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Sorrow's Promise

Chapter Text

Welcome! A little bit of information that you should know:

1. I will be posting new chapters of this fic twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

2. This fic is rated T for violence only. No sex or language.

3. There is a Trigger Warning for Domestic Violence. Verbal and physical, nothing sexual. I will mark each affected chapter (there are several, ranging from a couple of sentences to an entire chapter) with the trigger warning, and will also include a censored version of the chapter below the original. If you prefer to read the censored version, just keep scrolling down until you see the double line. That's where the chapter will begin again. The censored versions will include brief, non-detailed summaries in italics, in place of the potentially triggering moments.

Hope you enjoy!

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TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW THE DOUBLE LINES.
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It was happening again.

Waking with a start and a deep gulp of air, I blinked against the early morning light that was slanting through the bare window beside my bed. The dreams were back. The ones about the two boys, and the girl who looked just like me, but wasn't me. Those same dreams that I had been having off and on for as long as I could remember – which, granted, wasn't very long.

Somehow, though, something was different this time. I rubbed my eyelids with the heels of my hands, trying to connect the pieces before I was too awake and they slipped away. The kids were older again, aging with me just like they always had. Their early days of playing on the beach were long gone. But that wasn't the only change. Finally it clicked in my mind – they weren't together anymore. It had been a long time since I had last seen those three in my dreams, but in the past, they had always been together. Despite the fact that I knew they were just a product of my overactive imagination, they had always felt so real to me, which meant that the sadness I had felt from them in the dream was leaving me with a lingering sense of melancholy.

Glancing at the bedside clock, I yawned and stretched my arms up over my head. This was much earlier than I usually woke up. I was definitely going to need some coffee. Rolling gracelessly off the bed, I staggered the few steps to the kitchenette and grabbed the coffee pot to fill with water. Snippets of the dream still played through my mind as I punched the power button and heard the device gurgle to life.

Before long, a mug of hot coffee was in my hand, and I leaned up against the metal window frame to sip it, looking out over the street below. Apartments like mine didn't come with a great view of the city like those swanky, high-rise places. The only things to see here were cars whizzing by, the windows of the office building across the street, and occasionally a person walking down the sidewalk. It was still a nice distraction, though, especially if I could people watch. I found it amusing to come up with names and potential destinations for any pedestrians I spotted. It was one of those things that I wouldn't ever tell anyone else about, because they would probably think it was stupid, but I had been doing it since I was a kid.

It didn't seem to be quite enough to shake off the heaviness I was still feeling this morning, though. Maybe I needed to take a walk, instead. Yanking the baggy t-shirt I had slept in up over my head, I tossed it onto the bed and pried open the rickety closet door to pull out jeans, a tank top, and a lightweight hoodie. Once dressed, I ran my fingers through the longer portion of my asymmetrical purple hair, slipped on my flip-flops, refilled my coffee mug, and left the apartment, locking the door behind me.

The morning air was cool and damp, and as usual, smelled of car exhaust. I didn't really have a destination in mind as I wandered slowly down the sidewalk, warming my hands on the coffee mug. It wasn't like there was much of anything to see or do in this part of town, anyway. It seemed like it was mostly an area for people to pass through on their way to somewhere more interesting, and a place to live for those who couldn't afford somewhere nicer – people like me. Not that I, personally, could afford anything, which is why I wasn't complaining at all about the apartment or the neighborhood. I knew I was incredibly lucky to have someone paying my rent for me, so that I didn't have to live on the streets anymore. That was an experience that I would rather not repeat.

Eventually I pointed my feet back towards home, feeling a bit lighter than when I left. I climbed the stairs to the the third floor, and noticed right away that something was off. My door was not shut all the way, and I distinctly remembered having locked it. Most people's minds would probably have immediately gone to a break-in, but I had a feeling that I knew this culprit. Aiden. I didn't know he was planning on coming by this morning.

Swallowing hard, I pushed open the door and saw him standing at the kitchen counter with his back to me. He had on his typical faded jeans and charcoal grey leather jacket, with his bright red hair combed neatly into place.

"Hey, babe," I squeaked. Why was his mere presence making me feel so nervous this morning? I didn't think I had done anything wrong that should warrant that.

"Meli. It's about time you showed up," Aiden responded dryly without turning around.

My stomach turned a little flip. "I'm sorry," I murmured, looking down at my shoes. "I had this weird dream, and I needed..."

His heavy footsteps were crossing the floor toward me, and I jerked my head up to find his electric green eyes inches away from mine. One of his hands gripped my face hard, squeezing my cheeks together until my teeth dug painfully into them.

"I came out of my way to see you, and you couldn't even be bothered to be here," he hissed, spraying my face with saliva. "Don't you know I have more important things to do than sit around your apartment and wait for you to show up?"

"I'm sorry," I tried to repeat, but his grip was so tight that my mouth couldn't form the words. Finally he let go, giving me a shove as he did that caused me to stumble a couple of steps backwards. Tears were stinging my eyes, but I refused to let them fall in front of him. He would only mock me if I did. I always cried far too easily, and it drove Aiden crazy. Instead, I rubbed my cheeks gingerly as he stalked back to the kitchenette and snatched up his mug off the counter. "It won't happen again, I promise," I whispered.

Neither of us spoke for a long, agonizing few minutes, him leaning against the counter drinking his coffee, and me standing awkwardly just inside the door, not daring to move without permission. At last he heaved a sigh, set his mug down, and faced me again, his expression much softer now. "Sorry," he remarked casually, making me wonder if he was only apologizing for the silence. "I've got a lot on my mind this morning. I have to be at a meeting with Chander soon, and I really wanted us to spend some time together first."

I nodded meekly, shuffling my feet. "I understand. I'm sorry."

Aiden smiled that sideways smile of his, the one that made his eyes shine, and held out his hand to me. "Come here."

I obliged, trotting quickly over to him, grateful that the fight was over. Pulling me into his chest, he wrapped his strong arms around me, and I sighed into his jacket.

"I've gotta go," he said after a moment. "I'll see ya later, okay? Let's do dinner tonight."

Tilting my face up to him, I gave him a small smile and nodded. "Okay."

When he was gone, leaving only the smell of cigarettes lingering behind him, I sank down onto the bed and pulled my knees up to my chest. Across the room, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the full-length mirror and noticed that my cheeks were still red from his grasp. An image from the dream flashed suddenly back through my mind. What would those kids say to me, if they were here? Or, more appropriately, if they were real? Too bad they weren't, though. It would have been nice to have some friends in this world that I could actually trust.

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CENSORED VERSION
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It was happening again.

Waking with a start and a deep gulp of air, I blinked against the early morning light that was slanting through the bare window beside my bed. The dreams were back. The ones about the two boys, and the girl who looked just like me, but wasn't me. Those same dreams that I had been having off and on for as long as I could remember – which, granted, wasn't very long.

Somehow, though, something was different this time. I rubbed my eyelids with the heels of my hands, trying to connect the pieces before I was too awake and they slipped away. The kids were older again, aging with me just like they always had. Their early days of playing on the beach were long gone. But that wasn't the only change. Finally it clicked in my mind – they weren't together anymore. It had been a long time since I had last seen those three in my dreams, but in the past, they had always been together. Despite the fact that I knew they were just a product of my overactive imagination, they had always felt so real to me, which meant that the sadness I had felt from them in the dream was leaving me with a lingering sense of melancholy.

Glancing at the bedside clock, I yawned and stretched my arms up over my head. This was much earlier than I usually woke up. I was definitely going to need some coffee. Rolling gracelessly off the bed, I staggered the few steps to the kitchenette and grabbed the coffee pot to fill with water. Snippets of the dream still played through my mind as I punched the power button and heard the device gurgle to life.

Before long, a mug of hot coffee was in my hand, and I leaned up against the metal window frame to sip it, looking out over the street below. Apartments like mine didn't come with a great view of the city like those swanky, high-rise places. The only things to see here were cars whizzing by, the windows of the office building across the street, and occasionally a person walking down the sidewalk. It was still a nice distraction, though, especially if I could people watch. I found it amusing to come up with names and potential destinations for any pedestrians I spotted. It was one of those things that I wouldn't ever tell anyone else about, because they would probably think it was stupid, but I had been doing it since I was a kid.

It didn't seem to be quite enough to shake off the heaviness I was still feeling this morning, though. Maybe I needed to take a walk, instead. Yanking the baggy t-shirt I had slept in up over my head, I tossed it onto the bed and pried open the rickety closet door to pull out jeans, a tank top, and a lightweight hoodie. Once dressed, I ran my fingers through the longer portion of my asymmetrical purple hair, slipped on my flip-flops, refilled my coffee mug, and left the apartment, locking the door behind me.

The morning air was cool and damp, and as usual, smelled of car exhaust. I didn't really have a destination in mind as I wandered slowly down the sidewalk, warming my hands on the coffee mug. It wasn't like there was much of anything to see or do in this part of town, anyway. It seemed like it was mostly an area for people to pass through on their way to somewhere more interesting, and a place to live for those who couldn't afford somewhere nicer – people like me. Not that I, personally, could afford anything, which is why I wasn't complaining at all about the apartment or the neighborhood. I knew I was incredibly lucky to have someone paying my rent for me, so that I didn't have to live on the streets anymore. That was an experience that I would rather not repeat.

Eventually I pointed my feet back towards home, feeling a bit lighter than when I left. I climbed the stairs to the the third floor, and noticed right away that something was off. My door was not shut all the way, and I distinctly remembered having locked it. Most people's minds would probably have immediately gone to a break-in, but I had a feeling that I knew this culprit. Aiden. I didn't know he was planning on coming by this morning.

Swallowing hard, I pushed open the door and saw him standing at the kitchen counter with his back to me. He had on his typical faded jeans and charcoal grey leather jacket, with his bright red hair combed neatly into place.

(Aiden is upset that she was not home when he came by to see her, stating that he doesn't have much time before a meeting. Meli apologizes, but he is still angry. She promises it won't happen again.)

Aiden smiled that sideways smile of his, the one that made his eyes shine, and held out his hand to me. "Come here."

I obliged, trotting quickly over to him, grateful that the fight was over. Pulling me into his chest, he wrapped his strong arms around me, and I sighed into his jacket.

"I've gotta go," he said after a moment. "I'll see ya later, okay? Let's do dinner tonight."

Tilting my face up to him, I gave him a small smile and nodded. "Okay."

When he was gone, leaving only the smell of cigarettes lingering behind him, I sank down onto the bed and pulled my knees up to my chest. Across the room, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the full-length mirror. An image from the dream flashed suddenly back through my mind. What would those kids say to me, if they were here? Or, more appropriately, if they were real? Too bad they weren't, though. It would have been nice to have some friends in this world that I could actually trust.

Chapter Text

TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSIONS BELOW THE DOUBLE LINES.
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Overactive imagination. That's what my first foster mom had called it, when I told her about my dreams and tried to convince her that the three kids were real. She would smile sweetly, give me a condescending pat on the head, and make some kind of frustrating remark about how wonderful the mind of a child was. Ms. Young, the leader of the group home I ended up in later, didn't put it quite as nicely. She insisted, like she was some kind of dream psychologist or something, that the girl was me, and said that I had invented the boys to compensate for not having any friends in real life. To which I had retorted that I did have one friend, and had no desire to be friends with all the bullies that shared the home with me. I had gotten grounded for that one. But really, it wasn't my fault that I wasn't very good at making friends. She didn't have to rub it in.

Plus, from the very beginning, even before I started dyeing my hair and the girl and I actually looked just alike, I knew she wasn't me. I never saw things from her perspective, like in a normal dream. She also somehow seemed prettier than me, and there was no doubt that her life was much happier. The boys' faces I never saw quite as clearly, but I could tell that the silver-haired one was a little older than the girl and the brown-haired boy. I didn't know their names, but in all other ways I felt a bit like they really were my friends. When I was little, I used to imagine that they actually had been my friends, sometime during the time in my past that I couldn't remember. Maybe the girl was my long-lost sister, since we looked so much alike.

Then, sometime a little over a year ago, the dreams had suddenly turned to nightmares, full of monsters with glowing yellow eyes, and dark shadows that devoured everything they touched. At one point, I saw the beach where the kids always played crumbling and disintegrating into a black hole, but the kids themselves somehow still survived. I used to wake up from those dreams sweating and gasping for air, expecting to find my room crawling with monsters. When I told Aiden about the nightmares, though, he just laughed at me. Ever since then, I had kept them to myself, even now when the nightmares had calmed and gone back to regular, though sad, dreams.

I was lying on my back in bed pondering all of this, having just woken up from my third dream in a week. It had finally occurred to me this morning that there was one more difference this time around – the brown-haired boy wasn't actually there. I could still feel him in the thoughts of the other two, but his physical presence was missing. What on earth had happened to those three, to cause so much separation and sadness? It was bugging me, not knowing, but at the same time I knew it was silly of me to wonder. They were just figments of my imagination, after all.

After quite some time procrastinating, I eventually coaxed myself out of bed to get coffee and get dressed. My morning was spent in the public library, using the computer to search for job openings, with no luck. If I could ever find a job, maybe I could have a little more freedom, and not have to depend on Aiden so much for everything. But no one seemed to want to hire a fifteen year old, especially one with no experience, credentials, or references. I didn't even have "reliable transportation", which seemed to mean that not even McDonald's wanted to hire me.

Just before noon, I gave up for the day and trudged back home. Aiden was supposed to be coming by, and I had promised to throw together some lunch for us. I was just putting the finishing touches on our sandwiches when the lock clicked and he walked through the door.

"Hey, babe!" I greeted him with a smile, glancing covertly at his face and body language for cues of what the day was going to bring.

"Hi, Meli baby." I shut my eyes happily as he walked over and slid his hands around my waist, kissing the top of my head. He was in a good mood today.

"I made us some sandwiches," I announced, holding up two plates. "I think I've got some chips, too, if you want some."

"Great," he replied, taking one of the plates out of my hand.

"Nope, that one's mine!" I laughed, spinning around to try to take it back from him.

"Why, because it's the best one?" he teased, holding the plate up over my head so that I couldn't reach.

I planted my fist on my hip. "Well, yeah, duh. Obviously that's why I want it." It was refreshing to be able to relax and actually be myself around him. It seemed like those days were becoming more rare lately. "But in all seriousness, this one has pickles on it," I continued, indicating the sandwich in my hand. "Therefore, this one is yours."

"Hmm, gotcha." Aiden switched plates with me and gave me a peck on the lips. "Thanks."

We chatted freely as we ate, telling each other about our days so far. Aiden knew that I had been job hunting, though he frequently reminded me that he was happy to keep supporting me. Part of me deep down wondered if he actually cared that much, or if he just liked the control that came along with it. If I had my own income, he wouldn't be able to dictate quite as many aspects of my life. I felt guilty, though, as soon as the thought had crossed my mind. He didn't deserve for his generosity to be met with such skepticism from me.

After our lunch was gone, Aiden sat for a few more minutes, absentmindedly flipping his lighter open and shut and occasionally flicking the flame on. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out to glance at the screen. "Chander's almost here." Standing, he stretched his neck and stuffed the phone and lighter back into their respective pockets. "I've got to run downstairs and get something from him real quick. Be back in a few minutes."

I nodded and watched him leave the apartment, then stood and peered curiously out the window. Aiden talked about Chander all the time, but I had never actually met him, or for that matter, any of Aiden's friends or co-workers. He and Chander worked together, that much I knew, but he kept most details about his job to himself. In a minute, I saw a tall, slender man with short-cropped blue hair approaching the building with his hands in his pockets. Blue hair was the last thing I had expected, but apparently this was the mysterious Chander, because Aiden walked out to greet him.

Strange that Aiden hadn't invited him to come up to the apartment, instead of meeting him out on the sidewalk. Maybe he had thought that I wouldn't want him here. I should have said something before he left, because I definitely would not have minded. It would be nice to actually meet a friend of Aiden's for once. Making up my mind, I slipped on my shoes and trotted down the three flights of dimly lit stairs to the front door of the apartment building. I would just poke my head out and ask if he wanted to invite Chander up, maybe even offer him a sandwich.

As soon as the door swung open I realized that I had made a mistake. The two guys were in the midst of what looked to be a heated argument, and both of them whirled around to glare at me when I stepped out. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt..." I gulped.

"Meli, get back inside now," Aiden growled.

I obeyed, fleeing back up the stairs and flinging myself onto my bed. Why had I thought that that was a good idea? I was so stupid sometimes. Now all I could do was wait for him to come back, chewing on my bottom lip and trembling all over.

I didn't have to wait long. My heart went into double time as his footsteps pounded up the stairs, coming quickly. The door flew open, the knob crashing into the wall behind it and deepening the hole that had been created months ago. Aiden's eyes flashed with anger as he caught sight of my face.

"I'm sorry!" I leapt to my feet, cheeks flushed with fear. "I was just going to see if you wanted to invite him up!"

His hands were on my shoulders in an instant, and he shook me violently. "Haven't I made it perfectly clear that I don't want you involved in my work life?"

"Yes," I whimpered. "You have."

"Then what makes you think I would want my co-worker in your apartment?" he demanded.

"I just...I just wanted to meet one of your friends," I blurted, my voice shaking.

"Ah, I see, so as usual, it's all about you, right?" His fingers were still digging into my arms. "I'm not enough for you, is that it? Never mind that I do everything for you. You still think you need more." He gave another shake, jarring my neck. "What, did you think he was cute or something? Were you gonna flirt with him a while, see if you could get to buy you something nice?"

"No!" I cried. "That wasn't...that wasn't it at all!"

"You're a whiny, selfish slut, that's what you are," Aiden sneered. He shoved me backwards so hard that I stumbled and fell, smashing the back of my head into the wall. Pain shot through my skull, and my vision swam. But he didn't seem to care, and stormed out of the apartment, shouting back over his shoulder, "You can forget about me paying your rent on Monday. Hope they don't kick you out." Then the door slammed shut, rattling the whole room, and he was gone.

Tears were streaming down my face as I rubbed the back of my head gently with my fingers. Why had I been such an idiot? He was right, I was selfish. I knew very well that he didn't want me involved in his work, and I also knew from experience that he could get insanely jealous when it came to me and other guys, no matter how innocent my intentions. So why hadn't I thought of any of that before going downstairs?

Slowly, I pulled myself up off the floor, then turned and leaned against the mirror with both hands. Messy hair, puffy blue eyes and tear-streaked cheeks stared back at me. When had our relationship gone so wrong? I was just a runaway living on the street when Aiden had first swaggered into my life, and he had been so much kinder to me than I deserved. He still could be, sometimes. After all, he did make sure that I had a roof over my head and groceries in my cabinets, and even let me splurge on things like new clothes and hair dye on occasion.

Even when he did get angry with me, I always knew that an apology would come sooner or later. I glanced over my shoulder at the remnants of his last apology, still in a vase of water on the kitchen counter. Whatever he did to me, he always promised never to do again, and I always believed him. Usually it was true, and he wouldn't do the same exact thing. It would just be something just as bad, or worse.

I squeezed my eyes shut. The bump to my head must have been worse than I thought, because I felt very strange all of a sudden – almost like the mirror was melting away underneath my hands, and I was falling forward. My eyes flew back open as I realized it wasn't my imagination. I really was falling forward, and there was no longer a mirror or even a wall in front of me. Taking a few quick steps to catch myself before I face-planted, I looked around in wide-eyed shock. Somehow, I was now standing in a mostly dark, basement-type room, and two strange figures were standing in front of a large display of computer screens. They both spun around to face me, seeming just as surprised by my presence as I was.

"Kairi?" the black-hooded figure queried.

At almost the same instant, the one wrapped in red asked, "Naminé, what have you done to your hair?"

All I could do was stand with my mouth hanging open and blink.

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CENSORED VERSION 1

Slightly censored, only references to verbal and physical assault removed
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Overactive imagination. That's what my first foster mom had called it, when I told her about my dreams and tried to convince her that the three kids were real. She would smile sweetly, give me a condescending pat on the head, and make some kind of frustrating remark about how wonderful the mind of a child was. Ms. Young, the leader of the group home I ended up in later, didn't put it quite as nicely. She insisted, like she was some kind of dream psychologist or something, that the girl was me, and said that I had invented the boys to compensate for not having any friends in real life. To which I had retorted that I did have one friend, and had no desire to be friends with all the bullies that shared the home with me. I had gotten grounded for that one. But really, it wasn't my fault that I wasn't very good at making friends. She didn't have to rub it in.

Plus, from the very beginning, even before I started dyeing my hair and the girl and I actually looked just alike, I knew she wasn't me. I never saw things from her perspective, like in a normal dream. She also somehow seemed prettier than me, and there was no doubt that her life was much happier. The boys' faces I never saw quite as clearly, but I could tell that the silver-haired one was a little older than the girl and the brown-haired boy. I didn't know their names, but in all other ways I felt a bit like they really were my friends. When I was little, I used to imagine that they actually had been my friends, sometime during the time in my past that I couldn't remember. Maybe the girl was my long-lost sister, since we looked so much alike.

Then, sometime a little over a year ago, the dreams had suddenly turned to nightmares, full of monsters with glowing yellow eyes, and dark shadows that devoured everything they touched. At one point, I saw the beach where the kids always played crumbling and disintegrating into a black hole, but the kids themselves somehow still survived. I used to wake up from those dreams sweating and gasping for air, expecting to find my room crawling with monsters. When I told Aiden about the nightmares, though, he just laughed at me. Ever since then, I had kept them to myself, even now when the nightmares had calmed and gone back to regular, though sad, dreams.

I was lying on my back in bed pondering all of this, having just woken up from my third dream in a week. It had finally occurred to me this morning that there was one more difference this time around – the brown-haired boy wasn't actually there. I could still feel him in the thoughts of the other two, but his physical presence was missing. What on earth had happened to those three, to cause so much separation and sadness? It was bugging me, not knowing, but at the same time I knew it was silly of me to wonder. They were just figments of my imagination, after all.

After quite some time procrastinating, I eventually coaxed myself out of bed to get coffee and get dressed. My morning was spent in the public library, using the computer to search for job openings, with no luck. If I could ever find a job, maybe I could have a little more freedom, and not have to depend on Aiden so much for everything. But no one seemed to want to hire a fifteen year old, especially one with no experience, credentials, or references. I didn't even have "reliable transportation", which seemed to mean that not even McDonald's wanted to hire me.

Just before noon, I gave up for the day and trudged back home. Aiden was supposed to be coming by, and I had promised to throw together some lunch for us. I was just putting the finishing touches on our sandwiches when the lock clicked and he walked through the door.

"Hey, babe!" I greeted him with a smile, glancing covertly at his face and body language for cues of what the day was going to bring.

"Hi, Meli baby." I shut my eyes happily as he walked over and slid his hands around my waist, kissing the top of my head. He was in a good mood today.

"I made us some sandwiches," I announced, holding up two plates. "I think I've got some chips, too, if you want some."

"Great," he replied, taking one of the plates out of my hand.

"Nope, that one's mine!" I laughed, spinning around to try to take it back from him.

"Why, because it's the best one?" he teased, holding the plate up over my head so that I couldn't reach.

I planted my fist on my hip. "Well, yeah, duh. Obviously that's why I want it." It was refreshing to be able to relax and actually be myself around him. It seemed like those days were becoming more rare lately. "But in all seriousness, this one has pickles on it," I continued, indicating the sandwich in my hand. "Therefore, this one is yours."

"Hmm, gotcha." Aiden switched plates with me and gave me a peck on the lips. "Thanks."

We chatted freely as we ate, telling each other about our days so far. Aiden knew that I had been job hunting, though he frequently reminded me that he was happy to keep supporting me. Part of me deep down wondered if he actually cared that much, or if he just liked the control that came along with it. If I had my own income, he wouldn't be able to dictate quite as many aspects of my life. I felt guilty, though, as soon as the thought had crossed my mind. He didn't deserve for his generosity to be met with such skepticism from me.

After our lunch was gone, Aiden sat for a few more minutes, absentmindedly flipping his lighter open and shut and occasionally flicking the flame on. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out to glance at the screen. "Chander's almost here." Standing, he stretched his neck and stuffed the phone and lighter back into their respective pockets. "I've got to run downstairs and get something from him real quick. Be back in a few minutes."

I nodded and watched him leave the apartment, then stood and peered curiously out the window. Aiden talked about Chander all the time, but I had never actually met him, or for that matter, any of Aiden's friends or co-workers. He and Chander worked together, that much I knew, but he kept most details about his job to himself. In a minute, I saw a tall, slender man with short-cropped blue hair approaching the building with his hands in his pockets. Blue hair was the last thing I had expected, but apparently this was the mysterious Chander, because Aiden walked out to greet him.

Strange that Aiden hadn't invited him to come up to the apartment, instead of meeting him out on the sidewalk. Maybe he had thought that I wouldn't want him here. I should have said something before he left, because I definitely would not have minded. It would be nice to actually meet a friend of Aiden's for once. Making up my mind, I slipped on my shoes and trotted down the three flights of dimly lit stairs to the front door of the apartment building. I would just poke my head out and ask if he wanted to invite Chander up, maybe even offer him a sandwich.

As soon as the door swung open I realized that I had made a mistake. The two guys were in the midst of what looked to be a heated argument, and both of them whirled around to glare at me when I stepped out. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt..." I gulped.

"Meli, get back inside now," Aiden growled.

I obeyed, fleeing back up the stairs and flinging myself onto my bed. Why had I thought that that was a good idea? I was so stupid sometimes. Now all I could do was wait for him to come back, chewing on my bottom lip and trembling all over.

(Aiden returns to the apartment and is angry. Meli explains that she was going to invite Chander up to the apartment, and that she wanted to meet one of his friends. Aiden reminds her that he doesn't want her involved in his work life, and accuses her of trying to flirt with Chander. He leaves, saying that he won't be paying her rent on Monday.)

Tears were streaming down my face as I rubbed the back of my head gently with my fingers. Why had I been such an idiot? He was right, I was selfish. I knew very well that he didn't want me involved in his work, and I also knew from experience that he could get insanely jealous when it came to me and other guys, no matter how innocent my intentions. So why hadn't I thought of any of that before going downstairs?

Slowly, I pulled myself up off the floor, then turned and leaned against the mirror with both hands. Messy hair, puffy blue eyes and tear-streaked cheeks stared back at me. When had our relationship gone so wrong? I was just a runaway living on the street when Aiden had first swaggered into my life, and he had been so much kinder to me than I deserved. He still could be, sometimes. After all, he did make sure that I had a roof over my head and groceries in my cabinets, and even let me splurge on things like new clothes and hair dye on occasion.

Even when he did get angry with me, I always knew that an apology would come sooner or later. I glanced over my shoulder at the remnants of his last apology, still in a vase of water on the kitchen counter. Whatever he did to me, he always promised never to do again, and I always believed him. Usually it was true, and he wouldn't do the same exact thing. It would just be something just as bad, or worse.

I squeezed my eyes shut. The bump to my head must have been worse than I thought, because I felt very strange all of a sudden – almost like the mirror was melting away underneath my hands, and I was falling forward. My eyes flew back open as I realized it wasn't my imagination. I really was falling forward, and there was no longer a mirror or even a wall in front of me. Taking a few quick steps to catch myself before I face-planted, I looked around in wide-eyed shock. Somehow, I was now standing in a mostly dark, basement-type room, and two strange figures were standing in front of a large display of computer screens. They both spun around to face me, seeming just as surprised by my presence as I was.

"Kairi?" the black-hooded figure queried.

At almost the same instant, the one wrapped in red asked, "Naminé, what have you done to your hair?"

All I could do was stand with my mouth hanging open and blink.

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CENSORED VERSION 2

Heavily censored, all references to confrontation removed
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Overactive imagination. That's what my first foster mom had called it, when I told her about my dreams and tried to convince her that the three kids were real. She would smile sweetly, give me a condescending pat on the head, and make some kind of frustrating remark about how wonderful the mind of a child was. Ms. Young, the leader of the group home I ended up in later, didn't put it quite as nicely. She insisted, like she was some kind of dream psychologist or something, that the girl was me, and said that I had invented the boys to compensate for not having any friends in real life. To which I had retorted that I did have one friend, and had no desire to be friends with all the bullies that shared the home with me. I had gotten grounded for that one. But really, it wasn't my fault that I wasn't very good at making friends. She didn't have to rub it in.

Plus, from the very beginning, even before I started dyeing my hair and the girl and I actually looked just alike, I knew she wasn't me. I never saw things from her perspective, like in a normal dream. She also somehow seemed prettier than me, and there was no doubt that her life was much happier. The boys' faces I never saw quite as clearly, but I could tell that the silver-haired one was a little older than the girl and the brown-haired boy. I didn't know their names, but in all other ways I felt a bit like they really were my friends. When I was little, I used to imagine that they actually had been my friends, sometime during the time in my past that I couldn't remember. Maybe the girl was my long-lost sister, since we looked so much alike.

Then, sometime a little over a year ago, the dreams had suddenly turned to nightmares, full of monsters with glowing yellow eyes, and dark shadows that devoured everything they touched. At one point, I saw the beach where the kids always played crumbling and disintegrating into a black hole, but the kids themselves somehow still survived. I used to wake up from those dreams sweating and gasping for air, expecting to find my room crawling with monsters. When I told Aiden about the nightmares, though, he just laughed at me. Ever since then, I had kept them to myself, even now when the nightmares had calmed and gone back to regular, though sad, dreams.

I was lying on my back in bed pondering all of this, having just woken up from my third dream in a week. It had finally occurred to me this morning that there was one more difference this time around – the brown-haired boy wasn't actually there. I could still feel him in the thoughts of the other two, but his physical presence was missing. What on earth had happened to those three, to cause so much separation and sadness? It was bugging me, not knowing, but at the same time I knew it was silly of me to wonder. They were just figments of my imagination, after all.

After quite some time procrastinating, I eventually coaxed myself out of bed to get coffee and get dressed. My morning was spent in the public library, using the computer to search for job openings, with no luck. If I could ever find a job, maybe I could have a little more freedom, and not have to depend on Aiden so much for everything. But no one seemed to want to hire a fifteen year old, especially one with no experience, credentials, or references. I didn't even have "reliable transportation", which seemed to mean that not even McDonald's wanted to hire me.

Just before noon, I gave up for the day and trudged back home. Aiden was supposed to be coming by, and I had promised to throw together some lunch for us. I was just putting the finishing touches on our sandwiches when the lock clicked and he walked through the door.

"Hey, babe!" I greeted him with a smile.

"Hi, Meli baby." I shut my eyes happily as he walked over and slid his hands around my waist, kissing the top of my head. He was in a good mood today.

"I made us some sandwiches," I announced, holding up two plates. "I think I've got some chips, too, if you want some."

"Great," he replied, taking one of the plates out of my hand.

"Nope, that one's mine!" I laughed, spinning around to try to take it back from him.

"Why, because it's the best one?" he teased, holding the plate up over my head so that I couldn't reach.

I planted my fist on my hip. "Well, yeah, duh. Obviously that's why I want it." It was refreshing to be able to relax and actually be myself around him. It seemed like those days were becoming more rare lately. "But in all seriousness, this one has pickles on it," I continued, indicating the sandwich in my hand. "Therefore, this one is yours."

"Hmm, gotcha." Aiden switched plates with me and gave me a peck on the lips. "Thanks."

We chatted freely as we ate, telling each other about our days so far. Aiden knew that I had been job hunting, though he frequently reminded me that he was happy to keep supporting me. Part of me deep down wondered if he actually cared that much, or if he just liked the control that came along with it. If I had my own income, he wouldn't be able to dictate quite as many aspects of my life. I felt guilty, though, as soon as the thought had crossed my mind. He didn't deserve for his generosity to be met with such skepticism from me.

After our lunch was gone, Aiden sat for a few more minutes, absentmindedly flipping his lighter open and shut and occasionally flicking the flame on. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out to glance at the screen. "Chander's almost here." Standing, he stretched his neck and stuffed the phone and lighter back into their respective pockets. "I've got to run downstairs and get something from him real quick. Be back in a few minutes."

I nodded and watched him leave the apartment, then stood and peered curiously out the window. Aiden talked about Chander all the time, but I had never actually met him, or for that matter, any of Aiden's friends or co-workers. He and Chander worked together, that much I knew, but he kept most details about his job to himself. In a minute, I saw a tall, slender man with short-cropped blue hair approaching the building with his hands in his pockets. Blue hair was the last thing I had expected, but apparently this was the mysterious Chander, because Aiden walked out to greet him.

Strange that Aiden hadn't invited him to come up to the apartment, instead of meeting him out on the sidewalk. Maybe he had thought that I wouldn't want him here. I should have said something before he left, because I definitely would not have minded. It would be nice to actually meet a friend of Aiden's for once. Making up my mind, I slipped on my shoes and trotted down the three flights of dimly lit stairs to the front door of the apartment building. I would just poke my head out and ask if he wanted to invite Chander up, maybe even offer him a sandwich.

(Meli accidentally interrupts an argument between the two guys. Aiden returns to the apartment and is angry. Meli explains that she was going to invite Chander up to the apartment, and that she wanted to meet one of his friends. Aiden reminds her that he doesn't want her involved in his work life, and accuses her of trying to flirt with Chander. He leaves, saying that he won't be paying her rent on Monday.)

Slowly, I pulled myself up off the floor, then turned and leaned against the mirror with both hands. Messy hair, puffy blue eyes and tear-streaked cheeks stared back at me. When had our relationship gone so wrong? I was just a runaway living on the street when Aiden had first swaggered into my life, and he had been so much kinder to me than I deserved. He still could be, sometimes. After all, he did make sure that I had a roof over my head and groceries in my cabinets, and even let me splurge on things like new clothes and hair dye on occasion.

(Meli reflects on Aiden's apologies in the past, and whether or not he actually means them.)

I squeezed my eyes shut. The bump to my head must have been worse than I thought, because I felt very strange all of a sudden – almost like the mirror was melting away underneath my hands, and I was falling forward. My eyes flew back open as I realized it wasn't my imagination. I really was falling forward, and there was no longer a mirror or even a wall in front of me. Taking a few quick steps to catch myself before I face-planted, I looked around in wide-eyed shock. Somehow, I was now standing in a mostly dark, basement-type room, and two strange figures were standing in front of a large display of computer screens. They both spun around to face me, seeming just as surprised by my presence as I was.

"Kairi?" the black-hooded figure queried.

At almost the same instant, the one wrapped in red asked, "Naminé, what have you done to your hair?"

All I could do was stand with my mouth hanging open and blink.

Chapter Text

"Where...am I?" I finally managed to stutter. "What...what just happened?

The man wearing the long black coat reached up toward his face, though I couldn't see what he was doing since everything underneath his hood was completely dark. "That's not Naminé," he remarked, lowering his hand again. "But it's not Kairi, either."

"Then who are you?" the man in the red cape demanded. His face was mostly wrapped in strips of red cloth, so that all I could see was a stern mouth and one creepy orange eye. I felt like I had stumbled into an early Halloween party.

"I don't have to tell you that!" I shook my head vigorously. "Why don't you tell me who you are? And while you're at it, explain to me how I got here! I was just standing in my room, minding my own business, and then suddenly I'm looking at The Mummy and the Grim Reaper." A sudden thought crossed my mind and I gasped, pointing an accusatory finger. "Did you drug me? Is that why I can't remember how I got here? Is this a kidnapping?"

"Calm down child," the man in red replied in a condescending tone. "No one has kidnapped you. We have no idea how you got here, either."

The one in black pushed back his hood, revealing himself to be a a boy around my age, with long, silver hair that hung down over a black blindfold. "Just relax, and we'll figure this out." His voice was much more sympathetic than the other man's. "Let's start with names. I'm Riku, and this is DiZ."

I eyed them suspiciously, still not sure whether I should share my name. "Meli," I answered finally. "Could you at least tell me where on earth I am?"

Riku glanced at DiZ, if one can do such a thing with a blindfold on, as if seeking permission to answer. "Twilight Town."

"Never heard of it," I sighed in frustration.

"So, what world are you from, then?" DiZ asked.

I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion. "What world? The world. The only world. What are you talking about?"

The two shared a look I couldn't read. "Did you use a dark corridor to come here?" DiZ questioned.

"A dark what?" This conversation was getting more confusing and frustrating by the second. "Listen, all I know is, I was standing in front of my mirror, I shut my eyes, and when I opened them, I was here."

DiZ's one eye lit up in recognition. "Your mirror, you say?"

"Does that mean something to you?" Riku asked him.

"Perhaps." DiZ drummed his fingers on his knees and leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. "I would need more information to know for sure."

Suddenly I felt very light-headed again, and began to sway back and forth slightly. "Are you okay?" I heard Riku ask.

"Yeah," I answered, shutting my eyes and rubbing my forehead with my fingertips. "I hit my head a little bit ago. That must be what's making me feel kinda dizzy." Ugh, why did I tell them that? They seemed nice enough, but what if they were just waiting for me to be vulnerable enough to pounce? My eyes darted around the room, looking for an escape, but I would have to run right past the two men to get to the only doorway I could see.

"Here." Riku reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a vial of clear liquid. "Take this, it'll help."

I took a step backwards as he walked toward me. "Uh, yeah, sure, let me just drink the strange, unlabeled liquid that the weird, blindfolded guy that lives in my mirror is handing me," I retorted. "No thanks. I don't feel like being roofied today."

He stopped short, a mixture of amusement and embarrassment on his face. "I...I don't know what roofied means," he stammered. "But, uh...fair point, I guess." Shrugging, he returned the vial to his pocket. "I mean, I had it to use for myself, if that makes you feel any better. But you have no real reason to trust me."

"Why don't you lie down and rest until you're feeling better?" DiZ suggested. "Riku can show you to a bedroom upstairs."

"I need to figure out how to get back home," I argued.

"That's what I will be working on while you rest," DiZ reassured me. "I will have more questions for you later, but you'll be of no use if you are unwell."

Reluctantly, I nodded my agreement. I really wasn't feeling well, and a bed sounded like just what I needed. Besides, if they were offering to let me out of their sight, then maybe that was a good sign that they weren't kidnappers, after all. "Fine. As long as I can lock the door."

"This way." Riku turned and walked into the next room, which mostly consisted of a staircase leading up into a library. I followed, impressed by how easily he seemed to navigate despite being blindfolded.

"Can you...see?" I asked tentatively as we reached the top of the stairs.

"Without the blindfold, yes." He didn't seem bothered by my question. "With the blindfold, no, not really. I can make out some vague shapes and shadows. Otherwise I just use my other senses to get around."

"Oh." I really wanted to ask him what the purpose of it was, but I didn't figure I should push quite that far. We exited the library and came out onto a balcony that looked over a grand foyer. There were two sets of staircases leading down to the floor below, which was littered with broken vases and toppled suits of armor.

Riku started down the nearest staircase. "The bedrooms are this way." As soon as we reached the bottom of the stairs, however, he froze, and puffs of black smoke began appearing all over the room. I jumped backwards and stifled a scream as black, yellow-eyed monsters emerged from the smoke.

"Get upstairs!" Riku ordered.

Not about to argue, I tore back up the stairs as fast as I could, stopping to lean over the rail at the top. Riku was already making short work of the giant ant-looking creatures. Where had he gotten that strange red sword from? It hadn't been anywhere in sight a moment ago. Every time he hit a monster with it, the monster would vanish in a puff of smoke, just like they had appeared to start with. I watched with breathless fascination. Those monsters...they could have crawled straight out of one my old nightmares. Now that I thought about it, Riku reminded me a bit of the older boy from my dreams, too. He was the right age, and had the same silver hair. All of this seemed way more realistic than any of my dreams ever had before, but it was the best explanation I had come up with so far.

When the last of the monsters were gone, Riku stopped and turned his face up toward me. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," I called back with a smile. "In fact, everything is finally starting to make sense."

"It is?" Riku frowned. His sword disappeared from his hand like magic, which was all the confirmation I needed.

"Yep." I started back down the stairs toward him. "I'm dreaming. I must have passed out earlier, and it's that bump on my head that's making this all seem so realistic. I mean, it's gotta be, right? Because those monsters are the ones that kept being in my dreams last year, and you, Grim, are one of the boys I always dream about." Crossing my arms, I pursed my lips in thought. "I wonder where the other two are." This was the first time I had dreamed about just one of them at a time, but then again, it was also the first time my brain had inserted myself into the story.

Riku gave a slight smile as I approached. "Sorry to break it to you, but I'm real, and you're very much awake."

"Uh-huh." I was not at all swayed. "That's just what somebody in a dream would say."

Leading the way again, Riku opened a glass door between the staircases and we walked out into a courtyard with a giant statue of a winged horse in the center. Another glass door on the other side of the courtyard opened into a long hallway with many doors. "Here's a room that you can rest in," he told me, opening the second door we came across. "That is, if you still want to."

I shrugged as I walked into the room. "Sure, why not? Maybe if I fall asleep here in the dream, I'll wake up in real life." Everything inside was draped in white sheets. I yanked off the dusty sheet that was covering the comforter on the four-poster bed, and sat down. "Thanks, Grim. I'll see you in another dream, I guess."

Riku didn't move for a moment, just leaned against the door frame and stared in my direction. Finally he shook his head and turned to leave. "Alright, Meli. See you later."

Chapter Text

SLIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW DOUBLE LINES.

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When I woke, I didn't know how long I had been asleep. All I knew was that my headache was gone, and that I was staring up at the blue, ruffled canopy of the strange bedroom I had fallen asleep in. Which meant either I was in some kind of coma and having the longest dream ever, or I had been wrong, and this wasn't a dream after all.

I made my way through the courtyard, then crept slowly into the foyer, keeping my eye out for any signs of the monsters returning. They were nowhere to be seen. There were, however, towering double doors that I assumed led outside. Should I just leave, get myself out of this strange place? But if what Grim had said was true, I was in some city I had never heard of before. As much as I might not want to, I was probably going to have to rely on the two strangers' help.

"Ah, there she is now," DiZ said as I entered the library. "I trust you are feeling better after your rest?"

"Yes," I answered truthfully. "Though apparently not dreaming, like I had hoped. Did you find anything out about how I got here, and how to get me home?"

DiZ gave a nod. "It's very possible, yes. I need to clarify a few things with you first, though. Why don't we all go downstairs so that we can sit?"

Riku and I followed him back into the basement, which I noticed was oddly out of place compared to the style of the rest of the building. "I don't know what I can tell you, but I'll give it a shot," I commented as we all took a seat.

Leaning forward, DiZ clasped his hands together on his lap. "First of all, I'm told that you've never seen the Heartless before. Is that true?"

"Heartless?" I echoed.

"The creatures that I was fighting earlier," Riku explained. "They're called the Heartless."

"Oh. Well, that depends on if you count nightmares or not," I replied. "I've certainly never seen them in person. I've never seen anything like them before, the way they just appeared and disappeared like that."

"What about magic?" DiZ asked. "Have you ever seen anyone perform magic spells, summon a weapon, or use the power of light or darkness?"

I laughed, thinking he was joking. When he continued to stare at me unblinking, I realized he must be serious and raised my eyebrows in surprise. "What? No! There's no such thing as real magic. I mean, I saw a magician perform at a birthday party one time when I was a kid, but I knew even then that those were just tricks."

DiZ nodded knowingly and leaned back in his chair again. "Tell me, how old are you, child?"

"Fifteen. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Patience," DiZ replied. "And your hair, is this its natural color?"

"This?" I pointed to my lavender locks and snickered. "No, definitely not natural. It's been so long since my hair was its natural color that I barely even remember it."

"It wouldn't happen to be a kind of dark red, would it?" Riku broke in.

I glanced over at him, very confused by this line of questioning, and how on earth he would know that. "Um, yeah...I guess it was sort of auburn-ish."

"Tell me a little about your childhood," DiZ pressed.

I cleared my throat and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. "Well, there's not much to tell." What did any of this have to do with what had happened today, anyway? "I don't remember anything before the age of eight. That's when I was...found, just kind of wandering around. I ended up in foster care after that."

DiZ and Riku exchanged another look, and I found myself growing impatient. "Would someone please just tell me what's going on here?" I cried, slapping my hands on my thighs.

"Alright, I will tell you my hypothesis," DiZ agreed. "Do either of you know anything about parallel universes?"

I wrinkled my brow. "I've heard of them, like, in sci-fi movies. Never thought much about it, though."

"I first heard of the possibility of their existence long ago," DiZ elaborated. "The theory is that there could be an infinite number of other universes out there, each created by a diversion of events. In other words, every possible scenario that could have happened in our past, but did not, has happened in the past of some other universe."

"Okay..." I wasn't sure that I was buying this so far, but it was interesting enough to hear out. "So are you suggesting that I'm from some...parallel universe?"

"Quite possibly," DiZ nodded. "You seem to come from a universe that, unlike ours, is mostly devoid of magic, and was never taken over by the Heartless. Those are some of the clues. The most telling to me, though, was your comment about your mirror." He paused and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "It triggered in my mind something that I had read in the past, about travel between universes. I was able to find out more today through some research in our library. It seems that normally, traveling between the universes is impossible. One universe is not even supposed to know that the other exists. But there have been rumors that a few certain people in each universe have that exact ability, and it is done by creating a portal through a mirror."

"A portal?" I repeated. All of this was beginning to make my head swim. "But...even if there is such a thing, which I'm highly doubtful of...I've never made a portal before. How would I suddenly be able to do so now?"

"Any kind of power such as that can remain hidden for most or even all of one's life," DiZ answered. "They can often be awakened by traumatic events...do you recall something happening to you recently that would qualify?"

Wincing, I massaged the still slightly tender spot on the back of my head. "Well, yeah...I suppose having your boyfriend throw you into a wall could do it," I muttered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Riku turn his face sharply toward me, but he didn't say anything.

"Besides," DiZ continued, seeming to ignore my comment, "If you really have been dreaming about the Heartless, and possibly even Riku here, then it seems to me that you have had a connection to our universe for quite some time."

I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to collect my thoughts. "So what about all those other questions? The ones about my hair, and my childhood?"

"Ah yes," DiZ nodded. "That was to determine your possible identity. You see, in every universe there are versions of each of us, though our lives may differ slightly or even drastically, depending on the number of diversions that universe has taken. You, my dear, happen to bear a strong resemblance to someone whom we are acquainted with, so I thought I'd compare the details of your lives to see if you were, in fact, her doppelganger."

A light bulb clicked on in my brain. "The girl in my dreams." I turned to face Riku and added, "She's your friend, right? The one that you and the brown-haired boy are always hanging out with. Or at least, you used to...if that was actually you."

Surprise registered on Riku's face. "Yeah, that's right. Her name is Kairi, and the boy's name is Sora."

"Kairi," I repeated. "So we're like, the same person? But we have different names."

"One of many diversions that occurred," DiZ shrugged.

"Other than your hair, you look just like her," Riku put in. "And some of the other details you shared match hers. She washed up on the beach where Sora and I lived when she was eight years old, with no memory of her former life. But she was adopted by a family there, so I guess that's where your lives really started to differ."

I buried my face in my hands and groaned. "This is all so weird and confusing!" I had a sudden thought, and looked back up at Riku. "Wait, how did you know I look just like her?"

"I...sneaked a peek, when you first got here. I had to see who you were, because you...smelled like her," Riku responded awkwardly.

"Oh." I wasn't sure whether I should be insulted by that comment or not. He did say, though, that he relied on his others senses, so I guess that included smell. "So, what does all this mean?" I sighed. "Can I go home?"

"Yes, you certainly should be able to," DiZ affirmed. "You would just have to use a mirror to create another portal."

"But I don't know how I did it the first time!" I protested. "It just kinda...happened."

"My advice would be to simply copy the way that you were standing before, then focus on where you want to go," DiZ remarked. "Now that the power in you has been awakened, it should not be that difficult."

"I'm pretty sure there's a mirror in the room you were sleeping in," Riku offered, rising from his chair. "I can walk you out there."

"Okay." I stood, too, though for some reason I now felt a bit reluctant to leave. It would be nice, I supposed, to get back to the familiar, but at the same time, all of this new information had me intrigued about this world and what it might be like. How often did you get the opportunity to be in another universe? Plus, going back meant facing Aiden again. Had he been back by the apartment yet, and found me missing? If I was honest with myself, it had been kind of nice not to have to worry about him showing up for this last little while.

Inhaling deeply, I turned to face DiZ. "Well, thank you for the information. And sorry for, you know...thinking that you kidnapped me."

He waved a hand in dismissal. "Never mind that. I should thank you, for giving me a glimpse into a subject that I should have done more research on long ago."

I followed Riku out of the library and back down the stairs silently at first, lost in thought. "So, what happened to the other two? You used to be together all the time, and you all seemed so happy. But then the monsters came...the Heartless, whatever you call them...and ever since then, you've been separated, and the other boy has been...missing altogether."

Riku sighed heavily. "That's a very long story," he replied, sadness edging into his voice. "And most of it is my fault." He paused when we had entered the bedroom, then added, "I'm actually surprised that you remember Sora at all."

"Wait, is he...?" I gasped.

"No," Riku quickly assured me. "He's fine. He's just..." Shaking his head, he ripped the sheet off of a previously unidentifiable piece of furniture, revealing a wardrobe with a mirror on the front underneath. "Like I said, it's a long story."

"Oh." I stared for a moment at my reflection in the mirror, still feeling something pulling at me to stay. I had so many unanswered questions.

"If this works, and you can go back home with no problem, I suppose that means you could also come back anytime you wanted," Riku commented, as if reading my mind. "I mean, I don't know that you'd want to," he hurried to add. "I guess I just thought...maybe it'd be interesting to explore another universe, when you had some time."

"Yeah, I would like that," I smiled. It hadn't yet occurred to me that I might be able to travel back and forth at will, but that thought eased my reluctance a bit. "I mean, I've felt all my life like I knew the three of you. It would be nice to actually get to know you."

"Yeah that would be nice. To, uh...to get to know you better. Someone...someone from another universe, I mean." I almost thought I detected a hint of red on his cheeks.

"Okay," I sighed, looking back at the wardrobe. "Here goes nothing, I guess." Just before I reached out for the mirror, I glanced back at Riku. "I guess I should say goodbye again, Grim. Thanks for your help."

"You...do my name's Riku, right?"

I shrugged. "Yeah. But Grim suits you."

Riku smirked and shook his head. "Goodbye then, Meli. I'll see you around."

 

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CENSORED VERSION

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When I woke, I didn't know how long I had been asleep. All I knew was that my headache was gone, and that I was staring up at the blue, ruffled canopy of the strange bedroom I had fallen asleep in. Which meant either I was in some kind of coma and having the longest dream ever, or I had been wrong, and this wasn't a dream after all.

I made my way through the courtyard, then crept slowly into the foyer, keeping my eye out for any signs of the monsters returning. They were nowhere to be seen. There were, however, towering double doors that I assumed led outside. Should I just leave, get myself out of this strange place? But if what Grim had said was true, I was in some city I had never heard of before. As much as I might not want to, I was probably going to have to rely on the two strangers' help.

"Ah, there she is now," DiZ said as I entered the library. "I trust you are feeling better after your rest?"

"Yes," I answered truthfully. "Though apparently not dreaming, like I had hoped. Did you find anything out about how I got here, and how to get me home?"

DiZ gave a nod. "It's very possible, yes. I need to clarify a few things with you first, though. Why don't we all go downstairs so that we can sit?"

Riku and I followed him back into the basement, which I noticed was oddly out of place compared to the style of the rest of the building. "I don't know what I can tell you, but I'll give it a shot," I commented as we all took a seat.

Leaning forward, DiZ clasped his hands together on his lap. "First of all, I'm told that you've never seen the Heartless before. Is that true?"

"Heartless?" I echoed.

"The creatures that I was fighting earlier," Riku explained. "They're called the Heartless."

"Oh. Well, that depends on if you count nightmares or not," I replied. "I've certainly never seen them in person. I've never seen anything like them before, the way they just appeared and disappeared like that."

"What about magic?" DiZ asked. "Have you ever seen anyone perform magic spells, summon a weapon, or use the power of light or darkness?"

I laughed, thinking he was joking. When he continued to stare at me unblinking, I realized he must be serious and raised my eyebrows in surprise. "What? No! There's no such thing as real magic. I mean, I saw a magician perform at a birthday party one time when I was a kid, but I knew even then that those were just tricks."

DiZ nodded knowingly and leaned back in his chair again. "Tell me, how old are you, child?"

"Fifteen. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Patience," DiZ replied. "And your hair, is this its natural color?"

"This?" I pointed to my lavender locks and snickered. "No, definitely not natural. It's been so long since my hair was its natural color that I barely even remember it."

"It wouldn't happen to be a kind of dark red, would it?" Riku broke in.

I glanced over at him, very confused by this line of questioning, and how on earth he would know that. "Um, yeah...I guess it was sort of auburn-ish."

"Tell me a little about your childhood," DiZ pressed.

I cleared my throat and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. "Well, there's not much to tell." What did any of this have to do with what had happened today, anyway? "I don't remember anything before the age of eight. That's when I was...found, just kind of wandering around. I ended up in foster care after that."

DiZ and Riku exchanged another look, and I found myself growing impatient. "Would someone please just tell me what's going on here?" I cried, slapping my hands on my thighs.

"Alright, I will tell you my hypothesis," DiZ agreed. "Do either of you know anything about parallel universes?"

I wrinkled my brow. "I've heard of them, like, in sci-fi movies. Never thought much about it, though."

"I first heard of the possibility of their existence long ago," DiZ elaborated. "The theory is that there could be an infinite number of other universes out there, each created by a diversion of events. In other words, every possible scenario that could have happened in our past, but did not, has happened in the past of some other universe."

"Okay..." I wasn't sure that I was buying this so far, but it was interesting enough to hear out. "So are you suggesting that I'm from some...parallel universe?"

"Quite possibly," DiZ nodded. "You seem to come from a universe that, unlike ours, is mostly devoid of magic, and was never taken over by the Heartless. Those are some of the clues. The most telling to me, though, was your comment about your mirror." He paused and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "It triggered in my mind something that I had read in the past, about travel between universes. I was able to find out more today through some research in our library. It seems that normally, traveling between the universes is impossible. One universe is not even supposed to know that the other exists. But there have been rumors that a few certain people in each universe have that exact ability, and it is done by creating a portal through a mirror."

"A portal?" I repeated. All of this was beginning to make my head swim. "But...even if there is such a thing, which I'm highly doubtful of...I've never made a portal before. How would I suddenly be able to do so now?"

"Any kind of power such as that can remain hidden for most or even all of one's life," DiZ answered. "They can often be awakened by traumatic events...do you recall something happening to you recently that would qualify?"

Wincing, I massaged the still slightly tender spot on the back of my head. (Meli wonders if her fight with Aiden could have been the cause.) Out of the corner of my eye I saw Riku turn his face sharply toward me, but he didn't say anything.

"Besides," DiZ continued, seeming to ignore my comment, "If you really have been dreaming about the Heartless, and possibly even Riku here, then it seems to me that you have had a connection to our universe for quite some time."

I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to collect my thoughts. "So what about all those other questions? The ones about my hair, and my childhood?"

"Ah yes," DiZ nodded. "That was to determine your possible identity. You see, in every universe there are versions of each of us, though our lives may differ slightly or even drastically, depending on the number of diversions that universe has taken. You, my dear, happen to bear a strong resemblance to someone whom we are acquainted with, so I thought I'd compare the details of your lives to see if you were, in fact, her doppelganger."

A light bulb clicked on in my brain. "The girl in my dreams." I turned to face Riku and added, "She's your friend, right? The one that you and the brown-haired boy are always hanging out with. Or at least, you used to...if that was actually you."

Surprise registered on Riku's face. "Yeah, that's right. Her name is Kairi, and the boy's name is Sora."

"Kairi," I repeated. "So we're like, the same person? But we have different names."

"One of many diversions that occurred," DiZ shrugged.

"Other than your hair, you look just like her," Riku put in. "And some of the other details you shared match hers. She washed up on the beach where Sora and I lived when she was eight years old, with no memory of her former life. But she was adopted by a family there, so I guess that's where your lives really started to differ."

I buried my face in my hands and groaned. "This is all so weird and confusing!" I had a sudden thought, and looked back up at Riku. "Wait, how did you know I look just like her?"

"I...sneaked a peek, when you first got here. I had to see who you were, because you...smelled like her," Riku responded awkwardly.

"Oh." I wasn't sure whether I should be insulted by that comment or not. He did say, though, that he relied on his others senses, so I guess that included smell. "So, what does all this mean?" I sighed. "Can I go home?"

"Yes, you certainly should be able to," DiZ affirmed. "You would just have to use a mirror to create another portal."

"But I don't know how I did it the first time!" I protested. "It just kinda...happened."

"My advice would be to simply copy the way that you were standing before, then focus on where you want to go," DiZ remarked. "Now that the power in you has been awakened, it should not be that difficult."

"I'm pretty sure there's a mirror in the room you were sleeping in," Riku offered, rising from his chair. "I can walk you out there."

"Okay." I stood, too, though for some reason I now felt a bit reluctant to leave. It would be nice, I supposed, to get back to the familiar, but at the same time, all of this new information had me intrigued about this world and what it might be like. How often did you get the opportunity to be in another universe? Plus, going back meant facing Aiden again. Had he been back by the apartment yet, and found me missing? If I was honest with myself, it had been kind of nice not to have to worry about him showing up for this last little while.

Inhaling deeply, I turned to face DiZ. "Well, thank you for the information. And sorry for, you know...thinking that you kidnapped me."

He waved a hand in dismissal. "Never mind that. I should thank you, for giving me a glimpse into a subject that I should have done more research on long ago."

I followed Riku out of the library and back down the stairs silently at first, lost in thought. "So, what happened to the other two? You used to be together all the time, and you all seemed so happy. But then the monsters came...the Heartless, whatever you call them...and ever since then, you've been separated, and the other boy has been...missing altogether."

Riku sighed heavily. "That's a very long story," he replied, sadness edging into his voice. "And most of it is my fault." He paused when we had entered the bedroom, then added, "I'm actually surprised that you remember Sora at all."

"Wait, is he...?" I gasped.

"No," Riku quickly assured me. "He's fine. He's just..." Shaking his head, he ripped the sheet off of a previously unidentifiable piece of furniture, revealing a wardrobe with a mirror on the front underneath. "Like I said, it's a long story."

"Oh." I stared for a moment at my reflection in the mirror, still feeling something pulling at me to stay. I had so many unanswered questions.

"If this works, and you can go back home with no problem, I suppose that means you could also come back anytime you wanted," Riku commented, as if reading my mind. "I mean, I don't know that you'd want to," he hurried to add. "I guess I just thought...maybe it'd be interesting to explore another universe, when you had some time."

"Yeah, I would like that," I smiled. It hadn't yet occurred to me that I might be able to travel back and forth at will, but that thought eased my reluctance a bit. "I mean, I've felt all my life like I knew the three of you. It would be nice to actually get to know you."

"Yeah that would be nice. To, uh...to get to know you better. Someone...someone from another universe, I mean." I almost thought I detected a hint of red on his cheeks.

"Okay," I sighed, looking back at the wardrobe. "Here goes nothing, I guess." Just before I reached out for the mirror, I glanced back at Riku. "I guess I should say goodbye again, Grim. Thanks for your help."

"You...do my name's Riku, right?"

I shrugged. "Yeah. But Grim suits you."

Riku smirked and shook his head. "Goodbye then, Meli. I'll see you around."

Chapter Text

SLIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW DOUBLE LINES.

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Leaning over to the mirror, I placed both my hands on the glass, just like I had at home. I squeezed my eyes shut and pictured my crummy little apartment, and waited to feel the melting sensation behind my hands like I had before. A long moment passed with nothing happening. Letting out my breath in a huff, I opened my eyes again and straightened.

"Well, this is awkward," I quipped. "It's not working."

"Are you positioned in the same way you were before?" Riku questioned.

"Yeah, as well as I can remember." I examined my hands and feet, but everything seemed the same.

"And you're focused on where you want to go?"

"Yes!" I was starting to get frustrated. "Something else must be wrong."

"Maybe you're not concentrating hard enough," Riku suggested.

"Or maybe all of this is a load of crap and I'm not really from a parallel universe," I snapped. Realizing what I was saying too late, I gasped and clapped my hand over my mouth, taking several quick steps backwards in a feeble effort to distance myself from Riku. "I'm sorry!" I choked. "I shouldn't have said that." I really didn't know anything about this guy or what his patience level was. If he was anything like Aiden, a comment like that would get me a backhand across the face, or worse.

"It's okay." Riku's tone was surprisingly sympathetic. "You're frustrated, I get it."

I exhaled, relaxing a little. Clearly he wasn't anything like Aiden, after all. I guess if he was, he probably would have gotten fed up with my sarcasm and stupid nickname a long time ago, anyway. "It's just...this morning I didn't even think there was such a thing as parallel universes, much less magic or portals or anything like that. If this had worked, then obviously it would have been proof that you guys were telling me the truth. But now, it's getting kinda hard to believe."

"Mm." Riku walked a few steps toward the bed and leaned up against the post. "I'm well acquainted with magic and portals, myself. But the whole parallel universe thing is new to me, as well. Imagine my surprise at suddenly meeting one of my best friend's doppelgangers, when I never knew such a thing existed."

"Yeah, I guess that would be a little shocking," I acknowledged.

"Anyway," he continued, "I guess it's easier for me to believe you're from a parallel universe, since I can look at you and see that you look just like Kairi. But I understand if you're having a hard time believing it yourself."

I threw my hands up in the air. "The crazy thing is, I think I do believe it. It makes no sense, but at the same time, it does. Do you know what I mean? Something about it just seems...right." Pivoting back towards the mirror, I shook my finger at it. "But if it is true, then I don't know why this thing isn't working." Shutting my eyes, I reached over and tried again. Still nothing.

"Well, obviously I've never tried to make that kind of portal before," Riku remarked. "But the thing I've found about a lot of magic is, your heart has to be in it. Maybe...maybe your heart isn't quite ready to go home yet. You know you're welcome to hang out here for as long as you want – or need – to."

"But I need to get back!" I exclaimed. What if this never worked, and I was stuck here forever? Would that...be so bad? I shook that last thought away. Sure, my normal life wasn't all that spectacular, but it was still my life. I couldn't just purposely leave everything behind, and abandon Aiden, and stay in some strange world where I knew nothing and no one.

"Back to what?" Riku's voice broke into my thoughts. "Back to the boyfriend that slams your head into walls?"

I fiddled with the silver cuff that adorned the top of my left ear. "He didn't really...it was me that fell. I mean, he pushed me, but...but it was an accident. He didn't mean to hurt me." Suddenly my embarrassment turned to anger, and I crossed my arms and glared at him. "That's none of your business, anyway!"

Riku held his hands up in front of his face. "I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't have said that."

Crossing to the bed, I flopped down onto it and heaved a sigh. "Guess I don't have much of a choice right now, anyway. Obviously I can't go home, so it looks like I'm staying here."

"Try not to feel too bad about it," Riku said. "Just think of it as...a sort of vacation from your regular life. I'm sure that we'll figure out how to get you home in no time."

"Yeah, okay." I was still a bit discouraged, but a vacation could be kind of nice. I really wouldn't mind escaping from reality for a day or two. "Maybe you're right."

.0.0.O.0.0.

After a slightly awkward dinner with Riku, consisting of some food I had never heard of before that he went and picked up, I spent the night in that same, ruffly blue bedroom. Riku made sure to inform me that if I needed anything, he would be in the room right next door to mine. I slept rather restlessly in the bed that wasn't my own, and woke up the next morning desperately craving a cup of coffee. I really wasn't even sure what time it was. The bedroom windows had heavy curtains that kept the room quite dark, but outside them the light didn't seem to have changed from the same orangey glow that it had been since I had first arrived.

Everything in the mansion was deathly quiet. Riku's door was closed, so I didn't know whether he was still asleep or not. Tiptoeing past, I made my way through the weed-infested courtyard and back into the main part of the house. My first thought was to head back to the basement and see if anyone was there, but I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to explore a little bit and see what the rest of the place looked like – and also see if I could find some coffee. Careful to avoid the debris on the floor, I first crossed the room and opened a door into what looked like it could have once been a dining room. The long, wooden table was splintered into several large pieces, and everything else was coated in a thick layer of dust. All of this destruction made me more and more curious about who had once lived here, and what on earth had happened.

On the opposite side of the foyer, there was a pair of double doors that seemed to be completely blocked by a fallen suit of armor and a large painting. I really wanted to see what was inside, but for now I was afraid of waking anyone who might be sleeping and drawing attention to myself, so I left it alone. Instead I headed up the stairs, this time taking a left down the hall instead of a right into the library. There was another door at the other end, and I opened it carefully and poked my head inside.

This room was completely white from ceiling to floor. Even the huge table in the middle was white, along with the chairs, and the vase and flowers sitting on top of it. The only color in the room came from the dozens of drawings that were decorating the walls. I stepped further in, looking around in fascination.

"Oh, hello," said a quiet voice. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but quickly located the source. A girl my age with blonde hair was sitting at the far end of the table, with a drawing pad set out in front of her. She was wearing white, too, and was so slight that she had initially blended in with the rest of the room.

"Hi," I answered, finding my voice again. "Sorry, I didn't know anyone was in here. Actually, I didn't know there was anybody else here, at all, other than the guys."

The girl smiled softly. "Well, I'm not much of anyone to mention. My name's Naminé. You must be Meli."

"Yeah." I walked towards the table and placed my hands on the back of one of the chairs. "How'd you know?"

"Riku told me you were here," Naminé replied. "He says you're from another universe."

"Apparently," I quipped. As I leaned in a bit closer, I finally got a good look at Naminé's face and had to do a double take. "Wait, you...but...you look like me!" I exclaimed. "I mean...right? I'm not just imagining that, am I?"

Naminé smiled again. "No, you're not imagining it."

"But you're not Kairi," I clarified. "Do all the girls in this universe look like me?" As if the whole doppelganger thing wasn't weird enough to start with. I was starting to feel like I was stuck in an episode of Doctor Who.

"No," Naminé assured me, shaking her head. "Don't worry, not everyone looks like you. I guess you could say that I'm...related to Kairi."

"Oh." That was a bit of a relief. "So you're like, her sister, or something?"

Naminé tilted her head to the side, thinking. "It's a long story," she finally concluded.

I gave a short, slightly annoyed laugh. "Yeah, I keep hearing that." Maybe if somebody would actually tell me some of these long stories, this place could start making a little bit of sense. It's not like I didn't have plenty of time on my hands to hear them, anyway. I didn't press the issue, though, and instead looked around the room at the drawings again. "Did you do all of these?"

"Yes," Naminé answered shyly. "Drawing helps me with my work."

"They're nice." The drawings weren't anything spectacular, by any means, but definitely much better than anything I could have drawn. Art was never my specialty. I walked over to one sketch of three kids holding hands on a beach. "That's Riku, Kairi, and...what was the other one's name again?"

"Sora," Naminé smiled. "Yes, you're right. They're in a lot of my pictures."

"Yeah, I see that." I glanced around the others, then pointed. "Who's that other blond haired guy? He's in a lot of them, too."

Naminé tapped her pencil on her lips. "Someone who is connected to Sora."

I looked back over at her with a smirk. "Let me guess, it's a long story?" She just smiled, so I shrugged in defeat. "So what kind of work is it that you're doing, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I...don't know if I should say." Naminé dropped her gaze to her lap. "You'd have to ask DiZ about it."

I was getting more and more curious about this mysterious place and the seemingly random group of people that were thrown together here. What was their connection to each other? What were they all doing here? And why wouldn't anyone talk about anything, especially about Sora?

A sudden sound behind me turned my head, and I nearly fell over in surprise at what I saw. Black and purple smoke was appearing in the air, swirling around and growing larger until it turned into a door-sized gaping black hole. I expected some giant Heartless to crawl out at any second, but instead it was Riku who walked through.

"Geez!" I exhaled in relief, one hand on my heart. "You scared the crap out of me, Grim!"

Riku's head swiveled to face me, surprise in his expression. "Meli. I thought you were still asleep."

"What in the world was that?" I asked, still caught up on his unusual entrance. "I thought you said you couldn't make portals."

"Not the kind of portal that you're trying to make," he corrected. He gestured to where the smoke had just been. "That was technically called a dark corridor. I guess it's a portal of sorts, though. Anyway, sorry for scaring you," he smiled softly. "Like I said, I didn't know you were in here."

"It's alright," I replied. "It's just my first time seeing...you know, magic. Or whatever it was."

"Understandable," Riku nodded. "I just came to check on Naminé. Do either of you need anything?"

Naminé shook her head, but I raised my hand tentatively. "Um...coffee? Got any of that around here?"

Riku frowned. "No, sorry."

"Seriously?" I groaned. "None of you drink coffee? Not even DiZ? He seems like a coffee kind of guy." Actually he seemed more like a whiskey kind of guy, but maybe with some coffee in the mornings, too.

"I can try to find you some while I'm out, if you'd like," Riku offered. "Or if you want to get out and see the town yourself, you're welcome to."

I perked up at the thought. "Yeah, that sounds fun. I don't know what I'd do around here all day anyway."

"The mansion is surrounded by a forest, and Heartless sometimes like to hang out there," Riku commented. "I'll walk you through, to be safe."

"Okay, sounds good." Turning to Naminé, I gave a little wave. "Guess I'll see you later!"

She smiled. "Bye, Meli. It was nice to meet you."

 

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CENSORED VERSION

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Leaning over to the mirror, I placed both my hands on the glass, just like I had at home. I squeezed my eyes shut and pictured my crummy little apartment, and waited to feel the melting sensation behind my hands like I had before. A long moment passed with nothing happening. Letting out my breath in a huff, I opened my eyes again and straightened.

"Well, this is awkward," I quipped. "It's not working."

"Are you positioned in the same way you were before?" Riku questioned.

"Yeah, as well as I can remember." I examined my hands and feet, but everything seemed the same.

"And you're focused on where you want to go?"

"Yes!" I was starting to get frustrated. "Something else must be wrong."

"Maybe you're not concentrating hard enough," Riku suggested.

"Or maybe all of this is a load of crap and I'm not really from a parallel universe," I snapped. Realizing what I was saying too late, I gasped and clapped my hand over my mouth, taking several quick steps backwards. "I'm sorry!" I choked. "I shouldn't have said that." (Meli realizes she doesn't know much about Riku and is worried that he might react the same way that Aiden would.)

"It's okay." Riku's tone was surprisingly sympathetic. "You're frustrated, I get it."

I exhaled, relaxing a little. Clearly he wasn't anything like Aiden, after all. I guess if he was, he probably would have gotten fed up with my sarcasm and stupid nickname a long time ago, anyway. "It's just...this morning I didn't even think there was such a thing as parallel universes, much less magic or portals or anything like that. If this had worked, then obviously it would have been proof that you guys were telling me the truth. But now, it's getting kinda hard to believe."

"Mm." Riku walked a few steps toward the bed and leaned up against the post. "I'm well acquainted with magic and portals, myself. But the whole parallel universe thing is new to me, as well. Imagine my surprise at suddenly meeting one of my best friend's doppelgangers, when I never knew such a thing existed."

"Yeah, I guess that would be a little shocking," I acknowledged.

"Anyway," he continued, "I guess it's easier for me to believe you're from a parallel universe, since I can look at you and see that you look just like Kairi. But I understand if you're having a hard time believing it yourself."

I threw my hands up in the air. "The crazy thing is, I think I do believe it. It makes no sense, but at the same time, it does. Do you know what I mean? Something about it just seems...right." Pivoting back towards the mirror, I shook my finger at it. "But if it is true, then I don't know why this thing isn't working." Shutting my eyes, I reached over and tried again. Still nothing.

"Well, obviously I've never tried to make that kind of portal before," Riku remarked. "But the thing I've found about a lot of magic is, your heart has to be in it. Maybe...maybe your heart isn't quite ready to go home yet. You know you're welcome to hang out here for as long as you want – or need – to."

"But I need to get back!" I exclaimed. What if this never worked, and I was stuck here forever? Would that...be so bad? I shook that last thought away. Sure, my normal life wasn't all that spectacular, but it was still my life. I couldn't just purposely leave everything behind, and abandon Aiden, and stay in some strange world where I knew nothing and no one.

"Back to what?" Riku's voice broke into my thoughts. (Riku is skeptical of her relationship with her boyfriend, based on what she has mentioned so far.)

I fiddled with the silver cuff that adorned the top of my left ear. (Meli defends Aiden's actions, saying that it was an accident when she got hurt.) Suddenly my embarrassment turned to anger, and I crossed my arms and glared at him. "That's none of your business, anyway!"

Riku held his hands up in front of his face. "I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't have said that."

Crossing to the bed, I flopped down onto it and heaved a sigh. "Guess I don't have much of a choice right now, anyway. Obviously I can't go home, so it looks like I'm staying here."

"Try not to feel too bad about it," Riku said. "Just think of it as...a sort of vacation from your regular life. I'm sure that we'll figure out how to get you home in no time."

"Yeah, okay." I was still a bit discouraged, but a vacation could be kind of nice. I really wouldn't mind escaping from reality for a day or two. "Maybe you're right."

.0.0.O.0.0.

After a slightly awkward dinner with Riku, consisting of some food I had never heard of before that he went and picked up, I spent the night in that same, ruffly blue bedroom. Riku made sure to inform me that if I needed anything, he would be in the room right next door to mine. I slept rather restlessly in the bed that wasn't my own, and woke up the next morning desperately craving a cup of coffee. I really wasn't even sure what time it was. The bedroom windows had heavy curtains that kept the room quite dark, but outside them the light didn't seem to have changed from the same orangey glow that it had been since I had first arrived.

Everything in the mansion was deathly quiet. Riku's door was closed, so I didn't know whether he was still asleep or not. Tiptoeing past, I made my way through the weed-infested courtyard and back into the main part of the house. My first thought was to head back to the basement and see if anyone was there, but I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to explore a little bit and see what the rest of the place looked like – and also see if I could find some coffee. Careful to avoid the debris on the floor, I first crossed the room and opened a door into what looked like it could have once been a dining room. The long, wooden table was splintered into several large pieces, and everything else was coated in a thick layer of dust. All of this destruction made me more and more curious about who had once lived here, and what on earth had happened.

On the opposite side of the foyer, there was a pair of double doors that seemed to be completely blocked by a fallen suit of armor and a large painting. I really wanted to see what was inside, but for now I was afraid of waking anyone who might be sleeping and drawing attention to myself, so I left it alone. Instead I headed up the stairs, this time taking a left down the hall instead of a right into the library. There was another door at the other end, and I opened it carefully and poked my head inside.

This room was completely white from ceiling to floor. Even the huge table in the middle was white, along with the chairs, and the vase and flowers sitting on top of it. The only color in the room came from the dozens of drawings that were decorating the walls. I stepped further in, looking around in fascination.

"Oh, hello," said a quiet voice. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but quickly located the source. A girl my age with blonde hair was sitting at the far end of the table, with a drawing pad set out in front of her. She was wearing white, too, and was so slight that she had initially blended in with the rest of the room.

"Hi," I answered, finding my voice again. "Sorry, I didn't know anyone was in here. Actually, I didn't know there was anybody else here, at all, other than the guys."

The girl smiled softly. "Well, I'm not much of anyone to mention. My name's Naminé. You must be Meli."

"Yeah." I walked towards the table and placed my hands on the back of one of the chairs. "How'd you know?"

"Riku told me you were here," Naminé replied. "He says you're from another universe."

"Apparently," I quipped. As I leaned in a bit closer, I finally got a good look at Naminé's face and had to do a double take. "Wait, you...but...you look like me!" I exclaimed. "I mean...right? I'm not just imagining that, am I?"

Naminé smiled again. "No, you're not imagining it."

"But you're not Kairi," I clarified. "Do all the girls in this universe look like me?" As if the whole doppelganger thing wasn't weird enough to start with. I was starting to feel like I was stuck in an episode of Doctor Who.

"No," Naminé assured me, shaking her head. "Don't worry, not everyone looks like you. I guess you could say that I'm...related to Kairi."

"Oh." That was a bit of a relief. "So you're like, her sister, or something?"

Naminé tilted her head to the side, thinking. "It's a long story," she finally concluded.

I gave a short, slightly annoyed laugh. "Yeah, I keep hearing that." Maybe if somebody would actually tell me some of these long stories, this place could start making a little bit of sense. It's not like I didn't have plenty of time on my hands to hear them, anyway. I didn't press the issue, though, and instead looked around the room at the drawings again. "Did you do all of these?"

"Yes," Naminé answered shyly. "Drawing helps me with my work."

"They're nice." The drawings weren't anything spectacular, by any means, but definitely much better than anything I could have drawn. Art was never my specialty. I walked over to one sketch of three kids holding hands on a beach. "That's Riku, Kairi, and...what was the other one's name again?"

"Sora," Naminé smiled. "Yes, you're right. They're in a lot of my pictures."

"Yeah, I see that." I glanced around the others, then pointed. "Who's that other blond haired guy? He's in a lot of them, too."

Naminé tapped her pencil on her lips. "Someone who is connected to Sora."

I looked back over at her with a smirk. "Let me guess, it's a long story?" She just smiled, so I shrugged in defeat. "So what kind of work is it that you're doing, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I...don't know if I should say." Naminé dropped her gaze to her lap. "You'd have to ask DiZ about it."

I was getting more and more curious about this mysterious place and the seemingly random group of people that were thrown together here. What was their connection to each other? What were they all doing here? And why wouldn't anyone talk about anything, especially about Sora?

A sudden sound behind me turned my head, and I nearly fell over in surprise at what I saw. Black and purple smoke was appearing in the air, swirling around and growing larger until it turned into a door-sized gaping black hole. I expected some giant Heartless to crawl out at any second, but instead it was Riku who walked through.

"Geez!" I exhaled in relief, one hand on my heart. "You scared the crap out of me, Grim!"

Riku's head swiveled to face me, surprise in his expression. "Meli. I thought you were still asleep."

"What in the world was that?" I asked, still caught up on his unusual entrance. "I thought you said you couldn't make portals."

"Not the kind of portal that you're trying to make," he corrected. He gestured to where the smoke had just been. "That was technically called a dark corridor. I guess it's a portal of sorts, though. Anyway, sorry for scaring you," he smiled softly. "Like I said, I didn't know you were in here."

"It's alright," I replied. "It's just my first time seeing...you know, magic. Or whatever it was."

"Understandable," Riku nodded. "I just came to check on Naminé. Do either of you need anything?"

Naminé shook her head, but I raised my hand tentatively. "Um...coffee? Got any of that around here?"

Riku frowned. "No, sorry."

"Seriously?" I groaned. "None of you drink coffee? Not even DiZ? He seems like a coffee kind of guy." Actually he seemed more like a whiskey kind of guy, but maybe with some coffee in the mornings, too.

"I can try to find you some while I'm out, if you'd like," Riku offered. "Or if you want to get out and see the town yourself, you're welcome to."

I perked up at the thought. "Yeah, that sounds fun. I don't know what I'd do around here all day anyway."

"The mansion is surrounded by a forest, and Heartless sometimes like to hang out there," Riku commented. "I'll walk you through, to be safe."

"Okay, sounds good." Turning to Naminé, I gave a little wave. "Guess I'll see you later!"

She smiled. "Bye, Meli. It was nice to meet you."

Chapter Text

"So, how come it looks like sunset out here?" I asked Riku as we exited the front gate of the mansion. "I didn't really sleep that late, did I?"

"No, it's always like that here. That's why it's called Twilight Town."

I furrowed my brow, following him across the small clearing in front of the mansion's walls and into the forest of tall pines. "Wait, what do you mean 'it's always like that'?"

"It's always sunset," Riku explained. "There are places in town where you'll be able to see it. The sun never rises higher in the sky, and it never actually sets. It hovers just above the horizon all day, every day."

My eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Whoa! That's crazy. I've never heard of anything like that, where the sun never even moves."

Riku shrugged. "It does take a while to get used to, the light never changing. You eventually just develop a kind of internal clock."

I glanced over at him. "Was that a reference to the sunset lighting, or the dark that you live in?"

"Both, I guess." His expressions were so hard to read sometimes, a product of not being able to see his eyes. His eyes...hmm. They're blue, right? Seemed like I remembered them being blue in my dreams. Hard to say if I was just making that up, though.

"You know I'm super curious about the whole blindfold thing," I ventured. "But I figure it'll be the same 'it's a long story' answer that I get about everything else."

Riku smiled a little. "I promise, if you stick around...or come back to visit, I'll explain all of this stuff to you one day. It's all just...really complicated, and some of it needs to be kept secret for now. As for the blindfold...I guess that story is a little too personal to get into quite yet."

"Okay." I felt guilty for pushing. "I won't ask anymore, I promise. You can tell me whenever you're ready...or you don't have to at all."

I studied him out of the corner of my eye as we continued to walk in silence. He was an interesting character – hard to pinpoint. Based solely on his physique, I would have said that he was a jock. Even through that coat I could tell that he was muscular. Plus, there were his ninja sword moves to consider. But the all-black outfit, the long hair, and the blindfold, coupled with his quiet demeanor and general unwillingness to converse much made me lean more towards maybe goth or emo. Or maybe he was just shy, though I had not come across very many shy, shaggy haired jocks in my life. Emo Jock? I smirked at my own train of thought. Who knows, this was a different universe after all. Maybe it was a thing.

Before long, we reached the edge of the woods, not having encountered any Heartless on our way. "Alright, this is where I leave you," Riku stated, stopping and turning to face me. "I've got somewhere else to be. I'll meet you here at...let's say five o'clock."

I gazed up at the clock tower that I could see looming over the town in the distance. "Got it. See you then."

"Oh, I almost forgot." Riku reached into the pocket of his coat, and pulled out a small, brown leather pouch. "In case you find some coffee, or want to buy anything else."

Hesitating, I glanced down at the pouch, then back up at his face. Here was yet another guy offering me money. Wasn't this how my relationship with Aiden had started going south? Not that I actually had any kind of relationship with Riku, and whatever his personality type, he didn't seem like he would care much about making friends. But if we were ever going to have any kind of friendship, I didn't want to start it out owing him money. Sticking my hand in the back pocket of my jeans, I found a couple of wadded up bills and produced them with a grin.

"I've got a few dollars," I announced, realizing after a second that Riku couldn't actually see the money in my hand. "That should buy me a cup of coffee, at least."

Frowning, Riku shook his head and held out the pouch further. "I don't think our universes have the same currency," he disagreed. "You can try it if you want, but take this, too, just in case."

"Okay, fine," I sighed, taking the pouch from him reluctantly. I hadn't thought about currency being an issue. I was just proud to actually have money on me for once, even though it still wasn't mine. "Thanks."

"No problem." Turning, Riku stretched out a hand in front of himself, then looked back over his shoulder at me. "Oh, by the way, I'm about to use magic. Just a warning."

I braced myself, but the black smoke that spread out from his hand was much less startling this time now that I knew what it was. Watching him step through the hole and be swallowed up by it was still mind-blowing, though. All of this crazy magic stuff was definitely going to take some time to get used to.

Starting towards the closest buildings, I found myself in what appeared to be a market area, with a little tram circling through. There was an armor shop, which I found a bit odd, though I supposed if those Heartless things had really taken over the world like DiZ had mentioned, armor might be a much more common necessity. I also saw an accessory store, and something called a synthesis shop, but no food so far. The street turned a corner past a weapons store and began to climb a long hill that seemed to be heading in the general direction of the clock tower I had seen earlier. I stopped at the corner, however, because I finally spotted what I had been looking for – a sign with a steaming cup of coffee on it.

Stepping inside, I breathed in deeply, expecting to be met with the familiar smell of roasted coffee beans. Instead, the cafe smelled more like herbs and pastries, and I wrinkled my nose in confusion. Making my way through the mostly empty tables over to the counter, I hastily began scanning the blackboard menu hanging on the wall, confirming my suspicions that I had been mistaken about the identity of the steaming drink on the sign outside. All I was seeing so far was a hundred different varieties of tea, plus bakery items and ice cream.

"What can I get for you today?" asked a booming voice. I glanced down from the menu to see a robust, brown-haired man standing behind the counter, wearing an apron and beaming at me.

"Oh, uh..." I turned my attention back to the menu and tried to find the place where I had left off. "I was just trying to see if you had..." Suddenly my eyes lit on a tiny little menu item in the very bottom corner. "Coffee!" I exclaimed. "Yes!"

The man nodded and punched a couple of buttons on the cash register. "Yes, that I do. Not the most popular thing I offer, but there are a handful of faithful coffee drinkers around here. That'll be five, please."

"You don't, um..." I fished the bills back out of my pocket and showed them to him. "You don't accept American dollars, do you?"

His brow furrowing, the man shook his head. "No, just good old fashioned munny."

Their currency was called money? That was a bit...lame. "Okay, I have some of that, too," I assured him, grabbing the pouch that Riku had given me out of my other pocket. Opening it, I poured a few of the copper colored coins out into my hand. They all had a number one etched into them, so I took a wild guess and counted out five of them to hand to the cashier, hoping I wasn't totally off base and about to make this exchange even more awkward than it already was. To my relief, he took the coins with another smile and placed them in the register drawer. "Your coffee will be ready in just moment."

"Thanks." I smiled back at him, hurriedly replacing the pouch and scooting over to make way for the boy that was waiting behind me. I busied myself by admiring the pastries in the glass case while I waited.

"Well, I assume you're here for your sea salt ice cream?" I heard the cashier chuckle. The boy at the counter nodded, pushing some coins across. His blond, gravity-defying hair caught my attention, mostly because it reminded me of Sora's hair in my dreams. After a moment it also dawned on me that his coat was identical to the one Riku wore. I didn't realize I was staring until he turned his head and our eyes met. I looked away quickly, pretending to still be entranced by the pastries, but I could see him still looking at me out of the corner of my eye.

"You're not from around here, are you?" he finally asked.

"What?" I looked back at him in surprise, then gave a nervous laugh. "Um, no, I'm not. Is it that obvious?"

The boy accepted a stick of blue ice cream from the cashier, then came a few steps closer to me. "The money thing, and the coffee..most people wouldn't realize it, though, because most people can't travel between worlds."

"But you can?" From what DiZ had said, I thought those of us who could make portals to other universes were few and far between. I certainly hadn't expected to run into someone else with that ability on my first day here.

"Yeah." The boy nodded, like it was no big deal. "It's kinda my job. I travel by dark corridor. What about you?"

Wait, wasn't that what Riku had said the portal he used was called? Maybe this guy wasn't talking about parallel universe traveling after all. "Uh, yeah...that's what I use, too," I lied. For some reason I didn't feel like I should tell anybody about being from another universe. He probably wouldn't believe me, anyway.

Our conversation was interrupted by my cup of coffee finally being set in front of me by the cashier. I snatched it up as quickly as I dared and inhaled the steam, then took a sip despite the fact that it was still scalding hot. It was possibly the most awful coffee I had ever tasted in my life, but at least it was coffee.

"I'm Roxas, by the way," the boy spoke up. "What's your name?"

"Meli. Nice to meet you. Sorry about that," I added, indicating my coffee. "I'm not fully human until I've had my coffee, and I haven't had any since yesterday afternoon."

"That's alright," Roxas grinned. "I guess it's a little like me and my ice cream. I get one every day after I finish my mission for the day." He sobered suddenly and looked down at his boots. "Usually I meet a couple of friends at the clock tower to eat it, but they're...not around right now."

"The clock tower, yeah." I glanced out the window at the street. "That's the direction I was headed when I spotted this place. I'm just kind of wandering around today, sightseeing I guess."

"Well, we could walk that way together, if you want," Roxas suggested. "There aren't a lot of sights to see in Twilight Town, but I could point you towards what there is."

"Sure," I agreed, smiling. "Sounds fun."

Chapter Text

SLIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW DOUBLE LINES.

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Roxas and I ended up spending the whole afternoon strolling around Twilight Town together. He was super easy to get along with, and I found myself laughing and chatting with him like we had known each other forever. It had been so long since I had actually had a friend, I had almost forgotten what it was like.

It turned out that when he said he and his friends had ice cream at the clock tower, he actually meant on the clock tower, as in dangling hundreds of feet in the air over the train station. He invited me to go up and see the sunset, but I had to politely decline. Heights had never really been my thing.

Instead, we took the train to Sunset Station, to an area of town called Sunset Terrace, and climbed up Sunset Hill. Apparently everything in this town was named after its unique solar situation. I had mentioned to Roxas that I didn't know how long I was going to be around, so he insisted that I see the infamous sunset from somewhere before I left.

"If you're not going to see it from the clock tower, this is the next best spot," he proclaimed as we topped the hill.

For the first time since arriving, I was actually able to see the sun itself, glowing almost blindingly bright just above the horizon, as well as the full expanse of sky, looking like it had been painted with watercolors. The oranges and yellows right around the sun gave way to various shades of pink farther out, which then turned to purple and finally faded into blue directly above us. Small, puffy clouds dotted the sky, and silhouetted birds soared gracefully across the sun.

"Wow," I breathed, not knowing what else to say. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Crossing the grassy hilltop, I sank down onto a wooden bench and leaned on my arms on the fence that curved around the area.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Roxas walked up next to me and crossed his arms over his chest.

"It's...breathtaking," I returned. "I'm from a big city, so you can never see sunsets like this. There are too many buildings in the way."

"Axel and Xion and I really like watching the sunset. I guess that's why we always come to town and sit on the clock tower. Or, at least we used to." He sighed. "Axel's been acting so weird lately, and he hasn't been showing up for ice cream. And Xion...she disappeared a few days ago. I'm really worried about her."

Tearing my eyes away from the sky, I looked up at him sympathetically. He was obviously going through a rough spot, but I didn't really know what to say to him to help. "I'm sorry," I offered weakly.

Roxas glanced over at me and gave a sheepish laugh. "Sorry, I don't know why I'm telling you all of this. Maybe it's because you remind me a lot of Xion."

Somehow I wasn't even surprised to hear that. "Let me guess, she looks just like me, except for her hair?"

His mouth twisted to the side in thought as he studied my face. "Yeah, I guess so. How did you know that?"

"It's a long story," I chuckled, amusing myself with my own private joke. "Oh, speaking of which..." I spun around on the bench and leaned forward to get a good look at the miniature version of the clock tower that stood right next to us. "I'd better get going. I have to meet someone at five o'clock back on the other side of town."

"Oh, yeah, I'd better get back and report to Saix before I get an earful," Roxas smirked. "Can you make it back on your own alright?"

"Sure," I nodded. "Thanks for the tour today. I had a lot of fun."

"Me, too," Roxas smiled. "Maybe I'll see you around?"

"Yeah, I hope so!" I replied honestly. Despite my earlier eagerness to get home, I now found myself quite charmed by this sleepy little town, and by the prospect of having a real friend. Maybe lingering in this universe a while wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

I watched as Roxas waved goodbye and disappeared into a dark corridor, then headed back to the train station to pay for a ticket back to the main part of town. By the time I reached the edge of the woods, it was just past five, and Riku was already waiting.

"Hey," I panted as I jogged up to him. "Sorry I'm a little late."

"That's alright. I'm guessing that means you enjoyed your day."

"Yeah, I really did!" I grinned as we started into the forest. "I met this guy, and he showed me around. We were way across town watching the sunset just now. It's pretty amazing."

"A guy, huh?" Riku grunted.

I shot him a sideways glance, but as usual, couldn't tell what he was thinking just from his expression. If I didn't know better, I would think from his tone of voice that he was put out because I had spent the afternoon with another guy. "Yeah," I replied warily. I might have determined that Riku wasn't like Aiden in some ways, but that didn't mean that he wasn't the jealous type. It seemed unlikely that he would be jealous of me, since we hardly knew each other, but it was better to be cautious. "Just, you know...some kid." When Riku didn't say anything, I added, "I mostly noticed him because he was wearing the same kind of coat as you."

Riku stopped walking suddenly and whirled around to face me. "What? What was his name?" he demanded.

Shrinking back, I swallowed hard and wrapped my arms across my stomach. "Roxas," I croaked, my voice barely above a whisper. Why couldn't I ever learn to just keep my mouth shut? "It really wasn't..."

"You said he was just a kid?" Riku interrupted. "What did he talk to you about?"

"I mean, he was probably my age." I didn't know whether that answer would make things better or worse. "He mostly just talked about...the town, and his two friends, and...and ice cream..."

There was a moment of silence, broken only by the pounding of my heart in my own ears, in which I continued to avoid looking at Riku's face and wait for the physical or at least verbal attack that I assumed must be coming. When he spoke again, though, his voice had softened. "Well, it sounds like he was probably okay," he sighed. "You just have to be really careful. Most people who wear this coat are dangerous, and can't be trusted."

I stared at him, speechless. So, all of that had been because he was worried that I had encountered someone dangerous? I really wasn't sure how to respond to that. Why would he be that concerned about the safety of someone like me? I especially didn't know how to take his warning about the coat, since he was wearing it and he was one of the people I wasn't sure I could trust.

"Oh, okay," I finally meekly replied. "Sorry."

Riku shook his head dismissively. "You don't have to apologize. You had no way of knowing that."

I bit the inside of my lip, still not sure whether I could relax yet. "So, you're not...mad at me?"

Riku frowned. "No, I'm not mad at you. If anything, it was my fault for not warning you ahead of time. I didn't think you'd run into anyone like that today."

He turned and began walking again, but this time I trailed a few steps behind him, staying quiet. After a moment he spoke up again. "I'm sorry, by the way, if I scared you...made you think I was mad. That wasn't my intention."

"No, it's fine, you...you're fine," I quickly responded. "I...uh...appreciate the concern." I really didn't know whether I did or not, in actuality. The whole conversation had left me shaken and confused.

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CENSORED VERSION

I debated whether to censor this one at all. It's more about Meli's fears than anything actually happening, but I decided to play it safe and offer this version.

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Roxas and I ended up spending the whole afternoon strolling around Twilight Town together. He was super easy to get along with, and I found myself laughing and chatting with him like we had known each other forever. It had been so long since I had actually had a friend, I had almost forgotten what it was like.

It turned out that when he said he and his friends had ice cream at the clock tower, he actually meant on the clock tower, as in dangling hundreds of feet in the air over the train station. He invited me to go up and see the sunset, but I had to politely decline. Heights had never really been my thing.

Instead, we took the train to Sunset Station, to an area of town called Sunset Terrace, and climbed up Sunset Hill. Apparently everything in this town was named after its unique solar situation. I had mentioned to Roxas that I didn't know how long I was going to be around, so he insisted that I see the infamous sunset from somewhere before I left.

"If you're not going to see it from the clock tower, this is the next best spot," he proclaimed as we topped the hill.

For the first time since arriving, I was actually able to see the sun itself, glowing almost blindingly bright just above the horizon, as well as the full expanse of sky, looking like it had been painted with watercolors. The oranges and yellows right around the sun gave way to various shades of pink farther out, which then turned to purple and finally faded into blue directly above us. Small, puffy clouds dotted the sky, and silhouetted birds soared gracefully across the sun.

"Wow," I breathed, not knowing what else to say. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Crossing the grassy hilltop, I sank down onto a wooden bench and leaned on my arms on the fence that curved around the area.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Roxas walked up next to me and crossed his arms over his chest.

"It's...breathtaking," I returned. "I'm from a big city, so you can never see sunsets like this. There are too many buildings in the way."

"Axel and Xion and I really like watching the sunset. I guess that's why we always come to town and sit on the clock tower. Or, at least we used to." He sighed. "Axel's been acting so weird lately, and he hasn't been showing up for ice cream. And Xion...she disappeared a few days ago. I'm really worried about her."

Tearing my eyes away from the sky, I looked up at him sympathetically. He was obviously going through a rough spot, but I didn't really know what to say to him to help. "I'm sorry," I offered weakly.

Roxas glanced over at me and gave a sheepish laugh. "Sorry, I don't know why I'm telling you all of this. Maybe it's because you remind me a lot of Xion."

Somehow I wasn't even surprised to hear that. "Let me guess, she looks just like me, except for her hair?"

His mouth twisted to the side in thought as he studied my face. "Yeah, I guess so. How did you know that?"

"It's a long story," I chuckled, amusing myself with my own private joke. "Oh, speaking of which..." I spun around on the bench and leaned forward to get a good look at the miniature version of the clock tower that stood right next to us. "I'd better get going. I have to meet someone at five o'clock back on the other side of town."

"Oh, yeah, I'd better get back and report to Saix before I get an earful," Roxas smirked. "Can you make it back on your own alright?"

"Sure," I nodded. "Thanks for the tour today. I had a lot of fun."

"Me, too," Roxas smiled. "Maybe I'll see you around?"

"Yeah, I hope so!" I replied honestly. Despite my earlier eagerness to get home, I now found myself quite charmed by this sleepy little town, and by the prospect of having a real friend. Maybe lingering in this universe a while wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

I watched as Roxas waved goodbye and disappeared into a dark corridor, then headed back to the train station to pay for a ticket back to the main part of town. By the time I reached the edge of the woods, it was just past five, and Riku was already waiting.

"Hey," I panted as I jogged up to him. "Sorry I'm a little late."

"That's alright. I'm guessing that means you enjoyed your day."

"Yeah, I really did!" I grinned as we started into the forest. "I met this guy, and he showed me around. We were way across town watching the sunset just now. It's pretty amazing."

"A guy, huh?" Riku grunted.

I shot him a sideways glance, but as usual, couldn't tell what he was thinking just from his expression. If I didn't know better, I would think from his tone of voice that he was put out because I had spent the afternoon with another guy. "Yeah," I replied warily. I might have determined that Riku wasn't like Aiden in some ways, but that didn't mean that he wasn't the jealous type. It seemed unlikely that he would be jealous of me, since we hardly knew each other, but it was better to be cautious. "Just, you know...some kid." When Riku didn't say anything, I added, "I mostly noticed him because he was wearing the same kind of coat as you."

Riku stopped walking suddenly and whirled around to face me. "What? What was his name?" he demanded.

(Meli is frightened by his response.) "Roxas," I croaked. Why couldn't I ever learn to just keep my mouth shut? "It really wasn't..."

"You said he was just a kid?" Riku interrupted. "What did he talk to you about?"

"I mean, he was probably my age." I didn't know whether that answer would make things better or worse. "He mostly just talked about...the town, and his two friends, and...and ice cream..."

There was a moment of silence. (Meli assumes that Riku is going to react badly.) When he spoke again, though, his voice had softened. "Well, it sounds like he was probably okay," he sighed. "You just have to be really careful. Most people who wear this coat are dangerous, and can't be trusted."

I stared at him, speechless. So, all of that had been because he was worried that I had encountered someone dangerous? I really wasn't sure how to respond to that. Why would he be that concerned about the safety of someone like me? I especially didn't know how to take his warning about the coat, since he was wearing it and he was one of the people I wasn't sure I could trust.

"Oh, okay," I finally meekly replied. "Sorry."

Riku shook his head dismissively. "You don't have to apologize. You had no way of knowing that."

I bit the inside of my lip, still not sure whether I could relax yet. "So, you're not...mad at me?"

Riku frowned. "No, I'm not mad at you. If anything, it was my fault for not warning you ahead of time. I didn't think you'd run into anyone like that today."

He turned and began walking again, but this time I trailed a few steps behind him, staying quiet. After a moment he spoke up again. "I'm sorry, by the way, if I scared you...made you think I was mad. That wasn't my intention."

"No, it's fine, you...you're fine," I quickly responded. "I...uh...appreciate the concern." I really didn't know whether I did or not, in actuality. The whole conversation had left me shaken and confused.

Chapter Text

We continued walking through the woods towards the mansion for several more minutes in silence. Then Riku stopped and twisted his head to the side, almost as if he was sniffing the air.

"Trouble's coming." He stretched out his right hand, and I blinked in surprise as the red, wing-shaped sword appeared in a puff of smoke. My attention was quickly diverted, however, when Heartless began popping up out of the shadows. At least, I assumed these were also Heartless, though they looked different than the ant-like monsters that I had seen before. These were slightly larger, and were wearing white helmets and black boots. They bounced in place for a few seconds before advancing towards us, their long, red claws wiggling in anticipation.

"Stay back!" Riku ordered. I was already retreating, and found a nice wide pine tree to hide behind. I wasn't really sure what these monsters would actually do to me, but I was not inclined to find out if I could help it. Peeking out from behind the tree, I watched with wide eyes as Riku swung the sword left and right, taking out each Heartless in only a couple of blows. Clearly he had a good deal of experience with these guys, and also with fighting blind. I knew that he had said he could use his other senses to get around, but seeing him spin around and strike at the Heartless as if he knew exactly where each one was located was still pretty amazing.

Hearing a noise behind me, I first glanced back over my shoulder, then spun around and pressed my back up against the bark. Two of the creatures were eyeing me from a short distance away. My stomach flip-flopped. "Uh, Grim?" I called.

The two Heartless began creeping slowly toward me. My eyes darted back and forth, looking for an escape, but I didn't want to make any sudden movements and cause them to pounce. Besides, I had a strong feeling that these things could outrun me. I could feel my heart racing as they drew closer, then leaping up into my throat when even more of the creatures began emerging from the shadows.

"Grim?" I repeated, louder this time, with obvious panic in my voice. Either he didn't hear me, or he was ignoring me, I wasn't sure which. Suddenly the Heartless in front leapt forward, with all of the others following suit and closing rapidly in on me. "Riku!" I shrieked, throwing my hands up in front of my face.

In that instant, something cold and hard materialized in my right hand. The weight of whatever it was brought my arm down, knocking away a few of the Heartless. Opening my eyes, I caught a glimpse of a weird, spiky weapon that I was somehow now holding. "What the crap?" I yelped, hurling it away from me as hard as I could.

Immediately the Heartless were back on top of me, their claws digging into my skin, but only a second later I felt them being dragged away. In another moment there was enough of an opening between them that I could see Riku, snatching them up from behind and flinging them away from me as quickly as possible. When they were finally all off, I sank down to the ground, holding my bloody arms close to my chest, and watched as he turned and finished them off with his sword.

"Are you alright?" Riku asked after pausing a second to catch his breath.

"More or less." I began analyzing my wounds, then sucked in an audible breath through my teeth as the stinging hit harder. "Man, those claws are really sharp, though."

Riku's sword vanished from his hand as he crossed to me quickly and dropped down to one knee. "I'm so sorry. I got here as fast as I could, but..." He caught one of my hands in his and held it gently. "How bad is it?"

"Oh, um..." I was suddenly very distracted by his touch, despite it being through a glove. "Uh, it's not too bad I don't guess. My arms are pretty scratched up, but I think that's it. Actually..." I winced and reached up to touch my cheek. "Nope, there's one on my face, too." Riku's frown deepened, and I forced a laugh to dispel the awkwardness of having him worry over me. "I guess I'll survive. I've always been a big baby when it comes to pain. You'd think after all the times I've been beat up I'd be used to it by now."

"Who's beating you up?" Riku demanded.

So much for my joke to break up the tension. Not only was I not used to this kind of attention from anyone, having it come from the stoic and distant Grim was even more disconcerting. I laughed again. "What are you, my big brother?" I teased.

Riku pulled back and blushed a little. "I just...I mean..."

"Just some kids at the group home where I used to live," I smiled, deciding to leave out any mention of more recent injuries. "They always gave me a hard time for having 'imaginary friends'. Too bad I can't drag you back there now and say, 'See, I told you they weren't imaginary!'"

Chuckling slightly, Riku dropped my hand and pulled a familiar vial out of his pocket. "Now, I know you didn't want to drink this before, but..." He held it out to me between his thumb and index finger. "I promise it's not poisonous. It'll make you feel a lot better."

I drew in a deep breath, considering the offer, then reached out and grabbed the bottle. "I guess if you wanted me dead, you could have just let the Heartless finish me off."

"True," Riku smirked.

Popping the cork out, I eyed the liquid one more time before downing it in two gulps. Once it was gone, I stuck out my tongue and made a hacking noise. "That is disgusting. What is it?"

"Not sure what's in it. Everyone just calls it 'potion'. But look." He picked up my hand again and indicated my arm, and I gasped in surprise. The scratches were melting away, leaving new, fresh skin in their place. All the pain was gone, too, and only some streaks of blood remained.

"Whoa," I exclaimed. "That's...wow."

"Feel better?"

"Yeah," I laughed. "Much better. Thanks."

Standing, Riku pulled me to my feet before letting go of my hand once more. "Maybe, if you're going to be around here for very long, we should teach you some basic fighting techniques," he commented. "You know, just in case the Heartless show up when I'm not around. Or in case you encounter any more bullies back home." He was trying to sound nonchalant, but the way he emphasized 'bullies' made me figure that he knew there was more to the story.

I smirked. "Not a bad idea." Suddenly I remembered what had happened. "Maybe I could use that weird sword thing that showed up in my hand earlier."

"Wait, what?" Riku exclaimed, clearly shocked. "You summoned a weapon?"

"I don't know!" I threw my hands up in the air. "I don't know anything about all of this crazy magic stuff. All I know is, those things were attacking me, and then all of a sudden I was holding something big and heavy and...pointy."

"Well, what happened to it?" he probed.

"Um, I threw it." I lifted my shoulders in a sheepish shrug. "I don't know where it went after that."

Riku scratched his head as if trying to collect his thoughts. "Okay, do this for me. Take your dominant hand, and stretch it out like this." He demonstrated, and his sword appeared in his hand. I followed suite, but nothing happened. "Try again," he urged. "It takes a little bit of wrist, too."

Furrowing my brow in concentration, I reached out slowly and opened my hand again, flicking my wrist slightly. When the weapon manifested, we both jumped in surprise. I looked up at Riku with my eyebrows raised, waiting for his reaction.

Taking hold of the shaft with one hand, he reached up with his other hand and lifted his blindfold on one side. That move stunned me just as much as the sword had, and I found myself staring in amazement at the insanely blue eye that he had just revealed. It was the brightest aqua blue that I had ever seen, like the color of the sky on a perfect summer day, or those pictures of the ocean off the coast of a deserted island.

"This...is a Keyblade." Riku's voice brought me back to reality and tore my gaze away from his face and back to the weapon in my hand.

"A what now?" I studied the sword for the first time. It was made almost entirely of a dark gunmetal, but there were delicate swirls of silver going up the shaft, and the part where my hand was gripping it was also silver. The guards around the handle were black and silver and looked like bat wings, and there were two dark purple stones on the top and bottom of the handle, one diamond shaped and one round. The shaft itself was asymmetrical, with several sharp angles along one side. At the far end, two half circles, one gunmetal and one purple, protruded from the shaft, bearing five sharp, spear-like purple teeth.

"It's a Keyblade," Riku repeated, dropping his blindfold back over his eye. He sounded almost dumbfounded.

"What's a Keyblade?" I had never heard or seen anything of the sort before.

"A very special weapon. Those who can wield it are rare. I've only ever known two Keyblade bearers, and one's Sora and the other's a king." He paused and twisted his lips in thought. "Well, there is one other that I met, but...that's a different story. Hers doesn't really count."

"But...I can wield it?" I lifted the Keyblade and took a closer look at the teeth. "Why? I'm nobody special."

Riku shrugged. "I don't know. The Keyblade chooses who it will. Those whose hearts have the right kind of strength."

Something about the way he was explaining everything made me think that he wasn't overly pleased with this new discovery. "But...you don't have one?" I ventured, guessing at what could be bothering him.

"No," he returned, looking away. "I wielded one for a short time, but...I didn't deserve it." Turning back to me, he quickly added, "I'm happy for you, though. It's great that you were chosen."

I smiled sympathetically at him. This must be some kind of weapon for him to be jealous of it. "So...what does it do?"

Riku stepped back so that I could test out the blade, swinging it back and forth as if I knew what I was doing, which I definitely did not. "Well, it works basically like a sword, though you can also channel magic through it. Most importantly, it's the only weapon that will actually get rid of the Heartless for good."

I frowned and glanced around the forest, half expecting to see the creepy little monsters show up again. "What do you mean?"

"When any other weapon besides a Keyblade strikes a Heartless, they disappear temporarily, but they'll always come back eventually," Riku explained. "When you kill one with a Keyblade, it releases the heart that the creature is holding captive, and it's gone for good."

"So, pretty important in a world overrun by Heartless, huh?" I gave the Keyblade one last swing, then let it drop to my side. "Strange that I would get one, when I don't even live here." A little awkward, in fact. If these were so important, and only a few people had one, then what would they think of me if I ran off back to my own universe without using it to help out? "Not that I would know what to do with it, anyway," I laughed, trying to shake off the sudden guilt. "As you've seen, my fighting skills are...non-existent."

"I could train you," Riku offered immediately. "I mean, we had already talked about teaching you some defense techniques. This would just be a few steps further."

"Yeah, uh...I guess." There went my excuse. "I still don't know that I'd be very good at it."

"I bet you would be," Riku smiled. Then he seemed to realize the problem and tried to backtrack. "But you don't have to train with it, I don't suppose. I mean, I know you're not staying here forever or anything. No reason to learn to wield a Keyblade if you're living in a universe where you don't even need it."

I would have been flattered by the disappointment in his voice, if I had thought that it was actually about me not sticking around. It was much more likely about not getting to train someone, or not gaining a new Keyblade bearer, though. Regardless of the reason, I still felt incredibly guilty. "Well, we'll see. For now, what do I do with this thing?"

"Oh, you mean how do you dismiss it?" Riku held out his hand again. "Just open your hand to let go of it. Basically, repeat the same motion you used to summon it to start with."

When I did so, the Keyblade vanished in a puff of smoke, just like Riku's had. I saw him frown, and glanced down at my hand with uncertainty. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No, it's not that, it's just..." He paused, thinking. "That smell. That was darkness."

"Which means...?"

"Which means that it's a Keyblade of darkness," Riku finished.

"Is that a...bad thing?" It didn't sound good, especially not with the way he was saying it.

"No," he quickly assured me, shaking his head. "Not a bad thing. Just...surprising, that's all." He turned to gaze in the direction of the mansion. "We should head back. DiZ will want to hear about this new development."

Chapter Text

DiZ didn't have much to say as we told him all about our little adventure in the woods and how I was, apparently, now a Keyblade wielder. Mostly he just nodded, hummed a little in thought or agreement, and occasionally threw in an, "Interesting."

Finally Riku had me summon the Keyblade to show him. I got it right on the first try this time, and was pretty proud of myself. DiZ just nodded and hummed again, never showing any emotion on the small part of his face that I could see.

"Well, congratulations, child." His comment sounded insincere, like most everything else he said. I got the feeling that he didn't care all that much about anything that wasn't directly related to him and whatever the heck he was doing in this gloomy basement of his. "Now," he began again, rising from his seat. "I assume you would like to know the name of this new blade of yours?"

"The name?" I repeated, confused.

"Yes, every good weapon has a name." We followed him out of the room and up the stairs into the library.

"My sword is called Soul Eater," Riku offered.

"Hmm. Cheery," I quipped.

Ignoring my comment, DiZ ran his index finger along the spines of the books until he came to a particular deep blue one. This book he pulled out and began to thumb through carefully, leaving us waiting in silence for several minutes. "Aha," he declared at last. "This is the one, I believe."

He held out the book, and I stepped in closer to look at the drawing on the page. "Yeah, that looks like it," I agreed.

"Sorrow's Promise," DiZ read from the top of the page. "That is its name."

I scrunched my nose up. "Just as cheery. Well, at least it's pretty." Turning to Riku, I motioned towards the door. "If we're done here, I'd like to go shower. Assuming there is one of those in this old place." My arms and face were still streaked with blood, and I felt like I was coated in dried-up sweat.

"No shower, sorry," Riku answered. "Just the tub in the bathroom that's right across the hall from our bedrooms."

Thanking him, I exited the room, but stopped just outside when I heard the murmur of voices start back up inside. I stepped back towards the door and gently pressed my ear up against it, wondering if they were talking about me.

"...dark Keyblade?" I heard Riku say. "That's what I don't understand."

"You yourself carry a weapon born of darkness," DiZ replied. "Why is it so astounding that she would, too?"

"Because she's Kairi's doppelganger!" Riku exclaimed.

"Ah, yes, and Kairi is a Princess of Heart," DiZ responded.

"Exactly," said Riku. "She has a heart of pure light. So if Meli is essentially the same person, why does her heart have darkness in it?"

"There are many ways for darkness to enter a heart," DiZ explained. "From what I've been told, the two girls' lives differed quite greatly past the age of eight. Meli may have, at one point, had a heart of pure light, but her life circumstances caused darkness to be born in it somewhere along the way."

Their voices began to fade as, I assumed, they went down the stairs to the basement. Frowning, I took a step back away from the door. This whole light versus dark thing had me quite confused. Was darkness bad? It certainly was if you took Star Wars as any kind of example. Also, the Heartless came from the same black smoke that my Keyblade did, so that probably meant that they were from the darkness, too. Another point for darkness being bad.

On the other hand, Riku used a dark weapon and dark corridors, so he had to have darkness in his heart, too, right? He didn't seem all that bad. He had even been really kind and caring to me on more than one occasion. There was Roxas' use of dark corridors to consider, too, and surely someone as nice as Roxas wasn't on the bad side. I heaved a sigh, realizing that I wasn't going to get any answers just standing here in the hall puzzling over it. I would just have to see if I could pry an explanation out of Riku at some point.

After a nice, long, relaxing soak in the tub, I went to my room and checked my hair in the mirror. The side that was trimmed close to my head was already dry, and I was running my fingers through the long side to style it when I heard a knock on the door.

"It's Riku," his muffled voice called. "I brought food."

Opening the door, I stepped to the side to let him in. "Three of my favorite words," I smiled. I peered out into the empty hallway. "What about Naminé? Does she not want to eat with us?"

"Oh, uh..." Riku frowned as if the idea had never crossed his mind. "I don't know. She's pretty busy."

I shrugged and took the take-out box from his hands. "Okay. What does she do exactly, anyway?" When Riku scrunched his face up uncertainly again, I waved my free hand in defeat and plopped onto the bed. "Never mind, never mind. Secret stuff, I get it. I'm just trying to figure the three of you out. Why you're here, what the connections are. It's all very mysterious." I tapped my fork on my chin in thought. "There are just the three of you here, right? You don't have any other kids hiding anywhere?"

"No," Riku answered, almost a little too quickly. "Just us." He took a seat in the chair next to the bed and opened his box of food.

"Because if there were, I would almost have to think there was some weird X-Men stuff going on here," I joked. "With the old mansion, and all this magic crap that's been happening, and with DiZ being a way creepier version of Professor X, of course."

Riku finished chewing his bite of food slowly and swallowed. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Is that someone you know?"

"No, it's a movie." I shook my head. "Never mind."

We ate for a few minutes in silence after that. My mind had returned to the subject of darkness and light, and I was wondering if I should ask him about it. Finally I decided to give it a try. "So, tell me more about my Keyblade. What does it mean that it's from the darkness?"

Riku seemed to consider this for a moment before answering. "Well, there are Keyblades – and other weapons – of both light and darkness. Those of darkness originate from the Realm of Darkness."

"Which I'm assuming is not where we are right now," I broke in.

"No, we live in the Realm of Light," Riku agreed. "Each kind of Keyblade carries certain powers with it that the other kind can't necessarily use. So, as a bearer of a dark Keyblade, you will have access to dark powers."

"But what does that mean?" I pressed. "Having 'dark powers' sounds so ominous. Do I have to like, join the dark side or something? Am I going to be the next Darth Vader?"

Riku's expression changed to one of confusion, and I waved my fork in the air in exasperation before he could speak. "Forget it. Clearly you don't have the same movies here that we do." I drew in a deep breath and reworded my question. "What I'm asking is...is the darkness bad? Does having a dark Keyblade mean there's some kind of...evil in me?"

I half expected Riku to immediately dismiss the thought, but instead he sighed and didn't speak for a long moment. "That's exactly what I've been trying to find out for myself," he finally admitted. "It's true that having a dark weapon does mean that there is darkness in your heart. But whether or not the darkness is bad...that's a question that I don't know the answer to yet." He looked down at the food in his lap, stabbing at it with his fork without picking anything up. "I have darkness in my heart, too. It's caused a lot of problems...a lot of pain for the people I care about. But that was because I gave into it, and let it control me."

It was surprising, hearing him actually open up and be this vulnerable. I might not have known him for long, but it wasn't hard to tell that he didn't share personal things easily. I opened my mouth to speak, but wasn't really sure what to say in reply.

"I'm trying my best now to find the balance between light and dark," Riku continued, looking back up at me. "The darkness is powerful, and will take over if given much of a chance. But I think that if used correctly, it can be an asset instead of the enemy." He gave a half-smile. "I certainly don't have it all figured out. But...I'm trying."

Now it was my turn to stare at my food and push it around with my fork. After a moment I nodded. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Being honest," I replied. "There has been a lot happening the last couple of days that doesn't make any sense to me. And I know there are things that you can't tell me yet, for whatever reason. But whenever you have the chance to be honest, it seems like you do, and I appreciate it."

"Oh. Yeah, sure." Riku nodded and took another bite of food. "I wouldn't worry too much about being secretly evil or anything," he added with a smile when he finished chewing. "You seem way too nice for that."

I laughed awkwardly. "Oh, uh, thanks."

After we finished eating and he had gone, I tried the mirror one more time and climbed into bed. It took me a while to go to sleep, though. I had a lot to think about.

Chapter Text

I spent the next few days hanging out around the mansion and in town. Riku would usually disappear for a large portion of the day, but always offered to walk me into town first so that I could get coffee. I saw Roxas a couple of times, and we enjoyed spending the afternoons wandering around, talking and meandering in and out of shops. He even managed to talk me into trying his favorite flavor of ice cream. It was definitely an interesting taste, but the next time we met I stuck with my coffee and a cherry filled pastry that I had discovered from the same cafe.

I also took a little bit of time out of each day to visit Naminé in the white room where she always seemed to stay. We didn't have much to talk about, but it seemed like she had to be lonely up there, despite everyone's insistence that she was "very busy".

Every evening before bed, and every morning when I woke up, I would place my hands on the mirror and try again to make a portal home. Lying in bed at night, I wondered what I would even find if and when I ever made it through. The due date for my rent had already come and gone. If Aiden had decided I wasn't coming back, or if he had followed through on his threat, he might not have paid it. My landlord was pretty forgiving, but he probably wouldn't hold out for long before he had all my stuff thrown out.

Was Aiden still waiting for me? Had he been worried when I never came back to the apartment? Or was he relieved that he didn't have to deal with me anymore? Now that I was several days removed from our last incident, I found myself missing him. It was easy to ignore his faults when I wasn't around him, and just remember the times when he was sweet and funny and actually acted like he cared about me.

One day, when I was bored and wandering around the mansion, waiting for Riku to show up, I decided to go back down to the basement. I wasn't sure whether I hoped DiZ would be there or not. Part of me wanted to avoid him, since he still kind of gave me the creeps, but part of me wanted to see if I could slyly pry some information out of him about whatever he and Riku were up to. I guess the former feeling was stronger, though, because I breathed an involuntary sigh of relief when I walked into an empty room.

The computer was on, but showed only blank blue-green screens. I was extremely tempted to mess with them and see what I could find, but my fear of being discovered won out, at least for the time being. Glancing around the room, I noticed that there was a door to my left that was standing open for the first time. I had just assumed it was a closet or something, but now I could see that it led into another open room.

Poking my head in cautiously, I could quickly see that no one was there. The room was completely empty, but there was another door just like this one on the other side. I crossed to it, curious now as to what might lie beyond, and pressed the small blue button to the right of it. The electronic door slid open with a gust of air.

Now I found myself in a long, dimly lit hallway, the end of which was out of sight around a corner. What were they hiding down here? I lingered in the doorway for a minute, trying to decide whether to let my trepidation or curiosity take control. Finally curiosity won out, and I started slowly down the hall. I really didn't know what to expect to find at this point. Some kind of evil scientist's laboratory? A dungeon? A secret society meeting room? My imagination was running wild.

At the corner I stopped and flattened myself against the wall, then peeked around with just one eye. There was nothing to be seen except another identical door at the end of the hallway, and several giant, white, flower bud shaped objects along the opposite wall. They kind of looked like some sort of modern art to me, so I didn't pay them much mind as I passed. My focus was on that door. My finger was trembling slightly as I reached out toward the blue button. I quickly looked back over my shoulder to make sure I hadn't been followed, then swallowed my fear and jabbed the button.

When the door flew open, the whiteness of the room inside nearly blinded me. It was a lot like Naminé's room upstairs, but this room was larger and emptier, other than one, jumbo size version of the white flower buds right in the middle of the space. This bud was open, however, and much to my surprise, there was a boy that appeared to be floating inside of it, with his eyes closed. I stood with my feet rooted to the ground, unsure of what exactly I was seeing. Eventually I forced myself to move again, closer to the boy, until I could see his face more clearly.

I gasped audibly. "Zephyr?" My hand unconsciously went to the purple leather bracelet that I always wore around my left wrist. It couldn't be him, though. This boy did look just like him, except for the hair. That spiky hair meant that this could only be one person: Sora.

A throat cleared behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I spun around to see Riku standing in the doorway, his expression blank. Naminé was there, too, back in the corner so that I hadn't noticed her when I came in.

"I, uh..." I fumbled to find an explanation for my presence. "I was looking for DiZ, and the door was open, so I just..." I trailed off, figuring the end spoke for itself.

Riku didn't say anything, just looked up towards Sora and sighed. I followed his gaze, still fidgeting with my bracelet nervously. I could see Sora's chest rising and falling as he breathed, so I knew that he was alive. Other than that, though, he was frighteningly still.

"Are you done here, Naminé?" Riku finally asked, without looking at the blonde.

"Yes," she answered timidly. "I was just about to close it up." Riku nodded his approval, and she pressed a button on the wall. The white petals began to slowly close, layer by layer, until the pod was completely shut and Sora was no longer visible.

I rotated reluctantly back around to face Riku, waiting for him to acknowledge me, wishing I could tell what he was thinking. Was he mad at me? He had proven himself pretty patient so far, but I still didn't know how far he could be pushed before he would snap.

When he finally spoke again, it was in the same calm, level voice that he almost always used. "I suppose it's time that I tell you the whole story," he remarked. "Let's go back upstairs, though. I don't want DiZ to catch you in here."

Chapter Text

SLIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW DOUBLE LINES.

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Taking one last glance back at where Sora slept, I followed Riku and Naminé out of the room and back through the basement, my mind and emotions swirling. I was going to find out what was going on here at last, but after what I had just seen, part of me was now rather scared to know. We traipsed in silence up the stairs to the library, then down the hall to Naminé's room, each of us taking seats at the long, white table.

Then Riku began to tell their story, starting at the very beginning. A beginning that I knew well, with three happy kids who spent their days playing on the beach. But then he told of a restlessness, a lust for more. Of strange creatures appearing, and worlds collapsing into darkness. False promises whispered in the ear of an already troubled boy, and manipulative lies turning one best friend against another. A friend in trouble. Arguments over how to bring her back. Heroic acts by a boy with a Keyblade, fighting to defeat the Heartless and bring the worlds out of darkness. A hunger for even more power, not knowing that requesting it would lead to being possessed by the Heartless of a man named Ansem. A battle between two friends, a door to the Realm of Darkness, an ending, or so it seemed.

Then he began to tell me about the Nobodies, a group of people with no hearts and therefore no emotions or morals. The story continued at a strange castle, full of conjured memories and an Organization of Nobodies who wanted both friends dead. Naminé entered the tale for the first time, forced by those in charge to tamper with the memories of the hero until he couldn't remember the most important person in his life. In the end, the Organization was forced to turn tail and run, and a stranger wrapped in red took charge instead. Two choices were made. One, by Sora, to sleep until his memories could be put back together. The other, by Riku, to stand watch over his friend and make sure that nothing happened to him while he slept.

"Organization XIII is still out there," Riku concluded. "They may have been weakened by Castle Oblivion, but not much. We don't know for sure what their plans are...or at least, if DiZ knows, he's not saying. But we have to keep Sora safe from them, no matter what." He looked straight at me for the first time since we had sat down. "That's why you can't ever tell anybody about his location. Not anyone. You never know what side someone might be on."

I nodded vigorously. "I won't. I swear." Twiddling my fingers on the table, I tried to sort out my racing thoughts and decide what questions I wanted to ask the most. "So, when you're up here in this room working all the time, you're working on putting Sora's memories back together?" I questioned, looking to Naminé.

"Yes. The process has taken much longer than we originally thought it would." She glanced at Riku as if for permission to continue, and he nodded. "Some of his memories ended up inside of his Nobody, and others are escaping through the Nobody into a third person." She paused before finishing, "It's proving difficult to get them all back."

"Wait, Sora has a Nobody?" I exclaimed. "But...he's alive, and has his heart. How does that work?"

"Sora briefly became a Heartless when he sacrificed himself to give Kairi back her heart," Riku elaborated. "That's apparently when his Nobody was born. Somehow Kairi was able to bring Sora back, though, so his case is unique."

I had a sudden thought and turned back to Naminé. "So, are you Kairi's Nobody, then? That would explain why you look like her, right?" Riku had hinted at her being a Nobody during the story, but no one had mentioned it outright.

She smiled. "Yes, I am."

"But you're..." I hesitated, trying to think of the right words. "Nice. You don't seem like you don't have a heart."

"I guess not all Nobodies are necessarily bad," Riku shrugged. "Just most of them."

"Meli," Naminé spoke up. "When you first saw Sora, you said another name. Did you think that you recognized him?"

"Oh, yeah." After everything that I had just heard, I had nearly forgotten about that detail. "He, uh...he looks just like my friend, Zephyr. I think he might be his doppelganger."

"Someone you know well?" Riku inquired.

"Used to. We went to school together, back before I moved into the group home. We were best friends for awhile. I think he always had a bit of a crush on me, but nothing ever came of it." I smiled, remembering. "Anyway, we kept in touch even after I moved, and would hang out whenever we could. Until..."

"Until what?" Riku prompted.

"Well, Aiden really doesn't like me hanging around other guys," I shrugged. "Which is understandable. So we haven't seen each other in a while. I still wear this bracelet that he gave me when we were kids, though. Aiden doesn't know it's from him, so I can get away with it," I laughed.

Riku frowned. "Meli, that's really not understandable at all. You should be able to be friends with whoever you want to."

I looked down at my hands and spun the bracelet around my wrist. "Well, Aiden's a bit older than me, so he's been in relationships before. He knows how these things work. He's just trying to do what's best for us."

"So then should I assume that you have female friends? It's just guys that are off-limits?" Riku prodded.

"I'm...not the greatest at making friends. I did have one, last year." I fiddled with the snap on the bracelet, not taking my eyes off of it. "She was kind of annoying, though."

"To you, or to him?"

I pressed my lips together, getting aggravated with his interrogation. Why did he think it was any of his business, anyway? "Me," I stated simply. Aiden had trained me well to answer all of his questions whether I wanted to or not, but that didn't mean I had to tell the truth.

"Yeah. I'm sure." Riku's reply was undeniably sarcastic. He didn't understand, and I didn't expect him to. But I knew Aiden cared about me and our relationship, whether Riku did or not.

Awkward silence hung over the table for a moment before Riku spoke again, his tone much lighter than it had just been. "Well, that's pretty interesting that you two were friends, even in another universe. Don't guess you knew anybody that looked like me, huh?" He laughed, but it sounded fake, like he really was hoping that I had.

Twisting my lips in thought, I tried to remember. "I don't think so...oh, wait!" A memory flashed through my mind. "Actually, there was a guy...Kaj. I didn't think about it before, because he was so much younger when I knew him. But there was definitely a resemblance between him and the younger you that I've seen in my dreams." I tapped my chin with my index finger. "Yeah, Zeph and I were friends with him in elementary school. I lost touch with him when I moved, though. Last I heard, Zephyr told me that he had gotten in with a bad crowd and dropped out of school. He didn't really know what happened to him after that."

Riku smirked, but didn't say anything. It took me a second to realize that what I had said was scarily close to his own story that he had just told me. "I'm sure he's fine, though," I added quickly, wincing inwardly at the lameness of my own words. Now I was going to be left to wonder what would have happened if Zeph and I had been the kind of friends to Kaj that Sora and Kairi had been to Riku.

"So, do you have any more questions?" Riku asked, changing the subject back.

"Lots, I'm sure," I replied. "But right now I think I just need to process everything."

"I understand. I can walk you into town now, if you want."

My mind was full the rest of the day. Rather than roam around town, I sat in a corner of the cafe and sipped my coffee, replaying the story that Riku had told me over again in my mind. Even when Roxas arrived for his daily ice cream, I couldn't get my thoughts on the present. I kept having to apologize to him for zoning out and making him repeat himself because my brain was so preoccupied.

On the way back to the mansion and during dinner, I asked Riku several questions that I had come up with during the day, mostly just clarifying details about how and when certain things had occurred. He seemed more than happy to discuss everything with me, and I wondered if being able to finally share the secret with someone was a burden lifted off his shoulders.

That night, after I had taken a bath and was ready for bed, I followed my usual routine of trying to make a portal, placing my hands on the mirror and shutting my eyes. This time, though, something happened. I felt the glass melting away underneath my hands, and my eyes flew open in surprise. A purple, smoky ring surrounded the mirror, and the glass was wavy and rippling, like an upright pool of water.

Stepping back, I stared at what I had just created with my mouth hanging open. I had actually done it. My powers were real. I could go home. But...did I want to? Yes, most of what I had heard and seen today was weird enough to be the plot of some sci-fi movie, or maybe a video game. At the same time, though, I felt like it gave me some kind of understanding of this place for the first time. I felt a connection to the people here, and to this story that I had been thrust into the middle of.

I ran my fingers through my hair, beginning to stress over the decision before me. Could I really just stay here? Abandon my life, and my boyfriend, for some wild fairy tale? I didn't have a purpose here. There was not really a good reason at this point for me to stay. They needed heroes, fighters, people who could conquer an evil organization while watching over the innocent. I was none of those things.

But...maybe I could still help in some way. Looking down at my hand, I remembered the feeling of the Keyblade in my grasp. I didn't know if I had what it took to be a true Keyblade wielder, but the least I could do was try, right? I had been gifted with a rare opportunity, and it would be foolish of me to just throw it away. Besides, if I had gotten the portal to work tonight, I could probably make one again another night if I changed my mind. On the other hand, if I went through the portal now and for whatever reason couldn't make another one, I would never be able to come back.

My mind was made up. I watched the portal sputter and falter, then vanish from sight, leaving only a normal mirror in its place. Spinning on my heel, I threw open the bedroom door, marched next door, and knocked sharply.

Only a few seconds later, the door opened and Riku stood in front of me with a puzzled look on his face. "Meli? Is everything okay?"

"I want you to train me," I announced. "I want to learn to use the Keyblade."

Riku smiled broadly, possibly the first time I had seen him look genuinely happy. "We'll start first thing in the morning."

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CENSORED VERSION

There's no violence in this chapter, but there are references to Aiden's controlling tendencies.

—————————————————

Taking one last glance back at where Sora slept, I followed Riku and Naminé out of the room and back through the basement, my mind and emotions swirling. I was going to find out what was going on here at last, but after what I had just seen, part of me was now rather scared to know. We traipsed in silence up the stairs to the library, then down the hall to Naminé's room, each of us taking seats at the long, white table.

Then Riku began to tell their story, starting at the very beginning. A beginning that I knew well, with three happy kids who spent their days playing on the beach. But then he told of a restlessness, a lust for more. Of strange creatures appearing, and worlds collapsing into darkness. False promises whispered in the ear of an already troubled boy, and manipulative lies turning one best friend against another. A friend in trouble. Arguments over how to bring her back. Heroic acts by a boy with a Keyblade, fighting to defeat the Heartless and bring the worlds out of darkness. A hunger for even more power, not knowing that requesting it would lead to being possessed by the Heartless of a man named Ansem. A battle between two friends, a door to the Realm of Darkness, an ending, or so it seemed.

Then he began to tell me about the Nobodies, a group of people with no hearts and therefore no emotions or morals. The story continued at a strange castle, full of conjured memories and an Organization of Nobodies who wanted both friends dead. Naminé entered the tale for the first time, forced by those in charge to tamper with the memories of the hero until he couldn't remember the most important person in his life. In the end, the Organization was forced to turn tail and run, and a stranger wrapped in red took charge instead. Two choices were made. One, by Sora, to sleep until his memories could be put back together. The other, by Riku, to stand watch over his friend and make sure that nothing happened to him while he slept.

"Organization XIII is still out there," Riku concluded. "They may have been weakened by Castle Oblivion, but not much. We don't know for sure what their plans are...or at least, if DiZ knows, he's not saying. But we have to keep Sora safe from them, no matter what." He looked straight at me for the first time since we had sat down. "That's why you can't ever tell anybody about his location. Not anyone. You never know what side someone might be on."

I nodded vigorously. "I won't. I swear." Twiddling my fingers on the table, I tried to sort out my racing thoughts and decide what questions I wanted to ask the most. "So, when you're up here in this room working all the time, you're working on putting Sora's memories back together?" I questioned, looking to Naminé.

"Yes. The process has taken much longer than we originally thought it would." She glanced at Riku as if for permission to continue, and he nodded. "Some of his memories ended up inside of his Nobody, and others are escaping through the Nobody into a third person." She paused before finishing, "It's proving difficult to get them all back."

"Wait, Sora has a Nobody?" I exclaimed. "But...he's alive, and has his heart. How does that work?"

"Sora briefly became a Heartless when he sacrificed himself to give Kairi back her heart," Riku elaborated. "That's apparently when his Nobody was born. Somehow Kairi was able to bring Sora back, though, so his case is unique."

I had a sudden thought and turned back to Naminé. "So, are you Kairi's Nobody, then? That would explain why you look like her, right?" Riku had hinted at her being a Nobody during the story, but no one had mentioned it outright.

She smiled. "Yes, I am."

"But you're..." I hesitated, trying to think of the right words. "Nice. You don't seem like you don't have a heart."

"I guess not all Nobodies are necessarily bad," Riku shrugged. "Just most of them."

"Meli," Naminé spoke up. "When you first saw Sora, you said another name. Did you think that you recognized him?"

"Oh, yeah." After everything that I had just heard, I had nearly forgotten about that detail. "He, uh...he looks just like my friend, Zephyr. I think he might be his doppelganger."

"Someone you know well?" Riku inquired.

"Used to. We went to school together, back before I moved into the group home. We were best friends for awhile. I think he always had a bit of a crush on me, but nothing ever came of it." I smiled, remembering. "Anyway, we kept in touch even after I moved, and would hang out whenever we could. Until..."

"Until what?" Riku prompted.

"Well, Aiden really doesn't like me hanging around other guys," I shrugged. "Which is understandable. So we haven't seen each other in a while. I still wear this bracelet that he gave me when we were kids, though. Aiden doesn't know it's from him, so I can get away with it," I laughed.

Riku frowned. "Meli, that's really not understandable at all. You should be able to be friends with whoever you want to."

I looked down at my hands and spun the bracelet around my wrist. (Meli offers excuses for Aiden. Riku continues to question her about her friends, and Meli has to basically admit that she doesn't have any. She continues to defend Aiden, though, much to Riku's annoyance.)

Awkward silence hung over the table for a moment before Riku spoke again, his tone much lighter than it had just been. "Well, that's pretty interesting that you two were friends, even in another universe. Don't guess you knew anybody that looked like me, huh?" He laughed, but it sounded fake, like he really was hoping that I had.

Twisting my lips in thought, I tried to remember. "I don't think so...oh, wait!" A memory flashed through my mind. "Actually, there was a guy...Kaj. I didn't think about it before, because he was so much younger when I knew him. But there was definitely a resemblance between him and the younger you that I've seen in my dreams." I tapped my chin with my index finger. "Yeah, Zeph and I were friends with him in elementary school. I lost touch with him when I moved, though. Last I heard, Zephyr told me that he had gotten in with a bad crowd and dropped out of school. He didn't really know what happened to him after that."

Riku smirked, but didn't say anything. It took me a second to realize that what I had said was scarily close to his own story that he had just told me. "I'm sure he's fine, though," I added quickly, wincing inwardly at the lameness of my own words. Now I was going to be left to wonder what would have happened if Zeph and I had been the kind of friends to Kaj that Sora and Kairi had been to Riku.

"So, do you have any more questions?" Riku asked, changing the subject back.

"Lots, I'm sure," I replied. "But right now I think I just need to process everything."

"I understand. I can walk you into town now, if you want."

My mind was full the rest of the day. Rather than roam around town, I sat in a corner of the cafe and sipped my coffee, replaying the story that Riku had told me over again in my mind. Even when Roxas arrived for his daily ice cream, I couldn't get my thoughts on the present. I kept having to apologize to him for zoning out and making him repeat himself because my brain was so preoccupied.

On the way back to the mansion and during dinner, I asked Riku several questions that I had come up with during the day, mostly just clarifying details about how and when certain things had occurred. He seemed more than happy to discuss everything with me, and I wondered if being able to finally share the secret with someone was a burden lifted off his shoulders.

That night, after I had taken a bath and was ready for bed, I followed my usual routine of trying to make a portal, placing my hands on the mirror and shutting my eyes. This time, though, something happened. I felt the glass melting away underneath my hands, and my eyes flew open in surprise. A purple, smoky ring surrounded the mirror, and the glass was wavy and rippling, like an upright pool of water.

Stepping back, I stared at what I had just created with my mouth hanging open. I had actually done it. My powers were real. I could go home. But...did I want to? Yes, most of what I had heard and seen today was weird enough to be the plot of some sci-fi movie, or maybe a video game. At the same time, though, I felt like it gave me some kind of understanding of this place for the first time. I felt a connection to the people here, and to this story that I had been thrust into the middle of.

I ran my fingers through my hair, beginning to stress over the decision before me. Could I really just stay here? Abandon my life, and my boyfriend, for some wild fairy tale? I didn't have a purpose here. There was not really a good reason at this point for me to stay. They needed heroes, fighters, people who could conquer an evil organization while watching over the innocent. I was none of those things.

But...maybe I could still help in some way. Looking down at my hand, I remembered the feeling of the Keyblade in my grasp. I didn't know if I had what it took to be a true Keyblade wielder, but the least I could do was try, right? I had been gifted with a rare opportunity, and it would be foolish of me to just throw it away. Besides, if I had gotten the portal to work tonight, I could probably make one again another night if I changed my mind. On the other hand, if I went through the portal now and for whatever reason couldn't make another one, I would never be able to come back.

My mind was made up. I watched the portal sputter and falter, then vanish from sight, leaving only a normal mirror in its place. Spinning on my heel, I threw open the bedroom door, marched next door, and knocked sharply.

Only a few seconds later, the door opened and Riku stood in front of me with a puzzled look on his face. "Meli? Is everything okay?"

"I want you to train me," I announced. "I want to learn to use the Keyblade."

Riku smiled broadly, possibly the first time I had seen him look genuinely happy. "We'll start first thing in the morning."

Chapter Text

"Oof!" I hit the ground with a thud and groaned. "You don't have to go quite so hard on me, you know?"

Riku smirked and twirled Soul Eater around in his hand. "If I don't, then you won't get better. Now come on, let's go again."

Pulling my feet up under me, I used my free hand to push against the ground and stand up. I had lost count of how many times I had fallen on my butt within the first couple of days of training. Now, a week and a half later, it was pretty much just one giant bruise, as was most of the rest of my body. When I tried to get out of bed in the mornings, every muscle was so sore that I could barely move. Occasionally Riku would let me take a potion, if things got too bad, but most of the time he just told me that it was 'making me tough'.

I don't know what exactly I had expected when I had first asked him to train me. I certainly never imagined that there would be quite so much hard work involved. We were up every morning much earlier than I would have liked, heading straight to our little clearing behind the mansion that had become the training arena. Not only did I have to learn all the right stances and maneuvers for using the Keyblade – which had the tendency to get heavier and heavier as the day wore on – I also had to build up strength and stamina, which meant running laps, lifting weights, push-ups, chin-ups, you name it. Riku didn't mess around when it came to training.

No matter how much I might have complained, though, I could already tell that I was making progress, and it made me pretty proud of myself. I had never really been able to say that before. It was a weird feeling, being proud of myself, but a good feeling. I was a quick study when it came to the basics of Keyblade use, so we had soon been able to move on to sparring, which is where most of the falling on my butt took place. It was still fun, even if I wouldn't have admitted that to Riku. I enjoyed the way it made my brain work, the powerful sensation of the weapon in my hand, and also actually feeling like I was getting to know Riku. He may have been a bit of a drill sergeant, but sparring seemed to have the tendency to loosen him up and bring out the real Riku.

"Ready?" He held his sword up next to his head and pointed it straight at me.

Drawing in a deep breath, I took my own two-handed stance with my Keyblade to my right side. "Ready."

Riku made the first move, leaping in toward me and swinging his blade down in an arc. I moved quickly to block, then pushed his sword up and away from me and came right back in with a swing of my own.

"Nice," Riku called, jumping backwards to avoid the blow. He sliced across from the right, causing me to arch back and stumble a bit. I was still able to block his next move, but then our weapons were locked mid-air, and I didn't quite have the strength to best him at a shoving match. I hit the ground again.

"Ugh," I complained. "Why do you keep doing that to me?"

Riku smirked again. "You know, in a real battle, you'd have to keep fighting even after you hit the ground. Just because I knocked you down doesn't mean the fight is won."

"Yeah, yeah." I waved a hand at him dismissively as I pried myself back out of the dirt. "Okay, so next time we don't stop. I'll try to block you after I'm down."

"Or you could just...not fall down."

I glared at him playfully. "You could just not knock me down! How do you think I feel, being beaten so many times by a blind guy?"

Riku laughed. "Well, not exactly blind. And I've been doing this for a really long time," he pointed out.

"Where did you learn all this stuff, anyway?" I asked, partially out of curiosity, and partially to kill time so I could catch my breath.

"Sora and I were always sparring for the heck of it," he shrugged. "It may have just been play back then, but I still learned a lot from it. The rest I just had to pick up as I went." He smiled. "See, you're lucky to have a teacher like me."

"Oh, yeah, I feel really lucky," I shot back with a grin. "Alright, I'm ready. Let's do this."

"Nah." He dismissed his weapon, and I raised an eyebrow in surprise. "That's enough for now. I want to teach you something new."

I immediately perked up. "Ooh, like what?"

A playful smile crossed his lips. "Magic."

Gasping, I did a little happy jig. "Yes! I've been waiting for this day!"

Riku laughed again, a sound that I was hearing quite a bit these days. "Okay. What I'm going to teach you is called Fire. It's one of the most basic spells. It's really simple to do, but like all magic, you have to feel it in your heart in order for it to work correctly."

I nodded solemnly. "Gotcha. I think."

"We're going to use that bush over there as a target," Riku said, pointing. "So raise your Keyblade in front of you, and point it straight towards the bush."

I complied, keeping the Keyblade as steady as I could between both my hands. Riku circled around behind me and brushed his hand underneath my arm as he passed. It was something he had done often to check my stances, but it still threw me off guard a little every time.

"Stretch your arms out straight," he instructed. As I did so, he leaned in close to my shoulder from behind. A shiver raced down my spine, and I blinked in confusion. Where did that come from? It must have been his breath tickling my neck. He was awfully close, closer than I thought we had ever been before.

"Now, make sure your aim is correct," Riku continued in my ear. "Then when you're ready, say the command, 'Fire' in a clear, loud voice."

Forcing my thoughts back to the task at hand, I cleared my throat and narrowed my eyes, focusing on the target. Okay, I had to feel it in my heart. I could do that. Probably. I sucked in a breath, then yelled, "Fire!"

I guess I should have expected actual fire to explode from the end of the Keyblade, but I didn't, and the shock combined with the kick of the weapon nearly made me fall over backwards. Riku caught me, though, and pushed me back upright, which left me feeling strangely distracted and bewildered again.

"Wow!" he exclaimed. "That was great! I'll be honest, I didn't expect much out of the very first try."

Shaking my head, I looked back to the bush, which was now engulfed in flames. "Uh, yeah! Neither did I. That was...crazy!" I laughed, letting myself forget my confused emotions from a moment ago. "It was fun, too. Can I do it again?"

"Sure." Riku summoned Soul Eater and shot an icy blast at the fire, quenching it. "There you go."

I was grateful when he stepped to the side to watch this time. Taking aim again, I shouted the command, careful to keep my balance, and watched the fire erupt with a big, cheesy grin. "Yes!" I cheered.

"Out of curiosity," Riku began, walking up to me, "Let's have you try to put it out, too. Same stance, but the command word is, 'Blizzard'."

Readying my Keyblade, I let myself breathe and focus for a moment before calling, "Blizzard!" Immediately the ice shot out from the end of the weapon and enveloped the fire.

Riku crossed his arms and nodded, obviously impressed. "Well, it seems like magic just might be your thing. Two spells on your first day is pretty good."

"Thanks," I beamed. I wasn't used to accepting compliments, because I rarely got them. But something about the way Riku gave them out always made me feel really happy.

"And don't worry about me beating you in sparring, either," he added. "You haven't been at this for very long. Trust me, you're doing great." He turned his face toward the mansion and sighed. "I should go see what DiZ needs me to do today. I'll see you inside...after you've done fifteen laps."

I groaned in protest, but Riku just grinned and waved as he jogged back inside.

Chapter Text

The incessant knocking on my door took a couple of minutes to fully rouse me from sleep. Moaning, I rolled over onto my stomach, burying my face in the pillow. Why did morning have to come so soon?

"Up and at 'em!" Riku called through the door with way too much energy.

"Yeah," I replied, though with my face still buried it just sounded like another groan. Yesterday had been another long, tiring day, and being in the bed felt so good on my aching muscles. I didn't want to have to move again for a very long time. Unfortunately, the need to breathe pretty quickly forced me to at least turn my head over to the side.

"Meet you out back in fifteen," Riku spoke again, his voice fading as he moved away from the door.

Curse him and his ability to thrive early in the morning. Why had I agreed to doing this to myself? And why, oh why, couldn't we have training at say, noon, or maybe three in the afternoon? I needed coffee. Somehow I had gotten through the last couple of weeks without having coffee every morning before training, but that didn't mean that I didn't still desperately want it. If only I could just pop back home and grab my coffee maker, life would be so much better.

Wait a minute. A sudden idea came to mind that was so enticing it made me actually sit up in bed, ignoring the protests from my back and abs. What if I could just pop back home and grab the coffee maker, along with several other things I wished I had? I hadn't attempted to make another portal since the first successful one, but I felt pretty confident that I could make it work again. In the few days since I had learned my first magic spell with the Keyblade, Riku had taught me two more spells that I had had no problem with. So if I could shoot fire, ice, and thunder, and create a barrier around myself, surely I could make a portal to my apartment and back.

I smirked as the absurdity of that thought struck me. What a world I had become a part of! No time to dwell on that now, though, there was coffee to find. Scooting off the bed with new energy, I got dressed, then stopped in front of the mirror and studied it for a moment. There was always the chance, of course, that none of my stuff would even be there anymore. I had better not get my hopes up too high.

Taking a deep breath, I placed my hands on the mirror, picturing the apartment in my mind. The portal appeared even quicker than it had before. Tentatively, I first tried sticking my hand through it, and was almost surprised that it actually worked. My hand vanished right into the wavering mirror. I decided then to poke my head through, just to make sure that it actually lead to my apartment, and that there weren't new tenants living there. If there were – well, there was a high possibility of finding them passed out from fright, so I certainly hoped there weren't.

Passing through felt a bit like a cool breath of air on my face. When I opened my eyes, it was definitely my apartment that I saw, and to my delight, all of my belongings were still in place. I was surprised to be coming out next to my bed, instead of from the mirror, but I supposed since the basement I had originally entered didn't even have a mirror, it made sense. Apparently you only had to have a mirror to make a portal, not to come out of one.

I stepped through with one foot, but left the other still back in the mansion for now. The apartment smelled a bit musty, like no one had been in there for a while. Other than that, though, the familiarity was welcoming. It might not have been much of an apartment, but it had still been mine for quite some time. I was still a little apprehensive about stepping all the way through and having the portal close behind me, but when I spotted my coffee maker on the kitchen counter that was enough motivation to pull me in.

Hurrying across the room, I snatched up the device and unplugged it, then opened the cabinet above it and tucked the canister of coffee grounds from inside underneath my arm. I ran back to the portal and leaned in, setting the two items on the floor of the mansion bedroom. When I straightened again, the portal fizzled and shrank until it had completely disappeared. For a few seconds, I stood in place and stared at the empty beige wall where it had been, trying not to let fear get the best of me. If I couldn't open another portal, not only would I be stuck here, but now I'd be stuck without coffee. But I could do this. I just had a few more things I wanted to grab first.

Opening my closet door, I pulled out a duffel bag and threw it on the floor, then started tossing clothes inside. I included my sneakers, since the flip-flops I had been wearing so far were not at all suited for fighting. I had actually started just going barefoot for training, which was still certainly not ideal, but caused less tripping.

Next, I went into the bathroom and collected all of my toiletries, and added them to the bag. A couple of coffee mugs went in, as well as a mostly-full box of of my favorite cereal that had not expired yet, and my bedside clock. Glancing around the room, I tried to think of anything else I might want to have. There wasn't much left besides food and an old tv. Now that I stopped and took it all in, the apartment felt too quiet, and lonely. It made me think of Aiden, and wonder again if he had been by looking for me at all.

Crossing back to the kitchen, I opened a drawer and pulled out a yellow pad of paper and a pen. The least I could do was leave a note for him, in case he was wondering about me. I tapped the pen on the counter, trying to think of what I could say that would be truthful without giving too much away.

Dear Aiden,

I'm sorry for disappearing without an explanation. I hope I didn't worry you too much. I needed some time to think things over. I stopped by to get some of my things, but I'm not sure when I'll be back again. Please don't feel like you have to wait for me if you don't want to, but know that I do still love you.

Love,

Meli

I set the notepad on the bed where it would be the most visible, then slung the bag over my shoulder and walked to the mirror. Here was the moment of truth. My heart skipped a beat as I touched the glass, but I didn't need to have worried. The portal opened almost immediately, and after one last glance over my shoulder at the little apartment I had called home for so long, I stepped through into my new bedroom.

The first thing I did once I was back was rip the sheet off of the last piece of furniture in the room, a desk with a chair. This is where I set up my new coffee station, and got a cup brewing right away. Then I stripped off the clothes that I had been washing in the sink every night and hurled them onto the bed, elated to be rid of them. Putting on a new tank top and jeans had never felt so good in my life. By the time I finished tying on my sneakers, the coffee was done, and I poured it happily into my Starbucks mug. I knew it had been way longer than fifteen minutes since Riku had woken me, but I didn't care. I finally had a good cup of coffee, and felt fresh and ready for the day ahead.

"Where have you been?" Riku questioned with slight annoyance in his voice when I wandered out into the training arena a minute later, steaming mug in hand. "And...what is that smell?"

"Coffee," I answered with a smile, taking a sip.

"What...where did you get coffee?" He sounded concerned, and I figured he thought I had gone into town on my own.

"I, uh...kinda made a trip back to my apartment and grabbed a few things." I shrugged like it was no big deal.

"You what?" Riku exclaimed. "You mean you made a portal?"

"Uh, yeah...I might have forgotten to mention that I figured that out a couple of weeks ago." I smiled sheepishly. "This is the first time I've gone anywhere, though."

"A couple of weeks ago?" Riku repeated, incredulous. He stopped and seemed to be considering what all of this meant. "Well, that's...great. I'm glad that it's working for you now." Somehow, he didn't sound all that excited about it.

"Yeah! I can have coffee every morning now, so I won't be so grumpy," I laughed. "And I can actually change clothes and use my own toothpaste and shampoo, and I have better shoes now, too!" I held up my foot as if he could actually see the shoe.

Riku nodded, but his mind seemed preoccupied. "But...that means you're planning on staying here, then...right? Since you brought all of your stuff over?"

"Oh, well..." Now it was my turn to stop and think. Honestly, it had been a long time since the idea of going home and staying had even crossed my mind. Technically, I could move back, and just come here to visit whenever I wanted, just like we had talked about originally. But even when I had been standing in the apartment writing that note to Aiden just a few minutes ago, there had been no desire to do so. It seemed my life had become so wrapped up in being here and training with Riku that the thought of returning to my previous, lonely, basically meaningless life seemed like a foreign concept.

"I mean, yeah, I guess so. At least for now." I shrugged again and gazed into my coffee mug. "I don't really know what my plans are long-term. But I definitely don't want to leave in the middle of training." I looked back up at Riku. "Is...that okay?" I had just assumed that it was, but maybe they were ready to have me off of their hands.

"Of course!" Riku smiled, looking almost relieved. "It's more than okay. I mean..." He cleared his throat. "I'm glad. I want you to finish your training, too. You're more than welcome to stay for as long as you want to."

"Great," I smiled back at him. "Well, now that I've had my coffee, I'm ready to get started!"

Chapter Text

"Please take me with you!" I begged, bouncing up and down like a little kid. "I'm getting tired of the same old routine. I mean, spending the afternoon with Roxas is great, but I want to go with you and see what you do!"

"It's not that I don't want to take you," Riku explained. "It can be dangerous, though, and there are a lot of things to consider first." We were walking through the mansion towards the front door, ready to start our daily trek into town, but I was trying my best to convince him to let me go with him on his daily mission.

"Don't you think it's time that I actually try fighting the Heartless?" I pointed out. "I have to face them at some point."

"Yeah, but..."

"If it gets too hairy, I'll just run and hide somewhere and let you do the rest!" I promised. "I really want to try it. Please?"

Riku stopped walking and stared off into the distance. Finally he turned to face me and sighed. "Okay, you can come." I squealed and clapped my hands, but he cut me off with a wave of his arm. "But dark corridors are not something to mess around with, understand? You don't have a coat to protect you, so you have to stay right next to me at all times."

I nodded solemnly. "Got it. Wait, so that's what the coat is about? It's not just a fashion statement?"

"It protects from the darkness and makes you less visible to the Heartless and Nobodies," he responded. "Okay, now...hold onto my arm, and don't let go until we get there."

Feeling awkward, I reached out and put my hand on his left arm, then stepped in closer and wrapped both of my forearms around it. I could feel his muscles through the coat sleeves, and it made my cheeks burn slightly.

Riku must have felt the awkwardness of the moment, too, because he cleared his throat and seemed to be at a rare loss for words. "Um...yeah. Okay. Uh...here we go." Throwing his hands out in front of him, he opened the corridor and we walked through.

I had expected to go straight through and end up wherever our destination was, just like a portal, but instead we found ourselves in an open, dark space that seemed to have no beginning or end. There wasn't even a visible floor to walk on, which threw me off and made me stumble if I looked down at my feet. "What is this place?" I whispered.

"It's called the In Between. Not somewhere you want to hang out for very long." He opened another corridor, and this time we stepped out into a forest clearing.

"So, we're in another world now, right?" I looked around, taking in the trees and the colorful mushrooms growing all over the forest floor. Riku had explained the separation of the worlds to me, but it was all still a little confusing.

"Yeah, and I'll go ahead and warn you, this is a strange one." Riku left my side and walked towards the edge of the trees.

"What are we supposed to do here? Fight Heartless?"

"Only if we happen to run into some. The real mission is to keep an eye on some Organization members that are supposed to be here. See what they're up to. And to do that, we have to go through..." He was bent over, searching the tall grass growing around the base of the trees. "Here!" he announced, pointing at a tiny opening.

I laughed, thinking he must be joking. "Yeah, sure we do. What is that, a mouse hole?"

Riku straightened with a smirk. "I told you this place was strange." Crossing to a large tree in the middle of the clearing, he reached up and picked off a strange nut, then broke it in half. "Here, eat up."

I frowned at the nut, not sure I wanted to oblige, but took a bite anyway just as Riku did the same. Suddenly the world around me turned into one big blur. I grabbed onto my head with one hand, stumbling forward a couple of steps as everything came back into focus.

"Whoa! What just happened?" Glancing around, I saw that we seemed to have changed locations. We were now surrounded by towering grasses and very odd looking trees. "Did we portal somewhere?"

"Nope," Riku returned. "Look up."

When I did, I could see giant trees looming over us, and I realized that the strange trees I had barely glanced at a moment ago actually looked like over-sized mushrooms. Then I noticed the doorway, shaped just like the tiny one we had seen, but this one was the perfect size for us to walk through.

"Wait a minute." I placed a hand on my forehead, trying to comprehend what I was seeing, shocked I was even thinking of asking what I was about to ask. "Did we just...shrink?"

Riku smiled. "That we did. Now come on, through here."

I followed him slowly through the doorway, looking around in awe. I guess this is what it felt like to be a bug, not that I had ever wondered such a thing before. I just hoped we didn't encounter any normal-sized humans or animals who wanted to eat us or step on us.

On the other side of the doorway was a bright, open area, surrounded by green hedges. It was nice to actually see clear blue sky for the first time in weeks. While I was staring up at it, however, I heard a strange noise, followed by the sound of Riku summoning Soul Eater. I snapped my head back down to see multiple white, ghost-like creatures dancing around in front of us.

"Uh, what are those?" I asked uncertainly. They did not look like any Heartless I had seen so far.

"Nobodies," Riku answered.

"Nobodies?" I exclaimed. "Wait, but..."

"I'll explain later. Are you ready for this?"

"Um..." I stretched out my hand and summoned my Keyblade, keeping an eye on the creepy things. Was I ready? Not really. But I wanted to be ready. I wanted to prove to Riku, and to myself, that I could handle myself, that I was worthy of having this Keyblade. "Yeah," I responded, trying to sound more confident than I felt. "Yeah, I'm ready."

"Okay." Just before he began to fight, Riku looked back over his shoulder at me with a reassuring smile. "You've got this." Then he charged forward into the midst of the group, slicing left and right with his sword.

I edged my way over to the creature that was the furthest out from the rest, but didn't get too close yet. I figured that since magic was my strongest suite, I might as well try to get some damage done from a distance while I could. "Fire!" I commanded. The white monster flailed as the flame hit it, and I smirked. That seemed to work well, so why not try another one? "Blizzard!"

The creature reacted to the hit again, but then leapt forward suddenly and landed only a couple of feet away. My first reaction was to shrink back in fear, but I stopped myself. Gritting my teeth, I lunged forward and swung my Keyblade, landing a hit with no problem. The monster tried to come at me in return, but I cut my weapon back the opposite direction and hit it again. To my surprise, that was all it took. The monster wavered, then vanished into thin air.

My confidence much higher now, I glanced over and saw that Riku was still battling a few more of the creatures. Moving over to get a good angle, I used Fire on one of them and Blizzard on another. Riku must have already done some damage to the first one, because it disappeared as soon as it was hit. The second one started towards me, and I ran to meet it, now eager for some real combat. Its claws were swinging, but I managed to duck under them and slice across the legs as I passed.. Then I spun around and clobbered it across the back, and it, too vanished.

"Nice work!"

I turned to see Riku grinning at me. "Thanks!" I replied, a bit out of breath. "You, too!"

Riku gave a laugh. "Thanks. I was keeping an eye on you, though – so to speak – and you did a great job with both your magic and your sword work."

I could feel my cheeks burning again and I stared at the ground. I still wasn't used to being praised. "Thanks," I repeated, not knowing what else to say.

"So, I owe you an explanation." Riku dismissed his weapon, and I did the same. "There are many different types of Nobodies. Those that we just fought are called Dusks, and they're the very lowest form. Only those of the highest form look and talk and think like real people, and they can control the lower forms. Which means that when you see those guys," he gestured to indicate the empty clearing where the Dusks had been, "Organization XIII is often right around the corner." Riku nodded towards an opening in the hedges. "Come on, this way."

We wandered through the hedges for quite a while, keeping quiet so as not to alert anyone of our presence. I was almost convinced that we were completely lost, but Riku didn't seem to be worried. Finally, he thrust out his hand to stop me, then silently motioned for me to join him up against the wall of the maze.

"What do you see?" he asked in a whisper, indicating the intersecting path with his head.

Inching forward, I peered around the corner. In the distance, I could see two figures with their backs turned to us. "Two guys in coats like yours," I whispered when I turned back to Riku. "One tall, one short. Looks like they're walking away from us." I poked my head back past the hedge, watching. The shorter one turned his face, and I pulled back quickly before freezing in realization of what I had just seen.

"Did they see you?" Riku questioned, sensing my movement.

"No, but...that was Roxas!" I exclaimed. "The short one is Roxas, my friend from town."

Riku didn't seem surprised. "I figured that he was a member of the Organization as soon as you mentioned his coat."

"And you still let me hang out with him?" I asked, incredulous.

Riku frowned. "I can't tell you who to be friends with. Besides, from what you said he seemed fine. I don't think that every member of the Organization is necessarily evil. Some of the lower ranking ones may not even have any idea what the higher-ups are doing. If I had thought you were in danger, I would have said something, but I don't think you were."

Sighing, I looked around the corner again, but the two were no longer in sight. I certainly hoped Riku was right. I would hate to find out that my friend was really one of the bad guys. "They're gone," I told Riku in a slightly louder voice. "Should we follow them?"

We didn't have to go much farther before we found out what the Organization was after in this world. When we caught up with Roxas and his companion again, there were sounds of a heated battle coming from the other side of the hedge. I peeked around to see again, but the sight that met my eyes paralyzed me with fear.

"What are they fighting?" Riku queried.

I opened my mouth, but couldn't make the words come out for a second. "It's...it's a..." It kind of reminded me of a jester, in a way, which in and of itself shouldn't be frightening. But this thing was giant, towering up above the Organization members, and it had multiple heads with glaring faces stacked up on top of each other. It had clubs in its hands that it did occasionally juggle, but mostly used to smash everything in sight.

Prying my eyes away, I fell back against the hedge next to Riku. "It's huge!" I finally managed to squeak out. "Is that a Heartless?"

"Most likely," Riku replied, not seeming surprised by the implied size. "They probably came here just to get rid of it. It wouldn't be the first time."

I looked again, curiosity getting the best of me. Roxas seemed to be doing most of the fighting, while his companion stood back and watched. Every once in a while the man would throw what looked like playing cards towards the monster if it got too close to him. In a moment, Roxas dealt the final blow, and the creature collapsed, shuddering, to the ground, its long arms waving in the air as it disappeared. A large pink heart floated up towards the sky.

"They killed it," I whispered to Riku.

He nodded. "Let's get out of here." Reaching out his hand, he opened up a dark corridor, and I clung to his arm again as we traveled back to the forest we had started in.

"I didn't know Heartless could be that big." I was still a bit shaken up by that huge thing. Dropping my grip on Riku's arm, I walked a few steps away. "I don't know if I'm cut out for all of this."

"Sure you are," Riku countered, following me. He put a gentle hand on my shoulder and made me turn to face him. "Hey, listen. It's understandable that seeing a Heartless that size for the first time would be scary. But the Keyblade wouldn't have chosen you if you couldn't handle it. And I wouldn't still be training you, and bringing you on missions with me, if I didn't think you could handle it."

Swallowing hard, I looked down at my feet, unsure of how to reply. "Okay," I said finally. Then a thought occurred to me, and I changed the subject. "Speaking of Keyblades...I think Roxas was using one."

Riku frowned. "Really?"

"It definitely looked like a key," I shrugged.

He looked away, seeming to process this information. "Okay. Thanks, that was a good observation. Ready to go back?"

I nodded. "Ready."

Chapter Text

"So, where are we going today?" I had just finished changing shirts after an excessive amount of sweating during our morning training session, and was walking back into the foyer to meet Riku.

"You decided to come with me again, huh?" Riku smirked. "I had a feeling you would. That's why I brought this." He held up the black fabric in his hand, and I could immediately tell that it was another coat just like his.

"Ooh, you shouldn't have," I exclaimed sarcastically.

Riku tossed me the coat. "Hey, it might not be the latest fashion trend, but if you're going to be traveling by dark corridor and following the Organization around, you're gonna need it."

Unzipping the coat, I slipped it over my arms and jiggled my shoulders up and down to get a feel for it. "It's actually more comfortable than I anticipated." I zipped it back up the front. "Not as hot as I assumed it would be, either. Oh, do I get to do the creepy, you-can't-see-my-face thing, too?" Reaching back, I grabbed the hood and pulled it up over my head and eyes, then held up my hands like claws. "Shire...Baggins..." I hissed.

Riku shook his head with a look of amusement on his face. "Are you ready now?"

"Yep," I laughed, shoving the hood back again. "But you still didn't tell me where we're going."

Drawing in a deep breath, Riku looked away and let out the air in a heavy sigh. "Home."

My eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Wait, you mean like, your home? The beach?"

"Destiny Islands," Riku nodded. "Yeah, that's what I mean."

It didn't take a genius to tell that he wasn't overly happy about this trip. "Have you been back there since...?"

"No." He gave me a smile that was definitely forced. "But there's supposed to be an Organization member there right now. So let's go see what they're up to, shall we?"

I agreed, and he opened a dark corridor for us. If I was honest with myself, I kind of missed holding onto his arm as we crossed through into the In Between. Riku opened another door, and we walked out into bright sunshine that left me blinking after the previous darkness.

We were standing right at the edge of the water, with gentle waves lapping up almost to our feet. "Whoa," I breathed. As my eyes adjusted, I let my gaze sweep over the endless turquoise ocean in front of us. I had seen so many pictures of beaches in my life, but none of them quite did this justice. The heat of the sun on my head, the smell of the water, the sounds of the waves rolling in and birds crying overhead, the wind blowing spray off the ocean into my face. I closed my eyes for a moment and breathed deeply, soaking it all in.

"Nothing ever seems to change here," Riku commented from beside me.

Opening my eyes, I glanced up at his solemn face, then looked back out over the water. "It's so beautiful," I sighed. "I've always wanted to see a beach in person."

I could see Riku cock his head towards me out of the corner of my eye. "You've never been to the beach before?" he asked, surprised.

I shook my head. "Foster kids don't usually get taken on too many vacations. At least, not in my experience."

"I guess growing up here, you kind of take it for granted," Riku shrugged. "Don't get me wrong, I love the beach. It's nice to feel the crunch of sand underneath my feet again." He shifted his feet, and I did the same, giggling quietly at the strange new sensation.

Riku sighed. "Maybe someday I'll make it back here, for real. We'll see. I'm just not ready yet." He turned his back to the water. "For now, though, we have a job to do."

I reluctantly turned away as well, taking in the trees, waterfall, and various wooden structures behind us. "Where are all the houses?" The island didn't look like it was that big, so I assumed we would be able to see some.

"On the mainland." Riku pointed out across the water to another beach in the distance. "This is what we called the play island. It's where all the kids would hang out in the summer and after school."

Movement to the right of us caught my eye, and I looked up to see a figure in a black coat crossing a bridge to a tiny, secondary island just off the shore of this one. "Hey, Grim," I whispered, tapping his arm.

"Yeah, I know," he answered in a low voice. "Follow me."

We crossed the sand and entered a small shack. Inside was completely dark, and I had to reach out my hands to feel the walls until my eyes adjusted. Riku was climbing up a set of stairs, obviously unfazed by the darkness, and I hurried to catch up to him. When we reached the top and came back out into the sun, I realized that we had made our way up to the same level as the bridge. I could see the Organization member ahead.

"Aren't we gonna hang back and watch?" I questioned, a bit confused as to why Riku had just walked right out into view. I had only been on one mission with him, of course, but I was pretty sure that he usually just did surveillance.

"Not this time. I need to talk to her." Riku paused and looked back at me. "You might want to pull your hood up for this one. Just to be safe."

"Okay..." I did as he said, trailing behind him as he started across the bridge.

The girl had her back to us, but as we approached, she spun around and began to look back and forth wildly, as if she was seeing something that wasn't really there. Riku and I both stopped short and watched, unsure of what was happening. She was clearly distressed, and I felt bad for her. Then she grabbed onto her head with both hands and doubled over forward, grunting and moaning as if in pain.

"What's wrong with her?" I exclaimed.

"I don't know." Riku shook his head.

"Should we do something?" I had no idea what it would be, but it felt wrong to just stand there and watch. The girl collapsed to the ground, and that's when things got even stranger. She suddenly changed appearances, and I could have sworn that she looked just like a younger Riku from my dreams. She changed again, and this time it was definitely Sora lying there, still holding his head and groaning.

I opened my mouth to say something else, but Riku was already moving, jogging over and stooping down in the sand next to her. Very carefully, he slid his hands underneath her neck and behind her knees, and scooped her up into his arms. Immediately she stopped shaking, and changed back to her own form. Riku set her gently down and allowed her to lay across his knees, still supporting her head.

"Is...she okay?" I took a few tentative steps forward, trying to see her face.

"I think she will be," Riku nodded, still looking down at her.

"How...how did she look like you, and Sora?"

Riku pursed his lips in thought. "She may have been absorbing my memories." He looked up at me, and I waited for him to explain. "From what I know, her name is Xion."

"Roxas' friend," I broke in. I came even closer so that I could really see her face, and sure enough, she looked a lot like me when I went through my black hair stage.

He paused to consider this information, then continued. "She's not really a human or a Nobody, though. She's just a puppet, something the Organization made. According to Naminé, she's been absorbing some of Sora's memories through his Nobody." He looked down at her again, as if he could actually see her face. "That's why she – normally – looks like you and Kairi now. Her appearance is based off of the Nobody's memories of Kairi."

"That's...awful," I frowned. "She seems so human, though. She must have her own thoughts and feelings."

As if on cue, Xion started muttering, her eyes still closed. "Who...am I? What am I...here for?"

Riku took his free hand and tenderly brushed some of the hair off of her forehead. I watched him in growing fascination. I barely recognized this soft, caring side of him, but it was doing strange things to my stomach.

Xion's eyes fluttered open, and she gasped slightly when she saw Riku. "Are you...?"

"Riku," he quickly replied. "Sora's friend."

"Sora?" Xion repeated. She pushed herself up to a sitting position. "You know Sora?"

"Yeah." Riku stood, then held out his hand to Xion. She took it, and he pulled her to her feet. For the first time, she glanced my way, but didn't say anything to me. I knew she couldn't see my face because of my hood, and I was glad Riku had recommended it. No need to cause her any further confusion.

"Thank you," she said, looking back up at Riku. "You saved me, but I don't know why."

"I guess...I just felt like it." Riku turned and walked back towards where I stood at the bridge.

"Riku, please," Xion called after him. She placed a hand on her chest. "Tell me more, about Sora, and that girl he's always with."

"You mean Kairi," Riku answered without turning around.

"Kairi..." Xion echoed, moving her hand to the side of her face. "That's right. She's the one who looks so much like me." I almost felt like I was hearing myself speak. I had said much the same thing about the Kairi in my dreams on multiple occasions.

Riku turned and walked back to her. "To Sora, she's someone very special." I looked at him in surprise, wondering if that statement implied what I thought it did. I hadn't realized that Sora and Kairi were anything more than friends.

Xion turned and began to pace away from Riku and me. "It's just...I remember things about the two of them. But I'm nothing more than a puppet – something that somebody created." She leaned up against a palm tree, sounding heartbroken. "So why would I have their memories?"

Riku didn't respond, and Xion turned slightly to look at him. "Do you know where Sora is now?"

"That secret stays with me," Riku replied sternly.

She dropped her head again. "Why's that?"

Riku sighed. "Xion...your memories...they really belong to Sora."

Her head jerked up in surprise, and she turned back around. "So you mean...I'm like a part of him?"

Riku crossed to her again. "When his memories were scattered, some of them...found their way inside you." Xion buried her face in her hand as Riku continued. "Now, Sora has been put to sleep so that we can piece together his memory. Except..."

"You can't, because part of it is inside me," Xion finished for him. "That means...he can't wake up."

"Yeah," Riku agreed reluctantly. "You got it. But, if you go with me to Sora right now, we could give the memories inside you back to him."

It was at that moment that I began to realize the full gravity of the situation. No wonder he needed to talk to Xion. When he had mentioned earlier that she had some of his memories, I hadn't thought much of the implications. But if Sora couldn't ever wake up, Riku would be devastated.

Xion flipped her hair out of her face suddenly and looked up at Riku. "So, do you hate me for taking your friend away from you?"

"Nah. I guess...I'm just sad." The way he said it tore at my heart.

An expression of surprise crossed Xion's face before she gazed down at her feet sadly. "I'm sorry, but...I can't go with you. It's my friends – they need me. And I need them, too."

I assumed she must be talking about Roxas and their other friend, Axel. It was true, Roxas did miss her pretty badly. According to him, though, she had been the one to run off, so I was curious now as to what the full story was.

Riku placed his hand on her shoulder, and I expected him to either keep trying to convince her, or somehow just force her to come with us. "Maybe...you should take some time and think about it," he told her instead. "Figure out who really needs you more. And where you belong."

"How will I know where I belong, truly? I'm not sure I can promise you I'll come up with the right answer."

"Well, the answer you come up with can't just be right for you," Riku replied sagely. "It has to be the one that works best for everybody. You, and your friends, and everyone else." With that, he turned and walked back to me.

"I'll try," said Xion softly, still looking at the ground. "Thank you, Riku."

He nodded over his shoulder, then motioned to me. I turned to follow him back over the bridge, glancing back at Xion once before we walked through the dark corridor he opened. We stayed silent until we were standing in the foyer of the mansion once more.

"I'm surprised that you didn't try harder to get her to come," I told him, pushing my hood back. "If her being here is that important..."

"It's like you said, she has her own thoughts and feelings," Riku responded, not looking at me. "She deserves to have a choice." He turned his face toward me. "Just...don't tell DiZ any of what happened."

"I won't," I answered, shaking my head. I paused, trying to decide if I should say what I was thinking. "You were very...kind to her. Gentle, even." It wasn't that he was usually rough, just more stand-offish than what I had seen today. "It was nice," I finished, not sure if he would understand what I was trying to say.

Riku shrugged. "She reminded me of you." He turned and began to climb the stairs towards the library, leaving me standing there with my mouth slightly agape. It would have made sense for him to say Kairi, since she was, after all, one of his best friends since childhood. But...he was being so sweet and tender to her because she reminded him of...me?

Chapter Text

SLIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW DOUBLE LINES.

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I threw my hands up in the air in defeat as the tip of Riku's sword neared my face. "I surrender!" I huffed. "Don't shoot!"

Dropping his weapon-bearing arm to his side, Riku smirked. "What happened? It's not like you to let me knock your Keyblade out of your hand."

"I know." I stripped off one of the fingerless gloves that he had given me at the very beginning of training to keep my palms from getting blistered. "My hand got too sweaty, I guess."

It had been about two weeks since we had seen Xion, which meant that I had been training for a month. I felt like I was getting better and better each day. My thin, gangly arms were starting to become more visibly toned, and I wasn't out of breath nearly as easily anymore. Riku still managed to knock me over on occasion, and he still won every fight. But now I could at least make him work for it, and if I did get knocked down I could often make it back to my feet.

"Understandable," Riku conceded. "Ready to call it a day?"

"Yep." My stomach growled, and I had a sudden craving, accompanied by an idea. "Hey, do you wanna do lunch together before we leave?"

"Sure," Riku replied. "Did you have something in mind?"

I grinned mischievously. "Yeah. I'll be back in a few."

I jogged towards the mansion, leaving a confused Riku behind. Making my way to my bedroom, I opened a desk drawer and grabbed the rest of the money that I had found with my stuff from my apartment. Then I crossed to the mirror and put my hands on it, focusing on my destination.

When I stepped through the portal that I had created, I was in the back parking lot of the Taco Bell down the street from my apartment. Glancing around to make sure no one had seen my entrance, I grinned and headed to the door. It had been just over a week ago when it had first occurred to me that I could make portals to pretty much anywhere, as long as I could picture it in my mind. My first trip back after that was to the local drugstore to pick up a box of hair dye, since my roots had begun showing pretty badly. Now, I was standing at the counter of Taco Bell, ordering a giant bag of food for the two of us. My mistake the first trip had been not planning for a way to make it back to the mansion, and I ended up walking all the way back to the apartment to use the mirror there. Thankfully my spare key was still where I had always hidden it. This time I lucked out, and there was a full-length mirror in the ladies' restroom.

It didn't take long before I was strolling back down the hall of the mansion with the food in hand. Riku gave me a funny look and sniffed the air when I came back out to the training arena.

"What is that? Where did you go?"

"Tacos," I laughed, taking a seat on a stone bench up against the back wall of the mansion. "I...kinda made a trip back to my universe."

"For tacos?" Riku shook his head, but he had a smile on his face as he sat next to me.

"So, you do know what tacos are, then?"

"Yeah, we have those here." He reached into the bag and pulled out what was on top. "Does it matter which one I eat? Feels like there's a ton of them in there."

"I didn't really know what you would want, so...I kinda got two of everything," I explained sheepishly. "In other words, no, eat what you want. Just as long as you save some for me!" I poked him playfully in the side, and he jumped. I stared at him in shock for a second. "Wait...are you ticklish?"

"No..." he began, but before he could say anything else, I poked him again, this time in the ribs.

He jumped again, and tried to scoot away from me. "Stop that!" he protested.

There was no way I was letting up now, though. "Aha! I finally found your weakness!" I leaned further across the bench to reach him, tickling his ribs and waist relentlessly until he was begging me to stop through his laughter. I stopped and let him catch his breath, still giggling to myself. "I can't believe you're that ticklish."

"Are you telling me that you're not?" Riku returned, reaching over and poking me in the stomach.

I twisted to the side a little bit, but it wasn't that bad. "Well, no, not really...not right there at least."

"Ah, so there is a spot," he exclaimed. Now it was his turn to be relentless, poking at various spots on my ribs and back, but I just laughed and shook my head. Then his fingers brushed the back of my neck, and I squealed and leapt up off the bench.

"Nuh-uh, you're not getting away that easy!" Riku laughed, following me. He tried to reach the back of my neck again, but I just kept darting forward and jabbing him in the side to set him squirming. We chased each other around the arena for a couple of minutes until we were both out of breath from laughing so hard.

"Okay, truce!" I shouted, waving my hands in front of my face.

"Yeah, truce," Riku agreed, leaning over and resting his hands on his knees. "Wow, I haven't goofed off like that in...a long time."

"You should do it more often," I commented. "It's nice to see you actually having fun and enjoying yourself."

"Well, that happens a lot more with you around," Riku replied, straightening.

I didn't know what to say to that, so I just gestured awkwardly towards the waiting bag of food. "Well, um...shall we actually eat lunch now?"

"Yeah," Riku nodded. "Let's do that."

The rest of our meal passed without fanfare, as did our mission for the day in a desert world called Agrabah. We saw Roxas again for the second time since Wonderland. He always seemed to be doing the same thing – fighting Heartless. We had determined that he was, in fact, carrying a Keyblade, which Riku said probably explained why he was the one doing most of the fighting.

"I know you said Organization XIII is bad, and I believe you," I told Riku as we were heading back to Twilight Town. "But if they're killing Heartless...isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't we be happy about that?"

Riku sighed. "It is good, in a way. Less Heartless is definitely something that we want. But they have to be doing it for a reason, and it can't be a good one. I think DiZ knows a lot more about what they're up to than he's telling me, and whatever it is, he's not happy about it."

I no longer went into town every day, but on some days, like this one, I still had some energy left to burn. Riku dropped me off at the edge of the forest, and I took off my coat and handed it to him. "See you this evening," I said with a wave as I headed towards the cafe.

Since I now had my own coffee at home – which tasted infinitely better than the stuff the cafe served – I had started branching out and trying some of the teas that they offered instead. Ordering a cup of my new favorite, I sat down at my usual table in the corner to wait for Roxas. I knew he'd be a little longer getting here, since he had still been wrapping things up in Agrabah when we left. It was strange, knowing everything I knew about him and not being able to say anything about it to him. I hated lying to him about what I was spending my days doing, but it couldn't be helped. Anyway, it wasn't like he was exactly forthcoming about his activities, either.

When Roxas finally walked through the front door, he spotted me immediately and gave a wave. I smiled back at him as he came over to sit with me. For the past couple of weeks, we had just been visiting in the cafe for a few minutes before he would order his ice cream and head to the clock tower. Xion might not have returned yet, but apparently Axel had, and they had resumed their old routine.

"Busy day today?" I asked nonchalantly.

"Yeah," he agreed. "And hot. That ice cream is gonna taste extra good today."

He was right, Agrabah had been extraordinarily hot. Obviously I couldn't say that to him, though. "Still no sign of Xion?" I questioned.

Roxas' face fell. "No. Axel and I have been looking for her still, but we haven't found anything."

I thought it was strange that she hadn't come back after saying that her friends needed her. But I was hopeful, too, that it meant she was still thinking things over and might come to us after all. "I'm sure she'll show up soon enough."

"I hope so."

Just then, the bell above the door rang out again, and I glanced up out of habit. A tall, muscular redhead sauntered into the cafe, and I automatically stiffened. It couldn't be, could it? Not here, and not with that crazy, spiky hair. But the color of the hair was hardly ordinary, and those cheekbones, that jawline...

The man looked our way, and now it was unmistakable. Aiden. I knew it wasn't really him. There was no way it could actually be him. But it had to be his doppelganger, because the hairstyle and two purple marks below his eyes were the only things setting him apart. He had those same vivid green eyes, and the same intense stare.

A flood of emotions rushed through me. Part of me was aching, wishing that it was really Aiden, wanting to see him again. But at the same time, my heart was pounding and my fingers were gripping my mug in fear. How could I have such conflicting feelings about the same exact person? It didn't make any sense.

By now, Roxas had turned around to see what I was staring at. "Oh hey, it's Axel!" he exclaimed happily. "Axel! Over here!"

My heart sank into my toes. Of course this was Roxas' friend. Nothing could ever be simple, could it? I tried to swallow my trepidation as Axel strolled over, telling myself that this guy didn't know me and in all likelihood wasn't even anything like Aiden.

"Hey Axel, this is Meli, the girl I was telling you about," Roxas said, gesturing towards me.

Axel gave me a nod. "Nice to meet you, Meli."

Even the voice was the same. My hands started shaking, and I couldn't make anything come out of my mouth. I stood abruptly, nearly knocking my chair over. "I can't," I squeaked. I tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for leaving, but my mind was a whirlwind. "I've...gotta go. I'm sorry."

I started to walk off, then realized I still had my tea in my hand. Stepping back to the table, I set the mug down a little too hard, trying not to make eye contact with Axel or Roxas. "I'm sorry," I repeated, then fled out of the cafe.

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CENSORED VERSION

No violence in this scene, but there is a short moment of dealing with fear caused by Aiden.

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I threw my hands up in the air in defeat as the tip of Riku's sword neared my face. "I surrender!" I huffed. "Don't shoot!"

Dropping his weapon-bearing arm to his side, Riku smirked. "What happened? It's not like you to let me knock your Keyblade out of your hand."

"I know." I stripped off one of the fingerless gloves that he had given me at the very beginning of training to keep my palms from getting blistered. "My hand got too sweaty, I guess."

It had been about two weeks since we had seen Xion, which meant that I had been training for a month. I felt like I was getting better and better each day. My thin, gangly arms were starting to become more visibly toned, and I wasn't out of breath nearly as easily anymore. Riku still managed to knock me over on occasion, and he still won every fight. But now I could at least make him work for it, and if I did get knocked down I could often make it back to my feet.

"Understandable," Riku conceded. "Ready to call it a day?"

"Yep." My stomach growled, and I had a sudden craving, accompanied by an idea. "Hey, do you wanna do lunch together before we leave?"

"Sure," Riku replied. "Did you have something in mind?"

I grinned mischievously. "Yeah. I'll be back in a few."

I jogged towards the mansion, leaving a confused Riku behind. Making my way to my bedroom, I opened a desk drawer and grabbed the rest of the money that I had found with my stuff from my apartment. Then I crossed to the mirror and put my hands on it, focusing on my destination.

When I stepped through the portal that I had created, I was in the back parking lot of the Taco Bell down the street from my apartment. Glancing around to make sure no one had seen my entrance, I grinned and headed to the door. It had been just over a week ago when it had first occurred to me that I could make portals to pretty much anywhere, as long as I could picture it in my mind. My first trip back after that was to the local drugstore to pick up a box of hair dye, since my roots had begun showing pretty badly. Now, I was standing at the counter of Taco Bell, ordering a giant bag of food for the two of us. My mistake the first trip had been not planning for a way to make it back to the mansion, and I ended up walking all the way back to the apartment to use the mirror there. Thankfully my spare key was still where I had always hidden it. This time I lucked out, and there was a full-length mirror in the ladies' restroom.

It didn't take long before I was strolling back down the hall of the mansion with the food in hand. Riku gave me a funny look and sniffed the air when I came back out to the training arena.

"What is that? Where did you go?"

"Tacos," I laughed, taking a seat on a stone bench up against the back wall of the mansion. "I...kinda made a trip back to my universe."

"For tacos?" Riku shook his head, but he had a smile on his face as he sat next to me.

"So, you do know what tacos are, then?"

"Yeah, we have those here." He reached into the bag and pulled out what was on top. "Does it matter which one I eat? Feels like there's a ton of them in there."

"I didn't really know what you would want, so...I kinda got two of everything," I explained sheepishly. "In other words, no, eat what you want. Just as long as you save some for me!" I poked him playfully in the side, and he jumped. I stared at him in shock for a second. "Wait...are you ticklish?"

"No..." he began, but before he could say anything else, I poked him again, this time in the ribs.

He jumped again, and tried to scoot away from me. "Stop that!" he protested.

There was no way I was letting up now, though. "Aha! I finally found your weakness!" I leaned further across the bench to reach him, tickling his ribs and waist relentlessly until he was begging me to stop through his laughter. I stopped and let him catch his breath, still giggling to myself. "I can't believe you're that ticklish."

"Are you telling me that you're not?" Riku returned, reaching over and poking me in the stomach.

I twisted to the side a little bit, but it wasn't that bad. "Well, no, not really...not right there at least."

"Ah, so there is a spot," he exclaimed. Now it was his turn to be relentless, poking at various spots on my ribs and back, but I just laughed and shook my head. Then his fingers brushed the back of my neck, and I squealed and leapt up off the bench.

"Nuh-uh, you're not getting away that easy!" Riku laughed, following me. He tried to reach the back of my neck again, but I just kept darting forward and jabbing him in the side to set him squirming. We chased each other around the arena for a couple of minutes until we were both out of breath from laughing so hard.

"Okay, truce!" I shouted, waving my hands in front of my face.

"Yeah, truce," Riku agreed, leaning over and resting his hands on his knees. "Wow, I haven't goofed off like that in...a long time."

"You should do it more often," I commented. "It's nice to see you actually having fun and enjoying yourself."

"Well, that happens a lot more with you around," Riku replied, straightening.

I didn't know what to say to that, so I just gestured awkwardly towards the waiting bag of food. "Well, um...shall we actually eat lunch now?"

"Yeah," Riku nodded. "Let's do that."

The rest of our meal passed without fanfare, as did our mission for the day in a desert world called Agrabah. We saw Roxas again for the second time since Wonderland. He always seemed to be doing the same thing – fighting Heartless. We had determined that he was, in fact, carrying a Keyblade, which Riku said probably explained why he was the one doing most of the fighting.

"I know you said Organization XIII is bad, and I believe you," I told Riku as we were heading back to Twilight Town. "But if they're killing Heartless...isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't we be happy about that?"

Riku sighed. "It is good, in a way. Less Heartless is definitely something that we want. But they have to be doing it for a reason, and it can't be a good one. I think DiZ knows a lot more about what they're up to than he's telling me, and whatever it is, he's not happy about it."

I no longer went into town every day, but on some days, like this one, I still had some energy left to burn. Riku dropped me off at the edge of the forest, and I took off my coat and handed it to him. "See you this evening," I said with a wave as I headed towards the cafe.

Since I now had my own coffee at home – which tasted infinitely better than the stuff the cafe served – I had started branching out and trying some of the teas that they offered instead. Ordering a cup of my new favorite, I sat down at my usual table in the corner to wait for Roxas. I knew he'd be a little longer getting here, since he had still been wrapping things up in Agrabah when we left. It was strange, knowing everything I knew about him and not being able to say anything about it to him. I hated lying to him about what I was spending my days doing, but it couldn't be helped. Anyway, it wasn't like he was exactly forthcoming about his activities, either.

When Roxas finally walked through the front door, he spotted me immediately and gave a wave. I smiled back at him as he came over to sit with me. For the past couple of weeks, we had just been visiting in the cafe for a few minutes before he would order his ice cream and head to the clock tower. Xion might not have returned yet, but apparently Axel had, and they had resumed their old routine.

"Busy day today?" I asked nonchalantly.

"Yeah," he agreed. "And hot. That ice cream is gonna taste extra good today."

He was right, Agrabah had been extraordinarily hot. Obviously I couldn't say that to him, though. "Still no sign of Xion?" I questioned.

Roxas' face fell. "No. Axel and I have been looking for her still, but we haven't found anything."

I thought it was strange that she hadn't come back after saying that her friends needed her. But I was hopeful, too, that it meant she was still thinking things over and might come to us after all. "I'm sure she'll show up soon enough."

"I hope so."

Just then, the bell above the door rang out again, and I glanced up out of habit. A tall, muscular redhead sauntered into the cafe, and I automatically stiffened. It couldn't be, could it? Not here, and not with that crazy, spiky hair. But the color of the hair was hardly ordinary, and those cheekbones, that jawline...

The man looked our way, and now it was unmistakable. Aiden. I knew it wasn't really him. There was no way it could actually be him. But it had to be his doppelganger, because the hairstyle and two purple marks below his eyes were the only things setting him apart. He had those same vivid green eyes, and the same intense stare.

(Meli feels conflicting emotions about this guy who looks like Aiden.)

By now, Roxas had turned around to see what I was staring at. "Oh hey, it's Axel!" he exclaimed happily. "Axel! Over here!"

My heart sank into my toes. Of course this was Roxas' friend. Nothing could ever be simple, could it? (Meli tries not to be afraid, knowing intellectually that this is someone different than Aiden.)

"Hey Axel, this is Meli, the girl I was telling you about," Roxas said, gesturing towards me.

Axel gave me a nod. "Nice to meet you, Meli."

Even the voice was the same. My hands started shaking, and I couldn't make anything come out of my mouth. I stood abruptly, nearly knocking my chair over. "I can't," I squeaked. I tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for leaving, but my mind was a whirlwind. "I've...gotta go. I'm sorry."

I started to walk off, then realized I still had my tea in my hand. Stepping back to the table, I set the mug down a little too hard, trying not to make eye contact with Axel or Roxas. "I'm sorry," I repeated, then fled out of the cafe.

Chapter Text

"This sure is a gloomy place," I remarked, looking around at the new world we had just entered. "It's just as dark here as it was in the In Between."

"Yeah," Riku agreed. "Not the kind of place you'd want to get too comfy in." He nodded towards a castle that we could see in the distance. "From what I've heard, that belongs to some kind of beast. I've never been inside, though."

I shuddered slightly at the sight of the imposing grey walls looming up against the black sky. "Sounds like a good habit to stick to."

"It is safer inside those gates than it is out here, though," Riku commented. "Let's head that way."

Riku started walking towards the large iron gates marking the entrance to the castle, and I followed. Now that he mentioned it, the trees out here did look like they could be hiding all kinds of deadly creatures and dark secrets. Taking a few quick steps to catch up, I made sure to stay right next to Riku until we reached the gates.

Just as he swung the first one open, I heard the now-familiar sound of Heartless appearing all around us. "They're everywhere," I exclaimed. "Should we split up?"

Riku nodded. "You take care of the ones inside, and I'll take the ones out here."

Summoning my Keyblade, I ran through the gate and assessed the situation. Over the past few weeks we had encountered the Heartless several times, but I had quickly learned that they were different in each world we went to. I never could tell exactly what I was getting into, which both scared and excited me at the same time. Right now the main ones I could see looked just like the Heartless that Riku and I had run into in Twilight Town long ago, though some had different colored armor, and others were slightly larger.

I took out the first few with ease, realizing that these were actually pretty easy to deal with. It was a combination of amusing and embarrassing, thinking back on how petrified I had been of them back in the woods that day. The ones with green armor even began to run away from me, and I had to chase them down to get rid of them. When I turned back around towards the entrance, though, a different sight greeted me. These Heartless reminded me of bulldogs – in a really ugly, psychotic looking kind of way. I scrunched my nose up, a bit put off by having to fight dogs, but I didn't have time to debate it for long. One of the purple ones charged straight toward me, barking and snapping. Throwing my Keyblade in front of me, I blocked his attack and managed to stun him long enough to get in a few hits. He lunged at me again, and I jumped out of the way, then sliced at him from behind and watched him vanish.

Following a similar strategy for the rest, I took out one more purple dog and two green ones in just a few minutes time. When all the Heartless in the courtyard were gone, I stopped and looked around, panting slightly. I was pretty proud of myself for taking out a whole group by myself without getting hurt at all. Suddenly I remembered Riku fighting outside the gate, and hurried to see if he needed help.

I was greeted by a multitude of Heartless of all shapes and sizes, unlike anything I had ever seen. There were so many of them that at first I couldn't even find Riku. Just as panic started to set in, though, a powerful blast of energy radiated from the center of the mob, vanquishing them all in one blow. Only the black-coated figure standing at a distance from me remained.

"Wow, that was pretty impressive," I commented. As I walked further out, the man turned, and I realized for the first time that this was not Riku. The silver hair had me fooled from the back, but this man was much larger and tanner than Riku, and had glowing amber eyes similar to DiZ's.

I took a step backwards, heart rate increasing. This had to be one of the other Organization members, probably one of the bad ones. "Where's Riku?" I asked, my voice wavering. "What have you done to him?"

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a black piece of fabric. I watched with my eyebrows furrowed, Keyblade at the ready, to see what he was going to do, but he simply began tying the fabric around his eyes. As he did so, furls of black and purple smoke began to rise up around him, and he started shrinking in size. It took until he was done applying the blindfold and looking back up for me to realize that it was Riku who now stood before me.

"Grim!" I breathed, relieved but utterly confused at the same time. "I don't understand. What...? How...?"

"I didn't want you to see that," Riku said quietly, looking down at the ground. "I'm sorry that I frightened you."

I shook my head, dismissing my Keyblade. "It's fine, I just...who was that? How did you...?"

Riku sighed and didn't answer for a moment. "It was Ansem," he finally replied.

I racked my brain for where I had heard that name before. "Wait...the guy – Heartless, whatever he was – that possessed you?"

"Yeah, that's the one."

"But, does that mean...?" I had thought that the whole possession thing was in the distant past, but if he was turning into the guy then it didn't really sound that way anymore.

"No," Riku answered quickly, as if reading my mind. "You don't have to worry about that. Yes, there is a part of him that's still inside of me. But I've gotten to where I can control it now."

"With the blindfold?" I ventured, trying to piece everything together in my mind.

"Partially, yes." He gestured towards his face. "The blindfold is sort of an outer manifestation of the inner process. But, in short...yes, it helps."

I frowned, still thinking through all of the implications. "Isn't it dangerous, though, to...let him out like that? Could he still completely take over?"

"It could be possible," Riku sighed again. "Which is why I always make sure to only use a little bit of the power at a time, and only when I really need it."

I was sure that there were a million more questions to ask, but at that moment we were interrupted by a dark corridor opening not far from where we stood. Both of us automatically took up defensive poses, waiting to see who might come through. To my surprise, it was Xion. I quickly pulled up my hood to cover my face as she glanced back and forth between us in surprise.

"Riku!" she exclaimed. "And..." She looked at me uncertainly.

"Meli," I answered.

"Meli," Xion repeated. "What are you two doing here?"

"We could ask you the same thing," Riku responded. "Word is that you never went back to the Organization."

Xion looked down at the ground and clasped her hands together. "I wanted to. But...I just don't know. Once I'm back, it will be very hard to leave again if I change my mind. And I still don't know what the right choice is."

I could certainly sympathize with her there. It sounded a lot like my own past dilemma over whether to go home or stay here. "So, you've just been wandering around to different worlds in the meantime?"

Xion nodded. "Just...thinking, and trying to avoid meeting anyone." She turned her face back up towards us, and her blue eyes were just as sorrowful as they had been in Destiny Islands. "I wish I could see Roxas and Axel again. Maybe then I could decide. But I'm afraid to go anywhere near the Organization right now."

Riku and I glanced at each other, and I wondered if he was thinking the same thing I was. "What if we took you to see them?" he suggested, proving that we were, indeed, on the same track. "Twilight Town would be the easiest place. Meli and I could go with you, to help protect you."

"You...you would do that?" Xion questioned.

"Of course," I answered. "We could go right now."

Xion took a deep breath, considering the offer, then nodded. "Okay. Let's do it."

Chapter Text

The three of us arrived in Twilight Town at the time of day that Roxas and Axel would normally be enjoying their ice cream up on the clock tower. A quick glance told us that they weren't there, though, so we started to walk through town in the general direction of the cafe. We only had to go a couple of blocks before we heard familiar voices from around the corner.

"Just take it easy for now," Axel was saying. I wrapped my arms around myself. The fact that he sounded just like Aiden still freaked me out.

Xion poked her head around the side of the building we were standing next to. "Are you okay?" I whispered from behind her. "Do you want to go talk to them?"

She didn't answer, but took off walking without warning, out into the open. Riku and I hurried to keep up, staying right behind her. All three of us had our hoods up now, concealing our identities.

"Who's there?" Axel demanded.

Roxas spun around to face us, and his face lit up in recognition. "Xion?" he queried, taking a step forward.

Xion's stance wavered, and she ducked her head. I could tell that she was thrown off by being recognized, and still uncertain of her decision. She started to turn to leave, hesitated, then opened a dark corridor behind us and walked through.

"Xion, wait!" Roxas cried, running towards us. I glanced up at Riku, who nodded at me to follow her. As I exited, I could feel Riku step in front of the corridor behind me, blocking Roxas from chasing after us.

I caught up with Xion in the In Between. She had pushed her hood off and had her back to me, staring off into the nothingness. "I'm sorry," she said without turning around. "I don't know what came over me. I thought I was ready, but...I just wasn't."

"It's alright," I assured her. "You can always try again, if you want."

She didn't answer right away. Another corridor opened to our right, and Riku walked through. "What do you want to do, Xion?" he asked.

Looking back at us over her shoulder, Xion created a corridor in front of herself. "I just want to see them again for one more minute. Is that okay?"

"Of course," Riku answered. We all walked through the corridor and stayed close to the wall of the building that we came out next to. Around the corner, I could hear Roxas and Axel talking again.

"No way that was Xion!" Axel exclaimed.

"The one who ran away first was Xion," Roxas responded. "But...why run?"

Xion turned from watching them to look at the two of us, uncertainty still written on her face. Riku pushed his hood off. "You want to go back?" he asked.

Her head dropped, and she looked back at her friends. "I think...I still need more time."

I could tell from watching Riku's lips press into a thin line that he was frustrated, but he kept his voice level as he responded. "Sure. If you need to get in touch with us, head back to Beast's Castle. We'll meet you there. We have a colleague who can keep an eye on things there and let us know if you show up."

"Okay," Xion nodded. "Thank you both."

"I think you did the right thing by not pushing her," I told Riku after we had watched her leave. "It's very possible that if you did so now, she would just bolt."

"Yeah," Riku replied, not sounding convinced. "We can't wait forever, though. Sooner or later, DiZ is going to find out what's been going on, and he's not going to be happy that I let her go. Besides, we really do need Sora to wake up soon. He may be the only one who can stop Organization XIII from whatever they're planning to do."

......

That night, I woke up sometime after midnight, according to the clock by my bed. I rubbed the back of my hand across my eyes, not sure what had woken me. Just before I rolled over to try to go back to sleep, though, I heard it again – a muffled shout coming from the next room.

Sitting groggily up in the bed, I listened carefully, trying to decide whether I was imagining things or not. But no, that was definitely a voice coming from Riku's room, and it sounded distressed. My heart thumping, I swung my feet over the side of the bed and shuffled to the door, then crept quietly over to Riku's door to listen again.

"No," he moaned quietly. "No, no!" It sounded like he must be dreaming. Sighing, I leaned up against the door frame, trying to decide what I should do. I didn't want to be intrusive, but I hated to leave him to a nightmare. I knew very well just how awful those could be.

First I tried knocking quietly, and calling his name through the door. Then I knocked a little louder. He must have really been asleep, though, because all I heard was more thrashing and moaning. Finally I took a deep breath and just opened the door and went in.

His bed shared a wall with mine, which explained why I could hear him so well in my room. He was lying on his side with his back to me, with no blanket, still wearing the coat and blindfold as usual. After what I had seen earlier that day, it made sense, I supposed. Tip toeing over to the bed, I hesitated for a second, watching him as his muscles jerked involuntarily. It was strange, seeing him look this vulnerable. He was always trying to play the tough guy, but this wasn't the first hint that I had seen of a more troubled boy lying beneath the surface.

Reaching over, I tapped him on the shoulder. "Grim...Grim, wake up!" I whispered. He continued to mumble in his sleep, so I changed to shaking his shoulder gently. "Riku!"

Riku rolled over suddenly onto his back and I jumped. He lay still for a moment, breathing heavily, then turned his head toward me. "Meli?" he asked softly. "Is that you?"

"Yeah. I, uh...you were having a nightmare, I think," I explained. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to just barge in here like that, but I didn't want to just let you keep having it, either."

Shaking his head, Riku ran a hand through his long hair with a small smile. "You apologize too much, you know that? I appreciate your concern. Anyway, it's me that should be apologizing for waking you up."

"Don't worry about it," I returned with a wave of my hand. "I've dealt with the whole nightmare thing before. I hate for anyone else to go through that." I paused, unsure if I should leave or if he might want some company for a minute. "Do you...want to talk about it?" I asked hesitantly.

Riku sighed. "Hmm, I don't know." I almost thought he might be blushing, though it was hard to tell for sure in the dim light provided by the curtains on the window.

"You don't have to," I shrugged. "I...hear it helps, though." I wouldn't really know, since nobody ever seemed to want to hear about mine.

"It was just...Maleficent," Riku began, trying to sound nonchalant. I leaned up against the nightstand, waiting to hear the rest. "Not the first time I've dreamed about my time with her. But this time, you were there, too, and..." He cleared his throat, using one of the hands that had been folded on his stomach to gesture. "And she had...done something to you, I don't know, but you were hurt, and...and I...couldn't get to you..."

My eyes widened in surprise and there was a sudden catch in my throat. His nightmare was about me? "Oh," I managed when it was clear that he was done. I felt strange, and wanted to laugh it off, but I didn't want to seem like I was laughing at him. "So, you, uh...I guess you were worried about me then, huh?" I asked, keeping my tone light.

"Of course I was. I always worry about you. Not that I don't think you can handle yourself," he added quickly. "I just...don't want you to get hurt."

I couldn't help but smile a little at that. It was one of the nicest things that I could remember anyone ever saying to me. "That's...sweet." I had a weird inclination to reach over and hug him, but of course I didn't.

Suddenly I was acutely aware of how intimate the setting was – being here in the semi-dark, in his bedroom, with him lying down next to me. I stood and backed up a step. "Well, um...I guess – if you're done, that is – I should get back to my room and...let you get some sleep."

"Yeah, sure." Riku pushed up onto his elbows. "Thanks for coming to check on me."

"No problem," I nodded, backing towards the door.

"Oh, and Meli," he called out just as I was turning to leave. "About what happened earlier today, before Xion showed up..."

"Don't worry about it," I interrupted him. "It was...a little weird, yeah. And I don't like the thought of you putting yourself in danger. But as long as you say you have it under control...I trust you."

Riku nodded. "Okay. Thanks. I promise I'll be really careful."

"Good," I smiled. "Goodnight, Grim."

"Goodnight, Meli."

Chapter Text

TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSION BELOW THE DOUBLE LINES.

——————————————————

Two days after we took Xion to Twilight Town, I found out from Roxas that she was back at the Organization. From what he said, though, it didn't sound like she had gone of her own free will. As soon as I told Riku what had happened, he headed straight for Organization XIII's headquarters, but told me when he got back that he knew all along there was nothing he could do. I could tell that he felt incredibly guilty for not bringing her in when we had the chance, even though we both knew he had done it out of compassion.

The days passed without much fanfare for a while after that. Morning training sessions, afternoon missions to keep an eye on the Organization, occasional evenings spent in town, and dinners with Riku.

"Let's not get food from this place again, wherever it was," I told him one evening, looking down at my takeout box with a turned up nose.

I wasn't sure when we had graduated from me sitting on the edge of the bed while he sat on the chair, to both of us sitting cross-legged on the queen-size bed together. Dinner time was one of the most fun and relaxing times of the day, though, and I always looked forward to it, no matter what the food might taste like.

"Yeah, it's...not the greatest," Riku agreed, pushing his food around with his chopsticks. "That's what I get for trying somewhere new."

I laughed. "If I had any more of my money, I'd portal back home and get us something from there on occasion."

"If I had a working kitchen, I'd just make us dinner," Riku countered.

"Wait, you can cook?"

Riku shrugged. "Yeah. I'm not a gourmet chef or anything, but I can make a pretty decent meal."

"I can make a killer pb and j," I offered sarcastically. "Oh, and boxed mac and cheese is my specialty." We laughed together, and I poked at my pasta some more. "I never really had anybody to teach me anything about cooking growing up. Ms. Young wouldn't even let us anywhere near her precious kitchen."

"I pretty much taught myself just by experimenting." Riku paused before continuing. "It was either that, or don't eat some nights."

I looked up at him with concern on my face. "Really?"

"Eh, you know. Mom wasn't around much, working all the time. Most of the time it was just me for dinner." I could tell he was trying to shrug it off, probably wishing he hadn't even said anything.

"What about your dad?" I asked. Riku never talked about his past, so I didn't want to pass up this opportunity to learn more about him.

"Left when I was just a kid."

"I'm sorry," I said quietly.

"Don't be," he replied with a small smile. "We certainly weren't."

The meaning of his words took a second to hit. I swallowed and stared down at my food, not sure what to say. Suddenly his eagerness to leave the islands behind made a whole lot more sense.

"So, what's your hidden talent, then?" Riku asked , changing the subject away from himself. "Besides Keyblade wielding and magic, of course."

I glanced back up with a grin. "Oh, um...I'm a pretty good hairstylist. I mean, if I do say so myself." Reaching forward spontaneously, I pushed his bangs back away from his forehead. I was pleasantly surprised at how soft his hair felt. "I could cut yours if you wanted. It's getting pretty long, you know!"

Riku laughed. "Yeah, I know. Maybe someday, when all of this is over with."

Releasing his hair, I leaned back again. "Why, because you like it this way, or because you don't trust my hair cutting skills?" I teased. I ran my hand over the short side of my hair. "I cut my own hair, and it looks pretty good, in my opinion." Almost unconsciously, I looked down at my right hand and rubbed my thumb across the palm as I added under my breath, "Though Aiden certainly didn't think so."

"What was that about Aiden?" Riku asked, his voice suddenly solemn.

"Nothing." I shook my head, kicking myself inwardly for bringing it up. I knew that for whatever reason, Riku had had something against him from the very beginning. "He just...liked my hair longer, that's all."

"But why did you start messing with your hand when you said that?"

I glanced down at my hand. "How did you...?" Shoving it behind my back, I shook my head again adamantly. "It's nothing. There's no reason."

"You're a terrible liar, you know that?" Riku ripped off one of his gloves and snatched up my hand, despite my efforts to keep it hidden. Tracing his finger over my palm, he scowled. "That's a scar, isn't it? What did he do to you?"

I tried to pull my hand away, but his grip was too strong. "He didn't do anything," I lied again, my frustration growing. "I just burned myself, that's all!"

"You mean he burned you." Riku still refused to let go of my hand. "What was it, a cigarette?"

I let out a growl, tears of anger beginning to sting my eyes. It was clear that he wasn't going to give up on this. "It was a lighter, okay?" I nearly shouted. "He burned my hand with a lighter because I cut my hair off." Riku finally released my hand and I jerked it away, stuffing it underneath my leg. "It was my fault, though," I muttered indignantly. "I cut it without asking him about it. I should have just asked."

Riku groaned and threw his hands in the air. "No, Meli, that is not your fault! It's your hair, on your body. You should be able to do what you want with it without asking anybody, and without being afraid of being punished for it. You can't blame yourself for everything that your good-for-nothing boyfriend does to you!"

"Don't you talk about him like that," I warned through clenched teeth. The tears were escaping now, streaming silently down my cheeks.

"I'm sorry, but somebody's gotta say it. The guy's a loser, Meli. Why do you stay with him when he keeps hurting you?"

"You don't know anything," I shot back, jumping up off the bed and pacing away furiously.

"I know that it's not right," Riku responded, standing also. "Surely you know it, too. You're a smart girl. I don't understand why you can't see it."

"Why do you care so much, anyway?" I demanded, spinning around to face him, my fists clenched by my sides.

"Because..." For the first time, he seemed to struggle to find a reply. "Because you're my friend," he finally answered, his voice softening. "I just want what's best for you."

His words took me by surprise. Of course we were friends, we had just never really acknowledged it before, and it had never crossed my mind that he might feel any kind of attachment to me. The revelation did nothing to dissuade my anger, however. We stood opposite one another in silence, my chest tight and my breathing heavy.

"I think you should go now," I said after a moment, refusing to look him in the face.

"Yeah," he murmured, collecting his food off the bed. "I'll do that."

I crossed my arms and turned my back to face the window, not moving until I heard the door click shut behind him.

——————————————————

CENSORED VERSION

References to violence removed. Some conversation about the relationship remains, which could be bothersome to some, but I felt it was all too important to remove.

——————————————————

Two days after we took Xion to Twilight Town, I found out from Roxas that she was back at the Organization. From what he said, though, it didn't sound like she had gone of her own free will. As soon as I told Riku what had happened, he headed straight for Organization XIII's headquarters, but told me when he got back that he knew all along there was nothing he could do. I could tell that he felt incredibly guilty for not bringing her in when we had the chance, even though we both knew he had done it out of compassion.

The days passed without much fanfare for a while after that. Morning training sessions, afternoon missions to keep an eye on the Organization, occasional evenings spent in town, and dinners with Riku.

"Let's not get food from this place again, wherever it was," I told him one evening, looking down at my takeout box with a turned up nose.

I wasn't sure when we had graduated from me sitting on the edge of the bed while he sat on the chair, to both of us sitting cross-legged on the queen-size bed together. Dinner time was one of the most fun and relaxing times of the day, though, and I always looked forward to it, no matter what the food might taste like.

"Yeah, it's...not the greatest," Riku agreed, pushing his food around with his chopsticks. "That's what I get for trying somewhere new."

I laughed. "If I had any more of my money, I'd portal back home and get us something from there on occasion."

"If I had a working kitchen, I'd just make us dinner," Riku countered.

"Wait, you can cook?"

Riku shrugged. "Yeah. I'm not a gourmet chef or anything, but I can make a pretty decent meal."

"I can make a killer pb and j," I offered sarcastically. "Oh, and boxed mac and cheese is my specialty." We laughed together, and I poked at my pasta some more. "I never really had anybody to teach me anything about cooking growing up. Ms. Young wouldn't even let us anywhere near her precious kitchen."

"I pretty much taught myself just by experimenting." Riku paused before continuing. "It was either that, or don't eat some nights."

I looked up at him with concern on my face. "Really?"

"Eh, you know. Mom wasn't around much, working all the time. Most of the time it was just me for dinner." I could tell he was trying to shrug it off, probably wishing he hadn't even said anything.

"What about your dad?" I asked. Riku never talked about his past, so I didn't want to pass up this opportunity to learn more about him.

"Left when I was just a kid."

"I'm sorry," I said quietly.

"Don't be," he replied with a small smile. "We certainly weren't."

The meaning of his words took a second to hit. I swallowed and stared down at my food, not sure what to say. Suddenly his eagerness to leave the islands behind made a whole lot more sense.

"So, what's your hidden talent, then?" Riku asked , changing the subject away from himself. "Besides Keyblade wielding and magic, of course."

I glanced back up with a grin. "Oh, um...I'm a pretty good hairstylist. I mean, if I do say so myself." Reaching forward spontaneously, I pushed his bangs back away from his forehead. I was pleasantly surprised at how soft his hair felt. "I could cut yours if you wanted. It's getting pretty long, you know!"

Riku laughed. "Yeah, I know. Maybe someday, when all of this is over with."

Releasing his hair, I leaned back again. "Why, because you like it this way, or because you don't trust my hair cutting skills?" I teased. I ran my hand over the short side of my hair. "I cut my own hair, and it looks pretty good, in my opinion." Almost unconsciously, I looked down at my right hand and rubbed my thumb across the palm as I added under my breath, "Though Aiden certainly didn't think so."

"What was that about Aiden?" Riku asked, his voice suddenly solemn.

"Nothing." I shook my head, kicking myself inwardly for bringing it up. I knew that for whatever reason, Riku had had something against him from the very beginning. "He just...liked my hair longer, that's all."

(After pushing her hard for an answer, Riku finds out that Aiden punished Meli for cutting her hair.)

"It was my fault, though," I muttered indignantly. "I cut it without asking him about it. I should have just asked."

Riku groaned and threw his hands in the air. "No, Meli, that is not your fault! It's your hair, on your body. You should be able to do what you want with it without asking anybody, and without being afraid of being punished for it. You can't blame yourself for everything that your good-for-nothing boyfriend does to you!"

"Don't you talk about him like that," I warned through clenched teeth. The tears were escaping now, streaming silently down my cheeks.

"I'm sorry, but somebody's gotta say it. The guy's a loser, Meli. Why do you stay with him when he keeps hurting you?"

"You don't know anything," I shot back, jumping up off the bed and pacing away furiously.

"I know that it's not right," Riku responded, standing also. "Surely you know it, too. You're a smart girl. I don't understand why you can't see it."

"Why do you care so much, anyway?" I demanded, spinning around to face him, my fists clenched by my sides.

"Because..." For the first time, he seemed to struggle to find a reply. "Because you're my friend," he finally answered, his voice softening. "I just want what's best for you."

His words took me by surprise. Of course we were friends, we had just never really acknowledged it before, and it had never crossed my mind that he might feel any kind of attachment to me. The revelation did nothing to dissuade my anger, however. We stood opposite one another in silence, my chest tight and my breathing heavy.

"I think you should go now," I said after a moment, refusing to look him in the face.

"Yeah," he murmured, collecting his food off the bed. "I'll do that."

I crossed my arms and turned my back to face the window, not moving until I heard the door click shut behind him.

Chapter Text

TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER. SEE CENSORED VERSIONS BELOW DOUBLE LINES.

———————————————————

My mind was still reeling several minutes after Riku left my room. Somewhere deep inside, something was whispering that he was speaking the truth, but I didn't want to hear, couldn't accept it. I kept telling myself that he didn't really know Aiden, not like I did. Maybe Riku was just jealous of him. That's probably what it was. Aiden was always completely unreasonable when he got jealous, too, so it made sense, in a way.

I knew that Aiden could be kind and caring when he wanted to be. He had done so many things for me, and I owed him so much. I never had understood why he had even given me a second glance when we first met, much less asked me to be his girlfriend and start taking care of me like he had. It's not like I was pretty, and I was socially awkward and hard to get along with to top it off. He could have done so much better than me. So what if he was a little controlling sometimes? He was older and smarter than I was, and had friends and a job, too. It made sense for him to be able to tell a nobody like me what to do.

The frilly little bedroom that I was standing in suddenly felt stifling. I needed to go home. I wanted to see Aiden. Maybe that would make me feel better about this whole thing. If I could see him, everything would make sense again.

I opened the portal without a second thought, and stepped through into my apartment. The first thing I noticed was that the bed was missing. Everything was missing, in fact, except for the fixtures that had come with the apartment, a small cardboard box on the kitchen counter, and a mop and broom that were leaning up against the far wall behind the door.

As I was taking all of this in, the front door opened and Aiden stepped in, making my heart skip a beat. He stopped short when he saw me standing there, his expression blank. I smiled, genuinely happy to see him after so long.

"Hey, babe," I greeted him quietly. "Sorry to surprise you like this. I just...really wanted to see you again."

Aiden still didn't say anything, still didn't move. Nervousness began creeping slowly up my throat, but I pressed ahead. "I, uh...see you decided to clean the place out," I noted, gesturing to the empty room. "That's good. There was...really no need to hang onto it, I don't guess." I twisted my mouth to the side, thinking. "I'm sorry that you had to do all of that by yourself, though."

Pressing my hands into my thighs, I stopped talking and waited for him to say or do something. Slowly, he pushed the door shut and took a step further into the room. "Where have you been?" he asked, his voice low.

For some reason it hadn't occurred to me that he would ask those sorts of questions, so I had no answers prepared. "Um...I've been...staying with a friend," I fumbled.

"You don't have friends, Meli," he spat out, walking closer. "So where," he emphasized, "Have you been?"

Now my heart was pounding. I opened my mouth, trying to come up with an answer, but he interrupted me before I could do so. "There's a guy, isn't there?" he demanded. "Look me in the eyes and tell me there's not another guy."

"No, there's not, I swear!" But of course it was only half true – there was a guy, just not in the way that he was implying. Despite my insistence, I knew my face had to have given away the truth.

Aiden's voice dropped low again, but even in the dim lighting I could see the fury burning in his eyes. "You think you can just disappear without an explanation, and then just waltz back in here a couple of months later like nothing happened?" Turning, he walked to the corner and picked up the broom, stomping on the base of it to pop the wooden handle out before advancing towards me.

"Aiden, please..." I backed up against the wall, tears beginning to pour down my face again. There had been other times that he had threatened me with a broom handle or other weapon, but he had never actually carried through. Right now, however, the look on his face was more terrifying than anything I had ever seen.

"I'll teach you to walk out on me," he growled.

The first blow hit me across the stomach, doubling me over forwards and knocking the breath out of me. The second came down on my back, knocking me to the ground, followed by another to the back of my head. They kept coming, blow after blow, no matter how much I pleaded and no matter how tight of a ball I curled up in. My vision blurred and the noises around me grew fuzzy. I could feel blood trickling down my forehead and out of my nose, and I could barely breathe.

My thoughts came in disjointed spurts. This is how I'm going to die. Riku was right, but I'm never going to make it back to tell him so. He'll never know what happened to me. He deserved better than for me to just vanish without a word, especially right after the only argument we've ever had. He's been so nice to me all this time.

Then, finally, it ended, and I was still alive, though barely conscious. I heard the broom handle drop onto the floor and the door slam as if they were somewhere down a tunnel. All I could do for several minutes was continue to lay on the floor in fetal position, shaking and crying. Somewhere in a still-working part of my brain, though, I knew that I had to get up. If I didn't move pretty soon, I really was going to die here.

My head felt like it weighed twice as much as normal as I lifted it off the ground to look across the room at the mirror on the back of the closet door. One of my eyes was already so swollen that I could hardly see out of it, but I could tell that the mirror might as well have been a million miles away. I had to get to Riku, though. Pulling myself painfully to my feet, I began to stumble across the room, stopping several times along the way to lean against the wall. Every breath felt like fire in my chest.

At last, I made it to the mirror, and collapsed up against it, leaving a streak of blood on the glass from somewhere on my head. Reaching up with trembling hands, I shut my eyes and waited for the portal to open, practically falling through it when it did so and landing with a moan on the floor. Somehow in my addled state I had accidentally opened the portal into the hallway outside our bedrooms, rather than inside my room. I tried to call for Riku, but it came out more like an indecipherable groan. Thankfully, with his apparent super hearing powers, he heard me anyway, and poked his head out his bedroom door.

"Meli? Did you call me?" He glanced up and down the hall as if trying to determine my location.

"I'm here," I croaked out.

Through my half opened eyes I could see him look down in surprise and reach up to lift on side of his blindfold. Muttering some kind of exclamation under his breath, he leaned back into his room to snatch something up off a table before rushing to my side. Very gently, he rolled me over off of my face and scooped me up into his arms, cradling me carefully much like he had Xion that day on the beach. I felt something cool touch my lips.

"Here," he murmured. "Drink this."

For once I was not going to complain at all about the taste of a potion. I could feel it coursing through my body, easing pain all over. The swelling around my eye went down, and I could take in deep gulps of air without feeling like I was going to break in half.

Riku just kept holding me, waiting while I healed and breathed. "Are you alright?" he asked after a moment. "Do you still hurt anywhere?"

My head and ribs did still hurt some, but I didn't really want to admit it. "I told you before that I'm pretty pathetic when it comes to pain," I responded, trying to laugh it off. "But I think I'll be fine." I struggled to sit up, but my ribs made me hiss in pain and gave me away.

"You don't have to be tough about this," Riku chided. "Being beaten to within an inch of your life gives you plenty of excuse to be a little pitiful." He picked up another vial from the floor beside him and showed it to me. "Besides, if you're still hurting you can take another."

I held out my hand sheepishly and took the potion, sighing in relief as it took away the last of the pain. "Thanks. I...probably wouldn't have made it if you hadn't have heard me out here."

An unknown emotion twitched at Riku's lips. "What happened?" he asked gently, as if he already knew the answer. I looked away and shook my head slightly, not wanting to talk about it or admit to his face that he had been right. "You went back there, didn't you?" he pressed. "To see him."

The tears began flowing again as I nodded wordlessly, the horror and heartache of what had just happened finally setting in. Hugging my knees up to my chest, I buried my face, my shoulders shaking with sobs. Riku wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close.

There were many things that he could have said to me in that moment, but I was incredibly grateful that he had the kindness to stay silent and just let me cry into his chest. Part of me knew I shouldn't be letting him hold me like that, but his arms felt so safe and warm around me that I couldn't bring myself to move.

"I loved him," I choked out in between sobs. "I thought he loved me, too."

———————————————————

CENSORED VERSION 1

Actual violence removed, but most of the lead up to it and the aftermath remain. Still pretty intense.

———————————————————

My mind was still reeling several minutes after Riku left my room. Somewhere deep inside, something was whispering that he was speaking the truth, but I didn't want to hear, couldn't accept it. I kept telling myself that he didn't really know Aiden, not like I did. Maybe Riku was just jealous of him. That's probably what it was. Aiden was always completely unreasonable when he got jealous, too, so it made sense, in a way.

I knew that Aiden could be kind and caring when he wanted to be. He had done so many things for me, and I owed him so much. I never had understood why he had even given me a second glance when we first met, much less asked me to be his girlfriend and start taking care of me like he had. It's not like I was pretty, and I was socially awkward and hard to get along with to top it off. He could have done so much better than me. So what if he was a little controlling sometimes? He was older and smarter than I was, and had friends and a job, too. It made sense for him to be able to tell a nobody like me what to do.

The frilly little bedroom that I was standing in suddenly felt stifling. I needed to go home. I wanted to see Aiden. Maybe that would make me feel better about this whole thing. If I could see him, everything would make sense again.

I opened the portal without a second thought, and stepped through into my apartment. The first thing I noticed was that the bed was missing. Everything was missing, in fact, except for the fixtures that had come with the apartment, a small cardboard box on the kitchen counter, and a mop and broom that were leaning up against the far wall behind the door.

As I was taking all of this in, the front door opened and Aiden stepped in, making my heart skip a beat. He stopped short when he saw me standing there, his expression blank. I smiled, genuinely happy to see him after so long.

"Hey, babe," I greeted him quietly. "Sorry to surprise you like this. I just...really wanted to see you again."

Aiden still didn't say anything, still didn't move. Nervousness began creeping slowly up my throat, but I pressed ahead. "I, uh...see you decided to clean the place out," I noted, gesturing to the empty room. "That's good. There was...really no need to hang onto it, I don't guess." I twisted my mouth to the side, thinking. "I'm sorry that you had to do all of that by yourself, though."

Pressing my hands into my thighs, I stopped talking and waited for him to say or do something. Slowly, he pushed the door shut and took a step further into the room. "Where have you been?" he asked, his voice low.

For some reason it hadn't occurred to me that he would ask those sorts of questions, so I had no answers prepared. "Um...I've been...staying with a friend," I fumbled.

"You don't have friends, Meli," he spat out, walking closer. "So where," he emphasized, "Have you been?"

Now my heart was pounding. I opened my mouth, trying to come up with an answer, but he interrupted me before I could do so. "There's a guy, isn't there?" he demanded. "Look me in the eyes and tell me there's not another guy."

"No, there's not, I swear!" But of course it was only half true – there was a guy, just not in the way that he was implying. Despite my insistence, I knew my face had to have given away the truth.

Aiden's voice dropped low again, but even in the dim lighting I could see the fury burning in his eyes. "You think you can just disappear without an explanation, and then just waltz back in here a couple of months later like nothing happened?"

(Aiden attacks Meli and gravely injures her.)

My mind came crashing back down into my body, and all of the throbbing pain along with it. All I could do for several minutes was continue to lay on the floor in fetal position, shaking and crying. Somewhere in a still-working part of my brain, though, I knew that I had to get up. If I didn't move pretty soon, I really was going to die here.

My head felt like it weighed twice as much as normal as I lifted it off the ground to look across the room at the mirror on the back of the closet door. One of my eyes was already so swollen that I could hardly see out of it, but I could tell that the mirror might as well have been a million miles away. I had to get to Riku, though. Pulling myself painfully to my feet, I began to stumble across the room, stopping several times along the way to lean against the wall. Every breath felt like fire in my chest.

At last, I made it to the mirror, and collapsed up against it, leaving a streak of blood on the glass from somewhere on my head. Reaching up with trembling hands, I shut my eyes and waited for the portal to open, practically falling through it when it did so and landing with a moan on the floor. Somehow in my addled state I had accidentally opened the portal into the hallway outside our bedrooms, rather than inside my room. I tried to call for Riku, but it came out more like an indecipherable groan. Thankfully, with his apparent super hearing powers, he heard me anyway, and poked his head out his bedroom door.

"Meli? Did you call me?" He glanced up and down the hall as if trying to determine my location.

"I'm here," I croaked out.

Through my half opened eyes I could see him look down in surprise and reach up to lift on side of his blindfold. Muttering some kind of exclamation under his breath, he leaned back into his room to snatch something up off a table before rushing to my side. Very gently, he rolled me over off of my face and scooped me up into his arms, cradling me carefully much like he had Xion that day on the beach. I felt something cool touch my lips.

"Here," he murmured. "Drink this."

For once I was not going to complain at all about the taste of a potion. I could feel it coursing through my body, easing pain all over. The swelling around my eye went down, and I could take in deep gulps of air without feeling like I was going to break in half.

Riku just kept holding me, waiting while I healed and breathed. "Are you alright?" he asked after a moment. "Do you still hurt anywhere?"

My head and ribs did still hurt some, but I didn't really want to admit it. "I told you before that I'm pretty pathetic when it comes to pain," I responded, trying to laugh it off. "But I think I'll be fine." I struggled to sit up, but my ribs made me hiss in pain and gave me away.

"You don't have to be tough about this," Riku chided. "Being beaten to within an inch of your life gives you plenty of excuse to be a little pitiful." He picked up another vial from the floor beside him and showed it to me. "Besides, if you're still hurting you can take another."

I held out my hand sheepishly and took the potion, sighing in relief as it took away the last of the pain. "Thanks. I...probably wouldn't have made it if you hadn't have heard me out here."

An unknown emotion twitched at Riku's lips. "What happened?" he asked gently, as if he already knew the answer. I looked away and shook my head slightly, not wanting to talk about it or admit to his face that he had been right. "You went back there, didn't you?" he pressed. "To see him."

The tears began flowing again as I nodded wordlessly, the horror and heartache of what had just happened finally setting in. Hugging my knees up to my chest, I buried my face, my shoulders shaking with sobs. Riku wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close.

There were many things that he could have said to me in that moment, but I was incredibly grateful that he had the kindness to stay silent and just let me cry into his chest. Part of me knew I shouldn't be letting him hold me like that, but his arms felt so safe and warm around me that I couldn't bring myself to move.

"I loved him," I choked out in between sobs. "I thought he loved me, too."

———————————————————

CENSORED VERSION 2

The very beginning and end remain, with a few details taken out, but most of the middle is just a brief summary.

———————————————————

My mind was still reeling several minutes after Riku left my room. Somewhere deep inside, something was whispering that he was speaking the truth, but I didn't want to hear, couldn't accept it. I kept telling myself that he didn't really know Aiden, not like I did. Maybe Riku was just jealous of him. That's probably what it was. Aiden was always completely unreasonable when he got jealous, too, so it made sense, in a way.

I knew that Aiden could be kind and caring when he wanted to be. He had done so many things for me, and I owed him so much. I never had understood why he had even given me a second glance when we first met, much less asked me to be his girlfriend and start taking care of me like he had. It's not like I was pretty, and I was socially awkward and hard to get along with to top it off. He could have done so much better than me. So what if he was a little controlling sometimes? He was older and smarter than I was, and had friends and a job, too. It made sense for him to be able to tell a nobody like me what to do.

The frilly little bedroom that I was standing in suddenly felt stifling. I needed to go home. I wanted to see Aiden. Maybe that would make me feel better about this whole thing. If I could see him, everything would make sense again.

I opened the portal without a second thought, and stepped through into my apartment. The first thing I noticed was that the bed was missing. Everything was missing, in fact, except for the fixtures that had come with the apartment, a small cardboard box on the kitchen counter, and a mop and broom that were leaning up against the far wall behind the door.

As I was taking all of this in, the front door opened and Aiden stepped in, making my heart skip a beat. He stopped short when he saw me standing there, his expression blank. I smiled, genuinely happy to see him after so long.

"Hey, babe," I greeted him quietly. "Sorry to surprise you like this. I just...really wanted to see you again."

Aiden still didn't say anything, still didn't move. Nervousness began creeping slowly up my throat, but I pressed ahead. "I, uh...see you decided to clean the place out," I noted, gesturing to the empty room. "That's good. There was...really no need to hang onto it, I don't guess." I twisted my mouth to the side, thinking. "I'm sorry that you had to do all of that by yourself, though."

Pressing my hands into my thighs, I stopped talking and waited for him to say or do something.

(Aiden begins to press Meli for answers about where she has been. He grows angry, thinking she has left him for another guy, and physically attacks her. Once he leaves, Meli makes it back through the mirror to the hallway outside her bedroom.)

I tried to call for Riku, but it came out more like an indecipherable groan. Thankfully, with his apparent super hearing powers, he heard me anyway, and poked his head out his bedroom door.

"Meli? Did you call me?" He glanced up and down the hall as if trying to determine my location.

"I'm here," I croaked out.

Through my half opened eyes I could see him look down in surprise and reach up to lift on side of his blindfold. Muttering some kind of exclamation under his breath, he leaned back into his room to snatch something up off a table before rushing to my side. Very gently, he rolled me over and scooped me up into his arms, cradling me carefully much like he had Xion that day on the beach. I felt something cool touch my lips.

"Here," he murmured. "Drink this."

For once I was not going to complain at all about the taste of a potion. I could feel it coursing through my body, easing pain all over.

Riku just kept holding me, waiting while I healed and breathed. "Are you alright?" he asked after a moment. "Do you still hurt anywhere?"

My head and ribs did still hurt some, but I didn't really want to admit it. "I told you before that I'm pretty pathetic when it comes to pain," I responded, trying to laugh it off. "But I think I'll be fine." I struggled to sit up, but my ribs made me hiss in pain and gave me away.

"You don't have to be tough about this," Riku chided. He picked up another vial from the floor beside him and showed it to me. "Besides, if you're still hurting you can take another."

I held out my hand sheepishly and took the potion, sighing in relief as it took away the last of the pain. "Thanks. I...probably wouldn't have made it if you hadn't have heard me out here."

An unknown emotion twitched at Riku's lips. "What happened?" he asked gently, as if he already knew the answer. I looked away and shook my head slightly, not wanting to talk about it or admit to his face that he had been right. "You went back there, didn't you?" he pressed. "To see him."

The tears began flowing again as I nodded wordlessly, the horror and heartache of what had just happened finally setting in. Hugging my knees up to my chest, I buried my face, my shoulders shaking with sobs. Riku wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close.

There were many things that he could have said to me in that moment, but I was incredibly grateful that he had the kindness to stay silent and just let me cry into his chest. Part of me knew I shouldn't be letting him hold me like that, but his arms felt so safe and warm around me that I couldn't bring myself to move.

"I loved him," I choked out in between sobs. "I thought he loved me, too."

Chapter Text

I didn't sleep much that night. Tossing and turning, I kept replaying the events of the evening over again in my mind. When I closed my eyes, I could still see Aiden coming towards me with that look of hatred on his face, and even though my wounds were all healed and the blood washed away, the ghosts of them still haunted me. I kept feeling like if I touched my head or face there would still be something there.

When morning came around, I was lying on my stomach, staring blankly at the glaring red numbers on the clock. A knock came at the door, quiet at first. I ignored it, pulling my pillow out from under my head and curling my body around it. The next set of knocks was a little louder, and the next louder still.

"Meli!" Riku called through the door. I still didn't answer, and he knocked again. "Meli, I know you have to be awake. If you don't answer me I'm just going to come in, even if I have to break the door." I flinched, hugging the pillow tighter, but immediately heard him start to back pedal. "I mean, not like that..." The cringe was almost tangible in his voice. "I'm not mad at you, I'm just worried. I need to know you're okay."

Sighing heavily and rolling my eyes, I turned over and sat up, still holding the pillow. "Geez, Grim, calm down. I'm fine. You can come in if you want, the door's not locked."

The door opened and Riku stuck his head in. "You sure you're okay?" He didn't sound at all convinced. We had already been through this a hundred times before we went to bed, with him insisting on even sitting in the hall outside of the bathroom while I cleaned up, just in case I needed anything. It was sweet, but in the mood I was currently in, also annoying.

"I'm fine," I repeated. "Just peachy. But I don't feel like training today, so...I'm just gonna stay here for now."

Riku didn't say anything for a moment. Then he opened the door further and walked into the room, stopping to lean on one arm against the post at the foot of the bed. "Mind telling me why?" he asked gently.

"I just don't feel like it, okay?" I knew I was being overly sarcastic and unreasonable this morning, but I couldn't seem to help it. I gave the pillow a squeeze and buried my chin down into it.

"Okay," Riku replied softly. "Before I go, though, there's something I wanted to tell you. About last night...I'm sorry for making you so upset. Sometimes I don't know when to keep my mouth shut. If I hadn't said the things I did, you probably wouldn't have gone back there and none of this would have happened."

"And then I would have just kept on being in love with and loyal to a...what did you call him? Oh yeah, a good-for-nothing loser." I shrugged. "I don't blame you for any of it. You were right, and I was stupid. I'm not glad it happened, but at least now it's all over with."

"I don't think you were stupid," Riku countered. "Sometimes it's just...hard to see the people that we're close to objectively."

I sighed again, trying to piece together in my mind what was really bothering me this morning. "I guess I'm just...angry."

"As you have every right to be."

"At myself," I finished. Shaking my head, I imagined the scene in my head once again. "I mean, I saw him coming. I knew what he was going to do. And I just...stood there, and let him do it." Tears were burning my eyes again, but I blinked rapidly, refusing to let them fall. "All of this that I've been doing...all the skills I've learned...what good is it all if, when the time comes to actually defend myself, I just stand there like a...an idiot, and do nothing?"

"Hey," Riku soothed, moving to sit on the edge of the bed, facing me. "You can't blame yourself like that. The situation you were in was...emotionally charged. Your mind was probably going in a million different directions. This was not your typical 'enemy', so to speak, that you're used to defending yourself from. This was someone that...you cared about, and who was supposed to care about you. Fighting against the people you care about is...a whole different set of skills." He paused, looking at me with that same face full of concern that he had had the night before. "You've gotta stop blaming yourself for everything."

I huffed a laugh through the tears that had started to slide down my cheeks despite my best efforts. "You're one to talk," I quipped. "Don't think I didn't notice all the blame you put on yourself in that story about the worlds and the princesses and everything."

Riku looked away, a bit flustered at having the tables turned. "Well, most of that was actually my fault."

"No, most of it was the fault of the witch woman and the...Heartless dude. You may have made a few bad choices, but who hasn't? You were just a kid, and they were lying to you." I used my foot to nudge the arm he was leaning on. "So, you know, maybe you should take a little of your own advice."

"Okay," Riku replied with a small smile. "I'll try to do that, if you will, too. The only person we're going to blame for anything that happened last night is...him. Deal?"

I nodded, trying my best to take it to heart. "Deal."

"Which, by the way, I still have half a mind to get you to open a portal for me so that I can go find him and..." He bit the rest of his words off, but I could see exactly what he was thinking in the twist of his mouth. "I probably would have done so last night if I had thought you felt up to it. And...I still will, now, if you want me to."

I couldn't help but smile at his sincerity. "Thanks. I appreciate the thought. I think it's probably best if we both just stay here, though."

"Okay. Well, just let me know if you change your mind." Standing, Riku took a few steps towards the door. "About training this morning, too. If you don't feel like it still, that's fine, but if you change your mind later, we can still fit some in."

I let him walk closer to the door as I considered this, then spoke up just before he left. "When are you going to teach me to use dark powers?"

"Hmm?" Riku responded, turning back to me.

I knew he had heard me, and was probably just stalling to come up with a reply. "You said I would be able to use dark powers, but you haven't taught me any. I want to learn them," I stated firmly.

Riku sighed. "I haven't taught you any dark spells, because...it worries me. I don't want the darkness in your heart to grow from messing around with it too much."

"You said darkness wasn't always a bad thing," I pointed out.

"It is if it takes over your heart," he countered dryly. "That's kinda how Heartless are born."

I punched the pillow down onto the bed, not about to let this go. "If you can use dark powers without any problem, then I can, too. We'll take it slow, if it makes you feel better. But I want to learn something. Start with a dark corridor, maybe. That would definitely be useful, for both of us."

Riku crossed his arms and tried to look stern, but I could tell he knew he wasn't going to win this argument. "Fine," he conceded after a moment. "I'll teach you a dark corridor."

"This morning?" I pressed.

"Yes, this morning," he agreed reluctantly, tossing his hands in the air. "If you'll hurry up and get out of bed, that is."

I smiled triumphantly and swung my feet over the side of the bed. "Good. I'm up. But you'd better leave if you want me to actually get dressed. I'm not taking the chance that you can't really see more than you say you can."

Riku started to answer, his face turning bright red, but he couldn't seem to find the words. "I'll see you outside," he mumbled finally, and fled out the door.

Chapter Text

"Okay, so in order to use any kind of dark power, you have to tap into the darkness in your heart," Riku explained once we were out in the training arena. "Once you get used to doing it, using darkness will be second nature and you won't even have to think about it. But until then..." He paused, as if trying to think of how it actually worked. "You'll have to get in touch with a dark emotion somehow. Anger, fear, sadness...any of those will work. Just try to think of a memory that invokes one or more of those feelings."

"That shouldn't be a problem," I mumbled. Obviously the first thing that came to mind was the events of the night before. I was a bit reluctant to keep dwelling on those thoughts, but since it was fresh it would be the most certain to get me to the place I needed to be.

"Now if it starts to be too much, just tell me," Riku warned quietly. "Don't let yourself get into those dark feelings too deeply." I nodded solemnly, but kept my concentration on recreating the emotions in my heart. "When you're ready, you can try making a corridor," Riku continued. "It's just like light magic – use that feeling in your heart to reach out and make it happen."

Inhaling sharply, I lifted my right arm and slowly opened my hand. The first smoke that appeared reminded me of opening a portal, but this quickly grew into a large, black hole, swirling with purple. I dropped my hand and smiled at it proudly, letting the dark thoughts dissipate.

"Nice!" Riku exclaimed. "Now let's go on through and see if you can make one back out."

We stepped into the In Between, and I glanced up at Riku. "Where should we go?"

"Wherever you want," he shrugged. "You're in charge here."

Hmm, wherever I wanted to go. We had been to so many different places over the last few weeks, there was a lot to choose from. But there was one spot that immediately stuck out in my mind, a place that we had only been one time. Reaching my hand out again, I focused my thoughts on that place until I saw an opening appear and start to grow.

I sucked in a deep breath through my nose as we walked out onto the beach. It smelled just as good as I remembered. The sun was not as high in the sky as it had been the last time, but it was sparkling off of the water to create a dazzling display of lights.

"I should have known you'd choose here," Riku remarked with a smirk. I couldn't quite tell if he was amused or annoyed, or maybe a combination of both.

"Sorry. We don't have to stay long."

Riku smiled down at me. "There you go apologizing again. You've gotta stop that."

"Sorry." As soon as the word had left my mouth, I realized my mistake and cringed. "I mean...okay?"

Riku just laughed. "Well done on the corridor making. Once again, you aced a new magic spell on the first try. Keep this up and I'll have to start calling you Meli the Mage."

I scrunched my face up. "Um, I don't think so. How about...Meli the Magical?"

"Meli the Marvelous?"

"Meli the Magnificent!" I shook my head. "Actually, no, don't call me that. That makes me sound like a circus performer, and circuses always kinda creeped me out."

"Okay, well I guess I'll just stick with Meli for now," Riku chuckled.

"And I'll stick with Grim," I joked, poking his arm.

"Are you ever going to stop calling me that?" Riku asked with a smile, shaking his head.

"Nope." I crossed my arms. "I like it, and secretly you do, too."

We stood in silence for a few minutes, gazing out at the ocean with the wind blowing through our hair. The constant motion of the waves was mesmerizing, especially as it lapped the sand at my feet. A few small shells tumbled about in the water, rushing up onto the shore but quickly getting swept away by the next wave.

"I definitely would not mind living in a place like this," I sighed. "It's just so...peaceful." In fact, I didn't think I had ever felt this at peace in my life. There was just something about the ocean that calmed me and took away all my negativity.

I suddenly became aware that Riku was staring at me now, rather than at the water. Even though I knew he couldn't really see me, I still felt myself growing flustered. Maybe he sensed it, because he looked away and cleared his throat.

"Well, I guess we should head back," he announced. "I need to talk to DiZ and see what he wants us to do today."

I nodded. "Okay. Should I...?"

Riku waved me forward. "Go right ahead."

I opened up another corridor, and we traveled back to the mansion. When we had stepped out into the foyer, I turned and pointed a finger at Riku.

"Don't think you're going to get away with only teaching me that one," I warned him. "I still want to learn other dark powers, too."

Riku seemed to study me for a moment. "Why the sudden interest in dark powers? You've never mentioned them before today."

"Because, I..." I bit the inside of my lip, thinking. "I want to be stronger," I finished. The change of expression on Riku's face was subtle, but didn't escape me. I waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry, not in an, 'I want to be all powerful and take over the world muahahaha' kind of way. I just..." I sighed, my mind flitting back over the trauma of the night before. "I just don't want to feel helpless. Ever again."

Riku's face softened and he gave a small nod. "I understand. Okay then. As long as we do it carefully, I will teach you all the dark spells that I know."

I smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Grim."

......

I hadn't seen Roxas very much since my hasty exit after being introduced to Axel. I had avoided the cafe altogether for a while after that, afraid to see Axel again, and really not wanting to have to explain my behavior to Roxas, either. Finally I did go back and see him, and apologized profusely for running off like I had. Thankfully, he didn't seem worried about it, and didn't even need a reason for it.

This day was only the second or third time I had seen him since then, other than tailing him on missions on occasion. Riku and I had noticed that he seemed to be struggling out in the field, and I could see it written all over his face now.

"Are you okay?" I asked gently as he sat down at our usual table. "You seem kinda...I don't know, down, I guess."

"Huh?" Roxas looked up at me as if his mind had been in another world. "Oh. Uh...just a tough day on the job. Lots of tough days on the job, actually. Haven't been feeling like myself lately." He smiled, though it was obviously fake. "But I'll be alright. Nothing to worry about."

I smiled back at him, trying to look reassuring. Before I had the chance to say anything, though, the bell on the door rang, and a familiar face walked through.

"Xion," I exclaimed quietly, without thinking. I don't know why it hadn't crossed my mind that I might run into her here. After all, she ate ice cream with them every day.

Roxas turned to look. "Yeah! Wait..." He looked back at me, confusion on his face. "How did you know that?"

"Uh..." Crap. When was I going to learn to think before I spoke? "She...looks like me. Like you mentioned before. So, um...I just assumed..."

Somehow this explanation seemed to satisfy Roxas. "Do you mind if I invite her over?" he asked, clearly remembering what had happened the last time he had introduced me to a friend.

Of course if she came over and he told her my name, she was going to know who I was. It's not like Meli was that common of a name. She would also see my face for the first time. Would she give me away, or demand an explanation for my appearance? I didn't know, but I couldn't just tell him no, either. I had already freaked out on one of his friends, I wasn't going to put him through that again.

"Sure, I'd like to meet her," I responded, trying not to let my apprehension show. Roxas called her name, and she walked toward us with a smile, though I could see her expression waver slightly when she got close enough to see my face.

"Xion, this is Meli," Roxas announced, waving his hand in my direction. "She's the girl I mentioned before that I met while you were gone."

"Meli?" Xion echoed, her brow furrowing as our gazes met.

I smiled, but cast my eyes towards Roxas and shook my head ever so slightly, hoping to get my message across. "Nice to meet you, Xion," I greeted her pointedly. Please pretend we're just meeting for the first time, and don't give me away to Roxas.

Xion glanced at Roxas, then back at me, then offered a forced smile. "Nice to meet you, too." I breathed a sigh of relief. So far, so good.

"I'll go get our ice cream," Roxas broke in, jumping up out of his seat. "Then we can walk to the clock tower together, okay Xion?"

She nodded, then slid into the chair next to me as he walked off. "It's you, isn't it? Riku's friend?" she whispered.

"Yeah, that's me. Thanks for playing along."

"Well, I don't really want him to know about anything that happened while I was gone, anyway," Xion responded. "What are you doing here?"

"Roxas and I are friends," I answered. "I met him before I knew anything about Organization XIII. Our goals may not always line up, but that doesn't mean we can't still be friends, right?"

Xion sighed, propping her chin in her hand. "I guess not. It's all so confusing sometimes." She looked back at me suddenly. "Speaking of which...why do I look like you?"

Her wording surprised me, but at the same time it made sense, since she was a puppet struggling with her own identity. I drew in a breath and tried to come up with the easiest explanation. "You don't look like me. You look like Kairi, Sora's friend."

"Because of Sora's memories?" Xion questioned.

"As far as I understand it, yeah. I just also happen to look like Kairi...but for a different reason." I remembered Naminé's original explanation to me and decided to borrow it. "I'm sorta related to her, you could say."

Just then Roxas came back with two ice cream bars in his hands. "Got the ice cream!" he proclaimed. "Are you ready?"

"Yeah, sure." Xion stood, then looked back down at me with an expression of uncertainty. I wished that I had had more time to ask her about her thoughts on Sora.

"I'm glad we got to talk for a minute." I looked her straight in the eyes, hoping again that she'd get my coded message. "I'm here at the cafe all the time, so maybe we'll run into each other again someday. Or, you know, on another world somewhere, who knows?"

Xion nodded, and I felt sure that she understood. If she needed us, she had ways to get in touch. "Maybe so," she replied. "See you, Meli."

Chapter Text

"Fire!" Blue flames shot from the tip of my Keyblade as I skidded across the dirt on my back. Riku blocked the Dark Firaga easily with his sword, but it gave me enough time to roll over and get my feet back under me before having to dodge his return shot.

At the beginning, Riku had been very wary of actually using magic on me during our training sessions. He had no problem with me shooting spells at him, since he could generally block them, but it had taken a bit of convincing and a bit of improvement in my own blocking skills before he was ready to actually make it a fair fight. We always kept a good supply of potions on hand, too, just in case.

As a result, these days when we sparred it was a lot more intense than it had been starting out. There was less joking and complimenting, but plenty of dirt, sweat, near-misses, and dark spells. It was still fun, though, in its own way. With several new dark powers under my belt, I was feeling more and more confident with each passing day.

Concentrating hard on the darkness within me, I sped forward at a pace I had not believed possible a couple of weeks ago, until I was right in front of Riku. He sensed me coming and raised Soul Eater to block my incoming swing, but with all of the speed that I had behind it he was knocked off balance and nearly lost his grip on the sword. I saw my opening and took it, using my own foot to swipe his out from under him, making him be the one to land on his butt for once. My Keyblade was at his chest before he could react.

"Do you surrender?" I panted triumphantly.

A wide smile spread across Riku's face, despite the fact that he was sprawled inelegantly on the ground. "I've never been so proud to be beaten in my life," he proclaimed. "Congratulations, Meli!"

I dropped my Keyblade to my side, beaming. "I did it! I finally beat you!"

"I knew you could do it," Riku responded, still grinning up at me.

"I didn't," I laughed, dismissing my Keyblade so I could offer him my hand. "I honestly wasn't sure this day would ever come."

"Well, that just means that you need to have more faith in yourself." Riku grasped my hand and pulled himself up off the ground, ending up standing mere inches away from me. My heart skipped a beat. I gave a nervous laugh and started to back up, but he didn't let go of my hand. "I really am proud of you, Meli," he said softly, bending his forehead down until it almost touched mine. "You've come so far."

My stomach fluttered and I felt my ears begin to burn. What was going on here? Why was he so close to me, and more importantly, why did it make me feel like this? "Thanks," I managed to whisper after swallowing a couple of times.

Suddenly he closed the short distance between us, and our lips met. My eyes flew wide open in shock, and I stood frozen with my heart racing and my feet glued to the ground. My mind was screaming out all kinds of protests, telling me to pull away, but despite all of that I found myself closing my eyes and melting into the kiss. His lips were so soft and warm, and he tasted like mint, and he was kissing me with a kind of gentle longing that I had never felt before. His fingers slid into my hair, and shivers went racing up and down my spine.

Then, just as suddenly, the logical, screaming side of my brain finally broke through, and I stumbled away backwards with the back of my hand to my lips. "What...what was that?" I blurted breathlessly.

"I'm sorry, I've wanted to do that for a really long time now, but...I shouldn't have just sprung it on you with no warning," Riku replied, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Why did you do that?" My mind and my whole body were a whirlwind of confusion and conflicting emotions, making me feel like I was on the verge of some kind of meltdown. "Why would you..." I couldn't even bring myself to say the word kiss. "Why would you do that?"

Riku looked understandably hurt, but I was in too much shock to be any more courteous right this second. "Because I care about you, Meli," he answered quietly. "Maybe you hadn't realized it before...I'm terrible at sharing my feelings, so I tend to try to keep things like that hidden, I guess. But I've felt...an attraction to you, ever since you first got here, and that has only grown the more I've gotten to know you."

I gripped the sides of my head with both hands, trying to process what he was telling me. Riku had feelings for me? How had I not noticed that? Did I have feelings for him? The very thought of it filled me with a sense of unease. At the same time, though, I knew it could be possible. That kiss had been...my heart sped up just remembering it.

After an awkwardly long moment of silence, Riku spoke up again. "Should I...assume that you don't feel the same way?" His voice was slightly hoarse with emotion.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I dug my fingers down into my hair. "I don't know. It's not that I don't...I really don't know what I feel. It's just..." Releasing my hair, I hugged myself with my arms. "I can't." I ducked my head, tears burning my eyes. "I'm so sorry, but I can't."

"You can't what?" Riku questioned gently, walking a few steps towards me.

"I can't...care about anyone," I choked. "Not just you. Anyone. I can't, because the last time I cared about somebody..."

"Yeah," Riku murmured, reaching out and touching my arms lightly. "I know."

My words tumbled out rapidly now, spilling over along with my tears. "That's the only relationship I've ever been in, so to me, being in a relationship means being controlled, and caged, and...and hurt, and I just..."

"You're not ready," Riku finished for me. "I understand. You need time to heal."

"I honestly don't know if I'm ever going to be ready," I sobbed, shaking my head. "It might at least take me a really long time."

"I'll wait," Riku responded immediately. He placed his index finger under my chin and tipped it up so that I was looking him in the face. "Meli, you are the one bright spot in my dreary, dark world. Before you showed up in the basement that day, I had nothing left to live for except a promise to protect Sora. Now I have you, to look forward to seeing every morning, and to bring actual joy and laughter back into my life. It's not just that, though – you're more than just a friend. I..." He shook his head and cleared his throat. "Like I said, I'm terrible at talking about my feelings, but...no one has ever made me feel the way that I do when I'm with you."

Riku paused, taking in a deep breath. "I will never, ever hurt you, Meli. I promise you that. Hurting you is the last thing in the universe that I would ever want to do. Do you know how much it killed me, seeing you hurting that night after he...?" He trailed off, swallowing the wave of emotion. "I think that was actually the first time I realized just how much I cared about you. But I understand your need to heal, and I will wait for as long as it takes. When you're ready, and if you want to...I'll show you what being in a relationship is really supposed to be like. Okay?"

The tenderness and sincerity of his words pierced straight through to my heart and took my breath away. "Okay," I whispered through a fresh downpour of tears. "I have no idea why you would care so much about somebody like me, but..." I looked back down at my feet. "Thank you, for understanding."

Chapter Text

After the kiss, the atmosphere between Riku and me became a bit stiff and stilted for a while. We were both trying to move past it, trying to pretend it didn't happen, but it wasn't working very well. I didn't know how to act around him anymore, knowing that he felt the way he did, and at the same time not knowing how exactly I felt. Dinners were especially bad, but even training had become an issue at times.

"So, when you're about to execute Limit Storm, make sure you..." Riku reached forward as if he was going to adjust my arm, but halted in mid-air and drew his hands back. "Um...just, uh, make sure you keep this arm up above your shoulder. And the other one I usually put here to start, and use it for momentum," he finished, demonstrating with his own arms.

"Uh, yeah...okay." I could tell that Riku had been going out of his way not to get too close to me or touch me in any way, though whether it was for his sake or mine, I wasn't sure. I was grateful for it, regardless, mostly because I had no idea what kind of crazy emotions his touch might set off in my thoroughly confused brain. "And then I just...spin?"

"Right," Riku agreed. "Spin counter-clockwise, and use light magic to release waves of energy."

"Great," I dead-panned. If there was one thing we had determined over the course of my training, it was that I was not the most graceful and coordinated human being ever. Magic I could do, and hacking things with a Keyblade I could do. Spinning and jumping, not so much, at least not without a lot more work.

"Okay, well, here goes nothing," I sighed. Pushing off with one foot, I got in a pretty good spin and could see some blue light beginning to surround me, but I quickly lost my balance and fell right into Riku.

"Whoa!" He caught me under my arms with one of my cheeks plastered against his chest. So much for us not touching, and yep, there went my whole body reacting to it again. "You okay?" Riku asked.

Shoving myself hastily away, I placed a hand on my flushed face. "I'm sorry," I gasped.

"You're fine," Riku assured me, not seeming all that fazed by the encounter. "It'll probably take a few tries..."

"No, I mean, I'm sorry, for...for everything," I interrupted him, flapping my hands. "For what a mess we are right now. We've been acting weird with each other for days now, and I feel like it's all my fault."

Riku shook his head. "I don't like it, either, but if anything, it's my fault. I'm the one who kissed you and made things change between us. If we could go back..."

"No, don't say that. And don't apologize for the kiss. The kiss was...amazing." I froze, unsure of why I had just blurted that out loud. Sure, I had been thinking it over and over again this whole time, but I hadn't intended to actually tell Riku that. "I don't want to go back," I managed to continue. "I just want us to be able to move forward."

"Yeah," Riku agreed, obviously trying his hardest not to grin at my revelation. "Me, too."

"So...let's just focus on this spinning thing, yeah?" I suggested, forcing a smile. I knew very well that focusing was going to continue to be a struggle for the foreseeable future, but I was determined not to let this situation interfere with my training.

When I was alone, however, my thoughts could run wild. I had never stopped to actually consider my feelings for Riku before, but now that I was doing so, I realized there were quite a few signs that I had been ignoring up until now. The way he crossed my mind a million times a day, the happiness that I felt whenever I saw him for the first time in the morning or after being apart from him any other time, the warm sensation in my chest every time he would smile, or the weird desire I would get every once in a while to just pull off that stupid blindfold so I could see those amazing blue eyes again.

It wasn't just physical stuff, either. All those times that he had shown so much compassion and care for everyone around him, especially me, played back through my head, making me smile involuntarily. I realized, looking back, that many of those moments between the two of us had actually been him showing glimpses of how he felt about me, but I had been too stupid to see it. Too caught up in my own problems and feelings, or maybe just oblivious to the fact that apparently, someone could actually like me, though how and why I still hadn't figured out.

At the same time as I was being forced to acknowledge these feelings I was having, though, everything that I had said to him about not being ready was completely true. It's not that I didn't trust Riku, he had never proven himself anything but patient and kind. But if I had to be honest, there was actually a part of me that didn't trust that he would stay that way forever. If Aiden had seemed like the type to scream and hit me, I never would have gone out with him to start with. Granted, I didn't know him nearly as well when we started dating as I knew Riku, but still, Aiden didn't hit me for the first time until we were well into our relationship. If there was one thing I had learned from all of this, it was that I was a very poor judge of character. Which I supposed meant that moving on was going to mean trusting myself just as much as it meant trusting Riku.

Plus, and I would never have told Riku this part, but sometimes when I was lying in the bed at night, I still ached for Aiden, for what I had lost with him. It sounded crazy even to me, after what he did, but I couldn't help him. I had loved him – or at least thought I did, I really didn't know anymore – for a long time. Getting over him was apparently going to take some time. More than anything, if there was going to be any kind of relationship with Riku in the future, I wanted it to be real, not just a rebound. He deserved someone whose whole heart would be his.

As the days and weeks passed, we began to relax a little more, and fall back into our old camaraderie. Unfortunately for me, that just made it even easier to pick out all of the many things that attracted me to him. Besides the now obvious physical attraction, he was one of the most loyal and brave people I had ever met. He was funny, too, and I loved watching the way he lit up when he started talking about something that he was passionate about. It was like there was a constant war inside of me between definitely, obviously liking him, and definitely not wanting to let myself like him.

During dinner one night, I found myself just staring at him, listening to the low, soothing tones of his voice, and watching the way his lips moved when he talked or quirked upwards if he thought of something amusing.

"Why do you like me?" I asked suddenly, not paying attention at all to what he had actually been talking about. Riku jerked his head up to look towards me, and I hurried to clarify. "I'm sorry, I just...don't get it. Why someone like you would like someone like me."

Riku frowned. "I don't know what you mean by either of those things. You make it sound like I'm somehow above you, but you know very well I'm far from perfect."

"Good," I replied emphatically. "I don't want perfect. I thought Aiden was perfect – and so did he – and look where that got me." I sighed, trying to think of how to explain myself. "But...I'm not very pretty, not that you would know that part. And I'm not that smart, or interesting..."

"Well first of all, I have seen you before, remember?" Riku interrupted. "And you're beautiful."

"Are you sure you don't just like Kairi?" I blurted. That question had been bugging me for quite some time now, and I had to know. "She's one of your best friends, and it would be completely understandable for you to have feelings for her, and for you to be projecting those feelings...onto me." I shrugged, staring down at my food, not sure I wanted to see his reaction. "You know, since you haven't seen her in a long time, and I'm...kinda...her. But not."

Riku laughed. "No, I promise you, I don't have feelings for Kairi. This has nothing to do with her. To start with, yeah, it was hard to not think of you two as being the same person, but now that never even crosses my mind." Putting down his fork, he leaned forward with his elbows propped on his knees, and his hands clasped together. "Kairi is meant to be with Sora, and I am all for that. There has never been and will never be anything but friendship between the two of us."

"You're sure?"

"Positive," Riku smiled, making my heart flutter. "Besides, you and Kairi are hardly anything alike. I mean, you are both passionate and stubborn, and I love that about both of you. But other than that, Kairi is like...a little ball of sunshine, and you're..."

"A little ball of sarcasm?" I finished for him.

"Yeah," he laughed again. "Sarcasm, pessimism, coffee obsession, bad jokes..."

"Hey now!" I protested, crossing my arms.

"...All rolled up together with enthusiasm for life, kindness for others, and amazing strength of heart despite everything you've been through," Riku continued. I let my head drop again, embarrassed. "So, does that answer your question?"

"Um, yeah. I guess it does," I murmured.

"Good. No more of this, 'somebody like you' and 'somebody like me' business. You're perfect just like you are."

I swallowed, then smiled back at him. "Yeah, you, too." Ugh, that was not what I meant to say. "And by the way, in my defense, pretty much everybody where I'm from is obsessed with coffee. I don't know what you people's deal is here. Also, my jokes would be hilarious if we, you know, had actually seen some of the same movies."

"Okay, I'll have to take your word on that," Riku teased. "When all this is over, how about we have a movie marathon, and catch each other up on the best of the best from each universe?"

"Sounds perfect."

Chapter Text

I could tell something was off as soon as Riku walked into the foyer one day a few weeks later.

"What's wrong?" I asked him, frowning. "Did something happen?"

Riku stalked past me before stopping to stare off into the distance. "Sora's memories...they've stopped completely. There's nothing else Naminé can do until..."

"Until what?"

"Until I bring in Xion, and Sora's Nobody." Riku finally turned to face me. "DiZ's orders."

Surprised, I furrowed my brow and tilted my head to the side. "But...what does that mean? You've been trying to give Xion the time she needs. Are you going to just force her now?"

"I don't know!" Riku returned impatiently. I took a wary step back, but he immediately shook his head and apologized. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap. I just...I don't like the thought of it anymore than you do. But this can't keep dragging on like this. It's already been almost a year." He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Maybe we'll get lucky, and we won't have to force anybody. Maybe they'll be ready to come on their own. We just have to make contact, and see what happens."

I nodded, though I still felt a little uncertain about all of it. "I guess it has been a while since we've actually talked to Xion. It's possible that she's ready, but just hasn't been able to get away."

"If we approach her, it could give her the motivation she needs to make it happen. Do you think she'll be in to the cafe today?"

"I don't know." I puckered my lips in thought. "But even if she was, it's not a good place to talk if Roxas or Axel are around. It might be best to try to corner her at the clock tower or somewhere."

"Okay," Riku nodded. "I've got some stuff to do until then. I'll meet you at the edge of town at the usual time."

Later that afternoon, we met just outside the woods to discuss a plan of action. Riku didn't want to raise any alarms by being seen in town, so I left my coat with him and set out towards the cafe alone. I didn't go inside this time, though, instead opting to hang out in the shadows of the alleyway across the street. The last thing I wanted was for Roxas to start talking to me and cause me to miss my opportunity with Xion.

Unfortunately for me, on this particular day all three friends showed up at the cafe at the same exact time. Shrinking back into the darkness of the eaves, I watched Axel hold the door open for the younger two before disappearing inside himself. A few minutes later, they all re-emerged with sticks of blue ice cream in their hands and began heading up the street towards Central Station.

Sighing in frustration, I opened a dark corridor and ran quickly through, knowing Riku would give me a long lecture if he knew I was entering the In Between without my coat on. It was better that than be discovered trying to follow the trio through town, though. I walked out of the corridor right in front of the train station, then hurried over to the side where the stairs led up to the top of the tower and hid around the corner.

It didn't take long for them to arrive. I could hear them talking and laughing among themselves as they approached, and felt a pang of guilt for trying to take Xion away from her friends. But I knew the alternative was Sora never waking up, so I set my mouth and watched for an opening. Thankfully, Xion fell to the rear as they started up the stairs. As soon as Axel and Roxas were far enough up, I stepped out into Xion's line of vision. She spotted me right away, gave a worried frown, then glanced back up the stairs. For a second I thought she might just ignore me, but then she called up to the others.

"I'll, uh...be right up, okay guys?" I stepped back out of sight as Roxas and Axel shouted down their responses, waiting for her to join me.

"Sorry for the sneaking around," I greeted her. "I needed to be able to speak with you alone." I paused, not really sure how to broach the subject. "How are...things?"

"Not great," Xion admitted, her face downcast. "Apparently I'm taking too much of Roxas' power, and he can hardly use his Keyblade anymore. And now someone in the Organization is secretly pitting us against each other...I think they're trying to get rid of one of us once and for all. I'm still scared to leave, but if I stay...I don't know what's going to happen to me or to him." She looked at me curiously. "Why did you need to speak to me? Is something wrong?"

I sighed. "It's Sora. There's nothing else we can do for him at this point until we get the rest of his memories back."

"Oh." Xion placed her free hand on the side of her face. "He really needs me, doesn't he?"

"Yes," I agreed wholeheartedly. "I know you don't want to leave your friends, but if you don't help him, he's as good as lost."

Xion gazed up the stairs where Roxas and Axel had disappeared. "My friends...hm. It seems like they might be better off with me gone, anyway." She looked back at me suddenly. "I can't go with you now, though. Please, just give me one more sunset with them. Tomorrow, I'll do whatever it takes to get away and meet you at Beast's Castle."

I was torn. I had sympathy for her, but at the same time, I knew I had a job to do. "Alright," I finally gave in. "As long as you'll meet us tomorrow..."

"I promise. Thank you, Meli." With that, Xion turned and trotted up the stairs, leaving me wondering if I had done the right thing.

The next morning, Riku and I skipped our training session to head straight for Beast's Castle. We cleared out all of the Heartless that we encountered, then sat around and waited to see if Xion would show, neither of us saying much. When a dark corridor finally opened not far from us, we both jumped to attention.

"Riku!" Xion exclaimed, as if surprised to actually see us.

"Did you find the answer?" Riku asked.

"Yes, I certainly did." Xion pulled a fist in close to her chest. "I'm on the verge of losing everything I care about. So please..." Xion looked up at us with desperation in her eyes. "Please, Riku, tell me what I should do now."

"Go to Twilight Town," Riku answered solemnly. "You'll find a girl there named Naminé."

"Naminé?" Xion repeated. "What's she like?"

"You'll find out," Riku responded. "I don't think you'll have trouble finding her."

"Alright," Xion nodded. "Thanks, Riku, Meli." She glanced at each of us, taking in a deep breath. "Goodbye."

After she had vanished, I turned to Riku. "Why didn't we just take her straight there ourselves?"

"If she's really ready for this, she'll be drawn to Naminé and especially to Sora. She'll do whatever she needs to do to get there. If not...if this is some kind of setup and she's still working for Organization XIII, then they won't be able to follow us straight there."

"Okay. That makes sense, I guess." Placing my hands on my hips, I stared off at the spot where her exiting corridor had been. "What do we do in the meantime?"

Riku glanced at me over his shoulder with a cheerless smile. "We wait."

Chapter Text

It was three days later when Xion finally arrived at the mansion. Riku had been absent for most of that time, only showing up on occasion to check if she had come yet, and to have conferences with DiZ in the basement. He wouldn't say much about whatever he was off doing, or about anything else, for that matter. I could tell that he was stressed and worried about everything going on.

I was the only one around when Xion knocked at the front door. "I'm sorry it took me so long!" she exclaimed breathlessly as soon as I ushered her inside. "The Organization is out looking for me. I was trying to shake them off."

"What matters is that you're here now," I assured her. "Come on, Naminé is upstairs."

Naminé smiled kindly as Xion and I entered the room. "Hello. Nice to meet you, Xion."

Xion removed her hood. "Hello," she answered uncertainly.

"Why don't you come have a seat?" Naminé suggested, indicating the chair on the opposite end of the table from where she was sitting. Xion obliged, and I found a spot leaning up against the wall nearby.

"The more time that goes by, the more I keep finding myself drawn to Sora," Xion began. "A few days ago, I even started looking like him." She looked up at the blonde girl down the table. "Naminé, are you able to...see my face?"

"Yes."

"Then what do you think I should do?" Xion queried.

"What do you want to do?" Naminé returned gently.

Xion looked down at her lap, then turned to gaze at the wall. I glanced over to see what she was looking at, and saw that it was a drawing Naminé had made of Roxas, Axel, and Xion together.

"At first, I just wanted to be with Roxas and Axel forever," Xion remarked. "But then I started to realize that my memories...well, these aren't really even mine, are they?"

"You're not Sora, and you're not Roxas. You're Kairi, as Sora remembers her," Naminé explained.

Xion dropped her gaze again. "As I remember more of my past, the more I feel the need to go back where I came from. What should I do...to go back?"

"So you're going back to Sora?" Naminé clarified. When Xion nodded her agreement, Naminé continued. "If you return your memories to him, then you will disappear. In exchange for not having your own memory, you're connected through other's memories. So when you disappear, no one will remember you. There won't be any 'you' to remember."

"What?" I cried, standing up straight. "What do you mean? We just...won't remember that she even existed?"

Naminé shook her head. "For all the powers I possess, I can't keep even one piece of the memory called 'you' connected."

"That's...crazy," I sputtered, dumbfounded. "Xion, you don't have to do this..."

Xion cut me off with a wave of her hand. "I know. I'm ready. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."

I sighed and dropped back against the wall. This just didn't seem right. I had already felt wary enough about this whole deal to start with, and that's when I thought we were only asking her to leave her friends and the Organization behind, not to give up her life. She might not be a real person, but she still seemed like one.

"I also know that Roxas should be going back with me," Xion spoke again. "But...I don't think he would understand. Not yet."

"I know. Roxas can't feel Sora just yet," Naminé agreed.

Looking back and forth between the two of them in confusion and growing nervousness, I stepped forward again. "Wait, I'm sorry. What does Roxas have to do with any of this?"

They both looked up at me simultaneously. "You didn't know?" Naminé questioned. "Roxas is Sora's Nobody."

My eyebrows flew up in surprise. "What?" I stood for a moment with my jaw slack, trying to think of what to say. "No, I...I didn't know that." A hundred questions were swirling through my mind, but I didn't want to keep distracting from the important task at hand. "I, um...need to step outside for a moment. I'll be back."

I felt like I was having difficulty catching my breath as I walked out into the hall and leaned onto the balcony railing. What was going on here? Why had I not known until now that we were talking about people disappearing from existence, and that my friend was going to be involved? What was going to happen to him? I clutched the sides of my head as the questions overwhelmed my brain.

At that moment, a dark corridor opened in the foyer down below. "Grim!" I called out, gaining his attention. I began to trot down the nearest staircase to meet him. "Xion's here," I announced as I got closer.

Riku glanced back up at the balcony where I had just been. "Good." There was undeniable relief in his voice. He turned as if he was going to head in that direction, but I stepped in front of him and stopped him with a hand on his chest.

"How long have you known that Roxas was Sora's Nobody?" I demanded.

Riku sighed, then grabbed my wrist and pulled me out into the courtyard behind the stairs. When we were out of earshot of everyone, I presumed, he turned back to me. "Not the whole time, I promise. For a while I had no idea, but a few different things that you said, and especially finding out he had the Keyblade, made us realize that it had to be him."

"And when were you going to tell me?" I pressed. That was what perturbed me, that I had been kept in the dark about all of this. "Here I thought I was one of the team..."

"I wanted to tell you!" Riku interrupted. "I really did. I just...didn't know how. I wasn't sure how you'd take it, since I know the two of you are friends."

"I guess you could say I'm not taking it too well," I retorted, crossing my arms. "Naminé said that no one will even remember that Xion ever existed! Were you going to tell me that part? Is that going to happen to Roxas, too?"

"No, no," Riku assured me. "From what Naminé has told me, it's only Xion who will disappear from everyone's memories. That's only because she is basically made out of the memories."

"But Roxas is going to be gone, isn't he? I don't understand why he can't just give the memories back, then go back to his life."

"Because...it's not really his life," Riku sighed again. "He was never supposed to exist to start with."

"But he does exist!" I protested. "He exists, whether he was supposed to or not."

Riku hung his head. "I'm not saying that I'm happy about what has to be done," he admitted quietly. "All I know is, it does have to be done. Sora won't be whole until Xion and Roxas become a part of him again."

I dropped my arms by my sides and lowered my voice to a more gentle tone. "I know Sora's your friend. And I know Xion is...a ticking time bomb, so to speak. She says she's ready for this, so I'm not going to try to stop her, no matter how much it sickens me to think of it. But Roxas..." I shook my head. "Does taking one life to save another really add up?"

"It's not the kind of math I like to do, but...yes," Riku answered slowly. "In the end, it does. Roxas works for the Organization. We need Sora to take down the Organization. Plus...Roxas is a Nobody. He doesn't even have a heart. He can't feel anything."

I let that sink in, then shook my head again. "I don't believe that. They certainly seem like they can feel to me."

"DiZ says it's just an act."

Before either of us could say anything else, Naminé burst through the door from inside the mansion. "Come quick!" she called. "It's Xion...she's out front fighting someone from the Organization!"

Riku and I took off running into the foyer and out the front door, but by the time we got there it was too late. A black-coated figure with spiky red hair was carrying an unconscious Xion bridal-style into a dark corridor.

"Aargh!" Riku growled, slamming his fist into the stone wall. "Why does this keep happening?"

"I don't know," DiZ answered icily. "But I suggest someone figure out a way to stop it from happening again."

"Was she still alive, do you think?" Riku asked no one in particular.

"That was Axel," I responded. "They're best friends. I don't think he would really hurt her."

"They're Nobodies. They are incapable of making friends," DiZ sneered. "The members of Organization XIII do simply what they are told by their superiors; they cannot act on feelings."

I shot him a glare, but didn't see the use in arguing with him. He had his mind set on what he wanted to believe, and I was still too confused by the whole concept to know exactly what I believed.

"If she is killed, her memories would automatically return to Sora," Naminé offered. "So I'll keep an eye on things, but I have a feeling she's still alive, for now."

We all stood in silence for a moment, staring at the spot where they had disappeared. "She was ready," I mused aloud. "She knows what she has to do, and she'll make it happen somehow. We've gotta have faith in her."

DiZ grunted his doubtfulness and turned to go inside, but Naminé looked at me and nodded. "Yes, I think you're right. I don't think we'll have long to wait now."

Chapter Text

Mid-morning the next day, Naminé came and found us out in the training arena. "Sora's memories...they're coming back!" she announced excitedly.

Dropping what I was doing, I stared at her with raised eyebrows. "But that means...wait, what does that mean again?" I felt like I had suddenly lost my train of thought.

"Xion," Riku filled in. "I know, I'm already starting to forget, too."

The memories that had started to fade came flooding back in at the reminder. "Xion!" I breathed. "This is so strange...what do you think could have happened?"

"We'll probably never know for sure," Riku replied solemnly. "But I guess, like you said, she did what she had to do."

I stayed silent, letting my thoughts linger on Xion while they still could. It was hard to believe that she was really gone, and that before long, there would be no memory of her left. I wondered what Roxas knew about all of it, and how he was feeling right now.

"So...where does that leave us?" I asked after a moment.

"Xion has given me enough to work with for now," Naminé replied. "We won't have to actually bring Roxas in until I'm done replacing these memories."

"On the contrary," came DiZ's voice from behind us. "Roxas will need to be brought in as soon as possible."

We all turned to face him. "Why's that?" I demanded.

"It has come to my attention that the Nobody has defected from the Organization," DiZ elaborated. "Meaning that now is our best chance to get to him. They will go after him with the same fervor that they had in chasing down the puppet, especially now that it is out of the picture. The Organization will want their Keyblade bearer back, and we must not let them have him."

I hated the way that DiZ talked about Roxas and Xion like they were inanimate objects, but I could definitely understand his reasoning. "So, do we know where he is now?"

"No," DiZ returned. "I am trying to determine his location, but I need Riku to go out and look for him, as well."

"Right," Riku nodded. "I'll go right away."

"I'll come with you," I volunteered.

"No, you will stay here," DiZ ordered. "You are too emotionally involved in this matter. I do not trust you to stay neutral when the time comes to bring the Nobody in."

My mouth dropped open, and I gaped at him in disbelief. "You can't shut me out of this! Grim..." I looked at Riku expectantly, hoping he'd stick up for me.

"Meli...it's alright. You should probably just stay," Riku said quietly.

I crossed my arms over my chest, trying to block the sting of his words. Yeah, DiZ was probably right about me being too emotionally involved, but that didn't mean I didn't want to be included. I hated feeling left out and useless.

Satisfied, DiZ spun around and marched back inside, Naminé not far behind him. Riku walked over to me and dropped his voice down low. "I'm sorry, but DiZ is not someone you want to argue with."

"Did you tell him about our conversation yesterday? Is that where he got that idea?" I huffed.

"No!" Riku insisted. "I swear I didn't say anything to him. DiZ just...knows things. But don't worry, I won't leave you in the dark. I promise I'll keep you updated."

I sighed, then nodded reluctantly. "Okay. Thanks."

The rest of the day was ridiculously long and boring, sitting around waiting for something to happen. I didn't want to bother Naminé, since she actually had work to do now, so I spent most of the day either doing some of my own training or just hanging out in my room. Finally, that evening, there was a knock at my door and Riku entered with two boxes of food.

"What happened?" I asked immediately, forgoing any formalities. "Did you find him?"

"No." Riku shook his head. "Nothing yet. I'm sure it will take some time." He handed me one of the boxes, and we both climbed onto the bed silently, lost in our own thoughts.

After a few minutes of eating, Riku spoke up again. "Meli? I need to ask you a favor."

"Hmm? What is it?" I responded, pulling myself back to the present.

"When Sora and the others wake up, I want you to be there for them. They're probably going to be a bit confused to start with, and they're gonna need some guidance to figure out what to do next."

I frowned at him in confusion. "Well, sure, but...what about you? Aren't you going to be there?"

Riku sighed and looked away. "I don't know. I'm not sure if I'll be able to or not," he answered vaguely.

"Is this about you still feeling guilty for the stuff that happened in the past?"

He almost seemed surprised by the question. "Well...maybe to some extent, I guess."

I shook my head. "You've gotta let go of that. From what I know about Sora, he's not going to be holding that against you. And even if he for some reason was...you two need to talk. Have you talked at all since everything happened?"

"No," Riku admitted. "We haven't had the chance. Believe me, I would love to be able to talk to him about all of it. But...just in case something happens, and I can't be there...promise me you'll watch out for him."

He was being unusually cryptic and ominous, but I could tell I wasn't going to pull anything else out of him right now. It seemed like this was really important to him, though, so I went ahead and agreed. "Okay. I promise."

"Thanks." I could see his shoulders relaxing a tiny bit. "I asked another friend to help out, too, but he may not be able to be around much. His name is King Mickey. He'll know where to send Sora to get all the information about the Organization that he needs. You'll just need to make sure that they get there safely."

"You know that Sora is kind of the Keyblade hero who saved all the worlds, right?" I smirked, amused at his typical over-protectiveness. "Somehow I don't think he needs all that much help from a newbie like me."

"I know," Riku answered. "Though you're hardly a newbie anymore. Anyway...I'd just feel better knowing that you were with them."

I studied him for a moment, trying to figure out what was going on in his head tonight. "Well, don't worry. I will be."

...

For once I was actually already up and dressed when Riku knocked on my door the next morning. I had assumed that he was going back out to look for Roxas, and that was why he hadn't come earlier to wake me for training. I wasn't looking forward to another day of sitting around waiting, and was pleasantly surprised to see him standing there when I opened the door.

"Grim! I figured you'd be gone by now."

"I'm just about to leave," Riku responded. He paused a moment, as if unsure how to continue. "DiZ thinks he found him."

"He found Roxas?" I tried to keep my voice neutral, though my emotions were bouncing rapidly back and forth between disappointed and relieved. "So you're going to get him, then?"

Riku nodded. "I just wanted to...say goodbye, before I left."

"Well, that was...nice of you." Apparently he was still in just as ominous of a mood this morning as he had been last night. What was it that was bugging him so much? When he continued to stare at me without saying anything, I sighed and planted my hands on my hips. "Okay, what is it that you're not telling me? You've been acting so weird..."

"I'm sorry," Riku interrupted. "I know I wasn't supposed to do this to you again, but I have to, one more time, just in case..." Without further warning, he stepped forward, grasped my head between his hands, and pressed his lips into mine.

This kiss was far different than the first. It was strong, desperate almost. Once again I was frozen in shock, too distracted by his foreboding words to actually enjoy it in any way. He was the first to break it off this time, releasing me suddenly and taking a few steps back, leaving me in the doorway panting for air.

"Grim..." I breathed. "What is going on?"

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "I've gotta go." Before I could stop him, he had opened a dark corridor and was disappearing through it.

"Wait!" I shouted, running after him, but it was no use. The corridor was already shutting, leaving only the long, empty hallway behind. Frantically, I opened my own and tore inside, but the In Between was as deserted as always. "Grim!" I screamed into the darkness. A stupid idea, I realized as soon as I had done it, since I could very easily attract all kinds of unwanted attention that way. But I was too worried about Riku to really care all that much.

Spinning around, I strode back out into the mansion hallway, waving my hand to close the corridor behind me. What was I missing here? Between last night's conversation and this encounter just now, it was becoming obvious that Riku was worried about not coming back from his mission. All the pieces started coming together in my mind. I took off at a sprint down the hall, through the courtyard, and into the foyer, taking the steps two at a time up to the second floor. Bursting through the library door, I flew back down the stairs and didn't stop until I was standing right next to DiZ at his computer.

"Riku's going to fight Roxas, isn't he?" I gasped. "He knows he won't come quietly, and so do you. So you've sent him into a fight that clearly he doesn't know if he can win."

"Calm yourself, child," DiZ replied, not even looking up at me. "Of course the Nobody won't come quietly. But you yourself have seen Riku in battle. Tell me, do you have that little faith in him to think that he won't win?"

"I have plenty of faith in him," I countered. "He's a great fighter. But I've also seen Roxas in battle, and he's good, too. This is not going to be an easy fight, and you know it."

"You speak as if you're accusing me of forcing Riku into this. The boy willingly chose to follow this course. He knows what he has to do if he wants to see his friend whole again."

"Where is he?" I demanded. "You have to tell me where he's gone!"

"I will do nothing of the sort," DiZ chuckled. "There's a reason that I kept you out of this, and your current display of emotional instability is exactly why."

I wanted to slam my fist into his stupid computer screens, but instead let out a growl and stormed out of the room. My thoughts were racing as I returned to my bedroom. How was I going to find Riku and Roxas? I had to, somehow. I couldn't let either of them hurt the other.

Chapter Text

Snatching up my coat off the back of the bedside chair, I quickly shrugged it on and opened another corridor. I didn't know where Riku had gone, so I couldn't picture a specific place. But maybe it would work with a person instead. It was certainly worth a try. Closing my eyes, I thought of Riku, imagining him standing there in front of me, trying to feel his energy. Then I stretched out my hand, and to my surprise, a doorway actually opened.

The world that I stepped out into was dark, with even darker storm clouds swirling overhead. Skyscrapers and neon signs reminded me of my own city back home, but there were no cars or sounds or any real signs of life except for the two figures standing before me. Riku and Roxas, who had his hood drawn over his face, were standing opposite one another, each with a Keyblade in their hand. I didn't have time to wonder where Riku had gotten his, I was just relieved to seem them both alive and well, and not currently fighting one another.

"Enough about Sora!" Roxas shouted as I came closer.

"Do you have some kind of plan?" Riku asked him.

"I'll set Kingdom Hearts free!" Roxas replied, anguish in his voice. "Then everything will be the way it was! She'll come back, and the three of us can be together again."

Riku had mentioned Kingdom Hearts to me before, but I still didn't really understand it. All I knew was that it had something to do with the pink hearts that came out of the Heartless when they were killed.

"You mean Xion," Riku commented after a moment's pause. "It's a struggle just to remember the name now."

My mind jolted at the mention of her name. I had completely forgotten about Xion's existence yet again. I felt terrible about it, especially considering how important she obviously had been to Roxas. Despite his waning memories of her, he was still trying his best to bring her back.

"Roxas," I called out, choosing this moment to walk forward and alert them to my presence. Both boys spun around to face me.

"Meli?" Surprise was evident in Roxas' voice.

"Meli, what are you doing here?" Riku demanded at the same time.

"Wait, do you know this guy?" Roxas queried, now even more surprised.

"Roxas, I'm so sorry about Xion," I said gently, ignoring both of their questions. "If there was any way to bring her back..."

"I'm going to bring her back," Roxas answered through gritted teeth. "I don't care what it takes."

"There's no way to get her back now," Riku disagreed, reaching out his hand to Roxas. "Either way, I can't let you go doing anything crazy."

"I'm freeing Kingdom Hearts and I'm going to find Sora!" Roxas insisted. "I want Xion back. I want my life back!"

"If you try and make contact with Kingdom Hearts, the last thing you'll get is your life back," Riku argued, shaking his head. "The Organization will destroy you!"

I had no idea what any of the consequences would actually be, but I trusted that Riku knew what he was talking about. The most important thing to me right now was that Roxas was quite obviously in a bad state of mind, and needed to be talked down quickly before he acted rashly. "Roxas, please listen to him," I pleaded.

"Enough!" Roxas screamed, swinging his Keyblade violently. He started running towards Riku, ready to attack.

"No!" I cried, but no one was listening. I watched helplessly as the two boys traded blows. One, the first friend I had made in a long time, and the other, my best friend, whom I was pretty sure by now I was falling in love with. I had never imagined how terrible it would be to watch two people that I cared about trying to harm one another like this.

Sprinting forward, I summoned my own Keyblade, not sure how I was going to stop them, but knowing that I couldn't sit back and do nothing. When Riku came in for an overhead swing towards Roxas, I quickly swooped in and blocked him, taking him completely by surprise. I shoved his Keyblade away to the side, but sensed movement behind me and realized that Roxas was still coming after him. Spinning around, I locked my weapon with his in mid-air.

"Stop it, please! Both of you!"

Roxas growled and gave my Keyblade a shove, causing me to stumble backwards. "Stay out of this, Meli!" he ordered, going after Riku once more.

They moved away from me, still fighting, one occasionally leaping back away from the other to cast magic. I followed, trying from time to time to break in, but they knew my plan now and were avoiding me. The battle seemed to drag on forever, and I could tell they were both starting to wear down. Finally, Roxas was able to catch Riku off balance and knock him backwards to the ground. Roxas raised his Keyblade again as if to strike.

"Don't!" I screamed, flying to Riku's side. I skidded to my knees with my Keyblade held high.

Roxas halted his blade mid-swing, looking first to me, then back to Riku. Slowly he lowered his arm, and I let out a sigh of relief, dropping my own arms to my sides.

Riku rolled over and pushed himself up to sit. "Why?" he growled in exasperation. "Why do you have the Keyblade?"

Roxas glanced at his weapon. "Shut up!" Changing his mind about striking Riku after all, he swung suddenly from over his shoulder. Before I could react, Riku had picked up his own Keyblade and parried the blow with one that had to have been laced with magic. It knocked Roxas completely off of his feet, sending him flying through the air to land on his back several feet away.

Jumping up, I ran to Roxas, stooping down next to him to look at his face that I could now see for the first time. He was still alive, just knocked out. I heard Riku's footsteps approaching and looked up to see him staring down at his nemesis. I stood, watching him.

"Now what?" I murmured, emotionally exhausted.

Riku raised the Keyblade up by his ear, and for a split second I thought he was going to stab Roxas. Instead, he threw the weapon like a lance into the ground next to Roxas' shoulder. We both stood there for a long moment, just staring down at his fallen form, not speaking.

Then Roxas began to stir, and I heard Riku gasp in surprise. I took a step back as the blond boy sat up and immediately reached for the Keyblade that Riku had discarded. He acted like he would use it to pull himself up, but then yanked it out of the ground and sliced at Riku, who leapt backwards to avoid the blow. As Roxas began to run forward again, Riku shot Dark Firaga from his hands, but Roxas knocked it easily away. He tried two more swings, but Riku dodged both before jumping away again.

"Why don't you quit?" Roxas shouted, his face contorted with anger.

Riku seemed to think for a second, then smiled and spoke with a surprisingly casual voice. "Come on, Sora. I thought you were stronger than that."

I frowned, confused, but Roxas responded right away. "Get real," he countered. "Look which one of us is winning." As soon as the words were spoken, he gasped and put a hand to his mouth, as if he couldn't believe what he had just said.

"So it's true." Riku touched his chin thoughtfully. "You really are his Nobody. Guess DiZ was right, after all."

"What are you talking about?" Roxas demanded, his fist clenched. "I am me. Nobody else!"

Summoning his other Keyblade to his left hand, he advanced once more. I ran, too, trying to get in between them, but I couldn't quite catch up. Riku was able to jump out of the way of the first swing, but the second slammed into the arm that he was holding up to defend himself. My breath caught in my throat as he grunted in pain and dropped down to one knee, his hand to his chest.

"How many times do I have to beat you?" Roxas sneered.

"That's enough!" I interjected. "This has to stop!"

"Alright," Riku panted, his voice husky with pain. "You've left me with no other choice."

"What?" Roxas asked. I watched them both carefully, waiting for someone to strike.

Riku pushed himself slowly to his feet. "I have to release the power in my heart – the dark power that I've been holding back." Reaching up, he grabbed hold of his blindfold and pulled it away from his face, dropping it unceremoniously onto the ground.

"Grim, don't!" I exclaimed, realizing what he was about to do.

"Even...if it changes me forever," Riku finished, ignoring my pleas. Throwing back his head, he let out a roar. Darkness began swirling furiously around him as his feet lifted off the ground, quickly obscuring him from our sight. Roxas readied his Keyblades, but I could only watch with growing fear.

When the smoke cleared, Ansem's form had taken over, still floating a foot above the ground, and this time there was a hideous black creature with long antennae and glowing eyes looming behind his head. My eyes widened and I took a few steps backwards away from him. What had he just let loose?

Ansem-Riku vanished suddenly, then reappeared in the blink of an eye a few inches from Roxas' face. Before the boy could do anything but gasp in surprise, the creature had him in its grasp. It only took one of its huge hands to wrap around Roxas' entire torso. Roxas struggled, grunting and kicking his legs, as it lifted him up into the air.

"Stop it!" I screamed, summoning my Keyblade as I ran. I couldn't really hurt Riku, even in this form, but I wasn't at all afraid to chop off that monster's arm to protect Roxas.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to try. As soon as I got near, Riku's arm lashed out and struck me forcefully across the chest, sending me flying backwards and rolling across the pavement. For a moment I couldn't move, couldn't even breathe. Even when oxygen came rushing back into my lungs, all I could do was turn over onto my side and curl myself into a ball on the ground. My physical injuries were limited to a few scrapes and bruises, nothing worse than what I often received in training. What kept me pinned there with my heart in my throat was a much deeper wound that had nothing to do with the fall.

He hit me. Riku, who claimed that he cared for me, who had promised that he would never, ever hurt me, had hit me.

I heard the clattering of metal hitting the ground and sat up to see that Roxas had dropped his Keyblades. The monster was still squeezing the life out of him, and Ansem-Riku was fully engrossed in his task, not even giving me a second glance.

"I have accepted it," he stated coolly in a deep voice that was definitely not Riku's. Considering that he had just basically turned himself into a Heartless, I had to assume that he was referring to the darkness. One thing was for sure, this was not the Riku that I knew. Or at least, thought I knew, though it seemed now that I had been just as wrong about him as I had been about Aiden.

I watched as Ansem dropped a now-unconscious Roxas roughly to the ground, but stayed only long enough after that to see my friend's chest rise and fall one time, confirming that he was still alive. Then, with tears blurring my vision, I scrambled to my feet and escaped through a dark corridor.

Chapter Text

I wandered through the In Between for much longer than I should have, not knowing where else to go. I couldn't return to the mansion, or anywhere else in Twilight Town, and none of the other worlds I had visited were appealing to me right now. The eternal nothingness of the In Between seemed to suit my mood, anyway. I didn't have to worry about running into anyone, and it was easier here to just let myself zone out and not have to think about anything.

It was only when Dusks started showing up that I realized my mistake in lingering. Fighting them off as best I could, I quickly opened a corridor without paying much attention to where and stumbled out into the sunshine. Once I had waved my hand to close the door behind me, I finally took in my surroundings and realized that I had ended up in Destiny Islands. As much as I loved the beach, this was the last place I wanted to be right now. This was his home, and I couldn't think about him right now...

Crumpling onto the sand, I let the tears come at last, sobs shaking my entire body until I was too exhausted to cry anymore. How had I let myself fall for the same old story all over again? Riku had seemed so different. He had never done any of the things that Aiden used to do, back before he had started hitting me – slamming doors, screaming insults, throwing items just past my head to smash against the wall. There had been no warning, nothing to indicate that Riku was going to turn out just like Aiden in the end. Or, maybe there had been, and I had just been too blind and stupid to see it. At this point, I really couldn't say.

I really had cared for him. It had taken me a while to figure that out, but I knew that it was true. Even now, my heart ached for that soft smile, that ridiculously long, silver hair falling over his shoulders, that rare laugh that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But I knew I couldn't go back. I wouldn't do that to myself again. Maybe taking forever to figure out my feelings had been a blessing in disguise, after all. If I had committed myself earlier, it would have made the betrayal all the worse. Not that it felt like it could possibly get that much worse right now.

I sat for a long time at the edge of the water, letting the constant rushing of the waves soothe me and bring a semblance of peace. When a sudden storm rolled in later in the day, I retreated to the shelter of the little shack, leaving the door open for some light and so that I could watch the rain fall. It was calming, too, in its own way, and eventually I fell asleep to the sound of the rumbling thunder.

I woke a few times during the night, but didn't leave the shack until daylight came peeking in. Stretching out the kinks in my back and legs from sleeping on the ground, I began to consider my options for moving forward. I didn't want to see Riku or DiZ, but I did want to know what had happened to Roxas. Maybe, if I was lucky, I could talk to Naminé without encountering anyone else.

The corridor I created opened into Naminé's white room, but she was nowhere to be seen. The only other place I could think of for her to be was the pod room in the basement, so that's where I made a corridor to next.

Surprise registered on Naminé's face when she saw who it was walking in. "Meli! There you are! DiZ said you ran off yesterday morning, and we didn't know where you had gone."

"DiZ said?" I repeated bitterly. "Glad to know someone was thinking of me."

Naminé pursed her lips and gazed down at the floor. "Well, Riku, he's..."

"I know." I didn't want to hear it spoken aloud. "Believe me, I know."

"I don't think he remembers anything that happened." She looked back up at me curiously.

"Of course he doesn't," I muttered. That seemed awfully convenient.

"What did happen, Meli?" Naminé asked softly, reaching up to gently touch a scrape on my forehead.

I flinched away from her hand. "Nothing," I answered quickly. "I don't want to talk about it." Glancing up at the pod where Sora slept, I remembered my original reason for being here. "Roxas. Is he...?"

Naminé shook her head. "I'm still working on the other memories right now, so I haven't been able to start on Roxas' yet. For now, DiZ has placed him somewhere safe."

"What does that mean?" I frowned, not trusting the strange man's definition of the word.

"I don't know if I should say," Naminé began uncertainly, then sighed. "He had me hide away all his memories and replace them with new ones. I think he's created some kind of digital world for him to live in until Sora is ready for him."

I shut my eyes, still overwhelmed by the sadness of the whole situation. "How long will that take?"

"Sora should be able to wake up in a week."

"Good." I let my gaze slide back up to the pod. "That's when I'll come back to town. I promised I'd be there for him when he woke up, and I, for one, intend to keep my promise."

Naminé tilted her head to the side. "You're not staying, then." It was more of a statement than a question. "Whatever happened yesterday, it must have been..."

"Like I said, I don't want to talk about it," I interjected before she could finish. I sighed heavily. "Just...be glad you don't have a heart. You don't have to ever know what it feels like when it breaks."

"Where will you go?"

"I don't know yet." I gave a caustic laugh. "Guess that makes me homeless again, huh? Figures."

Somewhere down the hallway, I heard footsteps approaching. "Bye, Naminé." I threw my arms around her spontaneously and felt her stiffen in surprise. "Thank you." Quickly opening a corridor, I hurried through and waved it shut behind me before the door to the pod room could open.

I came back out in the frilly blue bedroom, making a last minute decision to change clothes before leaving for good. I didn't want to try to carry anything else with me, so I figured I might as well at least start out fresh. When I shut the door of the wardrobe, my reflection in the mirror on the front was staring back at me. I had almost forgotten that I could, technically, leave this universe altogether if I wanted to. But where would I go once I was there? I didn't have a home there any more than I did here. At least here, I could keep moving to different worlds and therefore be less likely to run into someone I knew.

It was time to go. As I glanced around the room for the last time, I tried not to let my mind linger on all of the memories formed here, tried not to picture Riku sitting cross-legged on the bed across from me, reminiscing of old times with his friends while eating his takeout dinner, but it was impossible. I shook my head and swallowed hard, wondering how long it would take before it stopped hurting so badly. At least maybe if I got away from this place, there wouldn't be so many memories to haunt me.

Chapter Text

My first stop after leaving Twilight Town was the bazaar in Agrabah. Some time ago, when my coffee grounds from home had run out, I had discovered that Agrabah had the most amazing coffee I had ever tasted in my life. Obviously I couldn't lug my coffee maker and carton of grounds along with me when I left the mansion, but thankfully the same merchant who sold me the grounds also sold cups of the stuff fresh-brewed.

It turned out Agrabah was a nice spot for people-watching, too. Wandering around the market with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand became a nice, frequent distraction for me during that week. The people were so full of life, bustling around from stall to stall with happy greetings, and getting into heated bartering matches with the merchants. I could find a hidden corner to curl up in and watch them for hours without growing bored.

If I did get tired of that, though, there were plenty of places I could go to find Heartless to fight off. Agrabah was one of them, along with Wonderland and a few spots in Neverland. Battling the Heartless was an easy way to make sure I didn't lose any of the ground I had gained in my training. As the days went on, I even began to experiment with new techniques and try to come up with my own magic spells based on others that I had learned. Dark magic in particular seemed to be flowing even more naturally than usual, which didn't come as much of a surprise considering my general state of mind.

On the third day, I was in an only mildly challenging fight with some small fries in Neverland when a thought occurred to me. If I was capable of creating dark corridors to anywhere I could possibly imagine, wouldn't it make sense that I could move from one spot to another within the same space? I had already discovered the day before that I could cause the corridor to appear around me and swallow me up rather than having to actually walk through it. I did so now, keeping my eye on a specific spot a few yards away as the In Between materialized, then immediately made another corridor with that same spot still in my mind. To my delight, I appeared again exactly where I had wanted to, taking a Pirate Heartless by surprise and quickly disposing of it. I repeated the process several times throughout the rest of the fight, trying to get faster and faster at it until I was essentially teleporting.

When the last Heartless was gone, I dismissed my Keyblade and stopped to catch my breath with a satisfied smile on my face. My triumphant moment was interrupted, however, by the sound of applause behind me.

"Bravo! Very impressive."

My heart leapt into my throat when I heard that voice. Whirling around, I caught sight of a familiar face with wild red hair leaning up against a nearby boulder. Axel. I tried to think of something to say, but my throat was too dry to make anything come out.

"So, the mysterious Meli is a Keyblade wielder. Never would have guessed that one. Of course, I never really knew there were more of you out there." He pushed himself to his feet with a smug smile. "Don't worry, I won't tell the Organization about you, though I'm sure they'd be very interested to know that you existed. I'm...assuming you have heard about the Organization, right?"

He began sauntering closer to me, and I crossed my arms tightly over my chest, trying to hide the fact that I was trembling all over. Apparently I wasn't doing a very good job at it, though, because Axel halted before reaching me and looked me over with surprise on his face.

"What are you...? Am I really that scary to you?" he asked incredulously. "I mean, when you ran out of the cafe that day I wondered, but..."

I shook my head vehemently. "No," I croaked out. "I'm not scared."

"Then why are you shaking like a leaf?" Axel countered, pointing at me. "Look, I'm not after any trouble. I already told you I wouldn't report you to the Organization. I'm not exactly on the best of terms with them right now, anyway."

That news piqued my interest. "Why's that?"

He waved a hand dismissively. "I'd rather not get into details right now. What I'd like to know is what your involvement in all of this is. Seems a bit fishy to me that you, a Keyblade bearer, just happened to make friends with Roxas, another Keyblade bearer, unless you knew something. Plus there's the fact that you're wearing one of our coats right now, just like the impostors we've been chasing."

I glanced down at my coat and took a small step backwards. "I'm not an impostor, I swear. Or, at least...I'm not trying to be. I was just told that this was the best way to stay protected while traveling the In Between. And as far as Roxas goes...I didn't know he was a Keyblade bearer when I met him. Heck, I didn't even know I was a Keyblade bearer when I met him."

"Hmm, so just a happy accident then, huh?" Axel studied me carefully. "Crazy thing is, I think I believe you. Which is good, because I didn't really want to have to threaten you to get the truth out of you. Scaring girls half to death is not exactly my goal in life." He sighed and scratched the back of his head. "I'm actually just...looking for Roxas. Trying to figure out what happened to him. Wondered if you knew anything...?"

I felt a pang of guilt in my gut. This guy may have had the misfortune of looking just like my ex, and may have been a member of some evil mafia group, but that didn't mean that he didn't deserve to know what had happened to his best friend. At the same time, thought, it wasn't my secret to tell. I had no way of knowing whether he was asking for himself or for the Organization, anyway.

"I don't know where he is," I answered, shaking my head. Thankfully this was technically the truth, since I wasn't too confident in my lying skills. Axel looked doubtful, though, so I decided to add in some more details. "I knew he was leaving the Organization, but he didn't tell me why or where he was going." Also the truth, even though in actuality we had never even had the chance to talk about any of it.

After another long moment of staring me down, Axel sighed again. "Alright, thanks. And...sorry for scaring you, though I'm still not really sure what I did." He started to leave, then stopped and turned back to face me. "You might want to keep your, um...talents on the down-low. I wasn't kidding when I said the Organization would be very interested in knowing about you, and trust me, you really don't want to be on their radar."

My insides were still quaking, and I was more than ready for him to leave, but my curiosity won out for this moment. "Why?" I asked with a confused frown. "I mean, why are you telling me this when you're...one of them?"

Axel shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe you made me feel sorry for you with all your quivering and lip-trembling." My face burned with embarrassment and I started to protest, but he wasn't done. "Or maybe you remind me of somebody...though I really couldn't tell you who right this second."

I drew in a deep breath. "For what it's worth...I'm not really scared of you. You just happen to...strongly resemble someone that I am afraid of."

Axel paused to consider this for a moment, gazing off into the distance. "Hmm. Well, from what I just saw here, you shouldn't have too much of a reason to be afraid of anybody." He threw me a disarming smile. "Just go kick his butt."

I opened my mouth to respond, but was at a loss for words. Axel turned away again and tossed his hand in the air in a wave. "See you around, Meli." With that, he vanished in a swirl of black and purple.

Chapter Text

A week passed, and it was time to return to Twilight Town to meet Sora and the others. I was so nervous when I woke up that day that it took me a large portion of the morning to convince myself to actually get up and go. I wasn't worried about running into Riku, since I knew he would be steering clear of his friend. I really wasn't sure what it was that had me nervous, but my best guess was that it had to do with finally meeting the infamous Keyblade bearer, or maybe because I felt the weight of responsibility for sending him off on his quest. On the other hand, maybe I was just apprehensive about being thrust into another relationship of a sort with yet another guy. Those didn't seem to be ending too well for me like, ever. The good news was, I wasn't obligated to spend any more time with this guy than it took to send him on his way.

By the time I arrived in the pod room via dark corridor, Sora's pod was open and the room was empty. Great, I had missed them. I opened another corridor to go outside, hoping I wasn't too far behind, and saw three figures disappearing into the forest. I started to call out to them, but quickly changed my mind. This might be better, after all. I had only promised to make sure that they made it safely to their destination, not to personally and visibly escort them there. As long as they were headed in the right direction and staying out of trouble, I could hang back and watch and get a feel for who these three were before jumping in to introduce myself.

Though it wasn't my first time seeing Donald and Goofy, watching the duck and dog walk around in their clothes and hats talking to people was still blowing my mind. Of all the strange things I had seen since coming to this universe, those two quite possibly topped the list. Along with Sora, who was reminding me more and more of Zephyr with his carefree grin and mannerisms, they found their way into town and wandered around a bit, eventually running into a group of kids in a back alley. I stayed around the corner, listening.

"We just met someone who was looking for you," the girl told them upon learning their names.

"He sure seemed in a hurry," the black-haired boy added. "He had a black coat on so I couldn't see his face, but he had these big, round ears."

Immediately I was on the alert, glancing up and down the street for any signs of this mysterious person. Sora had just woken up, and the Organization was already here looking for him? That couldn't be good.

"The King!" I heard Donald exclaim a moment later. I scrunched my face up in confusion, but then remembered what Riku had told me. They must be referring to the King that he had asked to help guide Sora.

"Where'd you see him?" Sora asked.

"At the station," the boy replied.

"The station, thanks!" Sora responded.

I busied myself with getting out of sight to wait for them to emerge, then followed at a safe distance as they jogged through the streets towards Central Station. Once there, the trio stopped to look around for the King, but instead were greeted by a hoard of Dusks. Donald and Goofy had their weapons in their hands immediately, and Sora summoned his Keyblade, which I noticed looked just like the one Roxas had used. As they began to fight, I made my way inconspicuously around to the steps of the station, hiding myself in the shadows to watch. They were good, that was for sure. Even after a year of sleeping, it didn't look like they had lost their touch. Each had a unique fighting style, but they worked well as a team.

However, the Dusks seemed to just keep coming, and it was soon evident that the heroes were wearing out. Maybe the long break from battle had taken its toll on them, after all. All three of them soon dropped to the ground in exhaustion, with Dusks still surrounding them. I was just about to step in to help out when a tiny figure appeared out of nowhere and vanquished all the remaining enemies in mere seconds with his own golden Keyblade.

"Your Majesty!" Donald and Goofy both cried, trampling poor Sora in their eagerness to get to him.

The large-eared King quickly shushed them without turning around. "You gotta board the train and leave town!" he urged, his voice surprisingly high-pitched. "The train knows the way. Here!" He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a drawstring pouch which I assumed to be full of munny. Sora took it from his hand, and the King ran off as quickly as he had come.

"Your Majesty..." Donald called after him.

"The King...was that really him?" Sora asked.

"It coulda been...yep, I know it was!" Goofy returned.

"Now we know he's okay!" Donald exclaimed happily.

"The King was locked in the Realm of Darkness, right?" Sora questioned.

"Uh-huh," Goofy replied.

"But we just saw him," Sora continued. "And if the King is here, that means Riku's here!" he finished with excitement in his voice.

My heart dropped at the mention of that name. Of course, I should have expected that Sora would be wondering where his best friend was. I just hoped I could get away with not having to explain any of that to him.

"Well, I'm gonna go look for Riku," Sora declared. "Then he and I can go back to the Islands together. Kairi's there waiting for us! What are you two gonna do?"

"Gawrsh, Sora, do ya have to ask?" Goofy questioned.

While they were busy laughing at the looks on each other's faces, I stepped out of the shadows and began walking down the steps towards them. It was time for me to step up and do my job.

"What do you say, guys? Let's stick together for one more journey," Sora was saying as I approached.

"Well, then I guess you had better all three get on that train," I broke in. Three heads swiveled around to stare at me, making me feel even more self-conscious than I already did.

"Who are you?" Donald demanded.

"My name's Meli. Sorry the King couldn't stick around...he's got really important things to take care of." Not that I had any idea what those things were, but it made me sound like I actually knew what I was talking about. "But I've been asked to make sure you three get to your destination safely."

"Asked...by who?" Sora queried with a tilt of his head.

"Yeah, how do we know we can trust you?" Donald added.

I chose to ignore the first question. "Well...does this help?" With a flick of my wrist, I summoned my Keyblade to my hand.

Sora's eyes went wide. "Is that a Keyblade?"

"Yep," I smiled, looking it over before dismissing it. "Now, how about we get out of here before any more of those Dusks show up?"

"Gawrsh, I don't think we've ever met anybody else with a Keyblade," Goofy commented as we turned to walk into the building.

"Yeah, I guess they're pretty rare," I shrugged. "I haven't had mine for very long."

"How did you first get it?" Sora asked.

My mind flitted back to that day in the woods a little over three months ago. "Well, I was attacked by a bunch of Heartless, and it just sort of...showed up." I flinched slightly as I remembered the moments following, when Riku had held my hand and I had felt the first flutterings of an attraction to him. "I've been training with it pretty much ever since," I finished quickly.

I was glad when we reached the ticket booth and attention was turned away from me and onto the impending journey. Sora purchased four tickets with the munny he had been given, and the three kids from town showed up to see Sora off, causing plenty of distraction. The mood became strangely melancholy as everyone said goodbye and we boarded the train, and remained that way for most of the trip. I separated myself from the group in the otherwise empty car, lost in my own thoughts. None of those things stopped Sora and the others from beginning to pepper me with questions as the journey wore on, though.

"Do you know where we're going?" Sora asked.

I shook my head. "No idea. All I know is, we're going to get you the information you need for what's ahead."

"What does that mean?" Sora queried, confusion etched onto his face. "I just want to go find Riku."

I sighed, trying to decide what I should explain and what I should leave to others who would undoubtedly know much more than I did. "You three...have been asleep for quite a while. A lot has happened in that time." I shook my head again. "I think that's all I should say for now. Let's just wait until we get there to talk about the rest."

I could tell that this did not at all satisfy them, which I completely understood. My lips were sealed from there on out, though, no matter how many ways they tried to pry more information out of me.

Chapter Text

We arrived at what we had to assume was our destination late in the evening. Climbing tentatively out of the train car, I looked around at our new surroundings and saw that we seemed to be on a tiny, grassy island floating out in the middle of an orange ocean. A large, crooked tower rose up out of the island, with green-roofed spires and adorned with stars and crescent moons.

As Sora and I stood gazing up at the tower, there was a hissing sound and a flash of light behind us. We spun around just in time to see the train vanish into thin air, leaving only the tracks behind.

Sora chuckled nervously. "There goes our ride!"

I gave him a smile that I hoped was reassuring. Whoever was waiting for us at this tower, I was sure they would make sure that he and his friends had transportation to wherever they needed to go, and I myself could always leave via dark corridor. I didn't blame him for being a bit nervous about all of this mystery, though.

After a run-in with a strange, burly guy who was apparently one of Maleficent's former lackeys, and a few short spats with some Heartless, we made it inside and up to the top of the tower. The guy downstairs had informed us that the tower belonged to a wizard named Yen Sid, whom Goofy said had been the King's teacher. Sora, Donald, and Goofy were readying to enter his office, but I lingered in the hallway, not sure whether or not I should go in. I had fulfilled my promise of making sure they made it here, so technically, I could leave now.

"Aren't you coming in?" Sora asked, looking back at me.

I hesitated a moment longer, then nodded. "Yeah, I'm coming." Hopefully Yen Sid wouldn't mind my presence. I did want to hear what he had to say to Sora about the Organization.

Donald and Goofy went in first and made a big show of bowing to the blue-clad, bearded wizard who sat behind the desk. "Master Yen Sid! It's an honor!" Donald greeted him with his face still towards the floor.

I stayed back against the wall by the door while Sora walked up between his two friends. "Hey there!" he said, waving casually.

Donald and Goofy both jumped and glared at him. "Sora, show some respect!" Donald commanded.

Yen Sid, however, shook his head and waved them down. "So, you are Sora. And who is this?" he asked, gesturing towards me.

Sora glanced back over his shoulder. "Oh, that's Meli. She brought us here."

I gulped and stood up straight, then dropped an awkward curtsy. "I'm a friend of..." I had wanted to say Riku, but didn't want to give myself away to Sora. "Friends, sir," I finished, not knowing how else to put it. I didn't know if it was safe to mention DiZ or Naminé, either.

"She's a Keyblade bearer!" Sora announced on my behalf.

"Ah, yes," Yen Sid nodded. "Then you must be the one that I have heard about." I raised my eyebrows in surprise. He had heard about me? From whom?

"Now, then, have you seen the King yet?" Yen Sid continued, turning his attention back to the boys.

"Yes we did, Master," Goofy answered. "But we didn't get a chance to talk to him."

"Yes...the King has been quite busy of late," Yen Sid acknowledged. "Therefore, it would seem that the task of instructing you three falls upon my shoulders. You have a perilous journey ahead of you. You must be well prepared."

"You mean...we have to go on another quest?" Sora asked, not sounding at all enthused. "I was looking forward to finding my friend Riku, so we could go back to the Islands."

"Yes, I know," Yen Sid responded. "However, everything in your journey, Sora, is connected. Whether you will find your way home to the Islands, whether you will return alone, or with your friend, and whether or not the Islands will still be there. And the key that connects them all is you, Sora."

"I'm...the key?" Sora echoed. He sounded nervous, and I felt sorry for him. I knew a bit of how it felt to have responsibility thrown at you that you weren't ready for, from when I had first learned about my own Keyblade. Sora reached his hand out in front of him and summoned his weapon, gazing at it thoughtfully.

"Chosen wielder of the Keyblade! You are the key that will open the door to light," Yen Sid declared.

Sora nodded solemnly, accepting his role without further question. Yen Sid nodded in turn to Donald and Goofy, who both stood up straight and returned the gesture. I had to admit, this kid was pretty admirable. He wasn't any older than I was, but somehow he kept having the fate of all the worlds set in his hands, and he seemed to take it all in stride.

Yen Sid then proceeded to explain to them how there were still Heartless lurking around, though not as many as before, and to tell them all about Nobodies. He conjured up images of a Shadow Heartless and some Dusks to illustrate his lecture. It was when he conjured an image of three Organization members with their hoods drawn, however, that I jumped and gasped. Thankfully no one seemed to be paying me any attention at this point. The hooded figures were so lifelike that I could almost imagine it was Riku and Roxas standing there. I was glad when Yen Sid finished explaining Organization XIII and the images faded.

"It seems they are working towards a higher goal," Yen Sid commented. "What that goal is, we do not know. The King sensed the danger, and journeyed forth to fight it. He found the Dark Realm's Keyblade, and with it, closed the door. Now he's traveling from world to world, fighting the Heartless as he seeks the answer to the riddle of the Nobodies and Organization XIII."

"Then I guess we better go find the King first!" Sora said, looking to his companions.

"But where could he be?" Donald wondered aloud.

"Well, we won't know 'til we look!" Goofy exclaimed.

"Yeah," Sora agreed. "And the King must know where Riku is, 'cause the two of them were together in the Realm of Darkness when we closed the door. You know, after defeating Ansem."

My heart plummeted every time he mentioned Riku and wanting to find him and go back home. Now he was bringing Ansem into the conversation – oh, if he only knew about Ansem. I felt guilty for not telling him what I knew, but the truth was, I really didn't know exactly where Riku was right now. Besides, as I kept telling myself, it was Riku's job to show up and fix his relationship with his friend, not mine.

"So, before you go, you will need more suitable traveling clothes," Yen Sid announced. "Those look a bit too small for you. Through there, you will find three good fairies. If you ask, they will create for you appropriate garments."

Wait a second, did he just say fairies? So not only did this universe have talking ducks and dogs, but it also had fairies. This was just getting better and better...not to mention weirder. As much as I wanted to see that for myself, I figured this was probably a good cue for me to take my leave. Yen Sid seemed to sense that this was my thought, and called out to me as Sora and the others were exiting the room.

"Tell me, do you plan on traveling with Sora?" he asked, stroking his long, grey beard.

"Oh, um...no, I hadn't really planned on it," I replied, stepping a little closer to the desk.

"The King tells me you have been training with Riku, is that correct?"

Ah, so Riku must have told the King about me, who then told the wizard. "Yeah, I was. Not anymore, though."

Yen Sid was studying me with his strange eyes, but I found it hard to meet his penetrating gaze. "I'm sure that Sora and his companions would be happy to have another Keyblade bearer such as yourself on their journey."

I shrugged. "Maybe, but...they can handle themselves. They don't need my help."

"I did not suggest that they needed it," Yen Sid countered matter of factly. "Perhaps, in fact, it is you who needs their company. Do you know where you will go after this, if not with them?"

I swallowed, but didn't say anything in reply. I got the feeling he already knew the answer somehow, anyway. After a moment, I threw my hands up in defeat. "Alright, I guess I could go with them. For now, anyway." He was right, I didn't have anywhere else to go. Besides, just because I started out traveling with them didn't mean I had to commit to the entire journey.

"Good," Yen Sid returned, offering me something close to a smile. "Why don't you go on and catch up to them, then?"

Chapter Text

By the time I reached the room where the fairies were, Sora was already looking spiffy in a new black, red, and blue outfit accented with yellow belts and shoes. The three fairies themselves were not anything like I had imagined, but looked like kindly grandmas who just happened to have wings.

"Now, these aren't ordinary garments," the pink fairy was explaining.

"They have very special powers," the green one added. They then showed him how his clothes could change colors, giving him the ability to wield two Keyblades at once. Just like Roxas had. I bit the inside of my lip, willing the sad thoughts away.

"This journey's gonna be twice as difficult as your last!" the blue fairy announced.

Sora groaned and hung his head, which seemed like a good time for me to speak up. "Mind if I come along with you?" I offered, stepping forward.

The trio turned around and grinned at me. "Not at all!" Sora replied. "That'd be fantastic!"

I couldn't help but smile back and shake my head a little. These guys barely even knew me, but they acted like we were best friends already. I had a feeling it was going to be hard to keep them at an arm's length for long.

"So, my dear, would you like some traveling clothes, as well?" the pink fairy asked.

I pointed at my chest in surprise. "Me? Oh, well...sure, I guess." I stepped forward to stand next to Sora. "They don't have to be fancy and magical or anything. It'd just be nice to have something a little more...flexible than these jeans." Pulling my coat to the side, I revealed the dark wash denim underneath.

"Of course, dear," the green fairy nodded. "How about this?" All three fairies waved their wands toward me, and there was a flash of light magic. My coat and regular clothes were replaced by a turquoise mini dress with lots of random zippers.

Looking down at the dress, I pulled at the hem and felt myself flush slightly with embarrassment. "Wait, do you expect me to fight in this? It's so short!"

The blue fairy cleared her throat. "Well, I think you'd find that it has the ability to keep you covered even while fighting. Fairy garments can work like that, you know."

"But," the pink fairy interjected, "If it makes you feel more comfortable, we can try again."

They waved their wands once more. This time, the dress was replaced by a camisole of the same turquoise color, with a hip-length, hooded black vest over that. The grey, pleated skirt was still quite short, but now there were cropped turquoise leggings underneath. A couple of black belts draped across my hips, and my sneakers had been changed to black combat boots. I looked the outfit over carefully, taking note of the turquoise and grey accents on the vest, the new black fingerless gloves with turquoise straps, and most importantly, the fact that my bracelet from Zephyr was still in place. I felt something at my throat and reached up to find a choker with a small bead pendant.

"This is great, thank you," I smiled.

"I'm glad you approve," the blue fairy returned.

"We even touched up your hair for you," the green one pointed out.

"And you needn't worry about your coat, dear," the pink fairy assured me. "These garments will protect you when you travel through the darkness."

"Really?" I gazed down at the clothes again. "Cool! Thanks!" The coat wasn't terrible, but that didn't mean I wouldn't be happy to leave it behind. It could be a bit cumbersome, and actually being able to wear cute clothing that other people could see would be nice for once, too.

"You look great!" Sora commented.

"Oh, thanks." I smiled at him, suddenly a bit shy. "You do, too."

"I keep thinking that you remind me of someone I know...can't quite put my finger on who, though."

I had to restrain myself from rolling my eyes. This guy was one of Kairi's best friends, right? I supposed, though, that since he had not seen her for a year, and had had all of his memories of her stolen and replaced during that time, he could be forgiven for being a bit slow. "Hmm, that's interesting," I replied non-committally.

We told the fairies goodbye and went back out to Yen Sid's office before leaving. He motioned us over to a moon-shaped window, out of which we could see a large, red and yellow object that seemed to be hovering in the air.

"Hey! It's the Gummi Ship!" Donald exclaimed excitedly. The three of them ran over to the window to look out.

"Gummi Ship?" I repeated. "What's that?"

"It's the way we travel from world to world," Goofy explained.

"So, you guys ready to go?" Sora asked, looking to his friends. They nodded, then jumped into line to be dismissed by Yen Sid.

After explaining some stuff that I didn't really understand about gates and pathways between worlds, the wizard smiled. "Go forth, Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Meli. Everyone is waiting."

"Okay, let's get going!" Sora agreed.

"Master Yen Sid!" said Donald as the trio came to attention.

"We sure do appreciate your help," Goofy finished, and they all three saluted. I just watched them with my hands on my hips and rolled my eyes. Hanging out with these guys was definitely going to be a different experience from the last few months.

As they ran off down the stairs towards the ship, Yen Sid called my name again. "I sense a great sadness in you," he proclaimed gravely. "Be careful that you do not let your heart linger there for too long, or your darkness may overtake you."

I nodded, only half listening, feeling like a little child being lectured. "Okay, thanks."

"Your new companions are some of the best examples I have met of forgiveness and seeing the true nature of others. Watch them, and see what you may glean."

This part of his speech caught my attention, and I frowned. What exactly did this guy know about me, anyway? Forgiveness and seeing the true nature of others...I almost let out a cynical laugh, but held it back. Clearly I did need some lessons in seeing people's true nature. That did seem to be my overall issue.

Not sure how to respond without it being something sarcastic, I merely nodded, then turned to follow Sora, Donald, and Goofy down the stairs. They were already climbing into the Gummi Ship when I stepped out of the front door of the tower.

"Come on aboard!" Sora called out the door to me.

Entering the cockpit, I glanced around and took in all of the buttons and knobs on the console. "So, who flies this thing?"

"I do!" Sora answered proudly, jabbing a thumb at his chest.

Donald let out a surprised quack. "What? Since when?"

Sora cut his eyes over to the side and twiddled his fingers on the back of the driver's seat. "Since...now!" He jumped into the seat before Donald could beat him to it, but the two of them continued to squabble the entire time that Sora was flipping switches and punching buttons to prepare for flight. Goofy and I glanced at each other and shrugged, and quietly took our seats slightly behind the driver.

Eventually Sora won out, probably mostly because Donald couldn't remove him from the seat, and we were ready to go. Takeoff was much less exhilarating than I had expected it to be. The Gummi Ship may have looked like a sci-fi spaceship, but it moved more like I suspected a helicopter would feel. Before long, we were racing off towards the stars, and on our way to the first world that appeared on the ship's map.

"So, Meli," Sora began when the ship had gone quiet for a while. "The fairies mentioned something about you traveling through the darkness. Does that have something to do with those other pathways that Yen Sid was talking about, the ones that the Heartless and Nobodies use?"

"Uh...yeah." I didn't want to lie to him, but I wasn't sure how a light-filled person such as he would take this news. "I, um...I know how to use the dark corridors, too. Because...I have some darkness in my heart." I glanced over at him, but couldn't see his facial expression from where I was sitting. "Is that...okay?"

"Sure," Sora replied, like it was no big deal. "My friend Riku has darkness in his heart, too. He had some trouble with it an one point, but it didn't make him a bad person. In fact, last I saw him, he was making a huge sacrifice by trapping himself in the Realm of Darkness so that we could keep a ton of Heartless from flooding into this realm." He sighed. "I sure hope we find him soon. I really wanna see him again."

"I hope you do, too," I returned honestly. I might not want to see him ever again, myself, but that didn't mean that I didn't want the two of them to be reconciled.

"Anyway," he continued, "I don't mind you having darkness. You never know, that whole dark corridor thing might come in handy someday."

I smiled. "Yeah, maybe so."

Chapter Text

The first world we found ourselves landing in was called Hollow Bastion, and was apparently a place that Sora, Donald, and Goofy had spent a good bit of time in during their previous adventures. We met up with a group of their friends, though I mostly hung back and didn't say too much. Then one of the friends, a man named Leon with shaggy brown hair and a prominent scar across his face, led us to an area of town known as the bailey to show us their world's Heartless and Nobody problem.

There was an entire ravine just outside of town literally crawling with the creatures. Sora assured his friend that we could handle them, then began to give him a brief run-down of the Nobodies and Organization XIII. He was interrupted by a booming voice echoing through the stone corridor.

"You called?"

We all jumped and looked around for the source of the voice. Sora took off running through the gates of the bailey, with the rest of us not far behind.

"You're doing well," the deep voice came again.

"Who's that?" Sora demanded, summoning his Keyblade. I grabbed hold of mine, as well, still glancing up and down but seeing no one.

"This calls for a celebration," said the voice. Dusks began appearing around us, and we all fought them off, including Leon, who had his own giant sword. When the last of the Dusks were gone, the voice spoke again. "The Keyblade...a truly marvelous weapon. Were it only in more...capable hands..."

Laughter began to echo around us, now definitely coming from multiple voices. "Show yourselves!" Sora ordered.

Up above us on a high wall, a black-coated figure materialized out of the darkness. He raised his hands dramatically in the air, and five others appeared behind him.

"Organization XIII!" Goofy exclaimed. He was right, it had to be them. I quickly dismissed my Keyblade, but I knew it was too late. They had already seen me, which meant that I had blown my chance to follow Axel's advice and stay off their radar.

"Good, now we can settle this!" Sora shouted. I glanced at him and shook my head slightly. Somehow I doubted that it was going to be that simple, but I had already figured out in the short time I had known him that Sora was a definite optimist.

"What a shame," the leader remarked. "And here I thought we could be friends." The group laughed again, and quickly began to vanish back into the darkness.

"Stop!" Donald yelled. He raced off as if he was somehow going to catch up with them, but another dark corridor opened in his path just a few yards away from where we were standing. One of the Organization members stood there, staring at us from the black void under his hood.

"What's the big idea?" Donald stormed.

"Oopsy-daisy!" the man laughed.

"Move!" Sora ordered.

"Now, do you think that's polite, shutting me down like that?" the man queried.

I furrowed my eyebrows, watching them all throw threats and insults back and forth at each other for a while with no clear intentions or progress. What was his point here...unless he was just stalling us? But for what reason? It wasn't until the very end of the conversation that I began to get an idea of his possible purpose.

"Why don't I remind you how tough the crowd you're dealing with really is?" the man told Sora.

"Remind me?" Sora looked confused for a moment, but shook it off, returning to his battle stance with a determined expression on his face.

The Organization member began to cackle. "That's right, he used to give me that same exact look."

Sora and the others were completely confused, but I began to wonder if he was referring to Roxas. Maybe that was the reason for this strange encounter – perhaps they were trying to determine if Roxas was really inside of Sora. DiZ did say that they would be eager to have their Keyblade bearer back.

"I guess you think you can psych me out by saying really random stuff!" Sora sneered.

"Gee, I just don't know." The man leaned forward with his arms spread out, and there was a long moment of uncomfortable silence before he finally straightened again. "Be a good boy now! And you..." He pointed straight at me. "You're interesting. I'll be keeping my eye on you." A corridor opened around him, and he disappeared once more into the darkness.

"Wait!" Donald ran and leapt into the air as if he could still catch the guy. "Nuts," he complained after landing gracelessly on the ground. "He got away."

"That was weird," Sora muttered.

"You could say that again," I agreed.

"Who gave him the same look?" Sora wondered. I looked away, not saying anything, hoping no one would notice the guilty look in my eyes. I hated continuing to deceive him, but since Yen Sid hadn't mentioned anything about Roxas I figured I shouldn't, either. If this kept up I was going to have to exit this quest early just so I wouldn't have to keep lying.

"Y'know, I think he was just tryin' to confuse ya," Goofy offered.

"Yeah, you're right," Sora agreed, turning to him. "Only one me!"

It was only a minute later that a giant keyhole appeared in the sky above us, signifying that the gate to a new world was open, as Yen Sid had explained. As Sora and Leon said their goodbyes, my mind wandered back to the last words of that Organization member. I could just imagine that right now, wherever they were hiding, the Nobodies were having a nice long conversation about the newly discovered Keyblade wielder, and what that meant for their dastardly plans. Clearly they had an interest in the Keyblade, though for what reason I still didn't know. Would they start coming after me now? I shuddered at the thought. Maybe it was best that I was sticking with this group for now, after all.

.0.0.O.0.0.

Traveling with Sora was nothing short of a wild adventure that could have been taken straight out of Hollywood. In one world, we found ourselves helping a young woman infiltrate their all-male army, along with the help of her miniature dragon friend, and ended up creating an avalanche of snow to defeat the enemy and a bunch of Heartless. A few days later, we were meeting up with the very Beast whose castle Riku and I had met Xion outside of, trying to reconcile him with his human girlfriend. We visited a world where the gods of the old stories were real, and fought against the lord of the dead in the Underworld, and another where we rode the seas with pirates who were cursed to live as zombies. I spent a few days roaming the savanna in the form of a lioness, holding my Keyblade in my teeth, and met Santa Claus while hanging out with a living skeleton and wearing a super embarrassing elf costume.

The biggest thing that I learned from all of it was, never think that things can't get any crazier, because chances are, they're going to. Each new world and the characters and stories it held completely blew my mind. Sora, Donald, and Goofy seemed unfazed by any of it, although this was their universe, and they had been through this routine before. They seemed determined to help any and everyone they came across, no matter who or what they were. I tried my best to follow their lead and just roll with whatever came our way, but that didn't keep me from occasionally having my moments of freaking out over the weirdness of it all, even if it was just internally.

We had a couple of run-ins with the Organization as we traveled, though not as many as I had expected. At Beast's castle, there was a member named Xaldin, but he wasn't so much interested in us as he was in trying to turn the Beast into a Heartless.

I didn't catch the name of the other Organization member we encountered, but he was definitely an interesting character. He showed up in the Underworld, sporting a mullet and reading off of cue cards. Sora had no idea what this guy was attempting to do, but I had an inkling. After we fought off the water forms he created by playing a sitar, he left saying, "Roxas, come back to us!" Yep, they were after Roxas, alright. I wondered how long it would be before they resorted to more desperate measures.

Other than those encounters, though, most of our time was spent fighting Heartless and lesser Nobodies, and traveling from place to place. One night in the world of Port Royal, after an especially grueling day of battles, we were all four lying in bunks below the decks of the Interceptor. I was definitely tired, but the rocking of the ship was not so much calming to me as it was annoying. Apparently Sora couldn't fall asleep yet, either, because he suddenly hung his head down from the bunk above me.

"So Mel...is it okay if I call you Mel?"

I smiled. "Sure. My friend Zephyr used to call me that."

"Okay," Sora grinned. "So Mel, I never really asked you...I know you said you haven't had your Keyblade for long, but you're really good at using it. Did somebody train you or something?"

"Oh, well, thanks," I responded. "I don't know that I'm as good as you are, but I'm learning."

"I think you are," Sora countered. He looked funny with his spiky hair hanging downwards. "Maybe even better than me, at least when it comes to magic. Especially now that you know some more light spells."

"That does help!" I wasn't sure whether Riku didn't know as much light magic, or if we had just been so focused on dark spells that we hadn't gotten around to the rest, but it turned out that Sora and Donald knew a bunch of spells that I had never heard of. They had been teaching me some of them along the way, including my new favorite, Cure. I was perfectly happy not to have to drink those nasty potions any more than I had to these days.

"But anyway, you didn't answer my question. Did someone train you?"

Right. I had purposely avoided answering that, but clearly it didn't work. "Uh, yeah. Just, you know...a friend. He doesn't have a Keyblade, but he knows a lot about fighting and magic."

"Cool," Sora grinned, pulling his head back up out of sight. "Well, I'm glad you're with us this time. It's nice having an extra person on our team."

"Thanks. I'm glad I'm here, too." It was true, I was way better off with them than I would have been anywhere on my own. The constant action and companionship kept my mind off of Riku most of the time, at least during the day. It was tough sometimes, though, not to let myself get too wrapped up in the friendship of these three idiots. Sora, in particular, seemed to want to make everyone his best friend, and he was almost impossible to resist. But I couldn't let myself get too attached, not again. I knew I had to be coming off as much more reserved and stand-offish than I actually usually was, but it was for my own protection. I wasn't sure that I could make it through yet another betrayal.

After a few more minutes, the sound of light snoring drifting down let me know that Sora had fallen asleep. Having had enough of lying there for now, I sat up and rose cautiously to my feet, still getting used to maneuvering on the constantly moving ship. I made my way up the stairs and out into the night air, breathing in the salt spray deeply, and fingered the small object in my vest pocket. It had been my one purchase, besides coffee, during the week that I was alone – a round, pocket-sized mirror with a blue and gold jeweled back. When I had seen it lying on the Agrabah merchant's table, I had suddenly wondered if I could make a portal with such a small mirror, and bought it on impulse. Turned out, if I set it on the ground, a large, round portal would open up above it. All I needed to do was reach back up through the portal once I had stepped in and grab the mirror to bring with me, and I now had a portable portal-maker.

There had been quite a few nights on this trip that I had had trouble falling asleep right away, and on some of those nights I had been sneaking away and creating portals back to my universe. I had discovered that I could travel pretty much anywhere, even if I had never been there before, as long as I could think of a clear photo of that place. So far I had visited the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and a few random forests and beaches when I just needed some peace and quiet. I had been thinking about trying to see the Northern Lights next.

Just as I had made up my mind and was pulling the mirror out of my pocket, I heard a small noise behind me. I spun around quickly, my Keyblade immediately in my hand. A man in a black coat was standing on the opposite end of the deck, his hood pulled over his eyes.

I inhaled sharply, my heart rate quickening. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

Chapter Text

The black-coated man stepped closer, and I tightened my grip on my Keyblade. "Who are you, and what do you want?" I repeated, louder this time. Was the Organization finally coming after me? There had been no sign of their interest for a long while, and I had become careless, wandering off on my own. If I was lucky, maybe the two men we were traveling with, Jack and Will, would hear any scuffle that occurred and come to help.

Then the man stopped, and pushed his hood back, revealing on all-too-familiar face – Ansem. I gasped in surprise, then narrowed my eyes, loosening my posture a bit but still not dismissing my weapon.

"You," I muttered. "What are you doing here?" I had hoped to never see that face again.

"Meli." My own name sounded wrong in my ears. He spoke it with care, but the voice that formed the word was not the voice of the man who was supposed to have cared about me. This voice belonged to a monster.

"We're out in the middle of the ocean," I hissed. "What are you doing here?"

"I've been keeping an eye on you and Sora, and trying to find an opportunity to talk to you," Riku replied, walking even closer. "I've been worried about you."

I laughed bitterly. "Oh, have you? That's good to know."

"Of course. I was glad to find out that you were staying with Sora, but...but you just left, without saying goodbye or explaining why." He sounded hurt.

"Explaining why?" I repeated incredulously. "Oh, right. I forgot. You don't remember what happened."

Riku shook his head. "I didn't even remember who I was for several days. Thankfully I came back to my senses in time to let Naminé and Axel go. DiZ wanted me to dispose of them for interfering with his plans." He gazed at me with obvious concern etched onto his face, but I couldn't meet his eyes. The orange of his irises was too off-putting. "What is going on, Meli? Is this about Roxas, or about..." He gestured to his face. "This?"

I looked away, gazing out over the endless black water. "I'm not going to pretend those things don't have something to do with it," I answered quietly. "So, what, are you just...stuck like this now?"

"Unfortunately, it seems so. I'm really sorry that it had to go that way. I...don't really know how it ended, only that Roxas was brought in. But I know things got ugly, and I'm sorry for that. I was doing what I felt I had to do, but I never wanted you to get caught in the middle of it."

I clenched my jaw, willing away the tears that threatened to spill over. There was nothing I could say. I couldn't forgive him, not now, no matter how sincere he sounded. I had been there, done that, too many times before, and I was not going to give in again.

"As much as I hate being stuck like this, it's great to be able to actually see you," he continued after a moment. "I like your new look, it's nice."

The comment caught me off guard, and I crossed my free arm over my stomach, unnerved by the idea of this man looking at me like that. Turning away, I walked towards the railing. "So you've checked on us, and you've talked to me. Just like you wanted. Now you can go."

I heard Riku let out a huff of air behind me. "Please tell me what's going on," he pleaded, following me to lean against the rail. "What happened that night that I can't remember?"

Aggravated by his closeness, I moved farther away again. Part of me wanted him to know what he did, but I couldn't bring myself to actually say it. "Nothing," I replied sharply, still looking out over the sea. "Must not have been that important, if you can't even remember it." I didn't even care if that made sense or not. I just wanted him to leave.

"Believe me, Meli, I want to remember! But I can't, so you're going to have to tell me!"

"Maybe I don't want to talk about it, Riku!" I spit out his name, purposely not using my usual nickname for him. It may have been petty, but I could tell that he noticed.

"'Well, obviously not, since you just walked away without trying to work through whatever it is," Riku shot back.

"Yeah, I walked away, and I never heard you asking me not to go."

"I wasn't myself!" he nearly shouted, throwing his hands in the air. "Just tell me what happened!"

"And what if I don't? Are you going to hit me again?" I spun around to face him, the truth finally exploding out of me, fueled by all the anger that had been building in my chest.

Riku froze, staring at me. "What?" He shook his head slowly. "Please, don't tell me I..."

"You hit me, Riku," I hissed through clenched teeth. The tears were pouring down my face now. "I tried to stop you from crushing the life out of Roxas, and you knocked me out of the way like I was a...a rag doll."

I watched all of the color drain out of his face. Good. I wanted him to suffer, thinking about what he'd done.

It took a moment before he found his voice again. "Meli, I...I don't even know what to say..."

"I don't want you to say anything." I turned to walk back towards the center of the deck. "There's nothing you can say that would help. I just want you to leave."

"No, we need to talk about this..." Riku began, following me.

I turned on him without warning, my Keyblade pointed directly at his throat. "I said I want you to leave," I growled. "Now."

Riku's hands had gone up in defense automatically. Now he backed away slowly, letting them drop back to his sides. "I'm so, so, sorry." There was defeat in his eyes, in the slump of his shoulders. He looked like he wanted to say more, but thought better of it and opened a corridor instead.

As soon as he had vanished from sight, I dropped my Keyblade and collapsed to the deck, shaking with sobs. I must have stayed there for at least an hour, even after I couldn't cry anymore, just hugging my knees to my chest and listening to the sound of the waves clapping up against the side of the ship. Eventually I gathered my strength and pulled myself to my feet, making my way as quietly as possible back down the creaky wooden stairs.

Sora pushed up on his elbows as I entered the room, blinking his eyes against the light of the lantern hanging in the corner. "Mel?" he whispered hoarsely. "Is everything okay?"

I nodded. "I just needed some fresh air. Sorry I woke you."

"It's okay." As I drew closer to the bunks, he continued watching me. "Have you been crying? Your eyes are all red."

I attempted a smile to reassure him. "I'll be fine. I just...miss my friend." Oh, how I missed him. As angry as I was with him, and as much as I wanted to hate him, I couldn't stop aching for his company that had become such a familiar part of my life.

Sora sighed. "I know how you feel. I miss my friends Riku and Kairi, too." He rolled over so he could look down at me as I sat on the edge of the bed. "Wait a second, that's who you remind me of!" He snapped his fingers, then lightly slapped himself on the forehead. "Of course, you look a lot like Kairi, why didn't I think of it before?"

This time I didn't stop myself from rolling my eyes, since it was dark in the room, though there was amusement behind the gesture. "Oh, really?" I couldn't keep quite all of the sarcasm out of my voice, but Sora didn't seem to notice.

"Yeah, you do. That's pretty funny." He seemed lost in his own thoughts for a moment before turning back to me. "Hey, you can make dark corridors, though, right? So couldn't you just...go see your friend? We wouldn't mind if you took a break and caught up with us later."

Now it was my turn to sigh. "Thanks. I appreciate it, but he...doesn't exist anymore." Not Grim, not the person I was actually missing.

"Oh. I'm...really sorry."

"I'll be fine," I repeated, laying back onto the hard mattress. "Thanks for being concerned."

"Yeah, of course." Sora turned back over out of sight. "Goodnight, Mel."

"Goodnight, Sora."

Chapter Text

It was a couple of weeks after Port Royal when we found ourselves back in Twilight Town. Being back there felt so strange, but I didn't have much time to dwell on it. Almost as soon as we arrived, we were pulled into a battle with a bunch of the lesser Nobodies in an area of town known as the sandlot. It was a tough fight, but with a lot of teamwork we got the job done.

"Impressive!"

We were still trying to catch our breath, and the newcomer took us all by surprise. I whirled around to see another black-coated figure standing a few yards away. I frowned, trying to decide if this was someone that we had seen before, but based solely off of body type it was impossible to tell.

"By the way," the man spoke again in a smooth, cool voice. "Have you seen a man named Axel? I expect he's here somewhere."

The voice and demeanor told me that this was not someone we had encountered yet. Something about the way he spoke gave me the shivers. And why was he asking us about Axel? Were we supposed to have run into him?

"Like I care," Sora retorted, jumping into his defensive stance.

"You see, Axel's no longer acting in our best interest," the man explained. My mind went back to my conversation with Axel, when he had mentioned not being on good terms with the Organization. Things must have gone south when he was looking for Roxas.

"Is he with the Organization, too?" asked Goofy.

"Yes," the man confirmed.

"You havin' a fight?" Donald queried.

"Not a very organized Organization," Sora quipped. It was a stupid joke, but I had to fight back a smirk, nonetheless. That's what I got for hanging around these guys for so long – eventually their sense of humor rubbed off on me, no matter how distant I might have tried to be.

The man pointed at us. "Don't let your guard down. Axel will stop at nothing to turn you into a Heartless."

That accusation struck me as being a bit strange. What in the world would Axel get out of turning Sora into a Heartless? Unless...I ran all the possibilities through my head until it dawned on me. Unless he was actually aiming to create a Nobody – in other words, Roxas. It made sense, in a way. I definitely didn't trust the red-head, but obviously I couldn't trust this guy, either. He had to have a reason for telling us this, other than just being nice.

"Gee, thanks for looking out for us, mister," Sora returned sarcastically. "But I'm sure we can take care of ourselves just fine."

"Glad to hear it," the man replied. "Axel aside, it would break our hearts to hear something happened to you." Right, because for whatever reason, they needed a Keyblade bearer to be out killing Heartless. Guess that meant that they had given up on getting Roxas back, which is probably why Axel was going against them.

"Hearts? You don't have any hearts!" Donald countered.

"True, we don't have hearts." The man reached up and removed his hood, revealing long blue hair, yellow eyes, and an x-shaped scar across the bridge of his nose. The blue hair immediately reminded me of Chander, but I had never gotten a good enough look at his face to tell whether he really looked like this guy or not.

"But we remember what it was like," he continued. "That's what makes us special."

"Whaddaya mean?" Goofy asked as a dark corridor appeared just behind the man.

"We know very well how to injure a heart," he answered ominously. "Sora, you and your friend just keep on fighting those Heartless."

"Let's jump in after him!" Sora whispered.

"How come?" Donald questioned.

"I'm not sure, but maybe he'll lead us to the Organization's world."

"I don't know if that's a good idea..." I broke in.

"Don't be reckless," the man spoke up. "Do you want to end up like Riku?"

I snapped to attention immediately. How did they know about Riku? Was he in danger now, too?

Sora reacted visibly as well, dropping out of his stance. "What?" The blue-haired man merely bowed and backed away into the corridor, leaving us gaping after him.

"Hey, wait!" Sora cried, but the door was already closed. "What did he mean, end up like Riku?"

"I'm sure he's fine," I assured him, placing my hand gently on his arm. "He was probably just trying to throw you off so you wouldn't follow him." Sora nodded in agreement, but kept his gaze down at the ground.

A moment later, the black-haired boy that Sora had met the last time we were here ran up. "Oh, Sora!" he panted.

"Um...Pence, right?" Sora responded.

"Do you know a girl named Kairi?" Pence queried.

"K-Kairi? I sure do!" Sora shouted. We were all at attention again, waiting to hear what this was about.

"Then you better come to the station!" Pence replied. Sora agreed, and we all took off at a jog behind Pence. There was a big grin on Sora's face, and I could tell that he was more than ready to see his friend again. I, personally, was feeling suddenly nervous at the prospect of finally meeting my other self.

When we reached Central Station, the other two kids came running up to meet us. Kairi wasn't with them, however.

"Hey, so how do you guys know Kairi?" Sora asked.

The blond guy and the girl exchanged glances, then dropped their gazes to the ground. My heart was already starting to sink. This did not look like it was going to be the happy reunion that Sora was hoping for. The three kids took turns telling the story about how Kairi had showed up in Twilight Town a few days earlier, and was looking for Sora. While they were all hanging out in the back alley where we had first seen them, a dark corridor had opened and a certain red-headed Organization member had walked in. The kids claimed that they had tried to defend her, but Axel had dragged her off into the darkness.

Sora looked down at a star-shaped charm in his hand, something I had seen him staring at on more than one occasion. "Kairi..."

I watched him absentmindedly, feeling my body heat up with anger. So, I had been right not to trust Axel after all. I could just imagine how terrified poor Kairi must be feeling right now. If only we knew where Axel was hiding out, so that we could go after her.

I had a sudden idea, and quickly created a dark corridor around myself. Once in the In Between, I shut my eyes and tried to focus on the girl I had seen in my dreams. Perhaps there was a chance that I could track her down like I had Riku. With him, though, I was very familiar with how it felt to be near him, and could imagine him standing next to me. I couldn't do that with Kairi, and after several long minutes of trying, I had to give up. I opened a corridor back to the station and found everyone staring at me in alarm.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled. "I was...trying to find Kairi. It worked for me once before...opening a corridor to a person rather than a place. But...I guess I have to really know the person for that to work." Ironic, that Kairi was basically me, but I didn't know her well enough to find her. "I'm really sorry. I can try again later, but it's dangerous to stay in there for very long at a time."

Sora smiled at me, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Thanks for trying. I guess we'll just have to figure out another way to find her."

The uncharacteristic sadness in his voice crushed me. "I'm sorry," I murmured again.

"Has anyone ever told you that you apologize too much?" Sora laughed.

My mind flashed back unwittingly to an image of Riku, lying on his back in bed, running his hand through his silver locks, a small smile playing on his lips. "You apologize too much, you know that?" I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and had to shake myself back to reality.

"You don't have to be sorry," Sora was saying. "It was a good idea, and really nice of you to try."

I managed a half-smile back at him. "We'll find her somehow. I know we will."

Chapter Text

It didn't turn out to be too long before we had another run-in with the blue-haired Organization member. We had received a message from the gang in Hollow Bastion that they had found Ansem's computer, which ended up leading to a whole new adventure after we accidentally got transported into the computer and had to help overthrow an evil program that was trying to take over the world. While we were in town, King Mickey arrived, and we finally got the chance to actually talk to him. He was able to shed some light on some of the details about Ansem, who was apparently actually named Xehanort, including the fact that it was his Nobody who was currently running the Organization. The King was hoping to go and find the original Ansem, known as Ansem the Wise, to get some help with this whole mess, but agreed to help us find Kairi first.

Before we could take off again, however, the Heartless and Nobodies that had been gathering in the valley outside of town suddenly began to march, and we had to go into battle. There were times during that fight that I wasn't sure whether we were going to be able to keep going, especially since we had already had to stop and defeat the mullet Organization guy first, but somehow we made it through all in one piece. It certainly helped to have King Mickey, Leon, and a couple of their other friends fighting alongside us.

Then the leader of Organization XIII himself showed up, and the King chased after him right into the dark corridor that he created, leaving the four of us alone again. Sora was understandably dejected, getting so close to the enemy but not being able to do anything to stop him or find out where his friends were.

As we stood there looking over the now-empty valley, someone spoke up behind us. "Way to fall right into their trap."

That voice I definitely recognized, and it was still one that made my stomach turn flips. We turned to see Axel leaning against the rock wall, staring us down with his arms crossed over his chest. Sora, Donald, and Goofy ran in closer and prepared their weapons for battle, and I followed reluctantly behind.

"Come on, it's a set-up by Organization XIII," Axel remarked, pushing himself off the wall and walking nonchalantly to meet us. "Xemnas is using you to destroy the Heartless – that's his big master plan."

"Xemnas?" Donald echoed.

"The guy you just saw," Axel clarified, pointing to where the leader had been. "He's their leader. Got it memorized?" He tapped a finger on his temple. "X-E-M, N-A-S."

"Organization XIII wants to get rid of the Heartless?" Goofy asked, confused.

Axel sighed. "Man, you're slow. Every Heartless slain with those Keyblades releases a captive heart. That is what the Organization is after."

"So what are those guys gonna do with the hearts?" Donald questioned.

"I'm not telling," Axel replied. Great, that was the one part of this conversation that I actually wanted to hear.

"So what are you here for, then, Axel?" I spat, my frustration finally growing enough to give me the courage to speak. "Get to the point!"

"Axel?" Sora threw me a bewildered look before turning back to scowl at the Organization member. "You...you're the one who kidnapped Kairi!"

"Bingo. As the lady said, the name's Axel. Got it memorized?" He pointed to his head again.

"Where is Kairi?" Sora demanded. Axel scratched his head, looking down at the ground uncertainly. "Please, just tell me!" Sora begged.

Sighing again, Axel leaned his head back. "Look, about Kairi...I'm sorry."

"Axel!" A new voice echoed from out of nowhere, followed by a sudden burst of darkness as a corridor opened between Axel and us. When it cleared, the guy with blue hair was standing there with his back to us.

"Uh-oh!" Axel gasped, and quickly disappeared into his own corridor.

Sora tried to run after him, but the newcomer put his arm out to block him from advancing. "We'll ensure he receives the maximum punishment," he assured Sora coldly.

"I don't care about any of that!" Sora protested. "Just let me into the realm of darkness, okay?"

"If it's Kairi you're worried about, don't." The man turned to face us. "We're taking very good care of her."

"Take me to her," Sora pressed.

The man narrowed his yellow eyes. "Is she that important to you?"

"Yeah. More than anything," Sora replied. Riku was right, they really did belong together. It was sweet, but made my heart hurt at the same time.

"Show me how important," the man told him.

Sora paused, thinking. Then, to our astonishment, he dropped down to his hands and knees in front of the Organization member. "Please," he murmured.

"So, you really do care for her. In that case...the answer's no."

I gasped, then ran up next to Sora as he jumped to his feet. "You rotten...!" he exclaimed, fists clenched by his sides. I grabbed hold of his arm, trying to keep him from doing anything rash.

The blue-haired man stared straight at me for a second, and my breath caught in my throat. Then he turned back to Sora. "Are you angry? Do you hate me? Then take that rage, and direct it at the Heartless."

With a snap of his fingers, he summoned a group of large Heartless behind him, then held out his hands and gazed up into the sky. "Pitiful Heartless, mindlessly collecting hearts. And yet they do not know the true power of what they hold. The rage of the Keyblade releases those hearts. They gather in darkness, masterless and free, until they weave together to make Kingdom Hearts. And when that time comes, we can truly, finally exist."

A new voice now joined the conversation from behind us. "What in the world do you think you're prattling on about?" I jumped in surprise and looked back over my shoulder to see a creepy-looking woman emerge from a burst of green flames. "Kingdom Hearts belongs to me!" she declared. "The heart of all kingdoms, the heart of all that lives. A dominion fit to be called Kingdom Hearts must be my dominion!" She stretched her arms up into the air for dramatic effect.

"Maleficent, no!" Sora responded. "No more Heartless!"

I glanced at him in surprise. "Maleficent?" I repeated under my breath. So this was the witch who had manipulated Riku and still gave him nightmares to this day. I couldn't blame him, she looked like something out of a nightmare even just standing there.

"I do not take orders from you!" Maleficent sneered, summoning a new group of Heartless to surround the blue-haired man.

"Fool," he remarked coolly. Snapping his fingers again, he called Dusks from the darkness, who promptly devoured Maleficent's Heartless before turning to face us.

In a flash of light, Maleficent reappeared in front of us, using her staff to create a blinding wall of green fire between us and herself. "While I keep these creatures at bay, you devise a way to vanquish them – forever!" she commanded.

"Maleficent," Sora called, but the Dusks leapt on top of her, clinging to her shoulders and back.

"Do not misunderstand me. I shall have my revenge on you yet," she warned, before collapsing to the ground under the weight of even more of the Nobodies.

"Maleficent!" Sora shouted again.

"Leave, now!" came her muffled voice.

"I don't take orders from you!" Sora retorted. He started to rush forward, ever the hero, but Donald and I both grabbed his arms.

"Sora, c'mon!" Donald urged.

"But, what about...?" Sora looked back to where Maleficent had been standing. Her flaming wall was quickly dying out, and there were even more Dusks waiting their turn to attack us.

"Now then, where did we leave off?" the Organization member asked. He snapped once more, and the Dusks disappeared, but they were rapidly replaced by the first group of Heartless plus many others. We were surrounded.

"Which side are you guys on, anyway?" Sora complained.

"The Heartless ally with whoever's the strongest," the man replied. With a wave of his hand, he prodded the creatures into beginning their attack. Sora and I both swung in unison as the first few jumped into the center of the circle, sending their pink hearts floating upwards.

The blue-haired man watched the hearts sail away with a smile on his face. "Yes, Sora, Meli! Extract more hearts!" I flinched at the use of my name. How did he know that? He disappeared into the darkness, leaving the ring of Heartless behind.

"No! The hearts!" Sora cried, watching them vanish. The Heartless had closed in on us and were ready to strike, but he was too worried about what the man had said. "Maybe everything we've done...maybe it was all for nothing." A large Heartless swung at him, and he blocked the shot but didn't fight back right away. "What am I supposed to do if I can't use the Keyblade?" he cried.

"Imbeciles!" Maleficent's voice boomed from beyond our sight. "You can't be trusted to do anything!"

Suddenly a pool of darkness opened beneath our feet, and we fell down into a black pit. I landed hard on my back, knocking the breath out of my lungs for a few seconds. When I could breathe again, I rolled over to see Sora not far away, pushing himself up off of his stomach and dusting off.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"Yeah, I think so," he replied. Donald and Goofy walked up, and we all began to look around. There was nothing but blackness as far as the eye could see.

"What's this place?" Goofy wondered aloud.

"It must be the Realm of Darkness!" Sora exclaimed. "Kairi! Riku!" His voice echoed through the emptiness.

"Shh!" I grabbed his elbow to stop him. "I don't know that this is actually the Realm of Darkness. It may be part of the In Between, and yelling is only going to get you a lot of unwanted company."

Before he could reply, Donald let out a startled quack. I spun around to see yet another hooded Organization member, holding a small, white box. Something about this particular man seemed familiar to me, though he was too far away for me to tell anything for sure.

"Who's there?" Donald demanded. He ran forward, but the man was gone before he could reach him. Only the box remained behind, which Donald immediately snatched up. "What is it?" he questioned, looking it over.

"Are you sure you wanna open...?" Goofy began, but Donald already had the lid up. "...that." Goofy leaned over to see the contents of the box, and Donald pulled out what looked like a photo. He handed it to Sora, and Goofy and I scooted over so that we could see over his shoulders. What I saw took me completely by surprise.

"Gawrsh, it's the gang from Twilight Town," Goofy remarked. "There's Hayner, Pence, Olette...and, uh, um..."

"Roxas," Sora stated. I blinked at him in shock. He was right, of course, that was definitely Roxas in the photo, but I never expected him to know that.

"You know him?" Donald queried.

"No," Sora answered. "The name just popped into my head. This is Roxas."

"You're right," I agreed softly. Sora turned to look at me and raised a questioning eyebrow. "I do know him. Or...I did. And you're right, his name is Roxas."

"But how would I know that?" Sora wondered.

I sighed and gave him a slight smile. "It's...a long story." I glanced back over at Donald to see him impatiently waving the other item from the box, a blue ice cream bar.

"Are you sure you wanna eat...?" Goofy began again, just as Donald took a bite out of the ice cream. "...that."

Donald pulled the bar back out of his mouth and looked at it in surprise. "Salty? No...sweet!"

I laughed. "It's called sea salt ice cream. I've had it before, it's...strange." The question was, why would a member of Organization XIII leave us a photo of Roxas and the other kids, and a sea salt ice cream bar? Were they trying to point us to Roxas' existence somehow?

Just then, the ice cream began to glow and float up into the air, signaling that another gateway was ready. Sora used his Keyblade to open it, but then frowned and glanced around anxiously. "Not yet! I gotta look for Kairi!"

I shook my head. "Like I said before, I have a feeling this is actually just the In Between. If it is, she wouldn't be here, and we should be getting out of here, too."

Sora sighed reluctantly. "Okay. I guess you're right." He gazed off into the darkness one more time. "I'll be back, Kairi. I promise."

Chapter Text

After leaving Hollow Bastion, Sora decided he wanted to head back to the Land of Dragons to check on Mulan, the girl we had helped get into the army. We landed the Gummi Ship in the mountains, close to a burned-out village, and began to trudge through the snow. I rubbed my arms against the chill, wishing again that I had my coat back. These fairy clothes might guard against the darker ness, but they did nothing for the cold.

We hadn't gone very far when Donald stopped and pointed ahead. "Look!"

I wasn't even surprised this time to see the black-coated figure with his back to us. What did surprise me was when he saw us and took off running in the opposite direction. So far it seemed like every Organization member we had met wanted to either fight us or taunt us, not get away from us. So why run?

"Wait!" Sora shouted. He started to chase the guy, but was interrupted when Mulan came jogging up behind us. "Mulan, hey. No time to talk. We gotta catch that guy!"

Mulan bent over, catching her breath, then straightened and nodded. "I'm following him, too!"

"Then let's go!" Donald exclaimed.

Climbing uphill in the snow was slow-going, but we eventually made it up to the pass where we had triggered the avalanche on our previous visit. Mulan tapped Sora on the shoulder and pointed as the mysterious figure ran past and disappeared around the corner. We broke into a run, trying to catch up, but he seemed to have vanished.

"Looks like he got away," Mulan remarked.

"Maybe he finally actually used a dark corridor," I suggested. "Weird that he was running to start with."

"How come you're after somebody from Organization XIII?" Goofy asked.

"What is that?" Mulan questioned.

"The guy in black," Sora explained.

"One of the bad guys!" Donald added.

"I knew it," Mulan replied. "There's a rumor in the Imperial City about a spy in black, lurking in the mountains. I've been up here tracking him, but when you arrived, I lost him."

"Sorry," Goofy said glumly.

Mulan smiled. "Don't apologize! But I do wonder where he went."

We all glanced around for any trace of the spy, but all I saw was rocks and snow. Then a slight movement caught my eye at the top of the hill in front of us, and I jerked my head up to see Heartless beginning to emerge, just like they had the last time we were here.

Donald groaned. "Again?"

A swarm of the yellow, robotic creatures came flying towards us, and we all pulled out our weapons. "Okay, first things first!" Sora proclaimed.

Dashing forward, I began slashing back and forth, leaping up into the air to take the Heartless down. These guys were annoying, with their jerky, sudden movements, but the good news was, they weren't too difficult to get rid of. As I fought, I realized that Sora wasn't nearby and stopped to look back towards the bottom of the hill. To my surprise, he was in the midst of his own battle with the man in black. I began to run, or more accurately, slip and slide, down the snowy hill in their direction, determined to help, but came to a sudden halt as I drew closer. The sword that the man held...I would recognize it anywhere. That sword had caused me more bumps and bruises than I could count.

The presence of Soul Eater meant that this had to be Riku, but if so, why was he fighting Sora? I knew he had changed, but I didn't think he'd ever turn his back on his best friends. I watched the fight closely, and it soon became apparent that Riku was mainly just defending himself. He was hardly making any offensive moves at all. What, then, was his point in even staying here? Why didn't he just take his leave, unless...unless he was looking for me.

Frowning, I swung my Keyblade at a couple of the Heartless that had decided to try to interfere, then continued watching Sora and Riku. It had been almost three weeks since we had last spoken, which had given me time to cool down and think about our conversation. I was still angry and hurt, but I realized that maybe I should at least give him the chance to say what was on his mind. It would probably just end up being lame explanations and excuses, but still, I supposed he deserved to be heard out.

Still keeping an eye on those two, I turned and helped the others finish off the last of the Heartless. By the time we were done, Sora and Riku had stopped fighting, as well. They stared at each other silently for a moment, then Riku lifted his hand in a shrug and ran off again. Sora chased after him for a few steps before slowing to a stop.

"That guy..." he mused. "No...why...would he?" Sora stumbled forward slightly. "Riku?" He broke into a run again and I followed, but he didn't make it very far before giving up again.

"Are you okay, Sora?" Donald asked as he and Goofy came up beside me.

"Did ya get 'im?" Goofy queried.

"Hmm..." Sora hummed, clearly lost in thought. "Oh...he's gone."

"What?" Donald screeched. "You lost him?"

Sora scratched the side of his head, looking a little sheepish. "Anyway...what now?"

"I think that we better get rid of all the Heartless first," Goofy commented.

Before anyone else could pipe in, there was a thunderous boom that shook the whole mountain. I faltered, nearly falling over into the snow, but with a hand from Goofy regained my balance.

"What was that?" Mulan exclaimed. "Come on, we better get off the mountain."

Sora agreed, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye still looking back over his shoulder, watching for Riku to reappear. As the others started walking away, there was a second quake, and from up higher on the mountain something huge exploded out from underneath the snow. Gasping, I gaped in astonishment as what looked like a dragon hovered high above our heads, then gave a ferocious flap of its wings and took off flying in the same direction we had just been walking.

"It's heading for the city!" Mulan cried. "We've got to warn Shang!"

I glanced back over my shoulder, too, at the path where Riku had vanished. "You guys go on. I'll...catch up."

Sora cocked his head to the side and gave me a look of confusion, but then nodded. "Okay, let's go!"

Chapter Text

I waited until I was sure Sora and the others were gone before speaking again. "I know it's you," I called out, trying my best to keep my voice steady. "You can come out now."

Sure enough, I heard the crunching of footsteps in the snow behind me. "Hi, Meli," that strange, deep voice said quietly. "I was hoping we would get to talk again."

"You must have been pretty desperate, to expose yourself to Sora like that," I commented without turning around. "He knew it was you, you know."

"I know." The footsteps walked closer, and soon I could see the black coat in my peripheral vision, though still a few yards away. "I'm glad you stayed behind," Riku spoke again. "I wasn't sure that you would."

I let out a huff of air that had some resemblance to a laugh, my breath forming a cloud in the frigid air. "I wasn't sure if I would, either, and I'm still not sure that I won't regret it. So whatever you have to say to me...better make it good."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for what I did. For...hitting you."

"Yeah, you said that already," I cut him off, still staring at a randomly chosen point in the snow. "Didn't fix anything."

"I know. I didn't expect to fix it," Riku responded. "I...can't fix it. I can't change what happened. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to keep apologizing until...until maybe, one day, you can forgive me."

"Forgive you?" I repeated incredulously. I shook my head. "I don't...know if that's possible."

"I understand that you can't yet..."

"I'm not talking about yet." I finally spun around to face him. "I'm talking about ever. You promised me, Riku."

He nodded, dropping his chin down to his chest. "I know. I know I did."

"You promised me that you would never hurt me." My voice rose slightly and I dug my fingernails into my palms, but I forced myself to remain calm this time. "You know what I've been through. That was probably the most important promise you could ever make to me. And you broke it."

"But that wasn't me," Riku countered, looking at me with pleading eyes. "Ansem had completely taken over at that point. He's the one who hurt you. I would have never..."

I waved a hand in dismissal and turned my shoulder back to him. "But you let him! Maybe you had no control in that moment, fine. But you're the one who chose to let him take over, knowing full well what he was capable of."

"I never would have guessed that he would do something like that," Riku disagreed.

I just crossed my arms and shook my head, already tired of hearing his excuses. There was nothing he could say that was going to make me feel better about any of it, no matter how much I wanted it to.

"Meli...I love you."

My eyebrows shot up in surprise and my heart started beating double time, but I stayed still, refusing to look at him.

"I told you before that I cared about you, and you being gone has just made me realize even more just how much I do," he continued. "I love you. I made a stupid, idiotic decision that ended with you getting hurt, and I will always hate myself for that. But it will never happen again, and I will promise you once again that I, myself, will never hurt you."

"Do you know how many times I've heard that same old lie...'I'm sorry, it will never happen again'?"

"But I'm not him," Riku said emphatically, taking a chance and stepping in closer to me.

I turned my face even farther away from him. "Aren't you?" I murmured.

"No!" Riku returned, sounding hurt. "Aiden may have said he loved you, but his actions never lined up. I do love you, and I will...walk on water, or do whatever else it takes, to prove it to you."

I let his words sink in for a moment. I could feel myself softening, wanting to give in, wanting to forgive him and declare my feelings for him right then and there. But I had been there and done that so many times before, and look where it had gotten me. I wasn't that girl anymore. Or at least, I was ready not to be.

At last, I turned to face him, but backed a couple of steps away. "I'm sorry, Riku. I want to be able to forgive and trust you. I really do. But...you're the one who has been urging me these months that I've known you to stand up for myself, to know when enough is enough and it's time for me to say 'no more'." I sucked in a deep breath, the cold stinging my nose. "So that's what I'm doing. I'm standing up for myself. And unfortunately, that means that I can't forgive you, at least not right now. Especially not...as long as you're...wearing that face."

Riku looked down at the ground again and gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Yeah. I understand." Raising his eyes to meet mine, he smiled sadly. "Take care of yourself, Meli. Your darkness has been growing, I can sense it. I know that I'm probably to blame for that, but...just be careful, okay?" He paused a moment before adding, "I'll see you later."

There was a catch in my throat, and I could only nod in return. I turned my back at the same time that he did, beginning the march towards the Imperial City as he disappeared into a dark corridor. I knew I could use a corridor, myself, but I needed some time alone to think. Maybe the walk through the snow would clear my head before I had to meet back up with Sora and the gang.

I had been walking for around ten minutes when I sensed that I was no longer alone. Halting mid-step, I stiffened and let my eyes dart back and forth over the white landscape. Something was definitely not right. In one swift movement, I spun around and summoned my Keyblade to my hand. Standing not far behind me were two of the lesser Nobodies, the huge ones with legs and arms the size of tree trunks like we had fought in Twilight Town on our last visit. They had been tough to beat then, and that was with all of us working together. Now it was just me, with no one else around for miles.

They began advancing towards me, and I quickly shot Dark Firaga at each of them, but they merely flinched and kept coming. I tried orbs of dark energy next, starting to panic a little, but nothing seemed to sway them from their mission. Before I could muster another spell, one of them swung its giant claymore right at me. I blocked with my Keyblade, but the Nobody was incredibly strong and I couldn't hold him off for long. As I stumbled sideways, the second claymore came whizzing towards my head, and I had to lean back so far to avoid it that I lost my balance and fell to the ground. Immediately I rolled over onto my back, but as soon as I did there were two sharp blades jabbing into the snow on either side of my neck, blocking any further movement. Gasping for air, I blinked up at the Nobodies towering over me, wondering why they weren't just killing me.

"A valiant effort, but there's no use continuing to struggle."

I knew that voice. Cutting to my eyes to the side, I could just see the blue-haired man walking towards me. "What do you want?" I croaked, trying not to move my throat too much for fear of it being sliced open.

The man smirked. "You'll find out, soon enough." I shifted my hand by my side, getting ready to open a corridor beneath me and escape. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he warned smoothly. "Don't you think I planned for your dark abilities? If you try to enter the In Between, there will be plenty of Dusks waiting there to meet you."

I glanced back over at him, then up at the two faceless monsters above me. I couldn't tell if he was bluffing or not, but staying here certainly wasn't going to work in my favor. "I'll take my chances," I remarked before sinking down into the darkness.

My plan had been to immediately open another corridor into the Imperial City, where Sora and the gang should be waiting, before Mr. Blue Hair could catch up. But as soon as I landed in the In Between, I was overtaken by Dusks. Apparently he hadn't been kidding about being prepared. They jumped on top of me, clawing and biting, and no matter how many I threw off there were more right behind. Through the flurry of white, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the man enter and shake his head at me.

"See now, Meli, if you had just listened, you could have avoided all of this pain," he chided. "That will be an important lesson for you, in the days to come."

I saw his hand move, swinging towards the back of my neck in a karate chop motion, but I just barely felt the impact before I was out cold.

Chapter Text

I woke lying on my face, my pulse pounding through my temples. Groaning, I pried my eyes open and found myself staring at an unfamiliar purple stone wall. I picked my head up off the cold, hard floor slightly, and began to test out my limbs to make sure everything was still working alright. They were a bit stiff, and some spots were painful like they had been scraped or scratched, but other than that I was in one piece. What had happened, anyway? My memory of the last few minutes before waking was a little fuzzy. Oh, wait, I was in the snow, and Mr. Blue Hair had showed up...

I rolled over and sat up suddenly, which sent my head into an excruciating spin that made me gasp. As soon as I had recovered, I looked around wildly at my new surroundings. A prison cell. I was most definitely in some kind of jail, or dungeon, with one large, barred opening looking out into a stark white hallway. Immediately I thrust my right hand out in front of me to create a corridor out of there, but nothing happened. I tried again, this time flicking my wrist to summon my Keyblade. Still nothing. I could feel fear rising in my chest. What had they done to me? Why wasn't anything working?

"Are...you okay?" asked a small, female voice. "You've been unconscious for a while. I was...a little worried."

For the first time, I looked outside of my cell and realized that there was another just like it right across the hall. An auburn-haired girl wearing a pink dress stood at the bars, her face pressed up against them, watching me.

"Well, my head is killing me, I think some stupid Dusks tried to eat me alive, and none of my magic is working," I replied bitterly, examining the wounds on my arms and legs. "So I guess I've been better."

"Oh," the girl responded quietly. "I'm...sorry."

I glanced back up at her, feeling bad for snapping. "I'll survive," I remarked in a lighter tone. "Thanks for asking. I didn't mean to sound so...angry." Seemed like anger had become a much more common go-to emotion for me lately.

"That's alright. I'm sure you're scared, just like I was when I first got here."

I had heaved myself to my feet while she was talking, and now stepped closer to the bars so that I could see her better. "Kairi?" I exclaimed. "You're...you are Kairi, aren't you?" I don't know why it took me by surprise. Obviously, I had been kidnapped by the Organization just like she had, so it made sense that we would end up in the same place.

"Um...yes..." Kairi answered uncertainly. "How do you...know who I am?"

"Oh. I, uh...I'm a friend of Sora's. My name's Meli. We've been traveling together, fighting Heartless, and looking for you."

Kairi's face lit up. "Sora's looking for me?"

"Of course!" I exclaimed. "He was so upset when he found out that Axel had kidnapped you. We've been trying to find a way into the Realm of Darkness to get to you ever since."

"The Realm of Darkness...is that where we are?"

I shrugged. "Well, I assume. That's where we figured the Organization was hiding out, anyway." I leaned forward to touch my forehead to the metal bars and glanced up and down the empty hallway. "Have you seen or heard anything that might point to where we are or what they're up to?" Not that there was anything I could currently do about it, apparently, but I still wanted to know.

"Not really," Kairi sighed. "After Axel grabbed me, I got away and ended up in some place called Twilight Town. But he found me again there, and took me back into the darkness. Then we ran into Saix, who apparently Axel is scared of, and Saix ended up bringing me here."

I frowned, thinking. "Which one is Saix?"

"Uh, he's got blue hair, and yellow eyes?" Kairi offered.

"Right," I nodded, shuddering slightly. "He's the one who got me, too."

"Ever since I've been here, I haven't seen anyone except the weird white things that bring me my food. I don't even know what they want with me."

"I'm sure it has something to do with Sora. He and the Organization have been chasing each other since way before they involved you." The better question was, what did they want with me? I thought they wanted Keyblade wielders out killing the Heartless, not locked up in their dungeon.

"Well, I'm sorry for your sake that you got caught," Kairi remarked. "But it's so nice to finally have someone else to talk to. Besides Pluto, that is."

Hearing his name, a medium-sized yellow dog jumped up from the back of Kairi's cell where he had apparently been lying, and barked twice. "Whoa!" I exclaimed. "How'd you end up with a dog in there?"

Kairi laughed. "I don't really know. He just sorta found me when I was trying to escape from Axel, and kept following me until we got here. Now he's stuck with me, poor thing." She leaned down and patted the panting dog on the head affectionately.

I smiled. "He's cute." In a strange sort of way. "I'm sure it's been helpful to have his company, at least."

"Definitely."

"Now, if only I could get us all out of here," I sighed. Turning away from the bars, I flexed my hand again, to no avail. But this time, with the murkiness in my brain cleared, I finally noticed the new black cuff on my wrist. Scowling, I grabbed onto it and tried to yank it off, but it wouldn't budge. "What is this thing?" I muttered, pulling on it again. Whatever it was, it probably had something to do with why I couldn't summon my Keyblade or a corridor, and it was not coming off. Growling in frustration, I plopped down onto the floor of the cell and glared at the bracelet.

"So, um...is Sora doing okay?" Kairi asked tentatively. "It's been so long since I've seen him."

I smiled sadly. "Yeah, he's good. Other than missing you, of course...and Riku."

"Wait, so Riku isn't with him? I had hoped they were together."

"No." I paused, trying to decide what to tell her. "After you saw them last, they got separated again. Riku trapped himself in the Realm of Darkness so that they could shut out the Heartless that were trying to invade our realm." I saw the concern on her face, so I quickly continued. "He got out, though. He's back in the Realm of Light, but...Sora hasn't been able to find him yet." I knew there was no harm in telling her my side of the story, about how I had been friends with Riku, too, but I really didn't feel like talking about it yet. Also, I didn't really want to have to hit her with the news that I was her from a parallel universe. No need to freak her out just yet.

Instead, I launched into a detailed account of all of the adventures I had been on with Sora over the last couple of months. Kairi took a seat next to the bars of her own cell and listened with enraptured interest, breaking in to ask questions periodically. Time passed relatively quickly this way, until we were interrupted by a couple of Dusks warping into existence right in the middle of our cells.

"Well, here's our dinner," Kairi commented as the creatures set down a tray and vanished again.

I looked down at the food and crinkled my nose in dismay. There was only a cup of water, a small piece of bread, and some kind of meat that reminded me of maybe sausage or bratwurst. "Is this all they give you?"

"Yep, twice a day," Kairi sighed. "Or at least, as far as I can tell. It's kinda hard to keep up with how much time has passed in here." She shrugged. "The meat is only if we're lucky, sometimes it's cheese or something instead. I guess it's better than nothing!"

A thought occurred to me, and I tried to peer over into her cell. "Wait, how much did they give you? Do you get extra, for Pluto?"

"One piece of bread and one piece of meat. I usually go halvsies with him."

"You'll starve that way!" I exclaimed. "Here, give him some of mine, instead." I tore off half of my meat and stood, reaching my arm out through the bars.

"But then I'm getting more meat than you are," Kairi protested, also standing. "That's not fair."

I shook my head. "You've been here a while already, so you've got some catching up to do. Besides, it won't be that much longer before Sora finds us. I'll be fine until then," I assured her, trying my best to sound optimistic.

"If you're sure..." Kairi stretched her arms through the bars, and I tossed her the meat. She caught it with both hands and smiled. "Thanks, Meli."

Satisfied, I sat back down and picked up the bread. It was dry, and kind of stale, but at least it was food. It had been a long time since I had last eaten, and I had expended quite a bit of energy in the meantime. I tried to chew slowly to make the food last longer, but it was still gone much faster than I would have liked.

Kairi and I both lay down to try to get some sleep not long after that. It was only then that I finally noticed that something else was different besides the cuff on my wrist. Sitting back up, I lifted my shirt to find some kind of black band, very similar in look to the bracelet, wrapped around my midsection. It was so thin and lightweight that I hadn't even realized it was there. I felt strangely violated, knowing that someone had been under my shirt while I was unconscious. What else had they done to me that I didn't know about?

I tugged on the band, knowing full well before I even tried that it wasn't going to come off, either. It had no obvious purpose, nor anything that looked like a seam where it would come apart to go on and off. After staring at it for a few more minutes, I finally pulled down my top and lay back down. I had no idea what that thing was, but it gave me a very bad feeling.

Chapter Text

By this time, I was at least semi used to sleeping on the ground in strange places, so I was able to get a little bit of sleep that night. The Dusks brought us food again the next morning – or during what we assumed was morning, anyway – and again, I gave Kairi part of mine, despite her protests. Even though I had just met her, I somehow felt protective of her. Maybe because she was, well, me, but still pure and innocent, like I had probably been at some point in my childhood. Either that, or hanging out with her "big brother" and her future boyfriend for so long had rubbed off on me. Whatever the reason, I felt the need to take care of her as best I could.

A little after breakfast, I was sitting close to the opening of the cell with my back against the wall, fiddling with the black cuff on my wrist and trying to ignore the rumbling coming from my stomach. I didn't even notice to start with when wisps of darkness began to rise up around my legs. I only looked up when Kairi called out, "Um...Meli?" but by then she was already fading from sight. After a brief flash of blackness, I found myself standing in the middle of a completely white room, occupied only by a few white tables filled with what looked like scientific instruments and notebooks.

"I see you've discovered your new accessory."

I spun around to face Saix, eyes flashing with anger. "What is this? What did you do to me?"

Saix smiled condescendingly. "That ensures that you cannot try to fight or escape. As long as you are wearing it, your magic is useless." He glanced down at my fumbling fingers with amusement on his face. "You might as well stop trying to remove it, you'll only hurt yourself."

After one final yank just for spite, I threw my hands down to my sides. "So nice of you to worry about my welfare," I sneered. "Fine. You've got me, I'm here, I can't get away. What do you want?"

"It has come to our attention that you possess a very unusual skill. One that the Superior is quite interested in."

I wrinkled my brow. "Like, the Keyblade, you mean? But I thought you wanted us using those to take out the Heartless. Kinda hard for me to do that locked in here." I waved my hand to indicate the room.

Saix raised one eyebrow. "No, that is not what I am referring to. One Keyblade wielder fighting the Heartless will suffice, especially when the other has much more interesting things to show us."

"What...do you mean?" I asked nervously.

"Are you trying to tell me that you cannot, in fact, create portals to parallel universes?" Saix pressed.

Oh, right. That. Once again, I wondered how on earth they had come by that information about me. They must have been watching me somehow for quite a while. "I don't know what you're talking about," I replied, trying my best to keep an innocent face.

"You create them using mirrors," Saix continued. "Particularly, the one that you keep in your vest pocket. There are very few people alive that have this ability, and as I said, the Superior is quite interested in making use of your skill."

I shook my head adamantly. "I told you, I don't know what you're talking about." I had no idea what the Organization might want in my universe, but there were two things I did know for sure. One, these people were evil, and any and all of their plans had to be stopped. Two, if I wanted what was best for my former home, I needed to keep them away.

Saix smirked at my probably obvious lie. "Have you noticed your other new accessory yet?"

I looked away, wanting to lie again, but knowing it wouldn't really do me any good this time. "Yes."

"At one point we had two scientists among our number." As he spoke, Saix paced away towards one of the tables. "Each of them met an untimely demise, but thankfully they left us with quite a few handy devices. One, the cuff on your wrist, which I have already explained to you. Another, the band on your waist. Would you care to know its purpose?"

"I have a feeling you're going to tell me, whether I want to know or not."

"Oh, no, I'm not going to tell you," Saix replied, picking up a small object off the table. "I'm going to show you." He paused, tilting his head to the side to look at me. "Unless, of course, you'd like to go ahead and make that portal for me. That's your choice. How well do you tolerate pain, Meli?"

I swallowed past the lump in my throat, refusing to meet his gaze or answer what I assumed was a rhetorical question anyway. I liked to think that I had gotten somewhat better at pain tolerance over the last couple of months of constant fighting, but that didn't mean that fear wasn't now prickling up my spine and into my cheeks.

Saix came close again, and I could see now that the item in his hand was some kind of remote with a dial. Reaching up with his other hand, he clicked the dial once to the right, and a shock of electricity burst out of the band. Even though I had braced myself, it still made me jump and grimace involuntarily. After several seconds, he turned it back off, and I let out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding. All in all, though, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected it to be.

"This device has ten levels," Saix commented. "That was Level One. Shall we continue, or did you have something you would like to say?"

Taking a deep breath, I shook my head. "I still don't know what you're tal..."

Saix didn't wait until I had finished speaking before twisting the dial again, this time two clicks. I gasped sharply and bent over forwards as the electricity shot out even stronger and further than before. Once again, he let it run for several long seconds before cutting it off and waiting to see if I would speak. Straightening, I gritted my teeth and glared at him. I could still feel the after effects pulsing through my abdomen, but there was no way I was letting this guy into my universe without a fight.

Level Three doubled me completely over, and something between a groan and a scream escaped my lips. I was still bent over with my arms wrapped around my stomach, trying to catch my breath, when he turned the dial once more. The fourth time knocked me to my knees, screaming, the shock radiating out into my limbs and up into my face. I collapsed onto my side as the pain continued for what had to be longer than all the other times had been, shaking all over. When he finally turned off the device, I immediately rolled back onto my knees and retched, emptying out onto the floor the little my stomach had held.

"Now, Vexen recommended that the device never be taken above a Level Five," Saix remarked in the same steady, unaffected tone of voice as always. "That was a Level Four, so that means we still have one more level to play with. Unless, of course, you'd like to change your mind now."

As hastily as I could force my trembling, aching body to move, I groped in my vest pocket and pulled out the mirror, throwing it at his feet. "Here," I rasped. "There it is. I'll do it. I'll...make the portal."

The corners of Saix's mouth turned up in a sickening smile. "There's a good girl." He leaned forward with something in his hand, and I cringed, thinking it might be the same remote. But instead, he grabbed my arm and held this object up to the cuff, causing it to make a clicking sound and pop off. "You'll need this removed in order to do so. But remember, if you decide to try anything heroic, there is still Level Five to test out."

I nodded meekly, rubbing my wrist where the bracelet had been. He had me, and we both knew it. He could make me do pretty much anything he wanted now, and I was trapped, a helpless puppet for the Organization. I hated it, hated this feeling and hated him, but I knew I couldn't stand any more of that pain.

Knocking the mirror back towards me with his foot, Saix raised an eyebrow impatiently. "Well?"

"Where do you want to go?" I whispered, placing my fingertips on the mirror.

"It doesn't matter," Saix answered with a wave of his hand. "As long as it's safe for both of us, I just want you to get me there."

Closing my eyes, I opened the portal with ease. Saix stepped back and looked at it, obviously pleased, then motioned roughly to me. "Get up. Let's go."

We dropped through and landed on our feet in the sand. I could see Saix eyeing me as I drank in the sea air, but I didn't care. He had said anywhere, and this is where I wanted to be right now. I didn't even know the name of this beach, but I had seen it in a picture somewhere, and this was my second time visiting. The familiar sounds of the waves crashing almost made me forget the lingering pain and nausea for a moment.

"Back there," Saix broke into my reverie. I glanced at where he was pointing and saw a large boulder set far back away from the water. "Sit there, and don't move until I get back. If you do, I will know, and this does work long-distance," he warned, holding up the remote.

It sounded a bit like a bluff, but I wasn't taking any chances this time. After all, they had been watching me without my knowing it in the past. Before Saix walked off, he clapped the bracelet back onto my wrist. I was trapped again, but at least this time I had the beautiful ocean to gaze at while he was gone. Tears slipped silently down my cheeks as I hugged my knees to my chest, trying to forget about the last half hour, and trying not to wonder what that psychopath was off doing right now.

When Saix returned quite some time later, we portaled back to the white room, and he immediately sent me back to my cell without a word as to what he might have accomplished. I fell back against the stone wall and sank down to the floor, burying my face in my arms.

"Meli!" Kairi exclaimed, rushing to the bars of her cell. "You're okay! I didn't know what had happened to you...where you had gone, or if you were ever coming back..." She trailed off, and I could feel her watching me. "Are you alright?" she asked, quieter now.

I didn't want to lie to her, so I just shook my head no without looking up.

"What did they do to you?" Kairi pressed.

I lifted my head just enough so that she could hear me speak. "I don't want to talk about it."

Kairi didn't reply for a minute. "Okay," she finally murmured. "Whatever it was...I'm really sorry."

Squeezing my eyes shut, I whispered almost silently into my arms. "Sora...Riku...somebody. Please, come quickly."

Chapter Text

The days and weeks stretched on endlessly like a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from. Saix teleported me out of my cell at least every other day, forcing me to take him to a different place in my universe each time – now with the stipulations that it had to be populated, and not the beach. He left me sitting in various spots, sometimes in a back alley, or an abandoned shed, or just tucked away in a corner where no one would notice me, and disappeared on whatever his quest was with orders for me not to move. I obeyed everything he said without question, not wanting to ever give him a reason to use that thing on me again.

Not that my obedience actually fully kept him from using it. Anything that he saw as an infraction or inconvenience, no matter how minor, might prompt him to dole out punishment. Also, depending on his mood, some days he would turn it on the first level when he left, despite the fact that he would sometimes be gone for multiple hours at a time, just to remind me what would happen if I got cocky. Those days, I spent most of my time alone just forcing myself to keep taking deep breaths, and trying to keep my mind occupied with faraway thoughts.

After a trip like that, I couldn't even eat the meager meals that they brought us, and would end up giving it all to Kairi. I had been giving her more and more of my food anyway, sometimes from lack of appetite, and other times for fear of the nausea that would follow if it ended up being one of the bad days. Kairi put up a fuss about it to start with, but gave up after finally realizing that I wasn't going to change my mind. I found out it made her feel better, though, if I kept at least a tiny portion of bread for myself, so I often would do so and make myself nibble on it throughout the day.

The extra food she was getting might not have been much, but I could see the difference it was making. She had more color in her cheeks, and more life in her eyes. That alone was enough to satisfy me. My own face I had accidentally caught a glimpse of in the tiny mirror one day when I was about to create a portal, and I had barely recognized the ghost of a person staring back at me. She looked much thinner and paler than I ever remembered being myself, and her eyes had ghastly black bags underneath them. Maybe it was a good thing that Sora and Riku weren't coming, after all. I really didn't want anyone to see me like this.

Riku had been right about one thing – Kairi was definitely a ball of sunshine. Even locked in a dungeon, she was eternally optimistic. Whether it was for real, because I had told her that Sora was going to come, or a show for my sake, I wasn't sure, but regardless, I tried not to let my own increasing pessimism get in her way. I steadfastly refused to tell her what was happening whenever I disappeared, no matter how much I knew she wanted me to. Not only did I not want to relive it by talking about it, I also didn't want to corrupt her innocence. She seemed like the type of person who didn't actually realize how evil people could be.

Instead, we filled our time by telling each other stories from our pasts. I chose mine carefully, trying to keep them lighthearted and fun, and deferred to Kairi's storytelling as often as possible. She had plenty of tales about growing up with Sora and Riku that brought a smile to my face and let my mind escape for a little while.

"Tell me about Riku," I requested one day as I sat shivering against the cold stone.

Kairi raised an eyebrow in question. "Riku? What about him? I mean, I've told you several stories about him already..."

I had told her stories about him, too, but had conveniently left his name out. "Yeah, I know, but...just about him, in general. I traveled with Sora for a while, so I know him, but...I hear a lot about Riku, and I just wondered what he was like." Riku had been on my mind more often than not during these long days, and I was missing him even more now than before. I had come to a point where I was ready to consider that perhaps his excuses were valid, after all, and it had occurred to me that Kairi might be the best person to shed some light on his true personality.

Kairi leaned her head back against the wall and drew in a deep breath. "Well, it's been a long time since I've seen him. But Riku is...the most reliable friend you could ever ask for. He's always around when you need him, and he notices everything, and I mean everything, so there's no way you can lie to him." She smiled fondly as she spoke. "He tries to act all tough, but he's really just a big softy when you get to know him. He's super reserved most of the time, so it's really hard to get him to open up about his own feelings, even though he always wants to know everyone else's. I always used to try to get him to tell me about what was going on at home and everything, but he never wanted to say."

"He had a rough home life?" I already knew the answer, but I didn't want her to stop talking yet.

"Yeah," Kairi sighed. "He didn't always have it as easy as Sora and I did, and I think that had a lot to do with the bad decisions he ended up making a couple of years ago."

"You mean teaming up with Maleficent, and giving into the darkness?" Kairi gave me a funny look, and I hurried to explain. "I've...heard the story before. From Sora." This was true, Sora had told me the story from his perspective.

"Right, that's what I meant," Kairi nodded. "Riku may not share what he's feeling very often, but when he feels something strongly he tends to act on it, sometimes rather rashly. He's got a good heart, though, and always means the best."

I turned my head to study her through the bars. "So...you don't blame him, then, for what he did? Even though it caused you to lose your heart, and...and all those other bad things that happened?"

"No, of course not," Kairi replied wholeheartedly. "Everybody makes bad choices sometimes. He couldn't have known what the consequences were going to be, and I think he tried his best to right those wrongs afterwards."

I sighed and pulled my knees in close. Yen Sid had said that Sora and his friends were good examples of forgiveness, and apparently that extended to Kairi, too. Everything that she had just told me about Riku lined up exactly with what I had seen in him, myself, back when we were living at the mansion. Making a rash decision based on a strong feeling about something? That definitely sounded like what had happened with Roxas and Ansem that day. He was paying the consequences of it, too, by being stuck in one of his worst enemies' body. He also seemed to be trying his best to fix what he had messed up – namely, our friendship.

Maybe Kairi was right. I had been quick to judge him because of my own past experiences, quick to decide that he must be a bad person, rather than a good person who made a bad choice. Maybe it was time to stop punishing him for that choice, and give him a second chance. That didn't mean that I was ready to fully trust him again, but I felt like I was finally ready to forgive. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, a weight lifted from my shoulders. A single tear slid down my cheek, and I quickly dashed it away before Kairi could see.

"Are you okay, Meli?"

"Yeah," I answered, trying to sound nonchalant. "I'm just...cold." A shiver shook my body as if on cue.

"Hmm, seems like you're always cold," Kairi mused. "Wonder if there's a draft over there."

I started to answer, but caught sight of the dreaded black wisps beginning to form around my body. My heart plummeted to the floor. Glancing over at Kairi, I could see that she had noticed them, too. "Guess I've gotta go," I quipped, my voice slightly hoarse. I didn't meet her eyes, not wanting her to see the fear in mine.

"I'm sorry," Kairi murmured. She might not have known exactly what was happening while I was gone, but she could tell it wasn't good, no matter how hard I tried to hide it. "I'll see you later, 'kay?"

I just nodded, biting my lip to keep the tears at bay as the darkness engulfed me.

Chapter Text

Kairi and I conversed less and less as time wore on. She still talked to me a good bit, continuing to tell me stories, even if it was sometimes the same ones over again. I greatly appreciated her effort, but I rarely had the energy anymore to reciprocate. I was so, so tired. I spent most of my time just lying on the floor, close to the bars so that I wouldn't have far to crawl to be able to toss Kairi my food when it came.

One day I was lying there, taking tiny little bites of some stale bread, when a corridor began to appear underneath me once again. "No," I groaned, pushing myself up to a sitting position. I had already been out with Saix the day before, so I was hoping that today would be a day off. "Why can't you just leave me alone?"

"It'll be alright," Kairi assured me. I had almost forgotten about her for a moment in my frustration. "Just keep hanging in there. Sora will be here soon, I know it."

Part of me wanted to shout at her that he was never coming, that we were going to be trapped here forever, but I clamped my mouth shut and just shook my head as the cell faded away and was replaced by the bright white walls of the laboratory. Saix was glaring down at me, as usual. I wondered if he was going to be in another teaching-me-my-place mood, like he had been the day before. It was always impossible to tell just based on his stoic facade.

"Stand up," Saix ordered. That wasn't a good sign. Usually he would just toss the mirror down to the floor and let me open the portal from where I was sitting. Grimacing, I pulled my legs up underneath me, then pushed myself slowly and painstakingly to my feet. I wobbled unsteadily for a moment, but managed to remain standing.

"There are intruders approaching the castle."

I caught my breath in surprise. Could it possibly be Sora? Had he actually found us, after all this time?

Saix's eyes narrowed. "Don't get any ideas. There will be no heroic rescues happening today. There are more of us here than there are of them. The only excitement that will be taking place today will be the demise of the Keyblade bearer and his friends."

I swallowed, torn between excitement and worry. It was really true, Sora was coming. I had all but given up hope that he would ever find us. But I really had no idea how many Organization members were still around, and what their powers might be. Sora, Donald, and Goofy could be in grave danger coming here. Especially since the Organization was obviously aware of their movements ahead of time, which mean they could be walking right into a trap. But this was Sora, and he always found a way...right?

"Also, if you recall, you are still mine to control," Saix reminded me with a cruel smirk. "Which means that you will be our first defense against the intruders."

My eyebrows flew up in shock. He wanted me to fight against my friends? I choked out a laugh. "You must be joking. Look at me! If you haven't noticed, I can barely stand up straight. You expect me to fight...and win? Against Sora?" I shook my head. "Even if you could convince me to do such a thing, you haven't treated me well enough to make that be a remote possibility."

"Perhaps if you had kept more of your food for yourself, you would feel a bit stronger," Saix answered irritably.

Of course they had been watching us. "Oh, sure, it's all my fault for being nice," I retorted. "It has nothing to do with my inability to eat because of what you've been doing to me." I stopped to catch my breath, even that small outburst exhausting me.

"Well then, here, allow me to help," Saix replied. I flinched as he reached out his hand, expecting some kind of pain to be inflicted, but he merely placed his fingertips on my sternum. Some kind of cool energy surged through my body, making me feel lightheaded to start with but leaving me with somewhat more strength afterwards.

"What did you just do to me?" I felt better, that was for sure, but anything coming from this man was not to be trusted.

"I gave you an infusion of dark energy. It won't last forever, but it should be enough to get you through your task ahead. Now, about convincing you..."

I only lasted through Level Three this time before giving in. Even before it had begun, I knew there was no way around this. But my stubborn nature and concern for my friends wouldn't let me agree without putting up some kind of resistance first, no matter how much it hurt.

"Alright then." Saix was clearly pleased with himself as he removed the cuff from my arm. "Let's go meet your friends, shall we?"

I lifted my head slightly from where I was bent over, clutching my stomach. "I suppose you're going to tell me not to let on that I'm under your control?" I muttered.

"You can tell them whatever you wish. That does not matter to me. Only this device can remove that band from your waist," he explained, holding up the remote. "So any attempts they make to save you will be futile. In fact, I might even encourage you to tell them of your plight. Then they will be less likely to fight back, and make it all the easier for you to dispose of them."

Knowing that Saix wanted me to tell them just made me resolve not to do so. If there was no hope of being rescued, then there was no need to make them feel sorry for me. I really wasn't sure how this would play out without someone getting hurt, but I knew I would need them to fight back in order to make some kind of show out of it. If Saix thought that I was at least attempting to do my job, then maybe he would spare me.

As a dark corridor opened and we entered the In Between, I reached back and pulled up the hood of my vest. It didn't do nearly as good of a job at covering my face as my coat had, but it would at least cast a decent shadow and hide my eyes. Maybe that would be enough to not give me away.

Saix snapped his fingers and summoned two of his apparent favorite Nobodies, the giant, claymore-wielding ones that had attacked me before. Then he opened another corridor, and we came out at the base of a long ramp, with the two Nobodies right behind us.

"Naminé...there you are," Saix remarked.

I snapped my head up, surprised to hear that name again. What was Naminé doing here? She must have somehow helped Kairi escape, because there they both were on the ramp, holding hands. I was happy to see Kairi out of her cage, but now they were both in trouble.

"Meli!" Kairi exclaimed.

Naminé glanced between Kairi and me in surprise, obviously not having recognized me at first. "Meli?"

Saix gripped my shoulder in his hand, warning me not to move or speak. "Kairi, I'm afraid leaving is not an option." He held out his other hand toward her. "I'll take you to see Sora." To my relief, Kairi took a step back away from him. "You don't want that?" Saix asked.

"I do. More than anything," Kairi replied. "But not with you around." She and Naminé both held up their fists like they were ready to fight.

I stiffened, afraid of what Saix would do next. Making me fight Sora was one thing – he could defend himself. But if he planned on hurting these innocent girls, or worse, getting me to do so, I wasn't going to have it. He could kill me for all I cared.

"If I had a heart, this is where I would die of laughter," Saix sneered. Before he could say anything further, there was a huge thud behind us. Saix spun around, but renewed his vice-like grip on my shoulder with the other hand so that I still couldn't see what was going on. A moment later there was a second crash, and the floor shook slightly.

"You..." Saix growled. "Didn't Roxas take care of you?"

My heart skipped a beat. Wait, could he mean...?

Naminé unclenched her fists and smiled softly. "You can take it from here, Riku."

Kairi gasped and looked first to Naminé, then the newcomer in amazement. "Riku?"

Muscles tensed, I waited with my heart racing for someone to make the next move. I heard the sound of a weapon being dismissed, then what sounded like a blast of energy erupting. Saix finally released me to step forward and block the shot with his arms crossed in front of him, and I whirled around to face Riku. He had his hood drawn, but it had to be him. No Organization member would be fighting against Saix like that.

Saix back flipped away from the smoke that the impact had left behind, but Riku rushed straight at him and slammed his back into the wall. My heart was about to pound right out of my chest. Was there really hope, after all? If Riku could defeat Saix, then I could be free. Just as the thought finished crossing my mind, Saix shot me a look that said, "You know what you have to do," before smirking at Riku and disappearing into the wall through a dark corridor.

Riku started to follow him, but was interrupted by Kairi yelling, "Wait!"

He paused and backed away from the corridor as she and Pluto ran up to him, and I felt all of the hope that had begun building up come crashing back down around me. Even if I called out now, and urged Riku to chase after him, it would be too late. Saix would already be long gone. I turned away quickly, trying to regather my resolve and swallow down the tears that were threatening to choke me. When I looked back, Kairi had pushed back Riku's hood, revealing Ansem's face underneath. He turned his gaze away from her, ashamed.

"But...I thought you said..." Kairi stuttered, taking a step back from him.

"It is Riku," Naminé assured her, walking up next to them. "You just have to look past his appearance. Look at his heart."

Kairi hesitated, watching the unfamiliar face, then tentatively reached forward and picked up his hand. She shut her eyes and drew in a deep breath. After a moment, her eyes flew open and a wide smile spread across her face. "It is you! But I don't understand, how...?"

"I'll have to explain later," Riku replied. "We don't have time now."

A Level One buzz from my waist reminded me that Saix was watching and waiting. I cleared my throat loudly, interrupting the happy reunion, and all three faces swiveled around to gape at me.

"Meli!" Riku exclaimed, as if noticing my presence for the first time.

"Hello, Riku," I returned quietly.

Kairi's brow furrowed. "Wait...you two know each other?"

"Naminé, get Kairi out of here," I ordered, ignoring the question. "Go find Sora. He's here somewhere."

The blonde girl hesitated for a moment before grabbing Kairi's hand again. "Okay. Let's go, Kairi."

Shaking her head, Kairi refused to move. "No, wait. I'm not leaving you guys."

"We'll catch up," Riku responded, not taking his eyes off of me. "You need to get to Sora where you'll be safe."

Kairi watched our stare-down for another few seconds before sighing and reluctantly allowing Naminé to pull her away. "Fine. But it better be quick."