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Dreamers Ignite

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The first thing Merida knew was a kind of sleepy weightlessness. Like those moments where she wasn't quite awake and no longer asleep. That place that was sort of in-between. The trouble was that it seemed to stretch on for a long time. Too long. She tried to move, just little, but nothing happened. From somewhere off in the distance, she thought she could just make out the sound of muffled voices. What was going on?

The world seemed to shudder and a light appeared behind her eyelids. When she blinked them open, she was nearly blinded by how bright everything suddenly was. Wincing, she held up a hand to shield her face. That was when she saw the strange golden sparkles that dripped from her fingertips. Checking herself through squinting eyes, she quickly realized that it wasn't just her fingers. The glitter stuck to her hands, her dress, her hair. Everything. With a note of disgust, she tried to brush them off. They didn't budge. Instead, they flickered a few times before finally winking out altogether. She turned her hands over a few times to make sure they were gone. At the sound of a soft cough, Merida looked around.

She wasn't alone.

A whole crowd of people stood around her. There was a cluster of girls in fancy, brightly colored dresses. Men and women and children wearing all sorts of outlandish clothes. Stranger still were the other… things. Merida wasn't quite sure what to call them. Most seemed to be animals of all sorts, whole groups of them standing up on their hind legs. No matter who or what they were, however, every pair of eyes still watched her expectantly. There wasn't a single familiar face among them.

"Er…"

She felt something tugging at her skirt. Looking down, she saw three black bear cubs staring up at her. They leaned against her legs, grasping her skirt for support as they tried to stay upright.

"You're bears?" she asked, but her brothers looked just as confused as she felt. Hubert did his best to shrug.

Merida wracked her brain, trying to figure out what happened. The last thing she could remember was riding through the woods along the edge of the loch with her mother. After that… nothing. And last she'd seen of the boys, they'd been human. The spell was broken! So, how were they bears again? Coming up empty, she looked around at their surroundings for some kind of sign as to what was going on.

On the far side of the crowd was a statue of a man holding the hand of some sort of creature with big, round ears. Behind her was a stone building with blue, pointed roofs topped with gilded spires. Was that supposed to be a castle? Not a single thing about the place was recognizable to her.

Turning back to the still-waiting crowd, she asked, "Um… where are we?"

One of the creatures stepped away from the crowd and walked up to her. It was small, with round ears, and dressed in shades of red and yellow nearly bright enough to make her eyes water. Merida's gaze snapped to the nearby statue. It appeared to be the same one.

"The name's Mickey," it said in a high-pitched squeak of a voice. "Mickey Mouse. Welcome to Disneyland."

It held out one gloved hand out to her, but all Merida could do was stare. She'd never seen a mouse that looked like that before. It seemed to realize her confusion because it quickly drew back its hand and cleared its throat.

"The characters – me included – are here to formally welcome you to the Happiest Place on Earth, Princess Merida."

That came as a shock.

"How d'you know my name?"

The mouse thing shrugged. "We know all about you, and your brothers. Uh." It paused and shot a quick look at the three boys. "I think one of them might be Harry…"

"Hamish, Hubert, and Harris," she corrected. "And you still haven't answered my question."

Several members of the crowd began whispering to one another. A ginger boy all in green hovered over their heads. How in the world was he doing that?

"Yeah, uh…" She looked at the "mouse" again, who now sported an apologetic grimace. Gesturing around, it said, "This place is Disneyland, open now for almost fifty-seven years, and we are its characters. Each of us came here from a different story. You're the latest arrivals."

A brown-haired girl in a yellow dress cleared her throat and started reading from the board she held in her hands. "Brave, a Pixar Animation Studios film. Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, co-directed by Steve Purcell. Written by–"

"We got it, Belle. Thank you," the mouse said, cutting her off. Belle frowned and propped the board against her hip. "These stories? Well, plenty of other people know them. They come here to see us. And now to see you, too."

Something about that just felt… right, although Merida couldn't quite place why. The mouse had barely scratched the surface of answering her questions, but what it said still stirred something in her. Her words – her own words – briefly flashed through her mind. "Our stories are not yet legends." From what this thing told her, she was coming to the conclusion that that wasn't quite true. Others knew what happened? What others?

"Now, I know this is a lot to take in at once, so we'll keep this as slow as possible to start. The first thing you'll need is–"

"Hold on just a minute."

Everyone looked around at the sound of the new voice. The crowd parted to reveal a small group of newcomers. The three of them looked almost human. Almost. In the sunlight, their skin had a strange sort of shine to it. Their eyes were too big, too wide. Not lifeless, but not quite real all the same. Merida couldn't help but stare at them. While the other two stopped, the one in the lead took another couple steps forward. His gait was long-limbed and loose. With a lazy flick of a finger, he popped back his wide-brimmed hat, giving her a better look at his altogether too long face.

"Sorry we're late to the party," he said. "We all just figured that, y'know, since she's one of us, she'd pop up over in DCA."

"She's a Princess, Woody. Why would she be over there?"

The speaker was a girl around Merida's age with brilliantly red hair. The too-tall man – Woody – scowled at her.

"Because she's Pixar. That's why."

Merida stared at him in confusion. "Pix-what?"

Her question was ignored. Instead, one of the other two that had arrived with Woody skirted around him to reach Merida. She was also gangly with a wide hat perched atop her head. Her red hair was pulled back into a single braid tied off with a yellow ribbon.

"Well, look at you! Merida, right? The name's Jessie." She grabbed Merida's hand and shook it enthusiastically as she said with a grin, "Good to meet ya! Been too long since we had another redhead from the studio!"

Jessie's hand was too cool, too smooth. Definitely not human. Merida tried to carefully pull back.

Meanwhile, the argument had only worsened, with others now adding to the commotion caused by the original two's bickering. The third newcomer had joined in as well. He was stockier than his companions, and covered head-to-toe in white and green armored plates. Mickey hastily stepped in, even though the mouse was easily one of the shortest there, and raised its gloved hands.

"Hey!" The gathered crowd all stopped shouting at one another and looked down. Once it had their attention, the mouse went on, "There's still more we need to figure out, and arguing isn't going to get it done any faster."

"I say we should all be civil and hear him out," the armored man said. Giving his companion a look, he asked, "Right, Woody?"

Woody just stood with his arms crossed and rolled his eyes.

"Sure, Buzz. Fine. Whatever."

"The floor's all yours, Mickey," Buzz said, gesturing to the mouse.

"Thanks." Clearing his throat, Mickey went on, "These four are new arrivals, so they'll need mentors. Now, the boys might take a little more thinking, but the choice for Merida's obvious. And that'd be Ariel."

"What?" Jessie gasped.

"Hold on. Pixar characters always get partnered with Pixar characters," Buzz said with a frown.

"But she isn't just a Pixar character, is she?" Belle pointed out. "She's a Princess. She definitely could be the eleventh on the official roster."

There was that word again. Pixar.

"She's one of us," Woody insisted, pointing an accusing finger at the mouse. "She belongs with us. Not some mermaid."

Jessie was nodding. Other members of the crowd had started to shout their own opinions for good measure. Merida let out a soft tch and shook her head. It was all reminding her too much of the arrival of the three lords, and she didn't like that one bit.

"Hey, stop! Enough!"

Once again, the crowd quieted to turn their attention on Mickey.

"In case everyone forgot, Ariel's head of California Adventure," he said, loud enough so everyone was sure to hear him. "That means Merida'd be over there for most of her time off-stage. Got it?"

He stared at the so-called "Pixar" characters as he spoke. While the three of them looked disgruntled, none of them said another word. Clapping his gloved hands together, Mickey asked, "All right. What d'you say, Ariel?"

The red-haired girl who argued with Woody in the first place nodded.

"I accept," she said.

Polite clapping rose from many people in the crowd, although many still seemed on edge from the argument.

"So, when are our parents going to get here?" Merida asked.

Mickey turned to look at her. "What?"

"Y'know, our mum and dad?" Merida gestured to herself and her brothers. "Where are they?"

Just like that, everyone began to look uncomfortable again. Many of them refused to meet her eye. Mickey scuffed the toe of one of his yellow shoes against the ground and cleared his throat again.

"Well, you see, when characters arrive from the different films, not everybody makes the transition," he said slowly. "You and your brothers… you're the only ones that're coming."

"Except the wisps," Belle said, looking at her board again. "Maybe."

"Not helping," Ariel hissed at her.

Merida's gaze snapped between the three of them.

"Well, can we just go back?" she asked. Mickey just shook his head.

What they were saying slowly began to dawn on Merida. Their parents weren't coming, and they couldn't go home.

"No," she said, taking a step back and shaking her head. Her lower lip trembled. "No, this can't be happening."

"Oh dear," one of the other girls whispered, this one with black hair.

Merida had just gotten her mother back. Now she was never going to see her again. The girl felt tears welling up in her eyes and she hastily tried to wipe them away on her sleeve. Her brothers continued to cling to her skirt. Hubert let out a whimper of confusion and distress. Kneeling down, she hugged the boys, squeezing her eyes shut as she did. Were the four of them really all that was left?

At the sound of footsteps, she looked up. Mickey stood right in front of them now, looking solemn.

"I know this might not mean much," he said, "but we've all lost somebody. We understand."

Members of the crowd started nodding and murmuring words of assent.

"It's gonna be tough, I won't pretend otherwise, but I know what you're capable of," he went on. "I know what you've been through already. If anyone can make it, it's you kids. Now, Ariel's gonna be your mentor. That means she'll show you the ropes, explain how everything works. Get you used to living in Disneyland. That sound okay?"

Merida sniffed and wiped at her eyes again before nodding. When Mickey beckoned, Ariel stepped forward. She wore a shimmering, blue-green dress with puffy sleeves. Like Merida, she had blue eyes, though her red hair was wavy rather than curled.

Crouching down, Ariel offered her a hand. Merida took it and let the other girl pull her to her feet.

"Come on," Ariel said, nodding to the drawbridge. "We don't have long, but I can show you around the castle, at least."

"Wait. What about the boys?"

She looked back at her brothers, who were watching her.

"I've got it covered," Mickey said.

He whistled, and three balls of light flew in from beneath the castle drawbridge. At first Merida thought they were wisps. Then they landed nearby and transformed into three short women. One was dressed entirely in pink, the second in green, and the last in blue. Seeing them, Merida was reminded very much of Maudie.

"Don't you fret dear," the green one said to Merida. "We'll keep an eye on your brothers."

"A very close eye," the one in blue added. She was watching the boys intently. Merida got the feeling that she was ready for whatever trouble the boys would get into, though Maudie always thought she was prepared as well. At least there were three of them. It might almost be enough to deal with the wee devils. She wished them luck with that.

The crowd began to disperse. Grabbing her arm, Ariel led her across the drawbridge to the castle. Merida caught a brief glimpse of what looked like a small village on the other side before being steered abruptly right through a doorway and up some stairs.

The stone halls were lit by flickering candlelight. At least this much felt familiar. Before long, Ariel stopped at a door.

"So, this is where you're going to stay for now," she said, opening it. Merida peered inside.

Two windows on the far wall let in sunlight, illuminating the room. A few tapestries lined the otherwise bare stone walls. There were four beds, one for each of the DunBroch children. They'd been ready for them.

Mounted on the far wall, to the right of the windows, was a strange sort of thin rectangular box fronted with black glass. Merida walked over to it and tapped it with a finger. Strange.

"The Park's opening soon, so we need to hurry if we want to get through everything else important in the castle," Ariel called to her. Giving the room one last look, Merida walked back to join her in the doorway. Shutting it again, the other girl added, "Anyway, welcome home."

Chapter Text

The curtains were yanked open, letting sunlight flood into the room. Merida groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. It was still far, far too early for her to be awake.

"Up and at 'em!" a voice called. Ariel.

"Go away…" Merida grumbled, burying her face deeper into the sheets. She felt the pillow being tugged out of her grip and made a futile swipe in an attempt to snatch it back, but the other girl was faster. Glowering up from beneath her mess of curls, she saw Ariel hovering over her, the stolen pillow held above her head.

"There isn't much time before we open, so if you're going to get the 'Grand Tour' we have to go now," Ariel told her.

Merida sat up with a grumble, spitting stray curls out of her mouth, and looked over at her brothers. The three of them seemed to still be asleep.

"What about them?" she asked, gesturing in their general direction.

"They aren't Mains."

Sliding off the bed, Merida grabbed her dress and tugged it on over her shift. After brushing her curls out of her face again, she asked, "What in the world is a Main?"

"It's shorthand for main character," Ariel explained as she tossed the pillow back onto the vacated bed. "Those of us that were the focus of our respective films. People like you and me. It means that the people coming in through those gates will always know who you are. You'll have little kids lining up in droves just to see you. And it means that you'll have twice as much responsibility around here as a Minor."

Merida rolled her eyes. Wasn't that just typical? Ariel gestured toward the door and she followed Merida out into the castle's hallway, shutting the door behind them.

"Okay, first things first," Ariel said as they walked. "The second you showed up in the Park you basically became immortal. You won't age, you won't ever get sick again. You don't even need to eat anymore, but that's usually the hardest thing to get over, so I brought you this."

She tossed an apple to Merida, who caught it. After briefly rubbing the shiny green surface with the heel of her hand, she took a bite.

Swallowing, she asked, "Which one of you is oldest?"

"That would be Mickey," Ariel replied. "Old Walt dreamed him up eighty-four years ago, but he's an outlier. Most of the oldest have only been around for fifty-seven."

"Walt?"

"Walt Disney. The guy who came up with this whole place. That statue out in the Hub is of him. Even those of us, like me, who arrived long after he was gone have him to thank for existing at all."

"And how long have you been here?" Merida asked.

Ariel stopped at the question. Her fingers twitched, as if she was counting to herself. "About twenty-three years."

Merida stared at her. The other Princess had been there for twenty-three years, but she still appeared to be the same age as her. To be honest, that was one of the least strange things she had encountered recently.

"So, this is me forever? That's… That doesn't sound so bad, actually."

Ariel shot her a quick, almost pitying look that Merida didn't quite understand. Then the former started walking again.

Neither Merida nor the boys had been allowed out of the castle once they'd been ushered in the morning before, although they'd yet to be told why. As a result, she'd already seen most of the interior of the castle itself after the initial tour. Long, drafty stone corridors. Hundreds of rooms with more than a few locked doors she hadn't been able to get past. There was a Great Hall as well, though it was worlds different than the one in Castle DunBroch. Huge glass windows on either side of the room provided a spectacular view of the world outside. What she could see from them, or from the window in the bedroom, was all she could make out of this "Disneyland" at all. There was a small village built into the village courtyard, visible from the rear windows. Out the other side was the square with the statue where she and her brothers first appeared. The Hub, as Ariel had called it.

The two Princesses left the castle, stepping outside and crossing the drawbridge into this area. They hadn't gone far before Ariel stopped and pointed toward two parallel rows of buildings in the distance.

"That's Main St., U.S.A., but no one calls it that," she explained to Merida. "It's just Main St. On the other end are the main gates, which is where the guests all come in from. And leave from again every night."

Merida peered in the direction, but couldn't make out much past trees and distant rooftops.

"Aren't there any other ways in or out?" she asked.

"Not for them, and not for us. Why?"

"I'm just trying to understand what's happening. I was told all these people come here for us. They know our stories, the mouse said, but how can they? And why would they want to see us at all? It feels right somehow, but it makes no sense."

Ariel briefly bit her lip and her gaze shifted back and forth for a moment. Then she took a deep breath and spoke again.

"For us, Disneyland is our kingdom," she explained. "The original Magic Kingdom. It's our home, but for them? The guests? Disneyland is a fair. Or a festival, sort of, one that's been running almost daily for nearly sixty years. Two different worlds colliding by daylight in a single place, and we were put here by magic to bring it all to life."

"So, we're – what? Their entertainment?"

"It's not that simple. We don't have to do anything; we just have to be ourselves."

"Unbelievable." Merida put her free hand on her hip and shook her head, making her curls bounce. "I'm not sure I want to be an amusement for the rest of eternity."

"You will. When you hear that first little girl say your name like it's a wish, then you'll understand." Merida shot her a skeptical look and Ariel shrugged before adding, "Now that we've got that out of the way, we can move on to everything else. For example, when the guests are here, when they can see us – we're on-stage. That means we have to be on our best behavior, which can be hard sometimes. I'd know."

There was a glint in Ariel's blue eyes as she spoke. A look of mischief that Merida had seen often enough in her brothers', and which she thought her mother might have seen in her own.

"They're going to scrutinize me every day forever, then?" Merida asked.

The glint didn't go away. If anything, it got even worse. "Not exactly."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"You'll see. Anyway, that can wait for now. This tour can't. I've only got a little time, and a lot to show you." Tossing her hair back, Ariel beckoned her to follow again. Merida followed, even though she still wasn't satisfied with the answer.

They circled the statue and walked along one of the paths radiating away from the center. Ahead was a dense patch of trees and buildings with thatched roofs. Above them, a sign read "Adventureland".

"Disneyland is split into eight distinct parts, also known as 'the Lands'," Ariel said as they walked. "Main St. is one of them, and so is Adventureland. The other six are New Orleans Square, Critter Country, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Toontown, and Tomorrowland. All together, these make up the bones of the kingdom."

"So, if it is a kingdom, this Mickey's your King?"

"Him?" Ariel laughed. "No. I mean, he's been called that in other places, but never here. All of this started because of him, so he's kind of the boss by default. The Park's actually run by the Disneyland Council. On default, there's one representative for each of the Lands, plus Mickey and the rest of his original group for Toontown, Tink, Aurora since the castle's hers, Belle for the Archives, and me. We meet weekly to discuss the state of the place, settle disputes, that kind of thing. There's also the big council. It's got twenty-eight people instead of fifteen, so it's really only called for emergencies."

Merida looked at the buildings around them while the other Princess talked and took another bite of her apple. They were walled in plaster, chipped off in places to reveal the bricks underneath, and painted with faded, multi-colored designs. Most of them seemed to be closed up at the moment.

"You lot ever have an emergency that you needed it called for?" she asked.

Ariel paused. Then, almost hesitantly, she said, "Not for a while." Before Merida could ask anything else, she went on, "I used to live up there, on the top floor."

She was pointing to a three-floored building on the other side of the path. It was mostly wood, painted dark green and yellow-brown. The large letters over the central doorway said, "Jungle Cruise," with a much smaller sign beneath reading, "Tours departing daily." Both were decorated with several spears arrayed behind a strange mask. The windows upstairs were covered by slatted wooden shutters.

"Not the sort of place I'd expect a Princess to live in," Merida said.

"No one else expected it, either, but it was the perfect place to store my collection," Ariel replied, looking lost in thought. "They didn't have much choice after Belle moved into Tomorrowland. I lived there for about ten years. Loved that place."

"Why did you leave?"

"I got my castle back, so I moved there about nine months ago. There's more space there, anyway."

Merida finished off the last of her apple while she listened, leaving only the core. As she pulled her hand back to toss it away into a nearby bush, Ariel stopped her, saying, "Don't just throw it. Put it in a trash can. It's what they're there for."

She pointed to a nearby pair of metal boxes painted green, yellow, and red. Merida hesitantly walked over toward it and made to slip it into the one with the single round hole near the top.

"No, not that one," Ariel called over. "The one next to it. With the flap. Push on it."

Merida did as instructed, pushing back the red metal flap and dropping the core inside. It quickly banged shut again. Walking back over to Ariel again, she brushed off her hands on her skirt. With a nod from the other redhead, the pair kept walking.

"So, as for the rest of the rules…"

Despite everything she had been through recently, Merida tried not to cringe at the word. "Rules?"

"Yep. Like I said before, the most important thing is to put on a good face for the guests. That also means you can't just walk around during open hours looking like that. They'd mob you in a second."

"What do you mean, like this?"

"Nobody dresses like that anymore. Or like I do, either, for that matter. I'll show you how to do a disguise later. Until then, no wandering around during daylight hours after opening. Also, no leaving the Park on your own. The promenade between Parks is usually swarming with guests, and Downtown is always off-limits without a disguise."

Merida did grimace then. And she'd once thought her Mother'd had a lot of rules for her. At least there'd never been limits on where she could and couldn't go and when. Still, Ariel kept talking.

"And then there's the attractions. They're these places all over the Park, like the Jungle Cruise, or, um… Pirates of the Caribbean." She turned and pointed to a walkway beneath a nearby bridge. "Like the castle, most of these places are much bigger on the inside than they appear, but you can't just walk into them. You have to be invited in. Not that you could actually get through the façade without permission, anyway…"

At this point, Merida barely heard a word she said. She was too busy looking around. Straight ahead was what seemed to be a small loch. Out in the middle was an island, with a lot of trees and a single visible building. Back on her side of the water, the path branched left and right along the edge. There were more buildings and even more trees in either direction.

Pointing down the left-hand path, Ariel told her, "Down there is New Orleans Square and Critter Country. You're not going to be spending much time on the west side, so we'll just keep going. Straight ahead is the Rivers of America, and to the right you've got Frontierland. This way."

She led Merida down the path leading along the right side of the water, past a lot of wooden buildings on the right and what seemed to be a dock on the left. Soon the trail curved around a tall pile of precarious reddish-brown rocks. The pinkish light of sunrise cast deep purple shadows in its crevices. A big wooden sign near the front read, "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad." Merida noticed that the other Princess refused to look directly at it as she walked.

"So, Ariel?" she asked as they walked, trying to keep up the conversation. "I have another question."

"Ask away."

"Those dolls yesterday, they mentioned something called pix… Pixar? I think? What is that?"

That question made Ariel stop. Merida saw her bite her lip for a second.

"Well, see, when our stories are spread to the general public, there are really two groups that do it. On one hand, there's the main company. There's also subsets within that, but that's not really important right now. The other group is Pixar. For eleven years they were partnered with us, but six years ago we officially merged. They're with us now."

She said it with a smile, but there was something almost forced about the look that Merida couldn't understand.

"They said I'm one of them. Pixar," she reminded her.

"Yeah, well, you're a Princess," Ariel replied with a little shrug. "And being a Princess means you're one of us. I've got a really good feeling about them crowning you the eleventh on the official roster."

They passed by the rocks and trees, heading around into the village square behind the castle. There were more people here, all bustling about and getting ready for the day. While they walked, Merida said slowly, "So, what you're saying is there are unofficial Princesses."

"You'll make it onto the list."

"And who decides if I do?"

Ariel stopped and took a deep breath. Turning to face her, she said, "Not us."

"Ariel! Hey!"

Both of them turned at the shout. Standing some ways away was a small crowd of people. Seven girls in brightly colored gowns. Merida realized that they were the other Princesses. The one who called Ariel's name had long black hair wore strange clothes that left most of her skin exposed. Gold jewelry hung from her ears and encircled her neck. A diadem set with a large blue stone rested atop her head.

"That's Jasmine," Ariel explained as they walked over to meet the group. "I mentored her twenty years ago."

The soft blue-green of the other Princess' clothes reminded Merida of the satin gown her Mother had dressed her in to meet the suitors. For some reason, that made her heart sink a little. This Jasmine looked so poised compared to her. She instinctively brushed her curls back away from her face.

"Morning. Are you giving her the tour?" Jasmine asked when the two redheads reached the crowd.

"We're about halfway done. I still have to show her the rest east side." Putting a hand on Merida's shoulder, Ariel gestured to the others and said, "While we're here, I think it's time to officially introduce you to the rest of our group."

As she listed the other Princesses off by name, each of them curtsied. There was Snow White, an eerily pale girl who seemed a few years younger than Merida. She had big dark eyes and a red ribbon tied into her black hair. Tiana was the Princess with the dark brown complexion, dressed in a green gown that seemed to be made of flowers. Merida noticed her dimples as she smiled at her. Beside Tiana was Cinderella, a blonde in a blue dress that gave her an appraising look. Those two seemed to be the oldest of the lot. The tallest was another blonde, Aurora, dressed in pink and watching her with a dreamy purple gaze. The third blonde of the group was Rapunzel. She had impossibly long hair pulled into a braid, big green eyes, and a bright grin. She was also barefoot. The last Merida recognized from the day before. Belle, the Princess with brown curls and a gold-colored gown. There was a book tucked under her arm.

All eyes now on her, Merida put on what she hoped was a smile and gave them a short, awkward curtsy in return, despite her knocking knees. None of them seemed to notice.

With a smile so wide she was practically beaming, Snow White asked, "What do you think of Disneyland, Merida?"

"It's… er…" Merida started playing with her curls again. "It seems nice so far?"

That seemed to be a good enough answer for the other girl, who clapped her hands together. Somehow, her smile seemed to get even bigger. Ariel, on the other hand, was looking around with a frown.

"Where are Pocahontas and Mulan?"

"I heard they were taking care of something with the train this morning. Routine checks, I think," Jasmine told her.

With a shrug, Ariel said, "Well, you'll meet them sooner or later. We should get going. I'll catch up with you guys later."

The others waved goodbye and started to scatter in different directions. Belle, however, followed the two of them, calling, "If you're headed toward Tomorrowland, I'll go with you. I need to stop by the workshop for a little while."

"You're more than welcome to come with," Ariel said to her. "Oh yeah, over there is the home of my mentor, Peter Pan."

Merida looked in the direction she was now pointing. Over the entrance to the building was another sign. Unlike many of the others, this sign had a face painted on it, one she recognized from the day before.

"Peter's the flying boy," she said.

Belle raised an eyebrow. "She catches on fast. That's good."

Ariel shot her a knowing look. Belle rolled her eyes and pulled out her book. Flipping it open, she started scanning the pages as she walked. Merida felt sure she would run into a post, but she skirted around everything in her path with ease.

"This is generally the home base for most of the Mains here," Ariel explained, gesturing all around her. "The Wonderland crew, Peter and the boys, the dwarves, and the Princesses, especially."

"Before we started branching out," Belle added, not looking up from her book.

They passed the rest of the buildings and small gardens in the area and followed a path that curved right. It led underneath a narrow sort of stone bridge. To the left was a lake, while a rocky, snow-covered peak loomed to their right. Merida looked up at a waterfall that cascaded down its side.

After they circled the peak, Ariel said, "This is Tomorrowland. Not many characters have a claim on it, so it's usually pretty quiet."

This part of Disneyland looked completely different than what Merida saw before. There were few plants there. Instead, everything was white spires, curving lines, and strange contraptions made of silver and gold. Cold and clean. She also heard faint sounds in the background. Shrill, echoing chirps, along with what seemed to be bells, although she couldn't be sure. Ariel stopped and Merida followed suit. Belle, on the other hand, kept walking.

"I'll be here until DCA opens, then I'm heading over," she said. "I still have parts of the Archive collection I need to ensure materialized in the library correctly. Will you be there later?"

"No. I have to be in this Park all day," Ariel called back, nodding in Merida's direction.

"Right. Mentoring. Well, you know where to find me if you need me. It was nice to meet you, Merida."

She was gone before Merida could say anything, vanishing into a nearby building. Once she was gone, Ariel looped her elbow around Merida's and steered her back in the direction they'd just come from, saying, "We don't have long before the Park opens, so let's get you into position."

They walked back around the peak. Instead of going back in the direction of the castle, they turned down the other path. Thick shrubs and trees lined it on either side. At the far end were white turrets trimmed in gold. The tower at the front was topped with a large disk decorated with a stylized face. As it rocked back and forth, Merida heard a loud clack, clack, clack. Bells played a tune in the background. Before reaching it, Ariel turned sharply to the right. Ahead Merida saw a small set of white tents. Shields and polearms leaned against nearly every available spot. In the middle was a wagon filled with sacks, barrels, and an archery target. There was another target set up nearby. A banner displayed the Clan DunBroch crest.

"What's all this, then?" she asked, poking the nearest target.

"This is where you're going to be meeting the guests. It's your space. Just yours."

"My space." Merida felt herself relax a little. This at least felt familiar.

"We're going to open soon, so I have to get into position," Ariel told her. She was already skirting back in the direction of the main part of Fantasyland. "Stay here. Once the Park opens, someone will come meet you and explain exactly what you're going to do. A Cast Member. You'll be able to tell it's them because they'll be wearing a little metal badge with their name on it. They work here, so be nice, okay?"

Merida nodded, making her curls sway. "Got it."

"You want the guests to like you; that's the key to everything around here. So, smile and just be yourself. That's all they really want. Good luck!"

With that, she hurried off, red hair flying, leaving Merida standing alone in the shade of the small tent.


 

Merida sat on the end of her bed with her legs tucked up. Hamish, Hubert, and Harris all crowded around her. She shot the three of them a look, something near a grimace, which they all mirrored. On the black box – a television, Ariel called it – leaves drifted past and a woman continued to sing.

For the last hour and a half, the four DunBroch children had watched the events of their last few days in their home. The arrival of the Lords Macintosh, MacGuffin, and Dingwall. The games. The wisps and the witch. The effects of the spell Merida had bartered from her and the aftermath. The second sunrise. All seen as if from the eyes of an invisible stranger. It was disorienting, to say the least. These were things that were still all-too-fresh in Merida's mind.

"I told you they knew your story," Ariel said quietly. "This is how."

"How many people have seen this?" Merida asked.

"By now? Thousands."

Merida looked back at the screen. Thousands of people had seen all of that. Her failures, her triumphs. Her last moments with her mother. It was… strange. Still, the feeling dulled at the memory of the guests she'd met that day. Early on, a little girl had come up to her, a massive grin on her face and a tiny bow clutched tight in her hand. The sight had shaken something inside Merida. There was a stranger who knew who she was – not just as the eldest DunBroch and the Princess, but as an archer. The thing she'd been fighting to be recognized for for so long. And that child hadn't been alone, no. There were more that came up to her throughout the day, all with that same smile.

Ariel was right. It felt good. It felt right.

"Now you know what they know," the other redheaded Princess said, cutting through Merida's thoughts. "That'll help. You should also know how far you've come from your home to get here to us."

She grabbed a large bag off the floor. Rummaging around inside it, she muttered, "Everybody thinks Belle's the only one with a book collection… Here we go."

A second later pulled out a large book, which she dropped with a thump onto the bed. On the cover were the words "World Atlas." Flipping it open, she rifled through the pages until she reached a large map. The four DunBroch children crowded around to look.

"Okay, here. Look. You four are from this place. Scotland," she told them, pointing to an island near the very middle of the map. Moving her finger across the page, nearly to the far left-hand side, she pointed to a small point labelled "Los Angeles," and said," Now you're here. Not exactly here, since we're actually in Anaheim, but only a couple miles off."

"It's so far," Merida whispered, letting her own fingers trail over the map. She could barely get her head around it.

"That's not all." Ariel grimaced apologetically and went on, "The Scotland you knew no longer exists. It hasn't for a very long time. You should know now."

"How long?"

"You're all supposed to be from the tenth century, from what I've heard, so a little over a thousand years. Give or take."

"A thousand…"

The triplets were all watching her with wide eyes. Merida stopped herself and took a deep breath. Displaced from their home by an impossible distance and a thousand years by magic. Just the thought made her head spin. But there was nothing for it now except make the best of the situation, whether they liked it or not.

Chapter Text

Merida shuffled after Ariel, rubbing one of her eyes with the heel of her hand. It was four days since she first arrived in the Park. Four days of adjusting to her new environment. Four days of meeting an endless stream of strangers just waiting to get a look at her. She'd barely had the time to catch her breath. Wake up early before the crowds arrived and get into place in front of what everyone called It's a Small World, hide out when not "on-stage" until closing time hours later. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow every night. Now Ariel had her up again, even earlier this time, saying something about a "moving day."

"You need to stop making me get up early," Merida told her companion with a yawn.

"I'm moving you over to the other Park today," Ariel said, not breaking her stride, "so we need to have an early start to make sure you're all settled in over there by the time the gates open."

"But don't they need me here?"

"Not exactly. If something comes up, there are actors on standby. They usually step in for shows or parades, that sort of thing, but they'll do the meets, too. Don't worry."

Merida stared at her. "You mean there's another girl who will pretend to be me?"

"Yeah. I have one, too. Can't be in two places at once, after all."

Merida didn't have much of a chance to think about that unsettling thought before Ariel led her away from the castle, across the Hub, and down Main St. This early, the lights inside the store windows on either side were still off, and Merida could see their reflections in the glass. The surprising exception came once they reached the end of the street.

In the days since she'd arrived at Disneyland, Merida had never been to this area of the Park. Main St. opened out into a plaza with sporadically placed trees and flowerbeds. As they headed around the right side of the area, she saw a single light on in the upstairs window of a nearby brick building labeled "Disneyland Fire Dept."Ariel nodded to it as they walked past.

"Does someone live up there?" Merida asked her.

"No one… lives up there," Ariel said. She sounded like she was struggling to find the right words. "That was Walt's apartment. Since he's been gone, that light's sort of been our sign that he's still here. As long as it's lit, he's watching over us."

Merida shot a quick look back over her shoulder at the light shining through the window. Magic or not, it was hard to believe something could stay lit that long without flickering.

"So, it's never gone out?"

Ariel didn't answer. Instead she kept her eyes forward as they headed through a short tunnel lined with pictures. From the writing Merida saw on them, they seemed to be for the different "attractions" that had been mentioned to her. The Matterhorn Bobsleds, Tarzan's Treehouse, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, Star Tours.

The tunnel let out into another yard paved with interlocking patterns of red and gray bricks. Across from them was a long metal fence enameled in green. Short roofed areas, almost like strange gatehouses, covered most of it. Ariel hurried toward a nearby gate that stood in an open space between the roofed places.

"We have to make this fast since you don't have a disguise yet," she said. "There shouldn't be anyone out right now, since Downtown isn't open for the morning, but you never know."

When she pushed on the gate, it opened with the slightest creak. She waited for Merida to join her before shutting it behind them again. After shooting a quick look to her right, Ariel hurried off again, grasping fistfuls of her skirts so she could run.

The two Princesses crossed a much larger paved walk dotted with banners. Merida saw Ariel's face on some of them. Small rectangular buildings and trees blocked most of the left and right from view. Ahead was what appeared to be another gatehouse, like the one they'd just passed through. This one, however, was painted all in white and teal. Four red flags waved from strange turrets overhead. Large letters across the top of the gatehouse spelled out "Disney California Adventure."

After crossing a brightly-colored mosaic patterned with what Merida now recognized as stylized versions of Mickey's head, they finally reached the gate. Again, all Ariel had to do was push on it to get it to open for her. On the other side was another long street. The buildings on either side were square, layered, and built close together. Brown plaster covered their walls. Trees cropped up here and there down the center and along the sides near the entrance. The two Princesses walked up the street at the same quick pace as before, passing underneath a bridge that loomed over their heads.

"This is Buena Vista St.," Ariel explained, gesturing to the store fronts around her. "It's pretty much the Main St. equivalent here in DCA. Now, there's really a lot less to show you over here, so I should be able to get you a quick tour before… Oh no."

She stopped dead and Merida followed suit. Just around the short bend ahead, a massive crowd of people waited in the middle of the next square. Well, people might've been too strong a word. While there were a few members of the crowd that Merida could describe as "human", they were definitely outnumbered. She saw the dolls – Woody, Jessie, and Buzz – at the very front, and they weren't alone. There was also a woman with blonde curls, big blue eyes, and a massive pink and white dotted skirt. Her stark white skin was even shinier than the others'. The rest of their group at the very front of the crowd seemed even less human than those four. A green scaled creature with sharp teeth and a pointed tail, something dog-like whose front and back halves were only held together by a coil of metal, a gigantic pink pig, and a strangely lumpy thing with too-big eyes, lanky arms, and a black moustache.

Once again, Woody was the first to step forward.

"Morning, Princess," he said, tipping his hat to Merida. "Seeing as it's your first day over here in DCA, the Pixar gang and I figured we should give you a real welcome to this Park."

Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Ariel mumbled under her breath, "Didn't waste any time, did you?"

Woody didn't seem to hear her. Merida chose to ignore her as well for the time being, instead taking a few cautious steps toward the assembled characters and asking, "So, this is them, then?"

She couldn't even tell what most of them were supposed to be. The family of five people dressed in matching red and black suits was easy enough, but the great shaggy, blue thing with horns? A nearby group that looked to be comprised of insects – all easily standing taller than her – made her shudder a bit. Merida also noticed a small creature nearby, standing a little apart from the main body of the crowd. It was about the same height as Mickey, though it was hard to tell because of the long ears. Unlike the mouse, its body was entirely black and white, and it was dressed in blue instead of red. It crossed its arms and frowned at the assembled characters.

As one, the crowd surged toward her, all calling out introductions at once. The voices created such a din she could barely make out what any of them were saying. The boy all in yellow was apparently Russell, the family were the Incredibles, and one of the insects seemed to be called Francis, although she couldn't tell which. The lumpy creature from Woody's group with the moustache loudly declared himself to be, "Mr. Potato Head." He was supposed to be a tatty? Well, wasn't that something.

Before Merida could drown in the throng of characters surrounding her, Ariel grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her out. Merida spat curls out of her mouth and tried to get her bearings again.

"As much as I hate to cut this short, we need to get going," Ariel said, loud enough to be heard over the ruckus.

Woody sauntered toward the two of them, weaving his way through the crowd with ease as he asked, "What's the rush?"

"The rush is that I need to get her in place before we open for the morning. And tonight's the first meeting in Carthay." Ariel gestured to a nearby building crowned with a tall, white tower. "There's still a lot of prep that needs to be done."

"There always is on moving day."

In the silence that followed, the two of them continued to glare at each other. Merida took a couple steps away from the throng, hands clasped behind her back.

"So, are we going?" she called to Ariel. When the other redhead briefly broke the stare-down to look at her, Merida nodded toward the other side of the crowd, where the street branched off in two directions. Ariel seemed about to answer, but Woody beat her to it.

"You bringing her to the meeting tonight?"

Ariel shot him a look of disdain. "Of course."

That seemed a good enough answer for him – for the moment, at least – because he nodded and whistled to the crowd. When he had their attention, he gestured down yet another street branching off from the square. The massive wall at its far end was painted to look like a bright blue sky dotted with clouds.

"Let's go, gang!" he shouted at them.

The Pixar characters followed him down the street and past the white building with the tower. The crowd parted around the two girls as they walked away. Some of them waved over their shoulders at Merida, who watched them go with some curiosity. Once they were all gone, Ariel headed around the building in the other direction. She beckoned for Merida to follow and the latter hurried to catch up.

"I'm not sure what you're on about with the Pixar lot, honestly," Merida said, swatting her curls away from her face as she fell into step with the other Princess. "They all seem nice enough."

Except that Woody, maybe. He and Ariel seemed to have a go at each other whenever they met. But the rest of them?

Ariel sighed. "It's not like I hate them or anything. We're just in a complicated situation right now."

"How complicated?"

"I shouldn't let you walk into this totally blind, so I'll explain this as best as I can." She stopped and turned to face Merida, saying, "The order of things in Disneyland has been set for a long time. Well, more or less. California Adventure's not like that. It's only been around for eleven years, and most of that time was spent as relatively unclaimed territory. That's started changing. Right now, the Park's being split up between territory for us and for the Pixar group. And it hasn't been a clean split, either."

Ariel gestured in the direction the Pixar characters had gone.

"For example, at the end of that street is the Hyperion Theater. It's been showing a stage play of Aladdin almost since this place opened. That's the story Jasmine's from. Anyway, two years ago there were plans for a version of Toy Story to replace it. If the plans had gone through, Jasmine and the rest of her group would've barely have claim on an inch of this place, while the toys would've had even more."

"It sounds like they didn't get what they were after, though."

"No, they didn't. Thank goodness. But it's been back and forth like that all over this place for a while now. And with Cars Land opening–"

"Cars?"

"They're sort of like wagons with no horses, except the ones here are alive… you know, I really, really don't have time to actually explain that particular concept right now." Ariel shook her head and finished, "The point is that DCA's going through a kind of tug-of-war right now, so we're all a little tense."

The two Princesses started walking again, passing the buildings and stepping out onto what looked like a wide, flat bridge. Merida mulled over what she'd just heard for a moment.

"So, what you're saying is Woody's problem is that his lot didn't get a play about them?" she asked, confused.

"No. His problem is that the other half of Paradise Pier belongs to me. Plus, Mickey put me in charge of this whole Park a couple years ago. He hates that."

"Oh."

The sound of nearby rushing water distracted Merida, and she glanced to her right. There, a waterfall cascaded over a pile of craggy gray boulders. Surrounding it, a patch of woods led up a steep hill. At the very top was a rocky outcropping that looked like… was that a bear?

Any thought of investigating was immediately shattered as a large white bird crash-landed in front of them. Merida jumped back, startled, but Ariel just rolled her eyes.

"What is it, Scuttle?" she asked, sounding resigned.

The bird righted himself, scrambling to his feet. The feathers on his head were askew and his wild eyes instantly turned on Merida.

"You must be that new Princess that Ariel's taken under her wing. The name's scuttle. Nice to meet ya." Reaching up, he shook her hand with his wings. It was a strange sensation, to say the least.

"Scuttle."

"Right, right." Turning his attention to Ariel, he said in a rambling voice, "The prep back at the castle is going great. Really. There's just one problem. Sebastian doesn't think we're ready for the move-in. Something about the sheets."

"We've been over this. I told him–"

Merida stole another look back over her shoulder at the craggy peak. Now that she had a better view of it, she could see that it was indeed shaped like a bear. A bear, of all things. And she had yet to hear a single word about it! That was too much of a coincidence for her to just let it go.

Ariel continued to argue with the bird, Scuttle. Merida took a few careful steps back toward the stone wall blocking off access to the hill. As she did, she watched for any response from either of them. Neither seemed to be aware of what she was doing. When it was clear they wouldn't be paying attention to her anytime soon, Merida clambered over the wall and headed for the peak.


 

Merida wasn't sure how long she'd been walking, but it seemed like it'd been a while. From below, the peak hadn't seemed that far away. Just on the other side of the copse of trees. Surely, she should've reached it by now? She stopped and took a look at her surroundings. Nothing about the woods around her seemed familiar, not even the way she'd just come from. An icy feeling of dread slipped into her stomach. For a moment, she wondered if she'd even be able to find her way back. Would Ariel be looking for her by now? Maybe, but that bird seemed like he would have her attention for a while.

"How'd you get in here?"

The voice cut through the silence like a knife, making Merida jump. She whirled around, looking for the source. Tall trees and dense undergrowth surrounded her on all sides. There was no sign of movement between them. She even tried looking up at the branches overhead, just in case the voice's owner had climbed up there. Nothing.

"Who are you?" she called out.

Where he was might've been the better question. As far as she could see, there was no one around except her.

"Since you just waltzed in here uninvited, I want to hear who you are first."

"I am Merida of clan DunBroch," she said, holding her chin high despite her nerves.

There was a pause. Then, "You're the new Princess?"

"Aye."

"Great." Merida heard a long sigh and, for the first time, she thought she saw a hulking shadow moving between the trees. She craned her neck as she tried to keep it in sight. Whatever it was, it was big, brown, and furry. Realization slowly dawned on her and she took a step backward, a chill crawling down her spine. Her hands twitched toward her bow.

A bear lumbered out into the open a second later. He was much smaller than either her mother or Mor'du had been, but that didn't make her feel any better. Worst of all, it seemed as if he had been the one talking.

"Not more bears," she said in half a whisper, half a groan.

To her surprise the bear in question scoffed in response and rolled his eyes.

"A grizzly walks up to you and that's how you respond? Seriously? I know you Princesses all have a thing about animals, but this is just stupid."

All of Merida's earlier fear vanished. Putting her hands on her hips, she asked him, "You don't know anything about my "story", do you?"

"Uh, no." He almost sounded embarrassed at that.

"Well, I've had to deal with too many bears lately without you coming in to make a mess of things as well. Too. Many."

Never mind the fact that those rocks had looked like a bear in the first place. That probably should've been a warning. Anyway, that could wait until she wasn't lost in the woods, arguing with some dolt of a talking bear.

What in the world was her life coming to?

Sitting down in front of her, the bear rubbed the back of his neck with a paw.

""You're not exactly what I was expecting," he said, his face contorting into something akin to an apologetic grimace. "The name's Kenai, by the way."

"Kenai," Merida repeated.

"Yeah. And, what you said… I just didn't think there were many more bears left to run into anymore, you know? The Park lost the last big group before we showed up. Now the only ones I can think of are that idiot from Splash Mountain, the toy, me, and Koda."

Any questions Merida had about the identity of these characters were cut off as a dark brown blur streaked into the little clearing and nearly bowled her over.

"So, you're the new Princess huh? We don't get many Princesses around here. Well, Snow White visits sometimes, and she really likes to sing, which always drives Kenai crazy."

"Koda." Kenai scrambled forward, toward the bear cub who had started to ramble. "Koda, wait."

"Pocahontas, too. She's fun, but she's always so busy, and–"

"Koda!"

The cub stopped, completely unfazed, what seemed to be a smile plastered on his face. He was practically humming with barely-restrained energy and Merida was sure that the second he had the chance he'd start up his tangent again.

Gesturing to her with one paw, Kenai said, "Koda, this is–"

"Merida, right? I heard everything."

Kenai sighed. "And this is my brother, Koda."

Sure enough, Koda started circling Merida the instant the older bear finished the introductions, sniffing the hem of her skirt and asking questions.

"How come you don't look like most of the other Princesses? I mean, you don't sparkle so much, and–"

"Koda, come on."

"It's all right," Merida said, waving him off. "I have three younger brothers; this is nothing."

Both bears went quiet. They sat there, staring at her.

"You have three brothers?" Koda's eyes were massive.

"I do. Hamish, Hubert, and Harris." Merida paused and, with a bit of a grimace, added, "They're all bears as well."

"You're kidding," Kenai said with disbelief.

Koda, on the other hand, laughed and asked, "How'd that happen?"

Again, Merida hesitated. "Well, y'see, I made a mistake and traded with this witch for a spell to change my fate. The boys were changed into bears in the process. My mum, too. None of them could talk, though. Not that my brothers ever much did to begin with."

Kenai's look of incredulity hadn't gone away. If anything, his frown had only deepened. Koda appeared delighted.

"Sounds like what happened to Kenai." A thought seemed to strike the cub, wiping the grin off his face, and he asked, "Did they come with you?"

"My brothers? Aye, they're here. Not sure where at the moment. Somewhere over in the other place, I think. What do you mean "what happened to Kenai"?"

"Well, he used to be human too before he got turned into a bear."

Merida raised her eyebrows and shot a quick look at the other bear, who was now looking very uncomfortable. "Did he really?"

"Oh, yeah. It all started on the fifth or sixth most coldest day of my entire life. I was with my mom…"

"Wait, I hear something."

Koda stopped at Kenai's sudden words and looked up at the larger bear. The latter's ears twitched and his gaze was focused back in the direction Merida had come from. She glanced back as well. Between the trees, the air briefly rippled and shimmered before revealing the path back down the hill to the bridge. It was shorter than she'd expected. Impossibly short. She was suddenly reminded of the first time she left the witch's cottage, magic cake in hand.

Not only that, but she could hear the sound the bear had mentioned, too.

"Merida? Where are you?"

Merida caught a brief flash of red hair below. Ariel. And she was looking for her, apparently. Oops.

"I should probably get back," she said with a wince.

The cub trotted up to her, all smiles once more, and said brightly, "Well, I can't wait to meet your brothers."

The more Merida thought about it, the more the idea of the four of them together made her nervous. She attempted a smile anyway. After a quick wave goodbye to the two bears still watching her, she hopped over a fallen log in her path and headed back down the hill.

Chapter Text

"I said I was sorry!"

Ariel blew her bangs out of her eyes in annoyance as Merida shouted yet another apology after her. The latter Princess had been struggling to keep up since she'd stumbled back down the wooded hill and Ariel had taken off again without a word. How she could walk that fast in her fluffy, frilly dress, Merida wasn't sure.

"Didn't you hear a word I said about not trespassing in other characters' territory?"

"I… forgot," Merida admitted. Ariel rolled her eyes.

"And I don't even know how you got past the façade without being invited inside," she went on. "It's not your attraction. That shouldn't've happened. Unless…"

She stopped abruptly, skirts whirling as she turned to face Merida. Merida stood totally still, startled by the change. Ariel bit her lip and squinted. Then she snapped her fingers.

"Bears."

"I don't understand–"

"It's complicated. Just don't do it again, okay?" Ariel didn't even wait for a response before she walked off again with hurried steps.

She led Merida to the right, curving around the peak and surrounding trees, toward a small lake. Buildings surrounded the water in a ring, along with a nearby sign proclaiming the area to be "Paradise Pier". Practically everywhere she looked nearby, Merida saw Ariel's face. Over doorways, painted on walls. It was a bit disconcerting, if she was being honest.

The real Princess was headed toward the largest of the nearby buildings, one that was white and blue and topped with a dome. Curling letters over one of the archways read, "The Little Mermaid", and much further down "Ariel's Undersea Adventure". Ariel led her through this archway and took a sharp left. Looking down, Merida saw broken bits of shell imbedded in the ground beneath her feet. They walked along a covered path that ran alongside the building before stopping at a massive wall of glass. Ariel pulled open one of the double doors in the middle and the two princesses stepped inside.

They entered into a large, rectangular room. The general theme of the sea continued here as well. The cream-colored walls were painted in places with stylized shells. Chandeliers overhead held glass balls and resembled leafy weeds. Across the room from them, the entire back wall was painted with a mural of the ocean with Ariel at the very center. She was surrounded by several characters Merida didn't recognize. Staring up at it, she saw that painted-Ariel's head was surrounded by a halo of light. Merida raised her eyebrows.

The real Ariel wound her way through a series of twisting railings toward a line of wavy brightly colored… shapes that were taller than she was. Merida wasn't entirely certain what they were supposed to be. Shells, maybe? Upon reaching them, Ariel turned right, following the line toward an archway set into the wall. Merida followed her through into an even stranger scene.

Their side of the next room was so dark Merida could barely see where she was walking, but the other half was brightly lit. As she followed Ariel between two of the large shell-things – one orange and yellow while the other was green and blue – she got a better look at the tableau.

On the other side of a knee-high wall was a display decorated to resemble a beach, complete with painted water. A group of strangely colored creatures danced at the far end, back and forth or in circles. The end closer to the two Princesses had the side of a building, with a door and a short balcony. On it stood two doll-like things that were nearly life-sized. One was meant to be Ariel wearing a white gown. It stood arm in arm with a black-haired man Merida didn't recognize. They both smiled and waved and all she could do was stare at them.

"That's… strange."

"Ignore them," Ariel told her.

They both climbed over the short wall into the tableau. After hopping up onto the platform beside her doll-self, the Princess turned back and held out her hand to Merida. The latter took it and let herself be pulled up beside the other girl. While Ariel didn't look very strong, Merida got the impression that she could pick her up with ease.

After positioning them behind the two doll-things, Ariel went on, "Now, don't move. I don't want you to get wet."

"What are you talking about?" Merida asked, perplexed.

The other Princess grinned at her. "You'll see."

With that, she raised her hands. The air around them started to shimmer. Merida's vision blurred and she hastily rubbed at her eyes to clear them. Once they cleared, she blinked at the new scene before her.

Blinding sunlight glinted off water. Wind whipped at her curls, carrying with it the scent of brine. Squinting against the brightness, she began to make out her surroundings. The ocean. Craggy outcroppings of brown stone and distant green hills. Her knees bumped into something solid. She looked down to see a waist-high wall inlaid with swirling patterns. On the other side, a long, sheer drop ended a few feet of sandy beach.

"Where are we?" she breathed.

With glee in her voice and her hands on her hips, Ariel replied, "This is my castle."

Merida looked back over her shoulder to see that there was indeed a castle. It was of a very different sort to the one she'd called home or the one she'd lived in for the past few days. The majority of it loomed over the two girls, all white stone walls, round towers, and red tile roofs. An absolutely massive ship was moored in the inlet between them and the rest of the castle. Red, blue, and yellow flags waved from some of the rooftops. At the moment the Princesses stood in what seemed to be a round garden atop a barbican. Trees dotted here and there along the edge along with sets of wooden trellises. Near the center was a stone pavilion made of nothing but white pillars and a domed roof.

Needless to say, it was a lot to take in.

"I don't understand," Merida said as she tried, and failed, to make sense of what she was seeing. "One second we were in that place – the Undersea Adventure, was it? – and the next we end up here. That's the ocean out there. The real ocean."

"Well, yes and no. It's real in that if you jump in it, you'll get wet. But it doesn't really lead anywhere; it's just endless water." Ariel gestured around her and continued, "This is one of the worlds within the attractions. Most in either Park have them, they're just not easy to get into. Someone with permission needs to pull the layer that the guests all see down so you can reach what's really inside. This is the same thing that I assume happened earlier when you tried to scale Grizzly Peak."

"Without me knowing?"

"Or actually trying, I guess. But like I said: bears," she replied with a shrug. "The rules for attractions without any concrete associated characters can get kind of iffy. Come on, let's go inside. I want to show you around."

Grabbing up her skirts, Ariel hurried across the garden, with Merida following close behind. In the wall of the adjoining, much taller tower facing them was a double door set with glass panes. Ariel pulled it open and gestured the other Princess inside. Once they were both through, she closed it behind them again.

The first thing Merida realized was just how different this castle was from Castle DunBroch or the castle in the other Park. At least the latter had a tapestry or two on its walls. This one had loads of massive paintings in gilded frames, gigantic glass windows facing the sea, and walls painted white. Long decorative rugs ran along the wooden floors. Empty suits of armor seemed to watch her as the Princesses passed them by. No, it was definitely not like the castles she was used to.

"Since this is where you're going to be staying for a while, and you still have to work during the day in the other Park, I'm giving you permission to get in and out whenever you need to," Ariel told her while they walked. "I'll show you how to pull the façade up and down tonight when I have a little more time."

They stopped one of the upper floors. Pushing the door in front of them open, Ariel continued, "And this was my old room, back when I first got here. Now it's yours."

Merida poked her head in, brushing back her curls as she got a look at the bedroom on the other side. Plenty of light came in from the window directly across from them. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to lead out onto a tiny balcony. The walls were, again, covered in an assortment of paintings and most of the shelves were stuffed with fancy pottery, either empty or filled with odd plants. To her left was a fireplace with a giant mirror behind it, followed by the bed, which was set on a short platform. It looked incredibly fluffy, with a mess of pillows and frilly, blue-trimmed curtains at the head. Behind that was what appeared to be, strangely enough, an entire bush. Its covers were a shade of light purplish-pink.

"Sorry about the color," Ariel told her with a grimace. "Apparently they were the only ones available."

So that was what she'd been arguing about before with the bird, Scuttle. Merida shook her head.

"It'll be fine. Really."

It would take some getting used to, of course, but it was… fine. She took a couple half-skipping steps to cross the room, turned, and flopped back onto the bed, sending her curls splaying out. Yes, it was decidedly very soft. She heard Ariel stifle a laugh and step into the room as well.

Staring at the ceiling, Merida asked her, "What's going to happen to my brothers? They won't be living here too, will they?"

"No," Ariel said, finally coming into view above her. "Don't worry, they won't be left alone. It's being handled."

That was vague, as usual. Merida sighed. Getting a straight answer from the lot of them was harder than getting the Lords to cooperate. Before she could press the matter further, there was a quick knock on the doorframe. She sat up to see a black-haired man standing in the doorway. The same one who had a doll-thing with Ariel.

"Are you ready to go?" he asked.

Ariel turned to him with a grin. "Yep. I was just getting Merida settled in. Merida, this is Eric."

Merida pushed herself off the bed again to walk over to the other two. She'd gotten glimpses of the rest of the Princes while she was staying in the other castle, all from a distance. This Prince didn't really look like any of the others. His clothes looked more built for work than for any sort of style. That was something, at least.

"It's nice to finally meet you, Merida," he told her as he shook her hand. "I've heard a lot about you."

She couldn't exactly say the same about him. From what she could piece together through context he was, of course, married to Ariel, and this was his castle originally rather than hers. Beyond that everything was rather fuzzy. He seemed nice enough, she supposed, but meeting him left her feeling strange. They were both much older now – even if they didn't look it – but she figured they married when Ariel actually was the same age as she was now. That could've been her. As far as Merida could tell, it was a definite choice the other girl had made instead of any sort of arrangement, but still…

"We're both headed back to the other Park for the day," Ariel said, snapping Merida out of her thoughts. The other Princess's arm was hooked around Eric's waist and she looked ready to leave. "I'll be back after closing though, okay?"

Merida nodded and the two of them swept out, leaving her alone in the room. The echo of their footsteps quickly faded away to nothing. Tapping her fists against her thighs, Merida looked around for something to do for the time being. There was nothing for it except to explore the castle, she supposed. She was stuck there until Ariel got back; she figured she might as well make the best of it.

Reversing the route Ariel had used to lead her up to the bedroom, Merida found her way out to the rooftop garden. From there, she headed down a long set of stairs that wound around the barbican and ended at the stretch of beach. Waves lapped gently to her left as Merida strolled aimlessly down it. Her boots sunk into the damp sand. Ahead, to her surprise, was an odd collection of creatures. The bird, Scuttle, perched atop a rock partway into the waves. Next to him was a small, brilliantly red crab. Finally, a blue and yellow fish floated, facing them, with its head just above the water. They all seemed to be talking to one another.

"Hello?" she called, and they all turned to look at her.

"Oh, hey kid," Scuttle said. He waved her over with one wing. "This is that new Princess. Meridian, right?"

"Merida," she said, rolling her eyes. The hem of her skirt was soaked as she tromped over to meet them.

"Horatio Thelonious Ignatius Crustaceous Sebastian, at your service," the crab said. He gave her a deep bow that somehow managed to look both serious and funny at the same time.

"No one calls him that," the fish told her in a loud whisper. "He's just Sebastian. And my name's Flounder, by the way."

"You're Ariel's friends, then?"

With a snicker, Flounder gestured to Scuttle and himself and said, "We are. Sebastian's basically her babysitter."

"I should be composing symphonies for the court! I should be retired by now!" the crab cried, slapping a claw against his face. "First it was tagging along with her on her reckless adventures, now it's interior decorating. The things I do for that girl…"

That was right, wasn't it? Scuttle had mentioned something about Sebastian and the state of the guest room when he'd talked to Ariel earlier.

"Honestly, she doesn't strike me as the type to have many pink decorations lying around."

"Well, that's 'cause they aren't actually hers. They're really–" Sebastian cleared his throat and the fish clapped his fins over his mouth. From behind them, Merida could hear a muffled, "Oops."

"They're really what?" Merida pressed.

"Not allowed to talk about it," Flounder muttered, sinking a couple inches lower in the water.

Something had changed their demeanor. All three suddenly looked depressed, and not a one would meet her eye. In an attempt to change the conversation, she said, "Ariel was originally a mermaid. So, how did she become human in the first place?"

Sebastian sighed and shook his head. "She traded her voice to the Sea Witch to get legs."

"Did you say a witch?" Merida asked. Ariel hadn't told her that.

"Yeah," Flounder piped in, "after an argument with her dad."

"It was my mum, in my case. And I didn't trade my… my voice. It was a silver pendant, about this big," she explained, indicating the size with her fingers.

"Wait just a minute," Sebastian cut in, waving his claws. "You're saying you made a deal with a witch, too? For what?"

"It was supposed to be for a spell to change my fate, which turned out to be a magic cake that turned my mum into a bear." Merida grimaced. "We got her back to normal in the end, at least."

The three of them stared at her in silence.

"Explains why they picked our little mermaid to take you under her wing," Scuttle finally said.

Sebastian, on the other hand, put his face in his other claws and muttered what sounded like, "There's another one. Jumping jellyfish, there's another one…"

"Should be interesting," Scuttle continued, talking over the crab's mumbling. "Two redheaded Princesses living in the castle, now that you're here and it looks like Ariel's here for good."

"She told me she used to live over in the other Park until she got this castle back," Merida said, reminded of what Ariel had told her during the tour.

"Oh, this place was here for several months before she moved in again."

"Why did she wait so long?" she asked.

The bird shrugged. "The higher-up types wanted her over there all the time. It's been better since that whole fiasco ended."

"Yeah, it was really bad," Flounder added, "since that place was such a mess and she had to be over there all the time to try to keep it together. We barely saw her at all. And when the fighting really started, these two got to go with her, but I had to stay here." He pouted a little at the end.

There it was again. That thing they were all dancing around. Well, this was the most information she'd gotten about it since she arrived. There'd been a fight. A big one. But about what?

"What happened, exactly?"

The three of them seemed to realize how much they'd just said. They all looked at each other.

"We're not–"

"Not allowed to talk about it." She sighed and blew a loose curl out of her eyes. "Right."

Chapter Text

The sun had long since set on the castle by the time Ariel returned. By the time she found Merida, the latter had explored most of the place and was currently standing in the dining room, her back to the large ocean-facing windows, examining one of the massive paintings on the wall. She munched on an apple she'd snuck out of the kitchen during her self-guided tour. At the sound of the door opening, she turned to see her mentor standing in the doorway.

"I have a question," Merida said after swallowing the bit of apple in her mouth. "Why do you have a gigantic painting of one of the other Princesses on your wall?"

Ariel sighed and came over to stand next to her. Crossing her arms, she looked up at the portrait as well.

"I'm not exactly sure," she admitted. "Probably what they call an "Easter Egg". A sneaky reference to something. Anyway, we can't take it down, so we're stuck with Aurora and Philip's faces permanently up on the wall. I think she thinks it's funny, but it's hard to tell."

"It's just plain odd, is what it is."

"Yeah, well, there's not much I can do about it. Come on. Park's closed and we have places to be."

Ariel led her back through the castle to the garden atop the barbican. With the sun gone, the ocean was just an inky, black expanse below them. Cold, white mist had rolled in, obscuring their surroundings. Merida noticed that Ariel kept them away from the edge when she finally stopped; she'd done this enough times before to know exactly where to stand to make the magic work. The air around them shimmered, swirling the mist. A second later they were back in the attraction. Ariel hopped down from the platform first and beckoned over her shoulder for Merida to follow. She did, avoiding the strange dolls of her mentor and Eric as she went.

"Tonight's the weekly meeting of the DCA Council, and I'm taking you with me," Ariel said as they left the attraction and headed back out into the Paradise Pier area.

"I guessed as much."

"Good. Before we go, there's a couple of things you have to know," she told Merida. As she spoke, she illustrated each point with her hands. "First of all, the Council here doesn't exactly work the same way as the one for the other Park. There's only one group of us. A small group. We all still meet weekly, though. I also represent this Park when the other Council has its weekly meeting. Second, you're just coming to watch. That means no getting involved. And don't just chuck that over your shoulder. Wait till you find a trashcan."

Merida let out a quiet huff and did as she was told. Heading over to the nearest one — turquoise trimmed with red — she shoved the apple core in and let the flap bang shut again before hurrying back over to Ariel. The two Princesses walked together, retracing the path they'd taken that morning. As they walked Ariel kept talking.

"Trying to find a place for everyone to meet every week has been a nightmare. I suggested meeting in the main room at my restaurant – or even out on the patio – but some people didn't like that idea." She rolled her eyes and continued, "For a while we just met on the patio of Wine Country, and then the courtyard of the Animation building, but I don't think any of us really liked being that out in the open. Thank Disney for Carthay Circle opening. It's the closest thing this place has to Sleeping Beauty Castle, which makes it the ideal spot. Not that the logistics are perfect, of course, since we have to accommodate cars now…"

At this point she was just rambling. Merida barely understood a word she was saying.

They finally arrived at the square at the end of Buena Vista St. Its white tower stood as a brightly lit beacon in the darkness. Now that Merida had a better chance to look at it, she saw that the main sign over the entrance proclaimed "CARTHAY CIRCLE" and below that "WORLD PREMIERE". Ariel headed for the glass-paneled front doors and she followed close behind.

On the other side was a small room with white walls and ceiling and a dark wooden floor. Candle holders and black-and-white pictures covered the walls. Still in the lead, Ariel headed through the door on the left into yet another room. This one was darker and somewhat subdued. Everything was colored in browns and muddy yellows, the walls paneled in places with that same dark wood. Small tables circled with chairs waited along the walls and in the couple of side rooms to the left and the right. The carpet underfoot muffled their footsteps as they walked. At the moment, they were the only people there. Ariel didn't stop. Instead she kept going toward the stairs at the far wall. As the Princesses both walked up them to the next floor, Merida heard the sound of voices floating down to meet them.

At the top was another short, twisting hallway lined with yet more black-and-white pictures. By now, Merida had started to recognize the man who appeared in many of them as the same one from the statue in the Hub. Walt Disney. Beyond the hall was another large room. This one was filled with a labyrinth of tables. Several metal chandeliers decked with strands of crystals hung from a raised bit in the middle of the ceiling. Glancing up, she saw its panels were painted with woodland scene.

She was so caught up in looking at it that she jumped when Ariel hooked an arm around hers and whispered, "This way."

Ariel led her between the tables and made for a doorway embedded into the middle right wall of the room. After passing glass cases filled with bottles on either side, they stepped into a small, circular room.

At the far side, facing them, were several windows. Each had sets of both heavy yellow and delicate lace curtains around them, partially obscuring their views of the street below. More pictures of Walt Disney covered the remaining walls, as well as a mirror set into a small alcove. A single chandelier hung in the middle of the chamber. Below it, and taking up most of the space, was a large, circular table. Twelve chairs waited around it. Merida noticed that, while they looked mostly the same, they were of wildly differing sizes. Several were already occupied. She recognized the great blue furry thing with the horns, the small creature with the long ears, and the two Princesses. Belle and Jasmine. The latter perked up when she saw them standing in the doorway.

"You did bring her. I'll go get another chair." She slipped past them, out into the main dining room.

"This is the Premiere Room, our new Great Hall and meeting space," Ariel told Merida with a grin once the other girl was gone.

Belle, who was currently prodding at a foot-long metal rectangle sighed and said, "We had to make it bigger than it usually is, and it's still not enough to fit everybody."

"Still having trouble getting the program to work?" Ariel asked, peering over her shoulder at the rectangle.

"The signal's not the best."

The redhead frowned. "On which side: his or ours?"

"Both." Belle paused and added, "Mostly on the Radiator Springs side."

"That figures. Let me take a look."

She leaned over the back of Belle's chair to poke at it as well, standing precariously on tiptoe. Just then jasmine returned with a chair, dragging it through the narrow entryway and positioning it near the wall, facing the table.

"It's a little bit of a tight fit, sorry," she said with an apologetic grimace. Merida just shrugged it off.

While the others worked on whatever that thing was, Merida sat and swung her feet. They were all waiting for something to start the meeting. Presumably the missing seven members of the Council. Slowly, the rest began to arrive. Kenai eventually arrived, lumbering through the doorway. He shot her a curious look, which she mirrored. His only response was to shake his head and head for one of the two largest chairs at the table, squeezing past the handful of already-seated characters. What surprised Merida was the large, fluffy, yellow dog that came trotting in after him. None of the others paid him any mind, so she could only assume he was meant to be there. First a bear, now a dog. Why not?

One by one, four more characters arrived. Woody, who tipped his hat to her as he passed by, a tall purple insect with a crown of leaves, and a short man with a large green hat who walked with a bounce in his step. Merida didn't notice Sebastian until he'd hopped up onto the miniature chair resting atop the larger one at his spot and cleared his throat. Ariel just rolled her eyes when she saw him. There was only one seat remaining and no sign of its occupant.

At the other side of the table, the Princesses were still fiddling with the metal thing. All three of them were talking to it at that point. A bluish glow coming off it lit up their faces from beneath.

"Can you hear us?" Ariel half-shouted at it.

"Loud and clear, Miss Ariel," a voice said. The sound seemed strangled garbled. Ariel sighed and shot a look at Belle.

"It's the best we're going to get for now," Belle told her with a shrug. "I'll look into getting a better connection through. For now, we just have to hope the call won't cut out halfway through the meeting."

Ariel sighed. "Great. Merida, can you close the door?"

Merida hopped up from the chair and headed into the short passage connecting the chamber to the main room. She shut the double-doors at the far end of it, which were paneled with glass, before returning to her seat. She saw Belle set the rectangle on the table in front of the empty seat. On its front, she saw a glass surface like the one in her old room in the other Park's castle. The image displayed in it was of strange brown, squarish creature with gigantic green eyes. Its skin looked like heavily-rusted metal.

Clapping her hands together to get everyone's attention, Ariel said, "Okay, everyone, welcome to the first meeting of the Disney California Adventure Council in its new place at Carthay Circle. You probably noticed our newest Princess watching in the corner, so why don't we start with everybody introducing themselves?"

Each of the assembled characters said their names in turn, although Merida guessed the Princesses, Kenai, Sebastian, and Woody only did it out of politeness. The big fuzzy blue thing introduced himself as James P. Sullivan.

"Though everybody just calls me Sully," he told her with a smile.

The small creature with the long ears was called, "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." Merida thought it was an interesting — if confusing — title. He looked about as much like a rabbit as Mickey did like a mouse. The man with the hat was apparently just The Mad Hatter, or The Hatter. He doffed his hat to her, revealing a small, brightly colored tea set resting on top of his head. She saw steam coming out of the spout of the teapot. A second later he'd poured himself a cup and started sipping it.

Once it was his turn, the dog perked up. Despite everything that had happened over the past few days, Merida was still surprised when he said in an oddly flat voice, "My name is Dug. It is good to meet you."

He kept talking. As he continued, Merida realized that the voice wasn't actually coming from the dog; it came from the strange collar around his neck. A red light on it blinked as he spoke.

"Dug," Woody said in a warning voice, cutting him off.

Dug lowered his head. His ears drooped. "Sorry."

The purple insect was named Atta, and she made it a point to say that she was somehow also a Princess. Finally, the odd thing on the small screen was named Mater. Merida waved to them all.

"Okay, since that's out of the way, onto the rest of the news. Buena Vista St. is open now — which is fantastic — as well as Cars Land." Her smile seemed forced at that last part, and it wasn't hard for Merida to guess why. There was a loud whooping sound from the little rectangle. Through the screen, she could see Mater bouncing up and down, which shook the whole image. How big was he exactly that he couldn't fit in the same room as the bear?

The assembled characters all started to discuss the state of the Park — boring things, mostly — and Merida started to tune it out. Instead, she got a better look at the room. The top picture across the room from her was of Walt surrounded by a lot of little dolls that looked vaguely like Mickey Mouse. Quick glimpses around the legs of the characters showed her that the base of the table was a chunk of pale stone. It was carved with some sort of designs, but she couldn't make them out from where she sat.

"And, finally, there's the matter of the mentorship for the Brave triplets: Hamish, Hubert, and Harris," Ariel said, catching Merida's attention again. "I thought that the obvious choice was Koda, so—"

Woody half-stood, leaning across the table toward her, and demanded, "You thought? What about what we all think, huh? They're Pixar characters, not Disney. Or did you forget that again? We've already lost a Princess; we don't need to lose the Princes, too."

"Well, who else do you suggest? It's not like you exactly have a lot of bears in your roster just waiting around for someone to mentor!"

"Maybe we don't, but there's got to be someone who—"

"Whoa, whoa. Hold on." Sully waved his arms, trying not to smack Belle in the face as he did. She just leaned back and out of the way, her eyes never once leaving the book in her hands. Once he had everyone's attention, he said, "You have to admit, Woody, she does have a point."

"You can't be serious."

"Who's going to watch out for them in our group? You?"

"What about you?"

Sully shook his head. "They're bears, Woody. Not monsters."

Woody had turned his full attention on the big blue creature by this point. Clearly frustrated, he asked, "What about Boo?"

"Again, she's not a bear."

"Well, I have to disagree," Atta said. It was the first time Merida heard her speak through the whole meeting so far. "There has to be someone on the Pixar roster who can take the boys. It's bad enough that you took Merida. Did we all just forget that I'm just as much of a Princess as Ariel is?"

"First of all, you're not. You aren't on the official list," Jasmine pointed out. "Second, you are literally an ant. And didn't you become Queen at the end of your film?"

"That's not exactly the point here, is it? Besides, she's half fish."

Sebastian puffed himself up to his full several-inch-tall height and demanded, "Are you suggesting that, because she was born under the sea, she isn't good enough to train your new Princess?"

Atta scoffed. "Did you hear a word I just said?"

Merida wasn't surprised when the argument just got louder from there. The characters' voices overlapped with one another, creating an incomprehensible din. As much as she might've wanted to cut in, if for no other reason than to get them all to shut it, but Ariel's instruction to stay out of it no matter what made her stop. So instead she leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms. She noticed that several of the characters were staying out of it. Oswald drummed his fingers against the table, Dug sunk low in his chair so that he was barely visible, Belle buried her nose deeper in her book, and Kenai rolled his eyes. Sully was still trying to get in between the arguing sides. When that didn't work, he let out an incredibly loud roar. Merida started back, gripping the arms of the chair, and she saw several others do the same. Dug let out a yelp and disappeared beneath the table.

"Will everybody just calm down?" Sully asked, exasperated. "Look, this mentor thing is always a mess. It's hard enough dealing with getting a whole town full of cars used to this place — no offense."

"None taken," Mater called from the screen.

"Yeah, they should be mentored by Pixar characters, but between the toys, the bugs, the monsters, the fish, the superheroes, the cars…" He listed them off on his claws. "… we don't have anybody who fits. They're straight out of a fairytale. We're not. The main company? They've been doing this longer than any of us have been around. It just makes sense."

No one said anything to that. Most of them just stared down at the table, or at the walls. Anywhere except for each other. Belle slipped a bookmark in to hold her page before setting her book down on the table. Leaning over, she asked, "Oswald? You have anything to add?"

He sighed. "Just let them have the kids, okay? Right now it's probably what's best for them."

That was that, it seemed. The Pixar characters who'd argued against it all leaned back, stone-faced, not saying another word. With a look of satisfaction, Ariel turned to Kenai and asked, "So, what do you think?"

"I'll have to ask Koda," he said with what amounted to a shrug, "but I'm pretty sure he'll say yes."

"I think that settles this issue. Tell me once you get his okay, and we'll get the boys over here so the mentoring can start."

The meeting didn't last long after that. Just a few more issues, unimportant compared to the one that had proceeded them. Everyone was quieter than before as well, their tone and action more civil, although somewhat forced. Merida didn't fail to notice that the room was tenser than it had been when they'd all first arrived.

Chapter Text

"Okay, now concentrate," Ariel said. She leaned back against the corridor wall and crossed her arms. Merida thought she looked out of place there in Sleeping Beauty Castle, dressed like one of the guests who weren't supposed to be able to get inside.

The other Princess had spent ages explaining all the strange bits of clothing they wore to her. Now Ariel had changed out of her usual fluffy gown into a pair of tight green trousers and a purple top that left her arms bare. Her red hair was tied back and a set of the strange eye coverings she'd called sunglasses perched atop her head.

"You're not concentrating," Ariel said, rolling her eyes.

"Right."

Merida squeezed her eyes shut, her nose wrinkling, and tried to concentrate. A culmination of hours poring over thin, flimsy books full of pictures called magazines — most of which were still strewn about her room in the castle within Ariel's attraction — and watching the guests that passed by during the day had led to this. She reached for that feeling Ariel described as the characters' "magic." It had an oddly tingly sensation, even to the ends of her curls somehow. While keeping the image of the disguise she settled on in her mind, she tugged on the power.

The tingling grew stronger, dancing over her skin. She opened her eyes. Just as when she first arrived at the Park, golden sparkles showered over her. She sneezed hard. Then again.

"Sorry," Merida said, sniffing and pushing her curls back out of her face.

"Happens all the time," Ariel told her, waving it off. "Don't worry about it. Not bad, by the way."

Merida's dress had changed. Now she wore a pair of laced boots, things called jeans that ended just above her knee, and a short-sleeved shirt in a dark teal color. On the front of it, in a darker color, was the familiar triple-bear sigil. It was definitely different from what she normally wore. According to Ariel, it would also keep her from being mobbed by guests the second she stepped out of the castle.

The two now disguised Princesses hurried along the corridor and down the stairs at the end. A few minutes later they were standing just behind a door that led outside. Merida had realized once she saw guests going out the same door that they were going into a totally different part of the castle than the characters were. Apparently for the latter there was a permanently open hole in the "façade", as they all called it, to get into the real version.

Ariel grinned and popped her sunglasses down over her eyes, saying, "Hope this works."

Grabbing the handle, she pushed the door open. Merida blinked and squinted as followed the other girl out into the sunlight. They'd arrived in the courtyard at the back of the castle. It was late in the afternoon, when the crowd was at its thickest, and almost no one looked their way. A little girl holding a toy bow gave Merida a curious look as she passed by, but she was just about the only one. She'd been under near-constant scrutiny her whole life, so to suddenly become something near invisible was… odd.

Ariel led her through the castle gate house, across the drawbridge, and toward the Hub, slipping between guests in the throng as they headed for the entrance of the Park. Once they'd left through the Park's gates and reached the open, paved walk on the other side, they turned right for the first time, passing the small buildings and trees that blocked whatever was on the other side from view.

It turned out to be a long, winding street bordered with long rows of buildings, broken in many places by planters filled with brilliant green bushes and trees. Merida wasn't sure how long it went on. She smelled all kinds of food on the air. Bread, along with many things she couldn't quite name. The music that was always present seemed even louder here. Guests strolled in groups up and down the length of the street.

"Is this a market?" Merida asked as she looked around. To her right, a sculpture shaped like a massive pink and yellow flower shot jets of water high into the air.

"Kind of, yeah," Ariel replied. "This is Downtown Disney. Most of us don't come out here very often, since there are so many more rules about what you can and can't do compared to the Park. Every so often, though, it's good for relaxing."

They kept walking, passing by all sorts of shops Merida could barely wrap her head around. Weaving around one of the planters, she saw a small group of girls sitting on the edge of another filled with white, orange, and yellow flowers. Despite their change in garb, Merida still recognized all of them. There was Jasmine, which wasn't a surprise, along with Belle. Merida noticed that the book she was reading was a different one than she'd seen her reading at the Council meeting. There was also the solemn blonde girl who seemed to be one of the oldest Princesses, who she thought was named Cinderella. The young black-haired girl, Snow White, waved at them.

Ariel ran ahead to meet them and asked, "Is this everyone who could make it?"

Jasmine nodded. "I guess everybody else had to actually work today." She nudged Belle in the ribs. "It's summer. It's nice out. You're supposed to be relaxing."

"I am," Belle muttered.

Gesturing to an empty spot next to the other Princesses, Ariel told Merida, "Sit down. Like Jasmine said, relax. I'll be back in a minute."

Before she could ask what she was going to do, Ariel ran off in the direction of one of the nearby buildings, her red ponytail flying out behind her. A sign spun in circles over the entrance, but Merida couldn't even begin to figure out how to pronounce what it said. She sat down on the spot Ariel had indicated. A second after she did so, Cinderella leaned in toward her.

"So, what do you think of all this?" she asked, gesturing to the buildings around them with a forefinger.

"It'll take some getting used to," Merida admitted.

"None of us are that used to it, either," Cinderella told her with a sympathetic smile. "It's only been open for about eleven years now."

Merida stared at her. Eleven years ago, her father had lost his leg to Mor'du. It seemed like so long ago to her, yet this other girl spoke as if all that time was nothing. Merida wondered if she was one of the older characters Ariel mentioned. Cinderella looked away again, saying something to Belle that made the latter bury her face in her book with a groan. While she talked, her fingers played absently with one of her small silver earrings. Merida noticed they were shaped like tiny skulls.

Ariel returned then, carrying something in her hand. She held it out to Merida and said, "Here, try this."

Merida took it gingerly and examined it. Whatever it was seemed to be a crispy cone of some kind, wrapped in paper, topped with a smooth orb of something cream-colored.

"What is it?" she asked.

Ariel rolled her eyes. "Just try it."

When Merida took a tentative bite, the sudden sensation of ice against her teeth was so strong that she nearly dropped the thing.

"It's cold!"

"It's ice cream," Ariel told her with a laugh, sitting down on her other side. "Don't eat it too fast. I promise, it will hurt."

After giving it a quick, wary look, she tried again. The taste was strange. Creamy. She thought she might like it, but she wasn't sure yet.

Jasmine leaned over to see past the girls sitting between her and Merida and said, "So, Merida, I hear you got out of an arranged marriage."

Merida wiped her mouth with the back of her hand before answering. "I did."

"Fantastic," Jasmine said, grinning and giving her a thumbs-up. "Now it's not just me."

"You were in an arranged marriage?"

"Oh, yeah. I was supposed to marry a Prince before my birthday. Any Prince, no matter how awful." She made a face. "By the time I got here, I'd convinced my father that I should be able to marry for love — who I wanted, and when I wanted. Which is sort of what you did, too."

"Hold on. I thought the lot of you were married by the ends of your films."

Jasmine laughed and shook her head. "That's a common misconception, but no. It took about four years after we got here for Aladdin and I to get married. When 'The King of Thieves' came out, we thought it was probably time."

"Four years for me, too," Snow piped up. "I think Belle has the record for longest wait."

Belle turned the page of her book and said, "I got married in 2001. That was ten years, so yes, I do. Marriage at the end of the film is the exception rather than the rule."

"There's only three of us that did it. Tiana, you, and you." Jasmine pointed to Ariel and Cinderella in turn. To the latter, she added, "And I don't think you even count anymore."

Cinderella smiled as if this were all part of some old joke. "Separated for forty-five years, divorced for twenty-one."

Looking at all of their faces in turn, Merida realized she'd made an error in judgment. None of the other girls seemed to notice this. They continued talking to one another, and she soon became lost.

The conversation eventually began to trail off. Then Snow White asked, "What else should we do today?" She clasped her hands together and scuffed the heels of her cream-colored slippers against the ground.

Jasmine shrugged. "There's always the Disneyland Hotel pool."

At this suggestion, Ariel wrinkled her nose and made a noise of disgust.

"You're just upset that they changed it," Jasmine said.

"It was perfectly good as the Neverland pool," the redhead countered.

"It needed refurbishment," Belle cut in. "I get that Peter's your mentor, and the theming was a little bit yours too, but it had to be done."

"Okay, have something of yours taken out and see how you — oh my gosh."

The other girls all turned in the direction of whatever Ariel had seen. Merida looked as well. At first, all she saw a man walking in their direction. Then she realized that, while he looked like the guests in the crowd around him, there was something about him that was just a little bit odd. Something she couldn't quite place, but was there all the same. He was a character in disguise. He had to be.

She got a better look at him as he got closer. He had dark hair, even darker eyes, and a short beard. There was an overconfident sort of swagger to his walk that reminded Merida a bit of Lord Macintosh's son. The sleeves of the man's white shirt were rolled up, exposing inked designs all up and down his arms.

Leaning past Merida, Ariel asked in a sharp whisper, "Did you know he was going to be here?"

"I… did," Cinderella told her with a grimace. "I forgot. Sorry."

"You forgot?"

"Good afternoon, Your Highnesses," the man said, drowning out whatever else Ariel was going to say. He gave them a bow that Merida wasn't sure was meant to be sarcastic or not. Holding out a hand to Cinderella, he asked, "Ready to go, my lady?"

Cinderella rolled her eyes. Despite that, Merida saw she was fighting not to smile. The blonde took his hand and said, "As much as I'll ever be."

He hoisted her to her feet. After Cinderella gave a quick wave to the other Princesses, the two of them headed off down the street in the opposite direction of the Parks.

"Who was that?" Merida asked, half-turning to watch the two of them vanish into the crowd.

Ariel frowned. "Jack Sparrow."

"The pirate?" She'd heard a little about him, but not much.

"Either the best, or the worst, depending on who you're asking," the other redhead said, in a way that made Merida think she was on the side of the latter. "Last year, out of nowhere, they apparently started dating."

"Dating is probably a strong word here," Belle said. She seemed like she was holding back a laugh.

Ariel threw up her hands. "I don't know what to call it. It's weird!"

"You have to admit, it doesn't make much sense," Jasmine added.

"Cindy doesn't exactly make 'sense' compared to before, either."

Ariel looked down and bit her lip when Belle said that. Her reaction was so abrupt and so strange that Merida couldn't make sense of it. "Before"? Before what?The previous year, apparently. Ariel was still in the main Park around that time. And she couldn't leave because…

"Does this have something to do with the fight that happened last year?" Merida asked.

All four of the Princesses turned to look at her. Nobody spoke. Then Ariel whispered, "Who told you about that?"

"I just… heard some things." She was sure the other girl wouldn't be happy to know Flounder and Scuttle accidentally told her, and she wasn't about to rat them out for it. "Not much."

Belle actually closed her book then. Leaning forward with a look of incredulity, she asked Ariel, "You didn't tell her?"

The redhead made a face. "It's not exactly something I thought I should dump on her when she'd only just gotten here."

"So you instead you decided to keep her in the dark. Right, okay." Turning her attention to Merida, Belle said, "First of all, it wasn't a fight; it was an actual war with the Villains for control of the Magic Kingdom."

"The… Villains?"

"Our counterpoints, our antagonists. We all have them. Yours is Mor'du, for example. The Villains, collectively, are a group of witches, pirates, evil queens, monsters—"

"Grand viziers-slash-sorcerers," Jasmine added.

"Thank you, Jasmine, yes. They're the worst of the worst. Last year, they finally mustered enough power to attempt a takeover of the Park, and we fought back against them. The result was bloody. People died. I don't think any of us were the same when we came out the other side."

"How many of you actually fought in the battle?"

Jasmine answered this time, saying, "We all did, even Snow."

Snow White, who Merida thought looked like she wouldn't hurt a fly, nodded. Trying to imagine her in combat was nearly impossible. And yet, somehow, it happened.

"It all ended with Cinderella," Ariel told her. "Maleficent was leading the other side. The Mistress of All Evil. During our last battle, she turned herself into a massive dragon for the occasion. Cindy climbed all the way to the top of the Matterhorn to kill her. The Villains' forces scattered after that."

Merida thought about the blonde Princess who had left just minutes before. The blue eyes she recalled weren't those of a girl maybe three years older than her. No, those were the eyes of an old woman. One who had seen too much, done too much, and lived to tell the tale. Bright, but haunted.

They said she slayed a dragon? Merida believed them.

"But that's all over now," Ariel continued with an attempt at a bright smile. "And we still need to figure out what we're going to do for the rest of the day."

"Again, there's the pool," Jasmine said.

Ariel groaned. "I already told you that's not a good idea. Besides, even if we go, Merida can't. She's barely gotten her into normal disguise. We haven't even started to touch things like bathing suits."

"If you lot want to go, that'd be all right," Merida told them. "I haven't seen anything out here yet."

Getting a bit of solo exploring in didn't sound too bad, honestly. See what was out there without anyone watching over her shoulder. It wasn't riding through the woods, but it was at least something. She popped up to her feet and turned to face them.

"You remember how to get back into DCA, right?" Ariel asked. Merida stuck her hand into her pocket and pulled out the brightly colored slip of paper that Ariel had told her how to conjure. "Okay, try to stay away from the Resort edges. The barrier won't do anything to you, but the guests might notice something's up."

"Got it."

She and the other three girls got up as well. Jasmine and Snow were already off, heading in the same direction the Princess and the pirate had taken only minutes earlier. Belle followed them, tucking her book into the bag slung over her shoulder, with Ariel not too far behind her. Merida turned on her heel and headed in the other direction. There was no sense in just trailing aimlessly after them, so she might as well start looking around at the other end of the street.

After finishing up the ice cream, she chucked the paper in the nearest bin and wiped her hands off on her shorts. Ahead and a bit to the right was a large sign reading, "World of Disney." Over it, statues of two squat characters dressed in red hung onto some strange sort of contraption.

She briefly debated going inside before someone nearby said, "Wait a second — Merida?"

Merida stopped. The voice sounded familiar. Looking around in the direction it'd come from, she saw a boy similarly half-turned back to face her.

He seemed about her age and couldn't be more than a couple inches taller than her. Like her, he was dressed up as one of the guests, wearing a brownish-yellow thing Ariel had called a hoodie, jeans, and boots. Black hair framed his wide brown face. His brows furrowed and his nose scrunched up a little as he watched her. There was the same sort of off-look that Jack Sparrow had about this boy, so he was definitely one of the characters, but other than that he didn't look the least bit familiar to her.

"Sorry?"

He let out an exaggerated sigh and rolled his eyes. Turning the full way around, he thrust out his hand toward her and said, "The name's Kenai, remember? We've met."

"Oh! Right." She knew his voice sounded familiar. After shaking his outstretched hand sheepishly, she pushed back her curls and said, "I didn't know you could turn back into a human."

"Of course I can turn back. Technically speaking, everyone can. Most of them just don't want to."

"Wait, even the boys?"

"Your brothers? Yeah, they can. That's why I'm out here. Koda's watching them, and I'm watching Koda." At this, he looked down, as if expecting to see the four of them standing there. "… and now I've lost them. Great."

Merida took a quick look around. She had no idea what Koda would look like as a human, but she knew her brothers all-too-well. There was no sign of a trio of redheaded lads. Not on the street, or the trail leading off it, or around the nearby fountain filled with rocks. "Where'd you see them last?"

"They were just here, I swear!"

"Well, knowing the wee devils, they could be anywhere by now," she said, putting her hands on her hips.

Kenai groaned and dragged his hands down his face. "Two Parks, three hotels, all of Downtown… the parking lots…"

If she were one of her brothers, where would she go? Wherever there was mischief to be had, most likely. Plenty of places for that here. They didn't know the terrain, though. They couldn't have gotten far. There was no sign of them on the street, or climbing into the nearby trees, so that really only left one immediate option that she could figure.

Pointing to the building to her left — the so-called "World of Disney" — she asked, "What's in there, exactly?"

"A lot."

"That's very helpful, thanks for that."

Kenai scowled. "I don't have a better answer. There's just a lot of everything. Clothes, toys, various junk. You think they're in there?"

"Seems likely," she said with a shrug.

"Okay." He sighed and shook his head. "Probably won't hurt to check."

Together, they both made for the triple sets of doors. They were already propped open, so Merida stepped inside and took a look around.

Everything, including the ceiling, was painted a pale sort of yellow and covered in tons of orange-ish wooden beams. Shelves lined the walls and stood in bunches in the middle of the floor, creating a labyrinth of stuff. She tried to weave her way through them, only to find yet more on the other side. Statues of characters, like the ones over the door, hung overhead. Strange, flying creatures that she only vaguely recognized. Here and there, in rooms that served as offshoots of the main hall, she saw paintings high up on the wall. She felt dizzy trying to take it all in.

"You were right," she said. "There's… a lot."

"Told you," Kenai replied with a smug smile. Merida made a face.

There was still no sign of the boys anywhere. How they were supposed to find them in that mess, Merida wasn't sure. It was hard enough trying to figure out where she was going. To her surprise, however, it didn't actually take that long before she saw a flash of red hair. Turning sharply, she saw the four of them standing around a circular display of what she assumed were brightly colored sweets. As she watched, Hamish climbed up onto Hubert's shoulders, which she assumed was to get a better reach.

"Boys!"

Her three brothers turned toward her in unison, their blue eyes huge. When the other boy with them looked back and saw her and Kenai hurrying toward them, a huge grin broke across his face.

"Hey, you found Merida!" The excitable voice was definitely Koda's, but the only real sign that he'd ever been a cub was a cap adorned with knitted bear ears.

Kenai kept going even when Merida stopped, gesturing for Hamish to get down and saying, "Guys. Guys, get down from there."

When he looked over his shoulder, Merida looked, too. His gaze seemed to be on a woman coming toward them. The shiny pin on her shirt showed her to be one of the Park's Cast Members. She stopped maybe ten feet away and looked the six of them over. Kenai chuckled nervously and shrugged. The woman then seemed to realize who they were. Shaking her head, she walked away.

"Friendly," Merida said once the Cast Member was gone.

"Yeah, most of the CMs don't exactly get along with the characters." Kenai looked back down at the triplets and Koda. "This kind of shenanigan is why. C'mon, let's get out of here."

Merida's brothers all turned to look at her with eyebrows raised. With a start, she realized why.

"Actually, um… I sort of promised them sweets. For a year. Before we left DunBroch," she said. Kenai looked at her, then the display, then the boys, before finally back at her again.

"You didn't."

She grimaced. "There weren't any other options at the time."

All four of the boys looked up at them expectantly. It didn't take long for him to crack. With a resigned sigh, he said, "Fine."

The triplets and Koda all cheered.

Chapter Text

Merida sat on the wall encircling the garden atop the barbican, kicking her feet. The waves crashed far below. Overhead, the moon shone bright against the black sky, casting silvery light over everything. Tipping her head back, Merida watched it. It was strange to know that that moon, and the one out in the sky over the Park, were different. Maybe it wasn't the strangest thing she'd seen since she arrived, but it was near the top of her list.

With the rest of the Princesses doing whatever they'd planned to do, and the boys all off again, she'd returned to California Adventure. It hadn't been long after that that she'd just returned to the castle inside Ariel's attraction. Ariel had shown her how to do it. Board the attraction, wait until she was nearly at the same spot, then pull down the façade. Everything went blurry once she had. When it stopped, she'd landed with a thud on the beach below the castle. From there she'd headed out the castle gates and up the dirt road, walking toward the village at the end.

It was all built onto the sides of a steep hill, a rising mess of white walls and red tiles roofs overlooking the ocean. Plants grew in the gaps between the buildings and there were fountains just about everywhere she looked. Bridges crossing shimmering waterways connected different parts of the town. In the very middle of it all was the bustling market. Merida spent hours here, just taking it all in. The villagers were confused about her at first, but it didn't take long to explain who she was to them.

At sunset, she headed back to the castle. It wouldn't be too long before closing time. She figured Ariel would be back by then. The sun finally sank below the watery horizon and the moon rose high in the sky, but still no Ariel. She'd gone out into the garden to wait, and by that point she'd been waiting for a while.

She sighed. It was too late to safely shoot anymore, and by now she'd explored practically every inch of the castle. She hadn't seen all that much of California Adventure yet, however. There just hadn't been time until then. Well, if she wanted to do something, it might as well be to go back out there and take a look around.

Reaching out into the air, she felt for the magic of the façade. Just like before, it felt somehow soft to her touch and so smooth that it nearly slipped from between her fingers. She gave it a tug again. Once her vision cleared, she was sitting on the edge of the platform, facing the attraction's shell-things. Merida got up and stretched her arms over her head. Weaving her way between the massive shells, she made for the attraction exit.

Outside, the Park was indeed abandoned. There was no sign of anyone nearby. Not a guest, nor a character, nor a Cast Member in sight. Across the water, Paradise Pier was all lit up with hundreds of twinkling lights in gold, blue, and orange. Compared to what it was normally like, everything seemed so oddly still.

From the attraction's entrance, she turned left, past the fronts of a row of brightly-colored buildings. Ball-shaped lamps lit her way as she walked. Directly ahead was a yellowish building with a waterwheel on the side. It gave off a loud clacking sound as it turned. There was also the low rumbling, rushing of water. As she got closer, she got a better look at the red sign painted onto the building. "Eureka: Gold and Timber Co." At the low cobblestone wall between her and the building, she looked down to see the edge of a river. White, hissing foam covered the surface. There was no way to tell how deep it was. Realizing this, she pulled back from leaning so far over the wall.

Trees surrounded the whole area she was standing in, making her feel like she was back deep in the woods despite knowing she couldn't possibly be. That seemed familiar. Sure enough, she could just see the top of the stone bear's head through the trees. Everything just led her back to this place, it seemed.

She took the path to the right, which twisted downward through the dark trees. Before long it passed beneath a massive wooden bridge of some kind. Water dripped down onto the trail from the top, and she stepped aside to avoid it. There was another set of buildings to her left, and a few rectangular metal bins on wheels filled with rocks to her right. It was then that she heard voices coming from somewhere up ahead.

"Hello?" she called into the darkness.

There was a quiet rustling and the sound of snapping twigs. Up the hill to the right, through the trees, Merida saw a dark shape approaching. It climbed over the wooden fence, then the natural rock wall. Light finally hit brown fur as Kenai stepped onto the trail in front of her.

"You again," he said, not sounding terribly surprised to see her. "Just can't stay away, can you?"

"I suppose not. I was trying to do a bit of exploring, and I —"

"You ended up back here again, yeah. That seems to be becoming a habit."

She shrugged. Looking at the hill he'd just come down, she asked, "How're the boys?"

"They're fine." With a sigh, he added, "At least sugar rushes don't affect characters."

"With those four lads, I'm not sure it matters."

The bear laughed and shook his head. "No, it really doesn't."

After a brief pause, she asked, "Was Koda turned into a bear as well, then?"

"What are you talking about?"

"He said you were turned into a bear, so I assumed—"

"No. No, Koda's always been a bear. A real one, I mean. He kind of adopted me when we met. And I it wasn't like I could just leave him by himself." He let out a quiet laugh and rubbed the back of his neck. "I was actually the youngest of three brothers, once. That was a crazy switch, let me tell you."

"You had two brothers? Human brothers?" When he nodded, she pressed, "What happened to them?"

"Sitka died before we got here, but Denahi… Denahi should've come with us."

"I understand. My mum and dad should've arrived with the boys and me."

"Your mom's the other one who got turned into a bear, right?"

"Aye, she was. What happened then was my fault. Mine and my—"

"Pride."

Merida stopped. He was watching her with a curious sort of expression as he asked, "How many people died?"

"I — what? No one. Well, Mor'du, I suppose, but …"

"Then you got lucky."

There was something in the rueful way he spoke that gave Merida pause. Why was he asking her how many died because of her own mistake? Her Mother, nearly. Along with her, her Dad, plenty of others. She had been lucky, he said, like he hadn't been. He'd turned into a bear because of something he'd done, as far as she could figure, and he'd brought up pride. Then there was his eldest brother, the one who was dead. Did that have something to do with it? What happened? And why had he asked "how many"? That implied to her that more people than just this Sitka were caught in the middle. Merida's mind jumped back to Mor'du himself, and she hastily shoved back those thoughts.

In an attempt to steer the conversation in a different direction, she said, "At least it's safe here in the Parks."

"Safe? Are you serious?"

The look the bear gave her, along with the disbelieving laugh, caused Merida to realize just what a mistake she'd made. She swallowed back any further comments she would've made.

When she stayed quiet, he went on, "Look, I get that you haven't been here long, and they obviously haven't told you how this place actually works, so let me set one thing straight. We are not 'safe'. No one here is ever 'safe', and especially not us. I'm sure Ariel or whoever gave you that whole speech about being popular and how you want the guests to like you at all costs, but did she tell you why?"

Merida hesitated. She wracked her brain, trying to remember. All Ariel had told her was that it was their main duty, and that it felt good to be noticed. She'd been right about that last bit, of course. But Merida hadn't known that it had meant anything past that. She slowly shook her head.

"No? Okay, so it's like this: you aren't popular, you die. That's it. You just… fade away into nothing. Usually forever. Most of the other characters that arrived around the time we did? Gone. Koda and I are just hanging on by the skin of our teeth."

How was she supposed to respond to that? The idea that any of the characters, any at all, could just one day be gone? It sent a feeling of ice into the pit of her stomach. She thought of her brothers disappearing for good and gave an involuntary shudder.

Kenai padded past her and nodded back in the direction she'd come from, saying, "There's something you need to see."

Silent and shaken, Merida followed as he led her back up the wooded trail and past the row of brightly colored buildings and ball-lights. He kept going straight across the main path, down through the rows of tiered railings and walkways toward the pond. They stopped at edge of the wooden platform at the very bottom. With a paw, Kenai motioned her forward. Merida complied, taking hesitant steps until she reached the water's edge, separated from it only by one last railing.

It wasn't long before odd spouts sticking out of the surface burbled and hissed to life, illuminated in brilliant green. Jets shot from them high into the air, and she took a quick step back. A cold spray blew into her face. Deep inside the mist, a shape began to form. It was hazy at first. Merida squinted at it, leaning against the railing to get a better look. When it came toward her, floating across the surface, she saw it had the form of a girl in a long flowing gown. When the mystery figure finally reached the edge of the water, hovering a solid few feet over Merida, the latter's breath caught.

It was like looking into a strange sort of mirror. This other girl's face was so similar to her own, but off in an alien sort of way. Her face was green as leaves, as were the long, wild curls fell across eyes that glowed gold. She sported a look of nearly-amused curiosity. Merida stretched out a hand toward her, and the girl matched the gesture. When their fingertips touched, she found her hand to be surprisingly solid. It was still as cold as the spray, though. The green girl smiled.

"This is the Spring Sprite," Kenai said. "Most guests don't know who she is, so she's basically on the lowest rung of the character ladder we have. And that means she can't really leave her two designated spots in this Park: here and the Animation building."

"Really?" Merida asked.

The girl — the Sprite, he'd called her — shrugged, although her smile did fade a bit.

"Like I said, most of us from the early 2000s are gone. And from the 1970s. This is the side of Disneyland no one really wants to acknowledge. It's cramped, and there's not enough room for everyone. You don't make the cut? You're gone."

Merida looked from the Sprite, to Kenai, and back again. She swallowed a lump in her throat. So they could all live forever in this place, until they just… didn't?

She was spared having to find a way to respond when a voice called, "Merida? Hey, Merida, is that you down there?"

The Sprite started backward into the mist, golden eyes wide. With a loud splash, the colored jets of water came crashing down to the surface, revealing that the green spirit had vanished. Merida looked back to see a red-haired figure standing further up on the steps, cast in shadow by the dimmed lighting. Ariel.

"I should go," Merida said in little more than a mumble. She hadn't made it far before Kenai spoke again.

"Hey."

She glanced back over her shoulder again. The bear was watching the water with a strange, pensive sort of look on his face.

"This might be called 'the happiest place on earth', but it's really not," he told her. "Not for us, and I don't think for them either."

"Who's 'them'?"

He shrugged. "The higher ups. The popular ones."

"The rest of the Princesses?"

"Yeah."

"They seem happy enough."

Kenai looked away from the water, toward her, and said, "I'm not so sure."


 

"You okay, Merida?" Ariel asked. "You've been really quiet."

The Princesses had just made it back to the castle, and they were barely inside from the barbican garden. Merida stopped. When Ariel realized the other girl wasn't following anymore, she paused as well and turned back to face her. For a few moments, the two of them stood watching each other in silence. Merida broke the gaze first, crossing her arms and looking at the wall to her left. She caught her reflection in the mirror hanging there and saw the near-pout on her face. Just what she needed: she looked like a petulant child. Fantastic.

Finally, she asked, "Why didn't you tell me we can disappear if people don't pay us enough attention?"

"I didn't think you were ready."

The answer only made her grit her teeth, her expression deepening into something that was nearly a full scowl.

"My parents. Angus. My home. It's all gone," she snapped. "And now I find out that my brothers might just vanish one day, or me, without a single thing I can do to stop it. Your family is here. Your friends are here. D'you even understand what this feels like?"

Ariel's face was oddly blank as she said, "I do. More than you can possibly imagine."

"What d'you mean?"

She didn't answer. Instead, she beckoned with a wave before heading for the stairs. Anger dissipating, Merida followed her.

Ariel led her to a room she'd never seen before. It had to be the castle's master bedroom, judging by the size. She barely glanced at her surroundings before her gaze fell on a nearby table set against one wall. On it was a large wooden box, fronted by double doors that closed with a gilded latch. To either side were several lit candles. It was toward this that Ariel headed. Lifting the latch, Ariel carefully opened the box. Merida stepped up beside her to see what was in it.

About a dozen pictures plastered to the inside walls and the backs of the doors, all of them depicting the same girl. She was young, with black hair and big blue eyes. Some of the pictures were of her swimming in the ocean. Others showed her in the halls of a castle that looked very much like the one they were in now. An assortment of shells covered the bottom. Propped up in the very middle of all this was a doll of the same girl dressed in a pink gown.

"Who's that?" Merida asked as she peered at the box's contents.

"Melody."

Ariel's voice was strangely hushed as she said the name. Merida looked again, harder this time, trying to discern who this girl could possibly be. One of her sisters? No, Merida thought she'd heard somewhere that Ariel was the youngest of her siblings. This girl was too young. And then there was her hair. Black, like Eric's, but with the same swoop across the forehead as Ariel. Understanding suddenly hit her.

"You have a daughter?" When Ariel shook her head, Merida started, "Then who—"

"I should have a daughter."

The abrupt force of the response made Merida stop. Ariel sighed and said, quieter this time, "You know how the end of your film is the last memory you have of your life before all of this? It was the same way with me. But then there was… another. A continuation, released twelve years ago. I found out that in my original life Eric and I eventually had a daughter that we named Melody. She seemed so much like me in some ways; she loved the sea just as much as I love the land." Reaching out, Ariel brushed her fingertips over the doll's cheek. "Oh, I was so ready to meet her."

"What happened?"

Ariel let her hand drop back to her side with a small shrug. "Nothing happened. She never arrived. I mean, I'd hoped, but…"

Her sentence trailed off. Merida thought she saw tears brimming in the other Princess's eyes before she closed them.

"There's your answer," Ariel said. She sounded like she was forcing the words out now. "Maybe this isn't the same thing as being Forgotten, but it still feels like a price I'm paying to be here at all."

Was this what had Scuttle, Sebastian, and Flounder so upset that first day in the castle? The thing they wouldn't tell her? The reason for all the pink things Ariel had stashed away, that she hadn't had any choice but to pull out upon her arrival?

Oh.

"I'm sorry," Merida told her.

"You can't do anything about it. None of us can. It's just the way things are." Ariel closed the double doors again, but left one hand pressed against the wooden panels as she whispered, "How can you love someone — miss someone — who you never even knew?"

Merida didn't know. Missing parents, brothers, daughters… everywhere she looked, she seemed to find the remnants of broken families. She'd just begun to think that this might be a dream they were living in, but maybe it'd turned out to be a sort of nightmare after all.

Chapter Text

Checking that the coast was clear, Merida stepped out of her hiding place and hurried up Buena Vista St. California Adventure had only just closed for the night and, having just returned from the other Park, she'd needed to avoid the crush of guests leaving. She had stayed over there far longer than she'd intended. If she was lucky, Ariel would understand. Her missing daughter being brought up several days before had left Ariel in an odd mood. She'd spoke very little to her, or to anyone, after that. Merida hoped she'd get back to normal sooner rather than later.

Upon reaching the promenade in front of the Little Mermaid attraction, she stopped. Ariel was standing outside, arms crossed, mouth pursed into an irritated pout. But her look wasn't directed at Merida, no. She was facing a small group of the Pixar characters. Woody, with several others from his film behind him. Despite his backup, Ariel didn't seem as if she'd stand down anytime soon. Merida started walking again, hurrying toward the small crowd, and as she got closer she was finally able to make out what they were saying.

"... already been here a while, and we've barely even seen her," Woody snapped. He gestured wildly with his oddly loose arms as he spoke. "What happened to 'spending time with the Pixar folks', huh? You're already on thin ice. Hogging the new girl isn't exactly a good look."

Ariel, frustrated, blew her bangs out of her face and countered, "Merida isn't ready to be thrown into all of this yet. She barely goes anywhere except my castle and her meet-and-greet in the main Park."

"So you and the rest of the Princesses didn't take her Downtown the other day? Yeah, Ariel, we see everything."

As he spoke, his head turned all the way around on his neck. Merida stopped and stared at him in confusion and horror, but Ariel didn't seem impressed.

"If you see everything, Woody, why don't you make yourself useful and see where you can—"

She stopped herself when she noticed Merida. Taking a deep breath, she turned to her and said, "I thought you'd be back here sooner."

"Sorry," Merida said with a grimace. "Got caught up in the other place. What's going on?"

It was Woody who spoke. "We came to get you for the night. It's about time you hung out with us for a change."

"I already told you it's not a good time."

"And when would be better? You've put this off long enough, Ariel."

She seemed ready with another retort, but Merida beat her to it, saying, "A couple hours couldn't hurt, could it?"

Ariel shot her a look. The damage, however, was already done. Woody clapped his hands together with a grin.

"Right, okay. We've got a plan already, so we can just go now."

He started walking, the other two toys behind him, and beckoned for Merida to follow. She did, giving a sheepish wave to Ariel as she went. The latter's lips were pursed into such a thin line that it barely looked like she had any at all.

They led Merida back along the waterfront in the direction of the Park's entrance. While they walked, the toys kept talking.

"Us Pixar folks actually got another Princess of our own a while ago," Woody was telling her.

"Two," Jessie cut in. "Can't forget Dot."

"Oh, right. There are two more Princesses other than you from the studio: Atta and Dot.  But nobody really counts them, so having you here is pretty exciting."

"We aren't they counted?" Merida asked. It was Buzz who answered her.

"They aren't human."

"Oh."

The four of them stopped in front of a wooden archway covered in thick green vines. Written on a massive leaf at the top were the words "a bug's land". More leaves strung up beneath it claimed the area beyond to be some sort of fair. All Merida could see were gardens, though. Maybe it was further in?

It didn't take long before a character was hurrying out to meet them. He was one of the insects, not much taller than her and grey-blue all over. Behind him, the air around the plants grew hazy and they grew up impossibly fast, with blades of grass ending up towering over them like ancient trees. His feelers twitched in an excited sort of way as he finally reached out and shook her hand.

"The name's Flik. Good to meet you."

Merida tried to smile and hoped it didn't come off more as a grimace. This Flik was obviously pleased to see her, and was very polite, but she couldn't help thinking about the fact that an ant that was her size was currently shaking her hand. To say it was unsettling was an understatement.

"Well, we'll see you later, Merida," Woody said, tipping his hat to her.

She turned to him in shock. "You aren't staying?"

"Negative," Buzz said. "We're returning to our home base for the time being."

"We thought this was as good a place to start as any. Get you some idea what's going on on our end of things. Have fun."

With that, they left the way they'd come.

Gesturing to the forest of giant plants behind him, Flik said, "This way, Your Highness."

Merida followed him as he wove his way between the clover and grass. The gravel that covered the ground crunched beneath her feet as she walked.

"All of this is Ant Island," Flik explained, gesturing around him. "Home to the Colony, the Troupe and, well, everyone else."

"And what about that 'Flik's Fun Fair' on the sign outside?" she asked.

"Not entirely sure about the name, but it is what it is, I guess." He shrugged and continued, "It's been good here. More bugs came after we drove the grasshoppers off. Not that we're as rid of them as we'd hoped, but—"

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh. Oh, right! You're new. Well, you see, before there was a gang of grasshoppers terrorizing the colony. We managed to chase them off and we thought their leader, Hopper, was dead. Eaten by a bird."

"And he wasn't."

Flik sighed. "No. After we moved, he came back. But he doesn't show up often. I mean, he tried at first, but it didn't last. He's alone and he knows it. Didn't even join the bad guys over in that other place when they tried to take over, as far as I can tell."

"You talk about the war like you didn't fight in it."

"Us? No, no. That was their fight. It just sort of… happened. Then it was over. Nothing really changed for us over here."

Merida didn't have time to say anything else before they stepped between a few more clovers and into a clearing. Ahead were a few more ants. One was holding a glowing blue mushroom like it was a torch. Another was examining a leaf with markings on it like it was some sort of parchment. This second ant was taller and purple, with a pair of iridescent wings folded up on her back. Looking up from the leaf, she caught sight of Flik and Merida.

"You're here! Great!" Handing over the leaf to one of the others and flying over to them, she said, "You must be Merida — what am I saying? Of course you're Merida. It's so good to have another Princess around here. That makes three of us. You, my sister, and me. I mean, technically I'm a Queen, but I don't really wear the crown for it and…"

The ant, who Merida could only assume had to be Atta, adjusted the tiara that rested atop her head while she rambled. It was made of tiny green leaves with a seed centered in the front in the place of a gem. Seeming to realize that she was still talking, she clasped her hands and cleared her throat.

"So, welcome to Ant Island. Woody's filled us in on what's going on. You probably already got a tour of DCA, but we all thought it would be a good idea to show you around in here, too. I mean, since you've only seen things from the Disney perspective. Any questions so far?"

It was on her mind so much lately, Merida couldn't help but ask, "When you lot got here, did everyone from your film come with you?"

"Well, the whole colony's here. And we got a couple new people after we got here, which is fun, even though they can be a little melodramatic sometimes."

Flik muttered something about a termite under his breath. Then, after seeming to come to a realization, he whispered hurriedly to Atta. She waved him off and he left.

"To answer your question: not as far as I can tell, no," Atta finished with a shrug.

Merida thought she shouldn't have been surprised. After all, Ariel had everyone from her film, with only one real exception. The same seemed to be true for any of the films that transported their worlds into the Parks. But how many of those were there between the two of them? She wasn't exactly sure.

"Has this all been here the whole time the Park's been open?"

"Sort of. It started as just the show, but it didn't take long for the rest of everything to branch out from there. Not many people were here in the beginning. Just a couple scattered here and there…"

There's a rustle and an ant stepped out from between the tall stalks surrounding them. It wasn't Flik. No, he was one Merida hadn't seen yet. He barely seemed to notice her, instead addressing Atta in an undertone. She let out a tsk and rolled her eyes.

"No, she can'just use the back entrance to cut through to the Wharf. Even if it's faster, even if the façade's up," Atta said. "We've been over this."

"Well, she's waiting for an answer."

Wings buzzing with what seemed to be irritation, she turned to Merida with a strained smile and told her, "We'll be right back."


 

They weren't.

The small group of ants had hurried off, leaving Merida standing alone in the near-darkness of the small clearing. It wasn't terrible at first, not really. But as what felt like ages passed with no sign of them coming back, she began to have doubts. Had something happened? It wasn't like she wanted to just wander off while in one of their "worlds within". No, she wouldn't make that particular mistake so lightly again. If Kenai hadn't found her wandering the woods, she could easily have been lost there for hours, if not outright days, before getting back to the Park proper. Still, it seemed like she'd been standing there for at least an hour waiting for them to come back. Waiting seemed to be doing little good either.

In the end, she decided to compromise. Turning to one of the nearby clover stalks, she started to pull herself up. She reasoned that, from the top, she'd be able to see if they were coming. The moon shone overhead, and would be a better light source outside of this miniature forest. At the very least she'd get some idea as to where on this so-called island she was. And it wasn't as if she was really going anywhere. Reaching the top, Merida pulled herself onto the flat plane made by the leaves.

From there, she could see the entirety of the grass-and-clover woods stretching out for some way. In the opposite direction was a massive tree that towered over everything. At the height she was now, it looked taller than any mountain. She had to be careful not to step onto the leaves' wobbly edges while leaning back to look at it. Between the tree and the woods was an open dirt field. There, if she wasn't mistaken, was what looked to be a large anthill. There was no sign of Atta and the others, so she figured that was as good a place to head for as any rather than wait there alone any longer.

Just as she was about to climb back down again, she caught sight of something in the distance. It hovered as an indiscernible dark shape over the top of the forest. She stopped and squinted at it. As she did, she realized there wasn't just one of the things. There were two. And they were coming toward her. Only when they got close enough that she could distinguish their black and yellow stripes in the moonlight did she realize what they were. Hornets. Ones that had wicked stingers as long as her arm.

"Well, look what we've got here," one of them said with a laugh as they buzzed up to hover over her. "A human on the island."

His companion snorted. "Puny one, too. Just look at it. You lost, little human?"

Merida lifted her chin. "Of course not."

"Of course not," the hornets said, mimicking her voice. "What is that accent?"

"Maybe it's mocking us."

"Maybe it is."

Their buzzing had only gotten more agitated. Merida risked a quick look back down at the forest below, looking for any sign of the ants returning. Nothing. One of the hornets noticed.

Darting down to block her view, he asked, "What are you looking for, huh? More human friends?"

"I—"

"Y'know, I'm starting to think Hopper was right about them before. It's pretty easy to forget in here, but they'd squish us if they ever got the chance. Suppose anyone'd notice if we got a little payback?"

The other hornet grinned and both of them looked at her. Merida dropped on instinct, rolling to avoid the first jab of a stinger. Her heart lurched at the thought of what would happen if she was stung by one of those things. Grabbing onto the edge of one of the clover's leaves, she popped over the side and her momentum carried her down, the plant bending like a sapling as she went. Despite it slowing her fall, she still hit the ground hard. She gritted her teeth against the feeling of bruises cropping up along her left side and she let go of the leaf. The clover snapped back up and hit one of the hornets. Merida staggered to her feet and took off running.

"Get back here!" a hornet shouted after her. She couldn't be sure which, and she couldn't afford to look back. Not even to see how close they were getting.

Merida was heading in the direction of the anthill. Maybe they'd be there. Maybe there was someone who could help her. She wove between the clover and grass, feeling her way through in the darkness. Her feet stumbled over the small rocks that littered the ground. Behind her, she heard the buzz of the hornets closing in on her. Felt the beat of their wings.

At last she broke from the woods into the open field. Despite the late hour, it seemed as though there were still some ants milling about on the surface. She ran toward them, feeling a surge of relief, even though the hornets were so close behind her.

"Hey!" she shouted at them, waving her arms. "Hey, over here! Help—"

The ground gave way beneath her feet. She plummeted into darkness with a scream, hitting a hard surface and sliding off. Something dug into her sleeve, tearing the fabric and cutting her arm. As she fell past them, she saw that what she'd hit were roots thick as tree trunks. Her hands shot out to grab them, but it did little good. Finally, she landed on another, thicker one again Rather than let herself slide off like she did before, she latched on tight.

For a moment, she just lay there, taking deep gulps of air. Her heart was racing and it felt as if her body was little more than a collection of bruises. When she thought she finally could, she sat up with a wince. She shoved back her curls to see several ants staring at her from a nearby ledge. They gasped and dropped what they were holding.

"Could you tell me where Princess Atta is?" she asked them. "Please?"


 

Despite their protestations against it, Merida had asked to go back the moment Atta and her entourage finally found her in the place she'd crash-landed in inside the anthill. In the end, they'd honored her request. By the time they left Ant Island behind, Ariel was waiting for them at the entrance of Bug's Land. The other Princess looked livid as she took in Merida's cuts and bruises.

"What happened?" she asked in a voice filled with ice.

"Some neutral bugs found her and tried to take out their aggression, as far as we can tell," Atta explained.

"'As far as you can tell'? You weren't with her?"

"No, no thanks to your people. If we hadn't been distracted by one of yours impinging on our territory…"

"Impinging — Belle just wanted to get through! You know it takes longer to get around through Buena Vista St. than to loop back through Bug's Land when trying to get to the Pier.  Especially when coming from the theater," Ariel snapped.

"That's not your call to make."

"Isn't it?"

That question hung for a moment, cold and very dangerous. It made Merida's stomach twist.

"I just want to go, all right?" she said, hoping she'd cut through whatever this argument was building up to.

Ariel seemed to snap out of it, at least. Turning to her, she said, "Okay. And let's get someone to look at those."

Merida nodded and took a couple steps forward to join her at the Land's entrance. Just before they left, Ariel looked back and said to Atta, "Think about what you're doing before you try something like this again."

The ant glared at her. "You're not really one to talk, Ariel. Remember that."

Ariel scoffed and blew her bangs out of her eyes. "Noted. Oh, and tell Woody that if he wants her back again he's going to have to put in a lot more effort next time.

Chapter Text

Ariel didn’t lead her back toward the attraction.  Instead, she took a sharp right, toward the way out.  Merida followed in confusion.  Before she could even begin to ask where they were going, she saw the two figures waiting for them ahead.  Belle and Jasmine.  The two Princesses leaned against the railing that Merida had hopped over when she’d first arrived, leading up to the bears’ woods.  They straightened when they saw Merida and Ariel approaching.

When they’d finally reached them, Belle looked Merida over with a frown and asked, “What happened to you?”

“Bugs,” Ariel replied.

“I’ll get Rapunzel.” Jasmine turned and started running for the Park entrance, calling back over her shoulder, “Be back in a few!”

Merida watched her go in confusion.  Wasn’t that the name of one of the other Princesses?  That didn’t make any sense.

Ariel seemed to notice her look and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you patched up.”

“In the meantime, we need to get back to Animation,” Belle cut in.  “Jasmine knows to meet us there.”

Ariel nodded and beckoned to Merida.  Together, the three of them walked toward the plaza at the end of Buena Vista St., turning right in front of Carthay Circle. As they went, Belle kept talking.

“I stopped at the theatre to let Jasmine know what was going on first, since she was closer,” she explained to Ariel.  “I wasn’t even thinking.  The Bug’s Land path is more of a straight shot down to the Pier from there, and this really couldn’t wait.  Besides, it never used to be a problem to go through there.”

“Apparently they thought you were a big enough threat to warrant leaving Merida alone,” Ariel told her, rolling her eyes as she did.  “It’s ridiculous.”

Belle looked at Merida with a grimace.  “I’m so sorry.”

They stepped onto the adjoining street past Carthay Circle.  Rows of buildings and tall, skinny trees flanked the road.  Street lamps and glowing signs lit the way.  Around halfway down, on the right, was a strange building.  Unlike the others around it, it wasn’t blocky and made of sandy-brown stone.  Instead, it was gray with big, rippling turquoise windows and barely a straight line in sight.  Perched at the very top, a large vertical sign read “Disney Animation.”  Below that was a banner with moving letters.  Dual, curving hallways led into the building.  Belle led them through the one on the left.  Twinkling lights flashed over their heads.

“So what’s important enough that you had to show me now?” Ariel asked.  “You said it was urgent, but you haven’t even told me what it is.”

“It’s… hard to explain.”

The three of them stepped into a massive circular room.  Clear glass fencing circled the floor, and a few seats were scattered here and there throughout.  Other doorways led off the main room with glowing signs over them.  Animation Academy, Character Close-Up, Sorcerer’s Workshop, Turtle Talk.  The walls, however, were of the greatest interest.  They were covered in layers of huge glass panels.  Upon them were pictures, some moving and some not.  Most of them were of underwater scenes, with bubbles rising up some of the screens.  As Merida watched, the images shifted to ones depicting drawings of a dungeon.  The music playing all around, which had been calm until then, took on a sharp, eerie tone.  On the moving screens, a woman with a crown said something about a spell while holding a goblet of something green.  Neither of the two other Princesses seemed to notice.  Instead, Belle’s path took them to the far side of the room, down a ramp and under the sign saying, “Sorcerer’s Workshop.”

At the end was a short hallway lit by a torch.  Most of the cracked, brown plaster wall was taken up by what seemed to be a map made of strange, curving lines and metal plaques.  The room had strange designs of lines and circles set into the walls, accented by glittering stones.  Overhead, glass lamps in varying shapes and brilliant colors hung from the dark ceiling.  As the three of them entered, up on the wall to their left was the portrait of a man sketched directly onto the plaster.  Belle and Ariel nodded to him as they passed by.  Merida recognized his face from the numerous photos and the statue in the Hub: Walt Disney.  On the far wall was a gilded mirror that had to be as tall as she was surrounded by an arch of gray stone tiles.

Belle led them across the room, around the corner into another torch-lit hallway, and into another room.  The air shimmered around them and Merida blinked to see they were now standing in an absolutely massive room.  Shelves covered the walls, rising up to the decorated ceiling far overhead.  In them were infinitely more books than Merida had ever seen in her life, let alone had been able to imagine up until this moment.  Winding stairs with polished wooden banisters led up to the different levels and precarious ladders allowed access to the shelves at the very top.  Statues of seated lions rested in alcoves dotted here and there, and the warm glow of a fire came from the fireplace at the far end of the room.  The two tall windows were covered by long green curtains, closed against the night sky.

The moment the three Princesses entered the library, two small figures hurried toward them.  Merida wasn’t sure what the one was meant to be, other than the fact that it was made of wood, metal, and glass.  The other was clearly a gilded candlestick.  Merida had seen stranger since she’d arrived.

Bon soir, Mademoiselles,” the candlestick said with a deep bow that set the flame atop what had to be his head flickering.

His companion rolled his eyes and groaned before asking, “You wanted that map again, correct?”

“Yes, please, Cogsworth,” Belle said.  As the two living objects hurried off toward the shelves, she called after them, “Thank you!”

“A map?” Ariel asked.  “A map of what?”

“Disneyland.”  At Ariel’s disbelieving look, Belle explained, “It’s an old map.  One of the originals.  Walt and the outside company had one, and we got a copy with the original Archive at opening.  Or so I’ve been told.”

The candlestick and Cogsworth, whatever he was, returned with the map moments later.  It was a great, unwieldy thing, thick and folded into three big panels.  Both of them struggled to get it over to the Princesses, with the latter yelling commands at the candle not to drip wax.  The instant they were close enough, Belle took it from them and laid it out flat on a nearby desk for them to see.  Drawn the panels was an inked map of the other Park, seen from a strange side-angle rather than directly overhead.  Ariel stared at it with a frown, her lower lip jutting out.

“You know I like a good map more than anybody, but I don’t get what’s so special about this particular one,” she said.  “First of all, it’s a copy.  Plus we’ve known about it for ages.”

“Do you see that border around the edge?”

Ariel squinted at it, and Merida did as well.  There was indeed a thin, looping border done around the whole edge of the map.

“Yeah,” Ariel said.  “Is that… writing?”

Belle grinned.  “It’s not on the original, as far as I can tell.”

Ariel’s eyes lit up.  Turning to the two characters who had just returned with the map, she said, “Hey, Cogsworth?  Do you have a magnifying glass I can borrow?  I want to get a better look.”

“Of course.  Just a moment, if you please.”

He left and Ariel bent over the map, holding back her long red hair as she stared at it, muttering to herself all the while in an excited whisper.  Belle stood a few steps away with her arms crossed, still smiling.  Cogsworth came back before long with a little glass disk stuck at the end of a metal handle.  Ariel took it from him and peered at the map’s border.  While she was distracted, Merida heard a knock on the library door.  Apparently, so did Belle.

“Come on in,” she called.

The door opened and two girls stepped inside.  The blonde Princess with the long braid was in front, and Merida assumed this was the Rapunzel they’d mentioned.  Jasmine came in after, not-quite shutting the door behind her as she hurried over to meet Belle and Ariel.

Rapunzel, however, made a beeline for Merida.

“I heard there was an injury, and — ouch.”  She winced as she looked Merida over.  The dozens of bruises, the slash across her arm.  “I see why they called me in.  Hold on just a sec.”

Merida watched in confusion as she started tugging at her braid, undoing a couple of the incredibly long blonde strands from the rest.  A couple flowers dropped to the floor as she did.  Once Rapunzel seemed satisfied with the amount, she reached for Merida’s injured arm with them.  The latter pulled away, confused.  What was hair going to do?

“Relax and trust me, okay?” Rapunzel said.

Merida sighed and relented, holding out her arm to the other girl.  Rapunzel pressed the lock of hair against the cut and, to Merida’s surprise, she started singing.  As she did, her hair began to glow actual gold.  Like it was filled with light from the inside.  Merida’s arm itched, and it was all she could do to hold it still.  When the other Princess finally stopped singing and pulled the yellow strands away again, the cut was completely healed.

“How’d you do that?” Merida asked, examining it.  If it wasn’t for the hole still torn in her sleeve, she could have almost believed that she hadn’t been injured at all.

“Magic hair.  Sundrop powers.” Rapunzel shrugged.  “It’s complicated.”

“Can you heal any injury?”

She hesitated, about to apply the hair to one of Merida’s larger bruises, and said, “Almost.”

Ariel, meanwhile, was practically jumping up and down, gasping, “Oh my gosh.  Oh my gosh, Belle, have you seen this?

“Why do you think I brought you in here?”

“All I heard was something about a map.  No details,” Jasmine said.  She looked down at it, leaning against the desk with one hand while the other rested propped against her hip.  “What is it?”

Ariel popped her head up, pushing back her bangs.  There was a huge grin on her face as she said, “Jas — it’s his handwriting.  It has to be.”

That caught Rapunzel’s attention as well.  “Whose handwriting?”

“Walt’s,” Belle said.

“Not only did he write it,” Ariel added, gesturing to the map laid out in front of her, “but this — this is a treasure map.”

“Are you serious?” Jasmine asked.  Ariel nodded.

“See, here he’s saying that he’s left something behind for the characters.  A Gift.”

Even though Rapunzel was still trying to heal the rest of her bumps and bruises, Merida shrugged off the hair.  It could wait for now.  Walking over to the other Princesses and looking down at the map, she asked, “A gift?  Of what?”

Belle spread her hands.  “He doesn’t say.”

Ariel bent over the map again, trailing a finger delicately around the edge and muttering words more to herself than to the rest of them.

“To find the Gift, we have to find a key first.  There’s nothing marked out on the map itself, so I assume that some of what he wrote here are clues to its location.  I’m not sure what he means by all of this yet…”

“Well, if anyone’s going to be able to find it, it’s probably you,” Jasmine said.  “This is what you do.”

When Ariel looked up again, there was a gleam in her eyes.  “It’s going to take time to figure this out.”

“What else do we have but that?”

Shaking her head, Belle said, “I can’t believe this was hidden right under our noses the whole time.”

“What matters is that we know about it now.”  Ariel straightened and brushed back her hair.  Turning to the assembled Princesses, along with the living household objects, she added, “And I don’t want news getting out about this yet.  At least not until we’ve got a better idea what it is we’re looking at.  Okay?”

They nodded.  Belle glanced at the door as she did and frowned.  Walking over to it, she pulled it closed with a dull boom that echoed through the library.

Chapter Text

It was a routine Merida knew well by this point: finish with the last of the guests waiting in the sunny line along the promenade that ran between It's a Small World and the rest of Fantasyland proper, duck into what the other characters referred to as a "backstage area", change into her guest disguise, and step back out into the Park to blend in with the crowd. As long as she was careful, the guests barely glanced her way. Except certain children. Merida swore it was like they could see right through her disguise. And the longer she looked at them in turn, the more convinced they became, leading to apologies from their confused and embarrassed parents. It was easier to avoid them as much as she could when "Off Duty".

So, when she stepped into the crowd after leaving her meet and greet, she kept her eyes forward to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze. Almost immediately, she bumped into someone.

The girl stopped, turned to Merida, and said with a grin, "Hey, I was just coming to find you."

This girl had that same odd aura that Merida recognized meant this was another character in disguise, but she could just not seem to place her. She was freckly, with big green eyes and short brown hair that stuck out at odd angles from beneath her floppy yellow hat. Her short pink dress was ruffly and a leather satchel covered with brightly colored paint stains was slung over her shoulder. All of this seemed vaguely familiar, and yet…

"How are the bruises, by the way?" the unknown character went on. "We all got pretty distracted the other night, so I wasn't sure if I got all of them."

That jogged Merida's memory.

"Rapunzel?"

The other girl's smile turned sheepish at the questioning tone. "I forgot you'd only seen me in 'Princess mode'. Sorry about that. I only finished being mentored back in November, so I'm still pretty new to all of this, too. I'm not always blonde, and dragging a long braid around tends to give away who I am. Although I'd bet you're running into a similar problem." She paused, eyeing Merida's curls, and asked, "How many kids do you get coming up to you when disguised?"

"Less than there was. Best not to make eye contact with them."

Rapunzel laughed. "It's a shame, but what else can you do? Ah well. You know, it's weird not being known as the 'new girl' anymore. Especially this soon."

"You said you only finished your mentoring last year," Merida said, it finally dawning on her what that meant. "You were here through the war, then?"

"Yeah, I was." Before she could press further, Rapunzel elaborated, saying, "I fought in the battle along with everyone else — a frying pan is actually a pretty effective weapon — but I mostly just healed people during the initial attack before that. It was brutal, to say the least. Hoards of Villains were coming out of the West side, from Adventureland and back in Critter Country. Our side got overrun pretty fast. I'm the only one with magic healing powers around here, so I had to look at them all. Most of them I could patch up enough to keep fighting once the army broke into Fantasyland. There were a couple, though, that I… couldn't."

She trailed off after that, green eyes staring off into the empty spaces between people in the crowd. Merida remembered what Belle had told her about the war, how no one had come out the other side the same person. In this case, though, the Princess seemed to be haunted by what she hadn'been able to do rather than what she had.

"I'll spare you the details," Rapunzel said eventually, tone taking on a forced sort of lightness.

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "It could be worse, I guess. All of them did come back eventually. Death isn't exactly permanent around here." At Merida's look of confusion, Rapunzel explained, "When characters are killed, they reset back to the way they were at their Arrival. In the Hub, no memories after they got here. Just a blank slate. We've found ways around it that are sort of reliable, but they do come back."

"Unless you're Forgotten."

Rapunzel shrugged. "Unless you're Forgotten. Then you're just gone."

The more Merida heard, the more devastating this war seemed to have been. And yet…

Even with the better part of a year having apparently passed since then, she hadn't seen anything that even remotely resembled the remnants of a battlefield anywhere within either of the Parks. Not a single remnant of the combat except in the vague stories of the characters who'd been through it. If she hadn't been told, Merida might never have known.

"If it's all right to ask… where exactly did you lot fight these 'Villains'?" she asked.

"Here," Rapunzel said, spreading her hands wide and gesturing to the space around her. "Right where we're standing."

Merida looked around them. Flat, unmarred pavement surrounded by stepped gardens with guests passing through it all, completely unaware.

"Most of our forces were here, or up in those towers, and Belle had her rocket ships on the back lines. Everyone who couldn't fight we put into Small World." Turning toward the mountain called the Matterhorn, Rapunzel continued, "The Villains broke through our defenses there. Several of our own got buried under an avalanche when Mulan launched a rocket at the mountain to try to take out most of the horde."

Merida tried to picture it. All that fighting, right there. It was baffling.

"It was close — really close — but we made it through," Rapunzel finished.

"I suppose I expected there to have been something left behind," Merida said.

"Not all scars are visible."

That was certainly true enough. And there seemed to be no shortage of them to go around.

Shoving her hands deep in her pockets, Merida asked, "Have you heard any more about —" she stopped herself short of saying the map — "that thing from the other day? I haven't had the chance to ask Ariel about it."

Rapunzel blinked and a little of the tension dropped from her shoulders. "Oh. Yeah, actually. She's already gone to Cinderella for help figuring it out, which is a huge deal for them. For some reason, though, she isn't interested. It's really strange; I thought she'd be the first one on board with this."

"Why?"

"Well, she was one of the original Princesses, and was apparently close to Walt, which I guess is why Ariel went to her about it. I know she and Ariel have a rough history, but Cindy's not one to hold a grudge. There's something else going on, I guess."

"Strange," Merida said, her mouth twisting into a frown. Rapunzel just shrugged.

"There's a lot of strange things about this place," she told her as she adjusted the satchel's strap on her shoulder. "You never really get used to it. I haven't yet, at least. Anyway, were you heading back over to DCA?"

Merida nodded.

"Cool. I'll walk you to the main gates."


 

When Merida finally made it through the queue and back into the California Adventure Park, Buena Vista St. was packed with guests. It was late afternoon, so she supposed it was inevitable. Upon reaching the fountain plaza out in front of Carthay Circle, instead of going straight she turned right, heading into the area of the Park known as "Condor Flats". She'd found that it was a quicker loop to get back to Ariel's attraction that way rather than attempting to go past the Wharf and the rest of the waterfront.

She passed by big buildings with thin walls of rusted metal, an attraction the characters all called "Soarin'" crowded with guests waiting in the queue, an odd contraption that spouted steam, and a big sign with a picture of Grizzly Peak that read "Bear left." She followed the path around in the direction indicated, toward the woods, the Peak, and eventually the road back around to the waterfront.

"Psst!"

Merida stopped at the hiss and looked to her left, at the thick batch of trees that ran alongside the pathway. Sure enough, several pairs of eyes peered at her from the thicket.

The boys.

Hurrying over to the edge of the path, Merida whispered at the four cubs barely hidden in the undergrowth, "What are you lot doing out here?"

"We saw you walking and we figured we'd come say hi," Koda answered. "And what are you doing?"

"I was heading back to—" She pointed in the direction she'd been walking, only for the cub to cut her off.

"Pfft, boring. Why don't you come hang out with us instead?"

Merida hesitated. Her brothers were watching her expectantly.

"Come on," Koda groaned.

She shot one last look at the crowd of guests passing by. None of them were so much as glancing in her direction at the moment.

"Right."

Turning back to the cubs, she hopped the short wooden fence that lined the path and joined them on the other side. The boys were all grinning as they hurried away through the trees. Merida followed them. Unlike the first time she'd entered those woods, she knew what to look out for as the façade went down around her. Pushing a branch aside, she saw the air shimmer around her. It cleared to reveal an actual river running below them. There was already a larger brown bear there, standing knee-deep in the water. Kenai looked up at them a moment later, and his eyes locked on her, his expression approximating one of a brow raised in curiosity.

The boys ran ahead of her down the slope, whooping loudly as they jumped into the river. Merida followed, careful not to slip on the muddy banks.

Surfacing for air, Koda pointed one paw in her direction and said, "Hey, Kenai, look who we found."

"I noticed."

Kenai got out of the water and shook the water off of his fur. Merida held up her hands to block the incoming droplets.

"Thanks for that," she said.

"You're welcome. I didn't expect to see you around here."

"Boys found me on my way back around to the waterfront," she explained. "I figured it made more sense to come in here for a while rather than the attraction."

He nodded. "Better than being cooped up in that castle."

"Yeah, it is."

She gazed out at the woods around them. The afternoon sunlight filtered green through the trees and sparkled off the surface of the river as it ran past. For a moment, she could almost pretend that she was back home again.

Koda's voice cut through her thoughts, calling out, "Come join us, Merida!"

"Wha—"

"Too late."

A massive paw pushed against her back, knocking with a shriek into the river. Her head broke the surface again a second later. Spluttering and shoving her soaking-wet curls out of her face, she got to her feet and rounded on Kenai, who had thrown his head back in laughter.

"Oh, it's on, bear boy!"

Before she'd taken more than a handful of stomping, sloshing steps, toward him, she heard several loud splashes from behind her. The boys overtook her not long after, making a beeline for Kenai.

"Get him!"

"Whoa, whoa. Wait—"

He didn't have a chance to get away. The cubs tackled him and, together, the five of them fell into the river as well. Once his head had popped back above the surface again, Merida sent a big splash of water his way, hitting him with it square in the face.

"Not fair," he said with a cough, although Merida noticed that he was still grinning. "Ganging up on me like that? Harsh, guys."

"Seems like fitting revenge to me," Merida said, putting her hands on her hips.

"So, it's revenge you want, huh?"

Kenai lunged in her direction and she jumped aside with a half laugh, half shriek.


 

It didn't seem to be long at all before the sun went down and stars appeared in the dark sky overhead. Merida had set up a campfire near the bank and sat next to it, knees pulled up to her chest. Her curls were still damp, and likely would be for a good while yet, and her socks had squelched with every step she took. Luckily, it wasn't very cold.

The younger boys were still mucking about in the river, but Kenai had joined her in sitting by the fire a bit before. The firelight turned his brown fur a brilliant shade of orange.

"You spend a lot of time in the woods back home?" he asked her.

"Every second I could get," she said with a sigh.

There was a pause. Then, "You aren't going to start singing, are you?"

"Um, no?" She stared at him through the darkness, confused. "Why would I?"

He let out a snort. "Wow, you really are new. It's a pretty standard thing for the Princesses around here."

"Well, this Princess does not sing."

"Okay, then what does 'this Princess' actually do?"

"Archery. All the time. And exploring out in the woods. Back home, I was always seeing how much further I could push myself to go."

Kenai was nodding at that. Still, he added, "Not much opportunity for that around here."

"I figured as much."

He went quiet. Off in the shadows, she could hear their brothers still mucking about in the water. They didn't show any sign of stopping anytime soon. Grabbing a nearby stick, she prodded at the fire. It was beginning to get low. How late was it? Had the Park closed yet? From inside the woods' façade it was difficult to tell.

"Hey, so I was wondering… how did you get all caught up in this bear thing?" Kenai asked. She looked over at him quizzically, and he went on, "I know you said something about a witch's spell, but I know there's gotta be more to it than that."

Merida grimaced. "There is. Y'see, my mum wanted me to get married to one of the sons of the three Lords allied with my dad. I… didn't. There was a competition for my hand, but they let me pick what it would be. So I chose archery. And since it was only the firstborns of the clans who were allowed to compete…"

"You're kidding."

She shrugged.

"I take it you lost?" he asked.

"No, I won,Merida said with a scoff."Outshot the lot of them. Of course, I made everything worse in the process. That alliance was frail enough as it was, and I just blundered through without a thought in my head except 'I am definitely not ready to get married.' Mum and I had a go at each other, and I ended up finding the witch who gave me that spell because of it. I never wanted the, you know, 'bear thing', but what I meant to happen didn't much matter in the end."

"It never does," Kenai muttered.

Propping her chin against her hand, she asked, "And what about you?"

"What about me?"

"I told you my bear story. What's yours?"

"You really want to know?" When she just stared at him with raised eyebrows, waiting, he relented and said, "It all started because I was too impatient to tie up a basket of fish right. I had a lot of issues back then."

"Oh, and you still don't?"

He shot her an unamused look and she snickered.

"You wanted to get away from something?" he went on after she'd stopped laughing. "Well, I was trying to get something. I wanted to get my hand-print up on that wall, to prove that I was ready to be a man, too badly to realize what it all actually meant. So the Spirits took matters into their own hands to teach me a lesson."

"By turning you into a bear?"

"Bingo. It wasn't bad in hindsight, which was the point. I met Koda, rode some mammoths, looked like an idiot in front of a lot of other bears… okay, so maybe a lot of it still wasn't fantastic, but you get my point."

Merida nodded. Wriggling her toes absently, she cringed at the resulting squelch.

"I suppose you're not as much of a stick-in-the-mud as I thought," she said.

"No, he is!"

"Koda!"

"I'm not sorry!" Koda shouted back with a cackle.

Kenai sighed and shook his head. "Brothers."

"I know," Merida said with a grin. "The wee devils."

"Anyway, I'd guess the Park's probably closed by now. Coast should be clear for you to get back to Ariel's place."

He was right. It was time to head back. Merida got to her feet, wiped what dirt she could off her shorts — though it seemed like a futile effort — and put out the fire. Turning and cupping her hands by her mouth, she shouted toward the river, "'Night, boys!"

From the darkness, she heard several resulting voices cry a response.

She waved a goodbye to Kenai, who awkwardly waved a paw at her in response. Then she hiked back up the hill and into the trees. After a few minutes, there was a rustle of leaves and she stepped out of the woods to face the fence lining the path. Clambering over it, she followed it in the direction of the waterfront, ignoring how extra-soggy her steps felt on the pavement.

As Kenai had guessed, the Park was completely empty as she walked, finally reaching the edge of the Paradise Pier area and turning towards Ariel's attraction. Merida wound her way through the first few feet of the queue to reach the entrance. She had only opened the door and taken a single step inside when she stopped.

It was the mural that covered the entirety of the room's back wall that caught her attention. Splashed across Ariel's face in dripping black paint were words large enough to be read from where she stood on the other side of the hall.

"Go home, Mermaid."

Chapter Text

Ariel slapped a stack of pictures down on the table. They slid, settling into place in a spread. All of them were of the defaced mural; she'd insisted on taking images from multiple angles. Their glossy surfaces caught the light from the chandelier overhead as the Princess pointed one accusing finger at them.

"Would anyone care to explain this?" she asked.

The characters seated around the table craned their necks to get a good look at the pictures. Merida stood against the wall, arms crossed as she watched them. She'd gone through the façade to tell Ariel practically the instant she'd gotten over her shock. Ariel had, in turn, dragged the appropriate characters together for a last-minute Council meeting in Carthay Circle to address the issue. Still, the Princess seemed to have a specific culprit in mind. Her blue eyes were icy as she stared across the table at Woody.

"Why're you looking at me?" he asked, slapping a hand to his chest.

Ariel scoffed and leaned on one hand against the tabletop. "I don't know, Woody. Maybe because you've wanted me out of here ever since the day Mickey assigned me as Lead? Who else would actually have the guts to walk into my attraction — without permission, mind you — and graffiti a threat right onto the wall?"

"First of all," Sulley cut in, "who even found the message in the first place?"

"I did," Merida said.

The eyes of all the characters in the room turned on her. She had the impression that they'd barely noticed her when she'd entered. While she technically wasn't supposed to be in the meeting, she was the only witness, and Ariel had insisted she come along to give her piece. Merida wasn't sure what else there was to say; there was no one there when she'd arrived. Just wet paint on the wall. Still, they were bound to wonder.

"Well, did you see anyone?" Oswald asked, as she'd expected, and Merida shook her head.

"Whoever did it was gone by the time I got there."

"And where were you when it happened?"

"She was with us," Kenai cut in. Everyone's attention turned to him then as he said, "Her brothers, Koda, and me."

"So you're accusing her now?" Woody asked in a sharp voice.

Oswald sighed. "Of course I'm not. She has no motive. I'm just trying to establish where everyone was at the time."

"No one at this table had a motive to do it, either," Atta said.

"Someone had to write it," Ariel countered.

Woody stood now as well. "Who's to say you didn't do it yourself, huh? To get attention. You're the one who dragged us all up here to listen to you throw around accusations."

"How dare you even suggest that I would ever—"

"Wouldn't you, Ariel? And if not you, it could've been someone else you put up to it." At this, he looked pointedly at Sebastian.

"See here now," the crab spluttered in indignation. He drew himself up to his full height, which was admittedly only a few inches, and waved a claw at Woody.

"So if we were all to walk into that precious room of yours — right here, right now — we wouldn't find any paint lying around?" Ariel cut back in, turning Woody's attention to her once more. "No brushes? Nothing that would even be a little incriminating."

"That's not happening without my permission. And you're not going anywhere near our attraction, or Pixar Pier."

"Pixar Pier?" she shouted.

"Give it up. You know it's true."

"Hey! Stop it!" Sully leaned forward across the table, putting himself between the two arguing characters. "This arguing isn't going to solve anything."

At this, Belle reached up, grabbed Ariel's arm and tugged her back down into her chair. Then it was only Woody still standing. His doll's eyes were hard as he stared at everyone seated around the table. Just then the dog — Dug, if Merida remembered correctly — let out a whine. Woody glanced over at him, paused, and sat back down as well with a sigh.

"My ride was still vandalized," Ariel said. Her tone had evened out, but still had a sharp edge. "And that still has to be dealt with."

Oswald cleared his throat. "About that. I motion that we, as a Council, should go over to the ride and clean it up rather than leave the residents to deal with it themselves. Or the CMs."

"You've gotta be kidding."

"Woody, if you've got a better suggestion, I'm all ears. At this point, it's not about 'Disney' or 'Pixar' anymore. The fact is that, if her attraction's down tomorrow because somebody thought it would be funny to slap paint all over a wall guests are supposed to see, we're all going to pay the price. This way it'll be sure to be done, and be done faster."

Silence. Then, in a garbled voice, Mater said from the little screen set in his place at the table, "If it's all right with you all, can I sit this one out? I'm not sure I'll be able to it without breaking things more."

"Since it's basically impossible that one of you did it, I'd say yes," Oswald told him with a shrug.

"Everybody in favor of Oswald's plan?" Belle asked.

Hands and paws went up in a wave all around the table. Atta looked at Woody and, shaking her head, raised a hand. With that, it was just him left.

"Fine." He pushed back his chair. "Let's get this over with."

Ariel gathered the photos currently strewn about back up and said, "Meeting adjourned."


 

It took some work, but eventually the members of the Council managed to scrub the sticky black paint drips off of the mural and magically repair the residual damage left in its wake. Merida stayed through it all to help where she could, holding ladders, changing out buckets, and the like. Once that was all finished, the characters slipped back out of the attraction again. Ariel was one of the first people gone. When Merida looked around and found her missing, she assumed she'd just gone back through the façade already. Heading through the exit portion of the ride track, she made her way back into the castle as well.

Inside, many of the rooms were dark. The halls were empty and quiet. For a while the only sound was her own footsteps on the floor. Then she saw a light ahead. It was coming from the dining room.

"Did you find out who did it?" a man's voice asked from inside.

Stopping, Merida peered into the room.

Ariel stood by one of the big windows that looked out onto the water, arms crossed, head bowed enough that her swooping bangs hung low over her face.. It was nearly pitch black on the other side of the glass panes, and Merida could just barely see a glimpse of the girl's reflection in them. Eric waited perhaps two steps behind Ariel. It must have been his voice that Merida heard. She hung back in the shadows of the doorway, staying quiet. Something told her this was not a moment she was supposed to be privy to.

"No," Ariel said. "I thought it was Woody, or one of the other toys, but the truth is that it could be any of them. The result is the same either way. The Pixar characters want me out of the Council and out of 'their' Park. Now they're willing to break into my home just to make their point, and there's nothing I can actually do about it because that stupid doll won't—"

"Ariel, hey. Hey."

He reached out to put his arms around her. She hesitated, then responded in kind, turning and grabbing tight onto fistfuls of his shirt at his back. Merida thought she might be shaking.

"If you need to step away and went back to the Jungle Cruise — just for a couple of days until they calm down — I don't think anyone would judge you."

She shook her head emphatically. "I can't just give them what they want. There are too many people counting on me to make this work."

"By being here? By having to deal with them every single day?"

"I need to be here!" Ariel lifted her head, adding, "I promised you I'd be here! As soon as the War was over, remember?"

"Yeah, but that wasn't supposed to mean you had to destroy yourself to do it And you are, Ariel. Between running the DCA Council, dealing with the Pixar mess, and your new mentoring, you're tearing yourself apart at the seams to try to keep all of this going."

"Mentoring Merida isn't a big deal. I've done it before without a problem."

"But it is. Don't get me wrong; she's a good kid. I know that. But something's different this time around. You weren't like this with Jasmine. With Merida, you're just… you're protecting her too much. From the War. From Pixar. What is going on?"

Ariel took a step back from him, crossed her arms again, looked down. Eric's eyebrows shot up, as if she'd just admitted something Merida couldn't quite grasp.

"Oh," he said slowly. "Ariel, she's not—"

"I know," Ariel's voice was flat as she spoke.

There was quiet after that as both of them just stood there in silence. Merida held her breath.

"I can still do this," Ariel insisted, breaking the silence. "I swear I can."

"I wish I was the one you needed to convince," Eric said. He sighed and took her hands, grasping them tight. "Whatever you decide to do, I'm here for you, okay? Don't forget that."

For the first time that day, Merida saw what almost looked like a smile cross Ariel's face.

"I won't."

Chapter Text

The plan had been for Merida to follow Ariel around for the day. But, apparently, that was not the way things were going to work out.

She stood at the edge of the walkway outside the attraction, arms crossed, watching the morning crowd pass her by. There was no way to tell where Ariel had gotten off to; by this point she could be just about anywhere in either Park. All Merida knew was that she wasn't there, and she wasn't back in her castle on the other side of the façade. That left her with no real plan as to what she was supposed to be doing. She hadn't intended to go over to the other Park as herself and meet with guests, and at this point she didn't feel like it at all. That left her with the option of going back to Ariel's castle for the day, or wandering around DCA. Maybe she'd check in on the boys. The last one seemed like as solid a plan as any, so she turned in the direction of the street that would lead her back around to Grizzly Peak.

Merida hadn't even made it halfway down the walk before she saw a boy in a brownish-yellow hoodie heading in the opposite direction as her, toward the Pier. She stopped. A second later Kenai caught her eye and slipped his way through the guests toward her.

"Hey. Where are the boys?" she asked as he reached her.

He shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Off somewhere. I was supposed to be watching them today, but I guess they ditched me."

She brushed some stray curls out of her face with a sigh. "I know the feeling."

"Ariel gone, too?"

"Aye. No idea where."

He nodded. When he said nothing else, they both just stood there in the middle of the street, guests walking around them. Merida heard tsks from a few of them. Once she thought the silence had stretched on long enough, she started to turn away to go back the way she'd come, ready to offer a wave and a goodbye. There was no sense in hanging around if the boys were off as well.

"Hold on a second."

She stopped and turned on her heel to face him, one eyebrow raised.

"Do you… do you want to go over to the other Park?" He stumbled over the words, rushing them, and he rubbed the back of his neck in a self-conscious way.

She stared at him. "And do what?"

"I don't know. Normal stuff, I guess." At her continued bemusement, he added, "Or what we would do if we were normal. Like everyone else that comes through this place."

"Pretend to be guests," she said.

"We pretend plenty of other things every day. What's one more?" When she hesitated, he said, "I know they dropped you in the deep end the minute you got here. They always do. You deserve a day where you don't have to be paraded around on-stage."

Merida stood there watching him, vaguely aware that they were still blocking foot traffic. She missed riding wild through the woods on Angus' back. She still wanted that, felt it as a keen, aching sort of longing. What Kenai was proposing wasn't the same. It couldn't be, she knew that. But it was something at the very least. So she nodded and his face broke into a grin.

The two of them turned back, looping around Grizzly Peak and making for the front of California Adventure. After passing through the front gates, they crossed the plaza to the entrance of the other Park and presented their conjured brightly-colored slips of paper to the Cast Members.

Once they were through and making their way up Main St., Kenai asked, "So, where do you want to start?"

Merida looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "I have no idea where anything actually is here. Besides, it was your idea."

"Fair enough." He stared into the distance, eyes narrowed in thought. Then he gave a decisive nod and sped up. "Come on. I have an idea."


 

A few minutes later they were entering a part of Disneyland Merida had never been in before, around the far side of the water Ariel had called the "Rivers of America". She looked over at the wooden sign set into the bushes to their left, which was surrounded by a variety of woodland animals and read "Critter Country."

"What are we heading for?" she asked.

Kenai pointed up, past the sign, at the rocky, tree-covered hill that rose above them. As she watched, a log full of people slid, screaming, down the waterfall set into its front. She half-stopped in surprise, and had to hurry to catch up with him.

"There?"

"It's as good an introduction as any," he replied with a shrug. She eyed the line to their left as they walked, one that looped around the hill for a good way before vanishing into a two-story wooden building.

"So that line won't be an issue for us, will it?" she asked skeptically.

"Nope. Watch this."

He took the lead up to a sign up by the front doors that read "Splash Mountain — Fastpass Entrance". Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out two new slips of paper. Merida barely got a glance at them before he'd held them out to the Cast Member waiting there. She looked at the papers, then at them — perhaps for a bit too long — before ushering them forward. They hurried past and into the cool shadows of the building. There, Merida was immediately hit with the smell of old, dusty wood. Along the back wall of the building, on the other side of the crowd of guests, hung rusty bits of farm equipment. Kenai ignored them, instead leading her up a flight of stone stairs, through the second floor of the building, and out toward the mouth of a tunnel lined in red-brown earth. The Cast Member waiting there took Kenai's slips of paper, again with a too-long look, and they stepped inside. There, they finally caught up with the line. So they waited, leaning against the walls of the tunnel as they slowly inched their way onward.

After a few minutes, Kenai shot a glance back at the tunnel entrance, then leaned in and said conspiratorially, "We're technically not supposed to be in here."

"Why not?"

"You're supposed to get permission before entering someone else's attraction."

Merida thought back to that first day in California Adventure, when she'd jumped the fence and ended up in the woods inside Grizzly Peak without a speck of permission beforehand. Oh.

"Why are we doing this, then?" she asked.

"We're just normal guests, remember?"

"And I suppose 'normal guests' get those looks from Cast Members as well."

He waved it off. "Details. Besides, life's no fun if you don't break the rules every once in a while."

The two of them eventually made it down to the loading docks, where the guests ahead of them climbed in and out of those log boats, in seats arranged in a single line. Then they were ushered forward to the next boat.

"After you, Meri," Kenai said, nodding toward it.

Her brows shot up. "Meri?"

"Your full name's kind of conspicuous right now, so I figured we'd better find a nickname for you. Sounds normal enough. Unless you've got a problem with that?"

"Meri it is, then."

Merida took the seat the Cast Member indicated, grimacing at the water that immediately soaked into the back of her shorts, surprised to find that it wasn't made of wood at all. Whatever it was had an odd sort of spongy texture. She heard Kenai clamber into the spot just behind her.

"You ready?" he asked into her right ear.

She snorted. "Have I ever not been?"

With a rumble, the log-boat slid forward into the water. A voice overhead told them to stay seated as they floated past boulders and barrels and more rusty old equipment. They climbed up a clacking chain lift, looped past a massive thicket of tangled thorns, then went up another lift. A yellow-eyed owl hooted at them from a pipe on the wall. All the while, odd, bouncy music played from somewhere nearby. That's when the log tipped forward over a waterfall she hadn't noticed previously. Water sloshed over the sides and soaked through her boots. Merida pulled her feet up from the floor with a sharp gasp. Behind her, she thought she heard Kenai stifle a laugh. She whipped around her head to shoot him a look, hitting him across the face with her curls as she did.

"Watch it!" he said, still laughing.

They floated along into another cavern, this one opening up to reveal thick woods filled with animals singing along to the same tune she'd heard outside. Birds, mainly, and a couple frogs. To her surprise, they were all wearing clothing. Shirts, hats, scarves… things like that. She looked back at Kenai again.

"How come you don't do that in your other form?" she asked.

"Because I'm a bear."

"Like that bear?" She gestured to what was, in fact, a bear wearing clothing. He also appeared to be caught up in some kind of rope trap over the water while a graying fox yelled at him from the shore.

"That bear really doesn't need to know we're here," Kenai replied, and she noticed he'd sunk down in his seat a little.

"So, again, why come here in the first place?"

"I like to live on the edge."

Merida rolled her eyes. They passed more trees, more animals. That same bear again, this time with his head stuck firmly in a hole.

What was it about bears and always charging headlong into the thick of things?

The log dropped, rose, and dropped again, the rest of the guests around them letting out whoops and screams as it did. With another slosh of water, they turned into a neon cave full of buzzing hives of bees, multicolored mushrooms that glowed in the dark, and jumping fountains of water.

At some point, several animals in dresses to either side of the boat began singing dire warnings to their children. Whatever grander narrative was happening around her, Merida had missed it in her concerns over short-sighted bears and wet socks. They climbed another dark, clanking lift, with a bright spot of sunlight at the top.

As the log tipped forward and pitched down the waterfall waiting there. She threw up her hands with a loud whoop as the air rushed past her face. At the bottom, a torrent of water cascaded over the boat, soaking her to the skin. With a soggy laugh, she blinked away the droplets that clung to her lashes and pushed her now-damp curls out of her face.

Kenai put a hand on the back of her seat and leaned forward, saying, "Congratulations, you survived your first ride, and one of the Mountains."

The log floated through another scene of singing animals, many of which were perched on the deck of a boat with a big, turning wheel on the side and the word "Zip-A-Dee Lady" in purple lettering. Finally, they slid back into the docks and Merida climbed out, boots squelching with every step they took. She followed the other disembarking guests out of the attraction and into yet another building.

"Wait a sec," Kenai said from behind her.

She stopped and looked back in the direction he indicated. Little windows set into the wall showed images of the log-boats as they slid down the falls. He jabbed a finger at one. Merida peered up at it to see the two of them.

"Look at your face," he cackled, and she punched him in the arm.

With a shiver, she headed outside. She stepped out of the way and tried to squeeze all the water out of her hair.

"This'll take forever to dry out," she lamented.

"Eh, probably won't be that long." Kenai squinted up at the bright, sunny sky overhead. "Plenty of sunshine, and all that. Besides, how does one person actually have that much hair?"

She stopped her wringing to shoot him a look. "That's rich, coming from the one who's a great, furry bear most of the time."

"Point taken." He waited until she'd gotten most of the water out that she could, then added, "It's probably not a great idea to do one of the indoor rides while we're drying off. So, what do you want: fast or slow?"

"Fast."

He rolled his eyes with a smirk. "Why am I not surprised?"


 

They ended up on another of "Mountains" — Big Thunder Mountain, on the other side of the Rivers of America from the other attraction — through what Merida thought was probably a blatant abuse of those "fastpass" things Kenai was summoning to get them in. Not that she was about to complain. This one was faster than the last one had been, and certainly a great deal drier, with lots of bumps and turns. Her head was practically spinning by the time she climbed out of the car again, and she knew there was a grin still plastered across her face. She wondered briefly why Ariel had seemed so uncomfortable when she'd been near it.

From there they went back partway around the water again, looping up the path through Adventureland in the opposite direction Ariel had taken her during that first tour of the park. Near the sign at the entrance of the land, Merida was left to wedge herself between guests on a small rock wall. Kenai came back over from a small building nearby a few minutes later, holding two small, clear dishes. Perched atop were swirls of light yellow… something. She thought it looked vaguely like butter.

"What is that?" she asked, staring at it.

"Dole Whip," he said. "Plenty of the guests swear by it."

"But what is it?"

"You tried ice cream yet?"

"Yes."

"It's like that. Sort of. Vaguely." He held one of the dishes out to her. "Just try it."

She took it from him skeptically, along with the spoon he offered, and scooped up a bite. He was right; it was a bit ice cream-like. It was cold like it, but the texture was different. Softer, creamier. It had an odd sort of taste as well. Sour and sweet, and almost a little flowery. She paused with the spoon still stuck in her mouth.

"That's… something," she said.

"I know, right?" Kenai replied with a grin, digging his spoon into his own. "I vote we keep going with the tour of the mountains since we're halfway through. We've got Space Mountain left over in Tomorrowland and the Matterhorn in Fantasyland. Maybe. It's on the border and I think it might've used to be in Tomorrowland, too."

"Wasn't that where the final battle was last year?"

He shrugged. "So I've heard."

"I take it you weren't there."

"Nope. There was no warning. Everyone over in DCA got blindsided. One minute everything was fine, and the next…" He made a vague sort of gesture with his spoon. "Guests pouring out and the gates were sealed before we could even blink. Until the storm that rolled in with the Villains broke, we had no way of knowing what happened."

They both sat there quietly for a few minutes, eating their dole whips, before Kenai shrugged and got to his feet again.

"Yeah, this is depressing. Come on. Let's keep going and hope the Cast Members don't yell at me for the Fastpasses."


 

It got dark almost faster than Merida had expected it to. Even though the sun had gone down, the Park was still crowded with guests. It took a bit for her to realize that, aside from those first couple of days, this was the longest she'd stayed in the Main Park.

She'd thought they were going to slip out and back over to California Adventure around then, but then Kenai asked, "Have you seen fireworks yet?" When she shook her head, he steered her in the direction of the Hub. "Okay, one last thing."

The crowds were at their absolute thickest there, and she could barely see where she was walking through the crush of bodies that surrounded her. Still, they unconsciously moved aside as she passed, just like they usually did, oblivious to her presence. Except, of course, for the occasional child whose eye contact she tried to avoid. Faintly, she was aware that many of them looked right past Kenai.

He finally stopped her near the very center of the Hub, over by the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at the heart of it all.

"Should've staked out a spot sooner, but it's too late for anything else," he said once they were in place, eying the crowd between them and the castle critically. She thought she could guess what he was thinking.

"Hopefully you'll be able to see around them, since you're sure not going to see over," she said, ignoring the fact that if he couldn't see what was happening then she certainly wouldn't be able to.

"If I was a bear right now, I could," he grumbled.

"If you were a bear right now all these people would run screaming. Probably have a fantastic view then."

Kenai rolled his eyes, but she saw that he was holding back a smirk.

What felt like only seconds later, the whole place was plunged into darkness. As music played loud from somewhere nearby, the lights on the castle went back up, accompanied by the shrill cheering and whistling of the crowd all around them. Then, with a flash, bright colors lit up the sky behind the castle with a resounding boom. Merida nearly stepped back before realizing she'd probably trod on someone's toes if she did. She'd seen flashes of those lights — the fireworks — before, but only in distant glimpses. Never this clearly and never this close. She watched in fascination as what looked like showers of gold poured down through the dark sky, someone she thought might be named "Tinker Bell" floated past, and more colors exploded to life in the sky to the tune of a load of music and voices she thought might sound familiar. Yes, that was definitely Cinderella's voice she heard at one point. The tone was off, though, and she suspected this was from back when the Princess was actually young. It finished with a swell of music and a massive, blinding burst of fireworks that lit up the sky, almost as bright as daylight. She squinted up at them before glancing over at Kenai. He was grinning at her.

"What?" she asked with a laugh, but he just shook his head.

As the lights went back up and the crowd around them started to shift and move, Kenai grabbed her hand and pulled her through a gap in the crowd toward Main St.

"Stay with me," he called back to her. "It's too easy to get lost."

"Got it."

It was slow going, but they finally made their way through the Park's entrance and back out onto the plaza. DCA was already closed for the night by that point, and with the massive crowd of guests exiting Disneyland proper, Merida didn't think they'd be able to sneak back in without being noticed.

"Well, now what?" she asked.

"There's another entrance through the Grand Californian. Come on."

They followed the crowd partway down through Downtown Disney before taking a sharp left through a set of elaborately wrought gates over which was a sign that read "Disney's Grand Californian Hotel." The lantern lined tunnel on the other side let out onto a courtyard surrounded by foliage. The two of them stepped out of the way of the several families behind them and down into the courtyard's brick lined center. The guests mostly avoided it, choosing to loop around the sheltered walkway that looped around the area.

For a few moments, they both just stood there, neither of them saying a word as they waited for the crowds to ebb. Kenai rubbed the back of his neck.

"Hey, Kenai?" she said, finally breaking the silence.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks. For all of this."

He smiled and shook his head. "It's no problem."

"Really, I mean it. You were right. It was nice to feel just… normal again for a bit."

Before either of them could say anything else, a voice from behind them called, "Merida!"

They both turned, eyes wide, to see someone standing in the dimly lit entrance. Merida was shocked to see it was Ariel. How had she found her? The other Princess had her arms crossed and her lower lip jutting out. Merida sighed. She knew that look.

"Koda and the boys'll probably be wondering where I am, too," Kenai said, turning her attention back on him again. "So… I'll see you around?"

"Park isn't that big. I expect it'll be difficult to avoid you," she said, lifting a shoulder, and he let out a snort of laughter.

He started to turn in the direction the guests had all gone, hands in his pockets. On a pulse of pure nerve, and before even she was quite sure what she was doing, Merida caught his sleeve to stop him and kissed his cheek. For a second or two afterward, she was afraid his eyes would pop clean out of his head. And her face had probably just turned the same shade of red as her hair.

Merida stepped back then and cleared her throat. "Right. G'night, Kenai." As she ran off toward Ariel, she thought she saw him give her a small, startled sort of wave. A second later and he was finally gone.

Ariel was still staring at her as she came to a hasty stop in front of her.

"Where were you today?" was all the other Princess asked, her tone edged.

Merida stared at her. "Where was I? Where were you? I looked everywhere."

"Belle called me into Animation this morning. I was gone for maybe an hour."

"Well, how was I supposed to know that?"

Ariel blew her bangs out of her face and said, "Fine, okay. Next time I'll leave a note. But you still haven't answered my question."

"I was over in the other Park."

That certainly caught her off guard. "Why?"

"Because I could be," Merida told her with a shrug. "So I could just be me again for a day without expecting anything from me."

At that, Ariel blinked a couple of times, and Merida could see her lingering frustrations deflating. She shook her head and said, "You're right. There's a lot of stress being a Main and on stage all the time. You needed a break. Just let me know next time you're going to go off for a whole day, okay?"

Despite the girl in front of her looking no older than herself, Merida got the overwhelming impression of her mother. She shoved the thought away and nodded before hastily saying, "Let's go back to the castle. It's late."