~ Updated with a few minor grammar and spelling fixes ~

Roxas could only hear the pounding in his ears as he tore through the forest. The heavy thudding of his boots against the uneven ground and his crashing through bushes and brambles was muted entirely to him. Deep, even breaths kept him steady in his otherwise chaotic state. And a single focus on his mind. His target.

Where was she?

His hand flexed slowly, fingers moving towards and away from the palm of his right hand. The plan was simple. His usual strategy involved throwing both keyblade out right from the get-go. Both blades swinging. But Aqua was right. There was no need to reveal all of your cards at once. So he was going to use one keyblade. For a time. He just had to find her first!

He caught a flicker of movement to his right. Was that her? His first instinct was to go after her. Chase her down and get the first strikes on her. He repressed the urge. It was foolish to instigate a fight when your opponent might lay in wait, ready to spring a trap. It was difficult, but his instinct were honing. Rounding out for the better. He felt it in his heart.

He changed course, using a thick tree trunk to shift his momentum right with a kick. While he wasn't ready to attack, the movement was a lead on her location. Might as well circle around to make sure. He thought he heard the tree crack and grinned.

Another flicker. Same spot. It had to be her.

Before he could make a decision, the air in front of him grew icy. He threw his hand forward, Oblivion forming in front of him. He swung sideways, a searing heat he wasn't used to spiraling ahead of him. The ice forming on the ground and trees melted with a quiet hiss. She was definitely nearby. The range of magic gave him some scope.

He rolled to a stop and gave his surroundings a quick look-over. The pounding in his ears was louder, preventing him from hearing even the breeze shaking the foliage around him. He tried to calm his heartbeat. If he could hear even a crack of a twig-

Crack.

Roxas twisted around and allowed himself to let loose a series of small fireballs in the direction of the suspiciously loud noise. The blizzard spell struck him full force from the left, chilling him instantly and causing his limbs to turn stiff. He grunted as he fought the effects of the ice clinging to him. His very bones rattled from the cold and his breathing became sharp and labored.

He produced a faint heat and grew it until the ice had melted, steam wisping about from his skin. Warm again, he was back to looking around. There was another loud crack and he turned, tense, but didn't produce more magic. A single question was pressing into his mind. Why hadn't she followed up with an attack?

Her mistake. Roxas took a step forward and pushed himself into a run. He didn't dismiss Oblivion as he neared where he believed the spell originated. And this time the movement he saw was definitely the flapping of a cloak.

He skidded to a stop, spun around, pointed his keyblade and shouted, "fire!". Not willing to make a similar mistake, he kept right behind the ball of magical flames.

He was trailing the single ball of fire when the tip of a familiar keyblade appeared on his end of it. The ball was sheared in half as she cut down through it, catching his keyblade as he blocked. The flames licked around her, illuminating her features and causing her short black hair to shimmer iridescent with flecks of brown and red. Her countenance fierce, Roxas was all but engulfed by her determination. It sent a shiver down his spine. Memories of having fought her before surfaced, as they often did, but he fought them back.

Xion followed up with a series of blows Roxas blocked with some effort. He was forced to leap back after a fourth nearly shaved the hair from the top of his head. Xion didn't let him have even a moment. Her attacks were deliberate. Precise. Each one meant to do damage. She wasn't so much the raging tempest as the deadly lightning strikes hitting key points. Fortunately for Roxas, he was as much a mountain as she was a lightning bolt.

Gritting his teeth, he allowed her continued assault. When he ducked behind trees, she was waiting on the other side. If he rolled off a rocky ledge into some roots, she'd flush him out. His defensive capabilities were doing him well and he fought with every counterswing to keep Oathkeeper for a key moment.

Xion swung across at him and he blocked. With a surge of power, he pushed her keyblade away and snatched her wrist with his left hand. She grunted and Roxas just barely rolled away when her keyblade flashed into her left hand and made for his head. Another sudden cold overcame him and he leaped into the air as a jagged sphere of ice formed where he'd been and exploded outward. He caught a few flecks of especially cold magic as he landed and once again went on the defensive when Xion came down upon him.

After another series of blows and dodges, Roxas dropped down and swept his leg hard against her ankles. He caught her as she was jumping in response and she hit the ground after tumbling slightly in the air. She recovered easily and threw herself against him, locking their keyblades in a struggle for power. His bait worked. And he grinned.

In a fluid, practiced motion Roxas threw his left hand out and summoned Oathkeeper to it. Blades locked, Xion wouldn't be able to counter and attack like this. For all her determination, he thought, she still wasn't used to fighting a dual-wielder. And the fact she got emotional when fighting him was a bonus he felt bad exploiting, but was more than willing to capitalize on.

Before he could swing Oathkeeper her way, Xion detached from him and sent a blizzard spell into the ground without a word. Spears of ice jutted from the ground, sending dirt and other detritus rocketing into the air, working to obscure Roxas's vision on top of the severe chill that once again overtook him. He cursed under his breath and took an angry swing at a branch that was coming back down. Why did she always use ice?!

But he was grinning a moment later. She'd predicted his strategy. Of course she had. She was one of the smartest people he knew. Quiet and unassuming, but as shrewd as any of them. And always clever. Clever before Aqua had started teaching her. Now she was a force to be reckoned with.

With a start, he felt a sharp poke at his back. He relaxed a moment later and sagged.

"Gotcha."

Roxas turned to the girl and was met with a frown and a raised eyebrow. He smiled and stretched his aching, frozen muscles.

"You let your guard down."

"I did."

"You got distracted."

"Good thing you weren't really trying to kill me."

Xion kept her frown a few moments more before smiling.

"If that's what you thought…" She feigned thinking. Roxas could play along. He put up a face of mock horror.

"You mean those blows were really meant to end my existence? If I had a heart, I'd be hurt."

Xion laughed, but it sounded hollow to Roxas. He cringed at himself. That was the kind of humor Axel appreciated. He had to keep reminding himself Xion wasn't big on remembering times when they weren't full people.

Roxas looked around, grasping for anything to turn it around. Grinning he snatched a stick from the ground, brandishing it as though it were a keyblade.

"Come on then! Let's see what you're really made of!"

"Roxas."

"Hmm?"

"That's a stick."

Roxas frowned and looked at his weapon. He had a momentary surge of nostalgia as he pretended to scrutinize it. A mixture of sadness and happiness. Longing and content. It was such an odd feeling.

"So it is." He said matter-o-factly. Silence passed before Xion fell into a fit of giggles. A sound joyous enough to bring Roxas to laughter himself.

"Whenever I come around, you two are always laughing."

Roxas turned, wiping dust from his arms, and nodded at Aqua as she materialized from the thicket.

"What can I say? I'm a riot." He received a playful smack from Xion at that and grinned at her.

"Well, I can't say I'm really happy with how short a fight that was. You seemed a little dazed, Roxas. Is something wrong?" Aqua was smiling but Roxas could see she was worried as well. He shook his head.

"No, I got a little overwhelmed I think. Xion surprised me with that last blizzard spell. Thought too long. Didn't react fast enough." He shrugged. Aqua nodded.

"It was a good idea, keeping your other keyblade in reserve." Aqua said. Roxas bowed his head.

"I got the idea from your suggestions. Keep my cards to myself."

Aqua smiled wide and nodded.

"It was pretty good. I was anxious about it the whole time." Xion said.

"Anxious? I was worried I'd never find you let alone catch you." Roxas said. He made sure to include the pride he felt swelling within him in his voice, "You catch on to new thing fast. This is no exception."

"Thank you Roxas. It really means a lot coming from you."

The smile she gave him was sweet honey for his cold, weary mind. It made him light headed and he had to fight off a faint dizziness that accompanied it.

"I'm really happy you're both advancing so much." Aqua put a hand on either of their shoulders. "Come on, Riku should be done with Kairi and Lea."

Roxas followed, hands behind his head, and Xion fell into step beside him.

"It would be nice if you could advance past ice magic." Roxas shivered, "My bones ache."

"Here, let me warm you up." Xion latched onto him from the side. Roxas's arms fell too late as one draped over her shoulders and back. The awkward embrace knocked his feet from under him while he stepped forward and he stumbled. Xion stumbled, too and laughed as they caught themselves.

"C'mon Xion, warn a guy!" He said, but he was grinning. Xion grabbed his hand in hers. She didn't look at him as they walked forward, hand in hand, a shy smile playing across her face.

Roxas accepted the gesture happily. She sometimes did this. It reminded him of the time she had mentioned holding his keyblade was like holding his hand. He'd felt embarrassed then, as well as he could have at the time, but now he was more than happy to hold hers right back.

The walk back didn't take long. For all their running around, they never got very far from the palace where Aqua, Terra, and Ventus lived and ran their training out of. Roxas wondered if the others had actually finished. Axel and Kairi spent a lot of time training these days. But his suspicions were dashed after they entered the main hall and into a side room where the other three were taking their break.

Riku and his two charges were seated at a table already. Axel waved nonchalantly, not a hair out of place. Kairi, though, looked like she'd pushed through several days of training straight with messy hair and an impressive variety of scratches and bruises. Stains of dirt smeared across her face, arms, and legs created a topographical map effect amid a couple of swelling marks.

She smiled nonetheless as them as she brought a mug of something to her lips. Roxas couldn't bring himself to smile back. It wasn't fair and he wasn't comfortable yet with being here now when Sora was not. Especially when Kairi was pushing herself so hard. He felt Xion squeeze his hand before letting go and moving to take a seat.

"Kairi, you should clean up." Aqua frowned at her and Kairi shook her head.

"I'm not done today. Riku is going to take me through some more scenarios."

"Riku?" Aqua looked at the young man leaning against the nearby wall with a mug of his own. He nodded at Roxas and Xion.

"Yeah. She wants to do a few more course runs. And I think she'll benefit. I'm gonna take her into the field tomorrow. She's learning fast. Faster than that slacker." He looked at Axel and Roxas grinned.

"Come on! I've got a job too, now. I need some time for breaks." Axel only shrugged it off as Roxas rounded to take a seat by Xion, who'd sat far enough away to allow him space between her and Axel, and had a mug set in front of her. A faint steam rose from it, wafting a sweet smell through the air.

"Where did- oh."

A mug popped into existence before him. He grabbed it and was ecstatic to find it piping hot.

"New spell. The table creates a mug of warm hot chocolate whenever someone sits at it." Aqua said, taking a seat long enough to get a mug and walking over to a set of monitors to log the training for today.

"Aqua, you're an angel." Roxas said and took a long, deep sit. His tongue came away singed but his body loosed as the liquid warmed his frozen innards.

"How did it go?" Roxas asked Axel. He noticed Xion's eyes flick quickly to him and Axel before closing as she enjoyed another sip of hot chocolate. He found himself wishing vaguely for something salty to accompany the sweetness.

"She kicked my butt a few times, I kicked hers a few less times." He shrugged.

"Axel finally managed to produce water magic." Kairi said and Xion lit up, leaning forward and smiling at Axel.

"That's awesome Axel!"

"Good job, man." Roxas nodded, giving him a shove for his stubbornness. Axel only grunted and asked about their fight. Roxas allowed Xion to go into the details of their session. Riku sat down beside Kairi for another cup and remained there as the four of them began to swap advice and ideas for battle tactics. Roxas began to let his mind wander.

That was one thing he knew was different about him from Sora. Something painfully obvious. He wasn't a group kind of person. And he hadn't quite become close with anyone else outside of Axel and Xion.

Kairi was lovely, hard working, and passionate. Everything He admired Xion for, she had. It was no wonder Sora was fond of her. And Riku. Riku was more like Roxas than Roxas liked to admit. Quiet, determined, steadfast. Things he was proud of in himself were prevalent in Riku. But something kept him from getting closer to them. With Riku, he thought the awkwardness of their bad blood might have something to do with it, but there was no excuse for Kairi. He didn't understand. Thinking about it hurt his head.

The hot chocolate was gone before he knew it. He set the mug down and leaned back, throwing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. He was very tired all of a sudden and the thought of his bed waiting at home was an incredible image in his mind.

He felt a hard smack on his stomach and his eyes shot open, turning on the red-head to his right in fury. Venom on his lips, he was ready to let the man have it, but he burped loudly before he could say anything. It gave him pause out of pure surprise.

Axel stared at him, mouth agape and eyes twinkling with mischief. Finally, Xion's laughter broke the silence. Axel followed right after and the other two after him. Roxas looked between Xion and Axel with a mix of embarrassment and amusement at the situation. Xion had collapsed forward onto the table, clutching her own stomach as she broke down into deep laughs. Axel pounded the table, causing her mug to spill over and onto her clothes. She jumped away and tripped over herself, falling to the floor. She only let her head fall back against the floor as laughter continued. Roxas shook his head, the moment of panic as she fell passing as quickly as it arose.

He looked across the table at Kairi and Riku, who had gotten control of themselves unlike the other two, and were smiling at him. He raised an eyebrow at them.

"What?"

Kairi shook her head and looked at Riku. Riku glanced between Xion and Axel and then at Roxas again.

"It's just that you are a lot like Sora."

Roxas rolled his eyes. He didn't see it. As Axel, too, collapsed, Roxas felt safe in putting his arms up and hands behind his head again. This time, though, his eyes remained opened. His ears, too, as they drank in the joyous sound of his friend's laughter. And he cracked a small smile.