JUST SO YOU KNOW: This was a work two years in the making. Sorry if writing style differs or if things don't have continuity. The first two parts were posted, taken down, and now are being reposted. I'm just so glad I finally finished it that I needed to put it back up.

author's notes: This is a request by the lovely Ana. She asked for this craziness, people. Blame her! BLAME HER! …But on a more serious note, this was very difficult for me to write. I couldn't stop thinking about it, but at the same time, I couldn't get the words out. Scenes played in my head all the time, but I just couldn't write it down. Also, this is probably the deepest, most serious thing I've ever written, and it really upset me at times. So, yeah. This was hard. IT'S A GOOD THING I LOVE YOU, ANA. Enjoy!

thanks: To Suki! She helped me fix a lot of things in this, giving me ideas and suggestions. She helped me to make this so much better! SO MUCH BETTER! Many, many thanks must be given to the pirate mother. Also, thanks, I suppose, to the two major musical pieces of inspiration for me: Ebla by E.S. Posthumous and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Both are awesome and very beautiful. ;)

disclaimer: I don't own anything, man. Neither Kingdom Hearts nor its characters nor any other references to movies, songs, etc. that were (not so) secretly placed in this. If you can guess them all, you win! Well, not really. I don't own any fun prizes. The only thing I own is the story itself. Respect that.


. t h e . i n n o c e n t s .


"God, I just don't know what to do," he cried out as he leaned his head back, yanking at clumps of his dirty blond hair.

"Demyx, you just need to calm down." The Ferris-wheel car shook as he waved his arms about. My hands shot out and swiftly grabbed the bar in front of me, my knuckles glowing a bright white from squeezing just a little bit too hard. I grimaced. Demyx was forcing me on this ride. It was not my choice, and I wanted the most comfortable ride I could get. Shaking the seat was not included.

"Calm down? How am I supposed to calm down? She's here, Kai, she's here and she's with those two boys I always see her hanging with. I can't even remember their names. It's not important."

"Seifer and Rai?" I suggested, stretching my legs out in front of me. I scanned the area below, searching for Demyx's new love interest. He had a new one every week, I could swear. All I really knew about this one is that she doesn't talk much. A change from the ones he usually went after. Maybe this was going to be a change for the better.

"How do you remember that?"

"How are you so fickle that you find a new girl every week?" I asked, propping my elbow up on the bar and waving my hand confidently. He leaned back. The cars went round in their circuit. I smiled.

"Touché," he said, patting me on the back with a smile blossoming on his face. "But-"

"Fuu is different," I groaned, finishing his sentence easily.

"Exactly!" he exclaimed, a wide smile splitting his face as he seemingly ignored my extreme lack of enthusiasm. Demyx was always like this. Just excited. Happy. But I guess that's why he made such a great friend. He could always make me smile.

"Well," I said, drawing out my breath, "You could, you know, talk with her."

"What?"

"God, you can be such a baby. She's not going to bite."

"How can you be so sure?" Demyx waggled a finger at me. I sighed again, leaning my head back against my too-tense shoulders, glancing at the wide expanse of the sky twinkling down upon us. The dark blue hues swirled amongst the stars, casting a mysterious glow upon the ground. A heavy cloud shaded the moon from view. We didn't need its light, though. The bright colors and flashing lights of the Traverse Town carnival would definitely suffice to illuminate the evening.

"Fine, don't talk to her. Just let her run off. Again." I paused. "You know, lover boy, you're never going to get her if you don't even try."

"No, no, no! Don't say that!" His hands grasped his face, his fingers loosely pulling his cheeks down, revealing the watery pinkness of his eyes.

"It's true, though," I admitted, closing my eyes, trying to ignore the height.

"Well, how could a guy get your attention?" He asked, a hint of oncoming teasing lacing his tone. "How did the wonderful Mr. Sora Hikari get your attention?"

I blushed and struggled to conceal my grin, thinking of the day I first met Sora. I didn't really want to go into the details for Demyx. The story was kind of embarrassing. "Just… just play your sitar for her," I managed to spit out. Although playing matchmaker with Demyx was one of the more fun aspects of our unorthodox friendship, I despised talking about my love life. It was too complicated. Way too complicated. Most people wouldn't think so. But it was.

As our car made another round, sweeping past the crowd of people gathered at the base of the ride, I saw him there. How could I have missed him before? Or had he just come by? Either way, my heart quickened, sending tiny pulses throughout my body. Axel Chalmers always seemed to do that to me. Still.

It was like slow motion, I remember. The wind seemed to whisper through my hair, sending tendrils fluttering against my cheeks as our car flew backwards. My breath hitched in my throat. The carnival lights flashed in his too-green eyes, sending menacing sparks through my body. He smiled, his lips pulling over his teeth slowly, like the Cheshire Cat. He reached out in front of himself, and with one hand on the railing, he threw his long, lithe body over the barrier. The ride operator was scolding him. I could see her lips moving. I didn't hear it of course. I couldn't hear anything but my heartbeat pounding, pounding, pounding in my ears.

Quickly, he ran over to us. He was so fast, so nimble. We were rising in the air, our car was swinging, and Axel was leaping. He jumped, grabbing hold on the Ferris wheel, right in front of me.

He laughed.

I threw him an angry glare.

He laughed harder.

Before we could rise much higher, the ride operator slammed her fist against the emergency off button, leaving our car shaking and Axel hanging there like an idiot.

Great.

"Princess," he cooed, "Why haven't I seen you in so long?"

"Wait, you know this psycho?" Demyx asked, tapping my shoulder, impatient for an answer.

"Yeah," I groaned, "I know him."

Axel pulled himself up higher, and I watched as his muscles bunched and released, tensing underneath his lightly sweating skin. I tried to look away, but my eyes were fixed upon the sex god in front of me. I guess that's why I had fallen for him long ago. His charms entranced me, in both body and mind.

I shuddered as the memories sang their song in the spaces of my mind. He grabs my thighs, kisses my neck, whispers his promises in ear, I shiver, I want him, I want lust, I want love. I shook my head and opened my eyes. Demyx still looked flabbergasted, his eyes searching mine for answers. I ignored him.

"What do you want, Axel?" I groaned.

"You're going to go out with me."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"Axel, leave me alone."

"I'll let go if you don't," he threatened, releasing the iron-tight hold of his left hand. His right arm shook, the muscles contracting as he struggled to hold his body up.

"Just go out with him!" Demyx pleaded, his hand latched onto my wrist, his nails clawing into my tender skin with anxiety. Little did Demyx know- Axel didn't have the guts to let go of the metal bar. Just like he hadn't had the guts to break up with me properly the last time. Asshole.

"No," I said resolutely, crossing my arms in front of my chest. I smirked, my eyes glared, and Axel only smiled.

I watched as his fingers loosened their hold one by one, slipping away from the slick metal. Like slow motion, he fell. I could hear the screams of the people watching before they had even released their cries from their fear-coated throats.

"No!" I shrieked, forcing my restrained body to stand in the tiny Ferris-wheel car. My thighs pushed up painfully against the padded bar, the skin rubbing uncomfortably, like fire scorching my flesh. My arm struggled to reach down to grab his hand, to save his life. It felt like it was going to pop out of its socket. Kind of like how my heart felt.

He wasn't supposed to let go.

He wasn't supposed to do it. I didn't think I could bear watching him die in front of me.

But before I could say another word, he miraculously landed on a bar below us, his knee colliding with another one. I winced. The crowd gasped. Was that the sound of a bone breaking? He hissed through gritted teeth as he steadied himself again, the agony resounding. He gasped, then looked up.

His eyes were glazed with the tears of his pain. My heart broke again.

"I won't catch myself next time," he promised me, that daredevil smile back in its rightful place. I believed him. I wasn't going to take that chance.

I knew he was going to burn me again. When you play with fire, you get burned. But I knew deep down that I couldn't resist Axel dying. My heart couldn't take it. I loved him too much.

"Fine, I'll go out with you," I grimaced. Was I betraying Sora? No. No, this was just a date. A stupid date, only agreed to because Axel was going to kill himself otherwise. I hated how he could control me like this.

"I don't like that attitude," he yelled up at me. I couldn't feel my arm. Demyx was still squeezing too tightly. "You have to want to go out with me."

"I want to go out with you," I mumbled, my cheeks blazing with the flush of betrayal.

"What did you say? I couldn't hear you!"

"I want to go out with you!" I cried, my eyes beginning to well up with tears.

"Great," he said, "I'll see you next Saturday at nine."

The ride operator finally recovered from the shock of the spectacle taking place in front of her, and slowly, the wheel reversed its circuit, sending our shaking car back down the ground.

Before I could speak, before I could slap him for scaring me like that, Axel had run off into the crowd of the carnival. Jerk.

I shook my head, feeling way too discombobulated. I grabbed onto Demyx for support as we stepped off the ride.

I couldn't believe I had agreed to go out with him again.

I knew better than that.

"What about Sora?" Demyx said softly as he sat me down on a bench. I took a deep breath and rested my chin on my fists.

As if the whole event hadn't happened, the crowd walked past us normally. Small children were skipping past, clutching huge tubs of cotton candy to their chests. Their faces were covered in the sickly sweet substance, the range of colors different for each child.

I saw couples holding hands, giving hugs, kissing lips.

"Olette, I really wanted to get you the robot," a younger boy cried as he walked past us. His black hair was in a poof over his head in a style that wasn't really… in… style. Like it was from the future, or something. "I mean, the robot is definitely cooler. And if I had just thrown it a little bit closer to that last bottle, I could have gotten it. God, I can't believe I couldn't get it. You know what'd be cool? It would just be so cool if I could like, go back in time or something. So I could run behind the curtain and tip it over myself. Then I could have gotten you the awesome robot-"

"Wilbur, I love it," the girl exclaimed, "Don't worry!" She hugged a stuffed bear, and her wide green eyes sparkled. She gave him a peck on the cheek, and he blushed.

A pang of guilt, grief, anger stuck my heart. What about Sora? That was so very reckless of me. Sora and I were happy. Axel had broken my heart, and Sora had put it back together. (I hated the humpty dumpty analogies, but they fit me so well.) I should have just let Axel drop to his death.

Before I knew it, the couple was gone.

I closed my eyes, and folded my hands.

"I just don't know, Dem," I admitted. "I can't tell Sora about what happened. He'd be so upset."

Demyx sat on the bench next to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders with a friendly squeeze. I wasn't expecting him to give me any form of a plan. But he did.

"Okay, so you'll go out with this Axel guy this Saturday, right? And you just won't tell Sora… and then-"

"And then what, Dem?" I snapped as I threw my hands up in the air, exasperated. "He'll just do it again. Play with my heart, and throw me aside, cause problems in my life and burn me." Demyx was silent. After a few tense moments, I sighed. "Sorry," I apologized. "It's not your fault."

"How about I take you home?"

"No, no. We need to find Fuu. Let's get you your woman, lover boy."

He smiled and stood, offering his hand to help me up. I took it gratefully, and tried to push the event out of my mind. It was hard. All I could think of was Sora, stuck at work. He had been so upset he wasn't able to come with me. And when my mind wasn't on Sora, it was focused on Axel entirely.

"No, you really should go home, Kai. It's already ten, and I can… I'll just woo her later."

"You said… woo. I can't believe you just said that," I giggled, throwing my head back.

Demyx smiled as he gave me a light shove. "Let's just go."


Demyx had dropped me off in front of my house, and I stumbled through the darkened lawn as my hand rifled through my purse to find my keys. My fingers briefly touched the cool metal, and I snatched them up. Demyx was still parked in the street, waiting to make sure I made it inside okay.

I lived in a decent part of town, so I was never really afraid. Sure, there was the hobo-hut two blocks down the road, but I'm sure the deranged man was nice enough if his bloodstream was jacked up on plenty of heroin.

Naminé, however, my younger sister by two years, was still terrified of being alone at night. To be honest, she disliked being alone in general. When I was younger, her clinginess irked me to no end. I just wanted my privacy, my space, my life, and Naminé refused to give it to me. She was always following me around, like my own personal shadow lurking in the background.

But as I matured, I learned to give up the grudge and deal with it. She was my little sister, and I loved her. After all, she was the only family I had.

It seemed that after our parents had died, we grew incredibly close. It was ironic that Roxas, Sora's cousin, only grew close to him after he moved in to live with their uncle Cloud and aunt Aerith. They, too, had to cling to the only family they had left and they had grown closer because of it.

Taking things for granted was not something I was going to be doing anytime soon.

Naminé and I had to stick together. I'd never leave her. Ever.

I flipped my set of keys over in my hand, searching for the shiny silver house key. My eyes strained in the darkness to find the right one. I glanced up. The light above the door was out again. I'd have to go buy a new bulb, and the kind for the outside light was expensive.

I groaned, frustrated, but my slim fingers finally felt the key I had been looking for. I opened the door, turned to wave to Demyx, and stepped inside my house.

Naminé and I lived alone. Thankfully, our parents had managed to pay the house off while they were still alive. I was a sophomore at the university in town, and Naminé was a senior in high school. As children, the importance of education had been drilled into our systems, so giving up school was out of the question. We both only had time for part-time jobs. Our house was small. Quaint, you might prefer, but the honest truth is that it was tiny. We couldn't afford anything better.

"Hello?" I called out into the darkness. I took a breath as my fingers searched the wall for the light switch. I promised myself that I was not going to tell Naminé about what had happened either. She hated Axel when I was dating him. Granted, she was only fifteen at the time, but she hated his guts.

It probably had something to do with the fact that he was a jerk and that just so happened to terrify her. Or it probably had something to do with the fact that she was immune to the charm that emanated from his very core. Unlike me.

"Naminé?" I repeated. No response. Confused, I kicked off my shoes and poked my head through the doorway. She was sitting in front of the television, her knees drawn close to her chest. She had wrapped my pink fleece blanket around her shoulders, and she was clutching it tightly to her body. The lights were off, and her features were only illuminated by the strange colored glow of the television set. She was watching the news, of all things.

"Nam?" I said, and she finally turned around at the sound of my voice. Her bangs had fallen in her eyes, a distinct shade of forget-me-not blue. She looked empty… broken. "Are you okay? Did something happen to you?" I asked. The words felt odd as they escaped my mouth. Distant, somehow. She didn't respond, but turned back to the television, her eyes fixated completely on the pretty newscaster woman.

The television was loud, but I ignored the musical voice resounding from the speakers. I watched Naminé. She sat completely still, completely silent. It was unnerving.

"Naminé?" I tried one last time. No response. No reaction. What the hell was her problem? I took off my jacket and threw it, aiming for the sofa. It collided with the back cushion and tumbled to the cold linoleum floor. I groaned as I bent over to pick it up, intending to replace it where I had thrown it.

"Kairi," Naminé finally said softly. I dropped my jacket, and it fell to the floor again, flopping against the fake tiles. Her voice was as soft as the whisper of wind. "I'm scared."

She always felt nervous when I left the front door unlocked. I rolled my eyes and retraced my footsteps, making sure I had locked the door on my way in. My hand reached for the latch, but I stopped. I had already locked it.

I walked back into the living room, bending down next to Naminé. My hands balanced my weight on my crouched knees, my shoulders shrugged in the air. My long red hair flipped down over my shoulders, fluttering in front of my face. "Just tell me what's wrong," I said, frustrated. Wordlessly, her index finger rose up and pressed against her pale pink lips.

I stared at Naminé and followed her fixed gazed the faintly glowing screen. I sat next to her, crossing my legs. I focused my senses and opened my ears.

"President Leonhart is currently in an emergency meeting to decide our next actions," the newscaster stated. She tapped her stack of papers against her desk with an annoying click. A tendril of loose brown hair escaped her ponytail and fell against her face. She was so caught up in what she was reading, she couldn't move the hair away. "While we won't know what has been decided until the president makes his public address, we will keep you updated on what we do know at this time."

The screen blackened for a short moment, and the newscaster disappeared. It then shifted to a shot of inner Port Royal, our busiest merchant city on the western coast of the Nation. The word 'Replay' was glowing. The clock at the bottom of the screen showed that the video was taken about an hour and a half ago. People were bustling about the town, carrying their wares, tucking their wallets back into their pockets. It was incredibly busy for that time of night.

Then the screams began.

The newscaster's voice kept talking, but my ears had long begun to tune out her meaningless words.

The images etched themselves onto my eyes, burning their pictures against my mind. The first missile collided with the water. Groups of fisherman were standing by the shore and were blasted aside by the explosion. Their bodies soared through the air, smacking against nearby trees or collapsing into the sea.

They were dead before they hit the water.

"Oh, God," I could hear the man holding the camera say. "Oh, my God."

The camera shot panned out, rising up in the air. A second missile descended on the city, its tip colored a raging red as it sunk through the hot, cloudy air. More screams resounded.

My eyes widened.

My hands lifted to my open mouth.

I held my breath.

The second one exploded somewhere in the middle of town. Pieces of buildings shot out from the collision point, sending rock and wood flying through the air. The debris fired through more buildings, through more people. Bodies lay on the ground, the survivors screaming, scrabbling to escape this hell on earth. Mangled limbs were struggling to claw out from underneath piles of dead bodies and debris.

Three missiles, four, five, six…

I lost count as the event unfolded before my disbelieving eyes.

Again, the camera panned out, focusing on a fleet of ships floating off the coast. A missile's course directed towards them, but was barely able to be seen through the smoke. The screams were overpowering, only broken by the crash of another explosion shaking the city. I watched, horrified, my gaping eyes unable to neither close themselves nor turn away from the scene. The men on the ships, a strange combination of what looked like pirates and military men flung themselves overboard, their limbs whipping and twisting as they attempted survival.

The missile hit before they landed in the water.

Giant slabs of burning wood and red-hot steel jetted through the air, smashing into the bodies.

"Oh, my God," the cameraman repeated, his voice shaking. In his shock the man dropped his camera, and it crashed to the ground.

It was out of focus, but I could still see it.

A tiny girl's body lay beaten and broken on the dock. Her blood, spread over the wood, dripped through the cracks between the planks. Her fingers were still tightly wound around the arm of a ragged doll.

I watched, entranced, as fires ravaged the town, swallowing everything in their path. Smoke rose in heavy plumes, blanketing the sky in its heavy cover. Missiles continued to descend, continued to destroy.

Static rolled over the screen, the prickling sound grating against my ears, and then the footage began again.

I forced myself to tear my eyes from the television and look at Naminé. The tears rolled silently down her pale cheeks as she stared at the screen, equally entranced. My arm felt heavy, unusable, but I lifted my hand and covered hers. Her bottom lip trembled as she turned to me. Her mouth opened slightly, but the words were glued to her tongue.

She inhaled, swallowed, and said a single word.

"Why?"


I leaned over my scalding mug of tea, inhaling the aromatic steam rising from the cup. I let it roll over my face, slipping into my pores. The mug was chipped. It was little crack, just on the edge. Aerith definitely had enough money to replace it, so I merely assumed that it was some keepsake that one of them was unwilling to chuck in the trash bin.

I took another sip, and the burning liquid eased down my throat.

It was my third cup of chamomile, but I was still shaking.

We were all sitting in the kitchen. Just sitting. Sitting and waiting. Waiting for something, anything. Nobody dared speak; nobody dared talk about the terrible event that had taken place.

Naminé sat quietly in the wooden chair next to me, the blanket still draped over her shoulders. She leaned over her art pad, sketching. I didn't know what she was drawing, and I was half-scared to lean over and take a peek. She did it to relieve her stress. It was private. I shouldn't pry.

Roxas and Sora were sitting on the opposite side of the table, fear clouding their vision, making it unable for them to focus. I wanted to comfort them, but I couldn't get any words to fall from my mouth. I couldn't bring my body to move.

I glanced up. Aerith was leaning against the counter, and her long, thick braid had been thrown over her shoulder. It seemed she was the only one who had been capable of changing out of their pajamas that morning. However, thin tendrils of hair had haphazardly escaped the confines of her braid, forming a halo of sorts around her head. A blank expression shadowed her otherwise beautiful features. She turned towards the counter, poured another cup of tea, and slid it onto the kitchen table for anyone who was willing to drink it.

As she leaned across me, I saw that her cheeks were streaked with dried tears, hints of last night's makeup still sticking underneath her eyes.

It was obvious that she had cried herself to sleep.

The television was on in here, muted. A different newscaster was speaking, but I couldn't focus on what he was talking about. I couldn't focus on the images that were being displayed on the screen.

I took another sip of tea, and my eyes fluttered back to Sora. He glanced at me, his bright blue eyes sparkling with the tears that he was refusing to cry. They shone like rare sapphires sparkling in the sunlight.

Aerith stepped out of the kitchen wordlessly, her feet padding quietly against the tile. She refused to let us see her cry. I knew that's why she was leaving. Naminé scratched her pencil against the drawing pad. Roxas buried his face in his arms. Sora reached for the mug of tea.

The news channel began to replay the footage that I had already seen countless times. The images of Port Royal being destroyed burned against my eyes.

Cloud was there. Cloud had been in Port Royal. And nobody had heard from him. They had tried his cell phone numerous times, and it went straight to voicemail every time.

He was dead, most likely.

I sighed and closed my eyes, hoping he was okay. There was still the slightest chance that he had survived, but I doubted it.

I opened my eyes and watched as a single tear managed to escape from Sora's eyes, sliding down his cold cheek and collecting at the corner of his mouth. I couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't just watch him break down like this and not do anything about it.

I stood, and the noise from my chair screeching against the tile was overwhelmingly loud compared to the near silence we had been suffocating in for the past hour or so. Naminé gasped at the sudden sound. All three of them looked up at me standing there, their sad eyes staring at me. Wordlessly, I grabbed Sora's hand, locking his fingers in between mine. His hand was cold, moist. Clammy.

His lack of resistance sent the message. He needed me. Just like I had needed him when my parents died a year ago. He needed me now.

Gently, I led him up the stairs of their house. Our footsteps sounded unnaturally loud as they hit the carpet. We walked past the first door in the hallway, Cloud and Aerith's room. The door was shut, but it wasn't nearly thick enough to muffle the sounds of her crying.

Sora's room was the second door, across from Roxas'. We stepped inside, and Sora let go of my hand as he walked forward and sat on his unmade bed. I turned, shutting the door, making sure that it was shut noiselessly.

Pivoting back around with my arms crossed over my chest, my heart broke as I saw him sitting there. He held his head in his hands, his fingers painfully tugging on his thick locks of hair. I took a breath and forced my feet to move to him.

I plopped down on the bed, and my thigh pressed closely against his. His hands dropped down from his face with a flop, and I took them in my own, kissing his fingertips gently.

He looked up.

He looked… broken.

My arms slid around his neck, my skin tingling as my hands plunged their way into his mess of hair. I didn't have to do anything else. He broke in my arms, and his face fell against my chest. I pulled him close, held him against my body, stroked his hair, kissed his head.

And he just cried.

He cried so hard.

I had never seen him like this. Ever. It was strange to me, because Sora was usually my optimistic go-getter. It was one of the reasons why I loved him so much. And holding him, pulling him in my arms, watching him break down, wasn't something that I thought I'd ever have to do.

I shifted my weight and lied back, my head settling comfortably on his pillow. His body moved with mine. He couldn't let go of me, just as I couldn't let go of him. I pulled him closer to me, tightening my grip around his shoulders, and his face ended up pushed against my bosom. His fingers dug into my back, and as each sob racked his body, his fingers grasped my shirt tighter.

"Shhh," I cooed, gently stroking his bangs away from his face, revealing shining blue eyes, laced with dripping eyelashes. He snuggled into my body, sobbing heavily, but I couldn't stifle him. I kissed his forehead, and tightened my hold on him.

We lied there silently for a while, and the minutes rolled by. Every once in awhile, Sora would calm down and stop sobbing for a few seconds. But then as soon as he had stopped, he would start up again, his tears running afresh, much stronger than before.

I kept my eyes open wide as I stared at my broken boy, clinging to me as hard as he could. No matter how stubborn I was, trying to be the strong one, trying to pull Sora back together, I couldn't keep my own tears back. They cascaded down my cheeks as I cried for Sora. And as the moisture streaked my face, I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down before I even attempted to calm Sora. When I finally got my emotions under control, I inhaled, and began to sing a lullaby.

The melody sounded rough and unpolished as the notes poured from my lips. I wasn't a singer like Demyx, but it was the only way I knew I could calm him down. "Dearly Beloved", my favorite lullaby, always seemed to be able to relax me.

Sora shuddered in my arms as one final sob racked his body. He had finally cried himself out. I hugged him fiercely.

"Kairi," he finally spoke as he rolled over, staring at the ceiling blankly. His voice cracked. I covered his hand with mine, rubbing comforting circles against his skin with my thumb. Another tear escaped, the sparkling droplet falling down onto his plaid sheets.

"I'm here, Sora," I said. He tried to smile, and his lips quivered as they curled up slightly. His cheek dimpled lightly, but it was impossible for the smile to reach his eyes. "I'm here," I repeated. He inhaled and closed his eyes. I pulled him tighter in my embrace, wishing all the space between us would just go away, so he could be right here, right with me.

"I don't think I can do it again. I… I… I can't lose another dad," he squeezed my fingers. "I just… can't."

I knew this was the reason. My heart kept telling me, but my mind was just refusing to listen to it. I remembered when Sora told me why he was living with his aunt and uncle. I remembered it very well.

We had been lying on his rooftop, stargazing and wasting a late summer night together. Acorns had been digging into my back, and the shingles had been incredibly warm from sitting in the sun all day, but lying next to Sora, cuddling under his old Buzz Lightyear blanket… had just felt so right.

"My mom died giving birth to me," he had told me, out of the blue. I had looked up at him, and his eyes had been poised to the moon high above, illuminating his face with an unnaturally white glow on his tan skin. Without any prompting, he had told me everything. And even now, when I thought about it and how much Sora had suffered, it made my chest hurt.

His father had raised him alone. Sora had described it to me as being incredibly hard, living just the two of them, but he wouldn't trade his childhood for anything. He had loved his dad so much.

But when Sora had turned fourteen, his dad got really sick. Sora had tried his hardest trying to care for his father, but eventually, he became too sick for Sora to take care of him.

The doctors couldn't find what was wrong in time. Hospital visit after hospital visit. A new diagnosis each week.

And a year later, his father died.

The only family he had left was his mother's youngest brother, Cloud. Cloud was young. He had only been married for about two years. But he took Sora in. And both Cloud and Aerith grew to love him.

He became Sora's father, or, at the very least, a father figure. Sora loved him. He loved him so much.

And now he could be… he could be dead, just like Sora's first father.

"We're not sure of anything right now," I said, my voice sounding incredibly distant, way too harsh for the situation. I didn't know what else to say, all I could tell him was the truth. We just didn't know. Cloud could be dead, but he could be alive.

However, watching the bombing replay over and over again was not the most optimistic reassurance we could get.

"I know. I know that we don't know," he said. "I just can't help but feeling this way. I don't want to think about it, but it's all I can think about."

I reached over, wrapping my arm around his waist.

"I am so sorry," I murmured, my voice muffled into his chest. "I'm so sorry." My head tilted forward, stretching my neck so I could kiss his cheek. He smiled at me, and shook a bit as he fought back another attack from his sobs. He pushed on his hands, sitting up with his back against the headboard. I stood and walked to the window, my fingers running down the cool glass as I stared at the empty road, eager to see Cloud's motorcycle pull up in the driveway.

"Thanks," he said nonchalantly as he pulled his knees up to his chest, "for… you know."

I turned back at him and smiled softly. "No problem. Just returning the favor." He wiped his face with the back of his hand, rubbing his now-dry eyes.

I spun back around. I knew this was only the beginning of the problem, though. Sora had calmed down for now, but if they got any sort of confirmation that he truly was dead, it would hit them hard.

I thought of Aerith, ashamed to show her emotion in front of us. I cringed. When I had watched the footage the first time, I hadn't really thought that it would affect me, personally. I was truly appalled by what had happened, and yes, I was itching to know who was behind the attacks and what the Nation was going to do about it. But I hadn't thought my life would be affected directly.

I reflected back on the night before. Naminé refused to sleep alone in her own bed, so the two of us were squished into mine, our body heat sweltering underneath the covers. I found it impossible to sleep, and I couldn't tell you if it was because Naminé was pressed up against my body, or because I just kept seeing the dead little girl in the back of my mind. Maybe it was a little bit of both.

So I had just lay there the entire night, sweaty and sticky and uncomfortable, with terrifying images refusing to leave me be.

So Sora's call to me at about seven that morning hadn't woken me up. I had already been awake. I had ignored his apologies and had waited patiently on the phone line for his explanation.

"Cloud hasn't come home yet," he had said. I had pictured him on the phone in the kitchen, the green one with the cord, cupping his hand around the mouthpiece as to not disturb anyone else, although I had been positive that both Roxas and Aerith were sitting right beside him. They hadn't been able to go to bed either. Anxiety made that impossible for them.

"I'll be right over," I had told him, promising to make it there as fast as I could. Naminé tagged along, of course, because she adamantly refused to be left alone in the house. I had reassured her that no, we were not going to get bombed. Even though my promises were empty and I really had no knowledge of what had happened or even less of what was going to happen, I had to tell her something. But she still had insisted on coming with me to Sora's.

I walked back to his bed, sitting down as softly as I could without jostling him.

I had thought that this was a horrible event, yes. But I had been sure that it wasn't going to change my life. But it did. It affected me in more ways than I even knew.

A sudden rush of exhaustion seized my body, and I lied back down. As I rubbed my face against Sora's pillow, I inhaled his scent, a smell that was so comforting to me now. My eyes struggled to stay open.

"Go to sleep," Sora said, throwing a blanket over me. "I know you were up all night." I nodded silently. "I think I can go take care of Roxas and Naminé now, so you just stay here. Sleep." I couldn't protest; I was so tired. So I just smiled at him, holding his hand as he stood up from the bed. He tucked me in, kissed my forehead, and whispered a brief good night.

"He could be alive, you know," he said, speaking more to himself than to me as he stepped out the door, one foot just barely in the hallway. "He really could be alive."

I shut my eyes.

He shut the door.

Click.


I stood in the middle of Port Royal. It was old Port Royal, I knew, because the buildings and shops were still completely in tact and both merchants and customers bustled around busily. I walked past a bakery, loaves of bread and tempting desserts displayed in the window. A wreath lazily hung over the threshold of the door, sparkling with tiny glass ornaments. I smiled. It was Christmastime, my favorite time of the year.

I looked up and grinned at the huge expanse of sky above. Snow tumbled to the ground, blanketing the roofs and streets. I stared up at the sky, pulling my scarf closer to my face, and watched the tiny flakes cascade to earth. It was beautiful.

Then I heard the screams.

Then I saw the missiles.

I gasped and woke, disoriented, my body covered in a light layer of sweat. I peered over the side of the bed, my eyes struggling to find Sora's alarm clock on his bedside table. Did he just not have one? I leaned over and found it impossible to move very far. Sora's arm was wrapped around my waist, pulling my body closer to him.

My peripheral vision caught sight of a red glow across the room. There it was. I should have known. Once Sora actually feel asleep, it was nearly impossible to wake him up. Aerith probably made him place the alarm clock on the opposite end of the room, so that Sora would have to physically get out of bed before the alarm would shut off.

It was 3:52 in the afternoon.

I didn't want to get up. I wanted to stay here, in this bed, where I could pretend nothing had happened. And that life was still normal. But it wasn't. Not any more.

But it was especially difficult to drag myself out of Sora's warm bed, despite the whole me trying to avoid reality, since Sora refused to let go of me. Apparently I had been in such a deep sleep, I didn't even notice when he had come back in.

He had to have been exhausted too, if I was going to be honest. Like me, Sora had stayed up the whole night, but then his crying episode must have drained him even more. It still hurt me to see him like this.

I kissed his forehead tenderly, and automatically he snuggled closer to me. I scooted away before it would become impossible to escape his hold on me, and slid my legs across the bed and down to the floor.

Leaving his warmth was hard. A fierce chill shot up through my toes to the middle of my calves. I turned back around, tucking in the blankets that had gotten tangled and free around Sora's thin yet incredibly fit body. Sensing my absence, his arm reached up and grabbed his pillow, cuddling his face into its plush surface. His muscles tensed as he pulled it closer to his body.

It reminded me of… no.

I hadn't spent one moment thinking of Axel and how he coerced me into going on a date with him on Saturday. Too much shock from the bombing and a flood of anxiety regarding Sora and his family had prevented it from wiggling its way back to the front of my thoughts. And now it hit me.

I rushed out of Sora's room, feeling guilty that I was even standing in the same room as my innocent boyfriend. I shut the door behind me, feeling sick, guilty, like a traitor. I had to find a way to get out of this. My hand rose up to my head and my fingers rubbed against my temple before running through my thin red locks to tuck them behind my ear.

I sighed.

I'd just have to get Demyx to come. I'd make him. And if he didn't agree at first, I'd throw myself off a Ferris wheel. That freaked him out enough that I could bend his will to do anything I wanted. And besides, I was sure that he was dying to take Fuu somewhere. Actually, I wasn't even sure where Axel was planning on taking me. Thinking back on all the places he used to take me, I dreaded the moment when I was going to find out. Hell, I dreaded the rest of the night.

I hated how he still had the power to control me like this.

I ambled back through the hallway, my cold, bare toes padding gently on the thick, plush carpet. Aerith's door was still firmly shut. I hoped that she had calmed down. Hopefully she, too, had let sleep take her.

Thankfully, none of the stairs creaked as I trudged down them. My body still felt fatigued, and I knew I needed to get more sleep, but at least I was able to somewhat function now. I peered over the railing as I padded down the last few steps.

I saw a pair of small feet flopped over the arm of the old sofa, its toes curling back and forth. I walked closer, and my hands found their resting place against the back of the couch.

I had to stifle a laugh.

Roxas was lying on the couch, fast asleep. Naminé snuggled in his strong arms, her legs just barely dangling off the edge. I felt wrong watching as Roxas' face switched from angry and upset to bearing the lightest of smiles. Naminé's face was blank and expressionless. She looked peaceful, although I knew that when she woke, she wouldn't be at all.

I knew Roxas liked Naminé. She was a very likeable girl, after all. Sweet. Pure. Innocent. But I thought his fondness for her ended at friendship. I was proven wrong, apparently, by the tight, protective hold he had trapped her into. I just didn't know her feelings for him.

If Cloud really was dead (please, no), they were going to need to rely on one another. It was impossible to escape that fact.

My hands dropped from the couch, fingertips slipping down the worn material as they fell. I pivoted around, stepping into the kitchen. My mind buzzed. There were just too many things to think about, to ponder. I needed something to wake my body up, yet calm my mind. Did they even make something like that?

I walked towards the kitchen, planning on rummaging the pantry until I found something that would suffice.

Stepping inside, I gasped.

Aerith was back in the kitchen, her back facing me. She was sitting in the old armless kitchen chair, the odd-one-out. Sora had told me once that it was her favorite chair in the entire house because it was old, the paint was chipping off, and it tilted to the left. He could never understand it, but I could tell why she cherished it so much because I loved it as well. It had a story.

I leaned against the doorjamb, crossing my arms over my chest. My fingers fiddled as they tugged on the fabric of my faded shirt.

"Hi," I said, afraid that my voice was going to be too loud and was going to frighten her, but she seemed unfazed by my entrance. "Aerith? You should be sleeping."

Without turning around to look me in the eye, she spoke so quietly that my ears strained to hear her words. "The President is giving his address at four. I'm going to listen to it." She sounded terrible, like some other person had implanted themselves into Aerith's body. Her voice was usually sweet, melodic.

It sounded dead.

"Can I watch?" I asked as I pulled back one of the kitchen chairs with arms. She didn't respond, but she wasn't giving any sign of objection, so I took it as a yes. I sat next to her, trying to understand what she was going through. It would be outrageously difficult for me to be optimistic if Sora had been there, in Cloud's place. I would have refused to listen to reason, so I didn't try to argue with the overly calm woman beside me. Her nimble fingers weaved a pink ribbon through her thick braid, her nerves best settled by being busy rather than just sitting around. We waited for the television to start airing the speech, watching the clock in silence, desperately eager for four o' clock to arrive.

Because once the president gave his speech, I was sure we would know what the reasoning was behind all this.

I stood back up and got myself a glass of ice water. Aerith declined when I asked if she needed anything. She didn't need water. She didn't need anything that I could give her. She needed Cloud.

The channel that the television had been set on announced that the president would begin his speech shortly, and after three seconds or so of a blank screen, he was on. It wasn't hard to recognize the Nation's president, Mr. Squall Leonhart. A thin, yet very distinguishable scar carved its way across the bridge of his nose, marking him as the man we all looked up to, that we depended on. When he was first elected (it had to have been less than a year ago), some people criticized him for it. It said it made him look weak, vulnerable- not something that the Nation needed.

I thought it made him look brave. After all, he was an able foot soldier when he was younger. He had gotten it while fighting in the military many years before.

Leonhart made eye contact with the camera, shuffling his papers. He looked awkward standing there on his podium, flashing lights illuminating his face erratically. Public appearances weren't his strong suit, but he was a good leader, in my opinion. The First Lady, Rinoa Heartilly, took his hand, giving him the confidence to commence his speech.

"This is a very sad day," he began, the words drawling slowly out of his mouth. I grasped my glass for something to hold onto, my fingers freezing from the coldness. Aerith was immovable. "And I give my most humble apologies to the people of Port Royal and to those people around the Nation who may have lost loved ones last night."

Aerith gasped, fighting back another wave of well-deserved tears.

"'Why?' some of you might ask, 'Why did this happen to our lovely Nation?' The answer is simple, yet not something that I wish were the truth. Kingdom Hearts, our friend and neighbor across the sea, has decided to invade our country."

"No," I mumbled, unable to stay silent. "God, no."

"The Kingdom has been our loyal friend for many years. This is true. But unbeknownst to us, their leader, King Ansem, passed away many weeks ago. King Ansem was… a friend and ally." Leonhart stopped, trying to collect himself. "His son, Prince Xemnas, has now taken over the throne. My most trusted information network has told me that Prince Xemnas is not in his right mind, and that a hungry desire for the ultimate control has clouded his judgment. He has attacked our Nation. He wants control of us, and he will do anything to take it for himself and for the Kingdom.

"Their military is fierce and well-trained. We must not let old friendships get in the way of protecting those we love. Our home is being threatened, and we will fight back." He paused. "The Kingdom will be sorry they ever thought they could conquer us, because the Nation will not fall!" he cried, his voice resounding loudly and powerfully. The audience threw their voices up in cheers, clearly ready to fight back for the suffering that the Nation had already faced. The camera switched views back and forth from various people in the crowd, waving the Nation's flag and screaming their support for Leonhart's decision.

We would fight back, and we would win, I told myself confidently.

"So the Kingdom is behind it," a voice behind us said quietly. Naminé stood in the doorway, her hand resting on the frame. Roxas stood behind her, and it looked as if he was grappling with the decision to grab my sister's hand or not.

"Sorry we woke you two," I said, standing up from the table, nearly tipping over my glass.

"No," Roxas said calmly, "I wanted to know." Naminé nodded in agreement, and I noticed that her eyes were still slightly red and puffy from all the crying she'd be doing. She sniffed and rubbed her eyes.

"Where's Sora?" she asked me.

"Sleeping," I replied as I stretched my arms above my head. I had half a mind to go back to sleep, to curl under the covers with Sora again. I leaned against the kitchen wall and crossed my arms over my chest. Maybe a shower would be a better idea. I felt a little gross.

But what I really needed to do was call Demyx. I hadn't talked to him about anything that had happened.

And besides, I needed to trick him into accompanying me with Axel, wherever the hell we were going, and I didn't want Sora to listen in.

Naminé had begun to bustle around the kitchen, washing dishes at the sink. Roxas sat down next to Aerith, putting his arm around her and giving her a gentle squeeze. I stepped backwards, out of the kitchen and into the front hall, where my purse was. Reaching down into my bag, my fingers snatched my cell phone and pulled it out.

As I waited for Demyx to pick up his phone, I snuck into the bathroom, making sure to lock the door behind me. Nobody was getting any hint of what was happening. Nobody. I lowered the toilet seat cover and sat down on the plush, carpet-like padding that I presumed Aerith insisted on protecting the seat with. It was pink, after all. The only woman in the house had to get her way sometimes.

"Hey, Kai," Demyx answered after the third ring. It was evident that he was eating something; his voice was a stuffed mumble.

"Hi, you okay?" I whispered, shielding the mouth of the phone with my cupped hand. I turned even farther away from the door as I crossed my ankles, one over the other.

"Okay? I'm great!"

"How… how could… Demyx, you did see the news, didn't you?"

"News?"

Of course he hadn't. What had I been thinking? Demyx lived in his own world, not everyone else's.

"Okay, never mind for now. What's so great about your life right now that you can ignore the world around you?" I asked. I grabbed an emery board on the bathroom counter and started filing my nails. It was strange to me. It was strange that I knew somebody- one of my best friends, really- who had no idea what had happened. He was still living a normal life, oblivious to the tragedy that had plagued the Nation, to the new resolve to fight back against the Kingdom, to fight for the innocents who had lost their lives.

I needed to tell him, yes, but I was just going to pretend that everything was normal for a little while. It made me feel better when I created this magically painted image in my mind, a stark contrast to the reality I was living.

Maybe things would go back to normal soon. Eventually.

I still had to attend classes, I still had to watch out for my sister, I still had to go on that horrible date with Axel and relive those memories that Sora had erased for me. That's normal, right?

"Can you believe it?" Demyx exclaimed loudly into his mouthpiece. Ah, I hadn't been paying any attention to the story he was telling. Shit.

"Wait, what? Repeat the whole thing."

Demyx groaned. He hated when I spaced out, which happened to be something that I did often.

"So," he began, stretching out the syllable, "after I dropped you off last night, I was driving home and passed the carnival again-guess who I saw walking on the side of the road alone?"

"Who?"

"Fuujin!"

"Um… who?"

"You know… Fuu!" Without leaving me any time for a reaction, he started up again. "So I pulled my car over and rolled down the window. Apparently Seifer and Rai had really pissed her off, or something. The only thing she said about what happened was 'jerks'."

"What an articulate young woman," I joked.

"Hey, she just has a hard time expressing herself." I laughed, and Demyx just ignored me again. "Anyway, I convinced her that I could give her a ride home. And she agreed to go out with me. At least, I think she did. She gave me her number. That counts as something, right? I didn't even have to sing to her."

"Well, congrats, bud." Although Demyx's near obsession with this girl was laughable, I was truly happy for him. He seemed pleased, at least. And it did work out perfectly. "So," I opened, hoping my voice was coaxing enough. "How about you come on double date with Axel and I this Saturday? Bring Fuu along."

"Axel? Who's-"

"Dem, stop being so thick. He threw himself off the freaking Ferris wheel so that he could get my attention."

"Oh, yeah. Crazy psycho."

"Yeah, that's the one. Anyway, I just… I can't do it alone. He scares me. And I can't let anyone else find out. It makes me feel like such a… such a traitor."

"Kairi," he soothed, "it wasn't your fault. He took advantage of your kindness."

"Kindness?" I snorted. "That's not really the word I would use."

"Okay, so he took advantage of your lingering affections and the burning flame of passion that refuses to be snuffed out?"

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, that's more like it." I couldn't even tell if I was being sarcastic or serious, and that made me feel a little bit guiltier inside.

He paused. "You know, I'm not so sure we'll go… what if Fuu doesn't like the place that Axel takes you?"

"No, you are coming. My life cannot be made any more miserable right now. I am forcing you to come. I will kill you if you don't come with me." My voice was firm enough, so hopefully Demyx couldn't call my bluff.

"Well, fudgecicles, you're not leaving me any room here! I guess we'll go with you," he grumbled. I grinned with my victory tasting sweet as sugar on my lips. "Okay, now get to the point. Why can't your life be any more miserable? What the hell happened?" he asked, sounding rather concerned.

I took a deep breath. It was one thing to live through it, to watch the continuous replays on the television, to let Sora break down and cry on my shoulder, but it was another thing entirely to actually admit that the tragedy had occurred- to admit it out loud and in the open.

"Port Royal… was bombed last night. By the Kingdom."

"What? But… but… why?"

"According to Leonhart's press release, the old king had died a few weeks ago, and his son, the new king, basically is a megalomaniac who's hell-bent on conquering the Nation."

"Are you serious?"

"Why would I be telling you if I wasn't serious!" I snapped, unaware that I was practically screaming. Demyx was silent, contemplating, unable to voice his thoughts. "Sorry I yelled," I finally apologized. I uncrossed my ankles, and my toes felt chilled by the cold bathroom tile.

"I just can't believe it."

"I know. And what's worse is that Cloud was there. In Port Royal."

"God, I'm sorry."

"No, no. Don't apologize to me. I'm just worried about Sora and his family. It's been awful; they don't even know if he made it or not."

"Sorry," he repeated.

Footsteps pounded outside my door, and somebody was shouting. A door slammed.

"Hey, I think Sora's awake, so I'm gonna go."

"Okay. See you Saturday. Bye."

I hung up, snapping my cell phone shut. The bad habit that my father had had of never saying goodbye over the phone had passed onto me. I was still scolded for it, even though I was nineteen and long passed the point of learning perfect manners. Naminé constantly berated me for it.

But I just hate saying goodbye.

After a quick look in the mirror, tucking loose tendrils of hair behind my ears, I unlocked the bathroom door and walked out into the living room. Aerith and Roxas were outside, standing on the front porch, their faces poised towards the street's end. Naminé stood at the window, her hand brushing away the curtains so she, too, could have a good view.

She turned around, her face splitting with a smile.

"Aerith… she heard his motorcycle," she exclaimed, and it was all that I needed.

I grabbed the stair railing, and my arm felt like it was being ripped out as I yanked myself as fast as I could up the stairs. I raced up clumsily, my legs moving as fast as they could possibly go. I tripped on the last step, my foot catching on the carpeted ledge and I fell, catching myself by scrabbling against the bare wall. But it was really my knee plowing into the floor that stopped me from falling on my face.

"Sora!" I cried as I jumped back up, unfazed by my klutziness. "Wake up! Wake up!" I flew into his room and slammed his door open, my hair blowing around my face in a tangled mess. The door smashed into his wall, but he kept on sleeping. I rushed up to his bed and shook his shoulders. His head flopped around lazily, but his eyelids finally cracked open.

"Mmm," he moaned as he lay back down. "More sleep. Less shake-a-baby syndrome."

"Cloud's on his way!" I shouted as I yanked his hand up within my own, trying to tug him out of his bed.

His clear blue eyes shot open, and a twinkle of pure ecstasy danced in his vision. Hand in hand, we soared down the steps and jetted towards the door. Sora threw it open and sprinted outside to stand next to his family. I smiled and walked up beside him, the grass tickling my toes.

When Naminé first told me that Aerith had heard Cloud's motorcycle, I couldn't hear a thing. But now, standing outside in the crisp autumn air, the rumblings of the motorcycle's engine reverberated distinctly. How could I have missed it?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Roxas taking Aerith's hand in his own. Their hope shone like a beacon in the night. It was so strong, so powerful. Sora threw his arm over Roxas' shoulders. I looked back at Naminé in the window and smiled.

He was a blur at the end of the street, black clothes matched with his classic black motorcycle. It grumbled closer, and he sped towards the house faster and faster, louder and louder. He screeched to a stop and shoved the kickstand down with his foot and leapt off the seat in one solid, cool motion.

It was really him.

He had survived.

He looked weary and beaten, but he had survived.

I looked on as Cloud sprinted across the lawn, pulling Aerith into his arms, kissing her cheeks, her neck, her hair. Her knees buckled underneath her, and she collapsed into his chest, bawling. He held her closer, tighter, nuzzling his face into her hair. She gasped for air as she wept, howling and wailing against his chest, the tears gushing from her eyes like a broken faucet.

I had never seen someone cry so hard. Never in my life.

"I was so worried," she whimpered as she fell to pieces in his arms. He caught her and tilted his forehead down, pressing it against hers. His eyelids fluttered closed. Aerith's fingers ran a course down his chest, as if he wasn't sure he was really there, as if this was all a sick dream of hers.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

They sat in the damp lawn, letting the dew and the mud freely soak into their clothing. A grass stain already contrasted with Aerith's pink skirt from when she fell down to the ground, when she fell into Cloud's strong body. Her hands struggled to find a resting place; they seemed to be flying over his body, making sure that he was whole and in tact.

I felt my eyes welling up with tears, and I fought back to control my emotions. Sora linked his fingers with mine and held them tight. I glanced up at him as he allowed his emotions to run freely, the tears flowing gently and his smile glowing like the rising sun. Naminé had finally run out of the house, leaving the front door wide open, swinging back and forth on its hinges like a broken gate.

But nobody cared, really, or paid any attention to it.

We were all just too happy to see Cloud alive and well, back with the family.

"Shh," he whispered to his wife, stroking her hair back with his hand. He twirled her satiny pink hair ribbon into a tight swirl around his worn index finger. It was almost as if he was linking himself to her, making sure that nothing else would tear him away from his love. "I'm here." Aerith burst into tears again, clutching at his torn shirt, her fingers wrapped firmly around the material. "I'm here," he repeated, his voice low yet comforting.

Roxas approached them cautiously. I'm sure he was still in the same dream-like state as Aerith. He knelt down next to the couple and put his hand on Cloud's protected shoulder. With his free hand, he grabbed Roxas by the collar and pulled him near.

"Hey, what about me?" Sora complained as he stomped to them with his fists on his hips. Naminé turned towards me, showing a tiny smile nearly hidden by her long bangs. Sora continued his mock tantrum: "I was worried too!"

He plopped down in the wet grass next to his family, holding onto them with all that he had. Aerith started laughing as she cried, her eyes streaming with tears and shining with mirth. Cloud hugged his two sons. Aerith pulled away from Cloud for a moment, kissing both Roxas and Sora on their heads and hugging them tightly. Her boys held on tight. All three of her boys.

Aerith scooped Cloud's face in her hands, her bright green eyes scanning his features as if she hadn't seen him for years. His face was dirty, covered thickly in scratches and cuts, the blood dried and crusty on his skin. Her thin, tiny fingers ran over his cheeks, feeling every bump and crevice, memorizing his face as she had done once before.

Cloud stood up from the grass, helping Aerith up by her hands. He crouched down and lifted her high into his arms, and her legs dangled off his forearm. It was the traditional way that a groom would hold his new bride in our culture. Aerith gasped loudly as he lifted her up, spinning her around. Her braid spun around as they did, whipping through the air. Her hair ribbon snapped with the wind as he twirled her in his arms. Cloud smiled, and Aerith's high-pitched laughter rang through the air like bells.

It wasn't like anything I had ever seen before. Crying and laughing mixed together in a strange combination. Fear overridden by happiness. Joy shining through the darkest moments in our lives.

Neighbors in other houses along the street peeled away their window curtains, trying to catch a glimpse of the scene. I watched as the three little girls who lived across the street peered over to us, their eyes barely able to see above the windowsill. Yuna, Rikku, and Paine (if I could remember their names correctly) were triplets who looked nothing alike but had a common habit: spying on people.

My gaze whirled back to Cloud and Aerith in front of me.

"It hurt so bad," Aerith said as she pressed her body into his chest tenderly, inhaling his familiar scent, "being without you."

The sun hung on the precipice of the horizon, casting its multicolored hues across the earth. Roxas and Sora stood up and began walking back towards Naminé and I, appearing to want to let their aunt and uncle have their moment together. The orangey pinkness of the sun highlighted their silhouettes beautifully. Sora took my hand in his again, pressing his lips against my cold fingers. I turned and looked back one last time before we entered the house.

Cloud brushed his mouth against Aerith's pale, still quivering lips.

I turned back around, wiped my burning eyes, and smiled at Sora, the taste of happiness lingering sweetly on my tongue.

xxx

a/n: Reviews are greatly appreciated!