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let's see who we are now (at the end of the world)

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Riku steps out of the dark portal and immediately flicks his eyes around, searching for any movement.

“It’s safe,” he says, and even now he’s still surprised by how low his voice is. After nearly three months inside this body, every time he speaks he’s still jolted by it. It’s not his, but it’s coming from him. It’s not right – too rumbling and rough. Disjointed with what he expects.

He tries not to talk too much, nowadays.

A slim girl steps out of the portal behind him. She’s wearing a white dress and her blonde hair is now long enough to reach past her shoulders. Riku wonders if Kairi’s hair looks like that, then swallows his wave of longing in order to focus on the task at hand. Sora and Mickey have already ventured to the Realm Between. They don’t have any time to waste. He can’t think about anything not connected to their goal, no matter how much he wants to.

Naminé approaches the computer, carefully laying her fingers out on the keys. Riku still doesn’t know much about how to operate such devices, but Naminé has spent the last year under DiZ’s tutelage, and she knows more than enough to do this. He hopes she does, in any case.

“Is this it?”

“It is,” she confirms. Riku’s heart leaps; after all their searching, he’d begun to doubt that they would ever find it. But it’s taken them so long – it’s almost too late. They have to hurry.

“Can you make it work?” he asks, keeping his voice quiet and trying not to betray how quickly his heart beats. Naminé is silent, and as the seconds trickle by Riku’s gut begins to curdle.

“I don’t know,” she finally admits. “My powers work through a connection to Sora… Xemnas and Sora have never met. The link is mostly one sided, through Xemnas’s connection to Roxas. It’s stronger than it was, though. If there’s any hope, it’s now.”

“Try,” Riku encourages. He silently steps around the rest of the lab, examining what he can see. On one wall strange orange lights flicker; the wall opposite that contains the computer set against it. The other two walls are narrow, and hold doors. Riku carefully approaches one, but does not open it. He doesn’t know what type of defence system this world has set up, and he doesn’t want to trigger anything.

“Hold! Who are you?”

Riku turns on his heel to try and find the source of the sudden voice, dark fire already flickering around his palms, but the only other person in the room is Naminé. She looks as surprised as he feels, but she’s looking at the computer.

“Who are you?” she asks curiously.

“A program on this computer,” the voice says. It’s coming from everywhere and nowhere. “If you do not have access to this system, then I cannot let you enter.”

“A program…” Naminé says. “Your name – is it Tron?”

“I – yes,” the voice says.

“We’re friends of Sora,” Naminé says easily. Riku looks at her, but makes no move to intervene. “My name is Naminé.”

“A User like Sora!” Tron exclaims. “He was just here. You just missed him.”

On purpose. Riku has no desire to let Sora see him like this. It is best if he works from the shadows.

“A shame,” Naminé says. “But we were hoping to gain some information off this computer. Could you help us?”

“What information do you want to find?” Tron asks. Riku can’t help but notice that the program still sounds wary. Can a computer sound wary? He supposes that it is talking to them. None of DiZ’s computers ever talked, so this one is already different from what he knows. It could do anything, and he wouldn’t know beforehand to expect it.

“Do you know if anyone has used this login screen recently?” Naminé asks, typing in something carefully. A window pops up, demanding six passwords.

“That…” the voice trails off. “I have no access to that area of the system.”

“Interesting,” Naminé muses. “I have to gain entry to this system. I just need to think for a while to… remember… the passwords. Tron, if you could find out anything else in that time, I would appreciate it.”

“I’ll see if I can find anything in the database,” Tron says, now sounding worried. Maybe an emotional response is supposed to resonate with the people who interact with the system? But when Riku probes a little deeper, he can sense the balance of light and dark that makes up a heart, emanating from the computer. That’s… interesting, to say the least. This computer – this program – has a heart.

Silence builds in the room again as Naminé simply puts her hands over the console and waits. Riku turns to investigate the doors again. The one he is facing seems to lead out to a walkway. Beyond that is a vast space, with strange contraptions on the walls. He can see a courtyard of some type far below.

He hears the tap of a keyboard behind him, and turns to see Naminé entering one password, then another. She hesitates after that.

“Can I do anything?” Riku asks. Naminé shakes her head absently, as if she’s only half hearing him. She types in another password. Riku purses his mouth and paces behind her, moulding darkness to his feet to silence his footsteps completely. He doesn’t want to distract her.

The other door opens automatically when he approaches it. Riku freezes, but nothing else happens. He carefully steps out onto the glass walkway. This path seems to be nothing more than a connection between the computer room and the rooms inside the castle. Riku looks at the path for a long few moments, but there’s no reason to explore beyond his own curiosity. Either Naminé will find the passwords, or she won’t. There is no other reason to be on this world, where people know what a black cloak means.

When he enters the computer room again, he sees Naminé enter the final password. The computer thinks about it for an agonisingly long period of time, but finally a message pops up that says ‘System Start.’

“It works,” Riku notes. Naminé turns and nods at him.

“What did you do?” that voice says again.

“A while ago, a program was loaded onto this computer from an outside source, by someone who had administrative permissions,” Naminé says. “We need to run that program… for it will reveal something to us that might help us, and Sora, in our fight against the rising darkness that threatens us all.”

The computer says nothing for several seconds. “The program unlocked a door in the User world that I had no knowledge of,” the voice finally says. “Take the elevator down to the lowest level. The door should open when you arrive.”

“Thank you, Tron,” Naminé says carefully. Riku follows her as she trots out the second door, the one that didn’t open for him. Riku has to carefully wedge it open, and he holds it for Naminé so she can slip through. He forces the door open wider so he can pass as well, and follows her to the elevator.

Naminé is silent as they descend. When they reach the bottom, she looks at him instead of moving forward.

“Do you think… we’ll really find it?”

“You’ve been helping me search for it ever since you escaped DiZ’s clutches,” Riku says. “Our hard work has to pay off sometime. I’m sure this is it… the Chamber of Repose.”

“Even when Marluxia discussed it, I sometimes wondered if the Chamber of Waking was real,” Naminé says quietly. “What do you think we’ll find down there?”

Riku steps out of the elevator instead of answering. When he comes to the platform at the bottom of the stairs, the ground shines, hums, and opens, revealing a spiralling staircase that descends deep into the earth.

“There’s only one way to find out,” he says. Naminé stands at his side, and together, they walk into the darkness.


 

Sora steps out of the portal and immediately feels like all the breath has been sucked out of him.

He puts a hand on his chest and gasps, and; he can breathe, but he can’t. The air moves over his lips but it’s like it doesn’t fill his lungs. After another few seconds of panic, he realises that he doesn’t feel breathless, like when he tries to dive for too long to find fish, only to realise midway through that his heart is pounding a mile a minute because he needs more air. Instead he feels… nothing.

Sora steps to the side and Donald and Goofy stumble out of the portal after him, both of them looking startled at the change in scenery. King Mickey stands a few paces ahead, already looking forward. Sora puts a hand over his face and feels himself breathing, but – he isn’t. He is. He doesn’t know.

“Hey?” Sora asks, and his voice sounds like normal. He flexes his fist, and resists the urge to summon his Keyblade.

“This place is weird,” Donald quacks balefully, looking around uneasily.

It must be the air here. Sora has been to a lot of worlds, has seen a lot of strange things, but being here reminds him of going to Atlantica that first time – needless panic before he realised he could breathe the water. He can breathe here, too, even if it feels like he shouldn’t be able to.

His heart twinges, an image of Axel flashing in front of him for a second before it fades away. Sora clenches his teeth. Roxas. That’s who Axel wanted to see – that’s the person that was in that photograph, that’s the person who Sora knew the name of, without any prompting from anyone else. There’s an ache in his chest that answers the thought, but he doesn’t know if it’s coming from him… or from someone else.

With every step he took after waking up from that sleeping pod, there’s been a growing thought in the back of his mind. Sora still doesn’t know what to do with what he suspects.

At times, if someone with a strong heart and will, be they evil or good, becomes a Heartless, the empty shell they leave behind begins to act with a will of its own…

If he’s ever going to find answers, it’ll be here. This is the stronghold of the Nobodies, this realm in-between, twisted and curled to fit in the spaces left by the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness. The beings that live here must be just as twisted to survive.

We weren’t that bad.

Sora gulps and runs forward to stand next to King Mickey, Donald and Goofy in his steps like always. The pale light of a heart shaped moon shines down on all of them, and Sora can feel the pull of it even from this far away. His heartbeat is suddenly loud in his throat, and he aches, aches to join with the moon. He chews his tongue to distract himself, and the feeling ebbs.  

“Axel said Kairi’s in the dungeon,” Sora manages to say, breaking the stunned silence. An image of a skyscraper, during a dark, stormy night, flashes through his head. There’s someone standing opposite him… he’s wearing a blindfold. Sora puts a hand to his head to try and stabilise himself. He’s never seen that place before. But the person…

“Then we better find a way to get into that castle,” King Mickey says. “I’ll scout ahead; you fellas protect the rear.”

“Yes sir!”

“You got it!”

Sora can’t bring himself to say anything, but he nods. King Mickey stares at him for a second, like he knows the turmoil that’s going on in his chest, but he still turns and starts running, his Keyblade flashing into his hand.

Sora looks down so the light of the moon doesn’t blind him. There’s something about its pale shimmering that makes him uneasy. “Let’s go,” he says, because he has to push on; he knows where Kairi is, and he will find Riku. He can’t consider any other option.

The Kingdom Key is heavy in his hand, and he tries to ignore how this world sets him on edge. He just needs to channel that restless energy into a fight; and he’s sure that there are plenty just ahead of them.

Sure enough, as soon as they walk forward, Shadows rise from the ground, whispers and flecks of darkness that are so much stronger now that they aren’t in the Realm of Light. Throughout the fight against the Heartless Sora clenches his teeth, and when all the enemies are gone he feels like there’s still darkness creeping up his spine, threatening and far too close for comfort. The Heartless just don’t stop – they keep coming, and coming, and coming, only small breaks between the waves. He doesn’t know why they would, unless it’s because of this in-between realm that sits too close –

They’re attracted to your light.

Sora squeezes his eyes shut and covers his face, the murkiness of that thought unsettling him. This small space between fights is the only time he can spare a second for something like that, and he takes advantage of it and trusts Donald and Goofy to watch his back. He feels – he doesn’t know how he feels. He thinks there might be something wrong with him.

“We should push on,” Sora says, voice coming out weaker than he’d wanted it to.

“Sora?” Donald asks. “Are you feeling okay?”

“We can’t waste any time. We have to find Riku and Kairi,” Sora replies. “I don’t think these waves of Heartless are going to stop.”

“I think ya might be right,” Goofy comments. “There’s the next one now!”

“Push through!” Sora calls, and leads the way even though there’s heaviness dragging at his footsteps. He flashes through the Heartless and even though they’re in the middle of a fight he sticks his hand into his bag to find Kairi’s good luck charm and clips it onto his Keyblade’s keychain. The Oathkeeper appears in his hand, immediately filling the area with a softly glowing light. Sora feels a rush of energy fill him as the Keyblade’s healing powers kick in, and its inherent light beats back the darkness. Not having to fight that as well as the Heartless makes things a lot easier, and Sora charges forward into a diving combo of hits that wipes out that wave of Heartless.

“Nice job!” Donald calls, and Sora acknowledges it with a nod. The ambient darkness has been driven back, but now he’s more aware of the coiled thing at the back of his mind that can only come from inside him. It kinda reminds him of the darkest of his Drive Forms, but it’s also completely different. Using Oathkeeper has brought his awareness of it to a sharp edged clarity. It feels like a threat, a blade pressed against his skin, able to cut at any time.  

He grits his teeth and keeps moving forward, keeps pushing himself to deal with the enemies. The three of them finish another wave, and Sora jogs forward, something like dread at the back of his throat.

Even when he flashes into Wisdom Form, Donald’s magic bolstering his own spells, he still feels heavy, his quick steps not carrying him as far as he’s used to. Thunder comes too easily here – the rain and the heavy clouds call to him, and Sora almost feels like they’re striking him with the spell when he casts it. These clouds know him; he has been here before –

When his drive form runs out and that wave of Heartless is gone, Sora lets himself lean on Oathkeeper for a second, lets himself try and breathe even though it still feels like he can’t. Donald and Goofy flank him, trading concerned glances between themselves that Sora pretends not to see.

“We need to keep going,” he says, and wonders if he’s telling them or himself.

They walk into a more open area, a plaza with a crashed truck at one end. Its taillights are still blinking, but Sora thinks that it’s been there for years – no, he knows it’s been there for years. The familiarity washes over him and he chokes it down, casting about for anything else to look at instead. There’s a tall skyscraper at the head of the plaza, giant screens at the top reflecting an eerie light into the area. Sora looks at the bright screens and sees a flash of a blond boy – a blue haired girl – Axel – the blond boy again but wearing all black now, Oathkeeper in his hand – the same boy he saw before, a blindfold over his eyes –

He tears his eyes away from the screens. The rain that’s been falling for almost the entire time they’ve been here is heavier all of a sudden. The drops are falling on his face, but they leave no wetness behind – even the water doesn’t work right in this realm. Nothing ever has worked right –

He shakes his head. He doesn’t have time for errant thoughts. He can’t let himself be distracted when they’re so close to the finish line.

“Sora!”

He spins around to see Donald and Goofy standing behind two samurais, and he tenses. “Donald, Goofy!”

He jumps forward to attack them, but instead the area freezes. Sora has time to blink, to see that the rain is still, suspended in the air, before he hears the unmistakable sound of a dark portal opening. He whirls to face it, light on his feet.

A cloaked person comes out it, and Sora falls into his ready pose, fingers spread wide to summon Oathkeeper. In the same instant he does so, the Nobody’s hand gleams, and Sora can hardly keep himself from yelping as Oblivion appears.

“A Keyblade?!” he half snarls. That’s his Keyblade, his Keyblade that he associates with Riku, the Keyblade that’s made from the pendant on his necklace. No one gets to wield that but him! “You – who are you?!”

The man doesn’t answer, instead flashing forward in an attack that Sora guards just in time. Locked together, Sora tests his strength and his stomach flips. He doesn’t want to go into this fight by himself. He squints to try and see under the hood; their faces are so close that it should be possible, but there’s only darkness.

The darkness shifts, and then he’s falling – down, down, down.


 

Kairi curls her arms around her knees and resists the urge to bury her head in the seemingly safe place in between her chest and legs. She’s not safe. She can’t allow herself to pretend otherwise.

Since coming here, she hasn’t seen anyone besides the blue haired man that had taken her away from Axel, and it’s beginning to get to her. She doesn’t think the strange, wriggly white things count as people – she hopes they don’t count as people, because she wouldn’t know how to deal with it if they are. They’re disturbing in a creeping way that makes her feel like she’s about to be sick. She’d blame it on the food they give her, but since the food is water and bread, that probably has nothing to do with her roiling stomach. Unless they’re poisoning her food, which she honestly wouldn’t put past them.

Frustrated, she gets up and approaches the bars. Just like all the other times, as soon as she does, they bend unnaturally, closing the distance between them until she can’t even fit a pinky finger outside. She takes a step back and they open without moving, a trick of the light – she reaches forward and suddenly they’re so close they’re almost touching. Kairi snarls and paces the width of the cell – five steps, and turn, five steps, and turn. She knows this, knows every stupid corner of this place. From one of the corners Pluto follows her, his head pointing towards her as she stalks. If the dog hadn’t been in here with her, she’s pretty sure she would have actually gone crazy.

The careful click of heels is the only thing that alerts her to the presence of the blue haired man – he’d called himself Saïx, but she doesn’t want to give him the benefit of a name. She leans against the far wall of the cell, because she wants to be as far away from him as possible, and the bars of the cell are so far apart that the opening is more like a window.

She hates that.

The man strolls into view, and Kairi tries not to shudder. There’s something… wrong, about him. His skin is too sallow, and his eyes are too bright. His blue hair is vivid in a way that reminds her of the poisonous snakes that are on the islands. A warning, something to be heeded.

“Kairi,” he says, voice completely flat like always. “Your rescuer approaches.”

“Leave Sora alone!” Kairi shouts. There’s nothing else she can do – she’s been trapped in this cell for weeks, and only her discipline has kept her sane. At least her arms are buffer than she ever remembers. Passing out from exhaustion at least speeds time up a little bit. She’s done a lot of push ups recently.

“Sora will be here soon,” he replies. “It’s too bad that you won’t be able to see him before he serves his purpose.”

She can’t help it – she runs forward and slams her fist against the wall that has appeared to stop her from exiting the cell. “Sora is better than that!” she yells. “He won’t fall into your trap.”

“He already has.” Saïx’s voice isn’t muffled at all by the cell bars, even though Kairi can no longer see him. “Even if there have been some inconveniences along the way, some plans are too well thought out to fall prey to mistakes at the final hour.”

“Yours isn’t one of them,” Kairi spits. “Sora will win out over whatever you’re trying to do.”

“And what evidence do you have of that? Or is that something you tell yourself, to try and dim the pain of your heart when you know I speak the truth?”

“Bastard!” Kairi shouts. “Come in here so I can show you some pain of the heart myself!”

Saïx makes a displeased sound. “Now there. That ill temper of yours is something I never could have thought a Princess of Heart could possess. Perhaps your… imperfections… are what draws Sora to you. He wishes to fix your damaged heart.”

“Any damage done has been done by you,” Kairi seethes. “And Sora is my friend because of our shared past, and our promises to each other! You know nothing about either of us.”

“Be as that may, knowledge of your relationship is not required for both of you to serve your purpose. Be glad that your time here is almost complete.”

Kairi listens to his footsteps retreat, and bites her lip so she doesn’t choke on her bitterness. In his corner, Pluto makes a questioning sound. She sighs as she moves over to pat his head. “He has no use for us after this,” she whispers to him. “Sora’s coming here, just for me… it’s not fair! I want to do something, but we can’t escape from here ourselves. I’ve tried everything.”

Pluto blinks at her, then his attention turns to the back of the cell. Cautious, Kairi stands. Pluto had given her a heads up a few times already – he isn’t a normal dog, that’s for sure. She watches the back of a cell for a few seconds, but just as she’s about to look away a shadow writhes on the wall, and opens into one of the same black portals that she’s travelled through before.

A girl moves from within shadows. “This way!” she says quietly, urgency filling her voice.

Kairi stares at her. She’s so – familiar

“Who–?”

“Believe in yourself,” the girl whispers. “Come on, hurry!”

Well, Kairi had gotten herself into this mess by jumping through strange dark portals, so she supposes she might as well try to get herself out of this mess by jumping through another one. Plus, even if there is some other type of manipulation at work here, this will get Kairi out of the cell.

She is so goddamn sick of this cell.

“C’mon Pluto,” Kairi calls. The dog hops up and follows her as she approaches the portal. The girl holds out her hand, but Kairi jumps into the portal herself – she doesn’t need to rely on anyone else this time.


 

Sora snarls as he races forward, locking his opponent into a duel of strength. He braces Oathkeeper against… another Oathkeeper, and a dual wielded Oblivion. How can he wield one Keyblade, let alone two? The only person that Sora knows can do that is himself. An ability that he’d gained after waking up in Twilight Town…

“Who are you?” Sora demands again, because he’s scared as to what the Keyblades might mean, and he’s so tired of being confused. This man fights so unlike anyone else Sora has ever crossed blades with, attacks sharp and powerful, more than capable of pummelling him if he makes a misstep.

“Someone from the dark,” the man – boy – says. Sora forces him backwards with a push of Oathkeeper, and they both leap back, evaluating each other’s strength. Sora’s on his last legs, but he thinks the other boy might be too.

“I know you… but I don’t,” Sora says quietly. “Please, a name!”

“You’ve taken so much from me, and you want my name as well?” the boy asks stonily. “Tell me instead… why did the Keyblade choose you?! Why did you get to live… and not me!?”

The boy curls his Keyblades around himself and then starts running forward, dragging them behind him, raising sparks off the platform they’re fighting on. Sora braces himself and meets his onslaught with a guard, deflecting his first attack and then pinning the boy’s Oathkeeper with his own. The boy snarls at him and flips back to escape the hold, crouching low. Sora jumps forward to stop his slashing attack, and the boy meets him with an attack of his own that sends Sora flying upwards.

Sora flips in mid-air to watch his opponent, and sure enough the boy leaps up to attack him. Sora slashes at him and their Keyblades meet again, the screeching of ethereal metal the only sound in this quiet place.

Sora makes sure to land on his feet, but when he looks up the boy is still in the air, floating like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Then again, he was floating during some of his giant light attacks, so maybe it is just that easy for him. Sora takes the opportunity to catch his breath.

“I see. That’s why.”

The boy drops from the sky, and Sora jumps back to avoid a slashing attack, pushing down his confusion at the boy’s words. Having Oathkeeper and Oblivion raised against him makes his skin crawl; they’re his Keyblades, the Keyblades that he keeps closest to his heart, the Keyblades that remind him of Riku and Kairi. He hates fighting against them. His Oathkeeper is warm in his hand, but it’s a small comfort.

The boy darts forward, overhand strikes coming down remorselessly. Sora avoids them by using every scrap of dexterity he’s earned over his journeys, but the boy still traps him in a combo. Sora guards against it, but the heavy blows leave no room to breathe. The attacks rain down, and a strong one lets the boy disarm him. Oathkeeper spirals across the podium, and Sora falls forward as he loses his balance for a second. He recovers quickly and leaps back to gain some space between him and the boy’s lightning quick attacks, and then darts towards his Keyblade to pick it up again.

The boy gets there first.

He stabs Oblivion through the handle, locking them both in place, and points his Oathkeeper at Sora, an obvious demand to submit in his bearing.

Riku, standing on the other side of the door – “Take care of her.”

Kairi, grasping onto his hand after he’d promised to find her again, eyes wide and desperate as she’s dragged away – “I know you will!”

Sora’s shoulders curl up, a mix of determination and fear running through him. There’s no way he’s falling here! He stares down the boy, stares down Oathkeeper, and closes his eyes. Oathkeeper is his. His promises, his vows, belong to no one but himself. Kairi’s good luck charm is his to protect, and he isn’t going to let this boy use Oathkeeper against him.

His hand closes around a handle as the Oathkeeper the boy is wielding disappears.

“What?!”

Sora is already moving.

He slices through the boy with a quick step, steely determination driving his movements. He cannot afford to lose this battle. Riku and Kairi are waiting for him – and even if this boy is who he thinks, he cannot allow him to win. Even though his heart is aching, and even though the Oathkeeper in his hand proves it, he cannot let Roxas win this duel.

He hears the quiet hum of a Keyblade disappearing, and when he turns around the boy’s hood is down, revealing blond hair. Half desperately, Sora reaches out to him – maybe he can still save him, too…

The boy lets out a huff, tilting his head back to look up into the murky sky. “Maybe I can leave the rest to you.” He looks over his shoulder, and Sora feels like he’s caught in between seconds as his hand moves too slowly to touch him. “You… make a good Other.”

Sora tries to step forward, but the world around them is already fading into bright light. His hand closes on nothing as he lands back in front of the skyscraper, rain once again falling.

“Sora? Sora, are you okay?”

Oh. It isn’t raining anymore.

“Sora?”

Sora turns to Donald and Goofy, wiping away his tears sloppily. His friends are looking at him with concern.

“What… just happened?” he asks.

“Gawrsh, I don’t know. You just disappeared. Then me and Donald had to fight some Nobodies,” Goofy says.

“The guy… in the black coat…” Sora murmurs.

“A black coat!” Donald quacks. “Where?”

“He’s gone now,” Sora tells them. He puts a hand over his heart. “Isn’t that right?”

“I didn’t see him,” Donald says doubtfully. “He musta been really quick.”

“Come on,” Goofy says. “Let’s just find a way to get into that castle!”

“Right,” Sora says, sticking his hands in his pockets. He freezes as Donald and Goofy start walking forward, and after making sure they’re not looking back at him, he pulls the thing in his pocket out to look at.

It’s a strange looking cross on a keychain. The shape reminds him of the patterns on some types of Nobodies. He swallows uneasily and secrets it away with the rest of his keychains. Maybe someday he’ll be brave enough to use it, to find out what type of Keyblade it will show him.


 

Kairi’s breath is sharp in her throat as she follows the girl in white, Pluto at her heels. She’d introduced herself as Naminé, then had claimed they had no more time for small talk; Kairi had fervently agreed with her. She wants out of this castle. It has held her for far too long already.

Naminé turns the corner and freezes, and Kairi’s heart climbs into her throat as she braces herself for whatever is there. Her footsteps slow but she forces herself to keep going. She’s never been a quitter, and she’s not starting now.

Saïx is standing on the landing of the next ramp, staring at Naminé coolly. His eyes flick to Kairi when she comes into view, and she tries not to shudder under that amber gaze.

“Kairi. Naminé,” he says, voice as flat as always, sending an icy finger down her spine. “You’ve had your little adventure – do you like the rest of the castle?” He tilts his head slightly. “Would you like me to take you to see Sora?”

He holds out his hand, and despite herself, Kairi’s heart jumps in excitement. There’s nothing else she wants to do more than see Sora, but Saïx has never given her anything she wants. This is another trap. She bares her teeth at him.

“You’re crazy if you think there’s any way I’m going with you!” she yells.

“There is no way you can stand against me. Leaving is not an option,” Saïx says coolly. His hand falls. “Now, be a good girl and come with me.”

Kairi feels her stomach drop. The horrible truth of it is that – she can’t do anything against Saïx. The looming figures behind him are dark and strong, and there is power flickering through him, power that she can’t match. But even if it’s hopeless, there’s no way she’s going to just go with him without some kind of fight. She falls into a ready stance, and Naminé mirrors her. Even if it’s stupid, she can’t bring herself to go quietly. That’s not who she is.

A chime sounds out, and Saïx turns. Kairi’s mouth falls open as both of Saïx’s lackeys fall – they disappear to reveal a man in a dark cloak, a strangely shaped blade his only distinguishing feature. Still, there’s something familiar about him. Something warm.

“You!” Saïx says. The anger in his voice might be the first hint of emotion she’s ever heard from him. “Didn’t Roxas take care of you?”

The blade disappears from the man’s hand, and he leans back before releasing a splash of blue fire that shoves Saïx back against the castle wall. Kairi lifts a hand to shield her eyes from some of the smoke, and hears more than sees the mystery man slamming into Saïx. Saïx lifts his lip, but opens a dark portal and slips inside – the man goes to enter the portal after him and that finally breaks Kairi out of her reverie.

“Wait!” she yells, running down the ramp. “Wait, please!”

The man in black pauses, and the dark portal closes. Kairi slows her steps as she approaches. He’s so tall now… did he really grow this much in one year? Can it really be him? That’s what her heart is telling her, but she wants it too much – she wants it to be him.

“Riku?” Kairi asks quietly. “Is it you?”

The man says nothing, but he doesn’t move as she steps up to him, as she leans up and reaches for his hood.

Her heart clenches in her chest when she sees him – but even still, she knows him. They have grown together and their light has refracted and shone into each other for too long for her to not recognise him, no matter what his outward appearance might look like.

“Riku,” she says, and there’s no hesitation in her now. “Oh, Riku.” And her voice is full of compassion, because she can’t even begin to think of what he’s been through in the last year. She remembers him as a ghostly apparition, appearing in front of the man whose skin he now wears, holding him back so she could escape.

“It’s – I’m not –”

“I would know you anywhere,” she gently tells him. “No matter what you look like. It’s okay, Riku.”

Finally, he looks at her. It is so strange to meet auburn eyes and think Riku, but it is him. “Kairi,” he says, and his voice cracks on around her name. She grabs him, wrapping her arms around him as tightly as she can. Riku is still in her grasp until he moves, dreamlike, to hug her back.

“I’m here,” she tells him. She doesn’t know how long they stand like that, but both of them need it.

“Riku,” Naminé calls quietly.

Riku stiffens in her grasp and takes a step back. She sees his aborted lift of his hand to flick his hood back up, and it makes her chest ache. What does he think of himself now? How did this happen?

“Naminé,” he greets.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Naminé says. She comes and stands opposite Kairi, and Kairi blinks several times to make sure she’s not imagining things. The other girl is transparent – she can see the wall through her. She’d been solid a moment ago. Uneasy, Kairi shifts her weight between her feet. “Or rather, I don’t have a lot of time.”

Kairi looks at Riku, but he is regarding Naminé solemnly.

“Kairi,” Naminé says. “Riku can explain the particulars to you later – just know that… I’m sorry, for the harm I caused. I fixed what I hurt, but that isn’t an excuse for inflicting hurt in the first place.”

“What do you mean?” Kairi asks, alarmed. The other girl smiles, a tiny twist of her lips. The look in her eyes is more bitter than happy.

“I’m a Nobody – when a person falls to the Heartless, if they have a strong will, their body is left behind and begins to act with a will of its own. That discarded body is a Nobody. Kairi… I’m your Nobody.”

Kairi stares at the other girl, frozen. Of all the things she could have said, that’s not something Kairi could have ever expected. “But… but I never fell to the Heartless!” Kairi tries to protest. She looks at Riku for confirmation, but he shakes his head.

“You didn’t,” he says. “But Sora did. And your heart was inside Sora at that moment. Through Sora’s fall, and your heart, Naminé was created.”

Kairi slowly turns to look back at Naminé. She hadn’t been around the other girl for very long, but – something about the set of her shoulders, the tilt of her mouth, the hesitance in her eyes, tells Kairi that she’s scared.

“Kairi, I was never meant to exist,” Naminé confesses. “Your heart is pure – it never should have fallen. I’m a hybrid, a shadow of a creature that is already unnatural.”

“What?” Kairi asks, stunned. “Naminé… if you exist, then there’s no way that you’re unnatural. You were created from a peculiar set of circumstances, maybe, but if you were created, then it must have been done naturally.”

Naminé sucks in a breath. “Thank you, but that’s not how things work.”

“Yes it is,” Kairi insists. “Nothing created by nature can be unnatural.” She flicks her eyes towards Riku. “That includes you as well.”

“Kairi…” he murmurs.

Naminé bows her head. “Your words mean a lot to me. But… it changes nothing. My time is up.”

“What do you mean?” Kairi asks uneasily.

“I’ve been holding on for as long as I can, but I’m unstable. As you can see,” she lifts her arms, which are obviously translucent. “I only have one request for you.”

“What?”

“Can I… come back to you?” Naminé lifts her head to look at Kairi as she asks. “I would be at peace in your heart. I don’t want to just… fade away.”

Kairi’s throat closes. She looks at Riku, but his face is impassive. “Are you sure?” she asks, half desperate. She’s only just met this person, only just got told who she is. “Are you sure you’re about to… fade?”

“Yes. I’m certain.” Naminé’s voice is tight, but firm.

“Oh.” Kairi looks at the other girl. Her answer is obvious, but she still doesn’t want to give it, even though the evidence is clear in front of her. Naminé is growing thinner by the minute. “Well… yes. Of course you can come back to me, if that will make you feel better.”

“Thank you,” Naminé says. Her voice is quiet, but there’s a well of gratitude in it. She turns to Riku. “Riku, thank you for all your help. I have faith that you will succeed. If anyone can defeat Xemnas, it’s Sora, with your help.”

“Thank you, Naminé,” Riku says. His voice is so deep. Kairi doesn’t know how to react to it. “I couldn’t have done it without you. And I’m sorry, that you had to go through all of this.”

Naminé smiles at Riku, and Kairi thinks it might even be a real one. “None of that was your fault, Riku.” She takes a shaky breath. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” Riku says. Kairi sees his fists clench and resists the urge to reach out to him. Naminé turns to her and Kairi tucks a curl of hair behind her ear self-consciously.

“How do we –?”

Naminé hold out her hands. “Be open,” she says simply. Kairi looks at her – if she’s going to have her in her heart, she wants to know what she looks like. And something tells her that Naminé has not been the recipient of much kindness. Kairi wants to give her this, at least.

Kairi reaches out, and they grasp hands loosely. Naminé’s fingers are smaller than hers, and cooler. Kairi meets her eyes. “Come back to me?” she asks. Naminé’s eyes crease happily, and she begins to shine, so brightly that Kairi has to shut her eyes. Kairi’s fingers close on nothing, and she panics.

“What happened? Did I take her in? Or did she just fade?”

“Can you feel her?” Riku asks her, voice level and steadying. Kairi takes a breath and puts her palm over her heart. Nothing’s changed… besides that maybe, she feels like crying. But there’s a gentle warmth buoying her, a faint sense that she doesn’t need to worry.

“She’s here,” Kairi says faintly. “Riku… what is happening?”

Riku looks up and down the platform. “We don’t have much time for explanations.”

“Riku, please,” Kairi begs. She can’t get enough of her lips around his name. “I’ve been trapped here for weeks – I’m going to go crazy if I don’t get some idea of what the hell is going on!”

Riku winces. She recognises the expression, but not the face it’s portrayed upon. Strange.

“This is the fortress of Organisation XIII,” he says. “There used to be thirteen of them in the organisation, but there’s only a few left now. Saïx is the second in command – you’ve met him, obviously.”

“He was the only one who would come and check up on me,” Kairi whispers. Pluto comes and puts his head under her palm, and she pats his head. It’s become very reassuring to do that. “How many others are left?”

“Xemnas, Xigbar, Saïx, and Luxord. Xemnas is their leader,” Riku says tightly. “Axel died within the last hour. Naminé felt him fade.”

“You were with her?” Kairi asks. “Why didn’t you come and rescue me?”

“I didn’t know if you’d recognise me,” Riku admits, shoulders slouching. “I didn’t want to scare you. I was keeping an eye on you the whole time.”

She seizes his arm. “No more of that! Don’t get out of my sight from now on, got it?”

Riku looks at her searchingly for a few seconds, but Kairi is serious about this. “Okay,” he finally agrees.

“And we have to find Sora!” she exclaims.

“Here’s here, in this world,” Riku says.

“Then let’s go to him!” Kairi says, excitement brimming from her. Both Sora and Riku, back with her, after all those long months of pining? It’s the only thing she wants.

“No,” Riku says. “He can’t… he can’t see me like this.”

“Riku!” Kairi chastises, leaning up so she can be as close to his face as possible. “I recognised you. And I guarantee you that Sora isn’t going to care about what you look like.”

“You can’t know that,” Riku argues.

“Yes I can. Sora can be a bit of an air head sometimes, but deep down, he knows what matters.”

“Kairi,” Riku says, and his voice is filled with genuine pain. She gets off her tip toes and waits for him to struggle with his words. “You don’t… you don’t know how I came to be like this.”

“And I don’t care,” Kairi says stubbornly.

“I do,” Riku tells her. “I do care. I’m still trying to grapple with the fact that you recognised me.”

“Of course I recognised you,” Kairi says gently. She puts a hand on his chest. “I recognised your heart. That’s what Sora would recognise as well, you know.”

Riku is silent for a few more seconds. “Can I think about it, for a little bit?” he asks. Kairi nods. If he cares, then it’s something she can give him time to think about. There’s no way she’s letting him get out of it forever, but they can spare some time.

“Yeah, you can have a few minutes.”

“A few minutes!” Riku says, sounding shocked. Then he laughs, a single huff that she wouldn’t have called a laugh if she hadn’t been able to see his smile. Her heart drops – Riku always laughed so loudly, before. “Oh Kairi, you haven’t changed.” His face turns serious again. “I need to give you something.”

“What?” she asks.

Riku holds out his hand, and a blade similar to the one he was holding before flashes into his hand. Except this time, it’s gold and pink and has flowers on it. Riku and Kairi stare at it, and she’s not sure which of them is more surprised.

“What is that?” Kairi asks.

“A Keyblade,” Riku says. He holds it out, and she takes it. It’s far lighter than she would have thought. “I have one as well.” Light flashes around his hand again, and the blade he was holding earlier appears in it. “I found that one in a place called the Chamber of Repose. Naminé and I were searching for something we could use against Xemnas – we knew he was searching for the Chamber of Waking, and that it was part of a pair. We found the Chamber of Repose, but the only thing in there was a rusty suit of armour… and another Keyblade. I figured you could use it when I found you.”

Kairi swings it experimentally. It feels similar to the wooden swords they have at home, but it makes a chiming sound when she gets up to speed with it.

“It was blue before, but maybe it knew I was going to give it to you,” Riku says wryly. “That suits you.”

Kairi grins at him. “Thanks, Riku.”

He looks away, but she still sees the touch of colour that darkens his cheeks.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Now, I work overhand, but you should strike however feels best for you. You’ll get used to it pretty quickly.”

“Okay,” Kairi says. She stares at the… Keyblade, and wills it to disappear. It vanishes from her hand, like the magic tricks Wakka likes to pull on the other kids. “How do I get it back?”

“Just imagine it in your hand,” Riku says. She narrows her eyes and concentrates, and it appears in her hand again.

“Destiny’s Embrace…” she murmurs.

“Is that its name?” Riku asks. “Interesting… I wonder who it belonged to, before.”

“I think that’s a question for another day,” Kairi says. Riku nods, but then his eyes go wide and he grabs Kairi’s shoulder, pulling her close to him. She lifts the Keyblade, something about the warm hum reassuring to her, and looks up as a strange sound and twisting in the air announces the arrival of another dark portal.

“So you’ve been to my chamber, and plundered it.” The man who appears has flowing silver hair and eyes that are more golden than Riku’s.

“Xemnas!” Riku hisses.

Xemnas’s focus turns to Kairi. “The Princess, holding a Keyblade… interesting,” he says. “It accepts you. Well, we’ll see how much use you get out of it… when you have no protector.”

He raises his hand, and an enormous force buffets the both of them, but in different directions.

Riku!” Kairi screams as they’re pulled apart. She sees his hand outstretched towards her desperately, but it all disappears as a dark portal spawns out of nowhere and swallows her whole.