Chapter 22: The Big Bang

A whole week passed without a word from Xion.

Roxas stared at his reflection and ran a hand through his hair. He had never spent such a long time without talking to his best friend. Her absence was entirely foreign to him, and every night he remembered their last conversation together.

Had it not been for Naminé, Roxas would probably be a mess. When Xion walked out on him, Naminé was there to fill the void. It was a strange timing, one that seemed almost too good to be true. Minutes after Xion left, Naminé appeared with a bright smile on her face. It was infectious, and soon Roxas was smiling and laughing like he hadn't been ditched by his best friend. Moreover, the reason for Naminé's tardiness was because of a newly baked pie.

They finished it together that same night.

Roxas laughed at the memory. For the past week, his time with Naminé was always the best part of his day. Every time he began to feel something missing within him, she would appear and he'd smile again. He did it without regrets too. He wasn't going to feel sorry for himself, nor was he going to feel guilty for hanging out with a girl he liked.

Though the current Xion might've desired something different, the best friend he knew wanted him to enjoy every moment. Xion always wanted the best for him in the past. She would have wanted him to have fun with Naminé too.

Though her change was disturbing, Roxas thought it was better to let it leave her system. Anytime they had a small argument, she tended to drift away for hours at a time and cool down. Maybe this time she needed a whole week.

At least, that was what Roxas told himself. He made calls and sent texts, but never received an answer.

A knock at the door stole his attention. He looked over to see Sora peeking inside. "You ready to go, Rox?" his brother asked.

"Yeah. I'll be right out." Roxas collected his belongings and made his way downstairs. Sora was already walking out the door, leaving Roxas to lock up the house. As he finished securing the place, he caught sight of his reflection in the window. He glanced at his old clothes, glad to know he didn't care much for them.

The long-awaited day of paintball finally arrived. He and Sora were heading over to Naminé's before heading over to the arena, where they'd meet the rest of their friends. On one hand, he was brimming with excitement over the fact that Naminé agreed to attend and play on his team. He was looking forward to seeing how she'd handle the stress of the game and, though in secret, half-hoping that it'd be hilarious. On the other hand, he was hoping that his arrival at the arena would also be a reunion with his best friend.

He was supposed to play alongside Axel and Xion, after all. There was no way she'd miss this match against his brother and friends.


Naminé jumped in surprise as her twin burst into her room in a hurry.

"Nam, do you still have those old clothes from the beginning of summer?" Kairi didn't wait for an answer and began shuffling through her sister's closet.

Naminé rolled her eyes. "It's all on the top rack. You're lucky I've been really lazy about that."

"Well, we still have a week and a half here to donate it. Or were you planning on saving them for future paintball matches?" Kairi picked an old paint-stained pair of shorts and a t-shirt from the stacks of clothes.

Naminé ignored her sister's question and carefully applied her make-up. "I always forget how close our departure date is." She stepped away from the mirror of her dresser and said, "Summer went by quickly, didn't it?"

"Way too fast," Kairi agreed. "It wasn't so bad, right? You came here expecting the worst, if I recall correctly."

Naminé grinned. It was true: she expected to hate her summer, but it turned out to be the best one yet. "Yeah, it turned out okay."

"Don't do that, Nam. Admit you had fun! Own it!" Kairi teased as she examined her neck. "Repeat after me: this was the best summer vacation ever. I had a lot of fun."

Naminé rolled her eyes, but did as she was told. "This was the best summer vacation ever and I had a lot of fun."

"I even found a guy I liked!"

"Did you, Kairi?" Naminé giggled. "I'm really happy for you. Then again, I think we all saw it coming."

"You're supposed to repeat after me," Kairi replied.

"Even if it doesn't apply?" Naminé returned.

"Oh, but it does, doesn't it?" Kairi hopped on the bed and lay next to her sister. "I've been keeping an eye on you. Don't think your time with Roxas has eluded me."

"I don't doubt that, but have you ever considered that you might be reading into it a bit too much?" Naminé asked.

"That's how I work. I see the things I want to see and hope I end up right," Kairi joked.

"At least you're aware of it." Naminé stared at the ceiling. More often than not, Kairi was right anyway. The redheaded twin seemed to know where to place her bets despite unfavorable odds.

"What do you guys do with your time, anyway? He's over just as much as Sora. Are you copying us?" asked Kairi with a glint in her eye.

"We talk, mostly." Naminé turned around when Kairi started changing her clothes.

"Mostly, huh?" The redhead looked herself over in the mirror. "My boobs definitely got bigger."

"Small old clothes do wonders for your ego," Naminé teased.

"You're just jealous."

The doorbell rang at that moment, cutting their conversation. Naminé allowed her sister to get the door and remained in her room. She couldn't help but succumb to the tug at the corner of her mouth, and soon she found herself smiling broadly on her bed.

"I hope you're wearing something you don't care about!" Roxas sang as he walked into the bedroom. He nudged her knee with his own. "You better not be tired. We need you to bring your A-game today."

Naminé removed the arm she draped over her eyes and caught Roxas staring at her. She stretched her arms and arched her back, humming as she relaxed her muscles. "And if I'm not in the mood to be shot?"

"Then you'll miss your chance to shoot me for all the bad things I did to you." Roxas jumped onto the bed next to Naminé and propped his head up with his arm.

"I already forgave you for that." Naminé looked him right in the eye. They stared at each other until their stoic faces cracked a smile.

"You haven't really. One does not simply forgive sixteen years of fights and arguments and aggression," Roxas said as he shook his head. "You have to put that energy somewhere."

Naminé mirrored Roxas's pose so that her face was level with his. "You really want to shoot me, don't you?"

"Among other things, yes," Roxas joked. "I've admittedly had a few fantasies."

Naminé felt her face grow warm. She ignored the fluttering in her stomach and walked to the doorway of her room. "Let's go. Sora and Kairi are probably waiting for us."

"I figured we'd have time to ourselves since Kairi led him to her—"

The sound of Sora's scream echoed across the house. "No, Kairi, no! No! Help! Help!"

"What is going on in there? Is that Kairi who's laughing like a maniac?" Roxas was suddenly behind Naminé, looking in the direction of Kairi's room. Naminé jumped, unable to hide her surprise.

"You should find out. Tell them we're heading out now too," Naminé said. She turned into the nearby bathroom and locked the door behind her. It was happening again. Whenever she was around Roxas now, she felt off. Even worse, she knew exactly what changed and what was happening.

Attraction.

The obvious scapegoat was hormonal change. She was a teenager, so of course she'd feel a pull, but why Roxas? Before she realized, she went from seeing him as a friend to a possible crush. Was it a crush though? Was she actually crushing on Roxas?

Naminé stared at her face, her eyes widening at the sight of her intense blush. Why did she have to be so pale? It was so obvious!

"Let's not jump to conclusions," Naminé whispered to herself. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She had to think. What was so attractive about Roxas? It's not like he possessed traits that exclusively belonged to him. Sure, he looked delicious in a bathing suit (something she noticed at the pool a few days ago) and yes, his hair was extremely fun to play with. Not only was it soft, but it bounced back into place no matter how many times she ran her hands through it or tried to flatten it. He never smelled bad either, not even after work when he'd come out with the scent of a wet werewolf that spent a week running in the woods.

Naminé threw a hand over her gaping mouth. It was gross, but true. Roxas never smelled bad. Ever. It had to be stupid pheromones. Perhaps it was nature's way of getting back at her for fighting him so long.

"Okay, think of a non-physical source of attraction," she commanded herself. If she couldn't find reasons beyond physical attraction, then surely it was a stupid crush amplified by her body's chemicals. Her first thought was his personality. That was rotten, right?

No, it wasn't actually. She found it— him, whatever— to be quite likable. Sure, his anger had a lower boiling point than most, but he was, for the most part, a gentleman. Why he hid such a thing behind sexist remarks perplexed her, but maybe it was a method of self-defense when they weren't friends.

Worthy of note was his sense of humor. Perhaps she was biased, but she found Roxas to be just as funny as Sora. There had always been an unspoken perception that Roxas was more serious than his brother, but Naminé found that in the right environment, Roxas gave Sora a run for his money. It might have just been her though. Naminé thought she found almost anything funny, and it didn't take much to make her laugh. Either way, Roxas was good at it.

None if that explained why she was attracted to him in a stronger way though! What made him different? He was fun to be around, but that was the case with all her friends. Why was he the only one that made her feel hot and bothered? It wasn't clear at all. Maybe it was her. Recently, her mind thought it'd be a fun idea to produce steamy dreams every now and then. As a result, anything remotely sexual uttered from Roxas's mouth sent a flurry of dirty thoughts across her head.

And yet she could not bring herself to run away from him. Just days ago she came to terms with how much she enjoyed his attention. Every time he came over, he went straight to her. The very knowledge of that tendency never failed to make her smile. She finally understood why Kairi enjoyed coming to the islands so much: here, there were people who wanted to spend every moment of free time with them. Not a second was wasted, and every day Naminé was saved from boredom by the very boy she used to resist the trip.

She loved it. She loved spending time with Roxas. She enjoyed the phone conversations that went into the next day and she took credit for the times she kept him up before work. She loved how they would trade faces of repulsion when Sora and Kairi did so much as kiss in front of them. And above all, she loved hearing his stories of his experiences, the very life she had so desperately avoided. She secretly told herself that she wanted to do the things he did with his friends. As silly as it was, she wanted to go on a post-midnight drive on the freeway with the windows down without a care for school in the morning. He made the smallest things seem like so much fun.

The best part was that he listened to her too. He always seemed so interested in her mundane life. She was embarrassed to admit that her after-school routine was to go straight home and study and draw. She didn't have her sister's ability to ace a test with less than a collective hour of studying, and she wasn't involved in any sport at all. She had friends, but none that she would want to hang out with every weekend outside of school.

Roxas seemed to understand though. He asked about her hobby, her inspiration, and anything she could talk about for hours. Part of her thought that he already knew the answers, and thus why he asked, but she had to appreciate the sentiment.

Naminé knew she had just over a week left on vacation, and Roxas was helping her make the most of it. Would she miss him when it came time to leave?

"Guys, I think she's pooping. We'll meet you in the car!" Roxas's voice was just outside the bathroom. When Naminé opened the door, Roxas greeted her with a smile. "Finished?" he asked cheekily.

"May I punch you?" Naminé stepped out of the bathroom and walked toward the front door.

"Sometimes your kindness is off-putting. Is there no limit to your benevolence? You would have never asked before." Roxas followed her out and waited for her to lock the door.

"I've grown fonder of you, that's all. Next time I'll even say 'please' when I ask to hurt you."


Xion wasn't there, and by the look of it, she wasn't going to show up at all.

Roxas felt empty inside. Did he really hurt Xion that badly? She had been mad at him before, but never to this extent. Even a tradition couldn't bring her to see him. What happened? They promised to win this year, and even if others were around, it was still an opportunity to come out as victors.

He needed to find Axel. He'd definitely know something.

"What's on your mind? You've been frowning since we got here." Naminé sat next to him on the bench, just outside the registration and rental building. A large group of their friends were conversing at a nearby picnic area, crowding under the shade to avoid the bright sun.

"It's nothing. Have you seen Axel?" he asked.

"Not since we arrived. He went off to talk to the owner. What'd you say his name was?"

Roxas raised a brow and pointed to the sign shaped like a mouse head. The name of the arena was named after the man. "Mickey?"

"Oh. That's embarrassing." Naminé flushed and made herself seem as small as possible.

"Happens to the best of us," he replied. He didn't expect to receive a poke to his side. "Hey! What was that—" Another poke. "Hey!"

"What's wrong? Can't stop me? Huh?" Naminé poked and prodded away until Roxas grabbed her hands.

"Stop it!" He held the offenders tightly in front of him. "That tickles!"

"That's the point. You should smile more. You're cuter that way," Naminé said. She received a blank stare. "Hmm. That's strange. Compliments usually make people happy."

"Wait, did you say that just because, or did you mean it?" Roxas sat up straight.

"Why does it matter?" Naminé leaned in closer. "Do you want me to find you cute?"

"I mean, it's not that important to me really, but knowing the level of sincerity affects how happy I get." Roxas paused. Something about the way he said it made him feel like he revealed too much. He quickly added, "You know, because any girl saying something like that is flattering when she means it. If she says it without meaning it, it's not the same, so like… yeah."

The sight of Naminé biting her lip sent a shiver down Roxas's spine. It was an attempt to keep a smile from surfacing, but the failure produced an entirely different look. "I'm going to join everyone over there. You should go too. It's scientifically proven that friends help people smile," Naminé said. She stood up and sauntered off, leaving Roxas alone on the bench again.

Roxas eventually chose solitude. It didn't take long before Axel appeared. The older boy sat down with a sigh and stretched his arm over the backrest of the bench.

"I don't think Xion's coming," Roxas stated.

"She won't be. I called her a few minutes ago and she said she has to stay home." Axel turned to Roxas. "What happened between you two? I've never seen you guys fight like this."

Roxas looked toward the group. "She thought I was ignoring her for Naminé. I tried to explain that Naminé was going to leave soon anyway, but she didn't buy it. Was I wrong for thinking we'd have the rest of summer to spend time with each other?"

Axel shook his head. "Oh boy. That explains everything."

"She was just being jealous, right?" Roxas asked for confirmation.

"I'd say it's more complex than that. Give her time to fix herself." Axel checked his phone and stood up. "Come on. Get everyone together so we can start handing out the rentals. We have a game to play."


Naminé adjusted the pads on her arm with a sigh. If not for the clouds, the sun would be beating the sweat out of her. She was never one for physical activity, so the thought of getting sweaty and dirty sparked some reluctance.

At least she wouldn't have to worry about getting hurt. When the equipment was distributed, Roxas pulled her aside and told her to suit up. The armor covered her entire torso, thighs, and arms, leaving little room for lasting bruises. When she asked Roxas if he had to pay extra, he shook his head. Apparently it was Xion's.

"Isn't that just precious?" Axel cooed as he approached the blonde.

Naminé turned around to see Axel wearing a similar top. From the looks of it, his skin was bare beneath the charcoal armor vest. Naminé tore her eyes away from his lean but muscular arms. "What is?"

"You. Weeks ago you didn't want to play laser tag, now here you are today, decked out in paintball gear. He even gave you knee pads!" Axel knocked on them for emphasis. "You'll be shooting the place up, won't you?"

"I've never played before, so probably not," Naminé replied timidly.

"Half the people here haven't. You'll be fine." He patted her hard on the shoulder. "Well, he's glaring at me. See you at the arena."

Naminé followed Axel's line of sight to see Roxas approaching with a scowl on his face. As he passed his best friend, the redhead nudged Roxas with his elbow, knocking him off balance. Roxas shoved back and walked the rest of the way with a grudging smile. He handed Naminé a facemask when he reached her. "Put it on," he instructed. The top half was transparent like a visor, and the lower half had slits for breathing. The facemask fit snugly and protected more than half her head, extending far enough to cover beyond her ears.

"How do I look?" she asked jokingly.

"Better than ever!" The huge grin on his face told an entire story. He must've been waiting to deliver that one all day.

"Give me the gun." Naminé held her hand out in response. She was immediately surprised by the weight of it and gripped it with two hands, mirroring the stance Roxas took.

"A few things to note," Roxas started, "that right there, the giant thing with the lid? That's the hopper. They're pretty much the magazines, or clips, or whatever semi-equivalent you'd like to call it."

Naminé stared blankly at him. What did reading material and office supplies have to do with paintball?

Roxas slapped his forehead. "The ammo, Naminé. It's where we put the ammo."

"Oh!" Naminé dragged the vowel in realization. "Why didn't you just say so?"

"This here is the air tank." Roxas pointed to a similar-looking apparatus attached to the gun. "We should have enough air to last us throughout the real matches. We'll use up the rest in the free-for-all."

"So this is what provides the force behind the shots?" Naminé asked.

"Yup. Doesn't seem like much, but they do fire stingers." Roxas then pointed to the end of the gun. "You have a barrel sleeve on right now. We take these off only in the arena. Same thing with the safety switch here." Roxas used his finger to show a small switch on his gun.

Naminé took a moment to find the safety on hers. "Is it on right now?"

"Definitely. Red means it's off. Guns are hot, or active, when the red side is showing. Got that?" Roxas waited for a nod, then put on his mask. "These stay on the entire time if we're in the arena. Do not take it off under any circumstance."

"Even if I get shot in the face?" Naminé wondered.

"Even then. In fact, you want to be shot in the face."

Naminé rolled her eyes. "This joke isn't funny."

"It's not a joke though. If you weren't wearing armor right now, where do you think the least painful shot would land?" Roxas waited for Naminé to reach the right conclusion. "Exactly. You'll know immediately when you're out, and you won't feel a thing."

"Thanks for the tip," Naminé said.

"Now you know not to hesitate to take a peek from behind cover! Now let's go shoot some things."


It would have been more appropriate if Roxas had said "shoot someone" instead. In one moment, Naminé thought Roxas would lead her to a practice area of sorts. In the next, she found herself on the tail end of a safety lecture that repeated everything Roxas had already told her.

"Divide into your teams now. Sleeves and safeties stay on until I say otherwise," the referee said. The group divided into their practice match teams. Naminé surveyed her teammates, identifying Axel, Roxas, Kairi, and Pence. The opposition consisted of Sora, Riku, Hayner, Selphie and Olette. It was conveniently arranged so that each team had two inexperienced players.

"So how'd the private lesson with Roxas go?" Kairi asked as she pulled down her mask. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail, something Naminé wished she had remembered to do.

"Lesson? He told me everything that guy just said." Naminé pointed to the ref with a finger. She was glad she remembered not to point with her gun.

"Aww! That's no fun!" Kairi scoffed before turning to the guys. "Hey! You guys ready to go or what?"

Naminé groaned. Her sister's competitive side was coming out.

The enthusiasm spread quickly. "Get pumped! It's game time!" Axel went around the group, slapping high fives all around. "They can call this a practice as many times as they want, but we all know what this is for. This is for the glory, the spot in the history books, the—"

"Oh look, they're going." Roxas walked off, following the other team into a netted partition.

"I wasn't done!" Axel growled. "Screw it. Let's kick some ass!"

Kairi howled and jogged to catch up. She waved her hand, demanding Naminé to follow. After sharing a nervous glance with Pence, the two made their way to the rest of the team.

Naminé watched the other five— now enemies— line up in a similar area across the small arena. The partition reminded her of a baseball dugout, only this one was above ground and separated by netting. Another safe area flanked the woodland clearing. The arena itself was smaller than she imagined: a rough guess yielded a field of as long as two school buses. Intentionally placed around the area were tall metal barrels and plywood walls that stretched a little higher than her shoulders.

One thing Naminé foresaw correctly was the color. Both the ground and the artificial obstacles were painted with time and experience. Neon greens, pinks, and yellows covered every barricade on the sides facing center. The colors became more vibrant the closer they got to the middle, where a large tire— now similar to a color wheel— provided cover for both sides. It must have been a part of a threatening monster truck back in its glory days since the diameter was longer than her body. Given the tire's colorful attire, any truck dressed with it would lose its fear-inducing credibility.

A whistle tore through her thoughts, and suddenly everyone was running. Though slightly delayed, Naminé crouched behind the closest barrel and leaned against it. Much to her grief, she discovered that the barrel was covered in a mixture of dirt, oily grime, and old paint. A shrill squeak passed her lips. She severely misjudged the mess and began wiping her arms with her hands.

"What are you doing back here? You won't be able to hit anything," Roxas said as he slid beside her.

Naminé ducked her head a little lower when she heard a paintball splatter near her. "That means it'll be harder for them to hit me too, right?"

"Not necessarily." Roxas stood at half height, just enough to raise his shoulders and gun above the barrel. He let off a few shots before ducking again. "Give it a try. You shouldn't be afraid."

"What's the matter, Sora? Why are you hiding?" Kairi yelled with a maniacal laugh.

"Kairi, stop! We're trying to teach them here!" Sora whined.

"I think my sister's got it locked, so I'll just stay here," Naminé said with a cheeky smile.

Roxas groaned. He took her hand and dragged her out into the open. "Come on!"

"Are you crazy?" Naminé screamed. She was going to get shot!

"Run!" Roxas pulled her closer to the battlefront, weaving their way around various objects for cover. They settled behind a wooden wall with a small slit in the middle. "Wasn't that fun?" he asked happily.

Naminé was breathing heavily already. "We could have gotten shot!"

"Big deal. It'll eventually happen anyway." Roxas peeked through the small opening. "Take a look. We don't have a good vantage point from here, but you can at least survey the enemy's side."

Naminé cautiously glanced through the slit. She saw the end of Sora's shoe a few steps away. "Sora's behind the barrel here!" she whispered.

"Yeah, but we don't have a clear shot. He's with Selphie doing the same thing we are," Roxas explained. "Take a shot anyway. Let them know that we know where they are."

Naminé drew in a large breath and slowly tilted her head beyond the side of the wall. She raised her gun and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. "My gun's not working!"

Roxas chuckled. He reached over, pulled the sleeve off the barrel, and then clicked the safety switch. "You left everything on."

"Right, sorry." She flushed in embarrassment. She repeated her earlier action, shooting two paintballs into the barrels. She ducked behind the wall again and cheered. "It worked!"

"Congratulations." Roxas smirked. "Try hitting someone this time."

Naminé took a long look around the arena, raised her gun, and turned the corner. Before she could get a shot off, she felt a hard tug on her shoulder, pulling her back into cover. A few paintballs whizzed by and splattered against a barrel behind them.

"What happened to practice, Riku?" Roxas yelled from their hiding spot.

"I don't know! Why don't you ask that psychotic redhead?" he replied loudly.

"Hey! I'm helping Pence!" Axel defended.

"My bad. I meant our psychotic redhead."

Roxas and Naminé turned their gaze on a guilty-looking Kairi. "What? I'm just playing the game!"

Roxas shook his head and turned to Naminé. "Be glad your sister is on our team for this practice round. She'll be pretty… annoying."

"I heard that!"


The fourth match was the first time Naminé was among the last two people standing.

It took her three matches over two different venues, but she was finally among the last few participants. Her lone teammate, Roxas, was darting around the fort, trying to hold off the approaching attack.

Sora, Riku, and Kairi were all advancing on their fortress. Her sister kept a constant stream of paintballs on Naminé's position, pinning her down. Every time Naminé thought about moving, Kairi seemed to shoot the pathway like she could predict the entire thing.

"Roxas, can you get Kairi off me?" Naminé whined. She hated to be the damsel in distress, but her sister was so damn annoying.

"A little busy!" Roxas grunted. She watched him land a shot on Riku, but Sora quickly repaid the favor. Naminé attempted to use the opportunity, but Sora dove away just in time to dodge the shots.

As she stood up to take aim at Sora, a paintball connected with the side of her facemask, splattering over the clear visor. The referee blew the whistle and the match ended.

That made four straight losses for Naminé's team.

"Dang. Sora is tearing it up today," Axel mumbled as his team regrouped. They all began their trek to the bottom of the hill, leaving the fortress to the other team. "Has he gone out once?"

As one of the people out first every match, Naminé had the pleasure of observing the matches from the sidelines. "He hasn't. Roxas got Riku out for the first time last match too, so it's more accurate to say that neither of them have been out when it counted."

"We need to get Kairi out early then," Roxas thought aloud. "Wouldn't that make things a lot easier?"

"No, we need to rush them. Think about it." Axel pointed toward the wooden fort. "They lost their biggest advantage: the rush. Two or three people always rush forward while the others pin us back. They take our mobility away and control space. Their best players are offensive."

"So we want them to stay in the fort?" Roxas asked. "How is that an advantage? They'll have the high ground the whole time. It's not like we can sneak up on them."

"That's why we rush them," Axel said with a grin. "Kairi doesn't have great aim. She shoots a lot, but they're concentrated in the same area. Outrun her. We all have single triggers anyway. Keep Sora and Riku in the fort. Keep them trapped and keep them contained."

"How fast can you run?" Roxas turned to Naminé.

"Not fast enough to outrun bullets," she answered flatly.

"Good enough. Five man rush. We're doing it." Roxas bounced on his toes and waited for the whistle to blow.

"Did you hear me? I just said I couldn't run that fast." Naminé looked at Roxas, waiting for him to give an alternative plan. He didn't. "Roxas!"

"We'll be fine. Just stay close to me." Roxas made it seem like the simplest thing in the world. "Axel, we'll start on the right. Hayner, Pence, you run up the left."

"We're going to run uphill?" Pence already looked exhausted.

"Look on the bright side: we have a real chance of sneaking up on Olette and the others," Hayner said. He turned to Roxas and held up his arm. "Race you to the top?"

Roxas bumped his arm in return. "I'll see you there."

The whole team waited at the bottom of the hill. The fort had three levels, with each floor being smaller than the one below. There were three open entrances about the size of a normal door on the left, right, and front faces. A single staircase led to the second level, which had a few windows and slits, while the third served more like a lookout. Naminé recalled that the other team would have to wait in the back of the fort, giving them a little over five seconds to run and find cover. Kairi would most likely make her way to the top of the fort that Roxas called the nest. Would that give them extra time to advance as well?

The shrill sound of the whistle cracked through the air. Roxas grabbed Naminé's hand, and the two were sprinting up the hill. Naminé already lost track of her other teammates: she focused entirely on moving her feet and keeping up with Roxas. They ran until a few shots flew by them. Roxas dragged her to the nearest wooden wall for cover. They slid to a stop behind it.

Naminé's lungs burned with every gasp of air. Her clothing, drenched with sweat under her padding, stuck to her skin. She stared at the ground, trying to get her spinning world in order.

"You all right?" Roxas asked. His breathing was heavier, but he wasn't out of breath.

"I need a second." Naminé looked around and found the rest of her teammates. Hayner and Pence were dashing up the hill on the opposite side until they were pinned behind a row of trees. Axel, crouched behind a rusted car frame, was a little ahead of them in the center of the path. He looked at them and nodded.

"Switch with me," Roxas ordered. Naminé crawled to his side while he stepped over her. He turned from the cover and started shooting.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Axel throw himself into a sprint. Naminé recalled what she saw Riku and Sora do in the previous games. She took a deep breath, then another, and then turned the corner. She ran. She ran forward and upward until she reached the next artificial addition to the hill and leapt to cover. She looked up, surprised to see Axel staring in shock a few yards away.

She heard more paintballs splatter on the other side of her barrier. They saw her.

"Hayner and Pence are charging left!" Kairi called loud enough for their team to hear. Naminé, assuming that her sister was distracted, stood just high enough to get her eyes and gun above the level of cover. She shot at the highest point, releasing a flurry of paintballs at the empty window. She saw another stream hitting the right side, so she kept firing. Someone was covering for her.

"Holy shit," Roxas gasped as he skidded to a halt next to her. "Nice run!"

"Thanks," Naminé replied tersely. She kept her eyes trained on the fort, unrelenting in her attack. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, and for the first time in her life, she felt like she was physically capable of achieving anything. When Roxas stood up to suppress the other team, she made another dash forward. A few seconds later, they were at the doorstep of the fort.

"Ow!"

"I'm out!"

The voices belonged to Kairi and Olette. Naminé guessed either Pence or Hayner got the kills. Right before she took her first step into the fortress, she saw Selphie come down the stairs facing the other direction. She shot once, hitting her square in the back.

"Wha— are you kidding me? I'm out!" Selphie groaned. She held her hands up in forfeit as she made her way to the sidelines.

"One left!" Axel called from the other side of the fort. Naminé was surprised to see him up there. She looked down the hill, spotting Pence and Hayner spreading out. They had switched places with him.

"Is it Sora or Riku?"

Naminé jumped. How did Roxas manage to walk so quietly? "Sora is the only one left. The other four are over there with the referee." Naminé pointed to the group on the sidelines.

"Where could he be?"

"Roxas! Down the hill!" Axel yelled.

Naminé and Roxas rushed to the front of the fort just in time to watch everything come undone. Sora vaulted over barrels, fell into a roll, aimed, and fired. Pop! Pop! Paint splotches appeared on Hayner and Pence. Before Roxas could even raise his gun, Sora dove behind cover. His teammates cheered loudly.

"Cover, now!" Naminé followed orders and ran to the closest wall a few steps down the hill. Roxas followed suit and slammed into the paint-covered barrier. "Axel, he's behind the center wall above the car!" he shouted.

"I know— hey! A little help here, please!"

Naminé and Roxas turned the corner and shot a flurry of paintballs, forcing Sora to duck for cover. Axel dashed toward the center and slipped behind a stack of tires.

Naminé kept on firing, but she noticed that no shots were coming out. She hid again and pulled the trigger a few times. Nothing. She checked the hopper. It was empty. "Uh, Roxas? I have a problem."

"Damn, he's fast…" Roxas mumbled. He looked at her. "What is it?"

"I'm out of ammo."

"Oh. Shoot."

"Roxas, move! He's level with us!" Axel announced.

He didn't hesitate to run down the hill more. He pulled Naminé by the hand and crawled behind the car. "Here, give me your gun." Roxas opened his hopper, but Naminé stopped him.

"We can't. He'll make a run down the hill and get rid of Axel before we're done," Naminé said. Axel proved her point by calling for suppressive fire again. She spoke to Roxas as he shot, "I think this might work. Let me be a decoy and distract him."

"No offense, but I don't think that'll work. He's obviously trying to boil it down to you and him since he's faster and more experienced. You're a non-threat." Roxas's eyes widened. "That's perfect! Give me your gun and take mine."

"How does this help prevent it from boiling it down to me against him?" Naminé asked skeptically.

"We need to let him know that you're out of ammo," Roxas said. He turned the corner again and shot a few times in Sora's direction.

"So we just announce it?"

"We show it. We're going to split up when he approaches. You run toward those barrels, I'll run toward the wall. But before we switch guns and split, we're going to show you're out." Roxas glanced around the corner. "He's getting an angle on Axel. You turn on your side. Fire and show that you're out. He'll see that only one of us is actually shooting. Duck behind, switch, and dash for the sides. Got it?"

Naminé repeated his orders under her breath and nodded. "I really hope this works."

They turned their covers at the same time just as Sora was sliding to a stop near Axel's position. He shot the redhead square in the chest, and then rolled into cover after dodging Roxas's shots. Naminé exaggerated her actions, pulling the trigger a few times before ducking behind cover. She grabbed Roxas's gun just as her own left her fingertips, and a second later they were running away from each other. She heard the sound of shattering paintballs.

None of them were close to her. It worked.

She ran around and back even faster, as if the barrels themselves had a gravitational pull that she could use to slingshot herself across the field. Roxas was already out, but the game had yet to be won. By the time Sora reacted to her, it was too late. She landed shots on his facemask and arm mid-dash. The whistle blew.

The match ended.

Naminé was tackled to the ground and rolled a few times on the momentum. She laughing and cheering and screams of disbelief. She smiled behind the cover of her mask.

"You did it!" Roxas laughed as he squeezed her in a hug. "You did it! We won! You did it!"

Naminé giggled, then returned the bear hug to the boy sitting underneath her. They fell on their side, laughing in the euphoria that followed a hard-fought victory. She didn't know how long they sat there, hugging each other and laughing like they had just won the lottery and a prestigious award at the same time, but she was grateful that nobody stopped them. It felt nice— more than nice. It felt great. It felt great not because they won, but because they were laughing and having fun and Roxas was happy and she was too.

Naminé didn't know how long they sat there, but she was grateful that nobody interrupted them. They eventually had to stop, but they didn't part. Roxas threw his arm over her shoulders and she wrapped her arm around his waist. They joined the rest of the group grinning like idiots.

"Man, I was going to chew you out if Sora won a five on one!" Axel shook his head at Roxas as they approached.

"Sorry we left you out of the plan, but we had it under control." Roxas reclaimed his arm and pulled Axel into a handshake, hug, and slap on the back. Everyone took the time to discuss the game, from Sora's heroics to Naminé's surprise win. Sora explained that he always knew Naminé would run out of ammo by the end of the match, which proved to be his undoing. As soon as he actually saw her firing nothing, he wrote her off and went after his brother.

Naminé congratulated Sora anyway. The round, she said, was a total fluke for everyone but herself. It was the only match that she actually managed to land a hit. Luck would have it that she got two in the same round.

Having prevented a clean sweep, Naminé and her friends made their way to the last venue that featured maze-like trenches. There, they would expend the extra paintballs and the air in their tanks in a free-for-all. As Naminé refilled her hopper, she couldn't help but notice Roxas staring at her. Every time their eyes met, they laughed to themselves as if they shared a private joke.

It was almost the truth. Nobody else knew— nor did they have to— that a simple glance between them was enough to turn them into a giggling and blushing mess.

When everyone made their way to the trenches, Roxas and Naminé walked together in the back. The distance between them was minimized, and there arms occasionally brushed together in the most timid of touches.

"It's every man for himself out there," Roxas said, nodding towards the maze.

"Does it have to be?" Naminé asked airily. "It'd be nice if we would have a partner."

"We can't officially, so…" Roxas leaned in close before putting his mask back on. "How about a secret alliance?"

Naminé pulled her own facemask down and grinned. "Just because it's you, I'll go with yes."


The ride home felt short, if only because she didn't get to talk with Roxas more. In the car, they were in their own little world. Rather than rubbing their victory in their siblings' faces, they traded jokes and commented on each other's paint-stained appearances.

"You look like you could use a super long shower," she had said when he wiped his arm with a spare towel.

He grinned. "You do too… but pink doesn't look too bad in your hair."

Naminé smiled at the memory as she looked at her reflection. Ever since she got home, the only thing Naminé could think about was the next time she'd see Roxas. Thanks to a long and satisfying shower, she cleaned all of the greasy pink paint from her hair. The sight of her blond locks was very comforting, and though Roxas might have been okay with a conspicuous color, she preferred something that wouldn't attract too much attention.

Sora promised that he and Roxas would return after showering at home, so Naminé passed the time in her studio. She questioned whether or not it was a good idea letting Kairi prepare dinner, but time wouldn't pass quickly enough without work. Kairi was probably going to order take-out anyway.

To keep herself clean and paint-free for the evening, Naminé did most of her work in her sketchbook. In her mind was a perfect memory of Roxas's smile before he hugged her, so she attempted to impose the image on her paper. When did that happen? She had to have seen Roxas smile many times to have such a clear memory of it. She sketched a generic face around the smile, unable to remember the rest. She'd have to see him in person to nail down the curve of his nose and the shape of his bright eyes.

Naminé giggled. At least she had an excuse behind the sheer desire to see him again. It'd be beneficial to her work, at least when he wasn't around.

Time passed quickly in her studio. She had already started working on something else when she heard Kairi answering the front door. After a muffled exchange, she heard footsteps approaching. A grin formed on her face when she heard Roxas calling her. Per usual, he opened the door to her room without knocking.

"Naminé?" he called. "Not in here?"

Naminé rolled her lips into a tight line. Would he find her? Where would he search next? She heard him go down the hall, but he returned a few seconds later. She imagined the perplexed look on his face. What did he look like at that moment of confusion?

She didn't have a chance to ponder it because the door to her studio opened. Roxas stood at the doorway with one hand placed on his hip. "Thanks for answering when I called," he said sarcastically.

"I couldn't. You're not allowed in here." Naminé walked over and blocked him.

"According to whom?"

"Me. This is my private working space," Naminé explained. She brought the door as close to her body as possible, shielding most of the room.

"Is this where you spend most of your time?" Roxas asked.

"When I'm not with you— and other people," Naminé quickly added, "it is."

"Well, I'd apologize for cutting into your art time if there wasn't an easy solution to this problem. Just let me in and keep working," Roxas suggested.

"I can't work with people hovering over me." It was a true statement.

"I won't do that. I'll just look at whatever you have on the walls." His eyes flicked to the parts of the room still visible to him.

Naminé narrowed the opening. "I'd rather you not see that stuff."

Roxas sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Come on. I came here because I wanted to hang out with you. If you want to keep working, that's fine, but I'd at least like to be in the same room." He looked her in the eyes. "Let me in. I'll follow all of your rules."

Naminé felt her heart skip a beat. It was the first time he explicitly stated that he came over with the sole intention of being with her. "You promise not to touch anything hanging?"

"I won't."

"You promise you won't bother me?"

"I promise."

"And you promise that you won't make fun of anything you see?"

"I do," Roxas said with a nod. With a sigh, Naminé opened the door again and returned to the chair in the middle of the room. She sat down with her back towards Roxas and buried herself in her work. Roxas remained quiet and closed the door behind him. He was in. He looked to the closest wall before slowly making his way around.

Though Naminé resumed drawing, she watched Roxas moving about the room. Her eyes would flick between him and her work, both demanding her attention. Deciding that she couldn't really work with him in the room, she flipped to a new page and began to idly draw lines and squiggles. Roxas was undoubtedly a distraction, but for some reason, she couldn't muster the willpower to remove him.

She watched him instead. She pretended to draw and observed the observer, wondering what was going through his mind as he scanned the walls with his eyes. His hands were tucked into his pockets, reminiscent of school visitors and art enthusiasts that attended her school's viewing night. Rather than presenting a semester's worth of work, however, Naminé felt like her entire lifetime was on display. It was such an intimate presentation: rather than selecting her best work, Naminé allowed Roxas to see the entire studio.

It was all laid out. The finger-paintings of a toddler taped against the bottom of the wall were right next to the canvas of one of her most recent pieces. Like the rest of her work hanging on the wall, it was one of her better creations. It would have to be mounted on the wall at eye level, readily available for her to see. Every single project was a pillar of sorts, a checkpoint, an indication of improvement and a collective documentary of her development.

Naminé felt like she was naked on stage, paralyzed by a crowd of scrutinizing eyes. Her work spoke volumes. It screamed louder than her voice could ever reach, and Roxas was hearing it all. Why didn't she kick him out? Why did she allow him to see her on full display?

Her breath caught when he turned around to face her. Time seemed to freeze. When she realized he was smiling, the seconds began to tick by and the floodgates within her gave way to relief. Acceptance. He accepted her and he made sure she knew it.

She stood up as he stepped toward her. She thought he would stop in front of her, but he walked past her and instead stared at the opposite wall, the one decorated only by childish chalk drawings. The entire wall was painted a flat black, and the smooth surface was very accommodating of her quickest and oldest medium.

"Why haven't you done anything on the wall this year?" Roxas asked quietly. He must have noticed the dates next to her drawings.

Though tempted to return with a guarded answer, Naminé ignored her urges and said, "I never got around to it."

Roxas moved toward the corner of the room where a small bucket of chalk sat. He looked at her for a brief second before picking a white piece up. He returned to the wall and stared at a blank space.

Naminé's eyes widened. "Wait, what are you doing?"

"I'm going to draw something here so you're guaranteed to have something for this year. Well, maybe not. I'd hate to put something ugly next to everything here," he corrected. "At the very least, I'm signing and dating this day."

It was a challenge. Naminé didn't really have a problem with his intentions, but there was something in his voice that wanted her to try and stop him. His eyes almost begged her to put her foot down. She did. "I don't remember saying you could. You're not supposed to be here in the first place, and now you're trying to draw on my walls?" She placed herself in the space between the wall and Roxas.

"But I am here! I might as well leave my mark in a space you'll never reach, right?" Roxas indicated the space above her head. He had apparently noticed the correlation between drawing placement and her height at the time.

"Who says I'll never reach it?" Naminé retorted lamely.

Roxas raised an amused brow. "Oh, I don't know… biology maybe? Nature? Genetics?" He raised the chalk above their heads.

Naminé quickly grabbed his hand with both of her and pulled down, trapping it against his chest. She held fast, even when he attempted to raise it again. It took all of her arm strength to hold down his hand. "Ha. You're not marking anything while I'm here."

"You're going to have to try a bit harder than that." Roxas moved forward until his entire body was pressing against Naminé. He sandwiched the smaller blonde against the wall, pinning her hands between them. His fingers wiggled the chalk from the tangle of hands and fingers. "And that means you're going to have to find a way to hold down both of my hands." With a smug smile, he plucked the chalk from its place with his other hand.

Naminé blushed, acutely aware of their proximity. Did he notice how hot she felt? Could he hear how fast her heart was beating? "That's not fair," she whimpered. "You're not allowed to use your other hand."

He smirked, writing something that would hopefully remain on the wall for a long time to come. "Roxas and Naminé were here," he said aloud as he accented the last letter of her name. "What's the date today?"

"I'm not telling you."

"Summer and year should suffice," he quipped.

Naminé watched helplessly as he finished his work, hoping he wouldn't notice her blush. He was so close to her, and the feel of his body pressing against her own clouded her thoughts. She expected him to move away when he was done, but she remained firmly pinned against the wall. Before she could say anything, he looked at her. She immediately forgot her words and stared.

Roxas's fingers twitched against Naminé's hand. His free hand, still gripping the chalk, fell to his side. His eyes flicked to the only barricade keeping a reasonable distance between them. He stared at her hands, paused for a second, and timidly fanned his fingers. Slowly, he intertwined them with her own.

Naminé found the small act mesmerizing. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the sight of her hand in his. Were they even her hands at all? She tightened her grip to make sure. Unexpectedly, the smaller hand squeezed. So it did belong to her. The sensations hit her all at once: the warmth of hand, the softness of his skin, the firmness of his grip. She gasped, trying to fill her body with something more than disbelief. She couldn't believe what she saw and felt. Despite the clear sound of his breathing and the comfort brought by the scent she had grown to adore, her mind demanded the last piece of sensual confirmation.

As if sensing her doubt, Roxas used their joined hands to press her free hand against his chest. Naminé thought her fingers were shaking, so she pressed them down. But they didn't stop.

Naminé wondered why the harder she tried to control it, the stronger her fingers resisted the call for stillness. Realization replaced wonder when Naminé processed what she was looking at. Her fingers were behaving just fine. The shaking she thought she was feeling wasn't shaking at all. It was Roxas's racing heart, one beating just as fast as her own.

Part of her mind tried to deny every piece of evidence that pointed toward the obvious, but no words came out. His hand held hers. His heart adopted her rhythm. How could she deny either of their feelings when they were right in front of her?

Roxas placed his free hand on her hip. The lightness of his touch was so shy and innocent, as if he were terrified of being rejected. Naminé made no move to stop him. Soon his arm wrapped around her, pulling their bodies as close as possible.

Their eyes met. The passing seconds revealed how badly they wanted to say something— anything— to each other, but neither could string together the words floating in their heads. Roxas opened his mouth in an attempt to wrestle out a sentence. "Naminé, I…"

He was interrupted by the phone vibrating in his pocket. In the silence of the room, the less intrusive setting sounded like a pounding alarm. Roxas exhaled, but returned his gaze to Naminé with a smirk. Rather than ruining the moment, the distraction ushered in an air of comfort. Both of them looked down at the offender.

"Someone's calling you," Naminé said with a small smile. It was a stupid statement since it was obvious to both of them, but Naminé felt relieved over the ability to speak again.

Roxas freed his hand from hers and reached into his pocket. "Yeah, guess so." He took out his phone and, without checking the caller, threw it on the floor. It bounced a few times on the tile.

"Hey! Now I have another reason to keep you out of this room," Naminé spoke over the vibrating phone.

"Oh yeah?"

"You keep throwing things on my floor."

"I'll pick the chalk up later. Promise." Roxas moved his hand near Naminé's, which had fallen to her side. Their fingers teased each other into a lazy tangle.

"And your phone?" Naminé whispered. "You're so mean to it."

"That's what cases are for. Besides," Roxas said as he leaned closer, "I'm a bit busy right now."

"And why exactly are you so busy?" Naminé asked breathlessly. She couldn't believe the words made it beyond her lips. She supposed her mind allowed it to happen, if only to hear a certain set of words.

Roxas rested his forehead on hers. He slowly closed his eyes as he spoke, "Because I'm trying to convince a girl that used to loathe me that I really, really… really like her."

Naminé closed her eyes and sighed, feeling as light as a feather. She could feel Roxas's breath on her lips. She smiled, waiting for the kiss she so desperately wanted.

"Roxas!"

Both Roxas and Naminé opened their eyes when they heard Sora's distressed call.

"Roxas! Roxas, Naminé! This is really important!"

"Hold on!" Roxas called back. The frustration was obvious on his face as he parted from Naminé. He sent her an apologetic look before opening the door.

Sora thrust his phone at his brother. "It's Riku. He said you weren't picking up. He said it was really important and—"

Unsettled by Sora's urgency, Roxas wordlessly took the phone. "What?" His tone was flat and clearly annoyed.

Naminé pushed off the wall and watched Roxas. The moment was ruined, but something about the way Roxas's face changed sent her disappointment to the back of her mind. In seconds, he went from being annoyed and angry to utterly shocked and surprised. His eyes seemed to glaze over. Did something happen? Naminé wanted to ask, but Roxas seemed so focused on whatever Riku was telling him.

"When did this happen?" Roxas mirrored his brother's distress. "All right. I'm coming over. Stay with her until I get there."

Naminé stood frozen in place as Roxas handed Sora the phone. She didn't need to ask to figure out what was happening.

"I have to take the car," Roxas said to his brother. Sora quickly left the room to fetch the keys. Roxas then approached Naminé. He held her arms— Naminé thought he was going to hug her— but quickly let go and looked down. "I'm sorry. It's Xion, and I— I have to go."

Naminé felt like her chest was torn open and hollowed out. She felt numb and swallowed hard. "Okay," she choked out.

The memory of Roxas turning around and walking away burned itself into her mind. The pain in her chest was unbearable; it felt both heavy and empty at the same time. Unable to stand, Naminé dropped onto the nearby chair, staring at the door and wishing Roxas had left something more with her than just an apology.


Redeeming Endeavor: Thanks for the favorites and alerts! I got so many subscriptions, and I think LPA itself got more! It's incredible knowing that all of you are reading this :D

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Harmless Author Fact #22: I'm six feet tall. That's about 183 cm. I always notice people taller than me everywhere I go.

Chapter Data- Word Count: 9939. Total Editing Time: 1400 minutes.

Thanks again for reading, everyone. It's a pleasure writing for all of you. Take care, and see you around!