For Silver Moon Droplet's challenge; word: thorn. Dedicated to Ana and Courtney.

Okay, first off, a huge, heart-felt apology to Ana. This challenge was established a long time ago, I know, but I've just been so busy and uninspired that this fic was a long time in the making. And, as well, it's horrendously long. Longer than my previous fic - a feat in the making - it's over fifty pages in length and was almost an extended oneshot. So, to Ana, and to you reviewers, I'm sorry about how long this story is going to be, and that it actually had to be a story, and I hope you don't find it too pointless.

Secondly, a happy belated birthday to Courtney! I normally don't like dedicating one story to two people, so, if you'd like something else, tell me; sorry, I just feel pressed for time right now. Hope you like it, though, and sorry for the delay.

So, here's my story, with Namiku, Kaiora, and hinted Akuroku (nothing graphic, as far as I know). Hoping you enjoy it, and my apologies once more.

Disclaimer: No.

-- - --

It was fate that she feared, because she was destined to die.

It had been a plan in the making since the moment of her birth, and she was the honorable sacrifice, the royal blood in her veins the perfect offering. Every moment her pristine, white gown slipped across the tiles, every moment her elegant sandals slapped across the floor and reminded her of her own existence, she flinched, because that was time slipping away and years flashing before her eyes in just a short time's passing. Her kingdom, plagued eternally by war and famine and maladies and sin, had waited patiently for seventeen long years, and in due time her eighteenth birthday would rear its head and the wait would then be over.

Naminé, proclaimed the world's most docile, elegant, beautiful princess, rumored to be the daughter of a union between a goddess and a king, was to be thrust down onto the cobblestones when such a momentous occasion celebrating her birth arrived, elegant gown splattered with her own blood as her death was proclaimed in front of the eyes of thousands.

Shivering, she leaned against the wall and rubbed her arms slowly, tears burning her eyes. She didn't want to die.

Why was her destiny, if it could be called that, so different from any other, anyway? She hadn't done anything wrong. She'd just been born. And from that birth she'd been nothing but a princess in name and luxury, because she'd never hosted a ball, had never gone on wide excursions to smile falsely and make small talk with allied kings, and had never been arranged to be married to a stranger. She'd just sat on the cold steps of the spiraling staircases, had drifted through the halls as a condemned ghost, and had taken her meals in her room while she cried herself into hysterics for as long as she could remember.

Not even the gardens she retreated to, for sketching or attempting to forget her upcoming tragedy, could summon a smile to her face.

Choking, she covered her mouth with a shaking hand, other hand fingering the fabric of her gown as her head bowed and her tears dropped to the tiled floor. Why was this it for her? Why hadn't she been able to live before she'd had to die? Nothing had ever given her hope in all of her seventeen years, and now everything was fading fast beneath her fingertips, rushing away from her so unattainably. She didn't even have control over her own existence.

It was all just a predestined catastrophe, and she wished her life had never happened. It hurt, to know that people looked forward to her demise because it would supposedly save them from disaster. Her life truly didn't matter at all, save for the end to it.

Thus, she cared not that she ran quite briskly back to her quarters, unable to manage walking the halls that day. Normally so calm, too, a girl who was always even-faced and trained in movements, upon lighting the top steps and closing the distance to her room she threw herself through the open doorway and slammed the barrier behind her, collapsing against the wood in a pitiful slump.

Shivering, plastering her hands quite insistently against her face in a fight to prevent her tears from trailing any further from her eyes, she wavered on her feet and then collapsed completely, small sobs whispering past her lips.

She couldn't be strong today, no matter how hard she tried to be.

The knock that followed moments later came as no surprise, and, though she had not fully retreated from her hysterics or even remotely contained herself, Naminé rose shakily to her feet and, back facing the barrier, rested her hand limply on the doorknob and pulled the door open as she stepped tiredly forward. As she bowed her head and inhaled, attempting to gain her bearings, a sigh sounded at her back and footsteps stirred the silence that enveloped the white of her room, hushed movement brushing forward until the figure was able to place a friendly hand on her shoulder, directly next to her.

"Let's sit down and talk for a while, huh?"

Smiling wryly, closing her eyes as tears insisted to fall continuously, she shook her head. "I'd rather not, if you don't mind, Roxas."

Still, as he slid his hand down her arm and gently took her wrist, she couldn't protest, and in a blind fashion she was led forward by her oldest friend, the two sinking into the mattress at the same time when Roxas stopped walking. Immediately he took her into his embrace, too, shushing her quieted sobs as he brushed his hand over her hair, needing no explanation whatsoever.

She decided to give him one, anyway. "R-Roxas, in six weeks I'll---"

"No," he growled, tightening his hold around her, and she knew enough to stop her talk at once. Roxas, for all he didn't show with his cool demeanor and ever-pensive stare, was quite sensitive beneath the surface, and losing those he was close to wasn't an option. So she wouldn't wound him with the truth, even if he had suggested talking in the first place. "Things will change. I swear it."

For the first time since he'd entered the room, she lifted her gaze, tear-free, and looked upon his visage. He wouldn't look at her, would only look ahead, but from the fire in his oceanic stare and the clenched muscles in his jaw, she recognized his characteristic stubbornness and determination at once. And, no matter how many times he'd already sworn such to her, she felt relieved, gratified, by his words. And she smiled, just barely, a thing he never failed to appreciate.

"Let's go for a walk…Roxas," she offered, wiping her eyes with a careless brush of her fingers. "I'm feeling better now, honest."

His hand brushing over her golden locks playfully, Roxas stood, looking like the boy he should always be as he extended his hand and grinned in a lopsided fashion at her. And as she lifted her hand daintily, lightly pressed it in his open palm, he closed his fingers around it and smiled in a dashing way, looking like a prince straight out of one of the fairytales she wished she lived in.

"Then I'll be your knight in shining armor, Princess. Just follow me."

-- - --

She loved Roxas, truly. He was her truest friend, her only friend, and if she didn't have him, the small hope she retained even now never would have had a fighting chance. He made her smile, he made her laugh, and he made her appreciate the little moments, because he always filled them up, gave them meaning. Such as now, as he walked beside her, idly gesturing towards the palace's roses and saying she should draw them sometime, because she always made the beautiful look ten times more so without even trying.

Or so he said. That was a fact of which she herself wasn't aware.

Playfully her blond companion nudged her now, pointing straight ahead. "There's Hayner," he whispered, rolling his eyes with a smirk. "He's a friend of mine; always getting into trouble when he can. Right now he's trying to sneak into the kitchens, the idiot. Always has these mastermind plans of his when he's supposed to be delivering messages in the castle."

Naminé smiled and hardly suppressed a giggle, turning her head to watch Roxas run his fingers through his honeyed locks, looking to the left idly as he took in the grandiose gardens that were always professionally maintained. As they walked on, Hayner forgotten from her mind, reality from his, Naminé watched as his eyes hardened in thought, his body stiffened in some kind of concealed concern. She was aware that her best friend had secrets, secrets she would probably never be told, and so she assumed that was what was plaguing his mind as they walked together, attempting to leave the inevitable future in their wake and ever unable to succeed.

"Roxas," she settled on saying, blinking innocently when he averted his distracted gaze in her direction, "how's your cousin, by the way?" Coming to a stop, she looked idly to her right and fondled a blooming rose, the stem trimmed cleanly so that nothing could prick her skin as she let her finger wander then over the green, glossy surface.

"Sora?" he in turn asked, blinking as he shuffled closer to her, his gloved hand moving into her vision, ghosting over the one budding rose. "He's…busy. Still Sora, at least, with the spirit I hope he never loses. Just…tired more. Worried more."

She gave a small, dry laugh. "I guess we've all got something to worry about these days, huh? No happiness anymore. Just war and death."

"Sure, if you want to look at it so morbidly, I guess," Roxas drawled, and Naminé looked up at him with a smile, one that touched her eyes for once.

"Am I wrong?" she asked, trailing her fingers back to cradle the rose, still young in life, still full of promise – not yet tainted, polluted, by the war-stricken air that was what all breathed nowadays.

"No," her friend said with a sigh, ruffling her hair as he pulled her away, draping his arm around her shoulder, "which is just so pathetic to think about," he resigned, resting his head against hers.

"Can I ask you one selfish thing, Rox?" she murmured as he led her past the men guarding the gardens, the train of her gown whispering over her feet and brushing against her legs, gaining her distracted attention.

"Depends," he teased, tilting his head as if he was immersed in thought, though that lopsided grin returned.

Lighting on the bottom step, Roxas behind her carefully, she kept her gaze down, slowly climbing back towards her room, where she would attempt to sleep off her sadness of the day. It came in waves, this depression of hers, and the only true release was sleep, where she forgot whatever dreams she might have in favor of a gentler kind of death to the world.

"Don't…get involved in this war. Please?"

She felt it when his presence failed to follow her movements, and so on the half-way crest to her floor she turned around, sad eyes searching his out as she smoothed at the wrinkles in her gown. By now he was looking away, fisted hand white-knuckled as it clenched over the railing, eyes hardened and scouring the carpet with a glare as he kept his mouth pursed.

Finally he turned briskly about, unwilling to meet her desperate gaze as he crisply remarked, "I won't promise that, you know. That would be asking me to give up protecting you."

"I'm a lost cause anyway, Roxas. But you---"

"Stop talking, Princess," he snapped, shoulders stiff, voice a venomous hush. She started, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. "And get your rest. Good night."

The tears resurfaced as he crossed the great hall and pushed the double doors open, vanishing back into the garden and leaving her behind.

-- - --

"Um, wow? You just left her there?"

"Not helping, jerk," Roxas mumbled, cooling his palms and forehead on the table as he tried to awaken himself to the dawning day, sleep still tugging at his mind. Across from him, his cousin, who so treasured his precious, long-reaching hours of sleep, was miraculously wide awake, picking apart the meager breakfast his work efforts gained him.

"You could be a little more warm and fuzzy, just saying," his cousin commented lazily, leaning back in his chair and stretching his arms over his head, feet propped up soon after on the table top. With an impressive yawn, he eased the lingering tension found in the stiff, morning air, and Roxas lifted his head, blinking drowsy eyes free of sleep.

"Sora, are you seriously suggesting that I be warm and fuzzy? God, do you need more sleep or what?"

At this, the brown-haired boy laughed good-naturedly and slightly shook his head, elbows poking out as he folded his forearms in and created a makeshift pillow of his hands for his head. "Sorry. I forgot that compassion wasn't your thing."

Snorting, Roxas reached forward and across the table, claiming Sora's untouched mug of coffee as his own. The boy didn't like the taste of it anyway, but if he had, Roxas could've argued that the life-loving boy didn't need the added caffeine. Thus, he felt totally justified in stealing it from his cousin's possession.

Sora only smiled with one eye shut as Roxas straightened and lifted the mug in contentment, the warmth curling around his face as he ignored the yawn itching at his closed mouth. Eyes burning from the fight, however, he blinked a few times.

"Hey, where's silver-haired and brooding?"

Snorting a laugh and then pitching forward, the brown-haired boy's chair screamed a deadly screech in the still kitchen as he yelped in surprise, completely unprepared for such a thing to happen. But then, laughter bubbling forth from his lips, Sora commenced in covering his head and laughing at himself, perfectly unfazed now. Roxas rolled his eyes as a green-eyed, brown-haired kitchen-hand – his friend, Olette – came rushing in, tired and harried in appearance as she placed one hand on her stomach in muted surprise.

"What's wrong?" she questioned breathlessly. "Is everything---?"

Still laden down with sleep, Roxas merely waved his hand in dismissal, without the energy to even spare his close friend a "good morning." Olette, clearly irked by his apathy, rolled her eyes in return and gave him a sharp backhand to the head; then, satisfied, she whirled on her heel, smirking at his affronted look and slight wince as she disappeared, triumphant. The whole scene only served to increase Sora's laughing fit, however, so Roxas had to sit back in his chair and sip his coffee slowly, his hopes of receiving an answer ever-dwindling.

"You're easily amused, aren't ya?" Roxas mumbled, though he couldn't help but grin somewhat that his cousin, who held such a lethal position as being high bladesman of their castle, could be such a softy at heart.

Sora's chuckles finally subsided, and then he rested his cheek on his arm, eyes lowered drowsily and smile content. "I don't even remember why I was laughing," he joked, another small laugh passing through his lips.

Rolling his eyes, Roxas stood, stretching his stiffened muscles as he placed the half-emptied mug back onto the table. "Well, whatever. I'm off, and if Riku's still sleeping, give him a good yell to get his ass out of bed for me, huh?"

Sora grinned conspiratorially, head still resting on his arms, and then laughed. "Off to find Axel, then?" he teased, wrinkling his nose in a playful manner.

Roxas leveled him with a dry glare. "Please, Sora. Don't make me kill you."

Snickering softly, the brown-haired boy rose and held up his hands innocently, though his grin remained cheeky. Heaving a great sigh, Roxas turned about and shoved his hands into his pockets, shaking his head in irritation as he scuffed his boots over the kitchen tiles and carried himself out the doorway.

-- - --

"So you're heartbroken that your little princess is giving up on life, and you came to me for comfort? Aww, Roxy, you're the only one who can make me feel both touched and used at the same time."

Pressing his palm to his forehead, he glanced over at the smirking redhead with a disdainful glare. "Save it, why don'cha? I'm not using you, you egotistical ass."

Leaning forward in his chair, Axel splayed his forearms over his knees, lazy smile slipping over his countenance. "You're sure lively this morning, Rox. Care to say why?"

Leaning back, pinching his nose, the blond shrugged in annoyance. "It's the same losing battle I always fight: I can't help her, no matter how damn hard I try."

"So she's as much of an ice princess to you as she is to everyone else. So? What's the problem here?"

Roxas rewarded that comment with a vicious glare, at which Axel only smirked. "She's my best friend."

"And she's a princess soon to die, Rox," Axel put in nonchalantly, making the blond flinch. "Face it; it's most likely that you won't be able to save her. The odds are against you, my friend."

Glowering at the floor, the blond moved to his feet, avoiding Axel's knowing green eyes. He should've known that looking to his best friend for comfort was just a stupid whim, but he'd thoughtlessly groveled at Axel's feet for guidance like a fool, and he was thus disappointed. Mumbling a grudging farewell, Roxas made to exit, fully prepared to spend the day at Naminé's side and speak of the past, looking away from the future.

Axel, however, followed him.

"Don't get mad at me, kid. You're the one refusing to think realistically. And, anyway, aren't you normally the walking dream-crusher?"

Shrugging off Axel's friendly hand when the redhead placed it on his shoulder in a comforting manner, Roxas clenched his fists and stomped towards the stairs, Axel easily tagging along.

"C'mon, don't ignore me, Blondie. I'm only telling you what you already know. Odds are, she's gonna die. And, as much as you love her – strange as that seems to me – you can't stop what's bound to happen. You're not a superhero, Rox. You're just a kid with two keyblades, held on the sidelines as a war takes place outside these castle doors."

"Thanks," the blond snapped, struggling with his emotions as he began to take the steps two at a time, racing to get beyond Axel's painful comments. "I needed that. Really. Your uplifting words inspire me, Axel."

The redhead heaved a sigh. "She's meant to die, kid. Who're you to stop that?"

Unable to take any more, Roxas stopped, threw his arms out to either side of him, and, trembling, summoned his two blades at hand. He heard the redhead falter behind him, but he continued to stare ahead, vision blurring and doubling as tears threatened in his eyes' recesses.

"Just stop…talking…" he whispered, arms falling limply to his sides as he continued to clench his keyblades, head falling in resignation as teardrops fell from his fluttering lashes.

"C'mere, Roxas," Axel whispered, voice somehow very close to his ear, and then one arm wrapped securely around him, resting just below his neck. Willingly he allowed his body to slump against his superior's, his protector's, his best friend's, eyes closing tiredly as he vanished his weapons and lifted his left hand weakly, desperately rubbing at his eyes. "C'mon, you'll get through this."

"What's the point of me even being near her, Axel?" he growled in frustration, bringing his hands to clench around the black fabric cloaking the redhead's arm. "Wasn't the point of introducing me to her, of securing my friendship with her, of appointing me her goddamn bodyguard to ensure her safety? And now, by one stupid decree, I'm stripped of all power because some stupid sacrifice is said to purge our land of evil? Is that even fair? Can't I get a say in it, too, goddammit?!"

Rubbing the knuckles of his free hand against Roxas's hair, Axel sighed. "No, Rox. You just can't wage war against an entire people; they're convinced that blood for blood will heal all scars, and they're so goddamn wrong, I know. But it's done, Rox. All you can do now is hope to get her out of here alive, past the Organization, past the guards, past the general population. And that, my blond, desperate friend, is asking for a miracle."

Roxas sighed ruefully. "I hate this. I feel so damn helpless."

Axel poked his head idly, his attempt to lighten the blond's mood. "Just forget about it, then. Visit her or something. Moping isn't gonna help her, despite how cute you are doing it, Roxy."

Rolling his eyes, the blond gave a soft laugh, pushing his friend's arm away at the same time. Back still turned to the redhead, eyes searching the winding steps he was halfway up, Roxas lifted one of his hands and rubbed the back of his head awkwardly.

"Axel," he began, tension in his shoulders easing, "thanks for---"

"Well then, let's go," the redhead said with a grin, snatching up his wrist before the blond could get the rest of his sentence out. Stumbling over his feet, Roxas tripped up the remaining steps, wide-eyed, as Axel glanced back with a smirk. "You're such a softy, Rox. It's funny."

Face hardening as he commenced glaring at his close friend, he rolled his eyes at the redhead's laughter and fought to catch up to the man's quick, gliding stride, foot catching the top stair when he finally managed to do so. Tripping and then growling from embarrassment and Axel's laughter, Roxas shoved his hands into his pockets and nudged the red-haired man sharply in the side as retaliation.

Bowing his head when Axel placed a hand on his golden locks and ruffled his hair, Roxas hid his smile as best he could, shifting surreptitiously closer to the man who'd kept an eye on him since he first entered the Organization. As much as he hated it, Axel never failed to make him smile, and, at the pressing moment, that was all he truly needed to be satisfied.

-- - --

Staring warily at the pale visage watching her through the mirror she faced, Naminé winced, taking into account the worried slump of her shoulders and dark shadows beneath her eyes. As she shakily brushed her hair, wondering for the umpteenth time why she bothered to maintain her appearance when in the long run it wouldn't matter, she chewed her lip and kept her tears at bay, because crying was a thing she hated to do, no matter how often she did it. She would be strong, for Roxas's sake, and so she attempted a watery smile as she continued to lead the brush through her pale-gold locks, still finding every action she did futile.

The sudden knock at the door resurfaced her from her thoughts, however, but still she stalled, turning her head slowly as she placed the brush back onto the dresser. Hands coming to rest on the glossed surface, she listened carefully, and was greatly cheered when familiar laughter sounded beyond the wooden barrier. Gathering the skirt of her dress in hand, she rushed to the doorway and flung it open, smiling to see Roxas with his head turned away from her, laughing at some joke she hadn't heard.

Smile weakening, dread blossoming in her stomach, she followed the incline of his head and found herself locked in a challenging stare, green eyes glinting confidently, arrogantly, as they met her wary gaze. Disheartened immensely, knowing that bonding solely with Roxas would be out of the question today, she stepped aside for him to enter, and Axel did just that, playfully pushing his blond companion ahead of him so that Roxas stumbled gracelessly over the carpet.

Rounding a vicious glare in retort on Axel, fists clenched impatiently, the boy snarled a, "Hey!" in indignation, though the redhead only lazily waved his hand and entered through the doorway, making himself immediately at home in Naminé's bedroom.

Punching him lightly when Axel passed, Roxas scowled slightly at the responding laughter and then searched her out, finding her seconds later and replacing his sour look with a soft smile. Sadness lightening in her, his smile sunshine to her rainy mood, Naminé giggled gently and rushed forward, encircling her arms around his back and embracing him tightly.

"Hi, Rox," she whispered, feeling the urge to cry creep up her throat. He just made her so happy that she oftentimes just wanted to break down sobbing, because soon enough such a gift he granted her would be no more.

"Naminé," he said gently, ruffling her hair and rocking her gently from side to side, ever the one to know exactly how to comfort her.

It struck her as odd, that, had she not been condemned to death, she could've settled down with Roxas. Friendly love was all that was needed to be happy, and they had so much in common for them to always be compatible, so she wouldn't have minded in the least about such a thing. She wasn't one to fantasize about romantic love anyway, only seldom times envisioned a silver knight whisking her off her feet, so, had she had the choice, she could've made a life with Roxas.

But then, that would never be. And she suspected that, while she had no one to cherish with her whole heart, Roxas already had someone very close to him whom he could never replace.

Lifting her eyes secretly, staring over the blond's shoulder, she watched as Axel tilted his head lazily and cast the pair a nonchalant stare, opting to then turn his back on them and play with various trinkets on her desk, lifting them up and placing them down with equal apathy every time. Unable to help her smile at the stubborn fool's behavior, Naminé buried her head in Roxas's shoulder for only a moment longer and then pushed away, folding her hands daintily as she awarded her friend with a genuine smile.

Rubbing the back of his neck in a habitual way, Roxas glanced off to the side, glancing about curiously. "Feeling better?" he asked, eyes skating over the barren walls of her room.

"Much," she commented lightly, attracting Roxas's stare again, and a soft smile was granted to her, a rare thing from Roxas, indeed. Happiness wasn't often found in her boy anymore, so when he did look at her that way, with sheer kindness radiating from every inch of him, she couldn't help but allow her chronic sadness to melt away for a moment or two.

Eyes switching from his to the ever-agitated Axel, Naminé felt her smile widen, and then she looked back to her best friend. "Roxas, can I draw you?"

Blinking, the blond cocked his head at her, hand frozen at his neck. Even Axel's gaze flew to hers in curiosity, and he arched a brow in silent question as his arms folded over his chest, he waiting for Roxas's belated reply.

"Um, sure?" he answered uncertainly, slight laughter tumbling past his lips as he offered an awkward smile, obviously not sure how this would help her any from her pressing situation. Relieved, however, Naminé looked over to the redhead, who'd heaved a sigh and let his head fall back.

"You too, Axel?"

As the redhead started and blinked, eyes falling to meet hers, Roxas's smile stiffened. "Wait," he began uncertainly. "You mean separately, right? Because I don't want him to have an excuse to paw at me for endless hours---"

"Aww, c'mon, Roxas. The princess asked so sweetly, too," the redhead teased, grabbing his wrist and giving him a sharp tug backwards. Roxas, on his part, resisted, growling in a short-tempered manner, and attempted to pull his arm free, but Axel wouldn't give.

"Stop it," he hissed, turning his head in agitation. "I'm sure she meant separately, you idiot."

Smiling lightly, Naminé shook her head. "No, I'd actually like to draw the two of you together, actually."

"What?" Roxas yelped in alarm, shooting his gaze back to hers and letting his guard down, thus giving the redhead the upper-hand.

With another sharp tug, Axel had Roxas stumbling over his feet, and, dragging the blond to the bed, Axel grinned conspiratorially and tugged at the boy's arm so insistently that Roxas had no choice but follow in his wake, letting out a cry of disdain as he did so. Naminé covered her mouth at the scene, watching as the stubborn blond batted Axel's groping hands away and fought to lurch forward, jaw clenched tight in a grimace, eyes narrowed sharply.

"Le'go!" he snapped, twisting his body and slapping away the hand that had moved to ruffle his hair. "I am so not doing this!" Axel rolled his eyes playfully in response, dropping his arm around the boy's shoulders and pulling him against his chest, knuckles rubbing playfully against his lower strands of hair as Roxas quieted, growls under his breath calming steadily.

"You maniac," Axel teased, fingers playing with his strands of hair. At that, Roxas glowered silently and looked away, stubbornly resisting Axel's advances as well as he could. However, with the redhead's further teasing, in time a broad grin spread across the blond's lips, and Roxas closed his eyes, giving a little laugh as he rested his cheek against the redhead's chest, legs splaying over the bed casually, free hand resting against his own thigh.

Smiling, Naminé shook her head and walked to her desk, retrieving her sketchbook and dragging the hard-backed chair along with her. Then, lowering herself into the seat and sitting directly across from the still somewhat bickering pair, Naminé bowed her head, the scratching of her pencil indicating that she'd started to draw.

-- - --

It occurred to her, in the hours that she'd finished the sketches of her best friend and his best friend, that she'd lost Roxas somewhere down the road. Just like she was losing everything the closer she was getting to her dying day, the blond boy, whom she'd known since she was little, was no longer exclusively hers. He'd found happiness in people that weren't her, and he had love now, even if such knowledge hadn't registered in his mind yet.

Glancing up wearily, resignedly, Naminé spared a glance Axel's way, noting the continuous way he ran his hand over the sleeping boy's locks of hair. She envied the redhead that he had such a perfect person's full affections, and realized that she'd never felt more alone, watching as her best friend snuggled closer to his protector for both warmth and comfort. She would die some day soon, and Roxas would go on, without her and with him.

Lowering her eyes, she smiled bitterly. Well, she would've had it that way anyway, she had to admit to herself. Roxas deserved the best, after all.

"You love him…don't you?" she asked in a softened voice as her thoughts ebbed away, breaking the silence that had fallen between them in the passing hours. Lifting her eyes once more, gently tracing her fingers along the edges of the paper, she tilted her head, gaze reluctantly trailing to his expression.

Axel, on his part, glanced up casually, lazy grin slipping onto his lips as he ran his fingers again through the sleeping blond's locks, brow arched, eyes glinting. "And what makes you say that, oh pure princess of mine?"

She grimaced at the title and glanced away for a moment, allowing her stare to light on her best friend's and greatest protector's relaxed countenance. Grimace easing away, eyes softening, she watched Roxas move his lips, grumbling something while he slept, and then nudge his face against Axel's chest, brows twitching in annoyance and body struggling for comfort. Smiling, tilting her head, she glanced back to see Axel run his hand over the boy's head with a fond look in his gaze.

"Because you can't hide it at all," she said gently, glancing at the sketchbook in her lap with only a lingering hint of bitterness as he looked over abruptly; picking it up, she turned the second picture she'd drawn of them the redhead's way, and she watched his green eyes widen in surprise as she peeked over the top of the sketchbook, warming smile hidden behind the pages. Axel's gaze swept rapidly over the sketch of them, the one that depicted Roxas wedged comfortably against his side in sleep and Axel resting his arm around him with a fond smile brushing over his lips, and then the redhead closed his eyes and laughed once, shrugging just slightly.

"You've got talent, Princess," he drawled, leaning over her blond bodyguard and slipping an arm under his legs. Looking away from her now, Axel stood and lifted Roxas with him, attention solely on the sleeping boy in his possession as he walked towards the door. "I'd hate to see it go to waste."

Eyes widening, then softening in sadness, she kept her gaze facing the wall in front of her as he passed her by, hands folded demurely, head bowed. "I've no choice in the matter, of course."

Axel clucked his tongue. "Show a little more strength, Princess. Don't be so passive and boring." Sighing, she shook her head as he opened the door, eyes closing and back falling to rest in defeat against her chair. "Oh, and so your lazy little friend here won't be scolded for slacking off," he continued, grin clear and sharp in his tone, "I'll be sending one of the main bladesmen to guard your door. Cocky bastards should be able to protect you, right?"

She smiled at the irony. "Thank you, Axel."

"I wouldn't, oh darling princess. I do all of this for him, got it memorized? Roxas is the only one I really like."

"I know." Her tone was soft, affectionate, and she did turn her head this time, looking over her shoulder to catch Axel leaning against the doorframe, head tilted, eyes sharp. "So take care of him, when I no longer can, okay?"

Something flickered in his eyes, and then he tossed his head, smirking. "Of course, your highness."

She watched as Axel continued out of the room, and she didn't flinch when he slammed the door.

-- - --

Running her hands through her tresses tiredly, wanting nothing more than to escape from the blistering heat of the kitchens for one blessed moment, she rushed silently through the hallways, averting the glares of the guardsmen as she searched out familiar faces. Life in the castle had grown monotonous as of late, since no one saw real point in working hard for the princess any longer, and that suffocating tension was just what she sought to get away from for a short time, because it was truly driving her mad.

So, as she slipped around the corner, heart racing at the curious voices that had risen from the silence and now inquired about her disappearance, she unexpectedly jerked to a stop as she caught sight of familiar red spikes of hair nearing her location, her normal wariness at one of the Organization's own returning as she narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"Axel," she called out softly, walking calmly forward to meet one of the members of the Organization of Thirteen Bodyguards – so dubbed Organization XIII by them. And as he lifted his gaze, cat-like green eyes searching her out, he came to a stop and tilted his head, smirk sprawling across his lips lazily as he shifted his sleeping friend in his arms, then leaning back and lounging against one of the walls.

"Kairi, Kairi, Kairi. Neglecting duties again?" he drawled, eyes gleaming good-naturedly beneath lowered lids. "You're going to give your guard dogs heart attacks."

Placing one hand on her hip as she trained her glare on his countenance, she tossed her head slightly in disdain, jaw clenching momentarily in annoyance before she heaved a sigh. "Sora and Riku are not my guard dogs," she muttered resignedly at last, weary of hearing such a thing. "I am capable of caring for myself."

"Of course, Princess," the man assured with blatant disinterest, weaving around her as he shot her a smirk and then moved on, blond secured in his arms as he continued to walk. "They have no need to be so worried about you."

Whirling on her heel in impatience, she fell into step beside him, angrily folding her arms over her chest in a display of stubbornness. "Where're you going with him?" she attacked, mood soured by his joking sarcasm and her pride wounded at the notion that she was so helpless.

Tilting his head and glancing idly at her out of the corner of his eye, Axel smirked. "I'm kidnapping him. Don't tell Sora."

She rolled her eyes, raising her hand to press her fingers against her forehead in agitation. How her best friend could so trust the man with his cousin's safe-keeping was beyond her, as she'd never regarded Axel as being one of the more trustworthy of the castle's inhabitants. Sometimes she wondered about Sora's judge of character, truly.

"Why he has such faith in you…" she mumbled under her breath, shaking her head in weariness.

"The kid's a bleeding heart. Too much of a sap to judge people by first impressions," he said with a malicious grin, glancing sidelong at her once more as she rolled her eyes and glanced off to the right, her body automatically rounding the hall's corner as Axel did so.

"Ah, I have a message to send along," the red-haired man commented lazily as they continued walking in silence, and Kairi lifted her head, arching an elegant brow at him when he glanced at her with a grin to check and see that she was paying him attention.

"And this news is…?"

"Number Thirteen needs his rest," he drawled as a beginning, glancing down momentarily at the blond resting innocently in his hold. Kairi followed his gaze, indigo eyes sweeping over the boy's calm countenance, and a smile pulled at the firm line of her lips surprisingly; how such a deadly fighter and person of such stoic manner could look so at ease was an astounding feat to her. "However, the castle's princess needs her life, for whatever reason, to be guarded dutifully and efficiently until her dying day." Axel smirked. "The irony."

Sighing, wanting to hear such things from the arrogant man no longer, Kairi nodded and waved her hand. "I understand. I'll talk it over with Sora. He'll want his cousin to be at full strength, anyhow."

"How kind of you," Axel commented nonchalantly, smirking at her as she sighed and came to a stop, the red-haired bodyguard swaggering on down the hall soon after her compliance to his terms. Shaking her head as she rested her palm against her forehead, Kairi sighed and then lifted her gaze to the ceiling, wondering how a man who gave off waves of such deceit and suspicion could be among the castle's most trusted ranks. He was manipulative, Number Eight was, and she wondered just how safe Roxas's life was in his dangerous hands.

Sora seemed assured of his intents, but Kairi just didn't know what to think of the man.

Thinking of the brown-haired boy, however, the young kitchen-hand blushed, smile lighting on her lips as she eased the hand still on her forehead through her locks of hair. Stepping backwards and then turning about, she calmly retraced her steps and headed towards the eating chambers nestled past the doors of the kitchens, opting to take the long way lest she cut through and be discovered by her superiors. She quite honestly wasn't in the mood to work today; visiting Sora was far more of prize than coating herself with grime and grease for countless hours.

Bare feet brushing over the frozen floor stones as she pushed the heavy door open and traipsed through the entrance, she glanced about the relatively deserted room, plates left from lunch littering the tables, and then her eyes fell upon Sora seated high up on the window, waiting for both Riku to come to meet him and for his shift to arrive. Smiling gently, closing the distance between them as she walked the expanse of room, Kairi came to rest her right shoulder against the stone wall the large window was built into, placing her hand against his arm lightly to indicate her arrival.

Sora, however, was not prepared for such a gesture, and he yelped in surprise, nearly toppling onto the floor. Hurriedly, though, she moved and anxiously pressed both her hands against his chest, grinning shakily when she glanced up, only to find that his nose was mere inches from hers, his eyes wide and incredulous.

"K-Kairi?" he breathed, blinking several times in recovery to his shock. At last, though, as she awkwardly held him up and fought with all of her strength to maintain eye contact without blushing, Sora's shoulders eased and he laughed softly, placing his hands against the windowsill and pushing back comfortably, sliding into an upright position so that he could leave a seat for her to climb onto. "You scared me," he laughed good-naturedly when she obeyed, with effort hoisting herself up into the open space.

"Sorry," she commented with a grin, leaning forward as her palms pressed against the rock and she turned her head his way, to the right. "Didn't realize you were so deep in thought."

Smiling briefly, the bladesman nodded and then bowed his head, hands folded in his lap as he swung his feet idly, no doubt lapsing into back into his ruminations. "Just…thinking about the war," he commented softly, eyes beneath his bangs softening due to sadness and exhaustion.

Biting her lip, Kairi lifted a hand, hesitated, and then placed it down onto his, offering a smile when he glanced up in question. Before he could answer her actions, too, she leaned into him, head resting on his shoulder as she expelled a sigh and moved close to his body, feeling suddenly exposed and alone in the quiet dining room. "I'm scared, Sora," she murmured, hand squeezing his nervously as she closed her eyes, strands of hair falling into his face.

Shoulders easing, her best friend sighed a short laugh and then leaned his head onto hers. "We'll protect you," he assured, voice confident. "We won't let anyone harm you, Kairi, I promise."

"No…" she replied tiredly, lifting her head slightly so that her nose brushed against his again, eyes fluttering beneath her lashes. Sora blinked, innocent confusion befalling his features, and she looked upon him gently, gaze soft. "I'm scared for you. And Riku. Don't fight."

He looked regretful, but he said nothing for a long time as he lifted his hand and patted her head, easing her back against his shoulder as he nuzzled his face into her hair, slight shake in his limbs almost indiscernible. Almost. "That's one thing I can't promise, Kairi. Anything but that."

Gaze lowering, she squeezed his hand once more, inhaling shakily. "I'll never forgive you if anything happens."

"That's okay. I could never forgive myself anyway if something happened to you."

Closing her eyes, she shook her head tiredly, giving a bitter laugh. "You treat me as if I'm a princess, instead of just some lowly kitchen-hand, Sora. I hardly deserve your loyalty."

Ruffling her hair gently, Sora lowered his hand and flashed her a small smile, eyes a brilliant blue as they caught her hesitant gaze. Lifting her chin, searching his face, she tried to find proof that her words had gotten through to him, that he agreed that he shouldn't even bother with her life; she saw nothing of the kind.

"I don't think of you that way," he argued, smiling warmly. "You're far better of a person than I'll ever be."

Rolling her eyes, she opened her mouth to disagree, but then told herself not to argue and instead turned her head away, glancing back into her lap with a bitter smile. "If you say so," she murmured, and before he could further insist, she replied, "The princess…is in need of a temporary bodyguard."

Straightening immediately, Sora clenched his fists in his lap; surprised, Kairi glanced up to see the boy wide-eyed with alarm, eyeing her desperately. "What happened to Roxas? He's her bodyguard! Why would she---"

Placing her hand on his shoulder, she quieted him with a tender smile, shaking her head. "He's just tired, I think. Axel's watching over him right now; I ran into him carrying the boy back to his quarters."

Sighing in relief, Sora let his head fall, giving a reluctant laugh as he held his forehead. "Thank God," he breathed, though the relief in his voice didn't mirror the shake in his shoulders. "Man, this war's just making me paranoid." Giving a soft, shaky laugh, he replied, "Well, I'll talk it over with Riku, then. Can't leave Princess Naminé vulnerable!"

Looking upon him sadly, Kairi moved her hand back to his folded in his lap, interlacing his fingers between her own in a comforting manner. She knew better; she could see past Sora's façade. The paranoia wasn't just something he could laugh off as nothing. The bladesman, her best friend, just a boy of almost eighteen years, couldn't lose another person. The war had taken his mother; he couldn't lose Roxas, as well.

"It's okay," she murmured, leaning close and brushing her lips against his cheek. He stiffened and turned his head her way in surprise, mouth open halfway and gaze searching. She offered him no answer as she closed her eyes and rested her head against his, however. "It'll be okay."

How true her words really were, though, she hadn't the slightest clue.

-- - --

He didn't like this new position. He much preferred the open double doors of the castle, the freedom of the wind breezing through his locks, the ability to see everything spanning out into the distance. Here, he was enclosed, and he hated it.

Eyes flicking casually over the interior walls, he kept his sigh of impatience quiet, not wanting to alert the princess to his presence. So, shifting his arms with hardly a rustle of fabric so that they crossed comfortably over his chest, he leaned his back against the door, eyes falling to the golden rug stretching away from his feet, nose wrinkling at the color.

The princess's castle was a plain one. Every day he stood guarding those doors, alert for enemies, he longed for the greenery in the distance, or the shores that belonged to his home island. Castle Oblivion was a bland and mournful empire, flanked by the glorious kingdom of Hollow Bastion and the dreary World That Never Was, and he was sick to death of it.

Not to mention the fact that war was waging just outside the castle doors, and all he could do was watch his comrades get slaughtered day by day. That part he loathed intensely, rooted to his daily spot at the doors' right, without the power to run down the spiraling pathway and join in the fighting ranks.

He hated being helpless.

The scrape of a chair inside the room he was guarding instigated a sigh of relief from him. Princess Naminé was so silent in her actions that he'd wondered if Axel had just played him for a fool when he finally decided to come and talk to the two of them (despite his words to Kairi previously), and that he'd been stuck to guard an empty room while the princess was off somewhere else. But now she was locked inside her room as he'd been told, the place she most loved for some reason, and so he was reminded again to stay alert and not let his mind wander so carelessly.

Flicking his gaze to the door at his back when the rustle of movement inside became more prominent to his ears, he leaned forward surreptitiously, hand falling to the sword at his side even as it itched to summon his dark keyblade. A lock clicked from within and then the door swung open, so that he twisted around in time to see the blonde-haired princess jump in shock and back away, face veil-free for once and blue eyes wide with shock as her hand slapped against the door again, she prepared to slam it in his face.

His arm shot out before she could fully achieve such a feat, however, and she squeaked and stumbled backwards, falling to the floor.

Rolling his eyes at her clumsiness, drawing his right arm back, he crossed it over his chest and fell forward in a respectful bow, silver hair slipping into his eyes and over his shoulders. "Princess," he began, eyes on his feet, "I'm the bladesman Axel chose to be your temporary guard; name's Riku."

He remained bowed over at the waist, arm crossed over his stomach, gaze focused on the ground. When she didn't deign him with a response, however, his mouth twitched into a scowl, and when his discomfort continued to mount he flicked his aquamarine eyes in her direction, impatiently glaring through his silver bangs.

She jolted at his stare, color sweeping over her cheeks as she gathered her skirts and made an effort to rise daintily, only to falter when she stepped on the end of her dress and stumbled forward. With only a slight guttural noise of disdain, Riku righted himself and rushed forward, catching the princess awkwardly about the waist and helping her straighten with as little touching as possible.

She covered her face when he quickly stepped back, muttering her thanks as he crossed his arms expectantly, waiting for orders, reprimands, or casual comments.

He received nothing but a peeking glance on the princess's part, the girl peering through her fingers to stare at him in embarrassment. She then looked down, color seeping again into the pale of her face.

"I'm not used to this," she complained to herself, looking away from him and giving off the appearance that she was talking to him, though Riku was certain that she wasn't. "I never have to be formal or responsible with Roxas. He's my best friend, after all, and he knows everything about me, so…"

"Princess," he said sharply, more than slightly agitated. She, in response, jerked in surprise and lowered her head, astonished gaze lighting on his in alarm. "Excuse me for being so blunt," he snarled, crossing his arms more insistently over his chest, "but mightn't you give me orders instead of talking so foolishly to yourself?"

She stiffened indignantly, all color fading from her face. "Wh-what did you say to me?"

"Ugh," he grumbled to himself, rolling his head to the side in a clear display of annoyance. "You are the most pathetic excuse for a princess…" Shooting his gaze back to her, he pasted a smirk on his face with effort. "Princess," he attempted in false sweetness, "is there anything you need from me? You opened the door quite quickly."

She glared at him, knowing instantly that he was mocking her. In that expression of hers, he was shockingly reminded of a close friend of his, and he raised his eyebrows, wondering if she had a temper to match.

But, in that aspect, he was disappointed. The princess merely looked away, hands smoothing over her stomach absently, a strand of blonde hair falling into her gaze. "I only wanted fresh air," she commented stiffly. "But that desire has now passed. Forgive me for troubling you."

He nodded, staring after her as her gaze continued to focus on her desk in the room's corner. As his staring persisted, though, she turned her head in his direction, eyes widening in confusion as she opened her mouth and made to say something, only to fail and come up with nothing at all.

"U-um," she finally stammered nervously, tucking a strand of fallen hair behind her left ear. "Do…do you need anything? I don't…really know what…" Her voice trailed off and she bowed her head sheepishly, façade of strength fading away as she gathered her skirts sheepishly in her fisted hands, chewing her lip.

Still holding himself tall, he lifted his chin somewhat and turned his head away, gaze averted so that he wasn't looking the princess, the woman whose position made all else in the castle unworthy, in the eye. "I need nothing. I'm here to serve you, remember?"

She sighed in confusion, trailing her fingers through her hair. "Yes, but Roxas---"

"He's not my concern," Riku growled sharply, turning about and crossing his arms, glaring through the open doorway and hating his position even more-so now that he realized that he was only a less-than-wanted replacement for the blond bodyguard whom he couldn't stand. "Do you need anything from me, or shall I get back to my duties?"

Silence fell, tense and ugly as it reflected off the barren walls of the princess's less than luxurious surroundings, and he wondered if he'd wounded her feelings, his words seeming harsh and unnecessary to even his own ears. Finally, however, her gentle inhalation of breath sounded, and the tension in his shoulders eased a fraction.

"I need nothing from you," she murmured, a touch of bitterness in her tone as a shuffle on the carpet filled the air, the swish of her dress indicating that she'd turned around. "You may go."

Nodding shortly, sparing no reply to the princess's orders, he glided across the carpet and crossed the threshold, closing the door behind him as he then stood before it, taking up his duties once more with a troubled expression on his countenance.

His concerns were not relieved, either, by the quiet sobbing that arose in mere minutes' passing, a thing which he listened to with regret as he leaned his body heavily against the door.

-- - --

"You! You made her cry!"

"Rox, calm down."

"I won't calm down! Your friend's an asshole! It was beneath him to even act like a human being to her!"

Flicking aquamarine eyes the brash bodyguard's way, Riku arched a brow distastefully, cards in his hands no longer interesting him any. Sora, across from him, was turned halfway in his seat, his hand haphazardly extended so that the bladesman could see every card he held, but he honestly cared not; his comrade was a bad enough player that he needn't resort to cheating to win.

And, anyways, his attention was focused mainly on the raging blond held back from attacking him only by an amused Axel keeping him at bay.

"Riku's hardly the affectionate type, Blondie," Axel tried helpfully, though the sneer he flashed indicated that his motives were less than innocent. It was obvious that he would love to see the bodyguard attempt to tear him limb from limb; Axel was just sadistic like that.

"You done boring me with your preaching?" Riku drawled, leaning back in his chair upon folding his hand and then slinging his arm over its back. Roxas, in reply, snarled and fought against Axel's restraining hands. "I won't get attached to her, if that's what you're attempting to get me to do. She's got a death sentence hanging over her." At his words, Sora snapped his attention towards him in horror, Roxas's face darkened in intense loathing and he struggled more insistently to get free, and Axel looked sorely tempted to let the blond go. Tossing his head, however, Riku shrugged. "She's an obligation to me while you're doing some other job. I'm not about to do such a stupid thing as get attached to a girl who's not going to live to see the war's end."

"Bastard!" Roxas screeched, practically clawing at Axel's arms encircling his chest as he breathed heavily and struggled to lunge at the silver-haired youth. Nervously Sora jumped to his feet, too, moving to help a harried-looking Axel out, and the redhead grinned shakily, the closest thing to gratitude on his expression that Riku had ever seen. A Roxas hell-bent on drawing blood was not someone to be trifled with, it seemed.

With boredom Riku watched the struggle, however, rising to his feet slowly as he ran his fingers through his silver locks. Then, tossing his head slightly to the side, he lowered his arms and maneuvered around the struggling blond, smirking his way in contempt.

"You should really have a little more self-control, though," he commented nonchalantly, and as the blond shouted obscene death threats after him, Olette and Kairi finally rushing into the dining hall in alarm as he walked past them, Kairi watching him go with concern tainted with the slightest annoyance, he walked into the hallways, headed towards the main foyer that led towards the castle stairs.

He truly didn't understand why those around him attempted to look towards the future in an idealist light. Roxas, for all of his pessimism regarding the war, refused to realize that the princess whom he held so dear would soon be gone forever, and Sora, though rightfully serious when he had to be, never liked to listen to the side of logic and reason. The two cousins were so alike in that one aspect, refusing to see the truth that rested right before them. Whereas he, ever rational, ever logical, had a blindfold over his eyes that prevented him from seeing such hope and dreams that they so carelessly talked about. And, on some level, he was envious.

The light gave them happiness, while he, steeped in darkness, had nothing.

His jaw clenched worriedly when he found himself stopped before the princess's door. Though not remorseful of his words moments prior, he regretted that his actions days before had caused the girl more sadness than she deserved. A girl with such a wretched fate should not be so tormented, and he felt rightfully guilty about what he'd done, that his cold demeanor had caused her pain. But he could hardly take down his protective walls to please one person, especially a person who wouldn't be around always to share his pain and speak of her own to him.

He refused to trust a girl who was going to die so soon. Then he would get hurt, and the war had caused him suffering enough.

With a frustrated sigh he bowed his head, lifting his fist to knock against the door that obstructed his passage inside. He owed the girl an apology if nothing else, and not even his pride could prevent him from seeing such.

Footsteps soon whispered on the carpet beyond the door, and with a click and a toggle of the knob the blockade of the entranceway swung open, the girl inside immediately replying, "Roxas! I missed…"

Stiff, eyes narrowed, Riku clenched his jaw as he watched the girl's elated smile – quite a pretty thing, he realized reluctantly – fade from her expression. And even more he hated the blond Organization member, that Roxas could be so high above him in one girl's eyes and have so much more importance.

Riku was the better fighter, the one in all aspects more suitable to be the princess's bodyguard, and yet Roxas was the one cherished. It was a disgusting realization the silver-haired youth made.

Gathering his senses, however, noting that fuming silently before a princess already rightfully terrified of him was not the smartest thing to do, he swallowed his pride and indignation and bowed over at the waist, hair sweeping past his shoulders and into his eyes as he refused to meet the blonde's crystal gaze.

"I ask for your forgiveness," he murmured softly, the words admittedly hard for him to speak. "I was unreasonably cruel to you in our first encounter."

There was a hesitant intake of breath, and then a hand touched his hair, so that he jerked in surprise and lifted his head to glance up at her. In alarm she drew back her arm, but at his innocently questioning gaze her lips curved in the slightest amusement. "You can talk to me like a normal person, y'know," she murmured, letting her arms fall to her sides as she tilted her head comfortingly. "Roxas does all the time."

Mouth twisting into a snarl, he snapped, "I'm not Roxas!" His tone caused her to jump, too, fear flitting fast across her features, and at the look he stepped back, turning his head to the side and allowing his bangs to overshadow his wounded gaze. "Forgive me."

Stepping forward, a thing which caused him to step back, the princess attempted to get his attention, touching her hand to his arm gently. Grinding his teeth, he hissed and looked away, bangs fully in his eyes and shoulders slumped regretfully. "You hate him?" she murmured. "Is that why you're acting like a child?"

Blinking, he jerked his gaze to her, expression astonished further when he caught her teasing smile. In truth, from his last encounter he expected the princess to be far more hesitant, soft-spoken, and demure, as she was always described as to anyone who asked; but no, she wasn't as shy as he'd pictured her to be.

Stepping back, she smoothed her hands over her dress and turned her head, looking into her room. "I'd like you to come inside; company always makes me…forget things." At this, her voice grew softer, more reluctant, and she glanced back at him with eyes burdened with hurt and loneliness. They were eyes he knew well, and so when she murmured, "Please?" he couldn't resist her beckoning.

Stepping hesitantly through the threshold, paying more attention this time to the room that she lived her whole life in, Riku followed her at a distance, movements slow even as she crossed the space to her desk in no time. Looking over her shoulder at him as he moved his stare to fall upon her form, she smiled and turned around, holding a booklet of paper in her hands, eyes downcast as she stood before him.

"I…want to rectify whatever relationship the two of us have," she murmured softly, stating her intentions without guilt as she nodded once and then moved to her bed. Warily, he stayed put as he watched her set the notebook down, in turn seating herself on the mattress's edge and then lifting her gaze to stare at him. "I have enough enemies," she replied gently, lifting fingertips to brush strands of blond hair away from her face; his expression, stoic now, refused to falter. "So I want us to be friends."

"No."

Bowing her head, smiling slightly, she nodded and dragged the book into her lap, turning the front cover immediately after. "So you are stubborn," she replied with a hint of amusement in her tone. "I think I captured that, then."

"What are you…?" Tilting his head in confusion, he eyed her incredulously, greatly confused about whatever it was she was saying. Her words made no sense to him, in truth.

"I drew you," she commented simply, looking up with a calm expression. "From our last meeting."

"You…drew me," he drawled, arms crossing over his chest as he arched a brow, he quite forgetting that his duties had switched and he had to me more submissive to the girl before him than protective. She, however, took no offense and merely smiled, tilting her head to the side as she indicated that the open spot was just for him. He hesitated, gaze flicking to the mattress, and then with a roll of his eyes he obliged, seating himself at a reasonable distance from the fair princess as he sat and then leaned forward, his curiosity getting the better of him.

"I don't know, though," she commented lightly as she handed it over, his eyes watching hers as she spoke. "Does it look anything like you?"

Blinking, he lowered his gaze to the drawing and then arched his brow, wordlessly impressed. From the brief time they spent together, all of the moments between them seeming stiff and horrible to the memory, she seemed to extract one good moment from somewhere, so that he looked reasonably calm and actually human, stance proud, eyes guarded, manner protective. All the things he aspired to forever portray were depicted before him by her hand, when she hardly knew him at all.

"It's…good," he commented in surprise, glancing up at her. Nervously she smiled, too, taking the notebook back and closing it finally as she moved to hug it to her chest.

"I'm hardly a prodigy," she commented offhand, turning her attention forward as she smiled in a reminiscent manner. "It's taken me a long, long time to get to the level I'm currently at. But, with nothing to live for but death, this makes my time more meaningful, y'know? I'm not just someone expendable when I draw. I make people see, and smile, and that makes me feel happy. Really, really happy." She turned her attention back to him, eyes sad, smile weary. "It makes me want to live rather than just give up."

Saying nothing, he watched her with hardened eyes, took in the exhausted movements of her hands clasping one another in her lap as she bowed her head tiredly. Strands of blond hair ghosted past her shoulders, brushing against cheeks too pale and eyes too lifeless as they trembled softly in the air, dancing just before her eyes. Undeniably, the things she spoke of moved him, and he had the sudden urge to protect her, to be by her side, to be more important than the Roxas for whom she devoted her heart to caring.

Because she, though frustrating in his eyes, was such an elegant rose, and he didn't want her to wither. It didn't matter that he was the thorn, the scathingly sarcastic temporary guardsman who'd already scared her and caused her more anguish than she deserved. He didn't want her to perish; the reasons for this revelation he was not aware of, but he suddenly knew that, for all that was within him, he would fight for her, to ensure that her death wouldn't happen.

There was something about Castle Oblivion's princess that was just indescribable, something that affected him and got under his skin. He would have to be careful to keep her at an arm's distance, to not let her into his heart, but he could no longer deny that protecting such a fragile girl was something he couldn't just wholeheartedly refuse to do.

"Let me protect you," he commented softly, bowing his head as his words broke the silence. He didn't care about her expression, didn't care how unexpected and random his plea most likely seemed; all her needed was her answer, and, whatever it was, he'd be content.

After a moment, she gave a response. "Okay."

Nodding, Riku pushed off of the bed, folding his arms over his chest as he crossed the expanse of space to her door, leaving it open as he leaned against the frame and stood guard over her. But, as his hardened eyes scoured the empty halls and his strict stance didn't ease any, the small smile that curved his lips in the slightest depicted his pleasure at her answer, and, temporarily, he was content.

-- - --

End of part one. Please review.