A loud clang rang out in the air as the metal of two keyblades collided. The weapons were pushed against each other, the larger of the two pushing with more strength than the smaller one. To avoid taking a hit, she ducked and dodged out of the way. The larger fighter lost his balance, but quickly regained it and turned in time to block the next coming strike. He kept blocking through multiple quick strikes, before returning a larger, more forceful one.
Not being able to react in time, the smaller one was knocked off of her feet and was pushed a few feet to the side. She quickly got to her feet and jumped back to increase the distance between them. She cast a small cure spell on herself to heal the damage done from the heavy hit dealt to her.
“Stay focused, Kairi!”
Merlin’s voice brought her attention to her sparring partner closing the distance that she had made, preparing another attack. This time his attack missed, as Kairi ducked below the swing of his weapon. Seeing an opening, Kairi swung her legs out at his, which caused the man to lose his balance once again. This time he could not recover and fell onto his back, but quickly bringing up his keyblade to block Kairi’s incoming strike. With his keyblade still pushing against Kairi’s keyblade, he used his freehand to push at the ground underneath him in order to get back to his feet, regaining his height advantage over Kairi.
He was easily able to match Kairi’s strength with only one hand on his keyblade. His still free hand began glowing red as he smirked, beginning to cast Firaga. Fire consumed his arm and he swung it at Kairi’s direction. A squeak escaped her lips and she slid behind him through the area between his legs.
“Hey no fair! Get back here!” he yelled.
“You’re gonna have to catch me first, Lea!”
“You’re gonna catch these hands if you don’t-”
Kairi and Lea immediately stopped at the sound of their teacher’s voice. Merlin shook his head at them, hands on his hips. However annoyed he wanted to seem, he could not hide the amusement on his face. “This is turning more into a game of tag than a training session!”
“Sorry, man,” Lea laughed. “I’m just not used to fighting someone so tiny and agile outside of the heartless.” He rubbed the top of Kairi’s head, messing up her hair.
“Hey stop that!”
“I told you you’d catch these hands,” Lea wrapped an arm around her to keep her in place while she tried to pry off the hand that was turning her hair into a mess of knots. “Get it memorized.”
“I suppose now is as good a time as any to stop. It is getting quite late.” The three of them looked to the sky to see the colors shifting from bright blue to orange. “I’ll begin making preparations for dinner. It shouldn’t take too long now. Come along.”
Kairi began to follow Merlin back to the house, but turned when she noticed she didn’t hear Lea’s footsteps behind her. He was still staring into the sky, his face stuck in an expression of deep thought. It was almost as if he wasn’t entirely there, possibly dissociating. She knew that face well, though normally it was focused on her when he thought she didn’t notice.
“Hey, Radiant Garden to Lea? You in there?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah. Go on without me.”
“Yeah, I’m not super hungry right now.”
“Alright,” Kairi sighed as she started following Merlin again.
It was strange. When she first met Lea, he was Axel. A Nobody. A person who had lost their heart and became an empty shell, hoping to fill the void inside of them. He tried to kidnap her and caused her a whole lot of trouble. She ended up being imprisoned by Organization XIII, and was rescued by Namine, her own Nobody, along with Riku, her childhood friend.
Axel and the rest or Organization XIII caused her and her friends, to suffer. However, Namine was able to inform her of the good that Axel had done as well. Axel was the one that helped Namine to do what was right and fix Sora’s memory. He had also sacrificed himself to aid Sora. She had wanted to hate him, but ended up feeling bad for him and pitying him. Besides, had it not been for Axel, Kairi probably never would have met the goal she had set right before they first met; to find Sora.
Axel somehow became human again after he died as a Nobody, taking the name Lea back. He came to Yen Sid to offer his help when Sora was in danger once again with Organization XIII. It was then revealed that he was to learn to master the keyblade alongside her under Merlin’s training. She still felt a dislike for him at the time, voicing complaints against it, but gave in and allowed the plans to be made.
Despite all odds, she found it really easy to get along with Lea. He was a genuinely good guy. Stubborn and hot-headed, those were his big flaws, but he was normally relaxed. The only reason they began to click so well is because Lea immediately took to treating Kairi in a somewhat familiar manner, joking and teasing her. It reminded her of life back on Destiny Islands with Sora and Riku, and how they treated each other.
Kairi sat at the table as Merlin got to work ordering the kitchenware to make dinner. As pots and pans came to life, Kairi swung her feet from her chair. Radiant Garden was where she was born, where she was now, but she felt homesick. She missed the sound of the waves on the Destiny Islands, the smell of salt in the air, the feeling of sand getting stuck in her sandals. Her friends…. She missed her friends most of all.
Yen Sid had sent Riku and Sora on separate missions. Riku, now a Keyblade Master, was sent with King Mickey into the Realm of Darkness to search for the long lost Keyblade Master Aqua. Sora, along with Donald and Goofy, were sent to the Olympus Coliseum. The others that Kairi had grown up were still on the islands, probably on their ways home from school if they were running on the same clock as her.
“It smells like it’s almost ready, my dear!”
“Hey Merlin? Do you mind if I take my bowl outside? I wanna make sure that Lea eats something.”
“And leave an old man to eat by himself?”
“Oh, sorry. I wasn’t thinking about that, I-”
Merlin let out a laugh. “I’m joking, I don’t mind. I think it’s quite nice that the two of you have gotten close. Go ahead, take two bowls. Just be careful not to drop them.”
Merlin picked up two dishes of hot stew and handed them to Kairi.
“Thank you so much!”
“You’re very welcome!”
Carefully, Kairi walked out the door and began her search for Lea. It didn’t take too long. She angled her head up slightly as she exited and spotted him on the roof. She managed to climb up without spilling anything and brought one of the bowls close to his face.
“I told you, princess, I’m not hungry.”
She pouted at him, bringing the bowl even closer to him. She had gotten used to him being stubborn and learned the best thing to do was to beat him at his own game.
Lea rolled his eyes and smiled. “Fine, maybe I am a little hungry.” He took the bowl from her and allowed her to sit next to him. Both were quiet for a long time as they ate. Food always seemed to taste better after a lot of physical activity. She was so focused on her food that it almost startled Kairi when she heard Lea speak.
“Hey, when you finish your dinner, I wanna take you someplace.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve been doing a good job lately with all the training, and when people do a good job they deserve what I call ‘The Icing on the Cake’.”
“We’re getting cake?”
“Well, not cake. You’ll see. Just finish your dinner. Humans need food to live.”
“Says the guy who nearly refused to eat.”
“Hey, it’s been taking me a while to get used to being human again! Give me a break.”
Kairi brought her bowl up to her lips and slurped the last of her stew with one big gulp. “Okay, take me to the not-cake!”
“Just let me grab something really quick and we’ll go,” Lea said, taking Kairi’s bowl from her and dropping from the roof, disappearing into Merlin’s house. After a few moments, he returned and climbed back onto the roof. On top of the casual clothing she had gotten used to seeing him in, she saw the black coat she had known to be worn by him back when he was Axel.
“What do you need that for?”
“We're going someplace else, and I don’t know about you but I’m not good enough with the keyblade yet to access the Lanes Between.”
“But opening up the corridors of darkness is dangerous according to Yen Sid.”
“Relax, using it once won’t kill us. Plus, you’re a Princess of Heart, so I don’t think you’re in danger anyhow. Now come on.” Suddenly, a wisp of shadow rose from the ground, and spread into a dark portal. Lea gestured to Kairi and then to the portal. “Ladies first.”
Kairi rolled her eyes, but made her way through the portal. On the other side she found herself in a place she had seen briefly but recognized easily. She couldn’t help but smile, remembering the people she met the last time she was here.
Lea closed the portal behind them as he got through. Kairi noticed that Lea wasn’t saying anything. He had that look on his face again, looking around and taking the sights in. Kairi couldn’t help but wonder what it was he was thinking about, remembering. This is where she came after escaping from Axel’s first kidnapping attempt, where she had met kids that were kind to her and tried to help her when she was trying to find Sora. What significance did this place have for Lea?
“Over there,” Lea finally spoke. He pointed to a spot off in the distance. The town was built on many different levels and heights, but Kairi could perfectly understand what Lea was showing her. There was a huge tower that stood over the town. A clocktower? “I want you to meet me up there.”
“Wait you’re not coming with me?”
“I’ll be right behind you. I just need to get our ‘icing on the cake’ first. I shouldn’t take that long to meet up with you.”
With that, Lea began to walk in a different direction from where he had told Kairi to go. Kairi huffed at him for being so secretive about it, but since he was her ticket to get back to Radiant Garden she knew she probably shouldn’t fight him. She turned back to face that big tower and began making her way for it.
The walk didn’t take too long. Kairi found herself standing at a train station which made the base of the clocktower. Eventually she made her way up to a ledge that was right by the clock face. She didn’t know how long she would be waiting at this point and sat down on the ledge, swinging her feet over so that they dangled in the open air. It was like how she would sit on the tree on the Destiny Islands. She closed her eyes and felt the wind blow at her face.
“Careful you don’t fall, princess,” Lea brought her back to reality. She opened her eyes again to see him walking past her to sit on her right side, as if it were natural to him. One leg dangled and the other was bent so the bottom of his foot rested against the structure. He looked to Kairi and smiled, handing her what he’d been holding in one of his hands.
“Ice cream?” Kairi mused.
“Yep. It’s not just any ice cream, either.”
Brow furrowed, Kairi inspected it, eyes scanning the ice cream. It looked like a blue popsicle in all honesty. She brought it to her mouth and took a small bite.
“Sea-salt ice cream?”
Lea nodded. “It’s my favorite. The perfect combination of salty and sweet flavors mixed into one delicious final product.”
“You know Scrooge sells sea-salt ice cream in Radiant Garden, right? We didn’t need to come all the way out here.”
“True, but it’s just not the same for me.” Lea took a bit of his own ice cream, looking more content that Kairi had ever seen him. “I don’t know if they just make it taste better here, or if it’s because…”
“Because?” Now he had Kairi’s attention.
Lea sighed. “Well, back when I was a Nobody and part of the Organization, I used to come here all the time. Whenever I finished a mission I’d get some ice cream as a little reward. Twilight Town always looks so peaceful, and the view from up here is amazing.” He paused and ran a hair through his hair before speaking again.
“The organization added a new member, our thirteenth. His name was Roxas. He was like a zombie when I first met him, only able to comprehend so much and just did as he was told. They made me babysitter for him at times, and it was annoying at times. The kid ended up growing on me though, so I brought him up here one day.”
“They tell you about him?”
“I actually met him… somewhat.” Lea’s eyes were fixated on her, wide and intense. “He didn’t have a physical form. He came out of Sora. I was able to talk with him and Namine with Sora. It was right before they… joined us.” Her fingers intertwined, still holding onto the popsicle. “Namine returned to me, and Roxas went back to being part of Sora. I told them they’d be together forever since me and Sora would be together everyday, though I guess we ended up breaking that promise.”
Nodding, Lea took that information in. “Roxas… he was my best friend.”
Kairi’s head shot back up to look at Lea. He was staring off into the distance again.
“Like I said, he was weird at first. But eventually he became more like a person, developed a personality. He was really good company, and it made me remember what it was like to have someone you really cared about. Someone you wanted to be around, to keep safe.
“Even as a Nobody, he talked like someone who had his own heart. He was adamant in his emotions, to the point where it even made me question if I had a heart as well. The kid was capable of making me feel happy, and he was even able to make me cry and get angry.”
“On one hand, it was nice to have that connection again with someone. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of my falling out with Isa. Before Roxas, he was the person closest to me. Man, I really cared for him, loved him even. We fell apart because he became a completely different person over time, though.”
“Isa… that’s one of the guys in the new Organization?”
“If I had known about him being part Xehanort at the time… to be honest I don’t know if there was anything I could do anyway.”
Silence resounded as they ate their ice cream as it started to melt. Lea was right about the view from the clocktower. It really was amazing up there, seeing all of the people below on their ways home from a long day of work or school. Vaguely, she could make out the shapes and colors of Hayner, Olette, and Pence running to their little hideout.
A sharp pain in her heart. How long had it been since she spoke with Tidus? Wakka? Selphie? She had left all of them behind when coming to train with Merlin and Lea. It had to have been weeks at this point, maybe a month or more. Even so, she couldn’t start to compare her hurt to Lea’s.
“Sora… he thinks what happened to Roxas was unfair.” Lea had no response, so Kairi continued. “He’s determined to figure out a way for the both of them to exist. If there’s anything I know about Sora, it’s that if he sets a goal, he can do it. So, I believe you’ll get to see Roxas again some day.”
Lea’s face was contemplating again, and Kairi wasn’t sure if her words were reaching him. She took a few more bites of her ice cream, licked at her fingers when drops melted down the popsicle. The second she felt eyes on her, she looked back at Lea.
“I… nothing. Forget it.”
“You do that a lot you know, staring at me like that.”
“Yeah,” Kairi giggled. “It’s always obvious too. Is it because you miss him?”
“In all honesty, it’s something else.”
“From the moment I met you on the Destiny Islands, looking at you… I don’t know how to put it. Your face makes me feel like I’m remembering something, but that memory is empty. It’s void of any actual content, but I’ll look at you and feel my brain picking at memories that just aren’t there. It’s kind of frustrating.”
“Hm… well, we both grew up in Radiant Garden. Maybe we met one time, but it was brief or small enough for you to forget, but you still remember that we met.”
“I don’t think that’s it. If it was a memory specifically of you, I feel like at least your face would show up. The way you looked as a kid. But I don’t see that. It’s… It’s weird.”
“Hm… maybe when Namine messed with Sora’s memory, she accidentally did something to your memory as well.”
“Maybe,” Lea mused. “I doubt that’s what happened, but if my memory was messed with I guess I can’t really argue with you.” Suddenly, Kairi had to bring a hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh to Lea’s confusion. “Well, I’m glad you find my dilemma amusing I guess.”
“No it’s not that I’m laughing at you,” she said between giggles. “I just.. I just thought of something.”
“Oh? You willing to share?”
“I guess,” Kairi struggled to say without laughing, “you didn’t get it memorized.”
Lea opened his mouth as if he were going to reply to that, but no sound came out. Instead, he just squinted at Kairi as she continued to laugh, clearly amused by her own joke.
“Do I really say it that often?”
“Ooooh yeah. You say it all the time.”
Calmed down but still softly chuckling, Kairi took another bite out of the ice cream, Lea following suit and taking a bite out of his own. The silences as they ate no longer felt awkward, instead offering a feeling of security in the trust they had begun to hold in each other. There was no need to try and fill the pauses in speech unless they thought of something worthwhile to say. Once again, Kairi remembered the time she spent with Riku and Sora on the islands, where they could spend hours together without saying anything. Before Yen Sid called for the boys to take the Mark of Mastery Exam, it was the first time in over a year that she was able to be with either of them at their childhood home. Their first day where they were all together again, they simply laid in the sand, and she was happy to be able to just feel her hands in theirs. To hear their breathing. Just to see the three of them reunited again.
Pain. There was an ache in her heart, and her hand came up to her chest to try and get it to stop. She missed them so much. The time she had to be with them again hadn’t been long enough. It wasn’t just that she missed them, either. She cared about them with her full being. She loved them both.
“You grew up by the beach, right?”
Lea smiled. “Me and Roxas. We had made a promise to each other that one day, on the next day we got off from work in the Organization, we’d go to the beach. He was really set on that.” He licked the last of his ice cream off of the stick, watching as the sun started to set behind the trees of the forest. “I know it was a silly little thing but… I really did want to go with him. If Sora really is able to save him and bring him back, that’s the first thing on my to do list.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, before our world disappeared originally and we got swept into all this, we had a goal to leave our island. We wanted to see other places, other worlds. Sora talked about how he wanted to see if we could find my old home from before I lost my memory and appeared on the islands. Riku felt constricted on the island and wanted to be free to travel. Basically, our plan was to one day leave the beach.”
“Huh. So we had the opposite goals? That’s kind of funny.”
Though the plans of their groups had been opposing, the feelings that Lea and Kairi felt were the same. Both of them had experienced excruciating pain and loss. Kairi had lost Sora and Riku, along with her own heart for a time. Lea had also lost his heart along with his own best friend. They had grieved, they both were hurting. Slowly and surely, however, they were healing. Kairi was learning to trust in Lea and to fight for herself so she could stand with the boys didn’t want to lose ever again. Lea was learning to be hopeful again and have faith in a good future.
The sky was turning from a deep orange, shifting in shades and becoming darker as night began to appear. Blowing a cooler breeze, the wind blew harder at the two of them, send their hair to the side. Lea pocketed his popsicle stick and swung his legs back to the safety of the ledge and stood, offering his hand to Kairi. She nodded and took hold as he helped her to get to her feet as well.
“We should head back to Radiant Garden before it gets too late,” Lea said as he headed toward to leave the clocktower. “I don’t know about you, but I need my beauty sleep.”
“Hey, Lea?” Kairi called. Lea hummed in response as he turned to face her as she still stood in front of the clock tower’s face.
“Thank you for sharing this with me.”
“It’s no problem. Now come on, it’s getting cold and you don’t have a jacket and I refuse to take responsibility if you get sick.”
Kairi smiled as Lea turned back to leave, running to catch up with him. She was homesick, and it was clear that he was as well. At the very least, they could be there for each other to lessen the pain and make each other smile. To make each day something to look forward to until their loved ones could come back home.