My most-rapidly updated story ever (due to time constraints) now comes to a close. Thanks for your support, and I hope you like this final part.

Disclaimer: No.

-- - --

Holding herself desperately, hoping that the tears wouldn't fall, she bowed her head and drew her legs onto the chair, frame shaking. Across from her, Olette was sobbing hysterically, collapsed on the tabletop with her face buried in her arms as she called her friend's name, crying over and over in some kind of futile attempt to summon him back to life.

But no. Hayner was dead, life taken on his ride to a neighboring kingdom with a letter begging for reinforcements in hand. And Olette was inconsolable, having had a soft spot for the boy that not even her love for Roxas could touch.

"I'm sorry…" Kairi whispered, not knowing her pain and selfishly never wanting to. It could've been anyone – Riku, Roxas, Sora – and just that notion alone left her cold inside, the fear caught in her throat.

"He didn't deserve this!" Olette screeched, standing up, pressing her knuckles against her eyes as she stumbled away from where Kairi sat. "It shouldn't have been him! He's so much better than so many people here and---"

"Who, Olette?!" Kairi countered angrily, clenching her fists, and the brunette glanced up in surprise, tears cascading down her cheeks. "Just who is he better than? Axel? Riku? Sora?! God help you if you say any one of them, because they deserve life just as much as Hayner did! You can't change it, Olette! It sucks that he died, it really does, but you can't do anything about it! So don't go wishing that it was someone else, you hear me? Not when so many others that we love can fall to the same fate!"

Suddenly the doors burst open, and both Olette and Kairi whipped their heads to see Sora and Roxas rush through, the brown-haired youth looking alarmed, the blond looking crestfallen. Choking, shaking her head, Kairi ran at Sora and wrapped her arms around his neck, sobbing as he patted her back soothingly and murmured something aside to his cousin, whom she saw nod and then walk over to Olette.

"First Pence," Kairi whispered, "and now Hayner. She only has Roxas left, Sora. What're we going to do?"

"Shh…" Bowing his head, Sora moved his lips to rest by her ear, his hand smoothing her locks of red hair as he held her in a comforting fashion, his frame soft and warm and everything her cold body needed for relief. "Don't start worrying about stuff like that, Kairi. You can't."

"I got so mad," she whimpered softly, moving to bury her face in his chest. "I yelled at her, Sora, when she lost her best friend. Yelled at her! I…I just…what she said scared me so much and I---"

"I heard," her best friend commented softly, stroking her hair continuously, nodding as he made gentle shushing noises. "I know. It's all right. You didn't do anything wrong."

"S-Sora…"

"Don't tell me to calm down! He's dead, Roxas! Our best friend!"

Choking, Kairi clung to Sora helplessly as she tried to block out Olette's hysterical sobbing, a million and one different scenarios running through her head as she closed her eyes. It could've been Sora, caught off guard as he watched the doors and had his back turned. It could've been Riku, shot by an assassin trying to get to the princess. It could've been Roxas, running at an enemy as he rushed through the hallways, stoic and deadly serious as he attempted to protect the inhabitants of the castle. It could've been one of them, some of them, all of them, and yet today it had been Hayner.

Who knew who might die tomorrow? She might know someone cut down on the battlefield. She might care for someone murdered unawares. Shaking her head, unable to suppress her tears, she leaned against Sora, taking the folds of his jacket in her hands and clinging to him with all of her waning strength, needing to memorize his smell, his sound, his touch.

"H-Hayner…" the brunette whimpered, and with a rustle of clothing she collapsed in a pitiful heap on the ground, covering her eyes with her hands. From her peripheral vision not shielded by her hair Kairi watched, cringing closer to Sora's form as the girl sobbed so mournfully, shying away at first from Roxas's embrace and then falling into it entirely, throwing her arms around his middle as she buried her face in his neck.

Laughing softly and with wry humor, Kairi turned her head and rested her cheek against her best friend's chest, tears silently trailing down to her chin. "Look at us," she murmured, shaking her head only slightly. "A bunch of hysterical, crying women. That's all we're good for, isn't it? We're no help to you. That's why it's the men we're losing – 'cause the women are good for nothing."

"Not true," Sora insisted, lifting her chin with his fingertips and looking deep into her eyes. "Never, Kairi. You give Riku and me strength, you know that? We fight for you above all else. We fight to come back to you."

Eyes softening, tears pooling again from their recesses, she lifted her hands and took hold of his face, pulling it close to hers so that she could rest her forehead against his. Shivering slightly, smiling flitting across her lips all the same, she met his gaze and murmured, "You're something else, you know that, Sora? A girl's very own Prince Charming."

Smiling goofily, face coloring pleasantly, he pulled her close and rested his cheek against her hair, and she felt safe nestled in his arms.

It was moments later that the doors burst open again, making her jump in the brown-haired bladesman's arms, and as she swung her head to the left she saw Riku stroll in, eyes dark, manner stiff.

And, hidden behind him, a girl clad in white strayed from view, veil covering her face, hand anxiously clasping his.

Eyes widening in recognition, Kairi pulled away, curtsying low just as Sora fell into a deep, respective bow.

"So," Riku commented idly, strolling over to them as he paid no attention to their obeying proper protocol, "you heard, too?"

Sora was the first to straighten, Kairi following his example, and as the bladesman arranged his shirt he nodded grimly. "What do you want to bet," he said softly, eyes flicking to hers hesitantly and then away, "that it's a message from the enemy? The death was far too close to castle walls, and they definitely don't want us to get anymore help, especially if we're so hurting for it."

Stiffing, Kairi rounded on him, clasping her hands against her mouth. "Wh-what do you mean we're---"

"Kairi," Riku said softly, tone warning but eyes remorseful. Looking helplessly up into his countenance, she kept her mouth closed, lowering her hands to clench her uniform skirt in fear. Nodding at her reaction, he sighed then, running a hand through his silver strands. "You're going to have to be extra careful from now on. Don't say anything to alarm people, but also don't be stupid and careless, okay? At most, we have a week." Tilting his head back, eyes on the ceiling, he sighed again. "And that's being generous."

"Do we…at least…have a chance?" she asked, looking from him to Sora, who was now concentrating hard on the stone floor, something dangerous in his stare. She didn't like it, either.

As she waited for an answer, she let her eyes stray to the princess, who was standing by the far doors and watching them through bangs and under her veil. There was something so fragile about her, too, so breakable; she could see why so many of her friends were devoted to protecting her.

Lowering her eyes, pricks of envy affecting her, she fiddled with her hands a moment and then, in a surge of frustration, looked angrily back at Riku.

"Well?" she demanded, threatening stare clashing against his somber one. "Do we? Answer me, Riku! Stop treating me like a child!"

"No."

Jumping, Kairi looked over to Sora, as it was he who had answered her. Mouth slightly agape, eyes widening, she watched as he lifted his stare from the floor and looked further away from her, rubbing the back of his head with his hand. "We don't have a chance in hell, Kairi. This castle is going to fall, no matter what we do."

Shock hitting her full force, she stared at him for a long time, mouth opening and closing, body quivering with alarm. And then, as if with his response all of the life flooded out of her, she gave in, eyes growing vacant. "So…" she responded dully, arms falling and hanging limp at her sides, "we're all going to die."

"No," he replied again, this time daring to look at her, determination blazing in his deep blue orbs and mesmerizing her. "Whatever it takes, we'll get you out of here, Kairi. And as many others as we can. The castle isn't what matters, anyway." Turning his head to grin reluctantly at Riku, he tilted his head and asked, "Right?"

Following Sora's gaze, Kairi watched as the silver-haired youth nodded confidently, looking over his shoulder thereafter to gaze at Princess Naminé. Shifting weight at his gaze, she ducked her head down in embarrassment and seconds later glided over to him, a ghost of a smile rising on her lips from beneath the veil as she brushed her hand against his hand tentatively and then interlocked their fingers.

Inclining his head, Riku lowered himself, lifted her veil, and captured her lips as Kairi and Sora both watched, both exchanging shocked glances and then anxiously looking over their shoulders at the same time. Roxas, now standing with his arm around Olette's waist, the girl burying her head into his shirt as she continued to cry, gazed on somberly, head tilting to the side as a sigh expelled from his lips. Then, moving his stare to Sora, he rolled his eyes and moved his finger to his mouth, pretending to gag, and the brown-haired boy laughed softly, Kairi smiling herself.

"All right, Romeo," Roxas finally drawled, and Riku pulled away slowly, sending the blond a sneering look as he casually slung his arm around the princess's shoulders. "Could you not lip-lock in front of me? She's like my sister."

Sora snorted and grinned at his cousin, and Kairi giggled and covered her mouth, sheepishly meeting Riku's eyes even as she laughed at him. He didn't seem too fazed by the comments, however, merely rolling his eyes as he ruffled the mortified princess's hair and walked forward, punching Sora playfully in the shoulder.

"What're you laughing at, huh?"

Swinging his gaze back to his best friend, the brown-haired youth continued to chuckle, rubbing the back of his head. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and grinned widely, without comment, but as Kairi looked on she noticed the carefree mood grow tense, and then Sora's and Riku's smiles were fading, and Roxas had his head bowed again, soothingly attempting to calm Olette.

Laughing bitterly, Sora let his arm fall, shrugging. "No good. There's nothing to laugh about anymore, is there?"

"Sora, don't say that…" Kairi entreated, clasping her hands as they shook. "We can…still be happy…"

Sighing tiredly, he tilted his head at her, sad smile on his lips as he brushed his fingers against her cheek. Lids lowering, gaze falling to the ground, she bit her lip, face coloring slightly. "After all of this is over…maybe I'll believe that."

Walking closer to him now, shutting her eyes as he weaved his fingers through her strands of hair, she wrapped her arms around his waist and fell against him, sighing softly. Behind her, Riku touched her shoulder affectionately, and she turned her head to smile at him brokenly, tears again filling her eyes as she cradled herself against Sora's form.

"It'll be okay," he whispered to her, hand squeezing the princess's gently even as his eyes focused on her.

It was an automatic answer now, one she heard too often. Because it wouldn't be okay, not in the slightest, but it just had to be said, had to be heard, so that no one would give up.

Unfortunately, it wasn't working.

No matter the fact that Riku was now withdrawing from Naminé, clapping Sora on the shoulder and stating that they had to start evacuating sooner or later. No matter Sora's serious expression and certainty that their plans would play out all right as he grinned tentatively back and then turned about, crossing the floor to bend down at the waist and touch Olette's arm as he promised her silently that things would get better. No matter Roxas's sharp determination, the stiff clench of his jaw, the steady stare he leveled on her wandering gaze as the panic strangled her throat slightly again. Their silent assurance and will for everything to turn out all right, for everyone to evade death and find some kind of happy-for-now ending, was not affecting her, and, as she lowered her gaze and only gave a half-hearted smile when Riku ruffled her hair and spoke comforting words in her ear, she wished suddenly more than ever that their tragic fairytale would come to a close. She was sick of wars, sick of fighting, sick of death.

And she wanted hope to be existent again.

-- - --

"Crap. Crap, crap, crap, oh man…"

Feet sliding across the tiled floor, he stumbled a distance as he rounded the corner, cloak fluttering about his legs, fingers clenching around the weapons in hand. Tossing a look over his shoulder, he made a guttural sound of disdain then, face screwing up in irritation, and then twisted around, summoning his weapons to hand no matter the onlookers and then tossing one chakram at the shadows that were the first of the heartless troops to evade. The way he saw it, endangering his position to people unused to the abnormal was no longer a concern to him; the final battle had commenced, and if they were standing there long enough to gape at him, they were goners anyway.

Smirking in satisfaction when the wisps of smoke that followed his weapon signaled a momentary lull in fighting, he turned about again, stumbling over foot and then grabbing the corner of the ending hallway to swing him into the next, tripping again in his hurry. He really didn't care about raising up the alarm, of falling into the ranks of the Organization (seeing as how he didn't trust them to begin with), or searching out the two bladesmen to be sure that they were aware of the pressing matter. All that concerned him was getting to the end of the hall, turning that following hall, and passing white doors upon white doors until a golden thirteen caught his eye.

Roxas getting out of his room before he was ambushed was all that he wanted to achieve.

He was relieved thus when he rounded that final corner and saw no menacing pairs of yellow eyes yet, and only hesitated a second before he was racing down the long, long passage, leaving open doors and empty rooms in his wake as he desperately tried to quicken his speed. The cloak about his ankles was getting to be an annoyance, and the hair standing on end at his neck and warning him about oncoming danger was ever agitating him, so he was all too thankful when that number thirteen glinted in the light, even as he almost ran right by it. Digging the heels of his boots into the tiles, however, he came to an abrupt stop, twisted around, and then, rather than bothering with a possibly-locked door, kicked the obstructive barrier open.

"SHIT!" came the startled cry from the interior, followed by a dull thump on the ground, and Axel, leaning against the door, smirked in amusement even as he pushed red bangs from his eyes in relief. "Axel!" Roxas howled, fighting within the tangle of his sheets as he glowered darkly, snarling even. "You asshole! Why'd you do that?!"

"Up, Sleeping Beauty," he ordered, strolling through the threshold even as Roxas yelped his protest and kept the blankets secure around his body, dangerously glaring as he reached for his cloak hanging off of his dresser. "No napping on the job."

"This had better be important," he threatened, viciously shoving his arms into the cloak and turning himself away from the redhead, covering his face with the hood in most likely an attempt to hide his embarrassment as he then opened his dresser, resorting to dressing himself from under the black garment.

Axel snorted at the comical scene briefly, and then he leaned back, tilting his head up to the ceiling as he drove his hand through his red locks. "We've got company. Thought you'd want to be, y'know, alive to greet our guests."

There was a thump on the ground, and the redhead lowered his eyes to see Roxas staring straight ahead, white shirt on the floor and hood back on his shoulders. He caught the shaking of his hands, too, as he tilted his body far to the left in an attempt to get a glimpse of the blond's expression, but he couldn't tell if the trembling was anger's fault or fear's. Expression softening, he walked over and ruffled his friend's hair, leaning down then after to pick up his shirt.

"You ready for this?" he asked softly, placing the article of clothing into Roxas's grip.

"'Course I am," he then snapped, turning around and briskly grasping his shirt, letting his cloak fall momentarily to the floor as he then dragged it over his head and pulled it down towards his pants. Axel arched a brow, crossing his arms. "Been ready to kill the bastards since they first attacked this goddamn kingdom," he muttered, picking up his cloak afterwards.

"Well then, let's---"

But before he could finish, Roxas had summoned his two keyblades at hand and shoved him off to the side, rushing rapidly forward. Turning about in surprise, he watched just as the blond skidded to a stop, bent at the knees with his blades artistically poised, a shadow shuddering and quivering behind him and then gone in a wisp of smoke.

Spitting then on the ground, Roxas righted himself, lowering his arms. "Axel, where's Sora?"

Cringing, the redhead took a step back, scratching his head. He should've known not searching for the brown-haired Keyblade Master first was a mistake. More important than the fact that he was one of the most sought-after people in all of the worlds, he was Roxas's cousin, and if something happened to him, the blond would go insane.

The two were opposites in every way, sure, but it was almost as if they were separate halves of each other, making the other complete when they were together and hollow when they were apart.

Of course, he also should've realized his tense silence was a mistake, as that only prompted Roxas to whirl around and face him finally, eyes narrowed, body stiff, demeanor warning. "Axel," he snapped, and the redhead looked up warily, "where's Sora?"

He winced in response. "Well, he's gotta be somewhere in here…right?"

Eyes widening, the blond stared at him incredulously for three whole seconds before he turned and dashed outside frantically, leaving the redhead behind. Cursing colorfully now, slapping his palm against his forehead, he chased after his friend in a desperate attempt to stop him before he killed himself…

…which would be admittedly hard, seeing as how Roxas was as stubborn as hell.

"Roxas!" As he'd expected, the blond didn't halt, look over his shoulder, or even reply. He just kept on running, twisting around the turn in the hallway and disappearing briefly from view. "Roxas, you idiot! Get back here!"

Following in his path, he tripped over his footing as he suddenly jerked his body to a stop, face hardening as he watched Roxas desperately fight a swarm of heartless of all kinds. The blond was certainly suicidal, thinking that he could take them all by himself even as they pressed insistently closer to his frantic form. Even as he flipped through the air, taking three out in a time with his beautifully fatal acrobatics, more rose up from the ground, moving to where he was to land, so that he twisted in the air and caught himself badly as he feet his the floor, his ankle weakened.

And as Roxas favored that leg Axel couldn't watch anymore, and he summoned his weapons and sent them flying so that the blond, moving to rush forward, had to jump back in alarm and almost crumpled to the ground as he silently watched the sea of black bodies and yellow eyes disappear.

Using his weapons as crutches then, he mumbled his thanks and pushed himself straight, but Axel refused to let him walk off. Furious, he strolled forward and then slammed the blond against the wall he'd just stumbled away from, green eyes flashing, line of his mouth curled into a snarl.

"You idiot," he growled loathingly, and Roxas matched his glare, unaffected. "I won't have you die, you hear me? Sora's not worth your death. And he wouldn't want it, either."

"Shut up. Shut up. His life's more important than mine, so I'll do my damned best to---!"

"You won't step a fucking foot out of this hallway if you keep thinking that way, Roxas!"

"And you don't get to decide that for me!"

"If it keeps you alive I do!"

"Who're you to prevent death from getting me, Axel? You can't stop it if I'm supposed to die today!"

Tightening his grip on the boy's shoulders, he growled, shoving him harder against the wall. "I can, you idiot. I'm not about to let my best friend perish, and so stupidly, too."

"Sora---!"

"---could be dead already, for all we know! You understand, Rox?! You're rushing off into the heart of an ambush! You haven't seen what it's like throughout the castle! Bodies completely litter the staircases. People are falling by the second. And you won't be one of them, so calm down and let me goddamn protect you. I promised Sora you wouldn't get hurt. Don't make me a liar."

"You already are one," he countered angrily, striking randomly at Axel's chest as he fought to break free of his hold. "You're a manipulative bastard and I don't know why I should trust you with rescuing my cousin. You never cared for him, and you don't now, so like hell I'll---"

"He's important to you, isn't he?" he growled lowly, and Roxas stiffened, suspiciously eyeing him even as his protective guard eased. "So, for that reason only, he's important to me."

"He can't die, Axel," Roxas murmured, but the warning was gone from his voice, so that the blond still caught in his hold seemed tired now, small, and almost scared. Because of that, too, he let his indignation and injury slide, and his expression softened as he lifted his hand and idly threaded his fingers through Roxas's golden locks.

"And if he's still all right, we won't let him, Roxy. You'll see."

Hesitant smile floating to his lips for only a moment, he nodded slightly, and Axel stepped away, hand flat against Roxas's back to balance him as he tentatively tested his leg out. Undoubtedly in pain, the blond still managed to walk normally, shielding the hurt flickering across his countenance with a determined look as he summoned back the keyblades that he'd banished moments ago. Then, looking over his shoulder, he flashed the redhead a genuine grin, and Axel pulled his hand away, summoning his own chakrams as his eyes glinted with anticipation.

"Let's fight, then," he murmured softly, fingers clenching around the hilts of his blades.

And Axel smirked back, all the while reminding himself that this was it, and he couldn't let danger befall blond before him, no matter what.

-- - --

There was a flash of light and then the imposing form of darkness before him was gone, but he didn't halt to admire his handiwork. Everything had gone south in the span of a day. He didn't know what had happened, because only hours after midnight on the day when they were going to evacuate the castle and flee into the countryside, enemy forces had barraged through the defenses and had flooded into heart of the palace. Bloodshed and battle had then tainted the walls and floors continuously for hours, so that now, as he worked his way slowly from the outside in, he was tired, desperate, and worried for every second that he wasted on a heartless.

He didn't know how Roxas was faring. He'd lost Riku in the rush of darkness. And Kairi he hadn't seen for days, so that he could only assume where she was now, if she hadn't been kidnapped or worse.

Heart flipping anxiously in his chest, he slashed angrily at heartless upon heartless blocking his path, rage rising and falling like waves within him and fear for the redheaded girl spurring on his adrenaline.

He just had to keep assuring himself that everyone thought Naminé was Princess of Heart, not Kairi, and that they wouldn't intentionally seek her out.

And hopefully Riku realized that, too, and was rushing off to get to the princess rather than delaying in battle or even letting himself fall to the hands of darkness. Sora could only pray that that was so, because he had no time to do anything else.

"Get away!" he shouted in frustration, cutting down two soldier heartless in one leap as he slammed his shoulder accidentally on the wall, closing his eyes at the burst of pain only for a moment. He couldn't afford to stop for too long, because Kairi was out there somewhere, possibly helpless, possibly cornered, probably afraid.

She was strong, he knew that, but she was alone. And, God help him, he wouldn't let that last.

Keeping a tight hold on his keyblade, Sora spun around abruptly as he sensed something at his back, and with a quick jerk the blade was sent through a leaping shadow, cutting it down and dissolving it into smoke as he stumbled backwards and then turned forward, quickening his pace. Leaping over the stairwell, then, stumbling over the steps as he fought to stand straight and run to the second floor, he leapt off of another banister and with both hands gripped the hilt of his keyblade and slashed through a flying heartless, landing on the second floor in a crouch as the beast then exploded above him. Panting, smiling briefly in satisfaction, he took off running down the hall, looking for the next staircase, cursing the difficult make of the castle once more as it made itself yet another obstacle in his journey towards Kairi.

"Get outta my damn way!" he cried, wildly slashing left and right at the rushing hordes of beasts just before him, and then he was racing on, leaving nothing but wisps of smoke or bleeding corpses in his path. Enemy soldiers, heartless, he was sick of seeing them in his path, in his castle, in his life, and all he wanted to see was her, her smile, her light. He needed her now, when he was covered in blood and cold from so much death and scared out of his sane mind. And he had to tell her, now that death was on all of their doorsteps, that he loved her, incase this was his last chance.

For he would never let her die, but his death notice could be not so far off at all.

Laughing bitterly when he saw the final stairwell, he jumped onto the banister and just leapt off, not caring for the consequences, not worrying about broken bones as he soared through the air and just plummeted downwards, keyblade swung sometimes and ripping other times at walls to slow his descent. For one instance he felt immortal, invincible, and the peace of perpetual flying filled an odd warmth through his body, so that he felt that he didn't have to worry, that everything would be all right, that things would go well and as planned. But then his feet lighted on the ground and he was crouched over to absorb the shock, and his eyes were trained on the bodies twitching before him or rushing at him, the cold certainty that death was ever a threat pulsed through his veins and froze his body.

Shouting in frustration, he charged, because he was scared of dying and desperate for Kairi and not willing to stay in one place. And then he was racing towards the kitchens, because if she hadn't been anywhere else in the castle Kairi was either there or dead.

And he hoped to God it was the former, not the latter.

A familiar face rushing his way as he ran had him halting, breathless, stunned that he almost took her down. And as she kept running, brown hair fluttering in her face, green eyes frantic, he grabbed her arms and stopped her, shaking her anxiously.

"Kairi!" he shouted at her. "Where's Kairi? Where is she?"

"…don't know. I don't know! Please, let me go!" she cried, closing her eyes as tears flooded past her defenses. "Roxas! I have to find Roxas! And Hayner! And Pence!" Gasping in fear, she shook her head. "Where are they? Why'd they leave me?!" Eyes widening, she began to struggle. "The gardens. They're always in the gardens!"

Loosening his hold in shock, he stumbled as she pushed him away, hysterical and half-crazed with grief. She was seeing ghosts now; she'd lost sight of the present. And he couldn't save her, because he couldn't hold her to the now.

Watching her go, wanting to help her and knowing that if he went after her he would both not be able to save her and possibly would condemn Kairi to death, he lowered his eyes sadly and then took off running, almost at the entrance to the eating chambers.

"Kairi…" he whispered, banishing his blades as he extended his arms and pushed with force against the double doors, sending them slamming against the stone walls as he hurried inside. Seeing no one, the room completely deserted, he shook his head desperately and then ran to the kitchen, entering with the same momentum into a brilliantly white room lined with counters and stoves, pots hanging from above. As he stopped, wide eyes appraising his surroundings, he caught cooks and kitchen-hands alike crouched under the surface tops, some sobbing, some shivering, some dead.

In concern, he walked the hollow room with slow, resounding footsteps, staring carefully at the bodies hidden away, shaking his head desperately and pleadingly at those grabbing at his ankles. He couldn't help them. He was no messiah, he was no world savior. He was a legend, a Keyblade Master said to be gifted with swordsmanship and the power to succeed in battle, with one of the purest hearts in all of the worlds. But he was also human, with flaws, with faults, and he wasn't strong enough to save their lives, nor was he willing to save someone in Kairi's place.

He just couldn't. He'd die for her, never replace her. And so he had to walk right on by.

But his heart was beating faster, the closer he got to those opposite doors. He'd yet to find his red-haired best friend. She wasn't among the dead so far, thankfully, but she was not cowering among the living, and she definitely hadn't called him out if she was injured. Head jerking from right to left in alarm, he whispered her name anxiously, voice rising frantically.

And then, hands clenched at his sides, body shuddering, he was shouting. "Kairi! Kairi!"

"SOO-RA!"

Jumping at the frightened screech, he jerked his head up, staring at the doors looming just before him, and then he was dashing forward and running out of the kitchen, back in the ever-twisting hallways and now surrounded by a sea of black bodies. In the middle stood Kairi, too, tears chasing down her cheeks as she tried to beat away the lunging heartless with her arms, kitchen uniform ripped, hair splayed in a mess about her shoulders, forearms bleeding. Glancing up at his entrance, she gasped in happiness, smile flickering momentarily to her lips before another heartless pounced and she screamed again, this time covering her head with her arms.

"No! There's no way you're getting Kairi's heart!" he snarled, rushing forward, a flash of light signaling his blade to his grip. He would never give up now, now that she was only steps before him, now that she was so tangible and beautiful and waiting for him. He wasn't going to let her die. He wasn't going to let her hurt any longer.

And he wasn't going to let the damnable beasts staring back at him with blood-thirsty eyes exist another second.

So he cut them down, one at a time, two at a time, three at a time as he moved closer and around Kairi, edging her backwards as he now stood guarding her frame, staring down the advancing enemy with a look of determination so fierce. His knuckles were bleeding, his jacket was shredded, and his legs were quivering because of exhaustion, but the battle was almost over now, and their ranks were dwindling at last.

With a final sweep the heartless were completely gone, too, and Sora fell to one knee, running a hand shakily through his damp locks of brown hair as he tried to catch his breath, just wanting to lie down, close his eyes, and wake up to a more peaceful time.

This was never going to end, was it?

"Sora?"

Jerking his head up, he winced and curled on hand on the floor, pushing himself with difficulty into an upright position. Swaying then, he nearly fell backwards, but Kairi's arms holding fast around his waist stopped his crash, and he rested his head against her neck, closing his eyes as he sighed softly.

"You're hurt," he whispered, looking down again to gently touch one of her arms. Blood stained his fingertips, and he winced, rubbing circles on the skin of one of her hands gently. "I'm sorry."

"I'm fine," she urged, pressing her lips against his ear as she breathed out shakily, wetness sticking to his skin from off of her cheeks. "Worry about yourself. You just…I can't believe…"

"All in the job description," he laughed softly, trying to joke. "Save a damsel, fight off dragons…well, they weren't dragons, true, but they'll wor---"

"Shh…take it easy."

Shaking his head in the negative, though, he grunted, struggled in her hold, and then stood on his feet again, stumbling slightly but catching himself this time. Then, sighing tiredly and turning around, he smiled dimly and touched her cheek, brushing away tears as he shrugged.

"I can't. I have to rescue my princess, right?"

"I'm sure Naminé is fine, Sora, now please---"

Chuckling softly, he drew Kairi into a hug, resting his head against her shoulder as she stiffened for a moment and then relaxed in his hold. "Naminé's not my princess, Kairi." Squeezing her gently around the middle, he moved his head and brushed his lips against her cheek. "You are."

Pulling away from him slightly, eyes wide, face red, Kairi searched his countenance in surprise, appraising him with doubt clear on her features. "Sora, really now, what are you talking---"

Tilting his head, the brown-haired boy leaned down, capturing her lips within his softly, hesitantly, allowing her to pull away any time. But as his mouth caressed hers gently and he kept his hold light around her waist, she lifted her hands to his cheeks and responded, pressing her body close against his and then moving her arms to wrap around his neck, her touch more insistent, almost begging. Pulse quickening, he pulled away, smiling sheepishly as he stepped back and ruffled her hair, face burning with color.

"We have to go," he murmured gently, summoning his keyblade in his right hand and extending his left. Fingers at her lips, smile slight, she glanced shyly at his extended hand and then took it, his grip closing around hers.

Nodding firmly, he pulled her close and then started off down the hall, hoping for some kind of escape.

"What's that sword thing, anyway?" Kairi murmured curiously. "I mean, why don't you use your usual one?"

"Uh…" Eyes glancing about, he was admittedly distracted as she posed her sudden questions, and so he only idly glanced at her. "It's not…that…useful, actually." Glancing away again, he pulled her into an abandoned corridor, moving in front of her incase of an attack.

"And Riku? What about---"

Turning around, he smiled calmly as he held a finger to her mouth, shaking his head. "I don't know," he whispered, smile falling as remorse flooded his features. "Honestly, I don't know where anyone is, or if they're even alive. But this was the plan, Kairi. We get those we care about out, even if we're separated. Riku, Roxas, and I…we're going to make sure you and others are safe." Face pained now, he lowered his head. "So we both have to keep going, e-even if---"

Touching his cheek, Kairi smiled as Sora looked up, tears in her eyes as she nodded in agreement and said, cradling his face soothingly, "All right, Sora. Lead the way."

Catching his breath, he calmed sufficiently and nodded, stepping away and continuing his walk down the hall.

-- - --

He was taking the steps two at a time now, knowing that there was no time for delay. The princess was one of the most sought-after people in the palace. Civilians would be searching for her now, to try to sacrifice her early in an attempt to appease whatever sadistic gods they worshipped. And the Organization and heartless troops alike would be trying to kidnap or kill her, so as to gain control of the castle and, in turn, Kingdom Hearts. And he couldn't let that happen, because he was responsible, and, more than that, he loved her.

So he wasn't going to fail her.

Finally on the second floor, trying not to think too much about Sora and Kairi and how he hoped more than anything that they were still alive, he ran on towards the room, finding it miraculous that he'd encountered no heartless yet, and finally burst through her doors, gasping in alarm. Stumbling through, summoning his dark keyblade to his hold, he glanced up through silver bangs and saw her, sitting docilely on her bed, eyes wide beneath golden strands of hair as her gaze clashed with his.

Face darkening, he drew himself up to his fool height. She was just waiting to die, no matter all that he'd promised.

"Let's go!" he barked sharply, and she jumped, even more startled than before. "I told you. As long as I'm here, you're not dying! Understand?!"

For a few more seconds she didn't move, and then, suddenly, she was running at him, colliding against him with tears in her eyes and shaking limbs. "Y-you came," she stammered, breathless with disbelief. "You're here."

Anger softening, though pride slightly wounded, he sighed tiredly at her and rested his hand on her hair, nodding. "Of course I'm here," he whispered. "I promised." Then, wincing, he tilted his head to the side as he stared awkwardly at the ground and forced out, "I…love you."

Laughing happily through her tears, Naminé pressed herself more closely against his frame, nodding rapidly. "I love you, too. I really do."

"Then let's go," he breathed, opting for a gentler approach, leaning down as he brushed his lips against her temple. "Let's run away and leave this castle behind. Let's get out of here and find Sora and Kairi – hell, even Roxas – and be happy together. Hmm?"

Lifting her head from the folds of his jacket, she hesitated, looking around at her room. "What about all those people who---?"

"You're not a sacrifice, remember?" he coaxed. "You're a human being. And this is your choice. So what'll it be? Death…or life?"

Biting her lip, she looked down at her feet, and then, finally, she met his aquamarine eyes, and he smiled comfortingly at her. "Wherever you go," she finally stated, in a clear, serious voice, and he resigned with a soft laugh, realizing that that was the best he would get.

"Then follow me," he murmured, and, taking her hand, he led her out into the hallway.

He didn't know of any secret passages. Castle Oblivion wasn't a stronghold defense, was complex only in design with nothing hidden from view, so hoping for long tunnels covered by paintings would not do them any good. Therefore, as he progressed quickly enough down the hall and began to hear noises, he stopped dead, aware that if they went further they would be caught.

"Riku," Naminé began nervously, "what're we going to do? That sounds like members of the Organization."

Staring grimly around, he looked up for a long time at the window to his left, deliberating something. He couldn't wait around for too long, especially since he was no match for so many members of such an elite rank coming at him at once, so when Naminé began to shake in anxiety he decided that he would have to do with his surroundings. Therefore, taking from a nearby suit of armor some oddly-shaped medieval weapon, he picked it up, weighed it in his hand to get used to it, and then, pulling Naminé behind him, through it with all of his might at the glass across from him. The sound of shattering was deafening, and as Naminé shrieked Riku picked her up and ran for the newly opened barrier, jumping through just as the thunder of footsteps almost overtook their position. And then they were falling fast, Riku desperately clutching Naminé to his frame as he twisted about in the air, hoping for something to break his fall.

At the last minute he grabbed at the kingdom's flag, a loud ripping sound following as he jerked in midair and then swung for a time, clasping Naminé about the middle. Dangling only a moment so that he could catch his breath, he then let go, dropping more easily to the grass and then tripping over his feet and falling.

Naminé, on her hands and knees beside him, whimpered and panted as her whole body shook, and as he rolled on his side arm thrown across his brow tiredly, he caught a glimpse of her pale face and started to chuckle, simply because he'd been just as scared.

Laughter increasing as she looked at him in disbelief, he rolled back onto his back. They were alive. They were out of the castle. Against all odds, they'd escaped – so easily, too – and they were almost in the clear.

It was hysterical.

"Riku. Riku!" Leaning over him, Naminé took his face and shook him slightly, eyes wide with terror and still somewhat annoyed. "RIKU! Please, you're scaring me!"

"That…that was the stupidest thing…how're we…?" Laughing still, he looked at her through blurring vision and smirked, chest rising and falling rapidly. "How'd we do that, Naminé?"

Shaking her head, she sighed softly and gave him the softest of smiles, leaning down and kissing him gently on the nose. "I don't know."

Lifting up off of the ground, he captured her lips playfully, hand moving to the back of her head as he tilted his and grinned against her mouth. Then, pulling away as she gaped at him, stunned, he rose to his feet and extended his hand, stretching the muscles in his legs as he did so.

"C'mon. We're almost safe," he said softly, gaze warm, demeanor now calm. "We can make it."

Nodding, Naminé took his hand once more, and, feeling her complete trust in him, he grinned, righting her to her feet and then racing across the grass, keeping her close. They had to keep running, slightly away from the battlefield, into the trees so that they could disappear, two ghosts never to be found.

Though maybe, hopefully, Sora would find them soon, as he hoped the boy would, so that he would have everyone important in his life with him once more. And they'd live normally, perhaps even forever happily, in a small town far away from castles and wars and struggles for power.

Maybe some things the heart truly wanted could work out, especially when in a time of such disaster.

Glancing back at Naminé, grinning whole-heartedly, he let his eyes then stray to the castle he'd never have to live in again, and he stopped, gaze narrowing. Moving in front of Naminé, who'd stumbled into him and was about to ask what was wrong, he summoned his blade at hand, bending his knees slightly as he held the weapon poised before his, expression dark and staring down the line of troops that had hidden away and waited in ambush for anyway trying to make a run for it. It was yet another trap, another obstacle, and one more danger to Naminé if he didn't take care of it.

"Don't move anywhere," he muttered softly, looking at her as he turned his head to the side, peripheral vision as well focusing on the line of his enemies. "Don't stray too far, because then I can't help you. If you're in trouble, scream. Understand?"

"Riku…" Holding her arms close to her chest, she looked down, tear trailing down her cheek. "I thought we were just going to run. I don't…want you to…"

Turning quickly, he captured her lips in a desperate kiss, aware that there was only a short time remaining before an attack. "I will protect you," he whispered, kissing her forehead and then pulling away, and as she said his name desperately he rushed at the heartless spanned out before him, knowing that if he didn't kill them, they would kill Naminé.

And he could not let that happen.

-- - --

"Christ! How big is this fricken' castle?!"

With a tired sigh, the blond spun the weapon in his hand, idly glancing about the hallway, gaze taking in the slaughter. He had to admit, he was tiring quickly of blood-washed walls. "Oh, stop whining. That's the last of that swarm."

"I'm sick of these things. C'mon, Roxy, let's make a run for it. Screw everyone!" The blond turned his head and glared at his friend. "Aww, come on! I'm sick of heartless guts. And do you know how badly blood stains these cloaks?"

"Stop joking, you idiot," Roxas growled, turning away from his friend to slash through a lagging shadow. Otherwise, the hallway was eerily quiet, calm even. "We're almost out. And then we're finding Sora, heartless guts or no."

With a flick of his wrist Axel drawled a "Yeah, yeah…" swaggering past the blond as he looked around the corner, bored expression on his countenance. "Now, if you could supply us with a way out, Blondie, that'd be great."

"You know your way around here same as I do. You propose something, genius."

Scoffing, Axel shot him a smirk, but Roxas merely banished his weapons and shoved his hands into his pockets, waiting with waning patience. His red-haired friend fell silent at his stoic attention, and with a sigh the blond tossed his head to the left, staring in deep concentration at the walls. They were finally on the first floor, where no windows were to be found, still deep within the bowels of the besieged palace. If they were going to get out alive, they were going to have to go through the front doors. That…or…

"The gardens," he stated softly, brows rising in mild surprise as realization donned on him. "The gardens wouldn't be attacked; there'd be no point!" Grinning in anticipation now, he met Axel's bemused, yet amused, expression. "That's our way out!"

"Oh. Brilliant plan, Roxas. Let's hide among the shrubbery and hope no one sees that we stick out like sore thumbs."

"Idiot," he muttered as he walked past, running a hand through his hair as he checked the corridor briefly and then strode down its length. From the resounding footfalls, he knew his comrade to be following. "We're going to run straight through. Because it yields plant life, it also leads straight to the outdoors. Haven't you ever noticed that?"

"Can't say I'm much interested in flowers," he grumbled, hand falling to ruffle locks of his hair as he closed the distance between them that Roxas's rapid pace had instigated.

Grinning gently, the blond nodded, crossing his arms over his chest as he cast his gaze about, looking around for any signs of danger. "Of course. You're not the sentimental type."

"I'm plenty sentimental, Roxy. Why, I'm a bleeding heart."

"With what? That empty cavity in your chest?" he quipped with sarcasm. "You have no heart."

Laughing softly, the redhead pushed Roxas away, and as he stumbled he shot his friend a glare, receiving another short laugh in response. Admittedly cheered by the redhead's amusement, though, the blond grudgingly smiled back, spirits high as they neared the gardens and had a run-in with not one heartless swarm or enemy line. He'd imagined enough scenarios to last him a life time, promised himself with enough maybes to make him sick, but perhaps things really would turn out right for once, and his friends would be safe from harm.

At any rate, he'd find out the outcome once he was through those doors they were coming up on, and then there would be no turning back, no more hoping and imagining and believing. And that he rather liked, because he was driving himself mad with the effort.

"Axel, c'mon," he urged, grinning excitedly as he spurred himself into a jog, knowing full well that it was dangerous to burst straight through into the unknown but deciding that it didn't matter now. At last minute, however, he summoned his blades, just to be safe, and then he'd kicked the barriers open, the doors swinging widely as the gardens rose up into view.

Coming to a halt, he felt Axel come to stand behind him as he spared every inch of the room careful scrutiny, and then he walked forward, steps calculated and slow, movements muted. Only the slight flutter of their cloaks about their legs and their soft breathing disturbed the normal atmosphere surrounding them, but to be sure that there was nobody else, Roxas strained his ears to catch any and all abnormal sounds.

Approaching the exit of the castle, he finally heard something, a soft, gentle sobbing that he recognized at once. Eyes narrowing at first and then widening in horror, he set off without any warning towards the right, completely cutting in front of Axel as the man started and stumbled in surprise. Bursting through the bushes, sparing no apology, Roxas batted the offending branches away and final stumbled upon her hiding spot, choking to see Olette huddled in a pained heap, a wound across her stomach and spanning towards her upper chest.

Choking, he dropped to his knees and frantically grasped her wrists, pulling her close as she jerked her head up and finally caught side of him.

"R-Roxas…" she stammered, hands fumbling to touch his face as he continually shook his head, not understanding how he hadn't gotten to her in time, not understanding how she was capable of dying. She was his best friend, a pure-hearted girl, a person who loved with a gentle nature. She was always there and always laughing, so how was she dying?

"No," he murmured, eyes widening further as he watched her eyelids flutter, shaking her arms with jerking motions as he fought to keep her conscience. "Olette, stay with me! Please, Olette!"

"I…knew…you'd be in the…gardens," she gasped, smiling as she focused her bleary gaze on his. "Hayner and Pence…they're coming…too. You'll…s-s-see." Coughing, she doubled over painfully and her struggles for air dwindled into a whine, so that she was shaking and crying against him as she fought with the hurt seizing her whole frame. Desperate for her to stay with him, too, Roxas hugged her fiercely, lips touching her hair and quivering as he whispered her name over and over. "You're…always…there for me…Roxas." Choking, she lifted her head and brushed her lips against his chin, and he closed his eyes tightly, the realization that she was dying torturing him even as his mind protested that she was still alive and there in front of him. "It's why I…l-love you so much." Closing her eyes contentedly, she slumped against him, head tucked neatly beneath his chin even as he stared, stunned, at the wall rising away from the ground in front of him. He'd never known. Not once. "And now I've…finally told you."

"Olette," he whispered painfully, hand moving to hold the back of her head. "Please. Don't talk like that. You aren't going anywhere, you know. We're…we're almost free. I'm here to save you, Olette. I'm here to rescue you! Olette!"

"You…already…have…"

"O-Olette!" he choked, leaning back to take her shoulders in his hands and shake her gently. Her eyes were closed now, her mouth curved into a peaceful smile, and it was the peace and calmness of her body that he feared the most. She wasn't in pain any longer. That meant she wasn't alive any longer. "Olette! Please! I'm sorry! God, I'm so, so sorry! O…Olette," he choked, clinging to her desperately, tears burning paths down his cheeks.

"Roxas. Let her go."

"I…promised her."

"It's not like she can hold it against you."

"This isn't time for jokes!" he shouted in fury, lifting his head angrily to glare at the red-haired man. He was startled thus to find him crouching beside him, smiling sadly as he patted his cheek, knowing look in his eyes.

"You can't bring back the dead, Rox. She's gone. So think of the people you have left."

"I didn't try…hard enough for her."

"Then try harder for the next," he said softly, slinging his arm around the blond's shoulders and pulling him closer. Roxas, looking down at the deceased girl, his close friend, in his arms, allowed himself to find comfort in Axel, too, shaking from grief and shock. "Just keep her close, that's all. And just think; she's with Hayner and Pence now, right? She's bound to be happy with them, where there's no more fighting, no more war."

"Doesn't change the fact that she's not…not here," he whispered, laying her down in the grass against his will and then brushing his knuckles against her cheek, appreciating her beauty for a final time.

"Roxas. We've got more promises to keep."

"So we do," he whispered, leaning down and pressing his lips against Olette's forehead, closing his eyes as he said a silent good-bye.

Pulling back, standing up, he ran his sleeve across his eyes and then turned away, walking with purpose towards the outside.

He was not going to fail another person.

-- - --

She didn't realize it was her own voice screaming as his body fell until she was running, not even noticing that he'd felled an entire onslaught of enemies on his own. She couldn't bring it upon herself to appreciate such a feat when the last of the wicked beasts had wounded him right before her eyes, so that the grass beneath him was now rapidly staining with red and he was coughing in pain.

And it was all her fault, she kept telling herself, because if it hadn't been for her he wouldn't have acted so selflessly and fought against so many. It was all her fault.

"Riku!" she screamed, collapsing next to him and taking his face in her hands, sobbing despairingly as she tried to do anything to help. He had to hold on, had to live on, because she couldn't live without him.

She wouldn't live without him.

He struggled at first, too, unwilling to submit to the hands of death. Shaking from her hold, he pushed himself up from the waist and then drew his legs beneath him, slowly rising to his feet. Panting softly, he took a few steps, arm slung over his stomach and face screwed up into a mixture of hurt and concentration. But then his legs shuddered and gave way and he collapsed ago, motionless on the ground as she stared after him and then ran to his side once more, crying and holding him and pleading that he don't do such a harmful thing any longer.

Shaking his head, however, he refused to give up, and so he did it once more, with only the same results to follow. After a fourth time, however, with her sobbing hysterically and clinging to him as he shook terribly and struggled in frustration, he finally fell onto his back, closing his eyes as his face looked towards the sky and a suspicious stillness captured his body for a moment.

And then he jerked again, cringing and twisting from the pain, and Naminé shifted backwards, sobs stumbling past her lips as her breath hitched in her throat.

Chest rising and falling laboriously now, the silver-haired youth beside her moaned, turning his head as his eyelids fluttered and then his breath-taking aquamarine eyes were trained on her. Tears slipping down her cheeks, lips quivering, she gently touched his lips with her fingertips, then sliding her palms to cradle his cheeks as she leaned down, gently claiming his mouth and tasting blood and tears in their kiss.

Choking, she pulled away and fell against him, shaking her head as she sobbed his name.

"Don't cry," he pleaded of her, lifting his hand and resting it on her hair. She stilled, chest shuddering even as she forced herself not to sob any longer, because she wanted to hear every word he spoke, every heartbeat that resounded within his chest. It meant that he was alive, and she wanted so desperately for him to remain alive. "I-I…can't stand to see you cry. You're free, Naminé. Th-there's…no danger any l-long---"

Twisting abruptly beneath her, he moaned in pain and clenched his teeth, so that she was sitting up straight, frantic with fear as she touched his brow and asked hysterically what she could do. But he was dying, and she could do nothing, that she realized painfully as he jerked and writhed so wretchedly.

"St-stupid," she whispered, tears dropping and disappearing into his clothing and hair as she hovered over him, body shaking as she smoothed away silver bangs from his eyes. "Why were you so stupid?"

"Y-you're…worth it," he said with a strangled laugh, arching his neck as he cringed then and stiffened his body against the throbbing. "And I don't do anything for someone who's not worth it."

"I'm not! Not worth your suffering. Not worth your death!" she hissed, fear in her voice and in her eyes. "You should've left me to die! You should've let me DIE!"

"Is it a crime that I wanted to be…be the hero for once?" he laughed wryly, cringing thereafter and sucking in his breath. "Sora…gets all the credit, y'know. And he's such a sap about it."

"Riku, please."

"You won't make me regret dying today, no matter how hard you try," he whispered gently, and Naminé shook her head, shushing him, wanting him to not say such words and thus make it the truth. He couldn't die. He couldn't die. She needed him so much. "I'd do it again, given the chance."

"Th-that's not possible," she said softly, laughing through her tears even as it made her heart twist excruciatingly. She didn't want to let go. Not now. Not ever. "Anyway, I'm just some helpless girl, Riku. Why put in the effort?"

"A little late to change it," he said softly, smiling as he touched her cheek, thumb brushing against the corner of her eye. She quivered. "And stop crying over me. That's an order, Princess." Hiccupping, she shook her head, holding his hand desperately to her cheek. "Naminé," he breathed, "you have to let go."

"N-no…no, I want you here."

Closing his eyes, he sighed gently, lips curving into the softest of smiles until the smile faded away. Leaning closer, holding onto his hand desperately, she brushed her lips against his, tears slipping quickly from her eyes when he responded weakly, his energy fading fast.

"Riku…"

Cheek resting against the grass, he panted heavily as he let his eyes flutter open once more, and then his parted lips curved back into a smile. A resigned look in his eyes, a kind of weary acceptance falling over his features, he nodded gently, then moving his gaze her way. Gasping softly, she knew that this was good-bye, and she couldn't bring herself to plead for him to stay by her side any longer.

Whether she liked it or not, he was leaving her side today, and he was never coming back.

"I wish…" she whispered, closing her eyes for a moment, lips moving as no words followed. No, wishes chalked up to nothing in reality, that she knew. It would do no good for her to waste her dreams on a petty word. She couldn't keep Riku alive, not on a word, not on a premise, not on love alone. So there was no use in wishing when wishing was but another kind of fairytale.

Opening her eyes once more, she smiled, crying openly before him still as his breaths became shallower and his fight for life grew more desperate. "I love you," she whispered at last, her parting words with the teen who'd so quickly come into her life and now was going away. Her knight in shining armor, he'd saved her from murder and yet had also stolen away her heart, so that now, as he lay dying, the last bits of humanity within her were dying, too. Soon she'd be nothing but a shell, a nobody, left to feel nothing because there was nothing colorful or meaningful in her life any longer.

He seemed at ease now, calmed by the fact that she was there, that she was safe, and so he closed his eyes for a final time, never to look upon her with such a beautiful gaze ever again. And so, with a lasting kiss on her part as she leaned down, the warmth began to fade slowly from his lips…

…and Riku died.

-- - --

"Outside," she breathed, glancing up at the overcast sky with a look of relief and happiness, her hand caught within Sora's. "We're outside. We made it."

Laughing softly, Sora turned towards her and kissed her chastely on the lips, the thrill rushing through her veins at such a gesture a thing she would have to get used to, no doubt. Wide-eyed and breathless as he pulled away, she blushed fiercely and looked off to the side, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear absently.

"We have to find Riku and Roxas now," Sora commented somberly, carrying on as if nothing had happened, and as she glanced up at him he truly looked unaffected, lost in his concerns for his two close friends that remained missing. Growing serious, as well, knowing that now was not the time for giddiness or carelessness, she squeezed his hand comfortingly and began to walk down the steps of the castle, finding it odd that they were able to so easily walk out the front doors.

Or perhaps she found it odd that Sora had so easily taken down such a large number of enemies obstructing their passageway to the outside. After all, such a gentle-looking kid didn't seem to be that strong, even when she'd known that he'd had able ability with a sword. It still sent her for a loop, that he was Keyblade Master, when he was nothing more than a normal teenaged boy, and her best friend above all else.

"So…" Kairi began conversationally, pulling her hand free to stroll openly beside him, hands clasped easily behind her back. "Where do you propose we look first? I mean, they're bound to be out here, right? That was the plan, you said."

Grinning slightly, Sora nodded, and then he scanned the surroundings before them, shoulders eyes, manner light. "Well, I guess we should…"

As he trailed off, Kairi still walking, she realized that he was no longer following, and in surprise she looked over her shoulder, arching her brows in confusion. Sora was stiff, emotions along the lines of horror donning on his countenance, and in concern she turned fully, facing him as she stood a little ways away. "Sora?" He failed to answer. "Sora, what is it?"

"No…" he whispered, and in alarm she followed his mesmerized stare, immediately gasping at what the brown-haired boy had been watching. Naminé, sobbing hysterically over a form in the grass, was now holding a sword in her grip, with the full intention to end her own life. "No!" Sora suddenly shouted, sparing no more time to act. "Naminé, don't do it!"

He was running before she could blink, desperately trying to reach the blond princess before she ended her life, and in anxiety Kairi quickly followed, not wanting the princess's death, either. Shouting imploringly, Sora raced on, faster than her as he closed the distance, but because she was so far away and so much slower Kairi saw the quick glance she sent the brown-haired boy's way, the determination in her frame, the decision on her face. And so as she slowed, knowing it to be too late, she brought her hands to her lips and screamed as the sword was sent through the princess's chest without hesitation and she jerked for a second, then collapsing on the body she had been weeping over, the body that she realized with a pang of disbelief belonged to Riku.

Sobbing broken-heartedly, collapsing to her knees as Sora shouted helplessly and ran to catch the blond, falling to the ground and crying out in horror, Kairi shook her head, asking why they'd had to die. It was all over now. The castle had fallen but they had been safe, they had been close to happiness, they had had freedom.

But now that dream seemed so childish and inane in light of the consequences.

"Hey, Princess. Why're you crying, hmm? Overjoyed to experience a thing called fresh air?"

"I'm not a princess!" she screamed, no doubt surprising both Axel and Roxas, who so suddenly appeared from Castle Oblivion's depths, probably happy, most likely triumphant. "There's your princess! The one we couldn't save! What're we good for, with Riku and Naminé dead?!"

There was silence, and then there was a disbelieving choke behind her, followed by a rush of feet. Sobbing, Kairi lifted her head wearily and watched Roxas race down the hill, tripping and falling and then frantically rising to his feet again, trying to get to Naminé's side and stop a thing which had already happened.

"So," Axel said quietly from behind her as they both watched Roxas finally stop, sway, and then tear at his hair as he shook his head, shouting at Sora as he no doubt explained the situation in a hollow voice. "This is the price of happily ever after, huh? Guess I can live without it, really. It's not worth the trouble."

Smiling grimly, she gasped on her tears. "We were all fools, weren't we? To even believe in the first place, that is." She sighed, breath shuddering past her lips. "Fairytales are for books. There's no room for them in real life."

"It is a shame," he said softly in reply, sighing wearily. "I wanted Roxas to be happy for once. I wanted to see that real smile of his, the one he always showed her, the one that can light up a whole damn room." Laughing bitterly, he stepped forward. "I'm so goddamned jealous, and of a dead girl, no less. How pathetic."

Sparing that no reply, Kairi achingly forced herself to her feet, stumbling forward tiredly as she started towards the body of her best friend. The walk was long, one she dreaded the end to, and Axel following in her wake gave her no comfort, because she'd never appreciated his company to begin with. He kept himself quiet, however, her only saving grace, so she didn't have to deal with his scathingly sarcastic comments on the death of two people they'd all cared about in some way. She just couldn't bear to hear it. It was too much.

Finally, though, she was standing over Sora's crouched and shaking form, the boy mourning the death of his best friend as Roxas looked after Naminé, holding her in his arms as he stared blankly ahead, his form unmoving. Looking away from him painfully, without the words to give him comfort, she shivered at the thought of what a hollow shell he seemed; admittedly it scared her, to see him so vacant, so withdrawn. She'd never seen that side of Roxas before, and never wanted to again.

Kneeling down, taking hold of Riku's cold and lifeless hand, she brought it to her parched lips and shed tears for him, breath catching in her throat even as Sora doubled over and openly cried for the teen. It was unfair. It shouldn't have been Riku. He shouldn't have died. And suddenly, she agreed with Olette's words a week before, when she was lamenting Hayner's fate.

Riku was better than so many people. He shouldn't have been the one to die.

"This is wrong," she whispered bitterly, voice thick with emotion, tears burning her cheeks like acid and making her hair stick to her neck and face.

"I know," Sora whispered, he fisting blades of grass in his hands, head bowed miserably as he sniffled. "I know."

And in the stillness and silence that befell them, Kairi had no doubt that both Axel and Roxas knew, too.

-- - --

They held the funeral far off in the forests and away from the castle, where the smoke would be caught in the trees and no one would be around to witness the bodies burning. Roxas had insisted that they retrieve Olette, too, when they first started off, struggling when Axel caught him by the shoulders and wildly flailing at him, tears in his eyes and body quivering, but finally he was convinced that it would be far too dangerous and so they started walking, Sora carrying Riku, Roxas carrying Naminé, all of them carrying heavy hearts as they left Castle Oblivion behind.

Now, as they circled the bodies, Axel lingering on the outside nonchalantly because he truly didn't care, the rest huddled together as Kairi sobbed against Sora's shoulder and also clasped Roxas's hand desperately, the blond bowed his head and watched the two from beneath his pale bangs, mouth curling into a bitter frown, eyes irritated from the tears. They're pyre was a bed of red roses, courtesy of Kairi – her hands pricked and bloodied by thorns to both display her hard work and to show in a morbid display her remorse and guilt over their deaths – and they would be burned together, so as to be in the afterlife together.

"She was such a beautiful princess," Kairi whispered softly, tears falling still from her eyes. "A real Princess of Heart."

Head turning slightly at her words, Roxas sighed, catching the twist of expression on Sora's face. The brown-haired boy was never going to tell Kairi the truth, that he knew. To admit that the redhead was truly the princess, was truly the heir to the throne, sacrifice to the people, twin to the girl killed so tragically by her own hand…it would destroy any hopes for happiness, and all the boy wanted was a normal life, to escape his ghosts, all regrets, and so much death. Roxas couldn't blame him, either, because it was what all of them wanted in some shape or form. They all just wanted to forget.

So, to support his cousin's wishes, he whispered, "She really was," sharing a knowing look with Sora thereafter and smiling weakly back at the boy's look of gratitude. All people needed secrets, after all. It was a small form of salvation.

"And Riku," Kairi continued, tearing up, squeezing his hand unexpectedly. "He was a wonderful friend. He did…everything for us. He tried…so hard…"

Lowering his eyes as Sora shushed her quietly, gently, hiding his own pain in an attempt to appease the red-haired girl's, Roxas silently thanked the silver-haired teen who'd taken his place. For all that he'd hated him, he'd saved Naminé's life – no matter how trivial the action was in light of her later actions – and for that he'd be forever grateful. He'd truly devoted himself to her, truly cared, and so he could hold nothing against the youth any longer.

He'd earned Roxas's respect, even if he'd never cared for such a thing.

"Guess I'll do the honors, then," Axel muttered solemnly, and Roxas turned his head to the left, watching the redhead stride slowly towards the bodies, movements careful, manner respectful. Roxas was thankful of such, too, appreciative of his best friend's actions, and as the redhead met his eyes Roxas smiled for him, inclining his head just slightly. Grinning gently back, Axel then looked down, grabbing a nearby stick and shoving it into the fire they'd stirred to life previously; then progressing to the bed of roses and the two bodies, he sighed, tapped his head in his customary farewell, and dropped the torch, stepping backwards as it smoked, almost died out, and then caught flame, roaring to life slowly.

Giving a slight cry, Kairi buried her head in the crook of Sora's shoulder as Axel fed the fire stoically, and even the two cousins had to look away, unwilling to see the bodies of those they held dear go up in flames. And Roxas, too weak for his liking, couldn't stomach it, so that at last he doubled over and was sick in the grass, shuddering until Axel came and patted his back, reassuring him that it was all okay.

It wasn't, but he appreciated the gesture nevertheless.

Their life surrounded by royalty and castle life ended with the extinguishing of their friends' remains, their memories going up in the smoke that carried far up into the heavens. They hesitated for a long time in leaving the roaring fire, not concerned that the flames might catch onto trees but uneasy that they were about to abandon those they loved forever.

Finally, however, Roxas stepped away, sparing a last silent goodbye as he walked back into the trees, falling into step beside Axel, and then Sora and Kairi followed in their wake, oddly silent and noticeably somber. The blond knew that things would be a long time in getting back to normal between all of them, that the memories of Riku and Naminé would be ghosts in their lives for a while, but soon they'd adapt, because there was no getting over such a tragedy and finding complete happiness. So they would get used to the chronic pain, because it would never go away.

And they turned their backs finally on the bodies of their friends, the smell of burning roses in the air and the memories a thorn lodged deeply in each of their hearts.

-- - --

End of part three. Yes, that means it's finally over, for all of you who stuck faithfully or not with this story. Hope you enjoyed it - or at least didn't despise its being - and don't want to kill me for it. Please review!