Search Party

By Kikofreako

Summary:

Sora's whereabouts are unknown, Kairi has some strange power, and what's up with this Blonde Haired Kid that's carrying around a set of Keyblades? Everything's spinning out of control as Donald, Goofy, the Destiny Islands crew and the FF crew are jammed together in efforts to find a certain brunette. SokaiSquiffie Pre KHII.

Disclaimer:

I don't own the song "Beautiful Disaster" by Kelly Clarkson. But you knew that.

The Random Quote of d00m:

"And what greater gift can you give to someone than laying your life on the line?" -Naminé

Note To Readers (Which Would Likely Be YOU, So Read This)

I'm not dead, amazingly. My Kingdom Hearts muse, however, was for about five months. At this point, I'm finishing the story just to say it's finished and be done with it. Search Party has never been far from my mind and I've sat down at the computer several times to finish this and never been able to. I'm hoping that the major fluff of the last chapter will at least cut down the number of threats on my life. Bottom line... I'M SORRY! DON'T KILL ME! (cowers under a blanket and hands reader the last chapter) Oh yeah... please read the lyrics to the song when they come up; they actually make a difference to how it flows. The paragraphs are based off of the song. It'll make more sense of you read it.

XxX

"The two elements, both more powerful that any of us could ever imagine. Both fight for a cause, both fight with a passion, both fight for their lives." He smirked. "Will her innocence conquer the darkness, or will the Kxerrix's lust for power extinguish her light? Without the Keyblade Master... can the Dual Wielder fight? Can a shell live with nothing inside it?" The figure paused, as if thinking to an answer to his own question. "It's time to see how strong you really are, Kxerrix." With that, Axel pulled the hood over his startlingly crimson hair, smiling eerily, and drifted away like smoke on the wind.

XxX

"Aerith?"

The mage shook herself out of her trance and mumbled an apology. Goofy observed her carefully. "What's the matter, marm?"

She twirled the end of her braid in her fingers absently, eyes clouded in a veil of uncertainty. "I don't know. I just felt something bad happened. Something tragic." Aerith paused, then gave a small, humorless laugh. "I'm just getting paranoid, I suppose."

"I feel it too," Donald mumbled, fingering the tip of the crooked hat topping his staff like a cherry on a sundae. "A mage should trust her instincts. They're usually right."

Aerith bit her lip and turned away. "We can't just stand here and wait for Tyson and Vexen! It's suicide!"

Cloud nodded in agreement. "We have to find Kairi. Tyson can protect himself. She can't."

The statement was chilling but true. How long had it been? Two hours, four hours, four days... too long. Too long since they had glimpsed the redhead. Much too long. "Before, in Atlantica... Kairi said that she could feel trouble brewing. It was in her heart, and the light guided her to the fight. Do you think Tyson could have the same homing instinct?"

Tidus shrugged. "How should I know? I'm not a wizard."

"ARGH!" All eyes turned to Selphie. "You guys just talk! Talk, talk, talk. I'm sick of all this! I'm gonna rip this God-forsaken place apart and I'll do it to find my friends!" She locked eyes with every single one, panning around in a death glare. "I'm gonna find Kairi. Anyone who wants to help better get their butts over here NOW."

"I'm with ya!" Goofy bounded over. "All 'fer one and one 'fer all!"

Aerith gave a resolute nod and gripped the staff tighter. "Me too. Count me in."

"And me."

"And me."

"Well, I guess the geezer has to help all the little idiots on their suicide mission." Cid rolled his eyes and folded his arms. "Are we goin', or what?"

XxX

Sora ran.

He had no idea where he was going, what to do. But yet, he followed an intricate path, carving out routes in Hollow Bastion's hallways he didn't even know existed. It was as if something was guiding him, something foreign but yet familiar. Someone he'd met in a dream, or a dream of a dream.

In the back of his mind, Sora realized that he was probably an idiot- following an unknown source that could be friend, foe, or something in between. But it didn't really matter, not anymore. His footfalls echoed on the white walls, taking him someplace far away.

Or very near.

XxX

"I..."

Vexen turned and studied Tyson carefully, only giving the slightest hint of inquiry at the confused look on his face. "What?"

"We..." He stopped, then turned and pointed. "We should go that way."

The scientist furrowed his brow. "What in the world are you thinking? We are supposed to be at a rendezvous with the rest– which we are exceedingly late." In a gesture that would have normally been greeted with physical pain, Tyson waved a hand and shushed him.

"Just trust me. We have to go this way. My... my heart is telling me." Tyson frowned, partly at the corniness of the statement and party at having no other evidence than wishy-washy feelings.

"I thought you didn't have a heart."

"Well then, someone else's heart is telling me to, I guess." He paused, sighing deeply and running a hand through blonde hair matted with sweat and blood. "I don't understand this, not really. But... this is right. I can feel it. Right here." He put a hand to his heart, tracing the fabric unconsciously. "I may not understand completely what I'm fighting for," he continued, speech unsure but growing steadier with each word, "but I know this: the worlds are not how they should be. I will fight until they are."

Vexen was silent for a moment, then gave a small nod. "For the universal solution," he suggested, putting a hand out. Tyson hesitated, then placed his on top of Vexen's.

"I'll just assume you're agreeing, because that made no sense to me."

For once, Vexen smirked. "That may be a simpler process for the both of us."

XxX

Light collided with darkness, slamming hard and sending tremors into the cracked concrete of the terrace. Smack. Smack. Smack. Both women fell to the ground, exhausted in the fullest sense of the word. Kxerrix leaned up against the wall, panting heavily and scrambling for purchase of her thoughts. How is this possible? she screamed, the unspoken question echoing in her mind. How can this imp of a girl, barely even fifteen, hold her own? It doesn't make sense. All her thoughts kept winding around and around in a never-ending loop. And at the center of that loop, what her thoughts revolved around, was yet to be discovered. Was it fear, hatred, simple bloodlust?

Kairi pulled herself up again, feeling both the wounds of her heart and body. They had altogether ended fighting physically long ago, but used pure light and darkness in brutal attacks to the heart. She could feel the shadowy tendrils trying to entwine and cage her heart and she could feel the light inside striving to push it back. Kairi looked at her hand and saw it quiver from exhaustion. I can't keep this up. One of us has to do something. One of us is going to die.

Then Kxerrix began to laugh. Quietly at first, a snicker. Then it grew in volume until the villainous cackle filled every crevice of Kairi's body, making her hair stand on end. She looked up and saw the Queen of Darkness crouched down and smiling cockily.

"You're through," she hissed, her smile lacking humor. "I am going to KILL you." Her golden eyes glinted with bloodlust, something not even human. It gave Kairi a horrible feeling of deja vu. The posture, the eyes, the smile… where had she seen it before? It was all so familiar…

Then it clicked. Kairi took a step back as Kxerrix advanced, still on all fours and giggling to herself. The crouched posture, slitted pupil, tiny fangs. It was all so clear, so horrendously clear that the redhead couldn't believe she hadn't put it together before. It was the exact same in the case of Maleficent: the overwhelming power of darkness that had encompassed her at the end; it had caused her to lose her humanity and morph into something a hundred times more powerful than the mere human form could ever dream. A beast.

And in this case, a midnight black panther.

And it was happening to Kxerrix. But she needed no unlocking of her heart: she was fully capable of triggering it herself. As she had just done.

And from the center of her being, a horrible, cold ball of fear knotted in her stomach and with the truest clarity Kairi had ever been party to, she knew that she was indeed going to die.

XxX

"Slow down!"

"Shut up!"

"You shut up!"

"How 'bout your MOM shuts up?"

"How about you both shut up?"

Selphie and Tidus looked on in irritation, Selphie sticking her tongue out at Donald childishly. "Fine then. Be that way." Donald rolled his eyes and kept running. Aerith fell into step next to him, panting slightly.

"This… this is a wild goose chase. We both know it." Donald didn't say anything but Aerith knew she had hit a nerve. "I assume we're looking for something, listening for something…?"

"Well," he quacked, more winded than Aerith although by all means he shouldn't have been, "if I know Sora, he's tryin' to find us too. So I'm guessing that since we haven't seen Leon or Yuffie, he's with them and they're fighting off the Heartless crowds."

Aerith nodded thoughtfully. "That would make sense. And Tyson, Vexen… they could be there too…"

"…or we could all be dreaming and they're all dead." Donald finished pessimistically.

"Right." She paused. "Let's just hope for the former."

Suddenly, a thump caught their attention. Whirling around, they found Naminé crumpled on the ground, Wakka and Cloud crouching over her. "What-!"

Naminé opened her eyes slowly, holding clasped hands to her chest. "That… that was really strong."

"What was?"

Naminé ran a finger through her silken blonde hair, blue eyes in a turmoil and eyebrows knit together as she tried to put her thoughts into words. "It- it was light, I think. Or it could be darkness."

"How can you confuse light and darkness?"

"It's like when you turn on bath water," she explained hastily, "but you don't know if it's too cold or too hot. When you put your foot in, sometimes water can be so hot it feels cold." The women nodded. The men just stared. "Anyways, something big just happened. Two forces– either light or darkness– met up just now."

"Like an earthquake," Cid suggested. "So what two things collided?"

"I don't know. But– to follow the simile– an aftershock. It hasn't come yet. I don't know what form it'll take." Naminé said softly, picking at her dress. "We have to find the focus and get there. Now."

Cloud spoke softly. "It was light that collided."

"How do you-" Naminé started to speak, but stopped when Aerith put a hand on her shoulder gently.

"Cloud is… familiar with darkness," she murmured into her ear. "You can trust him."

XxX

Five minutes earlier…

"Owww…" Sora did a strange hop-skip run, clutching his left foot and moaning. "Stupid, stupid Heartless… stupid rock…" I probably shouldn't have kicked a Guardian, he thought brilliantly. "Stupid spiked shield…"

Grunting, Sora kneed a Shadow in where its stomach might have been, somersaulting out of the way of a Soldier's whistling claws. He felt it clip the nape of his neck, stars exploding in his vision. Ooooooh crap.

Then it froze, staring at him with yellowed eyes. "Ehhh…?" The force of the blow hadn't quite worn off yet, leaving him stupefied.

"You haven't changed, I see," an eerily familiar voice stated, voice a monotone with hints of sarcastic streaks. Sora looked at the figure through blurred vision.

"No way…"

Vexen hauled Sora to his feet by his black hood, nearly choking him. "On your feet, imbecile. If you want to live."

"Heh, you haven't changed either… besides not being dead and not wanting to kill me…"

"Would it be too much to ask for you to converse in complete sentences?"

Sora was about to reply but the words died in his throat as a blonde haired kid stepped out from behind a column. "Vexen, there's about a score or so swarming behind us but they're being held off by the gate–" He stopped dead, eyes locked with Sora's.

Neither spoke. Vexen watched, puzzled, as they walked toward each other, then stepped to the side, exactly at the same time. Both examined one another, as if the boy in front of them was something in a dream, or a dream of a dream…

Then, both hands rose as if in slow-motion. The slightest touch, only a brush of fingertip against fingertip–

Sora and Tyson were thrown violently against the wall in opposite directions, a huge crack sending shockwaves through the tile and cracking it immediately. Spiderweb, hairline fractures snaked their way along the terraces and stairways as an explosion of light and darkness expanded, then fell in on itself. The three watched, entranced, as rays of light shot from the orb, branching out like lightning and dispersing in the air, yet more sparks bursting forth and kissing the pale skin of the cheeks, seeming to laugh and jest. Then, it was gone. Into the tile was a carved dome of nothingness, as if it had simply materialized. Never had existed.

Vexen, Sora, and Tyson gaped for a while at the scene, trying to take in what had just happened. Tyson blinked and held out his hands. They weren't bloody. And there were two Keyblades resting in his palms. "...what the...?"

Sora followed suit, holding out the pair of Keyblades in his own hands. Then, he smiled wickedly. "I have no idea who you are, but you look good to me. Can you fight?" Tyson just nodded, stunned. "Let's go kick some Heartless can! Vexen, explain to me while we run. I'm guessing you know exactly what's going on here."

"I'll use small words."

XxX

Kairi lay panting, vicious claw marks bleeding profusely. It was as if she was underwater and Kxerrix was Jaws. Actually, ten times worse than Jaws.

I'm... I'm at my limit. I can't move. Kairi smiled sadly. Too bad I couldn't do more, eh Sora? The damsel is in distress again and no one is here to save me. I should have trained harder, joined you and Riku in swordplay. Heck, even Selphie used her jump rope. I sat there and made necklaces.

But regrets won't do much now, will they? There was nothing left to do but sit and wait. Kairi opened her eyes and started directly into Kxerrix's, the only resistance she had left to give. The black-coated catwoman just laughed, pointed canines jutting out. Black ears peeked from behind her blonde and red tresses, morbidly cute. A tail flicked between her legs in a mocking pendulum. "What, you can't even scream before you die?" she hissed, tingling with joy. "Don't cry, Princess. You fought back, so I'll give you a quick death."

Quick and painless... Kairi had always wanted to die in her sleep, so that she wouldn't feel anything. Maybe this was the next best thing. Am I dying? Kairi wondered giddily, the natural sedative of exhaustion leading her thoughts in strange paths. I thought it would hurt more. I barely feel anything...

Glancing to the left, she saw Kxerrix lunge in the deathblow. I wonder if my life will flash in front of my eyes.

As if reading her thoughts, there was a flare of light. But no sentimental scenes filled her mind's eye: instead she was staring at an impossibly white crown.

Her Keyblade?

Everything snapped into motion like a rubber band that had been stretched, then released at the last possible moment. There was a yelp, scream, and then a splattering crunch. Kairi's mouth dropped as she stared at the scene before her: her white Keyblade sticking straight out in a 90-degree angle.

Kxerrix was now part of one woman shish-kabob.

Wide eyed, Kairi squeaked and dropped the blade. Kxerrix's limp figure thudded slightly against the tile, then disintegrated in a mass of silvery-black sparks. She was dimly aware that the cuts on her own pale skin had healed, but didn't especially care. ...she's gone. Did I kill her? Please, no...

Kairi heard voices behind her: a quack, a yell, and a cry.

Sora?

That was the last coherent thought in her mind before she passed out on the floor.

XxX

"Kairi!" Selphie reached her first, sliding to a halt and cradling her limp form in trembling arms. "Aerith... s-she's gonna be okay, right?" Blood was streaked onto the tile, but there were no scrapes on Kairi's figure. Was it that burst of light that Naminé was talking about...?

The mage leaned over and placed two fingers on Kairi's neck, smiling in relief. "She's just tired, Selphie. No harm." Breathing out a sigh of relief, said brunette clutched Kairi tighter.

"You ever do that again," she whispered, "and I swear, I'm going to... well, think of what I already do to Tidus and multiply it times a hundred."

A familiar voice echoed in her ears. "Selphie!"

She whipped around, unbelief etched all over her face. "S-Sora?" And there he was, instantly by her side and gazing at Kairi with more concern she'd have thought possible. "It's really you." She paused, then slapped him upside the head. "We've all been worried sick, you rude jerk! The least you could've done was write a letter or something!"

"Nice welcome, eh?" Cid smirked and crossed his arms over his chest gruffly, the grin in his eyes betraying the normal I-take-everything-in-stride tone.

"This doesn't seem real," Sora murmured, fingering the handle on his Keyblade. "Not really."

There was a shout and Aerith whipped around. "Cloud?"

Then a piercing scream ripped through the evening sky, a scream that could only be described as the breaking of someone's heart.

XxX

Aerith brushed her fingertips lightly over the torn white material of Leon's shirt, a trace of blood staining her fingertip. She swallowed tightly and bit her lip in an effort to keep from bursting into tears. "Yuffie..." she whispered, "what happened here?"

Yuffie didn't look up, her head cradled in her hands and body shaking as if it could dislodge some of the overwhelming grief. "H-h-he saved m-me. There w-were rocks, a-a-and..." Breaking off, she repressed a sob. Kairi grasped her hand in a frail attempt at comfort, the only thing that her weary frame could do. The scene around her almost made her wish she could have stayed unconscious longer.

"He died to protect you?" Vexen inquired. There was no verbal response: only a silence laden with guilt. "Did he?"

"Leave her alone!" Aerith shouted, abandoning her soft exterior. Vexen turned and started at her with the slightest hint of sorrow in his eyes.

"If he died to save her, than a piece of his heart his still intact. Martyrdom," he said softly, "is the greatest gift that one may bestow in the circle of friendship and love."

Sora sat up. "So we can still save him?"

"Do you know how to revive a heart?"

Tyson's eyes narrowed. "Don't play around. How do you do awaken it?"

Vexen scowled. "I never implied that I could do it– you came to that misguided assumption on your own."

"If you don't know how to do it, why did you even bring it up?" Sora yelled angrily, grasping his Keyblade. "I'm about this close to–"

"Because maybe there's someone who does." Vexen turned his gaze to Yuffie, who straightened immediately.

"Yuffie?" Naminé asked softly.

"I don't know!" she cried. "How am I supposed to know!"

"Think, girl. What was his deepest desire? His hidden secret passion? Something that he had yearned for, but could never have?"

Selphie's mouth dropped. "You're trying to figure out the secrets of Leon? Good luck."

Kairi nudged her in the side sharply, cutting off any more sarcastic remarks. Yuffie's eyes were glazed over, staring at Leon's prone figure and tracing over his arm. Could it really be that simple? A million doubts crowded her mind, threatening to snuff out the last bit of hope she had left to give. Who am I to know Squall Leonheart's mind?

A small, barely there voice answered her, one that had been crowded out for so long. Because you love him.

And before she knew exactly what she'd done, Yuffie Kisaragi dipped her head and kissed him.

XxX

The world hadn't always been this fuzzy, was the first coherent thought to cross Leon's mind as he pried his eyes open. It felt like he had been crushed by an elephant. Attempting to shift his arm, Leon winced inwardly. Make that an elephant in a steam roller.

"Leon?" A voice sliced its way into his muddled thoughts. "Leon, if you can hear me, move your foot."

Foot... what was a foot...

Oh yeah.

He tried to move his right leg, sending shafts of pain lancing his body like a million Heartless claws. If Leon would have been able to speak, he probably would have sworn.

"Heal him, Aerith!"

"Wait, is he awake?"

"Squall, listen–"

"Leon." he croaked. "It... it's Leon."

"It would appear that he is in some respects coherent."

"Can you keep your words shorter so that we can understand what you're saying?"

"Just shut up and heal him already!"

Green lights exploded in Leon's field of vision, simultaneously stinging his eyes and healing them– an odd sensation. He could actually feel the strength returning to leaden limbs and his mind sharpen and focus. Propping himself up on his elbows, he took a deep breath, brushing sweaty brown hair out of his eyes. His hand ran over his shirt, and he pulled it back to discover blood staining his palm. "...what happened...?"

Cid grinned. "You want the Cliffs notes or the long version?"

He was cut off by a low, ominous sounding rumble. Selphie squawked and latched onto Tidus' arm.

Tyson pushed himself to his feet. "I believe that's our cue."

Aerith nodded. "We'd better leave."

Motioning to the left, Goofy hefted his shield onto one shoulder. "The gummi is docked by that there pavilion by the rising falls."

Skipping along broken pieces of concrete, the group picked their way out of the debris. "Come on, Naminé!" Sora called, slinging his Keyblade over one shoulder.

"Yeah, it'd be a shame to have come this far and then die now."

Naminé smiled. "I'm coming–" She was cut off by a hand on her shoulder. Whipping around, she almost smacked into an annoyed-looking Vexen. "Sorry."

He waved her apology away. "We don't have much time. Listen closely."

"Enough time for what?" She paused, then balled her fists. "I'm not going back to the Organization. Ever."

He gave her a look that could have split solid concrete. "Quite a foolhardy notion. But I don't have time to bandy words with you. I will present to you one chance."

"A chance to what?"

"To find him."

Him.

Naminé swallowed. "How would you know where to find..." A pause. "...him?"

"That's of no matter." Snapping his figures, an orb of darkness materialized in the air behind him. "In approximately two and a quarter minutes," he stated, looking Naminé straight in the eye, "Hollow Bastion will be shaken to its foundations. You have until then to decide."

She stared into the pitch-black abyss. Who would willingly walk into that? It was suicide.

And yet, some things were worth dying for.

Naminé lifted her chin and looked Vexen straight in the eye. "Let's go."

XxX

"Naminé?" Tyson whipped around, scanning the area for any sign of the blonde. Nothing. "Fantastic," he muttered.

"What?" Sora hooked his arm around the gummi's boarding ladder. It was eerie: looking straight into the eye of a near-Xerox of himself. What puzzled him was that even through he had been imprisoned by the Organization and fought more than most people blinked, Sora's eyes remained lively. Innocent.

Incredible.

Tyson furrowed his brow. "Naminé didn't follow us here."

"This is not good."

Cid's face appeared in the hatch. "Whadda two bozos think you're doing? Get your butts up here NOW!" Hauling both teens up by the jacket, Cid kicked the lid shut. Tyson tried to shove it back open, but the tremendous force of the gummi breaking the field of gravity shoved him onto the floor and held him there as if a giant hand were pressing down on him.

After what seemed like hours, the hand eased its pressure. Hauling himself off the floor, Tyson scrambled to the window. The inky blackness of space started back at him unforgivingly. I blew it. She's really gone.

"Hey," Selphie sat up and looked around the cockpit. "Where's Naminé?" She paused. "And Vexen...?" Trailing off, Selphie paled. "Oh my gosh... he kidnaped her!"

"No he didn't!" Tyson yelled. "At least, I don't think so."

"Well why else would they both be there? I thought you had her!"

"STOP!" Cid shouted. Everyone fell silent. "Before you all turn this ship around..." He pulled out a hastily-written note. "This was pinned onto the dash when I got up here." Kairi grabbed it out of his hands and skimmed it over.

"C'mon, Kai." Selphie prodded. "Read it!"

Kairi swallowed. "To my dearest friends..."

...How come life never turns out how we hope? It's sort of funny- things always go the exact opposite of how we expect them. We plan and plan, but still things turn into a huge, tangled ball of yarn. And we try to untangle it, but we can't.

I talked to Riku, you know. He went through Castle Oblivion just like Sora. I think he was searching for something– somewhere in life to be. What side of the line to be on. How darkness was different than light. I wanted so badly to help him understand, but back then, I didn't even understand myself.

But now I know I am more than a shell and Tyson, if you're reading this, so are you. We do not depend on the existence of Sora and Kairi– for if we disappear, so do they! Our beings are intertwined and co-dependant. The light and darkness play equal roles, and when one power tries to overtake the other, chaos occurs. That is how the Heartless came into being– darkness attempted to overthrow the light. What we must do now is fight to stop this from happening.

Sora, this is why the Keyblade chose you. Unlike most of us, you had no doubts and no fears– you were simply happy where you were in the light. Indecision gives darkness a foothold to take control (for it was always the more aggressive of the pair). Kairi, you are the same way. Keep following the road that your heart leads you, for it is correct and will not fail you.

'Each journey gives rise to chance encounters, and each encounter brings forth a farewell. When a farewell leads to a journey, worlds open their hearts. Those chosen by light, or ensnared by darkness. Friends who share the same bounds, though their paths may differ. When you doubt the path trod thus far, when the hand you held is lost to you, gaze anew at the heart that once was... for all the answers are within.'

A wise man once spoke those words. If I look at the heart that once was mine, I see yours, Kairi. I see you leaving to find Sora. And I see myself leaving to find Riku.

Knowing this, I am about to step into the Dark Realms. I cannot let him wander without knowing why he is here, the same as I could not deny my curiosity to the light. Who knows– maybe our journey has already begun. For with this knowledge, I believe I too can learn to combat the darkness in my heart with the light I know is there.

You all have made so much of a difference in my heart, and you'll stay there even if I forget. I keep a hope alive that I will see you all again. And what greater gift can you give to someone than laying your life on the line? I will find Riku, and I will return. I vow upon the stars in the sky, for with all of you guarding them, I don't believe they will ever be snuffed out.

Naminé

XxX

Kairi leaned back on her elbows, gazing at the stars above her. Her emotions were a strange mix of joy and sorrow– they had defeated darkness for the time being, but at the hefty price of Naminé. It was a crippling loss. Kairi heaved a sigh and drew her knees to her chest, leaning against the cold stone wall forming the balcony at the Traverse Town Inn. They had graciously lent her the largest room, and she promptly took advantage of the deck overlooking a cranny of the village.

"Kai?"

She turned her head to find Sora behind her, his head cocked. Kairi smiled. "It's nice to hear that. I really missed it."

He grinned and plopped down next to her. "I missed saying it." Silence, although not entirely uncomfortable, enveloped the pair.

"What was she like?" he blurted.

"Mm?"

"Naminé, I mean." Sora swivelled to dangle his legs over the lip of the balcony, lost in thought. "I didn't really get to see that much of her, really."

Kairi played with the hem of her skirt in thought. "She was intelligent. There was a riddle once, and she and Leon worked on it together. She explained memories, too, in ways I'd never thought about. I guess she really knew about them." She leaned back again. "It's just that so much has happened. It's hard to think about all at once."

Sora nodded. "I know how you feel. I mean, I'd go to all these other worlds, get caught up in their problems, then move on to the next place and get into their problems..." He shrugged. "Maybe I should get a planner or something. To keep track of everything." Sora laughed half-heartedly.

Kairi lowered her eyes. "Things have changed."

Sora clenched his fist lightly. "I tried to stop it, Kairi, I really did. But things happened, and I–"

Kairi put a finger to his lips. "It was stupid what I said back there. Not to change. We all change, whether we want to or not. But the place where it counts..." She poked his chest lightly, outlining a heart. "...you haven't changed at all." Kairi grinned mischievously. "And you're still a lazy bum."

"Lazy, eh? How's this for lazy..." He began to tickle her, almost tipping them off the platform. The pair then fell the other way, toppling to the floor. Kairi retaliated and tried to speak between breaths.

"M...mer...mercy!" she eeked out, stomach aching from laughter. Sora grinned again, then turned red as he realized he was very, very close to Kairi's face.

Rolling over, he straightened up. "Um, sorry." Kairi continued to giggle. Wiping at her eyes, she propped herself up by the elbows.

"I remember when we were little," she said. "Whenever we started tickling each other, Riku would always duck away like he was cool or something. But really, he really didn't want us to tickle him in his one spot..."

Sora grinned. "The inside of his knee." He leaned back against the wall, still on the ground. "When we find him again, that's the first thing I'm gonna do."

She smiled. "Me too." Her expression dimming, Kairi looked Sora in the eye in determination. "I'm coming with you."

He started. "Kai, it's dangerous–"

"What do you think I've been doing for the last few weeks? I faced down a member of the Organization."

"And you almost got killed!"

Kairi stood. "Sora, I can't sit around and be the damsel in distress anymore! I'm not going to sit here and lose the people I care about all over again!"

"Well, I don't want to lose you!" Sora yelled. It became deathly quiet. Dipping his head, Sora ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, Kairi." he said hoarsely. "I told Riku that I would take care of you."

A hand tipped his chin up. "Look me in the eye, Sora. Do I look like the same person that Riku saw before that door closed?"

Sora looked. Really and truly looked at the girl in front of him, and he realized that Kairi was absolutely right: the girl in front of him was no longer the happy-go-lucky redhead that he had screamed a message to in the cloudbreak. Her hair had fallen to her shoulders, and curves were more pronounced. She held herself with the air of a warrior, and there were scars to prove it. The realization let loose a tidal wave of guilt. What have I done? What has Kairi gone through, all because of me and this stupid Keyblade? He looked into her eyes and saw himself.

"Kairi." he whispered. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." She held his gaze. "No one forced me off Destiny Islands. I went on my own. This," she said, pointing to Sora, "is where I want to be. By your side." She swallowed and bit her lip, voice trembling, warrior facade dropping abruptly. "And... I... I don't want to lose you either." A tear rolled down her cheek.

Sora felt as if someone had slapped him. He slipped his hand into hers in a frail attempt at comfort, unsure of what to do. It was wrong, so wrong, and all Sora could think was that he wanted to hold her in his arms and make all the pain go away.

She raised her head and looked into his eyes. And suddenly, he was drowning in them. His hand unconsciously slipped from hers and curled around her waist, drawing her closer to him. Sora had to see them closer, had to erase everything else in existence because absolutely nothing could compare to this.

Except maybe her kissing him.

It was slow at first, but then she tipped her head back and he deepened the kiss, tangling a hand in her impossibly red hair. Sora felt her hands slip around his neck, begging him to pull her closer, to be there for her to lean on. He traced her jawline delicately, feeling the subtle curve into her neckline. It was so perfect, simply being there. Her. Him. Together.

Finally.

He pulled back gently and breathed in the scent of her hair as Kairi rested her head on his shoulder. They stayed like that for awhile, simply reveling in the closeness and the fact that they could be close. Sora felt her smile into his neck and he pulled back gently. She grinned. "Guess I'm staying now, right?"

Sora laughed softly. "Guess so."

XxX

Axel prodded the black fabric with his toe. "Pitiful." Another weak link exterminated from the Organization. He turned and picked up a bracelet lying on the ground like a lost puppy and examined it closely. Thalassa shelves were woven together carefully by tough hemp strands, cemented together by salt water and worn down by wear. He raised an eyebrow and pocketed it, grinning to himself. The girl really should be more careful with an item so fundamental in her memories.

A Heartless trailed him and Axel resisted the urge to Fiagra it into next week. It was sent by Number I to 'make sure you don't get into any trouble.' Yeah right– more like to make sure he didn't make any trouble. The leash that they were being held by was getting shorter and shorter, and Axel didn't like it at all.

The time to fix that, however, would come later, wouldn't it? Sighing, Axel spoke into a tiny mic attached to– of all ironies– a yellow Opera. "Dead. All that's left is the coat." Kxerrix had faded back into darkness. Where she belonged.

Axel did not intend to let the same happen to him. He'd learn from her mistakes, yes. He'd watch the backs of his fellow members, yes. Until the time was right.

Then he'd kill them and take whatever was left behind.

A wicked smile spread across his face that Axel hid from the Opera quickly. Things were going perfectly.

XxX

Aerith fell on the bed, completely exhausted. Multiple healings really take a toll on a girl... Toeing off her boots, she kicked them to the side and let her arms and legs hang limp. If Aerith was lucky, she'd wake up sometime next week. She closed her eyes and her breathing slowed, even the most minute sounds amplified as she blocked out other senses.

Cloud stepped through the door and shut it carefully, a small click making its way into Aerith's ear as the latch caught. "How are they?"

"Fine. Yuffie's taking care of the scrapes."

She allowed herself a slight grin. The drain on her magic was almost a blessing, forcing the Leon and Yuffie together. Playing matchmaker was quite fun, she decided. Aerith had used the very last bit of magic she had to heal as much of his wounds as possible, but some bruises and scrapes still remained. Just enough to keep him sore.

"How are you?"

She glanced up, seeing Cloud's back turned to her as he rewound a bit of the rope on his sword. It was an unusually caring gesture. Aerith sat up on the bed, smiling gently. "Just tired. Can't sleep, though. I'll probably just mill around in the kitchen until my mind finally slows down." He grunted in acknowledgment, apparently engrossed in his rope-winding exercise.

Aerith walked to the door, stopping at his side. "Light or dark..." she murmured into his ear, "...you're still Cloud. Don't ever forget that." She kissed him on the cheek gently and left the room, smiling at herself as she noticed his face flush red.

Still Cloud.

XxX

"Will you quit moving?" Yuffie ground, narrowing her eyes as Squall shifted once again. "It's hard to douse someone in rubbing alcohol if they won't sit still for three seconds."

Leon mumbled something indecipherable. "What?"

"It's not a big deal."

Yuffie's jaw dropped. "You were dead!Remind me how that's not a big deal!" Leon just shrugged, then winced silently as a sharp pain sliced its way through his shoulder. Yuffie tsked him, pouring more alcohol onto the rag she held in her hand. "Exactly. Now sit still."

Leon closed his eyes, blocking out Yuffie's yammering and retreating to the tiny corner of his mind that he so often ran to– the quiet nook sealed off from life's nags and pulls, untouched by tribulation. Taking a deep breath, Leon tried to expel every thought from his mind.

It'd be much easier if Yuffie's hands weren't oh-so-gently rubbing over his bare back.

Why did he say that in Hollow Bastion? "I love you." It's not like it had been trivial banter– the seriousness of the 'L' word was not lost on him. He'd told himself more than once that it was simply the delirious rambling of a dying man, but the theory fell flat every time he came near the bouncy ninja. The last time he had felt like... this... was when he was with Riona. It seemed that the whole of this life was sorted into two parts– Before Riona and After Riona. Two parts, two names. Fitting.

In Traverse Town, he'd met up with Cloud Strife. They'd talked (in the typical, stoic way of a few scattered words and glances) of the past. Cloud had asked him one simple question that had haunted him for years, his blue eyes that so clearly reflected his last name peering straight into Leon's soul.

"What are you saving your name for?" he had inquired. "The repair of Hollow Bastion or the repair of your heart?"

He hadn't known the answer then, and he didn't know it now.

Was it possible that his polar opposite was the metaphorical, fix-all Band-Aid that he had almost given up searching for? She had been right there the whole time, but the bitterness and denial of Leon had stopped Squall in his tracks. And it still stood, smothering Squall in apathy, manifesting itself in the doubt of Yuffie, his name, his heart. And he had so completely immersed himself in Leon that he wasn't sure if Squall even existed anymore.

"Leon?" Yuffie's voice broke through his thoughts. "I said you can get up now."

"It's Squall."

The statement was out of his mouth before he even knew he had said it. Yuffie blinked in amazement, almost dropping the rag in her hands. Leon felt himself freeze, stuck to the chair as if someone had superglued him there.

Yuffie continued to stare at him in shock. "...what?"

The spell was broken abruptly. Leon stood, brushing hair out of his face. "Nothing. Forget it."

"Squa–"

"Forget it, Yuffie."

She fell silent, knowing that she should say something, anything. But no words came. Why could she babble on for hours about nothing but when it came to him, she was mute? It had been the same in Hollow Bastion. She had not changed.

The realization made Yuffie want to scream.

He drowns in his dreams

An exquisite, extreme unknown

He's condemned as he seems

More heaven than a heart could hold

She watched him, Leon or Squall or whatever he was calling himself at the moment. He was so together, and she envied him for it. The world was pouring down its troubles like rain, and Leon would simply don a raincoat and watch it all roll off his back.

But this was a different Leon– in the way he walked, talked, breathed. There was a hole in his raincoat, and emotion seeped out. She could feel it, no matter how much Leon tried to hide it. But whenever anyone tried to reach out, he'd bite at them like an angry dog, refusing to let anyone near. Whether it was fear or pride, Yuffie didn't know. And it's not like he'd ever let her see.

And if I try to save him,

My whole world would cave in

It's just ain't right, no it just ain't right...

She'd tried to tell herself time and time again, training her mind like you would train a dog. But her thoughts kept returning to him, the scars on his heart so much more serious than the scar across his nose. It was so wrong, all of it, and Yuffie didn't know how to change it. So she'd simply left him alone when he wanted to be left alone. Tried to be there when he didn't. But it wasn't working, and she knew it. All she knew was that Leon drew her to himself like a nail to a magnet, and her natural curiosity had developed into almost an obsession.

Oh, and I don't know

I don't know what he's after

But he's so beautiful– he's such a beautiful disaster

And if I could hold on

Through the tears and the laughter

Would it be beautiful, or just a beautiful disaster?

"Are you sure you're okay?" Yuffie pressed.

"Quit bothering me." Leon grabbed the white shirt dangling from the back of a chair, his tone obviously meaning to end the conversation. She ignored him, throwing caution to the wind.

"Bothering you? Well, excuse me for being concerned!"

He turned to face her, scowling. "I didn't ask for you to be concerned."

"Well, maybe you should!" He was doing it again, snapping at her, covering himself up with that stupid mask. And she hated him for it, wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him because she loved him, didn't he understand? Something had to give, and it wasn't going to be Yuffie.

He's magic and myth

As strong as what I believe

A tragedy with more damage than a soul should see

But do I try to change him?

It's so hard not to blame him

Hold me tight... baby, hold me tight

"You can't do this on your own anymore, Squall! Leon can't help you!" She was yelling now, clenching her fists in frustration and anger at the man called Squall who hid himself behind the mask called Leon. "Please, just let me help!"

He yanked on the shirt. "I don't need your help."

Oh, and I don't know

I don't know what he's after

But he's so beautiful– he's such a beautiful disaster

And if I could hold on

Through the tears and the laughter

Would it be beautiful, or just a beautiful disaster?

Leon turned and headed for the door. Yuffie grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around to face her. "Yes, you do!"

He brushed Yuffie's hand off of his shoulder. "How would you know what I need?"

"Because I love you!"

I'm longin' for love and the logical

But he's only happy hysterical

I'm searching for some kinda miracle

Waited so long... yeah, I've waited so long

Yuffie locked eyes with him, dimly aware that tears were running down her face. "Please," she repeated softly. "Let me help you."

He said nothing, as if the air he breathed was choking him and stealing the words from his mouth. She ran the back of her hand over his cheek, eyes softening. "You don't have to live alone," she said quietly. "All you have to do is open the door and let someone else in."

"Yuffie–"

She put a finger to his lips, shushing him. "What you've been doing up until now hasn't been working. I can't tell you what to do. I just want you to know that whatever you decide..." She lowered her eyes and blinked back tears, taking a step back. "...I'll be behind you a hundred percent. 'Kay?"

He's soft to the touch

But frayed at the end he breaks

He's never enough

And still he's more than I can take

"Yuffie..." he pleaded, voice sounding so pained that her heart broke for him. "Please... don't cry."

She bowed her head, ashamed for the girliness and weakness that the tears stood for, hating herself for causing him pain and she simply wanted everything to be right again. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Fingers slid under her chin gently, raising her head until she looked straight into his eyes. He wiped the tears away with his thumb. "Don't be sorry. It's not your fault." She leaned into his touch unconsciously, his hand brushing her skin. He smelled like leather, leather and pine and she had never experienced anything that was so perfect and so right that it made her want to cry and dance at the same time, and she wasn't supposed to feel this way about anyone, because Yuffie Kisaragi wasn't a lovesick little girl anymore. And yet here she was again, flat on her face because she'd fallen head over heels for a man who hid behind a mask called Leon. And she was risking everything she had on the gamble that he might be willing to pick her back up again.

Leon looked straight into her eyes and she could see emotion in them for the first time in years, and she realized that the person standing in front of her was no longer Leon, but Squall Leonheart back from the dead. "I choose you."

And then, he kissed her.

It was then that Yuffie learned that you couldn't only feel your heart break, you could feel it heal too.

She wrapped a hand around his waist, pulling him close because it was so right and he was really there. A hand ran through her hair, resting on her neck and tipping her head back. Fire coursed through her veins, and she welcomed it as it warmed her head to toe. Squall's hand curled around her waist and she ran her own fingers through his hair and wondered to herself if it had always been so soft, because it was a miracle that anyone could be so perfect.

He pulled back gently and she buried her face in his jacket, breathing him in again. And Yuffie held him tight because she was never going to let him go again, and what made her smile was that Squall had indeed picked her up, and he wasn't letting go anytime soon either.

XxX

Six Months Later

creeeaaakk...

A hand curled around the edge of the door, pushing the heavy metal open. The figure stepped out, then stopped, squinting their eyes. Blonde hair fell halfway down her back, skin bleached white from lack of sunlight. She stood there in amazement, sunshine enveloping her shivering form, the one that had stayed cold in darkness for so long.

A boy stepped out from the door behind her– not really a boy, in any aspect. Silver hair was spiked in crazy directions, spilling over a heavy black coat. He took his place next to the girl, mouth agape in similar amazement. "I can't believe it." A wide grin spread across the girl's face.

"It's sunny, Riku." She twirled around in circles, intoxicated with the sunlight dappling her pale frame as she spun around again and again, feeling for all the world like something new.

Riku unzipped the black coat, shrugging it over his head and over the black blindfold. "I know, Naminé. It's blinding."

"You'll get used to it. It's like riding a bike," she said, grinning. "You never forget."

Riku cocked his head. "Guess I'll just have to take your world for it."

Naminé plopped onto the ground, feeling sand crunch under her feet. "Even the ground is warm. I never thought I would have missed dirt so much." Riku sat down next to her, folding his hands behind his head and sprawling out spread-eagle on the ground.

"It's a lot like the Islands," he said. "But the sand is better there."

Naminé raised an eyebrow teasingly. "I didn't know there were such an expert on sand."

"Among other things, of course."

She rolled her eyes at him. "The king of modesty, too." She propped herself up by the elbows, gazing into the blue sky. "So. What do we do now?"

Riku sat up, sighing. "Look for Sora and Kairi. What else?"

"It was a rhetorical question, Riku." She tweaked his shoulder. It was silent for a moment, the faint sound of birds the only thing breaking the stillness.

"Naminé." Riku averted his eyes. "Do you really think we have a chance of finding them?"

Blonde hair fell over her face and she smiled faintly. "I'd swear it by all the stars in the sky. They are in good hands, after all." She paused. "But you know, there's one thing you've got to do first."

Riku nodded. He drew his hands upward and carefully untied the knot of the midnight black blindfold, letting it fall to the ground.

And he saw the world in a brighter light.

-fin-

XxX

I'm amazed that any of you stuck with me that long. You're all incredible, do you know that?

I'm going to cut this short and get straight to the point (because we all know that you don't want to hear Akiko ramble all night). To all my reviewers: you are the only thing that made me finish this story, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Per, you deserve a special mention. Scratch that, you deserve a gold trophy and a check– I don't know what I would have done without you. Every time I got a block, you're the one I thought of, and it's your story I looked back on for some good old Kingdom Hearts goodness. (This is the part where I shamelessly advertise Per's wonderful story entitled "This Time, I'll Fight" and rave on about how it is several times better than the sequel Square-Einx came up with). Go read it. Now.

If you have something that I should work on, PLEASE tell me. Do you notice how that's all in caps? That's because it's important. If you think better descriptions could come from a monkey, just say it! You don't have to pussyfoot around and tell me that "it's just your opinion" and that "I may be wrong." I can't get better if I don't fix my flaws, and I can't fix them if I don't know about them. However, please don't review saying, "Your story is awful." You're more than welcome to say, "Your story is awful because insert reason here." That's perfectly acceptable.

In conclusion: My reviewers are pretty much incredible. You should give them cookies. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed Search Party.

God bless you all,

Akiko