I say this without constantly worrying that he is going to turn my words around on me? Should I even really be worrying this? “There’s nothing you can do that I won’t forgive. I love you. I’m always going to love you. But I’m also not going to suddenly turn into the girl who lets you get away with shit that you don’t deserve to. That’s kind of our thing, isn’t it? You act like an asshole and I throw a tantrum until one of us decide we love the other more than we want to hurt the other. But the point is, Lea, I’m always going to be there for you during the big moments. I will not let you down, I will not let you fall apart without me there to catch the pieces. Whatever you are missing, I’ll make up for it. You’re my other half, you’re everything. And yeah, you’re a dick, but so am I and...like, fuck, I’m just glad to have you back. I missed you so much.”

“I don't know how I got lucky enough to get you, sweetheart. Have I told you that recently?” He asks me and I smirk.

“Not often enough to make up for how much of a cocky fucker you are.” I snicker. He ruffles my hair, laughs and for the first time since coming back to life, I truly do feel whole

“Yeah, yeah laugh it up. We both know you love me.”

“I do.” I agree. He pauses, fingers woven into my hair as though he is savoring the moment, as though he is clinging to my words. “What?” I ask.

“Nothing. It's cold, let's get back home.” And we do, but inside of his arms, I am already home.