A Darker Road
By Ginger Ninja
Before You Begin
He was lying on his side, his back to the future, his eyes on a past shrouded in darkness.
Both were going to crush him.
He closed his tired eyes. He couldn't tell them to stay back any longer.
Yuna and Zidane's cake had just gone in the oven when Tifa and Aerith arrived in the kitchen. Their conversation about visiting some of the other worlds faded away as they found the people they were looking for.
"What's up ladies?" Zidane asked. His cocky grin was completely spoilt by the fact that he was covered in chocolate, flour and eggs.
"Don't even try it Zidane," Tifa said, stepping in front of Aerith who giggled and even blushed a little. "Anyway, we've got some good news."
Kairi's eyes lit up. "He's here." She hopped off her stool. "Where is he?"
"The ship just landed in the hanger. Cloud and Leon went to meet them."
"We told Red," Aerith said, "but you know what he's like when he sinks his nose into a good book. And Barret and Cid are getting a bigger ship ready to fly so they can help displaced people get home."
"Well I'm coming!" Yuna, who was even messier than Zidane, declared. "You stay and watch the cake," she ordered the blond young man, who chuckled and offered the girl a salute. "I'll be back later once I've told Sora how great it'll taste!" She reached up and took hold of Kairi's hand. "Let's go!"
Aerith led the way to the hanger, talking and laughing with Tifa as they went. Kairi could barely keep herself from running forward; so desperate was she to see Sora.
Yuna had to jog to keep up with her. "You're excited," the little girl said with a giggle.
"Very," Kairi replied with a bright smile.
"I am too! I want Sora to have some cake."
"I'm sure he'll love it."
For so long she'd waited to see him, even gone to another universe to help him, but they hadn't had a proper reunion yet and now, finally, she was going to be able to say all the things she had been desperate to tell him since… Kairi smiled with a quiet laugh. She didn't remember how long she'd loved him. All she knew was that now was the time she had to tell him.
"Cloud, I always knew you'd make a great big brother."
Pulled out of her thoughts by Tifa, Kairi looked up and saw the others approaching. Donald and Goofy, both looking haggard and in need of several hours of sleep, were walking ahead of Leon and Cloud, the tall blond carrying Sora on his back. Leon was hovering just behind Donald and Goofy, worried that one or both would drop without warning.
"Off to bed this instant you two," Aerith ordered. "You should've let Leon and Cloud go off and search. Neither of you are up to strenuous activity yet."
"Sora's our responsibility," Donald replied, trying to sound angry like he usually did, but instead breaking into a yawn.
"Bed," Aerith repeated.
The pair nodded and agreed to let Aerith and Tifa escort them to their rooms. Sora's worn-out friends both smiled at Kairi as they went by her. "See," Goofy said, "we said we'd bring him home."
"Aw but that's no good," Yuna was saying to Cloud and Leon. "I baked a cake especially and everything!"
Kairi walked over, reached up and brushed some of Sora's messy, damp hair off his flushed face. "He's warm." She bit her lip. "Why isn't he awake?" She had expected Sora to walk right up to her, hands held behind his head and cocky grin in place. "Was he hurt again?"
"Its just exhaustion," Cloud reassured her. "You saw what happened."
Kairi knew Cloud was right. After all, it wasn't every day that people fought to the death with a powerful opponent, wielded Light and Dark and then, to top it off, reconnected the In-Between worlds to Light and Dark and sent everyone home to where they belonged. It must have eaten up all of Sora's usually unimaginable energy.
"He just needs to rest," Cloud added.
"And he needs new clothes," Leon commented as Sora's remaining shoe fell to the ground in tatters. "I'll find the King and see what he can do."
"I'll come with you Mister Cloud," Yuna said, walking alongside the man. "I can use White magic so maybe I can help Sora some." She smiled up at Kairi, once again taking the older girl's hand. "We'll take care of him, right?"
Kairi nodded. "Definitely." She wasn't going to leave him until he was awake.
He could feel someone leaning against him, someone else's back resting on his.
"Who are you?" They both asked the question at once.
They tried to answer one another, but their voices…no, their identities… were lost to the darkness.
"Red, you haven't changed a bit, have you?" Yuffie said, watching her friend as he turned a page with his nose.
They were in the library. Yuffie, her wounds almost fully healed now, was helping tidy up, sweeping up the wooden splinters and making neat piles of all the debris.
"Why would I change Yuffie?"
She shrugged. "Dunno. It's just been a while, that's all." She sat on the table where he was reading. "What's it about?"
"Hearts. It was written by this Ansem fellow."
"Oh. Him. The ruler of our world."
"Yuffie, Ansem wasn't from our world. He's from a place called Hollow Bastion."
"Well duh. That's our world."
"No, it isn't."
"But…" Yuffie sighed. "So, Merlin was right about our memories…"
"Oh, he's a really powerful wizard but he's resting at the moment. I'm sure he'll be along later. He loves books so I'm sure you'll get on great."
Red turned the next page with his nose. "Sounds promising."
Leon and the King found the room Cloud had taken Sora to a little while later. Sora was resting on his side, the blankets already twisted around his body. Kairi had taken up residence in a big leather chair, Yuna sitting on her knees. Cloud left when Tifa came to find him, the pair promising to return later.
"Send Aerith up here later too, could ya?" Mickey asked them as they left. "I'd like her to take a look at him, just to be on the safe side."
Kairi couldn't help but feel tense and worried. It was hard for her to sit there and do nothing but what could she do aside from watch over him?
Mickey had under his arm a neatly folded set of pyjamas. "I dunno how we're actually gonna get them on him…" the mouse commented. "But we do need to get him out of those rags."
"I'll sort it," Leon replied. He turned to look at the two girls. "Could we have a little privacy?"
Kairi nodded. Yuna stood up and together the pair went outside, closing the door behind them. Kairi sat down, her back against the wall and her chin resting on her knees. "When we were little," she suddenly said, talking because the silence was too much for her, "we always used to go swimming together and if we had to get changed in the same place, we didn't care about not wearing clothes. But now…" She laughed. "Now we have to, because we've gotten older and things have changed so much."
"Do things always have to change?" Yuna asked.
Kairi shrugged. "I don't know, but for me things have always been changing."
"Me too," Yuna replied sadly. "That's what the Heartless do huh?"
"Yeah, they come and mess things up." Kairi wrapped her arm around the little girl. "It'll be all right. Sora will be fine after some rest. And then he can have some of the cake!"
"The cake that came out looking delicious if I say so myself, which I do, because it did." Kairi and Yuna saw Zidane approaching. He smiled. "Cloud told me everyone was up here. Sora all right?"
"He's sleeping," Kairi answered.
"Again!" Zidane joined the girls on the floor. "Jeez, is that all he ever does?"
"Seems like it," Yuna giggled. "Ya know Kairi, Sora slept for three days once. And he talked in his sleep lots too! I forgot about that when we were making the cake."
"Three days?" Kairi hoped she sounded sufficiently shocked. When she was reminded of all the things Yuna and Zidane had told her in the kitchen, her heart clenched and tears of sorrow sprung to her eyes. Sora had gone through so much and she hadn't been there to help him until the end… and even then…
Nothing slipped by Zidane unnoticed and he had a story already prepped and ready to deliver to ensure Kairi was cheered up.
"You know, Sora turned into a frog once."
Zidane grinned. Oh, that got her attention. Yuna's too. Zidane forgot that the incident had (just barely) been kept a secret.
"He did what?" Kairi said, already giggling.
His smirk was utterly devious. "Yeah, so, Sora borrowed some of Tifa's Materia…"
Both of them wanted to turn and look at the other, but the darkness was holding them in place. Only their voices accepted their needs, so long as they didn't try to speak their names.
"Who are you?"
"Isn't someone else here?"
If he could've done, he would have pointed at the past. "There, in the darkness."
"Don't you know?"
"Why would I?"
Night had drawn in quickly, bringing rainstorms with it. Zidane was asleep on the chair. Yuna was curled up in his lap and fast asleep beneath a blanket. Kairi sat on Sora's bed, holding a cool cloth to his fevered brow. Despite everything – the noise of his friends, having his clothes changed and running a fever through it all – Sora hadn't stirred at all. He was entirely peaceful, breathing slow and even as he slept deeply.
Leaving the cloth to rest on his head, Kairi reached for his hand. "Hey, Sora? Zidane and Yuna told me a lot of stories. If you don't wake up, I'll tie your hair in bunches, go find Riku and then let him laugh at you for the rest of our lives."
It was Tifa. She came into the room, an oil lamp flickering in her hand.
"It's the middle of the night sweetie," Tifa said, resting her other hand on Kairi's shoulder. "You need rest too. Your arm must be uncomfortable."
In truth, Kairi's arm was a constant throb but she had forced herself to ignore it. She turned to Tifa. "I can't leave him alone."
Tifa winked. "Seems to me like that bed is big enough for two."
Sleep was so, so tempting.
"Go on Kairi, I'll stay up. Besides, if he wakes up, it'll wake you up too. He won't hate you for sleeping. In fact, he'll worry if he wakes up and finds you exhausted. You know how Sora is."
Kairi laid down, her head next to Sora's. "He used to say he had strange dreams and I didn't always believe him." She made sure her good hand held one of his. "I know better now."
She drifted off, leaving Tifa to keep watch. "Strange dreams," the woman whispered with a frown. "Is that where he always went?"
"…didn't you come first?"
The person in the darkness was coming closer.
"What if he came first?"
"If he did…"
"But why are you leaving alone?" Goofy asked as he and Donald stood with Mickey, watching Cid and his friend Barret as they prepared a ship for the King. "If you wait just a coupla days Your Majesty, Donald and I can come with you."
Mickey shook his head. "Ya need to stay with Sora. It's your appointed task. And ya still need rest."
"We're both better than before," Donald said. "We slept quite a bit and checked in on Sora earlier…"
"He's still sleepin' so we can you with you for a few days and come back when…"
"I'm sorry guys but I can't let ya do that. Sora will need ya both more than me. He'll need all his friends."
"But…" Donald and Goofy tried to argue, but to no avail.
"Besides, you've got months and months to catch up on! And I know ya both missed Sora loads."
"But… but won't you be in danger too?" Donald said.
"As the King of this world, it is my duty to protect it." Mickey smiled up at his friends. "Don't worry, I'll be back soon. Oh!" He reached into a pocket and pulled out a letter. "Be sure to give it to Sora, and don't read it before he gets it, okay?"
"Ship's ready for ya Mickey!" Cid called.
"I'll be right there!" The King turned to leave.
Donald gave Mickey a hug. Goofy wrapped his lanky arms around both of them.
"You come back safe, y'hear!" Donald ordered.
"I will, I promise."
"And you be sure to let us know if ya need any help, all right Your Majesty?" Goofy said.
Once released from his friends' hug, Mickey strolled across the hanger and disappeared aboard his ship. Donald and Goofy watched him leave sadly, their duty and friendship with Sora conflicting with their desire to protect their King.
"A mouse for a King," Barret murmured so only Cid would hear. "That's…"
"Unusual? Original? Bizarre? Insane?"
"Yeah… somethin' like that…"
It was the grim, grey morning when Kairi snapped away, a cry choking out of her. Tifa was there to hold her as she sobbed, the nightmare skating over her mind's eye with far more gore than reality had held.
Fallen Kairi… blood and bones and…
"I wish I hadn't done it," Kairi whispered over and over and over. "But I had to, I know I had to. I wish I hadn't though. Does that make me terrible?"
"It makes you human."
"She was almost me, almost human. She didn't deserve…"
"But she wasn't human. She was…"
"She was prepared to kill you, Sora and anyone else who got in her way."
"The noises…" Kairi held her hands to her ears. "I can't stop hearing it."
"It gets easier," Tifa promised, stroking Kairi's red hair. "Each day, it'll fade a little bit more. It does for everyone. You just look at yourself in the mirror and say 'I did what I had to. I feel awful about it, but I'm still who I am and I am a good person.'"
Kairi let Tifa hold her for a moment longer, before she pulled herself back and asked, "What about the nightmares?"
Tifa didn't smile. "They might never leave, but… you'll always have the light, won't you?"
"I know." Kairi looked at him with what hopefully came off as a melodramatic sigh. "If he decides to wake up."
And they both had to laugh.
"…then I think we're in trouble."
The past was upon them, cold hands somehow reaching around both of them and pulling them apart. "You are in trouble," a new voice promised. "Well, one of you is. The other… I think you and I will make very good friends – brothers even."
Both wanted to ask who was in trouble and who had a new friend, but there was a sudden weight on their shoulders. "How about you both have a dream for a while? I'm sure that very soon, I'll meet at least one of you again."
They fell apart.
…and above him, a twilit sky went dark.
Riku stood outside the quiet mansion, the wind whispering through the woods behind him. The gate was easy to jump over and he cleared it with ease, landing in the garden beyond and walking up to the door. He knocked on it and waited for the man to answer.