Author's note: Guess I forgot to update last month. Sorry guys!

Chapter Four: Reunion

"I'm Ventus."

The two simple words gave me a start. "The Ventus?" I managed, peeking my eyes open to try and see him but instead being blinded by sunlight. I winced and let my eyes fall shut again as the memories took over.

Just a few hours ago, my parents Aqua and Terra rushed to Castle Oblivion to check on their best friend Ventus, but he hadn't been there. Xehanort hadn't been able to track him down either, but here he was, just like that? Nobody found him; in fact, it was the opposite. He somehow managed to find me.

"The Ventus," he confirmed, still holding me bridal style as he walked. That was all he said.

"What the heck is going on?" I murmured, lifting a hand off my stomach to my head. The last thing I remember, I was in the Realm of Darkness. We had been battling Master Xehanort, Ansem, and Xemnas when Ansem sent me to that realm and deserted me there when I was too stubborn to accept his Darkness. I passed out there after being there for a while.

"We're in Twilight Town," Ventus explained. "I found you in the back alley."

"How did I get here?"

Ven's shoulders shrugged. "I dunno," he admitted. "I'm just glad that I found you. The Realm of Darkness is a scary place to be trapped."

"How…How did you know I was there?" The words were a bit slurred, my head pounding insanely. Weakness and the headache made me only want to pass out, but I couldn't give into that feeling. This was too important for me to miss out on.

"Long story short, I've been keeping track of Xehanort for a while. Aqua, too," he added. "Terra did a good job keeping himself hidden, though. So I know everything that has happened, what Xehanort wants with you, and who you are."

After hearing a lot of other crazy things lately, I didn't find it so hard to believe that Ventus knew me. "So, what now?" I asked. "Where are you taking me?"

Ven stopped walking. Sensing we were in the shadow of a building, I dared to peek my eyes open again to take a look at him. My blurry vision cleared as I saw the soft jaw and face that immediately reminded me of Sora. It was the same age—eighteen. But his blonde spikes weren't so large as Sora's and his hair was styled in another way.

His blue eyes, though, were what left me stunned. They were incredibly bright as he gazed down at me thoughtfully. "…I dunno," he finally confessed after a moment.

"My friends," I said suddenly, my blue eyes locking onto his. "We can go to them."

"I don't know where they are. I've only been keeping an eye out for you, since I had a hunch you would end up in the place you felt most at home."

There were so many implications to that. I felt most at home here, in Twilight Town? A place where I lived with a witch pretending to be my mom and verbally abusing me often? But she may have been doing that for you own good, a voice in my head told me. She may have been testing you so you were strong enough to face this trial with Xehanort.

Nevertheless, I didn't verbally respond or agree to this place feeling most like home. I don't think that I could have found my voice even if I wanted to; it suddenly felt as if I had no voice at all. And no will to try and seek it.

"Steph?"

All that I wanted was to sleep. Sleep was always a nice escape, even if I experienced nightmares. The nightmares couldn't get much worse than reality right now.

"Steph! What's wrong?"

I'd give into sleep.

"Steph! Steph, stay with me!"

The voice was too distant for me to feel worried about. It didn't even feel like that frantic voice was speaking to me.

Instead of staying, I left consciousness. Ventus realized at that moment where I needed to go.

*…*…*…*…*…*

Just like the awakening I had after coming out of the Realm of Darkness, I could tell that the air in this place was very different from the air of Twilight Town. There was a lot more Light in the air.

"I know this place," I mumbled to myself, certain I was alone. I lifted a hand to my forehead, my headache not nearly as severe as it had been earlier. Still, it took a moment for me to bravely open my eyes in case the pounding started again.

The light in the room was dim enough that it didn't stir up a headache, but bright enough that I could see that I was in a lightly-furnished bedroom. There was a dresser to the right, an end table to the left, and a bookcase across the bed with a reading chair beside it.

The room was obvious enough, but what world was this in?

I dared to push myself up. The drowsiness was the only thing that felt wrong with me; I no longer felt completely awful like I had when I woke up with Ven. Something big changed, but I didn't know what. That was why I needed to go and find out.

I made my way out of my room and found my answer as soon as I stepped into the familiar hallway. Maybe I wasn't in this hallway specifically, but all the hallways looked the same in this world.

Disney Castle.

Ven brought me here, I quickly realized. He was with me in Twilight Town. I don't even remember him bringing me here, or passing out in the first place.

I needed to find him; I needed to find answers.

Though my sense of direction was normally wrong, I went with my gut and walked down the hallway to the right. Even if I got lost, I was sure I'd run into somebody who could point me in the right direction soon enough.

But there was no need for that. As I turned into another hallway, I heard loud voices that I immediately recognized.

"Steph was brought in a little while ago," a voice said. That voice was obviously King Mickey's.

"Brought in?" Aqua repeated.

"She's here?!" Riku asked in amazement, his voice the loudest of all of them. "Where is she?"

King Mickey didn't even have to respond. The doorway to that room, which was a library, was open, so I stepped into it. In the room, I saw all of my friends. Aqua, Terra, Sora, Kairi, King Mickey, and Riku. None of them were looking at the door, though.

Tentatively, I cleared my throat.

That caught the attention of every person in the room.

"Steph!" Kairi cried, though her voice was a hoarse whisper and not a shout.

A few took a step closer to me, but it was Riku who quickly closed the several yards between us. His arms wrapped around my lower back as mine wrapped around his shoulders. Riku held onto me so firmly that he lifted me a few inches off the ground as he spun so his back was now to the door.

Though I partially expected to hear him whisper something in my ear, like "thank goodness you're back," he didn't. And he didn't need to. His actions spoke much more loudly than words could have. He had been so scared that I was gone. Now that I was in his arms, I realized just how scared I was to be apart from him. Everything was starting to sink in now that I finally had a moment to breathe.

"Steph," King Mickey's voice said from several yards away. I peeked my head out of Riku's shoulder, looking in that direction to show that I was listening. "You're okay now?"

"I think so," I responded, just loud enough for everyone to hear. "But…What exactly happened?"

"You were poisoned when you were in the Realm of Darkness," he explained gravely. "The Darkness got into your system. Fortunately, your friend knew that the pure Light of this world would heal that before it got to your heart."

"'Friend'?" Sora asked in question. "What friend could have brought her to another world?"

"The friend who is standing in the doorway behind Steph and Riku."

On cue, Riku and I released each other and turned to face the doorway. It became apparent then who King Mickey referred to immediately as all eyes landed on him.

"Ven?!" Aqua cried.

The blond smiled softly, lifting a finger and running it under his nose. "Hey guys," he greeted, happy but keeping his emotions contained because of the severity of the situation. "Long time, huh? You guys didn't age very gracefully."

"No kidding," Terra said, eyeing Ven with confusion. "But that's a story for another day. How are you…?"

"Awake?" he finished, receiving a grunt from Aqua in agreement. "I've been awake for a few years now." His gaze softened as he looked down at the ground. "After my fight with Vanitas inside my heart, my heart left my body and found somebody who kept me well-sheltered for about ten years." His eyes landed on Sora. "That person was Sora."

The brunet grunted in surprise.

"You don't remember, huh?" Ven asked with a small smile. "That's okay, you were pretty young. But I remained a part of your heart until you were fourteen and freed all the hearts within you to save Kairi. I returned to my body then, and, well-" He motioned to himself. "I've grown up in the past few years. I'm eighteen, same as Sora."

"Incredible," Aqua breathed. "That's why you weren't in Castle Oblivion. But how did you stay hidden from Xehanort? And why didn't you let us know you were alive till now?"

"I figured the longer I could stay unknown, the better. Xehanort was searching for me to recreate the X-blade, and I couldn't let that happen. Especially not when you guy didn't know who you were and wouldn't be there to back me up."

"You really thought this through, Ven," Terra said. Judging by his tone, he was clearly impressed.

Because of that tone, Ven couldn't the small smile that was forming on his face yet again. "I've grown wiser in the past few years," he said simply. "I didn't have a choice." His smile faded at that, as did everyone else's.

"So, Master Xehanort probably knows you're back by now, Ven," Riku started as he turned to face the blond. "Does that mean that he's going to try and use you to create the X-blade and not Steph?"

Sora intervened before Ven could speak, talking directly to the blond. "Excuse Riku for sounding a little relieved," he said sheepishly. "He just wants Steph out of trouble."

"Understandable," Ven assured him with a nod. "But anyway…I sort of doubt it. Last time Master Xehanort tried to use me, he split my heart into two. It took years for me to recover and for him to try and get his use out of me. He'll probably stick with his current plan because he believes the X-blade can be recreated without breaking the heart."

The silence in the room was, undoubtedly, more tense than it had been a few moments ago. So, it was set in stone, then. Master Xehanort was going to invest his time and effort into me so that I could create his precious weapon. But only after he gave me a Keyblade.

"I think it's clear what we should do," King Mickey said after a tense minute of silence, his voice softened. "Keep Steph here. Master Xehanort has no way of getting a hold of her while she's here."

"And in the mean time, the rest of us will go hunt Master Xehanort, Ansem, and Xemnas," Kairi finished. Hearing multiple hums, she nodded as well. "Sounds good to me."

Seriously? They all were deciding on this for me? They had to know by now that I hated being manipulated, even if it was for my own safety! "That's it, then?" I managed, eyebrows furrowing as I felt everyone's eyes land on me. Honestly, they looked surprised to see me speaking. They must have expected that I would go right along with this plan. "I'm here on the sidelines while the rest of you are fighting for your lives?"

Nobody answered me immediately. So I continued.

"You expect me to just sit here and twiddle my thumbs while you guys could possibly be dying?"

"We won't be dying," Terra assured me, stepping closer as he stood to the side and put a hand on my shoulder. "It's the six of us—assuming King Mickey will be staying here—against three of them."

"And whatever Heartless, Unversed, and Nobodies they summon," Ven's mumbled voice inserted.

Everyone looked over at him in surprise. "I know what Master Xehanort is capable of, more than anybody," Ven started. "He was my Master, after all."

"Ven-" Aqua tried to interrupt.

"And you guys," Ven shifted his gaze to Riku and Sora, "know what Ansem and Xemnas are capable of."

Riku's gaze went to the ground at the mention of Ansem, so his best friend spoke for the two of them. "Yeah, we know," Sora agreed. "And that's exactly why it would be best for Steph to stay here, where she's safest."

"She's definitely safe here," Ven concurred. "But what I'm saying is that whether Steph is here or not, Master Xehanort will probably get his way."

"So it's pointless to even try to protect her?" Riku growled defensively.

"No. It's pointless to try and keep Steph out of a conflict that she's already been pulled into." His response left everyone silent. "So let Steph decide what she wants to do: she can either stay here and train so she can be ready to face this when the time comes, or she can come fight with us right away. But it's her choice."

Once again, everyone's eyes went to me. I was too stunned to answer. I actually had a choice now? Lately, everything was chosen for me, by other people or by circumstance. Granted, circumstances only gave me two paths to take, but it was better than none. At the same time, I didn't know what to choose. "…How long do I have to think about it?"

Silence lingered until Kairi answered. "Until tomorrow. We all need to spend the rest of today and tonight resting up."

Not much time, but… "Okay."

"In the mean time, the castle is yours to explore," King Mickey said to the whole group. "The dining hall should have food whenever you want, and that's just down the hall. Bedrooms are down the hall in the other direction, to the right.

"Thanks, Your Majesty," multiple voices murmured.

The silence that hung in the air wasn't awkward, since people weren't just standing around. Terra squeezed my shoulder before he met the gazes of both Aqua and Ven. He jerked his head to signal for the three of them to leave and catch up, which was agreeable to my mom and Ven. The three of them walked right past me and Riku, though my mom took the time to give me a quick hug on her way out.

Next, Sora and Kairi left the room. They were a couple, so it was no surprise to me that they were heading off to be alone. That, and they were probably leaving so that Riku and I could have some privacy as well.

Knowing we wouldn't have privacy in the library where the King lingered, the two of us exited the room and headed in the direction of the dining hall. It turned out to be such an extravagant room, with chandeliers made of glass hanging on the high ceiling. The carpet was royal blue with the curtains being a gold color. This type of elegance wasn't what I expected in a world where the inhabitants were talking animals, but I supposed they were people too. Sort of.

They could make good food, that was for sure. Riku and I, apparently the only two to come to eat, were immediately served with plates of ham, mashed potatoes, and corn. It was like a Christmas dinner. Yet neither of us ate much; we just kept picking at it. The silence that lingered since our exit was tense now as we both reflected on everything that happened in the past few days.

"I'm sorry for worrying you," I said quietly as I played with my food.

"It's not your fault," he responded as he too fiddled with his corn. "But…two days…"

"Two days?"

Riku turned his head sharply and gave me a look. "Two days is how long you were missing."

My eyes grew greatly in size. I was in the Realm of Darkness for two days. I hadn't even realized that was how long it was…No longer I was in bad shape when Ven found me. I figured I must have been conscious much of the time; it didn't feel like I was out long when he picked me up. "I hadn't realized," I responded softly, looking back at the food.

He waited a moment before speaking again, deciding to fill me in. "After you sank into the Darkness, they all stuck around for maybe ten minutes before fleeing the scene. We haven't seen them since, not that we were really looking for them."

"You don't know, then," I said softly, swirling my mashed potatoes lightly.

"Hm?"

"Ansem was with me in the Realm of Darkness," I stated as Riku took in a sharp breath. "At least, his voice was, for a little while. He just kept telling me to accept his Darkness, that it was the only way to get out of the Realm of Darkness. Obviously I didn't give in. After that, he just left me alone, and I…I walked, for a long time, before I passed out and found myself in Twilight Town."

"Ansem…" Riku growled. His hate towards that man was apparent in just his tone; I didn't bother looking over to see the fury in his eyes. That wasn't something that I wanted to see anyway. "Figures he'd be the one taunting you. It's because of me…"

"It's because it's what Master Xehanort wants out of him," I corrected strictly. Riku couldn't place the blame on himself for this. "He's the one responsible for everything."

"You still want to fight, don't you?" he asked more softly.

I nodded faintly, staring down at my food. "I do," I confessed softly. "I know they're out of my league, but I still want to fight. I'm a part of this, you know?"

"Yeah, I know."

The conversation came to a halt at that point, with neither of us wanting to pick it up again. It was too tense. Too much to handle right now. After a few more minutes of playing with our food and eating bits and pieces of it, I decided that I didn't want to sit here any longer.

Slowly rising to my feet, I turned and set a hand on Riku's shoulder. "Let's go for a walk, okay?"

"Okay."

Though I didn't know my way around the castle, it wasn't hard to find the place that I had thought about walking to. A while back, when Riku first brought me to this castle to speak to Isabella in the Realm Between, we came out of a Gummi ship hangar and entered into a beautiful, lush garden. I still remembered…Donald and Goofy were in the courtyard as well, the latter sleeping while Donald quacked loudly to wake him up. I wish things were still like that, I thought as I looked around the empty courtyard. The air is too serious now that Xehanort is back. Even this world, where he can't enter, is far more serious than it was before.

When will this conflict end? And how? What things will need to be sacrificed so that Xehanort doesn't destroy the worlds? What people will need to be sacrificed?

My heart squeezed at that last thought. My footsteps came to an abrupt halt. These people were the only people I had left in my life. I couldn't survive without a single one of them.

"Riku?" I breathed from my spot.

My boyfriend, who had stopped when I stopped, turned to face me as he stood slightly in front of me. "Hm?"

There was a chance that I'd lose him. There was a chance that one of us could die, and I'd never be able to express my feelings to him again…I needed to do it now. "I think you should know…" I started softly, building up my courage. "…That I love you."

Riku's expression was one that I could read easily; the way his eyebrows shot up and his eyes grew faintly in size, I knew that he was surprised. Hopefully he was only surprised that I brought it up now, not thinking of how to let me down gently because he didn't feel the same way.

Of course, my fears of the latter died instantly when he lifted a hand and lightly brushed my soft brunette hair off my cheek. "I love you too, Steph," he said quietly. His eyes were just as sincere as his words, the honesty in their depths shining through to the surface.

A smile instantly spread on my lips. "I've been wanting to tell you for so long," I said softly, feeling Riku's hand intertwine with strands of my hair. "And I wanted to tell you now, because-" I cut off my words instantly, the smile fading away. Because it could be my last chance to.

Sensing what I was thinking, Riku leaned down and connected his lips to mine. It came without warning and seemed…different. The kiss seemed both sad and desperate. Though he didn't want to admit it, he knew that my thinking was correct. There was no telling what awaited for us in the future. The feeling in my stomach told me that the future was dark.

But when we won (because I was certain that we would), the light of dawn would rise over the horizon. The long night of darkness would be over and people could live without fear of their lives being swallowed by despair. When we won…Things would be as they were meant to be. No matter what type of sacrifice we had to make. It would be alright in the end.

After a good minute, Riku's lips drew away from mine. His face hovered right in front of me as both of our eyes remained shut. "I know, Steph," he whispered to what I was saying before. "I've been wanting to tell you too."

"Mm." I leaned up and gave him another, brief kiss on the lips before I returned to my previous position. "Well, I'm glad you don't hate me," I said lightly as a smile started appearing on my lips. "That would have been awkward."

The soft chuckle that left Riku's lips was music to my ears. "Yeah, that would have been bad. You're lucky, you know, that I had already realized my feelings for you."

"What would you have done if I said 'I love you' and you didn't love me back?"

"I dunno, probably pretend to hear Sora causing trouble and scram to beat him up."

I laughed, opening my eyes to see Riku smiling as well. "Poor Sora, dealing with all the abuse you put him through."

"Yeah, well, he deserved it for a while." Riku opened his eyes as his smile turned to a smirk. "That rascal always used to go looking for trouble."

"Funny…When I talked to your mom, she called you both rascals." How I remembered a conversation from so long ago, I didn't know, nor did I care. Riku's surprised expression was worth it.

"She did, did she?" he asked in amusement. "She probably did it to make Sora look better. He was always like a son to her too."

"Or she did it because it was truth," I guessed. From what I heard, it wasn't an exaggeration. Riku really did stick his nose where it didn't belong, even recently. I imagined it was much worse when he was a child.

"Quiet," he growled teasingly.

"Make me," I dared.

Unbelieving that he could actually get me to stop teasing him, I was surprised at how he chose to make me get quiet. He smothered my lips in a kiss once again, a bit of passion behind it along with care. How could I ignore a kiss that was so genuine? I allowed him to distract me as I closed my eyes and lightly kissed him back.

When he pulled back, I was silent. "Knew I could get you to be quiet," he piped as a smirk returned to his face.

"Quiet," I said this time. But I was smiling as I said it.

"Why don't you make me be quiet?" he dared.

Giggling, I did what he dared me to do. My lips connected with his again in a kiss that would distract him. However, I didn't hold it as long as the previous kiss; I was still breathless from that one.

I withdrew first, smiling up at his face as he remained silent. "Happy now? Neither of us came out on top."

"Really? I was thinking the opposite," Riku stated as his smile was sincere instead of teasing. "I thought both of us came out on top."

Instantly, I knew he was referring to both of our confessions of love. We were both complete with each other, secure and safe. "You're right," I agreed softly. "We both won."

"Hm," Riku hummed with a small smirk, running his fingers through my hair in silence. No more words were needed right now. We had both a lighthearted moment and a romantic one. It was everything that we needed to press us forward towards the battles that waited for us.

Everything we needed and so much more.

"Hey, lovebirds!"

Riku groaned, turning his head to look at a balcony where Sora was standing. "You know, Riku," Sora called again. "You really should get a room."

"He's just saying that because I said that to him a while back," he muttered.

"I remember," I said back, smiling at the memory. It was right after Twilight Town was covered in Darkness. Riku had taken me to the Islands so I was safe and the four of us—that is, me, Riku, Sora, and Kairi—sat around a fire as they told me about their lives with the Keyblade. When things got more lighthearted and Sora and Kairi were having an intimate moment, Riku called them both lovebirds and told them to get a room just for the sake of embarrassing them.

"What, no sharp response, Riku?" Sora taunted.

"You're lucky you're way up there," Riku hollered back up at him. "Otherwise you'd be dead meat."

"Well, duh! Why else do you think I'm taunting you? I'm safe here!"

"You're only safe until you come back down!" Riku responded with a smirk. "Watch your back, Sora."

Startled that Riku would hunt him down for revenge later, Sora wisely disappeared from view. Probably to go find Kairi so he'd be safe for a little while.

The only thing that Riku and I did was laugh at the brunet's silliness. Though this moment didn't seem like it should be anything significant, it was. It was more happiness than we experienced in a long time.

It was exactly what we needed and then some. It proved to me that even in the darkest times, happiness could be found and savored. I'd remember that lesson in the future.