*

            That hidden strength…

            That remaining piece of me…

            It is the only weapon left.

*

            The sun rose slowly over the ruins of the city.  Large pieces of debris were buoyed up by the churning ocean water before being dragged this way and that across the bay.  Above the sky were growing dark, large clouds moving in to dominate the scene.  It began to pour, the rain frozen into miniature frozen missile that assaulted the already scarred earth.

            I watched this all unfold.  My mood was nonexistent; I felt nothing.  I only perceived.  I was too drained by the excruciating torture created by the wounds crisscrossing my body.

            I had several large bruises on my arms and legs, and there was a large gash cutting down from the top of my forehead around to my right ear and plunging down into my neck, where a bit of the white fabric from my dress remained.  The cuts had ceased in their once fervent efforts to empty me of blood, and now thick, ugly scabs had formed over them—chunks of dried flesh along the backs of my hands and on my face and neck.

            My ears, hidden somewhat between a tangled mesh of filthy red hair, were functioning perfectly.  They filled periodically with the screams and cries of the assaulted city.

            So, a lot of people were still alive…

            I rolled over onto my stomach, a painful and time consuming feat, and began to crawl farther up the shore.  The rain was dense before me, a cloud of tiny icicles trying to completely obscure my vision and almost succeeding.  I persevered long enough to witness a small child being chased by a plain Shadow, the most basic and weakest breed of Heartless.  The boy was crying loudly as he tripped over large slices of graffiti-covered concrete and hopped over broken dressers and what must have been the remnants of a luxury bathroom.

            Why is this happening? I thought, using my forearms to pull me along the earth.  Why Tokyo?  Why all these people?

            I got it in my head that I should do something.  Only I had forgotten the Keyblade, and had to waste the time of crawling back to retrieve it.  By the time I reached the spot, the child was gone and the Shadow was left turning about in circles out of evident frustration.

            If the boy was safe, I cared little to expend the energy necessary to destroy the Heartless.  Killing one Shadow would make no difference anyway, not in the grand scheme of the attack.  If there was no immediate threat, I figured I could retreat to some shelter somewhere.  I could have done without the freezing rain stinging my wounds.      I had not the strength to search for the desired sanctuary, however.  I turned on my back (the least painful position I could manage) and stared up at the sky that sent down its small frozen weapons in an attempt to slowly destroy me.  Why shouldn't there be freezing rain, anyway?  Why should the weather behave as it was supposed to when every other element of my life had descended swiftly and surely into chaos?

            Everything had climaxed—the Heartless attacks, the bizarre weather, my loss of grip on reality.  If I was aware of one thing, it was that truly I understood nothing of what was occurring.  I did not fathom the meaning behind it all nor grasped the extent of the happenings themselves.

            I did not feel like Kairi anymore.  I did not feel like anyone.  So many events had passed me in a fast-forwarded blur—leaving Riku, going into the city, finding Kuroko, the club, the karaoke—and now time insisted upon crawling along as if in slow motion.  It was all too much for me.

            Was Salem really my uncle?  What were his intentions, exactly, concerning Ansem's "legacy?"  Why was I a key player?  What side was I supposed to be on?  I wanted to be on Sora's side—but which one was that?  Why were we all in Japan?  Why not some other country on Earth, or why not another planet entirely?  What had happened to Aiko?  Why did she and her father die so that Sakura could after look me?

            I was soaked, now, the little fabric on me being stuck tightly to my injured skin.  I took one arm and lifted it slowly, letting the fingers settle over my eyes so that I would not have to endure the cold raindrops penetrating my eyelids.

            My breathing was heavy.  I would not have been surprised to discover a rib had cracked and blood pooled in the cage with my lungs; the area hurt enough for such a thing to be true.

            One thing was for certain, though.  I was tired, incredibly and inescapably tired.  Consciousness left me not like the slow, drifting descent of sleep, but much more like the sudden snap out of awareness that was fainting.

*

            "Suzumi-san?"

            "Hm?  What is it?"

            I turned my head to see a fellow classmate of mine smiling shyly at me through a sparse veil of long black hair.  She pulled these rebellious strands back, revealing a friendly, rounded face.  I could identify her as a classmate by her sunset red skirt and white collared shirt.  She was very pretty, I noticed.

            "Call me Kairi already," I laughed, ushering her over with an inviting wave of my hand.  We sat down together at the brown wooden table in the back of the classroom, which was empty.  All the desks stood sturdily in straight, measured rows, a chair turned upside down and stacked upon one each one.  The boards were wiped clean, the floors swept, the windows washed, the trash taken out.

            "Then you have to call me Aiko," she said in a sing-songy voice.

            "You said you needed help?"

            "Mmhm."  She pulled out her math workbook and opened it to that day's assignment.  "Number 24…I still don't understand it…"

            I smiled, reaching into my black book bag for my own workbook.  I used my pencil and went down the lines of the solution with her, explaining each step.  "You know how to isolate the variable, right?"

            "Yes…I did all that…"

            "Then the quadratic formula?"

            "Yes…"

            I found an error in her arithmetic and pointed it out.  "That's all.  You took two times eight instead of times six—looks like you smudged it in the previous line and couldn't read it right.  Otherwise, everything is good."

            "Oh, thank you so much!"  She erased her mistake and fixed it, writing the correct answer proudly in the line provided.  "I'm so happy.  I always make little mistakes and they mess me up."

            "Me too."

            We packed up our things and closed up the room.  As we switched from our indoor shoes to our outdoor ones at the school entrance, Aiko and I chatted happily.  We fastened up our jackets and went out into the dimming world of the outdoors.

            "I'm so glad spring is coming," Aiko said.

            "Yeah," I replied somewhat wistfully.

            "Where's your house?"

            "I go the same way home as you."

            In the back of my mind, I wondered why we had never been friends before.  She was so kind and happy.  Aiko was the type of person everyone around her could not help but love.  There was something in her aura that drew me to her instantly, and I felt that everyone in her life must have felt the same way.

            "Want to get some ice cream?  I'll treat!"

            "Sure!"

            It was not so cold.  I unbuttoned the front of my jacket as we took at turn toward the convenience store.  The sky was very pretty, a few clouds drifting downward to lie upon the coming sunset like frosting upon a cake.

            Aiko reached out suddenly, looping her arm through mine so we locked elbows.  The two of us laughed, a pair of girlfriends in on our own unspoken, unidentifiable joke.  It was fun to act like this, to just be a silly teenage girl.

            At the konbini, we picked out frozen treats and giggled over funny pictures in a fashion magazine and some of the latest manga.

            "This series is so cute!"

            "That's a naughty picture!  Don't look at that manga!"

            "Don't let anyone see you talking about that one!"

            "I like his hair—except it's green…"

            "But it seems so natural!"

            Aiko paid for our desserts.  Outside, we resumed our locked elbows as we unwrapped and munched the ice cream cones we'd picked out.  Mine had a lot of chocolate syrup and nuts stuck in it, which I bit off and chewed happily.

            "You should come over to my house," I suggested.  "It's right there."  I pointed at the floor where I lived.

            "I live there too," Aiko said.

            She said it so naturally that I didn't think it was strange when we entered the apartment together, took off our identical shoes, hung our identical jackets, and announced in unison, "I'm home now!"

            "Mom's still at work," I said.

           "Yes, she is," Aiko said, looking around.  She went to the trashcan under the sink and threw away her wrapper from the ice cream.  I did the same.

            "Wanna do homework?"

            "Nah," she said.  "Not right now."

            "Me neither."

            "Later."

            "Yeah."

            We went and listened to Utada Hikaru music for a while, singing along together.

            "Why's this one in English?"

            "I dunno.  It's the English version of 'Hikari,' though, and I love that song."

            "Me too.  Utada Hikaru's the best."

            Aiko suddenly stood and walked to the window, pulling aside the curtain.  The evening's long rays of sun spread evenly over her body, highlighting the lines of her beautiful face, made her long black hair sparkle.  She seemed to be looking very far out—not just at the buildings, but at the sunset.  Perhaps past the sunset.

            "You ever wonder about things?" she asked, her eyes failing to cease seeming so distant.

            "Like what?"

            "Like…why things are the way they are?  Why the world is like it is, and not like something else?  Why you are who you are…?"

            "Yeah, sure I do," I replied, looking at her face and her glistening obsidian eyes.  "I wonder about that.  Why people are born only to suffer so much during their lives and then die."

            "You can't worry about the suffering," Aiko said.  "You can't think you were born just to die.  You were born to live.  When you are done living, you will go to Heaven and your soul shall dwell there forever."

            "I don't know about that," I said.  "What if you just die?"

            "If you die and just die, or if you die and go to Heaven…"  She blinked slowly.  I noticed suddenly that a brilliant silver cross sparkled from a chain circling her neck.  A cross I somehow recognized.  Meanwhile, Aiko continued.  "Either way, there is no reason not to enjoy life while you can.  Everyone should get a chance to be happy, right?  Even for a short time…"

            "Why do so many things happen that we don't want to happen, then?  Why do all these bad things happen and I have no control?"

            Aiko turned to me then, a very slow and graceful movement.  She took my hands and sandwiched them between her own.  "Your fate is your own, Kairi.  You are no one's pawn if you do not wish to be.  If you cannot believe in God and the power he has given you, then believe in your own strength as a human being."

            "I'm…I'm not strong…"  I backed up.  I had felt like my old self for so long, and now I could feel that Kairi slipping quickly away.  I remembered where I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to be with.  I looked up and saw the world disintegrating around us, the furniture and walls and floors melting from existence.  Aiko, too, was fading like a dream…

            "Aiko!" I cried, stepping toward her and trying to grasp her hands again.  She was like the last bit of myself…my attachment to her was the last remaining piece of the old me…

            And yet her image crumbled.  I could see the destruction of Tokyo through her translucent body.  She spoke once more, her voice faint and yet coming to me from all directions.

            "It's not too late, Kairi, not yet.  I believe in you."