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Xehanort towered over the dwindling lights that spread out like stars before him, their shimmering blades glinting against the dust storm that buffeted the Keyblade Graveyard. His fledgeling selves stood opposite them, their dark faces twisted in smug satisfaction. Despite the numerical advantage that lurked among the light's forces, there was little reason to be concerned.

They were but a bundle of sparrows, gathered beneath a stormy sky and waiting to be scattered by winds beyond their comprehension. What lurked beyond the trees was darkness, and the promised victory they so long awaited would not come easy.

“To think,” Xemnas began, his gloved hands spread wide before him. "You have come so far, only to fall short. The burdens laid at your feet have not yet begun to resonate in you."

Sora, beside Roxas, in front of Xion, didn't react. Two years of banter from villains just Xemnas him left him desensitized.

"It is a shame, the knowledge that you have yet to experience the most terrible burden of all," Xemnas decided, his hands falling to his side.

Still, his fingers played at the strings of a heart not yet seen, tweaking with every word.

"Loss is not something you can avoid, nor is it something to be underestimated. The bitter cracks in the heart cannot be salved by mere sentiment."

A figure cloaked in black stepped out. It was evident that it was a young lady, her build reminiscent of Xion, but Sora could see the tufts of blonde hair peeking out from beneath, hanging over a singular shoulder—

"And here," he gestured, "is the burden of that proof."

Not too far from where he stood, Kairi sucked in a breath before letting out a pained whimper. From the corner of his eye, he could see her clenching a fist over her heart.

Roxas stepped forward first, fingers wrapped tightly around the hilt of both Oathkeeper and Oblivion. Flecks of cobalt and gold gleamed in the dim light cast the stormy sky overhead, accentuating the teeth of his most prized keyblade.

"What did you do to her?"

The youngest of the trio opposite him grinned, a flash of recognition hitching in his eyes at the sight of the rage brewing inside of the bold dual wielder.

Axel blinked and stepped up to support Roxas regardless, Flame Liberator in hand. He didn't know what was going on, or what Roxas was talking about. It wasn't until a familiar flash of blonde poked out from beneath the hood covering the Organization's newest member that he understood. At once, his expression shifted, and the bright forests in his eyes turned to dark, cinderous pine.

Whatever dark crossroads she now found herself at, he could no longer relate.

“Naminé?” echoed Xion, clearly confused at how Naminé came into the picture. Rage filled her within moments as she put two and two together: her superior must have had the foresight and thus, prepared an extra vessel in advance with every intent to use her for nefarious purposes.

One wrong move and they could potentially hurt her… if she didn’t hurt them first. As far as Axel was concerned, Xehanort – no matter which persona he was – would have no qualms about hurting Naminé, but he knew they would.

“Her power to manipulate memories is far too useful to give up,” Young Xehanort revealed. “We’re well aware that because of her, you were successful in overthrowing us but we will put an end to that. No more surprises, Keyblade wielders.”

“The girl you knew will soon be gone and so will she,” Ansem continued, pointing a finger in Kairi’s direction. “The anguish in your heart is not a song playing to the lonely dark; it will proliferate, until you tear yourself apart.”

Kairi gritted her teeth together, evidently in pain, and was forced to let her Keyblade drop to the ground. It vanished in flash of light, just as her knees buckled underneath her. She could hear – no, feel – Naminé’s cries of despair echoing throughout her, desperately fighting to hold onto Kairi, to hold onto the remnants of her existence.

Her knees buckled and were it not for Riku, she would have slammed into the ground beneath them. His arm snaked out to hook her waist at the last possible second, and he knelt so she could utilise his stature as her crutch.

The sound of her Keyblade clattering to the ground caught the attention of the others; she could hear their cries as they called out her name, one after the other, but they did little to tether her to the waking world.

When the pain finally dissipated, Kairi had long fallen unconscious. Before Riku knew it, Axel had wordlessly moved closer to him, his weapon drawn out in front of the both of them.

When the redhead looked over his shoulder, the silver-haired man shared a knowing look with him; they both shared the same sentiment: a need to protect the things that mattered.

Kairi had wormed her way into Axel’s heart over time and, without a doubt, she was one of his closest friends. He was not allowing her to fall to the clutches of darkness.

“Kairi?!” Sora cried out, horrified to see his friend crumple before his eyes by some unseen force.

Naminé stared blankly right through them, the permafrost of her eyes stained by the ambergris of Xehanort’s ambition. The alabaster shade of her complexion darkened, blackened by the darkness imbued into the entirety of her being.

“I shouldn’t have offered you a choice, Sora. All the possibilities that could have been if you had chosen me instead of,” her eyes flickered to Kairi, with all the rage she could muster. “Her.”

All hell broke loose within mere moments.

Tremors shook the earth.

At once, the pillar that held them collapsed into rubble, sinking once again toward the maze below. Sora was the first to regain his footing, hopping nimbly from rubble to rubble without much concern. Riku and Roxas weren't far behind, though the former was hampered by the dead weight still lolling in his arms.

Terra, Aqua, and Ven handled themselves well, making liberal use of Aqua's magic and Terra's raw power to clear a path on the way down to forge themselves a safe landing.

Lea and Xion fell like bricks toward the ground, bouncing off of rubble here and there as they fell. Xion was a bit less nimble, a bit less experienced than Lea, for all of her power.

Mickey, the first to the ground, relegated himself to dealing with the chunks of dusty rock that crashed like meteors around them. There was no victory to be found if they were all crushed, and his magics were well suited to stalling gravity.

Unfortunately, there was only so much that could be done to stall the evil that advanced on them in the wake of the debris.

Young Xehanort dove straight for the kill, aiming for the most vulnerable of them.

Xemnas decided to unleash his wrath on his former subordinates and the boy who wrecked his plans of attaining Kingdom Hearts; he refused to let it happen again.

That left Ansem to obstruct the rest, preventing them from interfering.

“Bring me Sora,” Naminé demanded, an uncharacteristic iciness in the way she spoke. For a moment, she was comparable to an ice queen, her heart frosted over by the shadowy tendrils that had long festered in her heart.

Roxas watched her fall, her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped tightly around the edges of her sketchbook. She didn't look as graceful as she usually did, but it wasn't hard to see a glimmer of the resolve he knew so well shining behind the fresh amber of her glare.

He darted toward her without reservation, kicking off of a particularly large boulder and bouncing across another to close the gap.

She glanced up and Xemnas cut him off, his twin blades singing through the air on a collision course with Roxas's chest. Oathkeeper and Oblivion flickered upward in defiant reply, parting both blades and forcing his former leader's guard apart. Xemnas continued inward anyway, rolling to Roxas's left, and came in with a pair of quick, vibrant slashes that would've caught anyone else off guard.

Roxas danced backwards and hopped away just as the boulder they stood upon collided with the ground and the entire battle shifted back into the now crumbling maze.

Keyblades clashed and clanged over the next few minutes, each song punctuated by vulgar vocals – mostly from Axel – that resounded throughout the battlefield. Blurry bodies crashed against each other again and again, weaving in and out of flying magics in order to evade the buzz of fatal death that accompanied them. Every so often, the cacophonous boom of thunder shook the stony earth, kicking up minute dust storms that scattered the fighters further and further apart.

In the midst of the maelstrom, Naminé and her sketchbook patrolled the battle, eyes flickering back and forth between the fighters and the pages that she controlled. Xion, in the seconds after taking a whip-like roundhouse kick to the face from Xemnas, was the first to catch sight of her.

If only she knew that Naminé, at her worst, was a force to be trifled with.

"Focus on Naminé!" Xion cried out, “We need to get to her!”

A deafening boom echoed throughout the vicinity; a flash of blue spiraled through the air – into Xion’s periphery – she barely had time to react before Aqua slammed into her, carrying the both of them into a wall on the opposite side of the battlefield. Together, they clambered back to their feet, covered in dust and rubble.

Through the veil of smoke that punctuated their wake, Xemnas and his humming blades of interdiction stepped in to greet them.

“Ah, two lovely ladies,” Xemnas crowed. "Perhaps this arrangement might allow us more privacy."

In the distance, Ventus and Terra were still engaged with Ansem, leaving Xion and Aqua to face Xemnas alone. Not far from them were Roxas and Sora, the latter clearly being torn on helping the two of them and saving Naminé.

Roxas locked gazes with Sora. For a brief moment, he saw a flash of dangerous certainty in his Other’s azure hues and instantly knew the dilemma his other half was struggling with; he could feel the turmoil radiating from him.

“Sora, let me do it,” Roxas suggested, drawing closer to the brunet.

“But—”

“The closer you get to her, the easier it'll be for her to work with your memories,” Roxas explained. “Xion and Aqua need your help more than I do. They can't take Xemnas alone, and we can't leave Naminé to herself, either.”

Sora’s gaze lingered on him for a little longer, before nodding in affirmation.

“Bring her back.”

“I will. Trust me.”

With nothing left in his way, Roxas watched Sora go charging into battle once again. Part of him felt offended at how little threat they afforded him.

How quick they were to forget his defeat of the lunar berserker.

For as much as he hated being underestimated, their incompetence was convenient. Naminé was left wide open for him to approach and, judging from the frenetic sketching, she was far too engrossed in her task until a shadow had fallen over her form.

By the time she had lifted her head, it was too late.

Roxas stretched out towards Naminé and, with the tip of Oathkeeper, he aimed for her sketchbook and knocked the offending medium of her hands. There was something about her that still was indelibly her, even under Xehanort’s thrall — Roxas knew this because he knew her.

Because he knew her, he understood that when she was focused on a task, she would always see it through, no matter what.

That drive of hers was a knowledge unique to him, a sort of grace granted by their intimacy. He knew her better than she knew herself, and he knew better than anyone that he needed to repay her for the gift of that knowledge. Naminé and her litany of truths were the sole reason for his survival, and the only reason that he could stand so firm against her.

She was so determined, but so frail; she looked so often like a strong wind might blow her over that her steel often went unappreciated. Naminé was a survivor of burdens so heavy that Atlas would have shuddered at the thought of them; she was the one who guided him from the dark, the one who helped him embrace his inner light, and the one who revealed to him the truths he hadn't wanted to face.

She rendered the difficult simple, and the mystery of her freshly darkened heart was but a debt he needed to repay. In the end, he knew that there was nobody else who could filter free the black borders of her newly minted hatred.

There was only him, and to him, only her.

There was a part of her that Roxas knew he could reach out to. Words replaced by sheer frustration, he maneuvered himself so that he could gently grab her by the wrists, just before she attempted to dive for her sketchbook.

“Naminé, please! Snap out of it,” he pleaded, a stark firmness embedded into his words, solidified with every intent to diminish the hold that Xehanort had over her.

She struggled against his grip, snarling at him; her legs kicking out at his, but it did nothing to deter him. He would gladly take the pain if only it could bring her back to them.

To him.

“Remember what you said before? That we can be together again? I’m here now, Naminé— I’m here.”

Her flailing came to an abrupt stop. A flicker of recognition flashed in her golden irises. For a brief moment, Roxas could swear that he saw an icy expanse, one so familiar to him, before it returned to the amber hues.

When she did not show any sign of resistance, Roxas tugged her wrists downwards.

“I’m sorry it took so long to come back to you,” he apologised, rubbing circles into the back of her gloved hands, never quite letting go of her.

He could still feel her trembling with rage and hatred and all of the negative emotions she harboured deep within her heart that he could not soothe. He remembered white curtains, and wondered when would be the next time he could return to her side.

“I’m here now but that doesn't matter if you're not here,” he returned to grasping her hands in a tight hold, noting that the tremors were beginning to subside.

He brought his face closer while keeping his eyes trained on her expressions, on her behaviour, on every little thing about her that he had long committed to memory.

“What… are you… doing?"

Her words were so staggered, as fragmented as the heart beating out of control in her chest. In every word, he heard it: the creeping tone of someone who did not understand love mixed with the familiar gentleness of her voice. Her eyes were flickering between blue and gold, dark and light fighting for dominance.

Fingers curled around the base of her bare neck and he bowed his head so that his forehead was pressed to hers. Warmth passed through him to thaw her cold exterior, and he closed his eyes at the altar of his faith.

“Come back to me,” he whispered. “Nothing else really matters anymore..”

He felt her body convulse beneath him, heard her gasp as though she were raised from the depths of an ocean.

Then, she went limp.

“Naminé…?”

Moments passed and she remained terrifyingly still, much to Roxas’ growing terror.

It isn't until the snowy colour faded from her hair and the porcelain-like quality returned to her skin that she finally came to.

She awoke with a jolt, her breath renewed, and her arms sought for purchase in the fabric of Roxas’ coat. When her eyes finally opened, Roxas let out a shaky sigh of relief to see that the ocean had returned to her.

The next thing Naminé knew, the two of them had sunk to the ground, with the dual wielder holding tight to her.

“Roxas,” she begins, confusion written all over her face. Long, wet streaks ran down Roxas' cheeks, and she felt something stir in her chest in response.

Her hand rose to cup his cheek and he choked on the words he needed to say. There were so many things, so many sentiments he couldn't formulate while the fear in him faded.

What remained was a mixture of relief and seaworthy fatigue.

The artist wordlessly slid her arms around his shoulders, patting his back in a “there, there” gesture with the hopes it could stitch the many tears in his heart, opened by the mere fact that they had almost lost her to the dark.

To think that Xehanort would take of taking her hostage. The thought of having her exposed to abuse and neglect once more was unbearable: it had displayed just now, whether she remembered it or not.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she reassured, smiling like everything was right in this world, as though whatever had transpired moments ago had not happened at all.

Nevertheless, Naminé’s hands reached up to bring his face up, so that he was facing her, and pressed her lips against his trembling ones. There came the taste of salt and sand, undercut by sharp iron.

That single gesture stilled him as he had her in the moments prior.

Naminé pulled away, and by then, the tears were gone.

“How long?" Sora called from the peanut gallery, sounding all the world like a disappointed dad. His arms were folded over the pommel of his Kingdom Key, its teeth buried in the sand.

The sound of footsteps could be heard more clearly now. Before he turned, Roxas wiped at his eyes, erasing any evidence of tears. Naminé giggled, raising the sleeve of her coat to dab at his face. She knew how he was when it came to being expressive in front of others.

He looked a little like a battle hardened tomato.

Ventus, on the other hand, had an expression of what seemed to be a mixture mortification and bemusement; it was clearly difficult to stomach that someone who looked just like him was kissing a girl.

Naminé turned to Terra and bowed down.

“Thank you for heeding my call,” she spoke, and his eyes widened with realisation before he bowed to her.

“It’s you,” he breathed, gratitude puncturing every word he said. “You’re the one who helped me, connected me to everyone else.”

“I did,” Naminé replied, turning her attention to Aqua and Ventus. It baffled her at how much the latter looked like her dearly beloved. Yet, they were distinctly different.

“My name’s Ventus,” he said, offering a hand for her to shake, establishing his amicable nature. “Call me Ven.”

“Nice to meet you, Ven. I’m sorry we had to meet under such dire circumstances,” she apologised, turning to the azure-haired lady next to him.

“Aqua, right? You helped Kairi when she was young,” Naminé remarked, bowing down before the blue-haired woman.

She took note of the confusion that crossed Aqua’s face before adding on, “I have power of Sora’s memories and those around him and since Kairi is my other half, I hold her memories too, even the ones that have been forgotten.”

The older woman stared at her for a long time before finally offering a smile and speaking to the blonde-haired girl.

“Lovely to meet you, Naminé. Thank you for bringing Terra back to us too. Sounds like we’d have been in trouble, if not for you.”

“Yo, guys? We still have a situation here: someone hasn't woken up,” Axel pointed out to an unconscious Kairi.

Unable to trust Kairi to be left alone, Riku had been supporting her limp form. Every single second that they had been fighting, he wished that Kairi would wake up; it was easier to handle a semi-conscious princess than one completely dead to the world.

Even with Axel’s (or rather, Lea’s) assistance, it still proved to be a trying task. No matter how much the two of them had tried, Kairi still got roughed up in the chaos of it all.

Roxas observed the way Sora’s eyes landed on Kairi, watched the way his blue hues darkened, like the skies did when there was an incoming storm.

It was reminiscent of what conspired a year ago and, in spite of the time that had passed them by, Roxas knew the brunet found it trying to not be reminded of the times Kairi had been unconscious and out of reach.

At least they’re together now, he thought to himself, trying to be optimistic for Sora.

Riku and Axel came over, with Kairi being carried bridal style by the former.

“There isn't much time but I – well, the past me – has some things to say,” Naminé said. The next thing he knew, she was shorter and her dress was longer, ending just above her knees.

She looked like Kairi from a year ago.

“I’m sorry you were put in such a position,” young Naminé apologised, bowing lightly to the silver-haired man. Words went unsaid, but the two of them knew what she meant, about what she was referring to.

Riku let out a hearty chuckle, shaking his head.

“If not for you, I wouldn't be there now. Thank you, Naminé.”

She then turned to Axel.

“We’ve come a long way, haven't we?” Naminé asked in a rheoterical manner. “When I go back to my time, I won’t remember but my heart will.”

Roxas found himself being surprised at the meek girl before him, uncertain of how to behave right in the moment. The younger Naminé might as well be a familiar stranger to him, had it not been for the fact that the girl before him looked so much like the Naminé he knew, but with a different demeanour.

How much about Naminé did he not know? How much had she kept from him in order not to burden him with the demons of her past?

Naminé’s eyes gaze shifted to Sora who had walked forward, clearly pleased to see the girl once more. Her eyes widened and regret flashed in them.

“Sora, I—”

Sora shook his head and said, “You don’t have to apologise. You did what you needed to do and since we’re all here now, it means that you’ve ensured that we got to where we were.”

He took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Naminé. You’ve helped us and I think it’s about time we helped you too. I’m sure Donald and Goofy would say the same thing.”

There were sounds of affirmation as everyone agreed with him, even the King himself.

“That’s right,” Xion chimed in and Naminé turned to her, confused at how much the girl before looked like Kairi too before the memories of her older self started to trickle into her memory. A single glance into Xion's eyes told Naminé about the gratitude that ran deep

Then, she understood.

“Glad to have you back, Xion.”

Finally, the blonde turned around to face him, with a knowing smile upon her face and an unmistakable tenderness in her eyes that he figured was being channelled by her older self.

“I knew you even before I met you,” she told Roxas, reaching out to grasp his hands, her fingers intertwining with his, “I wish we could have met sooner.”

“I wish we had met sooner too,” Roxas admitting, recalling about what he said to Axel before he left The Organization, about finding someone who would tell him the truth about himself and eventually coming to a conclusion that it would be the person he’d trust.

What he hadn’t known that it would come in the form of a flaxen-haired angel, appearing in his dreams, and guiding his way to the truth in spite of knowing that he might not be able to accept it.

Their foreheads touched and he could feel her fading away. Roxas was relieved that now she was out of Xemnas’ control, her form would be going back to where she came from and the Naminé he knew – his Naminé – would be gaining control of this vessel.

Or maybe, they were becoming one instead.

There was another glow of light, the scattering of stars, and in her place was Naminé at fifteen years old — the very same one he had met on the streets of a virtual reality.

“So, how long have you been…?” Sora queried, grinning mischievously at Roxas. Before he could answer, Naminé had already approached the subject.

“You’d find out. I’ll stay here and take care of Kairi,” Naminé offered, glancing at the girl. “She needs to rest. Master Xehanort needs to be stopped.”

Roxas looked at her, with all the determination he could muster, and with all the hatred that he needed to direct at their enemies.

“He does. We’ll be back,” Roxas promised, just as she wordlessly pulled away from him to tend to the red-haired girl. He could see her eyes, bright and wide-eyed, as she scanned all of them.

“I know you will.”