I'm really not sure if I blacked out or not. Everything was dark, obviously—but sounds seemed to come in and out. I thought I heard Xemnas talking, silence for a while, then Kairi nearby saying that no, she didn't feel like going to the play island today, but that must have been a dream.
"…eyes gonna be okay?"
"Squits would be better but we don't have time…"
"No no, don't move…"
I reached for the hand that had just curled around my shoulder. "Rik…?"
"I'm here. I'm here. You…you're gonna be fine."
Where had he been? "You okay?" I half-croaked, aware that I was on a floor now with what felt like an arm around my shoulders—I still couldn't see, but I could feel myself blinking, so they must have used healing agents.
"Me?" Riku groaned. "Sora…"
"You—you were gone…" My vision was coming back now and I could see him flickering into being above me, aquamarine eyes concerned. "…took you? What happened…"
He shook his head once, silver brows drawing together. "Sora, I didn't go anywhere. I don't…you disappeared or something. Did they grab you?"
No—no, that wasn't right—I shook my head weakly, making a low, frustrated noise.
"All right, just—just relax, don't strain yourself." He shifted and it felt like he was going to move away, and dammit—I don't know why, but for some reason that made me pull closer and make a sound like a pained gasp. "I'm here," he whispered simply.
We were silent for a few moments. I was just trying to see again and get used to the idea—again—that Riku was alive and well. Then I remembered something that sent shards of ice through my veins. "Kairi! Oh god—did you see her? Did she come by? Where…" I hesitated, looking around in surprise at the blackness. "Where are we?"
Riku balked. "Kairi's here?!"
"She was looking for information on what happened with her here before," I told him, letting him help me up. "Er. I mean. At the mall. And there's a Lynx Heartless after her! Where is this?" I demanded anxiously, gesturing at the void around us.
"We're safe. This is just an illusion. Zexion!" Riku called, and the darkness fell away around us to reveal the rest of the Organization standing at attention around us. It was a different thing to see all of them human, without the distinctions they picked up from Zenith—and more than a little overwhelming to see them all wearing that same black leather cloak. "Sora says the Lynx Heartless went after Kairi," Riku said, speaking mainly to Axel.
"She was trying to distract it from me, and…!" I couldn't begin to say everything I feared right then. This can't be happening. With Riku it's bad enough, Kairi doesn't stand a chance…
Marluxia looked to Xemnas, his eyes apologetic but strained. "Do we have time for—?"
"We're gonna have to make time," Xigbar said firmly. "We got a Lynx Heartless out there. Even if that was a job for the Service, we don't have enough of them on the field to deal with it."
Luxord's jaw tightened slightly. "As little love as I have for the Heartless, this world does not concern us as much as—"
"And that's the kind of thinking that got this war started in the first place!" Axel half-shouted suddenly.
"Stop fighting you fucking morons!" Larxene thundered in answer, getting in the middle of it and holding up her hands even as everyone around us moved inward. "Save the girl or not, doesn't matter. But the last thing we need is that Heartless targeting somebody important! Plus we're gonna need to fight our way through no matter how you look at it, so could we stop whining and just get on with it already?! The whole fucking Apex is here, yeah—a Lynx Heartless is a real problem," she sneered, eyes narrowing spitefully.
"Eloquent as always," Marluxia remarked lightly.
Xemnas waited a moment, casting a slow, deliberate gaze around at the other members to ensure there wasn't going to be another outcry, and crooked an eyebrow. "Shall we?"
There was a murmur of agreement.
"I'll head Gold Team and go east; Blue Team take Sora and Riku and head west. Meet back here in an hour. Clear?"
Roxas looked a little alarmed as the whole Organization split neatly in half, with one group following Xemnas while the rest stayed near us. "Uh—which—?"
"You're with us," Axel told him, waving him away from Xemnas. "Keep forgetting how little you know…"
"It's been a while since we've had to conduct an operation on this scale," Marluxia pointed out, moving towards the front. Even half the group was a little overwhelming, and I didn't recognize people with those cloaks—it seemed like there were even more of them than there actually were, which was probably the point.
Riku, I noticed, was glancing around at them too. "Xemnas didn't take Vexen with him," he murmured.
"That's because he doesn't expect to find anyone alive," Axel muttered as he passed, heading more towards the front.
"Let's move. Are you two able to walk?" Xaldin wanted to know, apparently taking the lead in Xemnas's absence.
"Uh…" I started forward gingerly, still leaning heavily on Riku.
He made a faint, frustrated noise. "More or less."
"Shield them," Xaldin ordered, almost cutting him off, and the others quickly moved to surround us instead as we started off.
"Sorry I'm not perfect," I couldn't help snapping.
"I'm mad at it, not you."
"You scared me to death, Sora," he said sharply. "And…I'm…not even sure you're really okay."
I think I was about to say something really angry and stupid back, but instead I just gave him a flat, direct look. "Welcome to my world," I grumbled finally, and tried to focus on not falling.
I got better as we went along—the healing agents were probably still working a little—and by the time we got near the food court I was mostly back to normal. But god did it feel weird walking around the mall surrounded by a bunch of guys in cloaks, with nobody making a sound and everyone looking all tense and serious as we walked past cell phone booths and bubble gum dispensers. Axel and Roxas were with us, of course, and Xaldin, Vexen, Zexion, and Marluxia. Axel was apparently the one in charge of the light, even though I think he vocalized once that it was really Roxas's job, but Roxas either didn't hear him or didn't care. People were starting to relax, even though Riku and I were still watching and listening intently for any sign of Kairi—and suddenly there was a crash and a series of tinkles; definitely shards of glass. Something had broken a window somewhere.
"Kairi!" I was calling before I even thought about it, and then tasted salt with Riku's hand hard around my jaw.
"Keep it down," he growled into my ear—which is when I realized there was the overwhelming possibility that it wasn't her. It could very easily be the dummies again, or worse.
The others around us immediately tensed, drawing inward. "From the back!" Zexion shouted suddenly, and Riku and I both whirled to see the glint of a scythe illuminated by a blast of fire that meant Marluxia and Axel already had things under control. "What type?" Axel demanded, even though it looked like the thing was down.
"Gnome," Zexion replied. "But that's not all. There are Doppleganger Heartless around…"
"Oh shit," Riku muttered.
"Do we have to do that…question thing?" I asked, already trying to think of some. Anything that would make this go faster.
Axel chuckled. "Nah, no worries. They can only possess inanimate objects."
"The dummies!" I realized, and jostled Riku. "You see? I told you!"
"Yeah, yeah." He frowned. "Is that what grabbed you? You were there one minute and then, just…gone."
What?! "No, that's what happened to you! Remember? You thought you'd found something in Victoria Secret and then you just vanished!"
He was shooting me an incredulous look, and finally he shook his head. "No—Sora, we talked to that Naira person, remember? She said there was also something weird at Gamestop, and you said we should check it out, like you would. We'd just got in when you disappeared," he added, his voice slightly softer than usual. "Why do you think I ran and got these guys?"
No—no—no—no—no! It hadn't happened that way at all! "That's not…that isn't what I—!"
"What exactly happened to you?" Axel asked then, one hand on his hip and the other at his chin.
"Axel, we don't have—"
"This could be important," he said sharply, holding up a hand to stop Marluxia.
I was suddenly aware of all the eyes on me and a little self-conscious. "Well—Riku just…just fucking disappeared, so I looked all over for him. Turns out he was in Hannah Pink, passed out or something—I figured the dummies had dragged him there, since they attacked after that, and…" I shrugged one shoulder a little forlornly. "But if that didn't happen…"
"Sounds like an illusion," Vexen murmured. "There may be an Ephemeral Heartless involved…"
"This place is just bursting with fun," Axel muttered bitterly.
"But there is no known Heartless capable of rerouting memories," Zexion interrupted suddenly. "Sora should have remembered what really happened, even if it seemed like the reverse for him."
"Unless the Sora who went there with Riku was an illusion," Xaldin mused.
"I'm not that clumsy," Riku said sharply. "I would've noticed his eyes. Besides, it was him."
"Then there's no way this one's a fake…" Axel frowned. "Unless he's a substitution, but we'd know by now."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Fraggles."
"Yeah no he's the real deal."
Vexen took a step forward. "Hold still," he ordered sharply, tilting my head briefly to get a better look at what I think was my ears. I couldn't help squirming a little—his hands were like ice. "If there was an Ephemeral Heartless, it's gone," he reported when he let go. "Perhaps the memory lapse was an averse reaction to its absorption?"
I blinked. "I absorbed it?"
"Don't worry about it," Riku said dismissively, waving a hand. "You're all still you. The things just can't survive around other beings somehow."
"Upside down osmosis," Axel volunteered.
My brain was not up for this right now. "I'll take your word for it."
"Area seems clear," Zexion said finally, moving towards the front again. "There's something farther down this way, but I can't tell what it is yet."
"Hold on, where's Roxas?" Riku asked suddenly. "Wasn't he just here?"
"That little idiot," Axel hissed, glancing around at the others. "Where is he off to now?"
"Any chance he smelled the thing too and already went after it?" I suggested. It seemed like the kind of thing Roxas would do. Well, more the kind of thing Riku would do, if he could.
"No," Axel said.
"He may have," Vexen said.
"He didn't," Axel insisted.
"He can't have gone far," Xaldin said simply, hefting what I realized was a lance and moving forward again. "He'll catch up. Even if he doesn't, he still has a fighting chance. The girl doesn't. Let's keep moving."
Axel crossed his arms and leaned against a nearby wall, eyes still wandering over the mall around us. "I'll be right here."
Xaldin took a menacing step toward him. "Roxas is expendable," he practically growled. "You are not. You're coming with us if I have to dismantle you to make it happen." Beside him, Vexen rolled his eyes and Zexion pinched the bridge of his nose.
On the other hand, the Phoenix's eyes glittered. "Bring it."
Xaldin must have brought it, but I sure didn't see it happen. All I knew was that one minute the lance was in his hand and the next it was buried in the wall next to Axel's head. Axel hadn't flinched, but his eyes were wide. "Don't test my patience, Eight."
There was a silence.
Finally Xaldin must have seen something like agreement in Axel's eyes because he barked an order and we started moving again. Axel didn't at first, glaring at Xaldin's back, but he eventually fell into step with us, glancing over his shoulder from time to time.
We spent an eternity looking—an eternity that was ultimately too short, because it seemed like only too soon before we were heading back towards the center of the mall again to meet up with the others. There were occasional attacks from dummies on the way back, and I think another Gnome Heartless or two, but the others were fast and got to them before Riku or I even realized they were there. "They've got the scent thing, it's not fair," Riku commented once.
"It's not a competition," I told him, but I don't think he agreed with that.
"Has anybody seen Roxas?" was Axel's first question when we met up with Gold Team again. "He ran off somewhere."
"Unfortunately, no," Xemnas reported. "Nor any sign of the Lynx Heartless. It's possible it's become dormant or left the building entirely."
"Can we take that chance?" Zexion wanted to know.
I don't know who shouted it, but Riku was already gone and I was hot on his heels, pulling up next to him just as we turned the corner and skidded to a stop in shock and alarm.
Kairi was on the ground, clutching her side, and I had to do a double take to realize that Roxas was standing in front of her with his arms out to either side. There were two parallel slashes on his cheek and a bead of sweat was running down the side of his face, his forehead furrowed in concentration.
"Where is it?" Riku demanded, Keyblade in hand.
Roxas made a frustrated, almost pained noise from between gritted teeth. "Wait…just…"
"Roxas! Oh hell no!" Axel shouted when he got to us, and immediately a fire-laced chakram was headed for what looked like empty space.
There was an ear-piercing, unnatural screech, and reality seemed to flicker in that corner, distorting for a moment into something crouched and furred over. Then it was invisible again and moving—deep slashes appeared on the wall as it sprung off the side to attack Axel, claws screaming against metal when he defended. Riku and I were already moving even though I didn't know what exactly to hit; all I knew was that Axel let out a pained yell and I had to keep that from happening again. In the next second it was Riku screaming and hitting the wall, and then the rest of the Organization was there, Demyx shouting for me to get back as water, ice, earth, and another seven or so elements got unleashed against the Heartless. It was during that cacophony of attacks that I heard another scream, this time from Kairi—she was too close to the blast zone, I realized in horror, but when I looked around for her all I could see was some kind of earthen shell that had grown over the corner where she'd been crouched.
That's when Xemnas took the lead and…I don't know how to describe what happened, but he killed that thing. There wasn't much left of it either, as I got to see when things calmed down—just a lump of skin there, blackened fur there, some wet things that might have been organs, and what looked like a black bloodstain.
Once I was sure it was dead, other priorities took over. "Riku," I got out, bending beside him. "Can you hear me? You okay?"
"Y—I—y-yeah," he breathed, starting to sit up and nodding fervently. "It didn't get me bad, check Axel, is he okay…"
"You are fucking crazy," I muttered, pulling out the necessary healing agents. I could see that Axel was already getting back to his feet, and Riku had a gash the size of the San Andreas fault in his side. As it started to knit closed I looked around for Kairi, and found her in Lexaeus's arms with Vexen's hand on her head.
"She's fine," Saix told me just as I started to agonize about whether to leave Riku's side or let them deal with it. "It had just gotten to her when Roxas intervened."
"What the hell was he thinking?" I asked more for the sake of asking it.
"Axel's trying to find that out now," he said, nodding toward where the two of them were arguing.
I looked back at Riku, making sure the gash was completely closed. "You alright?"
He nodded, looking aggravated, and waved an impatient hand. "S…stim…"
I was quick to comply, passing him some stimulants and helping him to his feet when he reached out again. "Xemnas got it, then?" he asked, wincing a little as he put weight on his left leg.
"Yeah. You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. It'll just take a minute." He looked towards Kairi, who was standing now too, and her eyes met his right on cue. In another minute she was running, and then she was in his arms, her hands fisting in his shirt and his face buried in her hair. I was moving before I even stopped to think, latching onto them and feeling their arms open for me, and turned us into a huddle of bitter laughs, almost sobs, and little sounds that couldn't decide on an emotion. But when I finally drew away they still clung to one another.
Feeling a pang of something close to jealousy, I shot a grin their way. "Glad to see you're okay, Kairi. I'm gonna go check on Roxas, all right?"
"Don't forget to thank him," Riku said simply.
"Yeah." I headed away from them, passing about five Organization members having an intense debate and two more who seemed to be having either a battle of wills or a staring contest. It didn't make sense to me that I should be jealous, I wasn't even really attracted to Kairi. Maybe it wasn't Kairi, though—maybe it was just the whole idea of having a girlfriend. But it didn't seem like I was jealous of him…
Was I jealous of Kairi over Riku?
That just didn't make sense!
How backwards can you get? I wondered sourly as I reached Axel—and then another emotion raised its head. This one was much more familiar; anxiety, desperation, and sorrow. Someone was missing…was it the person missing from my life now? No! How had they gone? When? How could I have missed out on that?!
"Riku okay?" Axel wanted to know, and it took me a second to snap back into reality.
"Uh…yeah, he's…" I nodded back toward where he and Kairi seemed to be talking in low tones. "How's Roxas?"
"He won't talk to me," he said, throwing his hands up in frustration. "Keeps saying I wouldn't understand. Well how can I if he won't tell me anything?!"
"I'll talk to him," I told him, setting a placating hand on his shoulder as I passed.
Axel looked like he was about to stop me, but instead he just sighed and ran his hands through his hair.
Roxas looked unusually small in the cloak instead of the other clothes he'd picked up lately, and at first he wouldn't even look at me. I opened my mouth, but then it seemed like I wasn't sure what to tell him, so I just kind of sighed and watched him a minute. "Axel's worried," I said finally.
There was another silence. "He'd be…even more worried, if he knew."
Roxas finally turned around, his eyes unusually dark and fierce. "I don't—I don't know how to explain what just happened," he said in a voice that couldn't seem to decide between a shout and a mutter. "And I don't know why I'm telling you, but…somebody has to know, and Axel'll just…"
"I won't tell him. I promise."
The blond let out a tense sigh, not relaxing just yet. "Something told me where she was, told me to come here, and…when I encountered that Heartless, I…" He rubbed his temples. "The same thing happened on the underside with Riku. That—that thing, I could—I could talk to it."
I stared at him. "The Heartless?"
The Sylph shot me a derisive look. "No, the upholstery." He turned away again, shaking his head and putting his hands on his hips in a way that reminded me of Axel. "I don't get…it was like I was…connecting with it, almost."
A finger of cold went down my spine.
"I was almost there, I thought…I thought I could convince it to stop attacking, if Axel hadn't…" His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, and then his eyes met mine again. "They're scared of us, Sora. They're scared to death of us."
The Organization dispersed after that, disappearing like shadows back to the play island—but not before they carried out Xemnas's order of "Make this go away." By the time Riku, Kairi, and I came out of the mall again, there was no sign a Heartless had ever been there. The only things they really couldn't replace were the dummies, I think Xemnas said that would take too long—but Axel and Lexaeus got together to do something about the one broken store window, and I think Demyx took care of most of the blood. They also had to fix a few things Kairi had broken in her escape from the Lynx Heartless, such as the elevator; she'd holed up there for most of the hour we'd been looking for her. The deep slashes and distortions in the metal doors were enough to tell that story, and the broken window was still spattered with blood, but the healing agents had taken care of all the minor injuries, too.
Lying to Axel wasn't fun, but I ultimately had to tell him that I just couldn't get anything out of Roxas either. No way was I breaking my promise, and I knew like Roxas did that Axel would probably take it too seriously. Not that I was even sure how serious it was in the first place. The fact that Roxas could connect with the Heartless probably had something to do with how I was connecting with Zenithians—but I'd also connected with Kairi, and maybe Riku. Whatever it was, it was definitely something to bring up with Xemnas, after everything he and I'd already discussed. He'd know what to do.
The three of us walked in silence once the Organization was gone, Kairi's arm locked around Riku's waist and his about her shoulders while I walked on his other side. A strange glumness had settled over us, along with the dread of exploring it. It was like someone had actually died, except no one had.
Riku suddenly turned his head sharply. "You cold?" he asked her in a low voice.
Kairi's voice was thick with tears, and that made us both stop. "What's wrong?"
"You know what," she got out, cupping her hands around her nose and mouth. "There's…there's something really wrong here. Something's happened."
"But we're all safe," I reminded her. "We all got out okay, even the whole Organization."
"Then why do I feel like this?" she asked almost plaintively, meeting my eyes. "Something…something is supposed to be here that isn't, and…"
I looked to Riku quickly when I saw his shoulders slump. "She's right," he murmured, his eyes distant. "We lost something back there."
"Someone," I corrected, feeling a deep pang in my chest even as I said it. The anxiety and desperation were back, but tinged with an awful hopelessness. There was a long silence, broken only when Riku gently nudged Kairi back into walking, and we headed down to the cars without saying anything for what seemed like forever. I was just lost in thought, barely registering the familiar Mercury ahead—if this was the point at which that stranger had disappeared, was this when all trace of them had gotten erased? And in that case, why did I just feel like someone was missing? I didn't remember anything specific, but when Kairi vanished, Riku'd had no idea that anything was wrong. Maybe this wasn't the point, then, but we had to be coming up on it soon—and I still couldn't figure out how I was thinking this in the past if they disappeared in the future. None of this made any sense, and it seemed like I'd be used to it by now—but it was someone who had a deep effect on me, one way or another, and I deserved a better explanation for what happened to them.
By the time we got back into the car, it was like nothing'd happened. We were all sort of aware of the sense of something missing, as well as the notion that if something had gone wrong, Kairi wouldn't be in the car with us; but we didn't focus on that. It made things feel less than normal, and all we needed at the time was normalcy—even if Kairi hugged me more tightly than usual when we dropped her off and looked more disappointed than I've seen her in a while when Riku turned down her offer to stay the night.
"I have to break up with Kairi."
I turned to stare at him. It had only been about a minute since we left her house, and already he was talking about altering the fabric of reality. "What?!"
Riku didn't look at me. His eyes were locked on the road, occasionally glowing red or green when the lights hit them, and he sighed, crooking an elbow against the door to run a hand through his hair and then leaning his cheek against his knuckle. "She could have gotten hurt," he said finally. "She really could've died, Sora."
"So could you," I pointed out. "But you don't see me deciding not to be your best friend anymore."
"I don't see it that way."
"Because y—because we…" Riku pivoted a finger back and forth between us. "…don't. Plus, Kairi's not cut out for combat. The closer she is to both of us, the more danger she's in."
I fell silent, hurt without completely knowing why. "She could…like the person we can't remember," I said finally, trying to pin a more definite reason on it. We'd lost someone, and Riku was just scared of losing someone again. I could relate to that.
"Why do you keep bringing that up?!" he demanded suddenly, slamming a palm into the wheel. "You know—I don't—I'm probably remembering wrong. It was always just the three of us, right? Just you, me, and her. There wasn't anyone else."
"Riku, yes there w—"
"You're probably making him up."
I stopped dead. "Him?" I swear to god, Riku, if you're fucking with me…
There was a sullen silence on the driver's side. "Well it…it was," he said finally. Then he let out a sigh I recognized too well and I thanked the stars we were at a red light. "I didn't—I should've—!"
And everything made sense.
"Riku, there's nothing you could have done to protect him."
"You don't know that," he spat angrily.
I waited a moment, thinking that one over. "No, I don't," I admitted finally. "But I know there wasn't anything I could've done to stop Kairi from getting kidnapped, either. How do you stop something if you have no idea what it is or when it's going to happen? You can't, Riku."
There was a sullen silence in the driver's seat. "I guess you're right," he said in a way that told me he wasn't agreeing at all but taking things in another direction, and sure enough— "But that just makes my point. As long as Kairi's close to us, she's going to be in danger."
"Kairi's never going to be far from us. You know better than that. And even if she—"
An irritated sigh.
"Even if she weren't close to us anymore, how long is that gonna last? We don't know how long this Service thing has to go on for, it could be years! Are we gonna abandon her for that long?"
"We aren't abandoning her, we're taking care of her!" Riku insisted forcefully, shooting me a glare. "You know what we're dealing with! She doesn't! And I've already come so close to losing you so many times…!"
"Okay—okay, calm down…" I gripped his shoulder tightly, trying to catch a glimpse of his face even as he struggled not to meet my eyes. "Should you be driving lik—?"
"Fine. Look, Riku, I'm just saying…this is Kairi we're talking about," I reminded him, almost chuckling her name fondly. "If you keep pushing her away, she's only gonna chase you farther."
He frowned at the steering wheel like he held it responsible, and then let out a deep sigh. "…Yeah." There was a long moment as we both kind of absorbed the situation, turned it over in our minds, and then he started into a right. "But I'm still breaking up with her. I won't tell her why."
"Riku, that's not fair—"
"I'll give her a reason, but I won't tell her why. She'll do that chasing thing you mentioned."
I hesitated, feeling almost like a child facing his parents' divorce. "…You know, she…might not take you back after that. This might be the end, if you really…"
Author's Note: WHOOPS! Sorry for the tardiness, guys. I totally had this up and ready to post yesterday and then forgot I hadn't already posted.
Anyway. SO I TOTALLY HAVEN'T WORKED ON THIS AT ALL. Go me. vv; But I'm not about to break a promise, this is KH after all, and I should be able to at least get through another chapter before posting the next.
The fun part: does a lot of the stuff in this chapter not make sense to you? Guess what. Me either! 8D We'll find out together~!