For Kytha. Prompt: Kingdom Hearts, Riku/Kairi. The alternate universe where Maleficent wins and Riku is left to find a way of bringing a heart back to his princess while he tries not to lose himself-- nine years later. "Their bodies have aged, but her heart is still gone, and at the back of his throat, Riku tastes despair."

The war is over. Maleficent won it years ago, when the Keyblade Master died between worlds. It wasn't even a Heartless that ate him -- if so, they could have tried to find his Shadow, at least. All it took was a skirmish with a gummi ship, stray shots bursting the candy-colored engines, and Sora was so much burning debris.

And Riku was left empty of the Darkness that had tempted him ever since Destiny Islands first went up in smoke.

Riku isn't sure exactly why the urges went away -- the power and laughter and life of Darkness inside him that had given him so much of everything he wanted. He can't pinpoint the cause. It's like the Darkness simply dwindled away before being irrevocably gone forever, like a star too polite to scream as it died.

With the Keyblade Master slain, Maleficent's victory should have been absolute. But the path to Kingdom Hearts won't open fully without the last Princess's heart. Without that open corridor, the Heartless can't invade completely. Maleficent can't seize ultimate power. Without the Keyblade, the Darkness can never be shut away, either. They're all locked in this half-existence now, like Shadows themselves, ebbing and nibbling at the edges of Light.

These days, the Bastion is the center of the world -- of all worlds, which spin and die around Maleficent's throne. It is Riku's home as well. He's gone through it from top to bottom, searching for clues to Kairi's heart. Maleficent's host of skulking researchers claim anything of technology they can find, and Riku generally lets them. The things he claims are pictures of a dark-skinned man with white hair -- hair much like his own, if he grew it out longer.

Ansem, he assumes. The only characteristic that the two of them share would be the hair, and even that's not much. Still, Ansem only exists in pictures now. For all anyone else would know, Riku could grow up to look similarly, to act similarly.

The idea takes root surprisingly fast.

He could be Ansem.

He's comfortable with that thought.

When the message had arrived that Sora's ship had exploded, Riku had gone to see the wreckage in person. He'd ordered a shadow beast to take him through the passage safely; it had undulated like a snake, and he'd ridden between its fangs and mulled over twists of fate.

The Keyblade! his mind hissed all the while. Find the Keyblade!

The compulsion had muddled him. He was looking for Sora, and sure, Riku could use the Keyblade, he could use it to help save Kairi -- but finding Sora should have been important too. Yes, the Keyblade rightfully belonged to Riku, and yes, Sora chose it over him, but Riku still wanted to see the goofball. Even if it was just to show off.

But there had been nothing when he arrived. A few leftover Heartless were swimming about, scrounging through the remains, picking at bits of gummi in hopes of stray hearts. A tailfin from the ruined ship tumbled endlessly over and over, the edge shredded into chunks from the explosion.

His mind hadn't shut up about the Keyblade. The Keyblade is gone, it kept saying, over and over like a broken record, gone, gone, gone, until finally pronouncing a single, resolute phrase:

It will be a long time until the next one comes.

And then silence.

Riku had stood there for a while, staring at the debris. The Darkness inside him had remained quiet.

Eventually, he realized that the numbness that was wedged like a rock in his chest wasn't going away, and he nudged the Heartless serpent and sent it home.

Once back at the Bastion, he sat around and listened to Maleficent rage. She had made provisions for every fate to befall the Keyblade Master except simple mortality, and the oversight made her livid. Pete had fled, cowering in the nearest corner large enough to hide him. Riku had been too distracted to do anything other than blink at the torrents of green flame that licked up the castle walls like an emerald inferno.

It was during Maleficent's tirade that Riku had noticed that he no longer felt the living Darkness -- that the small whispers and nudging that had plagued him were all gone. The pressure had vanished. So had the exhilaration.

After he had realized that, nothing seemed exciting anymore.

The Darkness still listens to him -- there's no doubt about that, or else he'd already be a snack for the Shadows. But what had given motivation to the power inside him had vanished: the influence that he controlled was as good as an object now, responding mechanically to commands instead of coiling and purring and prowling around the back of his mind.

The strangest part is, Riku can't tell if the feeling went away when he found out that Sora was dead, or when he couldn't find the Keyblade.

He kisses her once a year.

The first time, he'd been desperate to try anything out of the stories. Other princesses had slept and awoken with a kiss. It had taken him over an hour to work up the nerve, and then only on the forehead. He'd tried her cheek the year after that.

Her mouth, when neither of those worked.

Maleficent's minions know better than to joke about anything more between him and Kairi's body. Riku had killed a scientist who had dared to spread certain rumors. Shame; if only the man hadn't walked in that one day, that one time, he'd still be alive.

It's been nine years. Nine kisses, all of which did nothing. Riku's moved from fifteen to twenty-four, as regular as the clanking gears of Hollow Bastion, jury-rigged together to perform in some semblance of normality. Kairi's grown older too, jutting out of her clothing, becoming a woman whose blank eyes never focus. Their bodies have aged, but her heart is still gone, and at the back of his throat, Riku tastes despair.

He knows Kairi's there. Just -- her heart's not.

Kairi's there. Just. Her heart's not.

Her body ticks along without it. Her eyes open and close; her head lolls on her neck. Pete suggested a method for stopping the process once: to crystallize Kairi in a prison like the rest of the princesses, who have weathered the years unaging. A prison would keep her safe. It would keep her young -- but Riku doesn't know if he could stand that either, forced to watch as time breaks them further and further apart. So instead, he steals Kairi's life away from her, taking her youth like a thief.

He's taken other things from her too. Dignity's one of them. Kairi's body will consume soup if Riku is careful feeding her; it will choke on anything that isn't mush and broth. It will eliminate too, on its own schedule, which Riku has started to estimate based around mealtimes. He has to make sure to check her if she's damp. He has soft towels to keep her clean.

Kairi soiling himself, he knows, is better than if she didn't. Maleficent had been sure to explain to him the reasons why one day, through liberal use of the equipment left behind in the Bastion. Riku had left the laboratory room trembling. Then he'd gone to the libraries and read up on everything he could on the effects of immobility and malnutrition, starting with bedsores and not stopping until the words all ran together, and the only thing life meant was death.

He's lucky that he has resources to help tend to Kairi. As Ruler of All Existence, Maleficent has tasks for him; in the hierarchy of destruction, he's Maleficent's left hand. Pete -- blubbering, incompetent Pete -- is her right. There are others who have come to serve Maleficent, survivors of worlds or betrayers who simply saw the writing on the wall. But Riku's special. He's strong. He's talented with the Darkness. He is the only person who can look Maleficent in the eye, and not back down.

Work often takes him away from the Bastion. Maleficent's army grows like wildfire, feeding on the corpses of the dead. She has generals, barons, lords under her thrall, dividing up the countries she's too busy to govern directly. Riku is, by default, her commander; he walks across nations while wreathed in red and blue and black, followed by his personal guardians. Lesser beings part hastily before him, ducking their heads and whispering when they think he's gone.

He has nurses assigned to watch over Kairi during his absences, but he always makes an effort to be home in time for dinner. Because there's a chance she might hear him, he tells her all about his day as he ladles soup between her unresisting lips, and rubs her throat to help her swallow. He's not really sure if she'd approve of what he's doing to the inhabitants of various worlds, but it helps Riku take care of her, and it's not like there's anywhere else to go now. Maleficent won. If anyone could restore Kairi's heart now, it would be the witch.

So Riku makes sure to keep Kairi's clothes changed and fresh. He scoops her out of bed each morning and tucks her in at night. When they got older, and he found himself doubting the trustworthiness of her nursemaids, Riku started handling more duties on his own. The first time he undressed her, he'd been nervous. Now, he doesn't even blush. He cleans Kairi up when she's made a mess. He lowers her into the bathtub in the evenings and cradles her head so that she doesn't slip beneath the surface of the water and drown. He soaps her carefully and scrubs her hair, and brushes it straight with a comb carved from the bones of a king.

Kairi's skin is smooth. Her muscles are flaccid from lack of activity; her flesh is as soft as warm bread dough. Riku presses his finger against her arms sometimes, testing them. He's always careful these days. He bruised her once by accident, and he never wants to do it again.

Even then, she hadn't cried out.

Sometimes when the Bastion is winding down for the night, Riku keeps himself awake wishing that Sora would magically come back to life -- just so Riku can tell him how much he will never, ever forgive him for this.

Riku isn't stupid. He knows the traditional stereotypes. He's familiar with the demented perverts in the 5-munny comics that get sold at corner store markets, the ones where the villains are all cartoony and laughable and keep obsessive souvenirs of deceased loved ones. The lackies, the crazies, the freaks that had to be given twisted stories to make them interesting enough to be worth defeating, who lug around puppets shaped like their girlfriends. Pathetic and sick, hanging around until the hero comes to kill them.

Before Maleficent, Riku would have said he was the hero. Now, he's just waiting for one to come.

Some days -- when the campaigns are too long and the sobbing gets too bothersome -- Riku cradles Kairi to him and lets the Shadows swarm. Their protective curtain blocks the rest of the world out as Riku strokes her hair and thinks about what they must look like together: a villain petting a life-sized doll. But Kairi is warm, and soft, and she needs him, because he's all she has now. Sora is dead. Riku is the only person left who cares. She lies helpless, growing older each day that he can't let her go.

Riku spent only a month with the AntiSora before he destroyed it. He hasn't recreated it. Between the Shadow and Kairi, the silence had been too much.

In the evenings, when the castle lights are dim and he's just come back from destroying a fresh world, Riku can almost feel the Darkness stirring again in his soul. Almost. After he washes Kairi and puts a clean nightrobe on her, and props her in bed so she can see the windows, Riku takes out the photograph collection of Ansem. He turns the pictures over in his fingers, one by one, studying the angles of that fine-boned face. There's a quality that's compelling about the man -- that feels good, feels familiar inside Riku whenever he looks at the pictures, like he's finally in touch with something he's lost. That part of himself that went away after Sora died, maybe. The thrilling joy of Darkness.

Ansem, he thinks, must have found something during his pursuit of the Darkness. A researcher-king who once thought to study the Heartless must have had some breakthrough.

Riku could become just like Ansem. He could.

Because Kairi just be getting tired of the same view, he takes her with him to the next world on his task list to snuff. Maleficent's army grovels at his feet. As tribute, they bring out a few of the captured resistance fighters, and parade them around like half-starved cattle. Riku barely pays attention to their faces. He's busy brushing Kairi's hair straight while the prisoners glare. It's a windy world. She's become mussed. He can't be expected to pay attention to them while she's mussed.

None of them appear to be Keyblade Masters. None of them are heroes yet. Their hate is strong enough to spur them to revenge, but this doesn't bother Riku. He knows what he must look like, in their eyes. He knows what Kairi must appear to be.

He orders them executed without thinking twice. This batch is full of failures. The next world might hold something new.

The Guardian Shadows that carry Kairi in their arms flank Riku effortlessly. She is prize and proof and sacrifice, the princess that Riku is still trying to save -- half-alive and half-empty. They're trapped in this existence. Sora will never come.

Riku's waiting for the hero. They both are.