For raspberrykiwi's contest; prompts: winding road, maple tree, overgrown backyard.

Ahh! My God, so late! And I ditched probably three ideas before I finally succeeded on this one. And it's so long, and so crappy, but I worked on it all day and I'm just SO glad that it's done. (insert joyful sobbing here) So yes, oh my goodness, I can sleep now. I met my deadline...well, so maybe it's like an hour over. BUT STILL! I'm done. Hallelujah.

Um, please enjoy!

Disclaimer: Nope.

-- - --

Theirs was a small town in the mainland of Destiny, one that overlooked the ports and the beaches and the condensed life levels and levels below. Anyone and everyone knew each other, because, chances were, the children who exchanged exuberant greetings on the dirt road had mothers that were friends, and the teenagers who laughed and lounged in the outdoor cafés had been neighbors since they were two. And it was all well and good, everything was pleasant, but he tired of it unbelievably quick. Nothing ever changed.

So, of course, he was startled at Kairi's news when he settled himself into a chair across from Sora, she coming up to their table a minute or so after to say hello.

"From the city?" Hands previously linked behind his head in a casually indifferent manner, he stretched his arms across the table, wrists resting on the menu. He needn't look at it; Sora and he frequented this particular café day in and day out, because Kairi had been working at it under Aerith's guiding care since she'd moved here years back, and so he had every item practically memorized. Instead, he straightened himself and fixed his attention onto her face, expression a cross between confusion and genuine fear. "Did I hear correctly?" Switching his gaze to Sora, he arched a brow.

His friend, in response, scratched his temple in confusion, head cocked, brow furrowed in concentration. The two of them had lived every second of existence on Destiny Islands, and not once, save eight years ago in Kairi's case, had a newcomer ever set foot on their home. People left, of that both Sora and Riku were painfully aware, but no one ever came.

"I dunno…" he murmured tentatively, flicking shockingly blue orbs to Kairi's face. She was leaning her weight to the left, that hand resting on her hip, the other clasped onto a coffee pot which she'd brought out specifically for Riku and which she'd rested on the table in expectation. "Are you…sure? This letter you got…" He paused, lowered his eyes, and then said more quietly, "She could be lying to you, Kairi."

She closed her eyes, lashes dark against the light skin of her cheeks, and sighed tiredly. "There's no way. Listen, guys, I know the story of a 'long-lost twin' seems farfetched---"

"Seems?" Riku drawled, crossing his arms and leaning back again, tilting his head in disbelief. Sora shot him a scolding look.

"Yeah," she continued briskly, glaring now. "Seems." He smirked, arching his brow. "But…okay, hold on." Releasing her hold on the coffee pot, she lowered her chin, reaching into the front pocket of her blouse. Not wanting to remain idle, Riku poured himself a mug of coffee while she was distracted, offering some in Sora's direction as a half-hearted joke. He, removing his attentive gaze from Kairi's countenance, screwed up his face into a grimace, making Riku grin. Satisfied, he placed the container back down and busied himself with fixing the drink.

The sudden slap of wrinkled paper on their table surprised him slightly. It disturbed his coffee, too, so that flecks of liquid spilled out onto his hand and the wooden surface, and with a sigh he flicked aquamarine orbs towards Kairi, who was looking pointedly at it. When his expression of boredom didn't alter, silver bangs sliding further into his eyes, Sora cleared his throat and took it upon himself to ease it from under the pinning grip of her palm, gently easing out creases as silently he read the details.

Minutes passed, the clink of Riku's spoon in his cup attracting Kairi's irritated stare, the buzz around them, full of laughter, gossip, and contented conversation, causing him to cast his gaze about him as Sora remained silent. Aerith's café was a pleasant one, the restaurant indoors with this choice of outdoor fraternizing on particularly sweltering days. Chairs and tables were settled onto a patio fenced in, and they allowed customers to overlook the green hills and orchard trees standing at a distance, as well as the winding road leading to the seaport towns by the ocean. Beyond this café, too, their homes rested, so it was perhaps the most convenient establishment on all of Destiny Islands. Sora had taken to it right away – and especially so when Kairi arrived – and, in due time, Riku had grown to love it, too. It was quaint.

"Hollow…Bastion?"

Body stiffening, Riku lifted suddenly stern eyes to gaze at Sora. Voice faint, complexion suddenly a deathly pallor, he stared at the letter a long time, lips moving soundlessly, eyes suddenly farther away from them than he or Kairi could reach. Then, as if something snapped within him, he suddenly shoved the letter back into Kairi's grip with shaking hands, excusing himself rapidly. Kairi watched him, at a loss, as he averted his eyes and desperately fumbled about in his pockets for change, eventually slapping munny down and offering a hasty goodbye.

"Sora…?" Kairi asked as he weaved his body around tables and customers, offering apologies hurriedly, never looking back. When finally his feet hit the dirt path, he broke into a sprint, no doubt heading down the water's edge, which was a considerable distance away. Riku knew that he would run the whole way there.

"Brilliant," Riku scowled, shoving his mug away, snatching the paper away from Kairi's loosened, dumfounded grip. She jerked her attention to him, shoulder-length hair whipping her in the face, and looked to him for answers, seeming near tears. For a long moment, as he scanned the pleasantries scrawled elegantly and politely amidst the rest of the letter's contents, he didn't offer her any words; he merely scowled angrily.

"Riku, what was wrong with…?" With shaking hands, swallowing, she lifted the coffee pot, shaking her head to prevent tears. Finally, with a heavy sigh, he glanced up and rolled his eyes towards the sky.

"He must've forgotten what it meant, y'know? You were from Hollow Bastion, so obviously this…sister of yours…" With disgust, he threw down the now stained paper. "…would be from there, too. And you remember why he hates the place."

He could tell that she didn't at first. Staring at him blankly, blinking rapidly, she bit her lip in thought. But as her stare trailed towards the path Sora had hastily taken, as her eyes hit the ocean, her hand flew to her mouth in horror, and it was obvious that she knew now. Nodding solemnly, he waited for the name.

"Roxas," she whispered painfully, and in contempt he scowled, nodding tersely.

"Yeah. It probably just brought up bad memories."

Pressing a hand to her eyes in obvious guilt, she moved her feet and flopped down across from him, elbow's striking the table's edge, glass pot clattering against the surface. Uncomfortably, Riku went back to stirring his mug, giving her grief some room, not as good with consoling others as Sora was. He didn't know what to say that wouldn't sound horribly cliché and insincere.

"Listen…" he muttered finally, clanging the spoon against the ceramic cup, flicking his eyes forward and staring through silver bangs. Dabbing at her eyes desperately, unwilling lifting her head, she dragged her hand underneath her lashes and sniffled, then clasping her hands desperately into her lap. Clearing his throat, he again lowered his eyes. "He'll be okay, you know. He just needs to think."

"I shouldn't have brought it up. I mean, it'll be days before she gets her, settles in, has to meet you guys. It was stupid of me. I mean, anyway, why would you even be used to any arrival? I just don't think and I---"

"Kai, stop talking," he drawled, lifting his chin, smirking slightly. Clamping her lips shut, puffing out her cheeks, she stared at him both indignantly and thankfully. Leaning back, running his fingers through his hair, he then shrugged. "So she's coming," he commented carelessly, releasing his silver locks to wave his hand. "Nothing any of us can do. Besides, you telling him now gives him time to prepare himself for her arrival. 'Course, he probably won't come by here for a couple days, Kai, just to warn you, but you just need to give him room." Grimacing, she nodded sullenly, attention straying towards the ocean view. Titling his head, he watched her for a moment before doing the same. "He'll be fine," he murmured softly.

"You think she'd…" Trailing off, Kairi allowed silence to fall between them, and in that time Riku listened hard, trying to figure out what it was she wanted to say. "No," she finally sighed, shaking her head, pushing away from the table now. Her chair gave a hideous screech on the patio stone. "Never mind. I have to get back to work, Riku. Sorry." Gathering up the coffee pot, she let her hair fall into her face, hiding her feelings from him. He didn't openly stare at her, respecting this need of hers, but from his peripheral vision he caught her lose herself to her staring, eyes glued for a long expanse of time on the ocean as questions flitted about in her eyes.

Finally, shaking herself, she composed a shaky smile, and it was then that Riku looked to her and nodded. "Have a nice day, Kai."

Hesitating, mask crumpling for a second, she nodded hurriedly, eyes shining. And then, sincerely, she touched his shoulder and murmured, "Thank you." And she was gone.

Sighing, losing himself to his thoughts as he pulled his mug close again and stared into the dark liquid, he furrowed his brows, scowling lighting on his lips. Change suddenly didn't appeal to him much at all.

-- - --

Taking a furious swing at his head, Riku was both frustrated and relieved when he missed. However, he allowed himself a mild feeling of satisfaction when his friend tumbled backwards off of the stone wall, completely caught off guard.

There was a thump, a groan, and then a shuffle, as weakly Sora lifted his head, dragged his elbows across the ground, and forced himself to sit up. Shaking his head then, chocolate spikes bouncing, he opened incredulous eyes and stared upwards at Riku, mouth slightly agape, dirt clinging to his face. Riku, hovering over him, switched the wooden sword that he'd been carrying back to his house to his other shoulder, aquamarine stare cold and defiant.

"Did you just try to hit me?" Sora yelped accusingly, standing up, brushing dust distractedly from his knees. His eyes never left Riku's.

"You weren't looking. You were off guard. I took the opportunity."

"Well, yeah. It's not like I expect my best friend to skulk around and then try to take me out with a piece of plywood!" he shot back.

"One, not skulking, you idiot. I was walking home; you were walking in the same direction. And two, does this look like plywood?" Insulted, he extended the wooden weapon, nearly hitting the brown-haired youth in the nose with it. Edging back slightly, he held up his hands, still cross.

"Yeah, well, whatever," he muttered, grumbling as carelessly he ruffled his hair to free it of dirt clumps. Then, turning forcibly away from Riku, he interlocked his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes, taking large, exaggerated strides as he continued to march in the direction he'd previously been headed to, which was Riku's home. In amusement, which couldn't be seen by Sora, the silver-haired teen grinned and followed his friend's progress.

"'bout time you showed your face, by the way," he drawled sarcastically when Sora seemed dead set on keeping the silence. Hesitating, exaggerated march easing into a stroll, he glanced somewhat over his shoulder, eyes not completely meeting Riku's, expression on his face both sheepish and justified.

"I was busy."

"Of course."

"Yeah, I was," he argued, frowning at Riku's tone. When he looked ahead, Riku grinned again. "Leon had me working my tail off for him running errands as well as working with the tools. I needed the money, so I didn't refuse."

"You wouldn't if you remembered to work there every day. Then Leon wouldn't go so hard on you."

"It was fine," Sora replied, shrugging. He turned his face further away, still not looking back. "I didn't mind."

"You should," Riku spat, no longer amused. "Leon's a cold bastard. He's not going to go easy on you or give you a break! And because you don't complain---!"

"Riku." Stopping, Sora ran his hand over his face, shaking his head. Holding his breath, reigning in his temper, Riku waited for his friend to turn around; finally, Sora did. Meeting aquamarine eyes with troubled blue ones, the eighteen-year-old braved a weak smile, stare flitting away in seconds. "I needed the distraction."

Exhaling forcefully, Riku groaned and rolled his eyes. "Why you let that moron dictate your moods…" he seethed as he strode past his friend, shoving him aside with his shoulder. He felt slightly better when hurriedly Sora followed, his bad mood completely dissipated in an attempt to alleviate Riku's.

"He's my cousin. I love him. I can't stop just because."

"You can. It's easy. Try it some time." Crossly, Riku tried to quicken his step, relieved to see his house looming in view. After a rigorous day of training, he needed his rest.

"Just because he ran off to Hollow Bastion, Riku, doesn't mean that I---"

Stopping dead, Riku muttered, "Oh, shit." Nearly hurrying past him, Sora hurtled to an abrupt halt, as well, sending him a questioning look as he turned himself about. Lifting widened eyes to Sora, he grimaced regretfully. "Kairi."

Sora didn't comprehend for a moment, and then, horrified, he yelped. With a sharp jerk at Riku's arm, the brown-haired youth turned him about and broke into a sprint, running recklessly down the hill despite probable aching muscles and a ferocious headache due to his time working with Leon. Following Sora's example, ignoring his own pain, he took off at a run, catching up to the other boy's break-neck speed with a good deal of effort, matching his pace with all of his strength as both headed to the crimson-haired girl's residence. By now, she was probably making her way back from the Gummi Ship port all the way down at the water's edge with her sister; they'd completely forgotten her, and so she'd had to go alone.

They were breathless and panting by the time they stuttered to a stop in front of Kairi's gate. Sora, leaning against the fence heavily, gave a disbelieving laugh, and Riku looked up and past him to stare on towards Kairi's house, wondering if maybe she was still there or already back. The little home, rather decrepit-looking with its peeling paint and face overgrown with vines, looked empty, and the yard, choked with weeds and untrimmed hedges, was uninhabited. Sighing, Riku shrugged towards Sora, who was still breathing heavily as he opened one eye to look at him, and then opened the gate. It swung on creaking hinges, and Riku winced briefly at the sound before walking on, towards Kairi's backyard.

"She's not gonna see us if we wait back there," Sora commented doubtfully as he fell into step behind him, glancing habitually over his shoulder for sign of their mutual friend. Shrugging, Riku passed the house's side, hooking his thumbs into his pockets as he kicked at weeds and rocks, a calming feeling settling over him as he set foot finally into the overgrown backyard behind Kairi's home. He always found it ironic, that a calm, organized soul like Kairi could allow such disarray and clutter. Still, he didn't voice this opinion, for fear that she'd change it; the mess and confusion made him feel more at home.

Flopping down into a lawn chair Sora had crafted for her a year or two back, one identical – except in color – to the one he had made for Riku, he stretched out his legs and turned his face towards the sky, content. Sora, a bit more restless, paced back and forth along the length of the whole back yard, not for one second resting in his watch for her. That, he thought wryly, smirk almost lighting on his lips, was devotion.

"You know…" he drawled finally, cracking open one eye to watch Sora's frantic progress. He'd been doing that for a good expanse of time. "…wearing a path into the grass isn't gonna make her come an---"

"It's Kairi!" Sora let out as a sudden shout, nearly sending Riku off of his seat. Glowering at the youth crossly when he turned to him with an appeasing grin, Sora then rocketed past him towards the front of the house; groaning, the silver-haired youth decided to follow at him, but at a slower pace.

Feet planted on the ground, hands in his pockets, he lowered his head and trudged across the earth, biting back a yawn as he shook his head slightly. Bangs swaying before his gaze, he concentrated on the distraction, rather uncomfortable at the prospect of meeting this new girl. They knew nothing of her, she was from the city, and she suddenly wanted to be reunited with her long-lost twin – that didn't exactly spell out innocence. Anyway, only Sora could concoct such a plan with naïve motives in mind.

Lifting his chin at the increasing volume of voices, he let his gaze trail after Sora, who was sheepishly standing before Kairi, hands already gripping luggage as he submitted to Kairi's worried scolding. Even from such a distance, though, Riku could make out the traces of a smile on his best friend's lips; obviously, Sora didn't exactly mind her undivided attention.

Rolling his eyes, Riku jerked his head away, instead looking for this so-called sister of Kairi's, whom all three had been expecting. When his eyes landed on her, a petite girl with blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and eyes cast towards the ground shyly, he slowed his casual pace, progression lessening until he was fully stopped before the gate. For the moment, no one noticed his arrival, and so he was allowed to stare.

Truthfully, he was disappointed in his expectations. A girl like her? From the city? From what he'd heard, and from the inane stories Roxas used to tell to rile up Sora, city life was engaging; lively; loud and sociable. There was no place in its depths for an inward girl like the one he was seeing now, the one keeping herself sheltered behind Kairi. It seemed like a lie, like all that he'd believed was now nothing at all; had Roxas fabricated every bit of it? It seemed like something he would do.

Crossly, he pulled his hands from the pockets of his shorts and grabbed hold of the fence, knuckles turning white as his grip tightened. It couldn't be true, that this blonde was from a place said to have boundless opportunities; he wouldn't believe it for a second.

"Oh! Riku! There you are!"

Blinking, turning his head, the silver-haired youth stared blankly at Kairi, who was beaming at him. Finally, shaking himself, he straightened and shrugged at her casually, shoving his hands into his pockets and walking forward as she rolled her eyes and smiled, gesturing towards the girl off to the side.

"This," she began conversationally, her tone warm, welcoming, portraying none of the doubt or anger or fear that had filled her when first she'd showed them the letter, "is Naminé. She's here to stay. I don't know if I told you that?"

Stare boring into the girl's person, he gained satisfaction when finally she showed emotion and shuffled uneasily under his gaze, bowing her head further. "No…" he said, then lifting his uninterested eyes to look back at Kairi, "you didn't."

She frowned at his behavior. "Well," she continued stiffly, "she'll be living here with me. I expect you'll do your best to make her feel comfortable?"

"Oh," he drawled, sneering somewhat. "Of course. At her service entirely." Mock-bowing before her, he snorted noncommittally, and when he rose to his full height he stepped away just in time to avoid being swatted by an angry redhead. Saluting rudely, he walked around all of them, shoving his hands back into his pockets, ignoring Kairi's rage and Sora's worried expression. "You kids play nice now," he replied as a farewell, throwing his hand up in a lazy wave, ignoring the stares following him out.

He was going home, and he was going to get some sleep.

-- - --

"She's nice."

"You just say that because it gets you all close and cozy with Kairi."

Leaning against the stone wall, palms biting into the rock, he turned his head in time to see Sora splutter and blush, and a grin lit up his face. He knew this not to be true, of course, because this was Sora they were talking about, and the kid was absolutely the most unselfish person ever to exist, but his reactions were priceless.

"I do not!" he finally managed, punching him hard in the shoulder.

Wincing, laughing, Riku nodded in a placating manner, turning his attention forward. "All right, all right…"

Contented silence fell between them then.

However, his light-hearted mood fled along with conversation. Staring across the way to where she sat beneath the maple tree, blonde hair trailing down her shoulders, concentration solely on some kind of white notebook in her lap, she was so withdrawn from all of them, not willing for companionship, not open for conversation. In the week that she had been in their presences, no one – save Kairi and maybe Sora – knew anything about her. She was an enigma, a ghost of a presence among them. To Riku, that was frustrating as hell.

"I just don't get her!" he growled when he couldn't take the solitude of his thoughts anymore; he needed to vent.

Amiably, Sora laughed. "You're just mad because there's actually someone who has more secrets than you."

"That's not it," he seethed, shaking his head, looking over at Sora once more. The boy lounged comfortably against the stone wall, brows arched, smile teasing on his lips. "I mean, who does she think she is?! She just comes here and doesn't say anything to anyone? Just hides behind Kairi and expects a girl she's hardly known for more than seven days to protect and serve her?! I'm sick and tired of it!"

"Why don't you talk to her, then," Sora said with a shrug. "You know, with actual, non-hostile words? As in two people having a substantial conversation?"

Eyes narrowing, Riku scowled. "Sora, you keep patronizing me, and I swear…"

Grinning, patting him on the shoulder in a placating manner, he then pushed off from the wall, linking his hands behind his head. "I'm just saying. You'll get more out of her than you will me." Turning about, taking a few steps, he hesitated and then swung back around. "And she's nice." Riku rolled his eyes. "She is." Turning back around, Sora preached in a singsong voice, "You just have to get to know her…"

Smirking, shaking his head, Riku dropped his hands from the wall and instead leaned his forearms against it, watching until Sora, heading back towards Kairi's to help out with whatever, was gone from sight. Then, boring almost instantly, he switched his stare back towards the blond secluded under the maple tree, pensively looking after her, curious and aggravated at the same time. Shifting foot, he deliberated following Sora's advice, where he would walk over, sit down, and force himself to be civil. The notion almost vaulted him to his feet, but in the end he leaned again against the wall in distaste, deciding not to try it. He wouldn't pull it off, anyway.

Still, the desire to at least speak with her in some way was severely tempting, and sorely hard to resist, at that. Making a disdainful sound under his breath, he forcefully turned his head away, but the anticipation was still there. He longed to talk to her. He couldn't help it. She was just too interesting and puzzling of a person.

Groaning in resignation, he finally pushed off of the wall, scowling as he crossed his arms over his chest. He wouldn't be civil, but still, he'd get his answers one way or another. There was no way that she was more secretive than he himself was.

The distance was short. In no time he was almost upon her, and uncomfortably he had to slow his pace, unsure of himself now that the line had been crossed and he'd made himself confront her. She was busily working, though, and took no notice of him, which was a bigger relief than he wanted to dwell on; he wasn't so worried about meeting her, after all.

Tentatively he stepped towards her, gaze trained on her face, watching for any flicker of resignation or tenseness of her jaw. When nothing changed and she merely continued to drag her pencil with rapid, skillfully-executed strokes across the paper, he edged off towards the left – her right side – and moved soundlessly until he was leaning against the tree bark, still going unnoticed. Resting his forehead against his forearm, he casually peered down at her, somewhat amused by her obliviousness, and remained that way for a time, with interest watching the jerk of her wrist and the gentle crane of her neck as she poured over her work. So, she was an artist. There weren't many of those on Destiny Islands – it was too fickle a trade, too fruity and haughty for hands-on people like themselves who daily shipped out tools or gathered and harvested food. Still, the craft had always interested him; the lack of variation bored him too often as he carried out his mundane life.

Leaning closer, he tilted his head, silver bangs falling into his eyes. The lines were fine and the picture was far away, so he couldn't exactly make out what was depicted. Besides that, he was tiring of not being noticed by her. Therefore, he tried a different approach.

"What're you drawing?"

Scaring horribly, she jumped and let her pencil fly from her hand, where it landed quite a distance away in a tangle of weeds. Smirking in amusement as she panted rapidly and clutched the sketchbook to her breast, he arched his brow as she jerked her chin upwards, looking at him almost upside down from her spot on the earth. Lips parted, eyes confused, she looked at him without a word. Still, he was captured; finally able to make out the color of her stare, he was mesmerized by the penetrating crystal-blue.

Seconds passed, and then, abruptly, she rose to her feet and hurried away from him, kicking through the weeds with her sandal-clad feet. Blinking, watching after her, he leaned against his forearm for seconds more before he narrowed his eyes and followed after her. She looked over his shoulder at the sound of his footsteps and then looked straight again, hurrying on, saying nothing.

"Hey!" he snapped crossly, closing the gap between them. "I asked you a question."

Busily she occupied herself with searching, and as he was almost upon her she stopped and bent down, plucking the yellow pencil from the weeds. When she made to rise, still half-crouching, he stopped before her and rudely grasped her right arm, yanking her upwards, bracing her weight to keep her from colliding with him. A soft gasp left her lips, but beyond that no sound was emitted from her person.

"Dammit, you've got a lot to learn, you know that?" he grumbled angrily, releasing her arm from his grip, letting her stumble backwards a footstep or two. Crossing his arms, he glowered at her. "Whether you like it or not, you're here with us, and you should stop acting like a stuck-up little priss. So quit holing yourself away from everyone and at least make a goddamn effort to talk to people!"

She stared at him blankly for a moment or two, lowering her sketchbook from where she'd been clutching it desperately to her chest. Tucking it under her arm, delicately flicking from her eyes long, blonde bangs, she continued to move her gaze over his face to his increasing discomfort, and then she smiled softly. The gesture surprised him, quite honestly.

"That's funny," she said gently, tilting her head, sending bangs right back into her gaze, "coming from you."

He narrowed his eyes indignantly. "And what would you know about me, huh? Not like you give anyone a chance to introduce themselves."

"But, then, we're the same, aren't we?" she said, meeting his eyes now without shame, disarming gaze rendering him helpless. "Not giving people a chance before we even get to know them."

Sucking in his breath in surprise, he watched as she nodded to him and kindly and then, hesitating, gave an uncertain wave. Not waiting for a response – most likely knowing that he wouldn't give one – she then turned and walked towards the gravel path that was flanked on its right side by the stone wall, on which she would climb the hill towards Kairi's house, just as Sora had. Startled, Riku watched her go, unable to retort, unable to think of a single thing to convince her to return and simply say something else.

He simply stood there looked on as she picked her way up the path slowly, cautiously, and then, in due time, she was gone.

-- - --

Kairi was amused by his struggle. Days had passed since his confrontation with her twin sister, too, but she wouldn't let it go, nor would she let any other instances go. Apparently she was enjoying his frustration.

"You don't understand her," she teased, setting his meal down before him with a wide grin, wrinkling her nose playfully.

Rolling his eyes in response, he stabbed his fork into the food as a way to vent his irritation. "Obviously."

"And that bothers you, because you understand everything."

"All right," he snapped, glaring at her as he slammed his fist onto the table, disturbing his drink. Unfazed by his display of temper, though, she continued to beam.

"Serves you right," she carried on, setting now Sora's meal before him. Giggling as she met his eyes happily, she ruffled his hair in good spirits and turned away as she straightened, missing Sora's blush by a fraction of a second.

Attention called away from Kairi even as she planted her hands firmly on her hips in triumph, Riku arched a brow at the fidgeting boy across from him, taking a bite of food as Sora glanced away from him and rubbed conspicuously at one of his cheeks. Smiling, the silver-haired teen shook his head and lowered her chin; Sora was so in love.

"I mean," Kairi carried on, and, rolling his eyes, Riku sighed and pushed his plate away from him, listening in a bored fashion, "after you treated her so rudely…"

Tilting his head to the side in frustration, he leveled her with a glare. "It's not like I'm the only one at fault. I mean, seriously, Kai. When has she once tried to get to know anyone here? She talks to you, and she talks to Sora. Besides that, she's not exactly taking pains to fit in."

"And if that suits her? What do you want me to do? Make her get along with people she doesn't know? Like I'm going to do that, Riku." Matching him glare for glare, light-hearted mood dissipated now, she waited for him to make his next move.

Instead, Sora interrupted. "Uh, guys? Why don't we…" and, spreading out his arm, he gestured to Kairi, him, and lastly himself, "go on an outing with her and try to get to know her. Y'know, instead of arguing futilely." He arched his brows expectantly, taking a bite of his food in an attempt to conceal the curve of his lips into a smile; Riku didn't miss it.

He was also about to protest this plan, but Kairi clapped her hands, beaming, and Riku had to suppress a groan of regret; of course she'd immediately taken to the plan. "That's perfect, Sora! I'm off in an hour, anyway, so we can go right after I finish up!"

"Joy," muttered Riku. Kairi shot him a look. Sora snickered.

Kairi left then, leaving them to idle away their time, enjoying the food and aimless conversation. When the hour had finally turned and a passing waitress had cleared up their table, Sora rose to his feet, stretching his arms over his head contentedly, and Riku paid this time, digging into his pocket for change. Just as both pushed their chairs into the table, Kairi skipped out happily, and Sora, grinning, linked her arm with his and looked at Riku to do the same. In response, he shot him a wry look, arched a brow, and then shoved his hands into his pockets with a smirk, striding out before them.

Sora and Kairi were chattering animatedly behind him as all three trudged upwards on the hill, Riku taking in the sights and half-listening to their conversation. Higher they went, the background of sea and port-town becoming smaller and less vibrant as they moved onwards. He'd never really enjoyed it down there, with the smells of fish and the constant passing-through of tourists who would spend a week in a hotel and catch the next gummi ship out of there. The only part he actually liked was the private beach on the other side of the mainland, as well as the smaller island resting in the sea, which Sora had introduced him to years ago. It was also the place that they'd discovered Kairi, who'd lost her way upon arrival and had fallen asleep to her tears on a bed of sand.

But as he looked at her now over his shoulder, he easily let go of the memory. Both had certainly done their best to ensure that she'd never have to cry herself to sleep again.

"Be right back," she said cheerily now, disentangling herself from Sora's grasp, skipping to her front door. Stopped before the shabby house, he only let his right side face it, arms crossed over his chest as he looked ahead, gaze searching the expanse of meadow off to the left side. Sora, behind him, rested his hands on the fence and waited apprehensively for the two girls to reappear.

About five minutes passed before they actually did.

"How about a little picnic across the way?" Kairi asked as a way of alerting her return, and Riku lazily turned his attention back towards the house, eyes resting not on the redhead but on the blonde trailing unwillingly behind her. Scowling at the girl's blatant displeasure, he grunted noncommittally and turned away, crossed the road to the new patch of green and then trudging away from the trio with renewed agitation. Lord, did she aggravate him so.

Sora was the one who jogged and caught up with him, sighing when he did so and fell into step beside the silver-haired teen. Shaking his head, he casually linked his fingers behind his neck, tilting his gaze towards the sky. "You're insufferable."

"Big word," he muttered crossly.

"No, really," Sora said, but Riku caught his amused grin. "Nothing satisfies you. Seriously, what's wrong this time? Kairi's all upset again at your surly attitude."

"She just…doesn't want anything to do with us," he muttered quietly, carrying on his agitated stride, heading towards the orchard standing just a way's away. "Have you noticed that? She's always, always unhappy to be with any of us."

"She's shy. And scared. And it's not like you have taken great strides to welcome her with open arms." This he said with a playful nudge, and Riku grunted. "You just have to give her a chance. You might grow to like her."

"I doubt it," he grumbled.

"I don't."

With that, both lapsed into silence, and finally Riku slowed his walk, stopping entirely beneath an immature banana tree and settling down beneath it. Sora, following his lead, plopped down beside him with a grin and stretched out his legs, leaning back on his palms as he waited for Kairi and Naminé to catch up. When they did, he leaned forward and waved enthusiastically, inviting them to sit. Kairi, after casting Riku a look, did so, moving to sit on her heels beside Sora. That left Naminé to take her place to Kairi's right, which was Riku's left. He shifted uncomfortably and then looked away.

"So," Sora said, folding his legs close to his body, resting his palms on his shins as he leaned forward. "What's Hollow Bastion like, Naminé?"

Both she and Riku looked to him abruptly. She, he guessed, was surprised that he was so quickly talking to her; he wondered if Sora could really handle the subject. At first glance, though, he seemed fine.

Though, Riku knew better than to judge his best friend's moods at face value.

After staring at him for a long moment, lips pressed into a thin line, she seemed to make up her mind. Closing her eyes, she inhaled calmly, and then bowed her head in thought, balling up some of the white fabric of her dress in her hands. "It's…cold a lot of the time," she said softly, lashes fluttering open again, stare focusing on the grass beyond her knees. "And gray. The rain sometimes doesn't stop for days, and the buildings are so close on either side of the street. At least, downtown it is. I've never been to the height of that town, where the castle and old barracks are; those seem too sad and lonely. I…have a picture?"

Mesmerized by the spell of her voice, Riku blinked when she looked up questioningly, waiting for their reaction. Sora, beside him, had more tact than he, and he smiled and nodded happily, thrilled at the prospect of seeing her heart, as Riku silently was, too. Encouraged, Naminé smiled slightly and picked up the sketchbook that she'd set beside her, resting it in her lap and turning over countless pages until she found the desired one. Then, when she glanced up, she hesitantly turned the booklet around, showing the three surrounding teens her depiction of her former home. Sora and Kairi stared on in wonderment; Riku, after much effort, controlled the surge of awe within him.

"What was the picture you were drawing a few days ago?" he asked as his friends continued to stare, and Naminé looked to him, startled. In what Riku guessed was one of her defensive reflexes, she pulled her book back towards her and hugged it to her chest, ducking her chin down somewhat, allowing her blonde bangs to shield her eyes.

"What picture?" she asked softly, in an accusing tone. Her stare flicked hurriedly towards Sora, and Riku followed her gaze; the brown-haired boy was looking on in confusion, leaning back now to give Naminé her space.

"The one you were drawing beneath the maple tree," he explained in frustration now, stare hardening as he turned his attention back to her.

"I don't know what you mean," she shot back, fingers curling against the book, too-pale expressing stern and unyielding. Her reaction faintly surprised him; there was no need for her to be so defensive.

"Riku, just let it be," Sora said quietly beside him, and agitatedly he turned to glare at his friend. Shrugging helplessly in response, he merely shook his head then leaned forward, picking out one of the treats on the dish Kairi had brought with her; Kairi, who'd fallen silent during the hostile exchange, did the same, stare flicking between Riku and her twin curiously.

"Fine," Riku said through clenched teeth, scowling as he looked back to her. Her face, however, was turned from him, her chin resting completely on of the notebook's top. "About Hollow Bastion, then…"

"Excuse me," Naminé said hastily, standing up in one rapidly graceful move that confused all three still seated. Her expression seeming greatly ill at ease, she stepped back, avoiding Riku's stare entirely. "I think I'm going to turn in. I'm still not used to the differences in time; I'm very tired." And with that she turned on her heel and, in a move that contrasted from the innocence of her former statement, she sprinted back to Kairi's house.

All three stared after her, Kairi in alarm, Sora in worry, Riku in confusion. Silence fell between them as they did so, and, for a while, no one moved.

Then, leaning backwards, stretching out his legs once more, Sora tilted his head, shrugging his shoulders. "Well, that was odd." Kairi, still staring, hummed her agreement.

And Riku, running his fingers through his hair, excused himself, stood up, and left, taking the opposite direction that Naminé had gone.

-- - --

Kairi left him alone about her twin after that particular incident. Riku wasn't exactly sure why, but he assumed that she thought he'd only make her situation worse. He'd certainly proved himself capable of such time and time again. Sora, though, every so often urged Riku to go up to her and speak with her, ever hopeful that the silver-haired youth could get her to open up and, in doing so, create a strong friendship with her.

Riku, ever the cynic, doubted that this would ever happen, and he told Sora this. However, that mindset didn't stop him from wanting to talk to Naminé, and, every day, he walked the path from his house down past Kairi's to the spot in between her home and Aerith's café, where Naminé maple tree sat. There, sometimes sitting, other times leaning, against the stone wall, he crossed his arms and watched her sketch for hours, never attracting her attention purposely, though often gaining it when she looked up absently and grew surprised to see him there.

Neither talked, and neither made a move to greet the other, and in due time Naminé went back to work and Riku went back to watching. Always, too, before the sun set, she left first because the light was no longer favorable, and, fifteen minutes to a half hour later, Riku followed her example.

Today, though, after almost two weeks had passed and he'd learned nothing more about her than simple mannerisms she displayed unknowingly, he didn't bother to waste his day away watching from afar. He was tired of getting nowhere, of having his questions go unanswered, and so, running a hand somewhat anxiously through his hair, he let out a heavy breath and trudged across the grass, footsteps swishing and muffled against the overgrown grass. This time, however, she heard him when he approached, and she glanced up.

"Riku," she said softly, pencil stilling, penetrating gaze holding his questioning one.

Silently, he shrugged his shoulders and settled down in front of her, folding his legs, crossing his arms. She made no attempt to flee, and she didn't retreat back to her drawings – instead, she closed the notebook and set in aside, then resting her hands in her lap. Upon doing so, she trained her undivided attention on him.

"So."

She tilted her head. "So."

Sighing in exasperation, he raked a hand through his hair, fingers catching and tangling in the strands. Freeing them with ease, though, he then dropped his hand to the grass and leaned to his right side, palm cool against the overgrown weeds, attention straying to the expanse of green beyond where the two were seated. He could see from there the gravel path snaking in a winding way towards the top of the hill, houses peppering the grassy sea as it traveled. He could see why she so liked this place; it was calming, untouched.

"So…what?" he finally said, turning back to her, expression cool and composed. "It's been almost three weeks and I know nothing about you?"

She nodded slightly. "You didn't bother trying, so neither did I."

Gritting his teeth, he reigned in his temper, annoyed by her careless attitude. "This is me trying, then. So go."

Blinking at him, she tilted her head, and then she smiled gently. "You really aren't a people person, I guess."

"That's Sora's area of expertise," he muttered, casting his stare away again, uneasy about the way her smile softened him. He'd much rather keep up his defenses around her.

"What do you want to know?"

"Are you really Kairi's twin?" He jumped right into the line of questioning at her consent, offering no mercy, offering no tact. She expected none, obviously, so he wasn't about to give it.

"Yes," she said, no change of expression, no uncertainty in her confession.

"How do you know? And why are you here? Why now?"

Wincing at his onslaught of questions, she held up her hand. "Please." Agitated, he nodded once, looking away as he drummed his fingers into the grass. Sighing, Naminé shifted across from him. "And I've always known. Our parents died, and we were separated. Kairi lived with our grandmother, I'm told, and I somehow landed into foster care…and later on the streets, taken in by…friends." He looked to her suspiciously when she hesitated, but she didn't meet his eyes. "I inherited the property of my grandmother when I came of age, even though she died years back, and it was then that I remembered I had a sister. I'd forgotten about her for all those years; we were only ten when the accident happened, and some memories you just…don't want to keep."

"So you suddenly wanted to reunite yourself with the loving sister you'd forgotten for eight years?" he drawled scathingly, staring at her in blatant disbelief. He couldn't believe her story, not for a second; still, if it was a lie, it was a remarkably well-crafted one, because she seemed utterly convinced in its authenticity.

"Something like that, yeah," she said softly, lowering her eyes a little even as her head remained raised. "I wasn't in the best place in Hollow Bastion, either; I needed to get out."

"And you found her how exactly?"

She sighed. "Why does it matter? I'm her twin. If I had to, I could find the certificates to prove it. I need her help, and I want to be back with her; I'm not using Kairi, as convinced as you are that I am. So who cares how I found her? I just did."

"Why should it matter to you?" he asked in a lethally soft voice, and she flicked her gaze away from him uncomfortably. "You gave up much more personal information than that with no trouble at all."

"You think I'm lying," she argued.

"Stop changing the subject!"

"I can't tell you, okay?!" Blinking, startled by her expression of panic, he watched as her eyes brimmed with tears and she then buried her face in her hands, shaking her head from side to side. "I just can't."

Growling softly in frustration, turning his face away once more, he sighed. "I don't understand you."

"That's why you hate me?"

"Hate you?" With widened eyes he fixed his attention back onto her face, dumbfounded by her assumption. Sheepishly she was staring at him, notebook pressed to her chest again for comfort, bangs sliding slowly into her eyes. "Who told you I hated you?"

"No one. I just thought you did."

He sighed, rolling his eyes at her. "Of course not. You just annoy the hell out of me."

"Because that's much better," she said, smiling weakly.

He grinned back. "At least this way you still have a chance."

A companionable silence fell between them after his answer. Lowering her sketchbook to her lap, she smoothed her fingers over the cover, tilting her head in a deliberating silence. He looked on calmly, arms crossed, waiting for her to speak.

"Then…" she finally murmured, lifting her eyes again, and then her whole head, so that she was meeting his gaze sheepishly but amiably, "you answer some of my questions. And we'll see if I want to take this chance."

He smirked at her. "Fair enough."

-- - --

"You've never been to the city?"

Lounging lazily in the grass, propping his cheek up by his hand, he flicked his eyes towards her surprised face, mildly amused at such a reaction. Merely shrugging, however, he then turned and flopped onto his back, stretching his arms towards the sky as he arched his back.

"What of it?" he asked, turning his head on the pillow of green once his arms floated back to his sides, fingers curling around the weeds as he met her gaze. Brow arched, he nestled his cheek more comfortably against the grass, comfortable in the shade of the maple tree and the calm of her presence.

"Nothing," she replied with a shrug, looking back to her sketchbook, fingering the cover of it in contemplation as she moved her legs further towards her body, ankles crossed and skirt of her dress gliding across the green. He watched it move in interest, then lifting his aquamarine stare back towards her face. "You just don't seem like you've actually lived here your entire life. I would've thought your family traveled before you came here." Looking back to him beneath long lashes, she asked curiously, "You didn't?"

Sighing, stretching his legs across the blanket of weeds once more, he turned again onto his back, scouring the sunset-stricken sky with his stare. "Never knew my dad. And my mom – she never gave me much of a chance; if she's traveling now, she sure as hell didn't take me with her."

She was quiet for a long moment, and he closed his eyes, listening to the whisper of the wind trail through the maple leaves. The weather was curling, and the colors were turning, the October month slowly dwindling away and bleeding into November. Soon, they'd get months of winter rain, because snow, like Naminé said they had in Hollow Bastion, never touched Destiny Islands' earth and sea. He only had a thin grasp of what it looked like, really.

"I'm sorry."

Surprised at Naminé's comment breaking through his thoughts, he turned his head, looking at her questioningly. Head bowed, she was now flipping through the pages of her booklet, searching for comfort in this awkward situation of theirs.

"For what?" he drawled in slightly annoyance, calling her attention back to him. She met his stare with surprise, and he rolled his eyes at her. "It's not your life."

"No…" she consented softly. "But I'm sorry that it had to be yours."

"Yeah, well…" Stretching languorously, sitting up at last, he shook stray rock and leaf from his hair, smirking crookedly at her, "…I'm not losing sleep over it anymore. Besides, no rules works for me – I'd be more unhappy if she suddenly showed up in my life."

Uneasily, Naminé offered a small smile, and then she ducked her head back down, picking up her pencil. Sighing, rolling his eyes again, he fell onto his knees and hands, crawling over to where she sat slowly, finding it unnecessary to stand and then walk the short distance. He knew that she was watching his ridiculous progression, too, because the corners of her lips were slowly twitching upwards into a smile. And by the time he'd stopped beside her, she was staring directly at him, shaking her head as he leaned his shoulder against the tree's bark, craning his head over her shoulder to catch a glimpse at her work.

"No, Riku," she said tiredly, more amused than anything, cradling the book to her chest as she turned towards him. He scowled at her playfully, nudging her in the shoulder as he moved closer, trailing his hand as he did so towards the hand in the grass which she used to prop herself up. Fingers grazing hers, he curled his fingers around hers as she blinked, and when she looked down for a quick second in confusion, he edged the slightest distance closer, so that, when she looked back up at him, their noses grazed, and she blushed.

"This is new," she commented quietly, the barest hint of a smile in her voice. He tilted his head, grinning back, running his thumb over the smooth skin of her hand, and, before she could say another thing, he closed the gap between their lips.

The gesture startled her more than he'd expected it too, considering she'd had a fair enough warning, and she started back after seconds passed, lashes fluttering rapidly. A sweep of color affection her normally pale complexion, she stuttered apologies and then hugged her sketchbook to her chest, looking away from him. Anxiously, she tried to make herself as small as possible, tucking her legs close to her body, squaring her shoulders defensively. And he ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh, frustrated and confused.

"What'd I do?"

"N-nothing. I'm sorry. I just…" Turning her head away, she failed to complete her thought.

He closed his eyes to control his mounting irritation. "Another secret, right? You just can't tell it to me."

She lowered her chin to her notebook, lower lip trembling. "I just…the last time I was…close to someone, it went very badly, Riku." Her voice caught in her throat, and anxiously she shifted her legs, leaping to her feet with speed and grace. Not liking this answer of hers in the slightly, though, he followed her lead, grasping her wrist before she could walk away, pulling her back to him.

"So what aren't you telling me?!" he demanded.

"What does it matter?" she responded in a cold tone, eyes glowering into the earth, her will resisting him entirely. "Besides. I swore to him I'd never tell."

"Swore to who? What the hell is going on with you? Were you hurt or something?"

Inhaling shakily, she lifted her hands and rested them gently on his arms, trembling visibly but also obviously doing her best to maintain her calm. Leaning forward, resting her head against his chest, she murmured from this position, "Riku, just stop asking me questions. Please."

"I have to know, don't you get that? I have to---"

"And I have to keep my promise," she retorted quietly, lifting her chin to meet his gaze, curling her fingers into the fabric of his jacket desperately. With effort, she smiled slightly for him, bangs falling again into her eyes. "You just…can't know everything about me; I left that life back in Hollow Bastion. Please don't make me bring it back."

His jaw clenched in agitation. "How can I trust you, Naminé? Obviously this is important to you…"

She sighed and pulled away from him, dragging her fingers through her hair, letting her shoulders fall. "I know. But I made a promise. I can't…go back on it. You must know how important that is, that I do this for him."

Frowning at her imploring gaze, he shifted uncomfortably, crossing his arms as he tried to stay firm in his resolve. However, she looked so unbelievably helpless, and his determination just crumbled under the weight of her pleas. He had to look away from her as he muttered, "Fine. Whatever. Just…stop bringing it up, and we don't have to talk about it."

She sighed in relief. "Thank you. I---"

"C'mon," he said with a shrug, turning away from her briskly, belatedly holding out his hand as he looked onwards towards the gravel path. "Sora and Kairi are probably waiting for us to come back." Looking over his shoulder then, he kept his expression placid and composed as she lifted her eyes to his face. When she smiled, though, taking his hand, light shining once more in her eyes, he had to allow himself a grin as well, and he pulled her comfortably close to his side, heading away from the shelter of the meadow as the sun descended behind the trees.

-- - --

They didn't bother with questions of any kind anymore. It merely led to arguments, to ill feelings, and they were growing too close to bother with such petty fallings-out. So he let her keep his secrets, and he didn't indulge as much about his dreams for a life beyond the horizon or hopeful aspirations, and instead they contented themselves with each other's presences, which ended up being enough.

By November, however, the first of the long winter rains rocked their village, and all of their frivolous attitudes began to dwindle away. When Sora and Riku visited Kairi's house, the redhead always occupied herself by fretting about some small project within the abode, bustling in and out of each room until her restlessness nearly drove Riku out of his mind. And Naminé took often to staring out of the windows, chin on her arms, mind in another world, which aggravated him just as much, because he could sit beside her on those days and speak with her, but he could never seem to reach her. Riku suspected, though, that the weather brought back with a vengeance whatever bitter memories she was harboring concerning Hollow Bastion.

Worst of all, though, was when they were eight days into the November month. Sora collapsed within himself as he stared relentlessly onto the table wood before him, palms limp and motionless in his lap, shoulders slumped in defeat. All in Kairi's house were solemn and somber; even Naminé, who doubtless had no idea why such an occasion was so heart-wrenching for a boy who could bear the miserable weather, the heightened tempers, and the feeling of isolation with a smile and a laugh. She actually removed herself from her spot at the window, leaving her sketchbook behind with Riku, to sit across from Sora and hold his hands in a comforting fashion, hands downcast, head bowed.

From his spot on the bench underneath the windowsill, Riku watched Kairi stand before the fireplace, staring into its recesses as the flames curled and jumped and dancing, popping and crackling filling the void in the house caused by the silence. Her arms were crossed over her chest and her expression was one of anger, and he knew she was feeling the same way he was: betrayed, annoyed, and unbelievably sad.

The eighth of November: it was Roxas's birthday. It was also the day that the blond had run out on Sora without a word and had failed, for the last three years, to return even once.

There was a slight screech as a chair scraped against the ground, and Riku turned his head to see Sora now sitting with his eyes resting in his palm, shoulders trembling only slightly, the muscles of his jaw clenched. Three years and it hadn't gotten any easier for his friend. Riku hated that: that Sora wore his heart blatantly on his sleeve, yes, but mostly because Roxas could so hurt a person that had cared for him with every bit of his heart.

Sighing heavily, Riku lowered his gaze to the sketchbook sitting in his lap and idly he picked at the cover, as so often Naminé did. However, when he glanced up and saw that she wasn't looking at him, was instead doing her best to comfort their brown-haired friend so lost in his misery, an inappropriate sense of curiosity filled him, and again he lowered his gaze, playing more recklessly with the cover of the sketchbook. Finally, unable to take it, he flipped it open.

Immediately, he was stunned by the exquisiteness of her art. He was lost as to who the people were, however, and bewildered by the eccentricity of names such as Xemnas and then Xigbar and then Xaldin, but he could hardly believe how good she was and was amazed by the detail. Why she would wish to hide such talent, he couldn't understand; her need to keep secrets honestly baffled him beyond words.

There people, whoever they were, filled up a great deal of her art, he realized. Eight pages, nine pages, ten. He wondered if these were the ones who'd taken her in off of the streets, the ones she'd so hesitantly called friends. He'd admit; they didn't look too warm and welcoming, even in pictures – especially number one, number eight, and now number twelve. Shaking his head, sighing softly, he turned the page again, and he froze. Eyes widening, he picked the notebook up, looking at it more closely, knowing he had to be wrong. After all, Hollow Bastion was a city; a huge, bustling one, from what he'd gathered. The odds of her knowing him, of befriending him, were slim to none. There was no way she could…

Standing up abruptly, he attracted Kairi's mournful stare. Even before the fire, she was hugging her arms to her chest as if she'd developed a grave chill. Softly, meeting his eyes, she murmured, "What is it, Riku?"

Narrowing his eyes, turning around, he glared in Naminé's direction and threw the notebook down at her feet, causing her to jump in alarm and watch as pages scattered beneath the table. Instantly, her face paled. "You knew."

Letting go of Sora's hands, she lifted her chin, looking to him helplessly. "Riku…"

"You knew!" he shouted. Sora jumped and whirled around, and Kairi rushed to Riku's side, but Naminé stayed where she was, tears trailing down her cheeks, head shaking from side to side. "You were his friend! And then you had the nerve to come here and not even tell the person who he betrayed anything!"

"Riku," Sora said softly, brows knitted in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

Pointing accusingly, full of rage, blindingly mad at how she could keep such information from them, he spat, "She knew Roxas in Hollow Bastion. She's seen him. She drew his godforsaken picture!"

Immediately Sora turned towards her, body tense, eyes wide. "You know him? You've seen Roxas? Is he okay? How's he doing? Why didn't he come back?"

"I-I…Sora, I…" Standing up, tears burning down her cheeks still, she shook her head at him, and then desperately she turned to Riku. "I'm so sorry." In a rush, she turned and fled towards the door, wrenching it open, bracing herself against the sudden gust of biting wind carrying rain into the house. Her hesitation was only slight, however, because in seconds she was running out of the house, the door hanging ajar in her wake, the three of them left to watch the spot she'd left behind.

A numbing silence filled the house.

"She knew Roxas," Kairi said softly, stepping forward, moving to crouch down by Sora's seat and gather up the fallen pages. "Why wouldn't she mention something like that?"

Riku scowled and crossed his arms stubbornly, doing his best not to worry for her, trying and failing to keep his gaze from trailing towards the house's wide window. "That stupid promise she made, I'll bet. It was probably to him. Selfish prick probably made her swear to never give away his whereabouts."

"Come off it, Riku," Kairi snapped, slamming the sketchbook onto the table as she stood. "Roxas loves Sora. You're mad at him, I get it; I am, too! He had no goddamn right to leave us all behind, especially Sora; maybe only Sora. But don't go saying he didn't care at least for his cousin, okay?! You know he thought of him as a brother. There must be a good explanation. We'll ask Naminé. We'll find out. It's a good thing, that she knows him, you know."

"Guys," Sora said, standing up slowly, walking towards the door in a daze. "Argue later, okay? We have to go get Naminé. She'll get really sick in this rain."

Instantly Riku was able to tear his gaze away from the window, and without a word he rushed past Sora, barely hearing him order Kairi to stay behind. Already running, he slipped and slid across the grass soaked and flooded by the relentless torrents of rain, his feet coming out from underneath him just before he reached the gravel pathway. Flying through the air, slamming down against the earth, he gasped against the cold and the impact, breathless for a few seconds as his vision blurred. It took Sora – who'd easily caught up – dragging him to his feet to urge him to recover, and then the both of them were racing towards the maple tree, where Naminé would undoubtedly be.

In the rain and in the perpetual gray, the search seemed endless, and both kept slipping and tripping over the rocks the path. Finally, though, Riku caught sight of the tree, large and oppressive in the gloom of the weather. Sliding off of the winding path, Riku raced across the grass, getting closer and closer to the tree and the spot underneath it, where Naminé was lying, hands over her ears as rain passed through the leaves and pelted her fragile form. Across the sky lightning streaked, lighting up the remaining distance he had to run, and a crash of thunder followed, making all three exposed to the elements acutely aware of the severity of the storm.

Panting, sliding to a stop, Riku fell to his knees before her, hair soaked and clinging to his face of rivulets of water trailed down his nose and neck. Grasping Naminé's shoulders desperately, he shook her until she looked at him, her eyes unfocused, her body shivering from the cold.

"I'm sorry," she whispered softly, staring past him as he spoke, so that he had to look over his shoulder, expecting someone to be there. All he saw, however, was Sora running closer, shoving overgrown, sopping brown bangs from his eyes. Looking back to her, he shook his head, not comprehending. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't hurt me."

"Naminé. Naminé! It's me! Wake up!"

"Marl---" She choked on her sobs, cringing away from him, shaking her head. "No," she whispered, "I'm sorry. Please!"

"Riku!" Sora shouted, above the hiss of the rain and sudden crack of thunder. "What's wrong with her?"

"I don't know," he shouted back, shaking his head in true fear, digging his fingers into her shoulders. "Naminé! Look at me! You're all right!"

Her stare skating from his to Sora's, she inhaled sharply, lips trembling. "Roxas! Roxas, don't! You can't!"

Stiffening, Sora took a step back, startled. Riku watched him protectively, gauging his reaction, but was surprised when a look of understanding seemed to sweep across the boy's face. "Riku! Riku, we have to get her out of the rain! I think she's hallucinating!"

Nodding hurriedly, the silver-haired youth swept her into his arms, concerned at how cold she already was. Clutching her tightly to his chest, he stood, looked to Sora, and then the two started back as quickly as they could, slipping uphill as the rain drummed into their bodies and faces. In his arms, Naminé kept murmuring Roxas's name, and Riku bit back a scowl, needing to concentrate solely on getting her to safety. She couldn't get any sicker; he wouldn't let that happen.

Sora called out in relief when he saw the house. Racing ahead to tell Kairi, he slipped and slid over the grass, tripping in his journey there. Hand sometimes grazing the ground and pushing his body back up, he finally reached his destination, wrenching the door open and calling after Kairi, which Riku could hear even at a distance. Urging himself to move faster even when he was tiring, he finally crossed the threshold too, nearly stumbling into Sora, who'd come back to meet him. Taking Naminé from his arms, he cradled her protectively to his chest, and Riku slammed the door shut behind him.

The noise, louder than he'd wanted it to be, caused the blonde in Sora's arms to stir. "Roxas…" she murmured softly, lashes fluttering, lips moving soundlessly for a moment. "Roxas…he's dead."

Riku stiffened and looked to Sora in horror. The brown-haired boy, obviously doing his best to conceal his pain, turned away abruptly, striding towards the room set aside for Naminé, where Kairi was waiting.

"We don't know who she means," Riku said softly as he followed, raking his hands nervously through his hair. "We don't know if it's even real. She is hallucinating, after all."

"Yeah," he murmured dully, settling Naminé into her bed, helping Kairi tuck the girl into the covers. Then, pulling away, he moved to stand beside Riku, body balanced weakly against the far wall, head hanging in defeat as his gaze focused on his shoes.

"Now what?" whispered Kairi tearfully, he redhead smoothing blonde bangs away from Naminé's pale and soaked face.

"We wait for her to get better," Riku said softly. "And when the rain stops, we go and ask Aerith for help."

-- - --

All three of them kept watch over her in wordless fear. Aloud, they promised each other that Naminé would make it; inwardly, they feared for her life.

So, when Kairi rouse both Sora and himself from their few meager hours of sleep two days later, her tone overloud and extremely elated, he was filled with the most immense feeling of relief, quickly forgetting his agitation. Rapidly he rose from his spot on the floor, coming to stand beside Sora around Naminé's bed, and anxiously he leaned over to get a look at her, to prove to himself that she was well.

Only when she blinked blearily, shifted under the covers, and gave him a shy, weak smile did he allow himself to let out the breath he'd held in anticipation.

"Welcome back," Sora said gently, resting his palm against her forehead, beaming at her in a brotherly fashion, only a touch of sadness in the gesture. For the past two days, Sora had driven himself to near insanity fretting over Naminé's last conscious words; and if they were true, if Naminé's comment meant that Roxas was no longer alive, Riku wasn't sure what Sora would do.

Kairi excused herself first from the room, on the pretext that she had to make a visit to thank Aerith. Squeezing Naminé's hand gently once, she rose from her seat beside her, smoothed the wrinkles out of her clothes, and then walked from the room, closing the door behind her.

In her absence, Naminé fought to sit up, struggling with the bind of blankets around her form. Eager to do anything, Sora assisted her, bowing his head in concentration steadying her until she could balance her weight against the headboard. Looking faint, she closed her eyes for a moment, breathlessly thanking him as she waited to regain her strength. As she did so, Sora went back to fidgeting at her side, too tactful and polite to ask the one question he'd been nearly dying over for days.

Therefore, Riku bothered to do it for him. "Naminé, when you were out in the rain, you were…hallucinating. About Roxas. What…?"

Opening her eyes, she looked to him painfully, cringing from whatever memories entered her head. In embarrassment, or shame, she turned her head from the both of them, twisting the fabric of her sheets between her hands.

"He's not…" Glancing towards Sora, he sighed and shook his head resolutely. "Naminé, is Roxas dead? You have to tell us." Painfully, Sora winced and bowed his head, fisting his hands against the mattress tensely.

Turning back towards him, she blinked in confusion. "Roxas? Dead? No. No, Marluxia's dead – Roxas shot him."

At that, Sora choked, meeting Naminé's gaze in shock as she clamped her hands to her mouth, horrified. Riku, as well, was struck with surprise, staring back at her in bewilderment. It was the last thing that he'd expected to hear.

"Rox murdered someone?" Sora said softly, not tearing his gaze away from Naminé's. Lowering her hands from her mouth to settle them in her lap, she bowed her head shamefully, nodding her head in regret.

"I swore to him I wouldn't tell, Sora. He said you'd hate him, and he couldn't deal with failing you. But it's why he didn't come back. Axel…he's been doing his best to keep Roxas in hiding until it's safe to take him home." Desperately turning towards Sora, she reached for him, eyes pleading. "You have to understand, though; he didn't do it in cold blood! He was protecting me, Sora. Don't hate him, I beg you---"

"I couldn't," he said softly, shaking his head, standing up. In disbelief he stared at the wall, running his hand through his brown locks. "I couldn't hate him." Gaze swimming with tears, he laughed softly, then rubbing hastily at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. "He saved you, right? He's a hero. And at least now I know why he couldn't come back…"

"Sora…" Riku tried, half-rising from his spot kneeling on the ground, reaching towards the boy. Shaking his head, though, he smiled and insisted that he was fine, hurrying towards the door and then leaving them behind in silence.

Awkwardly, Riku shifted his weight, settling back down onto the ground, finally moving his stare back to her. Cautiously she was staring back at him, probably searching for anger, for hatred, in his eyes or on his face. Sighing tiredly, he rested his cheek on the swell of blankets resting on the bed, reaching for her hand. Her fingers flitted away for a second, Naminé surprised at the gesture, but then, hesitantly, they returned, and he took her hand in his.

"So."

She smiled weakly. "So."

"Guess you had your reasons for keeping secrets," he muttered nonchalantly, and her smile widened somewhat.

"Yeah."

"No more of them, though," he muttered crossly, words slowly slurring, body easing into the comfort of the mattress. "I'm not going through this hell again."

Her eyes softened. "I really am sorry, Riku. I didn't mean to cause you trouble. And I wanted to tell him; from the very beginning I did. I just…couldn't."

"Well, forget it," he muttered, shrugging, closing his eyes momentarily. "Just…sleep now. I'll yell at you later."

She giggled softly. "You should get some sleep, too."

"'m not tired," he muttered crossly, stubbornly.

She squeezed his hand, settling into her pillows, closing her eyes as she eased her body into the mattress. Following her example, never allowing himself to let go of her hand for a second, he closed his eyes, as well.

"Of course not."

-- - --

So, basically, I hate the end. And the part before it. And the part before that. But, otherwise, I kind of liked it. It started off great, in my opinion; it just descended into unsalvageable suckiness. Ah well. Nothing I can do, save maybe scrap it later. Anyway, please review!