Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, or Disney.

A/N #1: This story takes place on the evening of Day 71, the day Axel returns from having gone missing after the events of Castle Oblivion. At this point, he and Xion do not know each other well yet, and Roxas has now been awake for twenty-one days after having earlier been unconscious for twenty-five days.

A/N #2: (Important) To all my readers, this is the last story I will be posting for the Kingdom Hearts section on this site. Why? I find that the more I post, the less people read them, and it is very distressing to know you put a lot of time and effort into a story that no one is bothering to read, only to find a story several lines down the page with lots of reviews that the author obviously didn't put any effort into writing. Stories that are most often written grossly out of character, and I can't continue to write for a fandom where the authors refuse to respect the characters Tetsuya Nomura created. I am sad to say that I am deeply, deeply disappointed in KH fans, though it mostly saddens me that my few loyal reviewers and readers, who have read every, or almost every, KH story I've ever written, even if they don't review, have to suffer for it. My last story called Reconnect not only did terrible in reviews, the hit count was ridiculously low, proving to me that no one even bothered to read it, and it's one of my favorites I've written. It's the hit counts that actually concern me the most. I will still write KH fanfiction, but I will no longer be posting it, just to let you all know.

Lingering Bonds

"All my dealings with Roxas give me this bizarre illusion of humanity." -Axel (Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days: Secret Report)

The castle was dark and silent, and to a passing traveler, most likely of the Heartless or Nobody variety, since few others were brave enough to venture into the bleak and dismal domain playing host to the headquarters of a group who called themselves Organization XIII, it was everything it appeared to be on the surface, a foreboding and lonely structure where heartless beings walked the pristine, greyish white corridors, passing through its empty halls like wraiths caught somewhere between the intertwining forces of light and darkness.

Lingering shadows of who they had once been, forever doomed to drift in perpetual twilight, the soft whispers of the heart remaining always just out of reach.

In the area of the castle known simply as the Grey Room, a room in which the surviving members of the Organization often spent their early mornings reporting to Saix before heading out on their various missions, the only sound penetrating the quiet gloom came from the moogle snoring softly in the left-hand corner closest to the door, an occasional mutter of "kupo" interrupting the surprisingly peaceful atmosphere engulfing the whole of the castle. The moogle's happy murmurs earned only the barest hint of a glance from the only other occupant in the room, a young girl dressed in a dark coat, whose short, black hair matched the colour of her outfit, and standing in front of the large window overlooking the empty streets of a distant land known only as The World That Never Was, her hands clasped comfortably behind her back and a soft smile on her face, Organization XIII's Number XIV, also known as Xion, stared out into the darkness of the city below, the eerie, hauntingly beautiful streets reflecting in her large sapphire eyes. She stood quietly, gazing out at the rain drizzling softly upon the tall skyscrapers looming in the distance, and though it was the middle of the night, she could not sleep, nor did she really want to.

Something absolutely wonderful had happened during the course of the day. Something truly amazing, and not surprisingly, it had been the talk of the castle that evening.

It wasn't really a momentous occasion for her exactly, though that was not to say she wasn't happy, because she most certainly was, regardless of her status as a Nobody, it was more of a turning point for a relatively new friend of hers, her only friend to be exact, who went by the name of Roxas, and the nature of what had happened made her feel strangely warm and fuzzy inside, a feeling she was sure she had never quite experienced before, though if she had felt something similar in the past, chances were she had forgotten about it.

After all, she did not remember her past, and though the thought of what might be missing from her memories often brought a small frown to her face, this time she chose to ignore those thoughts, focusing instead on her golden-haired friend. It made her happy to see Roxas smiling and laughing again, something he had rarely done since regaining consciousness only a mere twenty-one days ago.

Something he'd been doing quite a lot of since returning to the castle earlier that afternoon.

Apparently, according to Xigbar, who had been on a mission with Roxas when it had happened, the golden-haired wielder of the Keyblade had suddenly collapsed at the end of their recon assignment, just as they were heading back to the castle, though no one would tell her why.

Not that being left in the dark about what was going on really surprised her all that much, since she was, as Saix and the others were always quick to point out, a new recruit, much like Roxas, who also seemed to hover just outside the inner circle of the Organization.

That didn't stop her from wondering, though. What had really happened the day Roxas collapsed?

Xion secretly suspected Roxas had collapsed due to the fact that he had apparently been in a state of distress after hearing rumours, which turned out to be true, that the entire Castle Oblivion team had been annihilated, inlcuding a certain red-haired Nobody, whom Roxas could never seem to stop talking about.

At least, that had been the case before the Castle Oblivion team had failed to return from their mission. In the days following Axel's disappearance, Roxas had refused to allow the red-haired Nobody's name to touch his lips, and during those rare moments when he had to say his friend's name, Xion could not make herself meet his eyes.

So much pain, so much sadness. It was unbearable to watch, but despite how much the loss of Axel had taken its toll on Roxas, he did not seem to realize just how much he was hurting inside, something that should not have even been possible.

Roxas was a Nobody, like her, and yet there it was. Xion knew. That look in her friend's deep blue eyes was something she was sure no Nobody could fake that convincingly.

I can't explain it, even to myself, but he seems...different from the others...

Xion could remember teaming up with Roxas, resulting in what had become a close friendship between them, and the way he had talked to her about Axel after the red-haired Nobody had left for Castle Oblivion, there was no denying his words had left a huge impression on her. Roxas had chatted about Axel almost the whole time they had been eating ice cream together on top of the clock tower, and though she could not actually remember meeting Roxas for the first time, she did remember that day very clearly.

Since waking up, though, Roxas had barely been able to utter Axel's name without sounding suspiciously like he was choking on the very word itself, which was unheard of for a Nobody, and no doubt that was probably the reason why he refrained from mentioning Axel's name unless he absolutely had to.

Now, though, things were different. That subtle sparkle Xion had often seen glimmering in her golden-haired friend's deep blue eyes had returned in full force, the familiar glow hiding just beneath the surface of his sapphire gaze.

That sparkle had been there on the day the two of them had first shared ice cream together on top of the clock tower, ironically enough, only a day before Roxas had collapsed, and though she had missed that faint, yet somehow intense glow in his eyes, it was back again, burning brighter and more deeply than the beautiful sunset hovering over Twilight Town.

Lustrous and radiant, like the day he had talked about Axel. The day before everything had collapsed and news of what had befallen the Castle Oblivion team had reached his ears.

Xion had thought she might never see that smile again, but after returning to the castle following a mission in Twilight Town that afternoon, and apparently a round of ice cream, the smile had been there, unhindered and unrestrained, spreading out to all four corners of the castle, a nearly impossible feat considering the gloomy charm of their current place of residence, though apparently not for Roxas, whom Xion was sure could light up the entire World That Never Was with just his smile alone.

Why was Roxas so happy when only the day before he'd been utterly miserable, though he had hid his feelings well? Xion knew the answer to that question, as the answer was only too obvious.

Axel was back.

Xion didn't actually know the red-haired Nobody all that well yet, but from what Roxas had told her about him on that memorable day sitting atop the station tower, she could tell, during the days before the events of Castle Oblivion, that Roxas and Axel had been quickly growing close to each other, the bond between them developing into a strong friendship, one Xion could not help but admire and envy based on what Roxas had told her.

It was a bond the events of Castle Oblivion had tried to destroy, but fate had apparently been in Axel's favour that day, and because of the red-haired Nobody's uncanny ability to get himself out of trouble, Roxas was finally happy again.

And because Roxas was happy, she was happy.

After the two male Nobodies had returned to the castle and Axel had gone off to report to Saix, Roxas had come running to find her, babbling about his red-haired friend and smiling like she had never seen him smile before.

Before the events of Castle Oblivion, Roxas had talked about all three of them getting together for ice cream, and she had agreed, wanting more than anything to grow close to both Roxas and Axel, and to share in their bond of friendship. After all, Roxas had promised her that when Axel came back the three of them would eat ice cream together on top of the clock tower, and she had been looking forward to it, wanting very much to get to know Axel, who seemed to be every bit as wonderful a Nobody as Roxas.

For a while there, it had looked as if the chance would never come, but somehow Axel had made it through, and she knew Roxas would keep his promise, as she had been secretly hoping he would.

Axel...and Roxas. I wonder if they know how lucky they are to have each other...

Xion let out a soft sigh, and shaking her head in amusement at her own silly thoughts, (they were Nobodies, after all) she turned from the window, her feet carrying her silently towards the door. The hem of her dark coat rustled softly against the floor, and moving quietly so as not to disturb the moogle, she left the room, reluctantly heading down the hallway leading towards the bedrooms. Although she didn't feel the least bit sleepy, thanks to all the excitement over Axel's return, it was late, and like the other members of the Organization, she knew she should be in bed, especially since Saix would mosy likely give her a difficult mission the next day if he saw that she was tired or if he noticed any other sign of weakness in her demeanor and behaviour.

Saix was, unfortunately, rather evil like that, and thus it was important for her to get some sleep, even though she was sure it would inevitably prove to be a troublesome task. If she didn't, it would most likely come back to haunt her later, which was why she was reluctantly heading back to her room, though her rebellious side was still trying to put up a good fight.

Saix is always coming after me about something. I know he's strict with the others too, but for some reason with me he always seems to act worse than usual...

Pausing in front of her door, which was three doors down from Axel's room, Xion stopped with her hand on the knob, turning slowly to glance at the room across the hall from her own.

The room she knew belonged to Roxas.

For some reason, the door was slightly ajar, and growing curious, Xion hesitantly pushed it open a bit, her dark head poking around the entryway to glance inside. What she saw made her pause, her fingers slipping off the handle of the door in surprise.

Roxas was lying on the bed, noticeably asleep and curled up on his side, his deep, even breathing the only sound in the room, and sitting next to the golden-haired Nobody's sleeping form was Axel, who was gazing blankly out the window, the weak lights of the city below reflecting off his handsome face, making the teardrop markings under his startling green eyes stand out sharply against his pale skin.

The inky black fabric of Axel's dark coat blended in nicely with the shadows occupying all four corners of the room, and Xion had to look twice to make sure there weren't any Shadow Heartless skittering around just beneath the surface of the floor, their yellow eyes peering at her out of the darkness.

Next to Axel, Roxas had his hands curled loosely together against his chest and his golden hair glittered softly in the pale lights of the city, turning his blond tresses a faint silver colour in the darkness. The expression on his face was pleasant and his thick eyelashes brushed lightly against the skin beneath his eyes. He looked peaceful, and it made Xion feel good to see him sleeping soundly, something she was sure he had rarely done since waking from his deep slumber.

There has to be more to it. I know he was upset about the C.O team, but there has to be another reason why he lost consciousness. Something big. Something that had to do with what actually happened at Castle Oblivion, whatever that might have been.

Xion shifted uncomfortably against the door frame, unsure of whether she should stay or quietly slip away, but before she could make that decision, her foot accidentally scraped against the floor, making her freeze on the spot.

The sound was just barely perceptible in the darkness, so quiet in fact that most would not have picked up on it, but apparently Axel wasn't like the average person (or Nobody) because his head immediately jerked towards the sound, his body half rising from the bed, and Xion suddenly found herself gazing into his bright green eyes, which had narrowed at the presence of an intruder, his emerald irises glowing like the eyes of a watchful cat in the darkness.

A cat that looked just about ready to strike, if the fierce look on his face was any indication.

Xion sucked in a quick breath, caught off guard by his less than friendly demeanor, and for a long moment they merely stared at each other in the darkness, their gazes locked in some kind of silent communication.

"Xion," Axel said smoothly, sitting back down and inclining his head towards her before turning his gaze back to Roxas, his shoulders relaxing slightly and the tiny flames flickering around his fingers disappearing with a faint hiss. It was almost as if he had expected someone to catch him sitting there, someone he didn't want to see him gazing upon his sleeping friend, but instead he had gotten her, which, in retrospect, made her feel rather flattered, since it was obvious he didn't appear to consider her a threat.

But if not me, then...who? Someone else from the Organization, or...all of them?

Xion let her breath out slowly, and stepping hesitantly into the room, she made her way over to Axel's side, taking extra care to keep a slight distance between them.

She could not lie to herself, nor did she want to. She didn't know Axel very well, if at all, despite all that she had heard about him from Roxas, therefore she didn't know how he felt about her or how much he knew about her relatively new friendship with Roxas, if he knew anything at all, though she suspected Roxas would have told him upon his return. Thus, she knew she had to be careful, something she was learning quickly with regards to her fellow members of the Organization.

The others...they're not like Roxas, but Axel...he seems different from them too somehow. Maybe he's not exactly like Roxas, but he definitely seems more like Roxas than the others, and maybe even a little bit like me...

And it was that knowledge that gave her the courage to stand by Axel's side, close enough to invite conversation, but still far enough away to give him space if he desired it.

"Kind of late, isn't it?" Axel pointed out, shifting slightly and raising his eyebrows, his sudden movement causing the hem of Roxas' coat to drop over the side of the bed. "Shouldn't you be in bed like the others?"

Xion smiled at that, her sapphire eyes studying the peaceful face of her golden-haired friend. Axel sounded almost as if he were scolding her, and for some reason she didn't mind his light reprimand. It was different from the way Saix would often scold her harshly if he felt she wasn't performing adequately to his high standards, and for her that was a good sign, even if she could tell Axel was still a little wary of her. "I don't feel tired, and besides, shouldn't you be sleeping, too?"

"Maybe we both should be."

Xion let her gaze fall on Axel, and she studied him curiously from beneath her dark eyelashes, feeling a bit confused.

He seemed...somehow changed, was the only way she could really describe it.

Compared to the humorous, playful, and vibrant Axel that Roxas had described to her with great enthusiasm, the Axel that sat before her now was acting like an entirely different person. This Axel was quiet and serious, thoughtful even, and there was no hint of a smile on his face or a mischievous sparkle in his brilliant green eyes.

Something must have happened at Castle Oblivion, and she had a feeling the Axel sitting with her now had experienced some things that had irrevocably changed him forever in ways she couldn't even begin to comprehend. Maybe even in ways he didn't understand himself.

Something had opened Axel's eyes, making him question everything about himself in a way he had never done before.

She was sure of it.

There was no doubt in her mind that Axel would recover, becoming his carefree and humorous self once more, though whatever had changed him would always be there at the back of his mind, but as of right now Xion knew she had caught him in a moment of weakness, thus she was going to have to tread carefully if she didn't want to stain their friendship before it had even truly begun.

"Axel, it's late. How come...why are you in here at this time of night?"

Axel shook his head, the barest hint of a smile touching his lips. "Wish I could answer that myself."

Xion looked at him for a moment, and kneeling next to the bed, she reached out her hand to place it gently over Roxas' curled fist, her sapphire eyes watching his face. Beside her, Axel was also watching Roxas, and almost unconsciously, he slowly placed his hand against the sleeping boy's golden hair. Such a simple display of friendship, it was enough to bring a smile to Xion's face, and speaking quietly, she said, "I wonder if...maybe he's dreaming about the ocean."

Axel looked startled for a moment, and shifting closer to get a better view of Roxas' face, Xion felt his knee brush against her shoulder, catching her by surprise.

Once again, such a simple action made her smile.

The sudden physical contact felt almost like an invitation to encourage further conversation, and it was also an acceptance of her presence, a subtle offer pulling her into the bond of friendship she could feel resonating between the two male Nobodies.

"Why do you say that?" Axel asked slowly, his intense gaze studying her face.

Xion shrugged her shoulders, her chin resting on her arms as she gazed at Roxas' sleeping face. "I don't know. I just...being with Roxas feels strange to me. Kind of...familiar. Like listening to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore on some far distant land. It's not a bad feeling. It actually feels pretty nice..."

"If it makes you feel that good, you shouldn't forget it," Axel replied, gazing directly into her eyes. "Feelings like that are hard to come by, especially for us Nobodies. Keep it close, or you might lose it forever. Got it memorized?"

Xion blinked, recognizing the catch phrase Roxas had laughed about earlier, and beaming at the red-haired Nobody, she said, "I won't forget."

They fell silent again, both of them gazing at Roxas, and feeling suddenly shy, Xion made herself speak again, the words coming out as a whisper in the darkness. "He was worried about you, you know."

Axel let out a soft sound of surprise, his eyes narrowing in confusion. "What do you..."

"I'm sure Saix probably told you, but after we'd heard the Castle Oblivion team were wiped out, Roxas collapsed. He was unconscious for twenty-five days, and when he did finally wake up, it was...hard. He wouldn't say it, but...I could tell he really missed you. I don't think I'll ever forget how...sad he was..."

Something flashed in Axel's eyes, something so intense Xion had to look away, and realizing what she'd said, she suddenly felt embarrassed. "Listen to me, talking about feelings. We're Nobodies. We aren't supposed to have feelings, but...I don't know how else to describe it. His eyes...they were so haunted, like he just couldn't comprehend the fact that he would never see you again..."

Axel paused for moment, and shaking his head, he reached out and lightly placed his hand against the spot where Roxas' heart would have been, if he had still had a heart. "Silly, he would act like that, wouldn't he. They're so much the same..."

"Huh?"

Xion frowned in confusion, but Axel chose not to elaborate. Instead, he pulled his hand back and this time he let it rest on Roxas' shoulder, some unidentified emotion burning just beneath the surface of his green gaze. "That's some kind of heart he doesn't have, but...it's not really gone either..."

"Axel?"

"I guess I owe you my thanks," Axel said abruptly, ignoring her question and catching her completely off guard.

Xion's eyes widened at this, and gazing at the red-haired Nobody, she stuttered, "F-for what?"

"For looking after him for me while I was gone."

Xion didn't know what to say to that, but it made her smile, and feeling suddenly more confident, she reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently between her palms. "But Axel...I didn't do anything..."

Axel looked at her then, his green eyes gazing sharply at her in the darkness, and he squeezed one of her hands in return. "Don't sell yourself short. Just because it might not be obvious to you that doesn't mean it isn't obvious to the rest of us."

Xion felt something twist both painfully and pleasantly inside her chest, and before she could stop herself, she blurted out the first thing that came to her head. "After he woke up, Roxas wasn't the same as before. Axel, you have no idea how good it feels to see him smiling again..."

Axel turned to gaze at Roxas, and surprisingly he smiled, as well. "Actually, I think I do."

Xion believed him. As much as Roxas had missed Axel, she had a feeling Axel had missed Roxas just as much. Why? She didn't know, but something about Castle Oblivion hadn't let him forget his blond friend, and it was that something that had brought him back, allowing him to escape the fate that had significantly reduced their numbers.

And now...

Xion, unable to look at Axel, whispered, "Roxas promised me that when you got back the three of us would all go for ice cream together. You...don't mind, do you?"

Xion felt a sudden hand on her shoulder, and lifting her chin, she met Axel's direct gaze. The red-haired Nobody gave her a nonchalant look, his eyes sparkling, and said, "Tomorrow afternoon, after our missions. Don't be late."

Axel...

Xion scrunched up her face, trying unsuccessfully to hide the emotion in her eyes, and managing a shaky smile, she said, "I'll be there. You can count on it."

"Xion."

Xion frowned, confused, wondering why Axel had said her name, and watching her, the red-haired Nobody moved his hand from her shoulder, allowing it to rest on her dark hair instead, his green eyes becoming serious again. "What is it, Axel?"

"Any friend of Roxas is a friend of mine. Got it memorized?"

Xion got to her feet, and slipping an arm around the red-haired Nobody's neck, her head coming to rest against his shoulder, she whispered, "I won't forget. I promise."

They stayed that way for a moment, and pulling back a bit Axel shook his head at the sleeping Roxas, an amused and slightly exasperated look on his face. "Not even awake and he still has that effect on me."

Xion didn't know exactly what he meant, but regardless she laughed softly, nodding in agreement. "He does seem to have a way of bringing people together."

"Just like him," Axel murmured, his green eyes never leaving the golden-haired Nobody's face.

Leaning over the younger boy's body, Axel whispered something softly in his ear, and Roxas, though still asleep, must have somehow heard the words because a sudden smile slipped across his face and he shifted slightly, his fingers reaching out to clutch the fabric of Axel's dark sleeve.

Xion still did not know why Axel had come to visit Roxas, but judging by his actions, which were surprisingly tender and attentive, a sign of weakness she knew he never would have shown if any other members of the Organization had been present either than herself, she had a feeling he too was searching for answers, much like she was.

He was obviously very protective of Roxas, there was no other way to describe his actions, and from the way he was looking at her now, she had a feeling he would end up becoming much the same with her.

Roxas.

He was the reason why they were both there, why they had been led to that very room, and there was no denying the truth, even if Xion didn't quite understand it fully herself yet.

Roxas was everything to them, the light penetrating the darkness that had created them, the key to their lost hearts, the something that gave meaning to the nothingness they were born to be.

Xion knew she would never have quite the same bond with Axel and Roxas that they shared with each other, but she had her own place, one that was just right for her, a place that would always be waiting there for her, whatever might happen in the future.

And so they sat there, long into the night, gazing upon the face of their closest friend, and Xion forgot all about Saix and the harsh tirade both she and Axel would probably receive from him in the morning for their tired eyes and slow reflexes.

And although Xion did not know it yet, Roxas' heart, a heart shared by two, would eventually end up being the thread that tied them all together, and it was his light that would soon guide the way.

He would come, and they would wait, their bond lost but not forgotten, cracked but not yet broken. The heart that bound them to each other, the heart that would not let them go.

The key that connects everything.

And soon, all those who are lost will call his name. The name that had brought them all together, the name that had torn them apart.

The name that was their only hope.

Sora.

The End

"This has to have been what it was like, friendship."- Axel (Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days: Secret Report)