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Your Adventure Begins at Midday

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When does a story begin?

It seems for this question, everyone has their own answers to it. Perhaps a story starts with its characters, still stuck within their creators’ minds long before said creators leave any physical evidence of the existence of their ideas. Perhaps the story is made when its conflict is thought of, before any actors are put on the stage. Or maybe, it begins long before either characters or conflict are made, and the story begins with the beginning of the creator themselves.

Or it could be that I am just saying pretty things, and stories are as stories do, and they begin when they are put to paper and nothing more.

But if you were to ask when this story should begin, I don’t know what the answer would be. It could start a hundred years before everything, with a war between pupils that was sparked by their unscrupulous teacher, that remade the worlds as we know them now. Or maybe this story begins with a broken boy, a misguided master, and a feckless youth that trusted too much and was punished for it.

But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just say that this story begins with a girl, a boy, and a princess, who find themselves on a tiny cluster of islands that they call home.


 

 

S O R A + R I K U

Unknown number of years before the fall of Destiny Islands

Unknown number of years before the fall of Radiant Garden

 

Later on, if you asked either of them about it, neither of the children would be able to tell you how they met.

Perhaps that is inaccurate. The answer of how is easy: Both of them met in a daycare run by Sora’s mother. What they did to meet is easy to guess—They could have been playing and decided to play together, and the rest is history. Or they could have met solely through physical proximity and the guileless social ease of children.

The answer of when, though, is a little harder. To Sora, and Riku, the other was sort of always there. And that was how they liked it.

Where one went, the other followed, and vice versa. Birthdays. Holidays. Sunrises and sunsets. Summer afternoons and autumn evenings, and every hour of the day in between.

And one meandering day, filled with sandcastles and fanciful notions of knighthood, Sora’s dad gave the children presents: A wooden sword for each of them. The swords were clumsily fashioned, made with more love than skill, and almost too large for Sora and Riku to wield properly yet, but they loved them and that was all that mattered. And so, sparring was added to their repertoire, overtaking even the sandcastles and games of pretend, and somewhere along the way other kids joined in too.

(Sora’s dad, Touma, claimed to have taken on the task as a first woodworking project, but interestingly dropped the hobby shortly after completion of the swords. He claimed there were too many splinters, that he already dealt with thorns at work. But Mina, Sora’s mom, noticed the way his eyes danced whenever their daughter came in with a grin wider than her small face and fresh calluses and scrapes up and down her short little legs. And she certainly noticed the schematics for a pair of small shields to match.)

A time would come when destiny came for the children, but not for a long while yet. For now their days would be simple and sweet, subject to their own whims rather than those of greater forces, and the kids would be kids and nothing less. 


 

 

K A I R I

12 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands

2 Years until the fall of Radiant Garden

 

Kairi’s earliest memory was of working in the garden with her grandmother.

She wasn’t so good at spelling all of the flowers’ names yet, but she knew their colors and what they smelled like. The red roses had such a sweeter, deeper scent compared to the pink ones, which smelled lighter, more delicate. The white roses were different, with some types of white roses scented just like the pink ones, but other white roses didn’t have any smell at all. And then there were the violets, which were such a pretty purple color and had such a nice fragrance, but only for a moment.

Kairi’s favorites were the lilacs. They only bloomed for a short while, at the beginning of spring for just a couple of weeks, but those couple of weeks were punctuated with the fresh perfume of the blossoms and the knowledge that Kairi could commence work in the garden with her grandmother.

She didn’t remember much in the memory, but she could remember the feel of the rich dark dirt crumbling in her tiny hands, and the squirming sensation of the occasional worm that might be in the clod. There was the sighing applause of leaves moving in the wind, the choir of birdsong and windchimes, and through it all her grandmother talking about all sorts of things, and Kairi wasn’t so good at talking yet, but she was happy to simply listen to her all the same.

And one day, she told Kairi a story. Of Light, and the jealousy it had tempted. And the Darkness that followed it, and swallowed it, and tore everything asunder. And finally, of a new Light, forged from countless Hearts by children like her, that fixed everything until one day the old Light could be found.

With that tale was a resolution: That Kairi could never be lost, so long as she followed Light’s way. And she could never be defeated, so long as she had trust in that Light, and with it she could help save everything just like the kids in the story did.

Kairi loved that story. So much so, that the instant she learned words like ‘please’, ‘tell it again’, and ‘one more story’, she would ask for it and ask for it and ask for it. If her grandmother was weary of telling it so many times, she rarely showed it, but always indulged her. And beyond the feeling of dirt in her hands, or the wriggling of worms, or the soft velvet of flower petals, that feeling of hope was what she remembered most. Hope that maybe one day she could be a hero too.


 

 

R I K U

10 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands

6 Months before the fall of Radiant Garden

 

After he met that man on the play island, Riku started to have dreams where he was fighting.

He was never alone in the dreams. There were others with him, people whose faces and forms he couldn’t see, but he knew they were always there, whether by the light of their magic or by the strength of their shields.

In the first few dreams Riku wielded one of the wooden swords he and Sora played with in their duels, but the shape of it began to change. It became longer, stouter, the end of it capped by a rectangular knob that he used as a bludgeon at times, the design completed with four teeth. The hilt grew rectangular until it formed a guard around the handle, and at the base of the sword sprouted a small chain with a charm at the end that bumped against his arm when he swung the sword. And slowly, Riku realized the wooden toy sword he’d spar with during the day turned into a giant key, exactly like the one the man had him hold when Riku took the oath.

But while its shape never changed, for it was always a keyblade, the form of it evolved. It flashed in between designs, and sometimes it was the large, almost unwieldy bronze and blue key with four teeth at the end of its blade, while other times it took on countless other appearances. And all along, he and his friends were fighting.

And one day, when Riku woke up after a particularly vivid dream, the weight of that key-shaped sword still in his mind, he saw a charm in his outstretched hand.

A crown. Three-pointed and almost geometric in its structure. And at the end of it was a clasp, ready to be placed on anything.

He was not sure where it came from, whether it just appeared there or if perhaps one of his parents carefully placed it in his hand as he slept. The gesture seemed out of character for both of them, neither his mother or father to be the type to give spontaneous presents outside of the designated holidays, and he was too afraid to ask. So Riku kept it close, secret from everyone except Sora, whom he showed it to the same day he got it. They both marveled over the charm, both at the looks of it and at the idea of it just magically appearing in his hand. The concept of magic—real magic— having made the charm appear was a wonder to the children, a reprieve from the relative tedium of life on Destiny Islands. And when he found a chain that worked well with the charm, a forgotten past Christmas present he’d found in his bedside drawer, he wore it under his shirt, instinctively knowing he should keep the necklace secret from everyone except for Sora.

It became one of his most cherished possessions.

Once he wore the charm, the dreams suddenly felt so much more real. He could feel how the sword cut through the monsters, the resistance of their hides and the give when he cut through into air. Riku was everywhere in the dreams, never staying in one place for very long; First he was wandering with his friends through a jungle, a cavern, and then along the rooftops of a town somewhere. At one point he was walking on the walls and the ceiling in a house that looked like something out of a cartoon.

Another thing that changed with the appearance of the charm—now necklace—was his sword in his dreams. The unwieldy rectangular bronze and blue sword shifted slowly over the days into a much simpler design. First, he blinked, and then the blade and the hilt switched colors, the hilt now a gleaming gold. And then the blade’s blue color lightened until it was silver. And then the four teeth at the end of the blade shifted, warped, until it was one rectangular tooth with the shape of a crown in the negative space. And finally a simple shape of three connected circles, two smaller circles atop a third larger one, made up its new charm at the end of the chain on the hilt. The sword was much less unwieldy, then, no longer awkwardly heavy in Riku’s grip. In comparison, it felt as light as air.

He didn’t forget most of the dreams, anymore, when he wore the necklace. Riku could remember everything. He used those memories to renew his fervor in his and Sora’s spars and he won even more often than he did before, to the girl’s surprise. In a way, the dreams worked as practice, too, though he'd never reveal them to Sora whenever she asked why he'd gotten better at dueling.

But it was strange. Because before Riku had the charm, he had the dreams most every night, though they were less vivid. And now, with the charm, Riku didn’t always have the dreams even though they were more lucid. They came and went in waves, especially if he was having a good day. Riku noticed that when he was happy, his thoughts not straying to his home life or his parents, it was as if the dreams never left, and Riku was wandering around all sorts of places fighting strange creatures.

But when Riku was having a bad day, the dreams dried up. Disappeared. Crumbled into dust. He tried not to have any bad days, but it was hard, because that wasn’t often in his control. He dreamed of nothing and yearned for his friends, his sword, the glory.

And then, on the bad days, Riku started to dream of the door on the play island instead.

It started out harmless enough. He would be walking alone on a shore, and sometimes it was in the middle of the night, and other times it was in the middle of the day. It wasn’t the play island as he remembered it looking, small details here and there shifting and morphing as he looked at them, but it never seemed important to Riku in the dream. He’d call for his friends from the good dreams, but they never responded, and he never found them.

Instead it was the door that called back to him, across the dream island. There was no voice or any particular sensation other than a pulling feeling, like an invisible tether connected him to it. And with nothing else to do, Riku followed. The first few dreams, he simply stood in front of the door, his hand hovering towards it cautiously, and then drawing away. But one day he swallowed back his fear enough to open it.

Sometimes, he opened the door and that was how the dream ended, with Riku waking up and the necklace feeling unusually heavy on his neck. But sometimes, he opened the door and the dream kept going.

The door never opened to the same place twice. One night, he would be walking along the shore and it was noon, the crash of the waves ringing in his ears. He would open the door and step out into the bottom of the ocean somewhere. Another night, it would be morning on the shore, and Riku would see a large, sweeping ballroom when he opened the door, with strange beings that looked like furniture puttering about that never seemed to notice him staring at them.

In the dream one particularly bad day after a fight with his parents, it was late into the night, the imaginary moon high up in the sky. And when he opened the door this time, it swung out onto a rocky field that was devoid of any plants or animals, save for blackened, twisted trees in the distance. There were glowing cracks in the earth below a dark, purpling sky. Mist gathered all around.

Another bad night, and it would be sunset in the dream, and the door would open onto a strange shore where the moon was already risen and jagged rocks twisted in the air above.

He told Sora about the dreams of the door sometimes, keeping his dreams of the keyblade a secret as part of his promise to the man from months before. Mostly he told her about the good ones, where he would wander around forests with talking flowers and towns that celebrated Halloween every day, with her amazed at every detail. He felt good at that. He’d always liked having her attention on him.

As he’d grow older the cynic in Riku would want to dismiss the door on the play island as just a prank, or someone’s past art project, or something, any normal rationalization for that which would come to invade his thoughts on more than one occasion.

But the dreamer side of him would keep thinking about it, and would keep thinking about the door opening to somewhere off the islands that have begun to feel claustrophobic to the boy.


 

 

K A I R I

10 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands

6 months until the fall of Radiant Garden

 

Her second memory started much fuzzier, but she remembered what happened next. The clearest part of it were these strange black things, that walked like people, but didn’t look like them at all. Whatever they were, they were bowed, mean, and moved with a purpose. And they were moving towards her.

Once they caught sight of her with those glowering red eyes, she ran, but they were faster. They leapt, and slid through the air like oil, with their hands sharpened into a single point that didn’t bode well for her.

And Kairi remembered feeling so stupid. This was what she got for being careless. Her grandmother told her again and again that day to not wander off, and Kairi had gotten distracted looking around at the blooms in the castle’s flowerbeds and ended up separated and now she had no idea where she was.

She heard a voice from behind her telling her to run, but run where? All around her were indistinguishable stone walls and the sky, there was nowhere Kairi could escape to. She was terrified that those things were gaining up on her. That they were going to cut into her with those pointed claws or with those strange curved antlers that looked nothing like the antlers she would see on wildlife in the fields.

Kairi wasn’t looking where she was going, she could only run. She was breathless from running, could feel a stitch in her side screaming and burning, but there was no stopping. Whatever they were, they were coming for her, and she couldn’t stop if she wanted to live.

She ran, and ran, and ran, hearing her footsteps grow sloppy from exhaustion, the soles of her shoes smacking the ground, and every part of her felt like it was burning. Her throat was like sandpaper, the breaths coming out in a rasp, and she screamed in the hopes that someone would hear that could help her get away. And all the while, those creatures, those not-quite-people that moved so strangely, got closer.

And then there was a wall. Kairi nearly smacked into it until she finally looked up and saw it was uncomfortably close, and she realized she was trapped. If she felt tired before, she was exhausted now that she stopped, the stitch that was still searing into her was matched by another on the opposite side, and her windpipe had gone from feeling like sandpaper to the desert, dry and hot and burning all the way to her lungs, and the lactic acid that had built up in her legs began to catch up. She knew she wouldn’t be able to run again.

The things knew they had her cornered. This time they seemed to approach slower, almost teasingly, in the way that made her think that they didn’t just want to destroy her, they wanted to make her terrified before they did it. Kairi balled her fists before raising them over her head automatically, a gesture that she knew wouldn’t do much to shield her from their claws, the forgotten flowers in her hand bending at the stems.

And finally, Kairi caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of her eye and turned her head. And that’s when she saw her.

Kairi always had a talent for being able to sense who she could and couldn’t trust. It was hard to put into words, but some people just…felt nicer, more genuine, but it wasn’t the kind of feeling that you could do with your hands. The people she could trust the best felt as warm and endless as a summer day, Light shining from them in place of a sun.

And the people she couldn’t trust? Well, she hadn’t encountered many of them around the castle, but there were some amongst the people who felt clouded, dimmer, their Light dogged by a Darkness that hadn’t taken root but managed to leave a seed. She had learned to keep those people at arm’s length but stay sympathetic. Perhaps their troubled nature hadn’t come from a fault in their character but a fault in their circumstance.

The blue out of the corner of her eye turned out to be a woman, tall and bright, so bright, the Light within her so much stronger and surer than anyone Kairi had ever met. And on instinct, she ran to her, hiding behind her and clutching to the strange sword the woman held aloft.

Kairi didn’t know it at the time, but it was the moment she grasped that sword that she completed an eternal ritual, one of inheritance and a vow to defend. The ceremony of heroes.

The creatures turned towards the woman and Kairi, and more joined them. Slithering above in that strange angular dance, they seemed to be sizing the two up. She shuddered at the way their red eyes glowed with a calculating look, and they seemed to be communicating with one another mutely, making a silent plan. And finally, one was daring enough to lunge.

But before they could reach the two, someone (something?) else swept in front of them with a shout and destroyed the thing with a swipe of their sword, the blade in the same strange type of shape as the one Kairi was gripping in the woman’s hand.

It was a…mouse? He, Kairi assumed it was a he, didn’t look much like any mouse she’d ever seen. Two round ears and a flickering tail were where the similarities with a mouse ended. He was short, as short as Kairi, and wore black clothes with zippers and straps all over them. A cartoonish face was held in a scowl reserved for those creatures, who by now had seen what the mouse had done to one of their own and held back, watching the three. The creatures inspected the strange sword in the mouse’s hand from a distance.

“Hurry!” The mouse called back to them, “You gotta get that girl to somewhere safe,”

“Who are you? Why do you have a keyblade?” The woman questioned, and Kairi looked up to see her puzzled expression.

“I’ll tell you later. Right now, we gotta stop these things!”

The woman shifted her stance in acquiescence. And with one hand she picked Kairi up and slung her under her arm like she weighed nothing, the young girl letting out a sound of surprise at it. The flowers still in Kairi’s grip, she looked back past the woman’s arm to watch the mouse anxiously. He was calm in the way that told Kairi he had experience with whatever those things were that had begun to encircle him. She hoped they couldn’t hurt him.

The woman ran down the steps and a little into the courtyard down below. Upon reaching a grassy area, she put the girl down hurriedly, and crouched down to eye level for a moment.

“Stay here, okay? Shout if you’re in trouble.” She said, and Kairi nodded. At this, the woman ran back towards where the mouse had begun fighting those creatures, and she moved so fast it was almost as if she flew.

Kairi angled her head to try and watch. Those things were terrifying, and side by side the mouse and the strange woman’s combined Lights were so dazzling that Kairi was worried for them, as she didn’t want to see them extinguished. But more than worried, she was curious. She wanted to know what those ‘keyblades’ could do.

And it turned out they could do a lot.

The mouse used his more as a classical weapon, spinning and darting forward in a variety of forms, the keyblade piercing the monsters, who dissolved into clouds of smoke under the force. Those claws, the threatening antlers and the red-eyed gazes that seemed too intelligent for such an animal form, poof. Gone. As if that keyblade were just a hot knife slicing through butter.

And the woman, she was electric. Her Light had wreathed her with fire, with frost, with thunder. Magic poured from her keyblade between strikes, and she moved around the creatures like an acrobat. They could hardly touch her. And glowing with light, real Light that was forged of magic and Heart, she crossed the entire span of the balcony in a split second, the move capped off with a sharp thrust into the body of another monster. And then she raised her weapon to the sky, and with a flash of light and a shout Kairi couldn’t hear the words to, the magic danced over the woman’s skin with a tinkling chime, and whatever small wounds she had accumulated sewn themselves shut until it was as if they had never happened. Kairi felt her eyes grow impossibly wide at that.

Over the course of the fight, more of those creatures gathered, seemingly lured by some invisible connection. There were more of those creatures that had chased Kairi, but there were more still whose forms were stranger, some looking more like architecture than animal that bounced from foot to foot and had three leaf-like yellow things sprouting out of their heads, which were featureless silver spheres. And there were some amongst the crowd that fought from above, in the shape of condors, or vultures. But instead of any birds she had ever seen, the only similarities were these creatures having two wings, their gunmetal grey skin devoid of feathers.

And every one of them was destroyed. The woman did a strange move where light began to form at the tip of her keyblade again and she held it high, sliding around the balcony on one foot in a pirouette, the light descending from the weapon in streamers that sucked in the creatures and beat them around to the sound of bells.

“Let’s team up!” The mouse cried, and Kairi watched her give a nod before running over to match his stance. And they rose into the air, their keyblades pointed out, surrounded with light once more that poured from them to the creatures that had amassed. The things had begun to poof out of existence one by one, the noises of their annihilation drowned out by the sound of chimes, and still the magic poured forth, surrounding the two fighters with stars, and swirls aglow.

And only when the last creature died, one of those strange birds who dispersed into smoke with a weary ‘puff!’, did the woman and the mouse start to relax. And Kairi nervously approached the stairs to come closer to them.

It was partially out of a sense of safety, as Kairi hadn’t seen anything manage to destroy those things until she saw what they could do with those keyblades, but it was mostly out of awe. The blue-haired woman, whoever she was, was amazing, and what Kairi would remember most from this day was how badly she yearned to be just like her.

She glanced over and watched Kairi shyly climb up the stairs and gave the young girl a smile. The woman approached her with a hand outstretched, and Kairi took it, using it as a brace as she stepped onto the dais.

“Are you okay?” She asked her, and Kairi nodded. The woman gave her a quick once-over, checking for injuries, and then gave her hand a quick squeeze. “I’ll help you find your parents in a moment, I just need to talk to him first, does that sound alright?” and at Kairi’s assent, the woman kneeled so that she was eye-level with the mouse.

Now that Kairi could relax for a moment and examine the mouse a little more thoroughly, his appearance didn’t seem quite so strange. He was odd, sure, as much as seeing a mouse that could walk and talk could be odd. But she looked beyond that to focus on what she could sense of his Heart: Whereas the woman’s Light was more like the unshakable yellow splendor of the sun at high noon, the mouse’s reminded Kairi more of clear morning light, when all the brightness poured in through the windows with that bluish tone. There was some Darkness, just as there was in everybody, but it was like the occasional cloud on a sunny day that you knew wasn’t going to bring rain.

“Thank you. My name is Master Aqua,” The woman introduced herself to the mouse, “I train under Master Eraqus.”

“And I’m Mickey! I used to be Yen Sid’s apprentice, I came back to him for some more training.” He responded, gesticulating animatedly with his gloved hands.

Kairi tried the names out in her head. Aqua, Mickey. What odd names they have, she thought to herself, it was as if they were from another world. At least the mouse certainly had to be from elsewhere. Kairi looked up when she heard them talking about her.

“I sense a clear Light within this girl,” Aqua asked him, “Do you think that could be why they targeted her?”

 “Yep, I think ya might be absolutely right. She must be someone extraordinary, I can’t see any Darkness in her at all!”

Kairi felt her eyes widen at that. Extraordinary? Her? But I’m just a kid, she thought.

Unless… maybe she was like one of the kids from the story. Who could help save everything by rekindling the Light of worlds with her own. The idea made her excited. But who were these two, she wondered, with such strange appearances that could fight with keyblades and magic? How could they sense the contents of Hearts like she could?

“You’re right,” Aqua spoke, “I’m worried the Unversed may come after her again because of it,”

Mickey opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted by a sparkling gleam coming from the pocket of his jacket. He reached in to reveal a star-shaped crystal in his hand that was beginning to crackle with light just like fireworks, and Mickey hurriedly moved away from the two.

“Not again!” The mouse fretted, and he looked back and forth towards them, the light crackling much more severely now and beginning to wrap him with a glow, “Sorry, this, ah, it happens a lot. But I’ll be okay!” And as the stone rocketed towards the sky, Mickey still clinging to it, he shouted to them, “Let’s team up again sometime!”

And with that, the mouse and the stone vanished into a speck of light that careened across the atmosphere and out of sight. Aqua chuckled.

“Probably needed extra training to control that star shard,” She mused, more to herself, and then looked over at Kairi. “Before we go to find your parents, I wanted to ask you about that Light—”

“Kairi!”

The girl looked over to see her grandmother climb the stairs and walk towards them, her steps measured with age.

Aqua glanced over for a moment and seemed to think to herself for a moment. “Kairi,” She said concernedly, though Kairi couldn’t imagine why she’d be worried, “Just a minute?”

She lowered her hand to the pendant Kairi wore and gave it a gentle tap, a small gleam of magic rippling from the touch.

“There we go. I just cast a spell on you,” She said, and Kairi looked at her with wonder, “One day when you’re in trouble, the Light within you will lead you to the Light of another. Someone to keep you safe.”

“Thank you!” Kairi exclaimed and had to tamper down her excitement before she got too hyper, and then she remembered the bouquet still in her hand and extended it towards the woman, “These are for you. Thank you for saving me, and for the spell,” She added, and the woman gave her a gentle smile.

“That’s so sweet of you,” Aqua said fondly, and held the flowers in one hand and ruffled Kairi’s hair with the other, “Thank you. And stay close to your grandmother from now on, okay?”

“I will!” Kairi promised before running back to her grandmother, who had reached them by then. She took her hand and bid Aqua farewell, and they left.

They had been walking for a few moments when Kairi became lost in thought. Those monsters, and the Light that both Aqua and Mickey discussed. A Light, she wondered. Her? She was someone extraordinary?

And Aqua had said those things—she had called them Unversed—they’d come after her again. Kairi clutched the pendant in her hand. But next time, she’d have a spell to keep them from getting her. A spell, magic, on her! She couldn’t be afraid knowing that. Kairi couldn’t quell the grin on her face.

“Hey, Grandma?”

She looked over, “Hmm? What is it?”

“Could you tell me that story again?”

“Again, dear?” She chuckled.

Please?

Her grandmother sighed, though not unkindly. “Very well, then” She complied, and Kairi squeezed her hand in gratitude. They continued to walk down the steps, through the courtyard, framed by the light of the setting sun. And her grandmother began the familiar tale:

“Long ago, people had lived in peace, bathed in the warmth of Light…”


 

 

S O R A

10 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands

6 Months until the fall of Radiant Garden

 

The day had been long, replete with the commotion of duels waged with wooden swords and the shouts of children racing their peers, and now the night was quiet. All of the others had gone home by now—Tidus being the first to go, followed shortly thereafter by Wakka, and eventually even Selphie left for home with a pout and escorted by her exasperated mother, who had already called for her twice by then. Only Sora and Riku were left, laying in the sand and watching the stars.

When the day began to descend into dusk, Sora had off and on felt something pulling at the edge of her consciousness. (A phantom pain, fear, tempered with resolve.) And when she had dueled Riku earlier she kept seeing flashes of another fight overlaid in her vision over her own match (a wooden sword turned into a giant key and Riku shifted into a dark figure that looked identical to her but not her, a wraith made of smoke and steel and the Dark that remains when the Light burns out), and it had distracted her to the point where Riku had held off for a moment and just surveyed her cautiously before asking her if she was okay.

She was okay…or wasn’t she? Sora glanced towards the ocean for a moment (Gold sunlight splintered into red and green and blue and a whole rainbow made of shattered glass that glimmered amid the vacuum) and whatever it was seemed to dull. Another moment, and everything was fine. Whatever it was seemed to subside, so she shook it off and decided to keep going.

Several hours later nothing else like that had happened, and she and Riku reclined on the shore listening to the waves. There were strange twinges in her heart here and there, like when something bad happened and she wanted to cry, but no bad things had happened that day, so Sora merely chalked it up to being tired.

Eventually, Riku was the first to sit up, saying, “Hey. I’m gonna head back.”

And then Sora sat up as well, briskly. “Yeah, me too.”

They both began to plod towards the small fenced entrance that marked the private bay they were at, yawning and shaking the sand out of their shoes. Riku was tiredly looking towards the exit, lost in his own thoughts, when he heard her sniff.

Sora was crying. Her eyes were shiny from tears and her nose had the barest tinge of red at the tip, and he stopped.

“Sora, what’s wrong?”

“Huh?” She glanced back at him and stopped walking. She hadn’t realized her vision was beginning to blur and her eyes felt hot.

“You’re…” He trailed off as he pointed to her eyes, and she could feel a tear begin to fall. Her brows raised in surprise as she carefully pressed a hand to her face and could feel dampness. Somewhere in her chest, her heart gave a pang.

“That’s weird.” She remarked, after pulling her hand away and seeing a teardrop balanced on her fingertip. “It’s like something’s squeezing me inside,”

She thought back to the scenes she saw earlier, and the strange heartache. Riku pondered for a moment.

“Somebody up there might be sad,” He said. Sora scrunched up her eyes in confusion.

“Up where?”

The boy turned his face towards the stars.

“They say every world is connected by one great big sky. So maybe there’s somebody up there in all those worlds who’s really hurting, and they’re waiting for you to help them.”

Sora looked up. It was hard to think that every star, every light was a world, with people and places and all sorts of things. It was so easy to forget when all you saw was light.

She wondered who it could be that was in trouble. Were they a little girl on an island somewhere like her? Or maybe it was some kid in a jungle or a city, or maybe they weren’t even on a world at all. She frowned.

“Is there something I can do?”

Riku hummed at that and crossed his arms contemplatively. Finally, he suggested, “Maybe they just need you to open your heart and listen?”

Her forehead creased at that, and she reflexively shifted from foot to foot. Just listening? It sounded a little dubious; Listening by itself didn’t sound like much of a solution to anything and it wasn’t as if they were right there and able to talk to her. But she didn’t have any better ideas.

“I dunno, Riku, you say some weird stuff sometimes,” She teased, “But I’ll try it!”

She altered her stance to something a little more attentive, with her hands instinctively closed loosely into fists. Sora lifted her face back up to the sky and tried to tune the sounds of the ocean out in search of a voice she could listen to. Finally, she closed her eyes and breathed in, out, feeling her pulse start to relax into a more uniform pattern.

She saw nothing at first and then the room appeared. There was a boy, a teen perhaps, though to her teens and adults looked alike since she was so young. He was wearing peculiar clothes with a metal armor thing attached to his shoulder, and he was seated on a throne. The boy was asleep.

The room was shaped like a circle and matched the throne, starkly white and so bright it almost hurt to see. The shadows were so faint they looked lilac. And all along the wall, a symbol kept repeating that matched the badge on the boy’s chest, that looked like a geometric heart with a four-pointed star overlaid on the bottom. From the bottommost point of the symbols on the wall images of chains flashed, stretching through the floor, where the gleaming of the chains seemed to originate from that pale throne.

Sora couldn’t help glancing around for a moment, fascinated by the unfamiliar architecture and the seemingly magical light that lit up the chains. Until her gaze fell back onto the boy and she remembered her task.

“Hey,” She tried, “Can you hear me?”

Once she spoke, the room faded. Sora blinked, expecting to find herself back on the beach with Riku, but she was now in another new place. This time, the boy was absent.

She was standing on an enormous platform. There was no roof, or walls, or even a sky. It was true nothingness. The only source of light was from the platform below her, which was made of an ornate scene composed of stained glass, just like the windows she saw on some buildings back on the islands. She couldn’t see what the entire scene was, and could only vaguely make out that the yellow light behind her was shaped like a…star? But the light from below she couldn’t make out the shape of. On the design yellow was the only color apart from blues. Whatever it was, Sora thought, it was beautiful.

A flicker at the edge of her vision made her turn to see a sparkle that was heading her way. And suddenly she was excited, thinking this might be who she was supposed to help.

“Hey!” She called out again, louder this time, “Can you hear me?”

“I heard your voice,” the twinkle said, sounding slightly awed. “It cut through the Darkness around me.”

She let out a small trill of excitement at the twinkle as it approached, and she stood on her tiptoes and reached out her hands to try and catch it. It continued to speak.

“All alone, I followed the sound, into a sea of Light. And I found myself here with you.”

The globe of light seemed to settle into her grasp, though it didn’t feel like she was holding anything. All she could sense from it was warmth. Her eyes grew round at seeing it, and rounder still that she was holding it.

“You gave me something back when I needed it most. A second chance.”

“I did?”

And she couldn’t see the light change at all, but somehow, she could sense it was nodding.

“But…now I have to go back to sleep again.”

At the voice’s mournful tone, she frowned. “Are you sad?”

It didn’t answer her question, and instead asked, “Would you mind if I stayed here, with you?”

“Sure, if it’ll make you feel better!”

“Thank you.”

Sora couldn’t explain it, but it seemed relieved at this, and hopeful.

She tried bringing her hands to her heart to pull the twinkle of light in, and it followed. The light disappeared into her with one last flash, and she folded her hands over her chest and closed her eyes, feeling the last dregs of warmth from it.

After a moment she opened her eyes. The sky was back, alive with all its stars, and the stained-glass platform she had stood upon was replaced with sand. Sora could hear the distant crash of the waves. She was on Destiny Islands again.

“Well?” Riku asked. She glanced over to see him watching with curiosity.

“Ya know, I think it worked.” Was all she said, and they both said nothing more, looking back up to the sky.

Amidst the dark blue and countless glimmers of light, three stars flashed together, brighter than all the others.


 

 

K A I R I

9 years and 6 months until the fall of Destiny Islands

1 hour until the fall of Radiant Garden

 

Her third earliest memory began with a storm.

In the days leading up to it, those Unversed had begun appearing all over the city in greater numbers, and nobody knew what to do. The guards had their hands full with dealing with them, on top of the vast numbers of people disappearing recently, and they hadn’t been able to handle the threat anywhere near as effectively as that strange woman and the mouse had been able to.

It had been many days since Kairi was allowed to go outside, stuck within the walls of the castle for her own safety, and she remembered the scent of lilacs coming and going without her or her grandmother being able to work in the garden again. What once had been the herald of a new season and new adventures had now become a taunting reminder.

“One day, dear,” Her granny had promised, sadly. She had seemed to age rapidly within the recent months, with the stress of the Unversed and reports of strange new creatures that were found within the walls of the city. And, lately, reports of trouble with the King and his apprentices.

Kairi didn’t know what was going on, and it was frustrating that nobody seemed to be willing to talk about it with her. Everyone said they didn’t want to worry her, but it was worse being kept in the dark, and it felt demeaning that she wasn’t allowed to know.

So here she was, stuck.

Kairi was in the middle of lessons one day when the storm began to really rev up. All day the clouds had been threatening, making the day almost as dark as night, but nobody paid much attention to it. Storms had been getting more and more common recently, and Kairi was worried that the extra rain would drown her plants. But she still wasn’t allowed to go outside, and by now the flowerbeds must have been choked with weeds long before the rain threatened them.

And apart from the storm outside, for weeks Kairi had begun to feel this weird weight at the edge of her senses. It felt a lot like when she was sensing Darkness in people, but the only Darkness that she could see clearly was that of her instructor’s in front of her, and that didn’t seem like the cause at all. This was a different sort of sensing, all around her now, and the threat of it made her teeth rattle and her stomach churn. It was nearly impossible to focus on anything.

Kairi was in the middle of staring blankly at the page of addition problems she had to finish, when she and her tutor looked up at the sound of shouting and the clanging of armor and swords from the hallway, getting closer. And it sounded like…her grandmother?

The door threw open, revealing that was indeed her. And over her shoulder, a man Kairi only vaguely recognized accompanied by a few guards. It was Xehanort, one of the newest apprentices of King Ansem and the leader of the more questionable experiments in the castle’s basement labs that she had overheard whispers of.

Kairi, personally, had never liked him from the beginning. With other people whose Hearts were more saturated with Darkness than usual, she’d been guarded with them, though cordial. She had usually made it a point to try and see the good in others, and if there wasn’t much Light, to try and be understanding of how their Darkness came to spread—With the disappearances lately, she’d seen people whose Hearts were shining with Light start to dim when a child or a sibling vanished. And in the people whose Hearts were already dim in the first place who had lost someone, dark thickets would bloom.

But Xehanort? He was different. He was first discovered passed out in the courtyard months prior and didn’t know anything of himself but his own name. But his amnesia didn’t hold him back from quickly climbing the ranks to become the impromptu lead of the apprentices. From there, he pushed the ethical boundaries of the experiments to levels the King had found distasteful, causing the rift between King Ansem and his apprentices that had been fueling much of the castle gossip.

But the strangest part about him was his Heart. Apprentice Xehanort had two of them.

One was blacker than midnight, more entrenched in Darkness than any Kairi had ever seen, and it terrified her. It was a Darkness that seemed to have a life of its own.

And the other Heart she could only barely see. It was just like lifting a piece of paper with drawings on both sides up to the sun and seeing the ghost of the art on the other side show through with the light. On one side was the Dark Heart, but just beyond it, bound in chains and weeping, was the dim Light of the second Heart. It was tinged red and purple, like the last thin resigned stripe of sunset on the horizon as evening arrived.

Seeing the lead apprentice now was like looking into an eclipse. The Darkness that had been pulling at the edge of her senses seemed to be attracted to him, intermingling with the blackness of his Hearts. Kairi was beginning to space out again, with the nausea starting to grow worse and evolve into lightheadedness, and she tried to listen past the static in her head to what her grandmother was shouting.

“—ri! Kairi! Come with us, now!”

Kairi blinked slowly, trying to process the words. Her tutor scowled and shook his head in confusion, enquiring, “What could possibly be going on--?” before an ear-splitting CRACK rang out, impossibly close, and they all jumped.

That is, except for Xehanort.

Adrenaline cleared Kairi’s senses immediately, and she knocked over her chair to race to her grandmother and clutched to her hand. Her grandmother held onto her tightly and pressed her close to her side with an iron grip, her mouth pressed in a thin line.

“It’s this way. Follow me.” Xehanort said, and turned to quickly navigate down the halls, which as the group progressed farther from the classroom Kairi could see their former splendor had been freshly marred with long claw-marks and dark stains on the wallpaper, guards’ weapons and raiments laying abandoned here and there. The more distance traveled, the more destruction there was. They passed a fallen chandelier, their footsteps crunching with the glass underfoot. From somewhere distantly behind them rang out the clamor of weapons and shouts. And then, a roar.

“What was that?” Kairi inquired, and fearfully looked behind them, “Grandma? What’s happening?”

“The King is dead,” A guard answered. Her tutor sucked in a gasp.

“Heavens, he’s dead? What, I,” He floundered, and nearly tripped over a forgotten spear in their path, before regaining his voice and saying, “How?”

“That’s what one of the guards said. Braig, or whatever his name was. He said another one of those creatures the apprentices had been experimenting on had escaped and killed the King. Saw his body dissolve into that black smoke we’ve been seeing so much of.”

Kairi thought, Darkness? But she didn’t dare say a word. She peered at the white-haired man—Xehanort—that was leading them down the hallway, who hadn’t spoken since beckoning them to follow him. She didn’t have to turn to know that everyone in the group was doing the same, their looks laced with suspicion. Kairi felt her grandmother’s grip on her tighten as they turned another corner and down a flight of stairs.

The guard continued, “Fifteen minutes ago, we saw the first of those things break down the doors to the laboratory. It was huge, unlike the descriptions of the creatures we’ve been getting in reports from citizens who had the misfortune of encountering them in the city. And it had this strange symbol on its chest, like a heart. The beast took down half a squadron of guards with one swipe, I’ve never seen anything like it,” He shuddered, “And since then we’ve been trying to get as many civilians out as we can and hold those monsters off for as long as possible, but we haven’t been having much luck.”

“Where are we going?” Kairi spoke up.

This time it was Xehanort who answered, in an eerie monotone. “The laboratory.”

What?!” Kairi and the tutor exclaimed simultaneously.

“You tell us about those beasts that have destroyed so much already, who can shove aside over a dozen trained guards like it’s nothing, and you lead us right to their lair?!” He yelled, his face twisting with fear.

Kairi turned to her grandmother, desperately, and begged, “Grandma, please don’t make me go down there, why can’t we just leave the castle?”

The woman released her hold on Kairi and patted her on the head in attempt to calm her with one hand, still holding her hand with the other. Her grandmother seemed to age another decade in an instant, her form bent with the weight of resignation and dread.

“She’s got a point,” The teacher agreed, and looked between the few guards that escorted the group, “Why are we going into the basement? There is a vast number of exits out of the castle, why aren’t we going outside?”

The guards nervously glanced towards one another, tightening their grips on their spears. One finally responded.

“None of the civilians we’ve escorted out there have survived. Guards, too.” He nervously cleared his throat before saying, “The creatures have stopped coming from the laboratory, but they’re now destroying the city and everyone in it as we speak. The only hope we have of getting people out is a portal that the apprentices managed to open using their research, that they say leads to other worlds.”

“It’s true, Apprentice Xehanort showed me.” Her grandmother spoke, as she looked down at Kairi and tried to give her a smile, but all Kairi could focus on was the worry in her gaze, “He opened up one in front of me and showed how it can transport anyone and anything. It stung a little, to go through, but I saw another world on the other side. No monsters, just sand, and waves. You’ll be safe there, dear.”

“But what about you?” She responded. Her grandmother smiled sadly.

“I’ll join you when I can.”

“Why can’t you come with m—" Kairi started to ask but gasped at another rumble from somewhere in the castle. It seemed to be from far above. And from there, more rumbling started, sustained, and it felt like it was getting closer.

“We need to move! Now!” One guard shouted, and everyone broke into a dead run. Her grandmother tried to gain speed over the brisk walk she had been doing, but only managed to hobble. It didn’t take long until they were closer to the back of the group.

“It’s just one more turn until we’re there.” Xehanort called out, and the group managed to get a burst in speed. Kairi and her grandmother lagged farther behind.

And all along they felt that thunder of countless monstrous footsteps.

Just a bit more, Kairi hoped, still hyped up on terror and all the adrenaline that came with it. They made the turn, and she clipped the edge of the wall hard as she did so, her shoulder aching. But she didn’t think about it, couldn’t afford to, not when the doors were right there just at the end of the hall and she was too terrified to look at what was behind.

And then they were there. The guards threw open the metal doors and they raced inside past the maze of grates, the guards switching them on to barricade against their pursuers as they went. Once they reached the innermost room of the laboratory they hastily constructed a barricade against the doors using whatever they could find in the mess of the room, from ripped out chunks of machinery to books to chairs and desks. And then, from behind them, they heard laughter.

It was a man Kairi had never seen before. He was menacing, even in the familiar guards’ uniform. A black eyepatch covered part of his face, with his dark hair slicked back to reveal the pointed tips of his ears. A deep, brutal-looking scar tore across his cheek and came close to his remaining eye, which was a gold color Kairi had never seen on anyone else before. He was reclining lazily against the wall with both of his arms crossed, a crossbow-like weapon in each hand. Both of his index fingers were on the triggers. He glanced at each of them, before settling on Xehanort. He gave the group a toothy grin.

“I knew you were still in there somewhere, Terra,” He crowed, “The old man told us to just pitch the girl and see where she ended up, but it figures a bleeding heart like you would try and help some useless civvies, too.”

“Braig!” A guard shouted, angrily raising his spear. Braig barely lifted an arm and fired a crossbow without looking. It rang out with a metallic sound, and Kairi heard a dull wet thud as it finally collided with the desk behind the guard in the barricade, the man crumpling to the floor holding his side at the edge of her sight. She heard her grandmother gasp and before moving to turn Kairi away from the body before she could see clearly what happened.

Xehanort opened and closed his mouth, a new look of apprehension in his brown eyes. And as Kairi watched him, the strangest thing happened in his Hearts: It was as if, for a moment, that ghost Heart under the eclipse became a little clearer, a little Lighter. The reds and purples of that Heart flashed to goldenrod yellow. He finally spoke in less of a monotone, “We could experiment with the portals with them. We could see where they end up at, and it’ll give us an idea of where she’ll go.”

Braig gave a harsh bray of laughter. “Come on, you and I both know she’ll end up somewhere completely different. You said so yourself, she’s not like them, and that’ll change the path.”

Xehanort—or was it Terra? —opened and closed his mouth, trying to formulate a response. And before he could say anything, her grandmother spoke.

“I don’t care what happens to me. Please, just save my granddaughter.”

The corners of Braig’s mouth curled more as he gave a cheer. “There we go! Ladies and gents, please give it up for our first volunteer,” He gestured to her with his crossbows and she flinched. “I would clap for you, but I kind of have a hostage situation to maintain just in case softy here doesn’t stay in line. Hopefully you understand.” He finished with a simpering glance.

Kairi looked up at her and implored, “Grandma, no,” but she gently shushed her.

“Kairi, dear, my time is behind me. I brought you here to make sure you were safe, and that is all I want. Nothing else is important.”

“But—” She started to protest, but her grandmother shook her head harshly at her, and the girl went quiet. Kairi could feel her eyes growing wet.

“I knew it,” Her teacher spat out, “I knew it! You traitors orchestrated this whole thing! You killed the king, you let those monsters loose upon the city, it was all you!”

“Hole in one, chump,” Braig replied.

“And you,” He rounded on Xehanort, “I knew there was something off about you from the time you started doing those ghastly experiments! His majesty ordered you to stop, but you were too greedy for knowledge or power or whatever it is you two are after. Were the other apprentices in on this, too?”

Braig gave an exaggerated look to the apprentice, but Xehanort gave no response.

That only seemed to confirm her teacher’s words. He looked too angry to speak.

“Why?” It was the remaining guard. He rose slowly from where he had kneeled beside his fallen comrade. “Why did you do it?”

Braig answered, “And that, my friend, is privileged information.”

And then he looked to Xehanort, his gold eye gleaming in the dimmed light. “Well? What are you waiting for? Open the portal already.”

The apprentice raised a hand to the wall shakily but seemed to hesitate. His eyes flickered again between the group with an almost guilty expression, and Kairi saw the ghost Heart flash again. Braig sighed.

“Can’t muster the nerve, huh?” He sauntered over to the control panel on the far wall, unnoticed amidst the rest of the wreckage. “Then what if I,” He dropped a crossbow to the floor as he lifted one hand to a lever, saying, “Raised the stakes?”

And then he yanked the lever down, and along the adjoining wall a large hole that was shaped like a heart that ended in three points at the tip began to crackle. Then, a smear of colors danced across the archway like an oil slick. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

Creatures began to pour out of the hole, now portal, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but every last one of them had a curious red heart-shaped emblem on their chest that was crossed with barbed vines, and every last one of them was hungry. The group cried out, all but Braig and Xehanort, and Kairi desperately backed away from a small black bug-like thing that turned its glowing yellow eyes on her. She was reminded all too much of a similar encounter with the Unversed months prior, except this time, she wasn’t sure if Aqua would show up at the last moment to save her.

Xehanort’s eyes widened, and he opened the portal immediately, and it settled on the wall closest to him, black and roiling and tendrils reaching out around it.

“Kairi, run!” Her grandmother shouted, and the creatures began to converge on her. Kairi’s vision blurred with horrified tears, and she backed away from the creatures, and felt herself be picked up. It was the apprentice.

“I don’t know where you’ll end up,” He started, and Kairi sobbed as he rushed her to the waiting portal, “But you’re going to be okay. You’re going to find the keybearer. And wherever you go, Light will follow you. I’ve seen it. Lead us to the key to everything. Now go!” He shouted out, tossing her into the portal, and it closed behind her.

And all Kairi knew next was that she was falling, and falling, and falling. The Darkness lapped at her, trying to grip, but it couldn’t. Everything was cold, prickly, but it didn’t hurt.

She felt something tugging at her, but not physically. It was tugging at something deep inside the center of herself.

Her Heart.

“One day when you’re in trouble, the Light within you will lead you to the Light of another.”

The familiar words rang out in her head, and Kairi felt warm.

And then there was Light.

And, finally, Kairi knew no more.


 

 

S O R A

9 Years and 6 months until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

Just like how a rain shower begins with a single drop, a meteor shower begins with the twinkle of a single point of light, falling towards the earth.

Sora and Riku had spent the day playing, as children often do, making sand castles and sand battlements and then mock fighting on the shore to practice their skills as the knights for the castles they made. The day was long, and the night had grown late, neither child really noticing the change in light until the flicker of streetlights turning on for the evening had caught their eye. Just as they both fell quiet at the sight of it, for it was often the mark of a gloomy separation, another twinkle sparked at the corner of their eyes and they looked up.

It was a shooting star. Whatever despondence they felt from the streetlights was immediately out of their thoughts as they marveled at the sight. Sora gave an audible gasp.

“Woah,” Riku marveled. And then the glimmer left as fast as it arrived.

“Make a wish, make a wish!” Sora called out to him, and he grinned before they both scrunched their eyes shut with hope.

Sora still had her eyes closed too tightly to notice the continued dance of lights across the sky, too busy trying to figure out what to wish for. But Riku noticed.

“Sora, look,” Was all he said as she opened her eyes and followed where he was pointing.

It was another shooting star.

And another.

And another.

It started slow, like the first few drops of rain in a storm, and then those first few rays leapt through the sky began to multiply. Three, twelve, too many to count sped across the horizon, and yet more continued to appear. Slowly, Sora’s excitement dissolved into a fearful awe.

“Riku…What’s going on? What’s happening?”

For several moments he had no response. “I don’t know.”

And that’s when Sora really began to be afraid. Riku almost always had the answer: He read all the time, he was older (even if only a year older, but that felt like an eternity to kids), he was supposed to know everything. But now there was finally something he didn’t know. And that was terrifying.

She looked over to see his gaze still glued to the sky, Riku’s face lit up hauntingly from the unnatural light of the shooting stars. The crown pendant around his neck had peeked out of his collar and reflected the atmosphere.

Sora looked back to the sky. Great smears of light were streaked down the horizon, illuminating what few clouds there were from behind. The meteor shower showed no signs of letting up. And then one terrifying thought occurred to her.

“Riku,” Her voice wavered, and she tried again. “Riku, what if one hits the islands? Will we die?”

At those words Riku whipped his face down to look at her. His expression was determined.

“No,” He answered, and took her hand in his own. “We won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“If a shooting star comes this way, I’ll protect you. I won’t let it come near us.”

The notion was encouraging, but then another issue came to mind. Because a shooting star was a force of nature, which meant that it had to be impossibly huge, insurmountable. And Riku, well, even though he seemed so much older and more capable at times, he was still just a kid. Just like her.

And sometimes she was starkly reminded of that, like just a minute ago.

“How are you going to do that?”

At this he paused and looked down in thought. Then he peered at the wooden swords they had left in the sand. Riku let go of her hand to lean over and reach for the handle of one.

“With this,” Riku announced, “Maybe this is what we’ve been practicing for. The real test. We pretend to be knights all the time, so what would be different about this?” He said with a reassuring smile.

“And to make sure I don’t forget this promise when we grow up, here.” He said and buried the tip of the toy sword into the sand, so he could free his hands. Riku reached around behind his neck and undid the clasp on the necklace he wore. The crown pendant sparkled with the movement. And then, once the necklace was free, he picked up the sword again in one hand and held out the necklace to Sora with the other.

“Take it.”

“What?” Sora gasped.

“Take it,” Riku repeated.

She looked to the necklace and back to him. That necklace was his most favorite thing, she knew. It was the first implication of magic they’d ever found that showed magic wasn’t impossible (and for Riku she knew it was only suggestion that maybe his parents cared, once, as equally impossible as that seemed. That is, if they were indeed the ones to give it to him, which was the only logical reason for its appearance the two could come up with).

But then again, until an hour or so ago they would have thought that a meteor shower on this scale was impossible, too. Perhaps the time had come for impossible things to happen.

But for him to offer her something like this was an incredible gesture.

“But…Why? This means a lot to you, right?” Sora was bewildered. “And what does it have to do with forgetting the promise?”

“It’ll be a reminder. Every time you look at it, you’ll think of me. And every time I look at it, I’ll think of you. And I will remember my promise. It can connect us.”

And just like that, everything she feared right then seemed to melt away. It was hard to keep being afraid of anything with this. And with the fear gone, a surge of hope and resolution rose in her Heart.

Because Sora and Riku? United, they could handle anything. Nobody and nothing could defeat them. And that was a fact of life, like how the sky is blue, grass is green, and Sora and Riku were unbeatable when they were together. And sure, they were just kids, but that wasn’t for forever, right?

“Then I promise to protect you too.” She vowed. “And then the necklace will remind both of us.”

Sora reached out for the pendant and wrapped its chain around her neck, pulling the ends of it forward so she could see the clasp as she fastened it. Once it was done, she let go of it, and the crown bounced against her sternum, still almost awkwardly big for her. But that didn’t keep it from being the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, and it didn’t dampen the meaning of it. Sora knew she’d wear it forever.

She grinned at him, and then bent down to reach for the other sword and shook off the sand that dusted it. Sora held it aloft in one hand and gripped Riku’s hand with the other.

Riku grinned back, and there they stood, watching the meteor shower, hand in hand.

It wasn’t long after that that even the bright light of the shooting stars couldn’t keep them awake, and both kids’ eyes began to burn with tiredness. Sora figured her mother would be wondering where they were, and they mutually decided to depart. The meteor shower seemed to abate by that point, still lighting up the sky, but it had passed its crescendo, and the overwhelming brightness had dimmed into a more tolerable glow. Fewer star trails lined the atmosphere.

They both walked up to the fenced entrance, their footsteps muffled with the sand. Moths danced around the lights on the streets and the porchlights in the neighborhood beyond. And when Riku began to split up from Sora, for his house was in one direction and hers in the other, she stopped him.

“Wait,” Sora called out, and fumbled with the toy sword in her hands when he turned back towards her.

“Yeah?”

“Could you…Do you want to sleep over? ‘Cuz it’s, it’s getting kinda dark, and those shooting stars were kinda spooky.”

Riku eyed her for a moment before giving a slow, wily grin.

“Are you afraid of the dark? Is that it?”

“No! No, not at all! I’m not a scaredy cat!”

“I think you are a scaredy cat.”

“No!” Sora protested, and stomped a foot in frustration. “Ugh, nevermind! Forget I said anything,” She turned around to begin walking home, and Riku laughed and fell into step beside her.

“It’s okay,” He said, “I’ll protect you from the dark, too.”

Sora could feel her cheeks get hot from embarrassment and was thankful that he couldn’t see her face too well in that moment as they walked to her house. She mumbled a thanks, and whether Riku could or couldn’t hear it, he didn’t respond.

Later that night, they stayed up in Sora’s bed—Because she really was a scaredy cat, she admitted later as she asked him to sleep in the bed with her. She said she’d be afraid of having nightmares. And Riku went along with it, because they were both young enough to fit in the same bed with room to spare and not feel weird about it.

And in the morning, when her mother came to wake her up, Mina was not surprised to see them curled up together. She didn’t wake them, and instead decided to tiptoe back out of the room with one hand covering the smile on her face, recalculating how much batter she’d need to make extra pancakes.


 

 

K A I R I

9 Years and 6 months to the fall of Destiny Islands

 

The first thing she knew was the sound of waves.

Kairi moved to get up and looked around to find herself on a shoreline somewhere. Along the sand were ferns and palms that bowed under the weight of star-shaped fruit. Wherever she was, it was morning, and the temperature had already started to climb. She breathed in and inhaled the smell of salt. Another inhale, and she realized she smelled like smoke, but for the life of her Kairi couldn’t remember why.

She was exhausted, but she couldn’t remember the reason for that either. Her muscles ached, her lungs hurt, her heart was beating so hard it was shaking her whole body, and it was as if she’d run a marathon but she had just woken up.

She sat there for a while slowly being lulled into a daze from fatigue and the clamor of the ocean, until she heard approaching voices. The first she heard was a young girl, maybe close in age to her.

“…Mom, mom, come on, I saw a weird flash over here…”

A woman’s voice responded, “Sunny, I need to go to work soon, are you sure it wasn’t just the water?”

“It’s true, Ms. Shimamoto, I didn’t see what Sora did, but some girl just appeared on the beach when I turned around.” A boy, this time. Equally as young as the girl.

“Riku, dear, I’ve told you to just call me Mina,” The woman reminded him fondly. Kairi rubbed at her eyes to get the salt and sand out of them. “And if there really is a child there, I’m sure her parents must be close by—Oh!”

Past the waves Kairi could hear the sound of footsteps shuffling through the sand towards her. She blearily looked over and was blinded by the sun.

“Hey!” The girl, the one she heard before, called out to her. She was asking questions a mile a minute. “Who are you? Where did you come from? What was that flash? Where are your mom and dad?”

Mina hushed her and said, “Sora, let me handle this.”

Kairi could only blink, once, twice, trying to focus past the sun. Her head was swimming. Some distant part of her mind was distracted by the red color of the girl’s shorts, the whiteness of the sand. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mina squat down to her eye level and rest a hand on her shoulder.

“Sweetie? Do you know where your parents might be?”

Kairi took a moment longer to gain her bearings. Her vision had stopped blurring, and she was able to focus on the woman talking to her. She seemed kind, with brown hair and eyes, and casually dressed. Her Heart was like looking at late afternoon Light.

“I don’t know.”

She tilted her head in question. “Do you have an idea of where they went? They must have brought you here,”

Kairi began to nervously pull at the lip of the clogs she was wearing and focused on the feel of the rubber in her grip. “I don’t know,” She repeated, “I just remember waking up.”

Mina went quiet at that. Kairi heard the two children at her side shifting, and the wooden swords they were holding made a tapping noise as they did so. Their curiosity was so palpable she could practically feel it.

“Here. I’m going to call the police, and they’ll be happy to send someone over to help, does that sound okay?” Mina asked, and Kairi nodded and looked down. “I’m just going to get up for a minute to call them, but I’ll stay with you the whole time, sweetie. Things are going to turn out okay, I promise.”

She stood and walked a couple of feet away to make the call but didn’t go far. Kairi stared after her and pulled at her shoes again.

“Hey,” The girl said, once the woman was out of earshot. “Do you really not remember anything? At all?”

Kairi only shook her head.

“What about your name? I’m Sora.”

“Sora,” She murmured, testing out the name to remember it. “I’m Kairi.”

“Kairi! That’s perfect!” Sora cheered, “Sora, sky, Kairi, sea, Riku, land! Oops, right, this is Riku, by the way,” She finished sheepishly, gesturing at the boy who then waved.

“Hey,” He greeted with a smile, and Kairi did a double-take. He seemed normal enough if you only looked at his green eyes, but it was his hair she was startled by. It was silver.

Images flashed in her mind. (A man with silver hair and a lab coat leading her down a battered hallway, a scarred grin and the flash of a gold-colored eye, the twinkle of a promise bound in magic in the midst of Darkness as far as she could see. And through it all, the scent of lilacs.) But as quickly as she saw them, the visions were gone again.

She took a moment to glance beyond his visage into his Heart, just the same as she had done with Mina. Inside there was Light, but his was different. His was more like the tired gleam of the sun as it began to descend towards night, clouds warning on the horizon. Be careful, instinct cautioned.

Kairi hadn’t taken a moment to inspect Sora when she first spoke, so she looked to her next. The first thing she noticed were how Sora’s eyes were almost painfully blue, her unruly hair matching Mina’s in color. And then she looked beyond into Sora’s Heart…or rather, Hearts. Riku and Mina both only had one in each of them, but Sora had two. Ghost Heart, that quiet voice of instinct and chained memory in her head murmured again, eclipse. She didn’t understand what Ghost Heart was supposed to mean, but she knew eclipse implied one of the Hearts was being covered, which it wasn’t. It was like staring into a day with two suns, and Kairi almost had to squint at it. One of the suns was odd—one looked normal enough, with a slight stripe of Darkness that hadn’t worried Kairi as it seemed typical, but the other was almost overwhelmingly bright. So bright, it seemed artificial, like staring at a lightbulb.

Kairi suddenly remembered that she was staring at them, even if only for a moment or two, but it was enough to make her embarrassed.

She stammered, “It’s, um, it’s nice to meet you both,”

“Hey, don’t be shy! Your name matches us, that means we’re destined to be friends, right?” Sora joked.

“Sunny,” Mina warned, and walked back over to the three. “I hope you’re not overwhelming her over there.”

“I’m not! Her name’s Kairi, mom. That means she matches me and Riku!”

“Kairi, huh?” Mina looked over at her and her expression softened. “What a pretty name. It’s lovely to meet you, I’m Mina.” She glanced down to her phone, checking the time, before saying, “The police should be here in a minute or two, they diverted an officer that was close by. They’ll be able to help you find your parents, sweetie.”

Her parents. The more Kairi thought about it, the less she could remember. She wasn’t even sure if she’d be able to recognize her parents if they appeared, or anyone else she was related to. All she knew of herself was her name.

Wait a minute she thought to herself, thinking over the first words she heard the girl say.

“Did you say you saw a flash?” Kairi asked, looking to Sora.

Sora got even more excited, if that were possible, her eyes widening as she clutched her hands together. “I did! Oh gosh, I mostly saw it out of the corner of my eye, ‘cuz me and Riku were still getting ready for a duel, but I totally did! It was like, like a big black circle?” Sora had a quizzical expression and paused in effort to remember clearly, “I thought it was an animal or something for a second until I turned to look and saw you lying there like you had just fallen down and the thing vanished. Maybe it was a portal to another world!”

Kairi slowly took it in but couldn’t make much sense of the information. It had to have been before she woke up. She looked between the three and saw that while Sora was looking back at her with an expression of curiosity, Riku was staring off into the horizon with a contemplative look. Mina, though, was disbelieving.

“A portal? Sora, that seems a little farfetched. I’m sure she just got separated from whoever she was with before you saw.”

“Nuh-uh! She wasn’t there when we first walked over here, just ask Riku!”

“It’s true, Ms. Shim—Um, Mina.”

“See, Mom? And if she were with someone and they left her behind, which sounds kinda mean, they had to be running away really, really fast so we wouldn’t see them! And what about that black thingie I saw?”

“I’m sure that was just a trick of the light or maybe a bird or something, Sunny, though not seeing even one other person around is a little concerning—” Whatever Mina was going to say next was quieted at the sound of a police car pulling up, lights and sirens off apart from the headlights, and an officer got out. After showing her badge and identifying herself, the officer turned to Mina.

“Ma’am, which one of these kids is the one you reported?”

At this, Mina gestured to Kairi, saying sadly, “Her. It’s all as I told the lady on the phone, she doesn’t remember anything except her name and waking up.”

“Really? Nothing?” The officer’s stoic expression went concerned as she glanced down at Kairi. And then after a moment she bent over towards the girl to assure her, “I’m sure they’re somewhere close by, honey, we’re just going to go knock on some doors and see if any houses or streets look familiar in a minute.”

At Kairi’s nod, the officer then bid farewell to the group and she and Kairi began to walk towards the car.

Behind them, Sora shouted “If you live close, you’ll be going to the same school as us in the fall! Find me in class!”

Kairi didn’t hear what Riku said in response, but judging by the tone it was something sarcastic, and Sora’s indignant shout and her mother’s laughter were the last things she heard before closing the door.

‘Maybe it was a portal to another world!’

Another world…

She smelled smoke again, and other memories seeped into her mind once more: The thunder of supernatural footsteps she couldn’t recognize. The swirl of colors on the surface of a gateway. Fear cresting into panic.

That portal going to another world the girl had speculated, what was her name…Sora? Maybe she could have been right. Where Kairi was before, assuming she really was from another world, she couldn’t have been safe. More than likely, she had been left here for her own safety.

Yet wherever Kairi was now, she may have been safe, but she was alone.


 

 

K A I R I

8 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

(It took time, but just as Aqua’s charm led her to the Mayor and his wife being her foster parents, so too did it lead her back to those two children she met on her very first morning on Destiny’s Islands.)

Little did she know, the Mayor’s home resided only a couple of blocks away from Sora and Riku’s, and so on the first day of class for her (though really, it was closer to the middle of the school year than the beginning of it, as being in the foster system and going from house to house didn’t make for very consistent attendance in school, considering she was changing school districts so often), Kairi had the good luck of spotting a familiar tousled head of brown hair, the scenario complete with an unoccupied seat beside Sora.

(And Kairi would never know this either, but the charm’s effects went even deeper than simply placing her on Destiny’s Islands during an hour of need, or even making sure to place her with the more optimal foster families on the list. That charm would make sure she ended up as close as possible to Sora and Riku as much as possible, and by extension, the keyblade, the bearer of which would be tasked with protecting Kairi’s Heart when the time came. And the charm knew the time would come, as part of its construction gave it the ability to tell when forces were aligning that would make for trouble, for the charm’s caster, Aqua, was trying to quell those forces at this very moment.)

(The time would come when even Aqua fell to the Darkness she fought, and then the charm would fail, but today was not that day.)

The two immediately recognized each other and became fast friends. Kairi hadn’t been able to bond much with any of the other foster kids she came across while in the program, whether by lack of common ground or through lack of time before one or the other would be moved elsewhere. If it weren’t for the Mayor and his wife, who she so far had liked a lot, Kairi would have felt just as alone now as she did on that first morning.

But Sora, she quickly realized, was a social butterfly. Like some sort of real life Pollyanna who could be amiable with anyone except the most steadfast curmudgeons. And somewhere along the way, in quickly hushed classroom conversations and playground fun, they became best friends. And through Sora, Kairi came to know Riku, then Selphie, and Wakka and Tidus, and everyone else that was on the crew that was often over at the play island on weekends.

Kairi was a little daunted by how close they all already were with one another, as apparently most them already were friends from being in the same daycare Sora’s mom ran, but they welcomed her readily.

And over time, Kairi and Sora and Riku became a little trio of their own. Best friends, closer than siblings. The months passed by in a blur of sleepovers, hangouts, minutes stolen away at school when they were all three able to be together. It passed by in a blur of prank wars and video games (where Kairi found she preferred to watch rather than play them), daredevil stunts, spars, days where they did everything and days where they did nothing at all. And it passed by in late-night talks with the windows open, feeling the breeze and quickly hushed listening for the footsteps of parents to come and tell them to go to bed.

It’s in these talks that she shared what little she remembered of her past, which still seems so incomplete, but they marveled at it regardless. She would tell about all of the flowers she’s remembered seeing in momentary flashes, how she hates the scent of lilacs now because they make her want to cry.

And Riku and Sora shared so much of themselves in return. About Riku’s broken home, Sora’s father dying in an accident Sora can hardly remember. And the little things, like how Sora’s favorite color was red and Riku’s was yellow, and how Sora was weirded out by how Riku could just bite into ice cream without his teeth hurting—and Kairi, they found, could do it too, and they turned to Sora with equally ice-cream laden grins as she called them crazy.

This is how Kairi had finally found the home she had been looking for. In the cozy corner of an island, with two parents that loved her just as she loved them back. In the companionship of two friends that she could share anything with, whose company and trust would come to help her remember bits and pieces of a story she loved, a story about a Light within the Darkness, a Light that never goes out.

The times were peaceful now. She was safe. And she was finally home.


 

 

R I K U

6 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

One morning later on, all the kids were at the play island. Tidus and Selphie were fiddling with her new jump-rope, sometimes using it for its intended purpose and the rest of the time seeing how it fared as a ranged weapon. Kairi was showing Wakka different net knots she’d made and how to tie them—Riku remembered he mentioned something about trying to make a net to recover some stray blitzballs he’d lost in the cove—and Riku and Sora were trying to spar.

Key word being ‘trying’. The events from the night before were still fresh in his mind, and while it wasn’t bad enough to distract him entirely, it was enough to throw him off his game. Waking up with an unsteady feeling that morning, like he’d woken up in an alternate universe, was enough to make Riku slip up once, twice, and Sora finally called it when she’d landed a third strike. She took a moment to scrutinize him.

“Bad day?” Sora asked the old question, recognizing his downcast mien.

“Yeah.”

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

He took a moment to think about it. “Not yet.”

“Okay.”

They stood side by side and watched the seagulls fly over the ocean, and neither of them said anything for a long while.

 “My dad…” Riku started, and saw Sora turn her head to his in the corner of his sight. “…he left last night. My mom told me this morning. They had a really big fight again last night, and I was stupid and said something and it just made everything worse—”

“You were not stupid for saying anything, Riku,” Sora insisted, and he looked to see she had a stubborn expression. “And none of it was your fault. Just saying things never makes it okay for him to hurt you like he does.”

 “He didn’t hurt me, this time.” He responded and saw her turn relieved. “I got away. But I heard them keep yelling at each other and eventually I heard the front door slam and his car driving away. And this morning my mom just said he decided he won’t be with us anymore, so I guess he’s gone for good.” Riku shrugged.

“That’s good!” And then Sora hesitated. “That…that is a good thing, right?”

“I don’t know,” Riku answered honestly. The event itself would be considered a good thing by any assessment, but he didn’t feel happy about it, and yet he didn’t feel mad or sad about it either. At the moment, he wasn’t sure what he felt at all.

Riku didn’t know what the future held now, but he knew there was no more injury to be found in it, and that in itself was a good thing.

It took him a moment to realize that a small part of what he was feeling was hope.

“Well, either way, you still have your key, right? The one mom gave you?” Sora asked.

In response, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his keyring and held up the spare key to Sora’s house he had been given a couple of years before with a small smile.

She smiled too. “Good. Whatever happens, you will always a place with us.”

“I know.”

They both went quiet again, the conversation ended, but this time the silence between them was a little more comfortable. Neither the boy nor the girl did anything else but watch the waves and the seagulls gliding lazily above and listen to the din of the other kids sparring, playing, and making memories.

For the moment, the islands felt a little less small. And the oceans felt a little less like the walls to a cage.

Yesterday may have been a bad day, Riku thought to himself. But maybe today was going to be okay.


 

ILLUSTRATION(S) - Genderswap redesign of Sora in primary outfits


NOTES

(because AO3's formatting is a little wonky and makes the opening chapter's notes show up on all chapters, I think the only solution is to just throw it into the chapter text. I'm so sorry! If anyone knows a more effective solution, please let me know!)

YOU GUYS DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE FINALLY UPLOADING THIS DAMN THING.

Okay, backstory, I have been working on this fanfic for m o n t h s. And I've been wanting a fic that was basically a fem!Sora novelization of the games for longer than that...like, years. I'm not kidding. You don't know desperation until you're staring down a blank word document, you guys.

Except I wanted a novelization of the games that would be like how the games should totally be (not necessarily with rule 63 Sora, that's just me going pure self-indulgence because I am hopelessly addicted to rule 63 in general) where KAIRI ACTUALLY GOT SOME DANG CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, and WE GET TO SEE EXACTLY WHAT WENT DOWN WITH THE FALL OF RADIANT GARDEN FOR PETE'S SAKE (it's absurd: Eight games, a mobile game, a movie, and we still don't know precisely what happened. That's a giant plot point to leave out, and meanwhile they think it's important to explain why Mickey didn't have a shirt on in the first game compared to 2.8.) and Riku having better reasons to be a turd in the first game beyond what they gave us. He gets better, true, and has a good ol' atonement arc over the games, but they never really discussed why he jump-started the islands' apocalypse in the first place. Oh, and I wanted to fix some of the ridiculously robotic dialogue of the english translation too.

So I guess this is my attempt to answer my own questions! Or, fill in the blanks with my own ideas until canon might or might not retroactively fill in the blanks, which it has an awful habit of doing, in which case I will update this work as needed.

Also I would like to give a gigantic shoutout to Briry18, whose work If I was Yours was the very first Genderswap!Sora fic I have ever found (I literally screamed a little bit when I discovered it), and RayShippouUchiha's Limitations of Wax series (An Avengers genderswap novelization series that inspired me to go whole hog on finally creating the things that I was desperate to see in the world) (and the series is breathtaking and amazingly detailed in scale--you guys really should check it out at the very least!!).

Somewhere along the way I forgot that the real point of participating in fandom is to make yourself happy, and judging by the current state of affairs of an alarming number of fandoms I think lots of other people forgot that too. So, this is me making myself happy. And if there's anyone else out there like me, who wants a fic series like this, I hope I'm making you happy too, even just a tiny bit.

Chapter Text

R I K U

1 Month until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

He was getting sick of his house. He was getting sick of school. And he was really, really getting sick of Destiny Islands.

Whatever magic there was on the islands, the sort of magic people talked about when they gushed about what a perfect tropical paradise this place was with that spark in their eyes, it had long lost its splendor for Riku.

(He had hoped, once, that maybe things would change. That with his dad gone, all his problems would disappear and maybe he’d have a chance at a normal life and finally see what people meant when they said this place was paradise. But the only difference that made was that the house went from too loud to too quiet, and Riku began to hurt on the inside instead.)

(But what hurts worst is the shameful fact that Riku hopes still.)

Plus nowadays, Riku didn’t really have much to fear anymore like when he was small. He’d made sure he was the best amongst his peers, the fastest, the strongest, so he wouldn’t have to be afraid ever again. So that nobody important to him could be afraid, if he could help it. But all of these things couldn’t stop the monotony of it all. The same old shores, the nooks and crannies of the play island he’d already seen every inch of, the streets of the main islands that looked more identical than the last.

And every place he went, so long as he was stuck on the islands, there was still that memory of a time when more wounds marked him than just the ones sustained from sparring. And those memories helped keep him on edge, helped keep Riku the best by a long margin. But combined with the tedium of being stuck here when he knew for a fact there was something beyond the waves made for a boredom that burned around the edges.

As utopian as some may have thought of these islands…all of those same qualities only made for a gilded prison to the boy.

It may have sounded blasphemous, but Riku knew he wasn’t the first to think such things of Destiny Islands. Long ago, so long ago the story itself seemed more urban legend than real, there was another boy once who thought the same thing. Who wasn’t much older than Riku now, maybe even the same age. That boy saw the islands as a prison too. And then, somehow, he left.

They never found him, according to the hushed whispers of classmates and yellowed newspaper clippings in the library archives. He wasn’t seen alive ever again and no body was ever discovered, neither on land nor in the waves. All the search parties ever discovered were footprints in the sand that just stopped suddenly. As if he disappeared mid-step.

And all of it gave Riku the idea that if that boy could get away from this place, maybe he could too.

But how? Riku couldn’t exactly appear and disappear in midair unlike that man he met on the play island shore, who certainly seemed to appear out of nowhere since he and Sora were over there that entire day and hadn’t seen him before. Especially since that man had made his keyblade appear out of nowhere as well, with a flash of light. But then that man seemed to be a lot of other things too (an escape, a second chance) but didn’t turn out to be any of them. Whoever he was, with the strange uniform and the stranger name, he’d left the islands as easily as he arrived.

So that makes two people that he knew left.

And one, now that Riku thought about it, that he knew of who appeared: Kairi.

After that first day she arrived, when Sora spotted her on the shore, none of the trio had been able to find more information on where she had come from since. And Kairi didn’t remember enough to give them any idea either. But they knew she had to come from somewhere outside of the islands, somewhere far beyond the ocean.

As claustrophobic as they felt, the islands weren’t inescapable and unreachable. Thrice now did Riku have proof of that.

But how could he possibly leave? The myth of the boy who left all those decades ago didn’t give any clues as to how he did it. The man on the shore was certainly capable of some sort of magic, judging by how he had summoned his sword, and Kairi had probably entered through some similar supernatural method if Sora’s mention of the black flash she fell out of was correct. But he was just a kid, as loathe as he was to admit it. No magic in him at all.

So, if magic was out, what other options did that leave? Riku’s first thought was to simply sail a boat to the other side of the ocean, but that almost sounded too easy to be feasible. There had to be a catch somewhere.

But what if there wasn’t?

What if the matter of nobody knowing what was beyond the sea was as simple as nobody ever having bothered to go look? What if it really were that straightforward? The thought set him on edge with excitement. The visions of other lands that he had seen in the dreams of the door and the keyblade danced before Riku’s eyes.

Before he began to get too carried away with the idea of it all, the planning, Riku had another thought: Whatever there was, beyond the edges of the islands, beyond the ocean…he didn’t want to go there alone.


 

 

S O R A

4 Weeks until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

Finals were coming up, and her mother was already practically breathing down her neck to make sure she passed, and even enrolled Kairi to help. So when Sora heard a knock at the front door early that afternoon’s study session, she was happy for the distraction. And happier still to find that the distraction in question was Riku, who hadn’t been by to visit in quite some time.

Even if he seemed to be too excited about something to talk properly.

“Riku! Hey, what are you doi—”

“Hey-do-you-want-to-help-me-make-a-raft-and-sail-to-the-outside-world-with-me-to-find-Kairi’s-birthplace-and-go-on-an-adventure?”

Sora blinked once, twice. His statement came out jumbled up, the entire thing more like one word than a proper sentence, but she’d managed to understand pieces of it.

“Wait, you want me to do what?”

“Sail to the outside world.”

“I got that part, but I meant before that.” Sora clarified, shaking her head.

“Make a boat.” Riku explained, more thinking to himself out loud than talking to her, “Most likely a raft, the shape seems easier than constructing something with a hull, and it’d be easier to extend resources.”

“Okay, first things first, hi?” Sora questioned, and then grinned. “Dude, where have you been? I know we go to different schools right now, but come on, the last time you said hey was two months ago!”

“Oh, yeah, sorry about that,” Riku sheepishly tucked his hair behind his ear. “I’ve…I’ve been busy. Class, clubs, college stuff. You know.”

“College stuff? Riku, you’re a freshman, that stuff’s forever from now.”

“Well we can’t all be overachievers like you.” He joked, and she snorted at him. “But seriously, what do you think about it? The boat?”

Sora shrugged. “I think it sounds rad, but I’d have to ask my mom. I’m not sure if she’d be down for the whole sail-to-find-the-outside-world thing, but we could maybe work with sailing to one of the other islands.”

“But I mean, haven’t you ever been curious of the outside world?” Riku said, “Think about it. Where did Kairi come from? You said you saw that black shape, and there she was on the beach. She wasn’t there when we were walking up, right? So where did she come from? She had to have come from somewhere, just think about it.”

“Think about what?”

It was Kairi, sauntering up through the hallway.

“The day you arrived.” Sora answered. “He’s thinking about building a boat and sailing to find where you grew up before coming here.”

“What?” Kairi scrunched her face a little, perplexed. “But I have no idea where that was. I barely even remember any of it. Why don’t we just sail to one of the other islands as a trip?”

“That’s what I said!”

“Oh come on,” Riku protested, “How are you not curious? And it wouldn’t work if we just sailed to one of the other islands, then there’d be no point in sailing, we might as well just do a road trip instead.” At Kairi’s interested look at the idea of a road trip, he switched tactics. “But that’d be nothing new. We’d all know the destination, and the journey would be predictable and boring anyways. If we sailed to discover a whole new place, it would be insane! Nobody on the islands would have ever done it before! What about that?”

“It does sound pretty cool, when you put it like that.” Sora trailed off with a wistful expression. Kairi scowled at her.

“It sounds dangerous when he puts it like that.” Kairi corrected and leveled him with a look. “A road trip would be predictable, but it would be safe. If something went wrong, then there’d be an easy way to fix it, or worst-case scenario an easy way back home. If something goes wrong, and we’re a thousand miles out across the ocean, we can’t just go to the closest shop or whatever to get it fixed, nor could we just ask our parents what the solution would be.”

“Then we could research ahead of time for what we might run up against.” Riku answered confidently. “I’m not saying we would do this completely unprepared. I’ve been looking up all sorts of stuff before coming to you guys: Crazy amounts of first aid things, making and repairing sails, making drinking water from seawater. Obviously, there’s a lot more to consider, but if you guys were to agree and we worked together I really think we can do it.”

“I’m in.” Sora answered, and she and Riku shared a grin. Then she turned to Kairi and widened her eyes at the skeptical look she was getting. “What? Seriously, I like it! I’ve never really traveled to the other islands besides Kilika, and that was like once. Twice? Whatever, the point is, it sounds fun and we could achieve something amazing at the end of it if we get there. But even if we didn’t get there and we ended up just coming back home again, it would be a whole journey. We’d be stretching our wings, being independent, y’know.” She finished her statement with flourishing hand gestures, mimicking wings. She looked sheepishly at Kairi.

Kairi, in turn, chewed on her lip for a moment and sighed. “I still don’t like it. There’s too much that can go wrong. And Sora, you know your mom would never agree to something like this.”

Sora visibly deflated and she saw Riku have a pensive look for a moment.

And then he said, “Alright. It’s totally fine, just an idea. And like I said, think about it. You guys don’t have to decide right now, I’ll be back eventually and you can choose for sure then.”

Sora gave him a hopeful look. “You’ll be back? When?”

“Eventually,” Riku answered, and then caved in to her pitiful look. “Fine! I’ll be back next weekend. Or maybe weekend after that, I’m not sure. But one of the two. I’m busy!” He protested when her pitiful look didn’t let up. “I’ve got two tests next week and finals are coming up. Don’t you have those too? Last I checked eighth grade did, I had them last year. Aren’t you studying for them?”

“We were trying to.” Kairi responded. “Not much luck though. Getting her to focus on something she doesn’t want to is like herding cats on fire.”

“I’m not that bad.”

“Do you want summer school?”

“No!” She looked horrified at the thought. “No, please.”

“If you fail finals then it’s guaranteed.” Kairi imitated cracking a whip. “Now back to work!”

“I’m going to let you guys get back to it,” Riku said, “See ya.”

They both bid him goodbye and closed the door. Going back to Sora’s room, they sat down at the desk, and as Kairi reorganized flash cards for both of them to go through, Sora stared into space, thinking about the idea of another world, the wide-open ocean, exploring.

Kairi gave her a resigned look upon noticing her expression.

“You’re not going to be getting any reviewing done today, are you.”

“I promise I’ll try?” She sheepishly offered.

Kairi only sighed in response.


 

 

S O R A

4 Weeks until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

“Absolutely not.”

“What? Mom—!”

“No. I haven’t protested too much with your daredevil stunts before, because usually you quickly learn to never do them again—at least until you come up with something else—but this is absurd.”

“Mom, this isn’t some ‘daredevil stunt’, this is an adventure. And besides, I don’t do anything ridiculously dangerous.” Sora added, “Not for a while anyway.”

Her mother squinted at her. “Wasn’t it you who got your shin bone fractured by riding one-wheeled on Wakka’s bike down the play island scaffolding as a dare when he brought it over?”

“That was two years ago!”

“How about the time you got stung by a sea urchin because you thought it was cute and wanted it as a pet?”

“That was five years ago! I was nine!”

“I still remember having to make an emergency appointment with the doctor that day. You were going to name it ‘Gumball’.”

Mom.

“Not to mention last summer, when you and Riku got inside a couple of abandoned tires he’d found and the two of you tried racing down that giant hill at the park.”

“Nothing even happened with that one! We only bounced down the side into the grass at the bottom.”

“You’re lucky you only bounced and didn’t keep rolling into traffic. It’s miraculous you didn’t even get whiplash. Or oh, how about six months ago when you and Selphie—”

“Okay! Okay, jeez!” Sora interjected, huffing, “I’ve gotten in, uh, stuff before, yes, but this is different. If anything, we’re going to be super cautious with this one. We’ll be specifically preparing in case if anything goes wrong.”

“’If’. That’s the thing. With setting sail on a trip like this, there is no ‘if’ things will go wrong, they will go wrong. And what will you do when things go wrong out in the middle of the ocean where it’ll be too far away for anyone to help in time? Or too far away to be able to get in contact with anyone?”

Sora poked the fish on her plate with a fork and muttered, “Kairi asked the same thing.”

“Sometimes Kairi’s the only one of you three that takes any precaution.” Her mother sighed. “Look. I know how this whole idea sounds to you guys. It sounds fun and exciting, you say it’s going to be an adventure. But it’ll stop being an adventure when you’re stranded a hundred miles from civilization on a boat and you run out of supplies. Or if it rains, or there’s a hurricane, or if your clothes get wet and you don’t have anything dry to wear and it’s cold.”

“Mom, come on, you gotta give me a little more credit than that. I’ll wear my swim shorts. Easy peasy.” She floundered a little bit when the answer didn’t appease her mother as she’d hoped, and instead made her only squint more. “As for weather, we can handle that! I’m sure there’s already a solution to that somewhere, that’s why we’re going to research a lot before we go.”

“Right. Swim shorts. Sure.” Her mom shook her head. “Why can’t you just do a road trip to one of the other islands? Ferry tickets aren’t expensive, I’ll be happy to drive you the rest of the way.”

“Kairi actually kind of suggested a road trip instead too.” Sora admitted, “And we, I mean, I love you and I love having you around, really, it’s just…something like this, I want to see if we can do it ourselves. If we’re capable.” she added meekly.

Her mom made a hum at that, scooping up her finished plate and rinsing it off in the sink. Sora thought the sudden lull in the conversation was unbearable.

“Hey, you know what, it’s a dumb idea anyways, it’s okay.” Sora twirled her fork over the rest of her dinner. “Just, uh, forget I said anything.”

“No, no,” Her mother said, turning back around. “I’m not going to forget the whole idea just yet. I’ll think about it.”

Sora looked up immediately. “Wait, are you saying yes?”

“I’m saying I’ll think about it. I’m also saying the idea right now sounds ridiculously needlessly dangerous, but I’ll think about it.”

“…I love you mom.”

At this, she snorted and smiled at Sora for the first time since the conversation started. “I love you too, sunbeam, but that alone won’t make me say yes. Now go finish your homework."


 

 

K A I R I

3 Weeks until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

Today started oddly.

In a surprising twist of events, Sora was actually prepared for once when Kairi came over for studying. She had already miraculously found her workbooks, which were missing for a week until then, and was doing the work problems in them by the time Kairi knocked on the door to her bedroom.

At Kairi’s questioning look, Sora grinned and answered, “I’m about eighty percent sure my mom’s going to agree to the adventure idea. I wanted to stay on her good side.”

“Didn’t you mention that she brought up the same problems with the idea as me? There’s no way she’s going to agree to it.”

“I’m not so su-re!” Sora sing-songed as she turned back to her unfinished problems and picked up her bright green colored pencil. It seemed she hadn’t found a regular pencil or chose not to use one. With Sora, it could be either. “She said ‘I’ll think about it’, which always means yes.”

“Or it could just mean she’ll say no later on, never say never.”

And so had the day begun. It passed in a blur of green colored pencil markings (as it turned out, Sora couldn’t find any normal pencils anywhere and made do) and flash cards and wrong answers and right answers. Sora was unusually focused today, and it was Kairi for once that found herself staring off into space a couple of times. She wasn’t even distracted by anything in particular, it just became easy at points for her to unwittingly tune everything out and think of nothing.

“-Ri...Kairi?”

She looked up.

“I was wondering if you could check my work on the third one here, since you already finished yours.” Sora asked. “You okay?”

“I’m fine, here, let me see what you have,” Kairi responded, and then handed the workbook back, pointing out, “Third one’s right, first one’s wrong. You’re supposed to get negative two.”

“I thought I was supposed to be the distracted one.” She joked, “Thanks, Kai.”

Kairi chuckled. “You’re still the reigning champion, don’t worry.”

The rest of the day was somewhat uneventful, if you didn’t count Sora losing the colored pencil she was using to work, and then the bright pink highlighter she tried using after that, and what seemed like half the rainbow of various writing utensils she cobbled together to use after that. Kairi merely shook her head at this, having learned well by then to not lend her any pens or pencils outside of class or she’d never see them again. But it was in this way that the day passed on, with frustrations so small they seemed more funny than irritating, welcome reprieves in the face of tedium.

And as night fell and dinnertime commenced and finished, it was time for Kairi to go home. Sora had already bid her goodbye and gone off to get ready for bed, and as Kairi adjusted her bag over her shoulder and made her way out the door, Mina called after her.

“Hey,” She said, and Kairi turned around. “I just wanted to say thanks again, for helping her with schoolwork. I’m glad she’s got a friend like you.”

“It’s been no trouble at all, really,” Kairi responded, to which Mina gave her a somewhat sardonic look.

“Trust me, I know my daughter.” She chuckled. “If she’s anything like her father and I, it’s been at the very least some trouble.”

“I, well—” Kairi started, a little caught off guard by Mina's frankness. But any further protesting on her part went quiet when Mina went back inside for a moment with the door left ajar, as Kairi stood on the porch.

“Here, take this.” She walked back outside and extended her hand towards Kairi, who held hers out. Kairi gave a surprised look when forty munny fell into her open palms. “It’s a lot for me to ask of you to help out when you’ve no doubt got studying to do on your own. Even if you’re in all the same classes.”

Kairi shrugged. “I’ve been studying along with her. Seriously, it’s fine.”

“Well, I’m still going to pay you for your efforts. And don’t protest!” She held up a finger as Kairi opened her mouth to do exactly that. “If you don’t take it outright then I’ll just get Sora to sneak it into your bag or something. It’s only right. But apart from that, I wanted to ask you about something else.”

At this Mina turned and made sure the door was shut behind them, muttering to her, “She’s been on perfect behavior all week and doing all sorts of chores unprompted, there is no way Sora doesn’t have an idea.”

Kairi connected the dots: Sora mentioning her mother said she’ll ‘think about it’, Mina wanting to ask her about something…

“I was thinking of agreeing to the raft idea.”

“Really?”

Mina nodded, “My reasoning was that it’s important for her to learn to be independent. Because one day, well, one day I won’t be here. And when that happens, I want her to know how to go on without me.”

It didn’t take long for Kairi to figure out what Mina was referring to this time, either. “You’re thinking about her dad.”

Mina nodded again. “I’ve thought about it from time to time ever since Touma died. Especially every time I get in a car.” She gave a ragged sigh before going on, “Everybody dies one day. Everybody. We all like to think that we’re going to go at an old age surrounded by our loved ones at home, but,” Her breath seemed to catch for a moment, and Mina blinked a couple of times before continuing. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out like that. Pretty often it doesn’t work out like that, really. And it’s one of the hardest things to accept. So in case one day the worst happens to me, going along with the raft idea is my way of accepting it. But I kind of wanted to ask for your help with it.”

“Yeah, anything.”

Kairi never really gets to have many human conversations. That is, deeper conversations like this where you talk about the hard things: Life, death, and everything in between and beyond. It’s part of the reason why she’s been best friends with Riku and Sora since that first day she woke up on the islands, because it felt like nobody else was willing or able to discuss such matters. Save for Mina, all the adults in Kairi’s life seemed to have uniformly decided to leave her out of those conversations, and it’s felt belittling. So to be able to have a deep conversation with an adult who didn’t think of her as unable to understand yet and treated her as an equal was refreshing.

“You’re sweet.” Mina gave her a kind look and took a deep breath. “I was hoping you could kind of, ah, commandeer the plan. Sort of. In particular make it so that the three of you set sail, but only go to one of the outlying islands. I’ve already done the research, and I figure they’d land over at Bikanel if they left from the north side of the play island during good weather, since they’d catch the tide stream from there. They’d either end up at Bikanel or Zanarkand at the farthest. That way all of you would have a predictable destination, you all would get a chance to figure things out on your own for independence, and the worst I’d have to worry about is the three of you getting a sunburn from being out for a few days if you don’t reapply sunscreen. I’ll be there to pick you guys up at the end, or you can give me a call any time. Though it might be best if they don’t suspect anything, to get the full experience.”

Mina shrugged. “But it doesn’t matter. If you’re able to convince them to do it that way, you should be perfectly safe. But all of this is only if you want to. Please don’t be afraid to refuse, I know this is a lot to ask.”

Kairi took a moment to think about it, turning the idea over in her head. It was a lot to ask, no doubt. She could say no and go home and think no more on the matter if she wanted to. But then, what of Sora and Riku? If this went anything like their other schemes, the two of them would just go on and do it anyways regardless of what was decided, if they wanted to go on an adventure badly enough. And that would invite a whole other slew of problems of its own even if they accounted for all possibility of error.

It was how the three of them worked, as a group. Riku and Sora could both be overly idealistic at times, though Sora was no doubt the blind optimist, with Riku thankfully having gone a little more realistic as they’ve gotten older. But those two alone were still prone to flights of fancy from time to time, and that’s where Kairi came in. She could bring them back down to earth, remind them of how things would realistically go, and that was how they stayed safe. And when reminding them in frank terms didn’t work, Kairi wasn’t afraid of guile.

This way would be much safer and more predictable, with an easy out if things were to go wrong. And to boot, she thought to herself, it would be fantastic to see the looks on their faces if they ever figured it out down the road. So all of that, plus the incentive of an adventure? It was no question.

“I think I’ll do it. It sounds fun and it’s what I was preferring in the first place, to just go to another island instead. I’ll figure out a way to convince them, I promise.”

Mina looked at Kairi like she was her savior. “Thank you! Thank you so much, otherwise I was just going to tell Sora no outright, and then I’d be worried—”

“Worried her and Riku would go off and find a way to sail anyways? Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. It would be just like them.” At this, the two shared exasperated smiles. “I’ll keep them in line, Mina. Don’t worry.”

With that, the conversation was ended with a hastened goodbye as Kairi made her way back to her house a couple blocks over.

Along the way home, she mulled it over.

Everybody dies someday, Mina had said. Everybody. And more often than not you don’t get to choose when or how.

Kairi paused when her house was within sight. She looked up at the first stars of the evening, past the light of street lamps flickering on one by one.

Riku asked why she wasn’t interested in going to find her birthplace. The truth was that Kairi had always been a little curious about it, but at the same time she was scared of knowing more. She knew there would be little good to know about what had happened, why she had wound up here on the islands. Kairi already saw how that story ended; With her alone on a foreign shore, the only family she had being the family she made.

She loved her mom and dad she had now, but that didn’t stop her from wondering about the family she left behind that she could hardly even remember beyond short flashes. Her real parents. Her grandmother. And she never stopped wondering why the smell of lilacs in the spring would make her Heart ache like an old familiar scar.

Kairi wondered how much her family prepared for whatever got them. Whether they were like Riku and they studied survival tools and how to make something to escape in. Whether they gathered all the knowledge they could to prepare for anything. Or did they surrender to it? Did they resign themselves to their fate, and only succeeded in getting Kairi out?

Maybe there were some things you could prepare for all you wanted, but in the end, life happened, and death ensued.

There was a legend on the islands that Kairi had heard not long after she first arrived from one of her foster parents when she was still in the program. When sailors went out to sea, they would take the thalassa shells from the islands’ shores and sew five of them together end to end so they formed the shape of a star. Lucky charms, the sailors deemed the trinkets. Lucky stars that would help them make their way back home just like the constellations that they used to navigate.

There is a grey area in one’s journey where preparation ends, and luck begins. Where you have your bags packed and you finally roll the dice and there’s nothing you can do beyond that point. But what if there was something you could do? Like have a good luck charm to help turn that roll of the dice in your favor? A wish upon a star that you could hold in your hand, to ebb the waves and turn the tides back home?

Kairi knew this trip would go predictably, they’d be going onto a route that cargo ships and ferries went along all the time. Even if it went unpredictably they wouldn’t be stranded. It wouldn’t be a day before another boat came across them. But at some point preparation ended, and predictions could only go so far. And for that, she thought to herself, it would help to have a lucky star to help you find your way.

Kairi started walking again towards her house, the reverie ended. In her room there was a jar of shells in her crafts drawer that had been gathering dust. If she remembered correctly, there were some thalassa shells among them.

She wondered where she had put the twine. She had work to do.


 

 

K A I R I

3 Weeks until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

“Considering you were the person who told us to, and I quote, ‘Get our butts over to the play island right now,’ it’s a little ironic that you’re the last one here.” Riku drawled once Sora was within hearing distance.

“She didn’t put it so eloquently, you forgot to add in the absurd number of exclamation marks and smiley faces.” Kairi joked back, her smirk widening as Sora pouted at them both.

After dragging her boat ashore enough that the waves wouldn’t carry it off, Sora turned back to them. “Very funny, you guys. Did you forget about the part where I said my mom agreed to the trip? I thought you’d be more excited about that.”

“I am excited about it.” Riku replied, “Almost as excited as I am about the prospect of being captain.”

“What! Why would you be captain right off the bat? We should at least decide it fair and square.” Sora shook her head, “Kairi, are you coming on the trip? You didn’t say anything about if you were or not in the messages.”

“She wasn’t hot on the idea when I first suggested it, remember?” At this, Riku turned to Kairi. “If you still don’t want to, it’s fine. Don’t let her goad you into it.” He teased Sora, who scowled at him.

“I don’t goad anyone into anything! I just ask very nicely.”

“Right. And puppy dog eyes aren’t considered a weapon of mass persuasion.” He deadpanned.

“I just don’t wanna go without Kairi! She’s the whole reason we’re doing this in the first place!” At this, she turned to Kairi. “Please? Pretty please? It would mean everything if you came with us!”

Time for Plan A. Or, what you might call ‘being upfront’.

She pursed her lips. “Are you guys sure you don’t want to just sail to one of the neighboring islands?”

“Yep.” They both chimed.

“And there’s nothing I can do or say to change your minds?”

“Nope.” They said, again in tandem. It was weird how in sync they were, she mused to herself.

“Not even when I mention how ridiculously dangerous this could be?”

“Not even that.” Riku said, him and Sora even looking excited at the prospect of a perilous voyage.

Well, there went Plan A. Adrenaline junkies, I swear, Kairi thought.

“Are you sure?” She teased, laughing out loud at Sora heaving a sigh to her response.

“Just come with us! Please?”

Time for Plan B. Which, considering how unlikely it would be for the two to pull a heel-face turn and decide to try a small trip instead, Plan B may as well have been Plan A all along.

When her dad was running for reelection four years ago, Kairi had sat in on some of his coaching for debates. For him, who had successfully remained incumbent since Kairi had first lived with them, the lessons were merely refreshing what he already knew. Practice. But for her, everything was new, and it all seemed so fascinating. It was crazy how much of communicating was really just about putting on a show. Place emphasis on this word and not that, but don’t emphasize it this way, emphasize it like that. Make sure your tone is confident and authoritative, but kind, because you’re running for Mayor and not President. Project your voice and enunciate, and triple-check everything you say beforehand for any way your opponent can use it against you and plan for that.

But one of the most useful things she had learned was that giving just a couple seconds of pause before she gave an answer could work in a variety of ways: It could show your answer is one carefully thought of, yet off-the-cuff, which would be useful when you were on stage with an audience that would determine whether you had a job tomorrow. Or in cases like now, when you were trying to angle for a specific outcome, giving a moment of pause before giving someone an answer that they wanted helped keep the victory from seeming too easy to them, that your agreement was perhaps conditional, and they’d be more inclined to agree to what you asked. Such as calling the shots of the trip.

The ball was in Kairi’s court now. Time to fulfill that promise.

“Fine.” She bit back a laugh when they both let out a whoop. “But! Only if I get to be captain.”

“What? I wanted to be captain, it was my idea in the first place!”

“I should be captain!” Sora protested to Riku, who gave her a bewildered gesture.

“Why would you be captain?” He asked.

“Because I want to be!”

Kairi raised a hand. “I call dibs on captain because we’re going to find my birthplace, right? How about this: You guys can figure out which of you will be captain for the inevitable journeys we’ll all go on thereafter if this one goes well.”

There it is. A reasonable explanation for why she should lead, and the prospect that they would go on more journeys after this one, which would work for Riku, and the reminder they’d be able to lead later on with the implication that she’d go along, which roped in Sora. She could tell it was starting to work from the thoughtful looks on both of their faces.

Perhaps she could throw in something to sweeten the pot. “And a captain needs a first mate, right? Someone’s gotta come up with a name for it.”

They both grinned.

“Deal.” Sora chirped. “I wanna name it Excalibur.”

“Deal.” Riku agreed, “If we name it after something other than a sword.”

“Boo!” She jeered, “It’s the best name, come on!”

“How about you guys settle it the old-fashioned way? A spar?” Kairi interrupted, already feeling a headache coming on from the impending squabbling.

And so they did. It turns out, Sora was late that day because it took a while to find the old wooden swords her and Riku would duel with all the time, which had only gotten lost in the first place from lack of use since he hadn’t come over hardly at all for a while until very recently, and they got the chance to duel even less. Or so it was told by Sora, who had disclosed such with a smile that managed to be half-sneaky, half-bashful, and Kairi knew immediately that she’d found and brought the swords today in the hopes of a match against him.

Kairi sat in her familiar spot on the sidelines; She’d never much cared for playfighting like so many of the other kids, instead fascinated with the art of politics that her dad worked in. Fighting, and winning, using only words just felt more satisfying than using a weapon. Well, that, and Kairi never felt comfortable with the idea of using a weapon on anybody in the first place. She was a bit of a pacifist.

She watched the two fall right back into that familiar dance, dodging and striking and dodging again, and it was like they picked right up where they left off months ago when they last dueled. Kairi had developed something of a trained eye for their fights in particular, having watched them so many times, and she could see the openings in their forms and tell by the movements what they were planning next.

And right now, if she wasn’t mistaken, Riku’s fighting seemed the tiniest bit off. He was going just the tiniest bit slower with dodging and striking than he did with other fights she’d watched, sometimes outright glazing past openings in Sora’s form that could be exploited.

This was different. Riku was no slouch, Kairi knew that for sure. With his fights with the other kids, he was always the winner, his speed and quick reflexes outclassing Wakka or Tidus, and maneuverability helped him stay out of Selphie’s reach. And more often than not with Sora in the past, he would win. So why was he slower now? And why didn’t he go for the opportunities to strike?

Was he letting Sora win?


 

 

S O R A 

2 Days until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

School was out, classes and exams were passed with flying colors (a few colors short of a rainbow, but a couple of B’s were fine by Sora thankyouverymuch), and summer vacation had officially begun as of five days ago.

Not that Sora was counting, of course. In her opinion counting was reserved solely for counting down the days to the end of school, no sense in counting how many days of vacation you’d used if you had three whole months of it. That’d just get in the way of that glorious feeling where you weren’t really sure what day it was and it didn’t matter, because the words yesterday and tomorrow may as well have not meant anything compared to the magnificent word Today.

Well, not quite. The word tomorrow did mean something to her right now, at least in relation to the-day-after-day-after tomorrow, formally referred to as The Day They’ll Set Sail.

Up to now, the trio had only been able to work on it on the weekends, which had hampered their speed in finishing construction of the raft and getting together the things they’d need for the journey itself. So far, they had only been able to get together materials to make the raft itself and round up stuff like provisions to help them survive the journey to Kairi’s birthplace. Which was still a bit of an achievement, in Sora’s opinion, considering they were three kids who were busy trying not to fail the school year and scrounge together what free lumber and sailcloth they could, on top of all the survival stuff Riku looked up for when they’d sail on the open sea.

Speaking of Riku, he was hanging out with them all the time again! And dueling way more often too, when Sora could convince him that they’d already done a ton of work that day and deserved a break from the whole raft thing, which admittedly wasn’t super often. He was ridiculously driven in finishing it. But sometimes she could convince him and was able to assess how their skills had either withered or gotten better. So far Riku seemed to have only gotten better, which was totally unfair, but she did seem to be winning more often than she used to.

Sora wondered why Riku avoided them in the first place, but she never really bothered to ask. There were still a few weird spots sometimes with her and him, like if she ever mentioned stuff she and her mom did and he’d get a little quiet about that, and she figured it was some emotional baggage he wasn’t ready to talk about yet. Riku was kind of like that a lot lately. So Sora just let it go and things carried on as usual, and it felt like old times again.

Like she said: Yesterday didn’t matter. Only today mattered, and the day-after-day-after tomorrow.

And today, Sora had quite a bit to do. She’d already helped Riku rig together the raft hull and the mast, package up the nonperishable provisions, and right now she was supposed to be searching for the ream of sailcloth Kairi was working on sewing into a proper sail (Sora had tried to help but her seams looked like the march of tipsy ants, thankfully Kairi was able to handle that part) and pick up any thalassa shells she saw along the way.

Two out of three were done, and she’d been doing a lot over the past few days with working on setting sail, so Sora figured she’d be fine with a quick nap with the sun still so early in the sky. She hadn’t been able to sleep too well last night, her usual dreams of that key-shaped sword getting more and more intense recently, and were capped off with a nightmare the night before of a creepy looking ship that wasn’t quite a ship. Whatever it was, it had a really spooky face on the end of it, and at the top was this dude that seemed to be fused to it, attacking her and her friends. It was the scariest dream she’d had yet.

She’d mentioned the dreams to Kairi a couple of times in the past few weeks, though that was mostly reserved for the most outlandish or coolest. Like how one time she was going along the ocean floor, although it was really hard to swim like she normally did, like her legs were restricted or something. Or the other time when she was walking around in a room piled to the ceiling with treasure.

And in every single dream, she would be holding that giant key, clutching to it as a lifeline, wielding it as a weapon. And in every single dream, the living shadows at the corners of her vision would grow closer and closer, until Sora could feel an odd chill crawl towards her heart. The dreams feel so vivid, like they really happened, and she had told Kairi as such one day when they were both going home on Sora’s boat.

“I’ve been having more of the weird dreams lately, every time I fall asleep. They’re not like the stuff I’d dream about before they started, where you can tell it was a dream when you wake up. It feels…It feels like it really happened. Like I’m remembering it, but so many of the details about what’s going on disappear when I wake up and the only thing I know for sure is that it happened. But it’s impossible. I know it didn’t happen, none of it did.” Sora’s rowing slowed as her face skewed with confusion. “But I can’t help but wonder, like is any of this for real, or not?”

For a moment, neither of them spoke. It was Kairi that talked first.

“Well, you said they were just dreams, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then they probably can’t be real. But,” She paused and made a contemplative expression. “It doesn’t mean they might never be real. Maybe they’ll be real one day, but not yet. Maybe they’re from adventures we’ll have after this one, or along the way.” She grinned.

(And Kairi doesn’t know how prophetic her words are, doesn’t know anything about the Dark that creeps towards the worlds, towards her and her friends, towards the Door. All she knows of the Dark is what she sees in others’ Hearts and the remnants of terror she remembers of its devastation, what little seeps through the wall raised by trauma: The smell of thunderstorms and machinery, the rumble of gnarled footsteps. And beneath it all, a twinkle of Light from the promised passage that will keep her safe for as long as it can.)

(All Kairi knows is that she is jesting and helping to build a way to a return to her home on the islands, not her home that used to twinkle with the rest of the sky.)

As she feels herself begin to drift off, she wonders what she might encounter this time. A new place to go to, a new enemy to fight with that key. New people to meet along the way.

But as the dream begins there is no key in her hands, nor unseen friends fighting by her side. All she knows is that she’s sinking through water, watching the folding of waves above make the dimmed gleam of the sun form honeycomb patterns on her arms. She breathes out, and bubbles escape towards the distant surface. She breathes in.

She’s falling, and falling, and then she opens her eyes again. There is no whimsical landscape in this dream. Sora’s back on the shore of the play island, like she never fell asleep, but she realizes something’s off.

It’s quiet. There are no distant shouts of the other kids playing, or even the chirrups of birds or insects. Just the lapping of waves.

And Riku.

He’s not looking at her, but at the horizon where the sea meets the sky. The horizon which is peculiarly devoid of the usual sight of the main island. She reaches out to him, first to try playing a prank, but then to try and save him, as half-formed ideas of jokes to pull are quelled by the panic of the tide receding far too much towards the tsunami cresting over both of them.

He turns to her, then. And on the face she knows like the back of her hand is a smile she doesn’t recognize.

They reach for each other. And as the riptide catches her, as Riku’s outstretched hand becomes blurrier and blurrier, all she can think of is how he doesn’t even seem to be afraid.

She falls, again, and opens her eyes to find herself back on the same shore, again. But this time it’s Kairi who’s there. And in the twilit sky, the firelight of the setting sun is framed by falling stars.

Sora looks down to clutch onto her crown pendant and realizes she’s already doing so. But the gesture doesn’t stifle the bone-deep fear she feels at seeing the meteor shower and the echoes of a half-forgotten promise. And then, she looks up, closer. There’s a dark shape amongst the meteors that’s hurling towards the water. It’s Sora.

She blinks, and she’s falling yet again. This time, Sora’s in the shoes of her doppelganger in the sky. She looks over towards Kairi and her other self on the shore, and even though Sora’s too far away to see them clearly, she can feel it when she and her other self link gazes. She clenches up to prepare herself for hitting the ocean.

At the height she was at, falling into the ocean would have been a death sentence. At that height the liquid acts more as a solid, just like you’re hitting a brick wall, and it’s just as lethal. But she waits and waits, and the impact never comes.

Sora opens her eyes one more time. She’s floating down onto something now, a hard surface, but everything is dark.

She feels a stirring under her foot like the ground is alive, and as Sora moves her leg she is blinded for a moment by a brightness that only grows brighter, and she looks around to see the black cloak that covered everything carried away piece by piece on the backs of birds.

She looks down, and her eyes adjust to see that what she is standing on is a platform of stained glass shining merrily against the void. The birds have vanished, their wingbeats not even echoing anymore, and it is silent.

This time, there is nobody else in the dream to reach for—Kairi and Riku are gone.

Sora can’t shake the feeling that she’s been here before.


 

 

K A I R I

2 Days before the fall of Destiny Islands

 

Kairi thinks she may be coming down with a head cold, but she’s not sure. It doesn’t seem like the time of year for it, anyway.

She completely lost her ability to focus. That’s the main symptom. Well, that and this weird tension that’s settled into her bones. And everything’s felt weird lately, too, like a weight at the edge of her senses, but she thinks that may just be her.

Maybe she was just going crazy. Or maybe it was just stress from exams. But Kairi kept getting this overwhelming sense of déjà vu that she couldn’t figure out.

Kairi cursed under her breath as she had to retie a knot for the mast for the third time. Riku looked up from where he was settling the logs together before bonding them with resin.

“Having trouble?”

“Yeah,” Kairi remade the first couple of loops in the masthead knot before continuing, “I’m usually good with stuff like this. I don’t know, I’m probably just off my game today.”

Riku shrugged. “Maybe you’re still stressed out from school.” And then he laughed a little, saying, “I know I am. I nearly had a heart attack this morning because I was sure I was missing class, I completely forgot it’s summer break.”

“I know I’ve done that before,” Kairi chuckled, but her mind was elsewhere. She wasn’t convinced it was just stress, usually she could do this in her sleep. In summer camp back in elementary school, she was the braiding champ for three years straight. Kairi could do braids, ship knots, crafts of all kinds. Only Selphie could come close.

Kairi ignored the shiver that ran down her spine. She finished the knot and began the next one.

Riku angled his head around Kairi and peered over her shoulder and said, “Looks like Sora’s off her game today, too.”

She turned to see Sora napping on the shore. It was a familiar sight.

Kairi rolled her eyes with a smile. And she said in a melodramatic tone, “Whatever shall I do with her? Napping in class, napping at home, napping here…”

Riku gave a snort. “Being able to sleep anywhere at any time has got to be considered some sort of a superpower. Here, I’ll go wake her up.” And before he could move, she gestured for him to stay.

“Wait, I got an idea.”

With a sneaky grin, Kairi tiptoed over to where Sora lay. Not that she needed to, since the sand muffled her footsteps anyways, but Kairi figured she should put on a show. And once she reached Sora, Kairi hovered over her and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

She waited so long that eventually Riku hollered from his spot near the raft, “I don’t think your plan’s working.”

Kairi hollered back “It always works eventually! Be patient!”

And of course, Sora didn’t wake up with the racket. She seemed to be too busy squirming and seeming to struggle against something in her sleep a little bit. But Sora’s usually able to feel when someone’s watching her, and it’s how Kairi’s woken her up dozens of times, and at last it works now. The girl opened her eyes blearily, still half-asleep, before seeing Kairi looming over her. Startled, Sora hurriedly sat up, nearly accidentally hitting her forehead against Kairi’s but managed to dodge.

Sora spun around to see Kairi laughing at her reaction and groaned. “Why do you keep waking me up like that?”

“Why do you keep napping like that?” Kairi teased.

Sora had no response for the quick retort. Kairi eyed her for a moment, noticing the slightly dark circles under her eyes.

“Bad dream?” And when Sora gave her a look like ‘How did you know?’ Kairi explained, “I saw you struggling in your sleep.”

Sora looked down at her hands for a moment, turning them over. “I’m not sure it was a dream. Or maybe it was? I don’t know, some huge black thing just swallowed me up and there was all this stained glass, and some voice, and, and,” Sora gesticulated futilely, and didn’t bother to finish her train of thought. “Saying it out loud sounds crazy. Maybe it was just a dream.”

Kairi straightened up to start walking back. “Come on back then, ya bum. We’ve got a raft to finish.”

“Wait, hey Kairi?”

She turned back to Sora with a brow raised in question.

“You said you don’t remember anything of your past before coming here, right? Other than that story?”

“Right?” Kairi responded, wondering where Sora was going with this.

“What if, when we set sail, we find it? Where you come from?”

“Then it’d be nice to see it.”

“And…what if we never find it?”

Kairi shrugged. “Then I wouldn’t mind not seeing it.”

“Really?” Sora gave her a baffled look, “Haven’t you ever wondered what it was like?”

Only all the time, she thought to herself, but Kairi instead replied, “Sometimes. But I’m not worried. My home is here on the islands with you guys. I’m happy here.”

And that last part is the truth. Because as much as she wonders, she really is happier here. What little flashes she’s had of the time before had rarely seemed happy, maybe because she was too young to remember the good times or maybe because there weren’t much of any good times, so she’d long since figured that she was put here for a good reason. The thought has certainly helped stifle the feelings of abandonment that would crop up from time to time.

“I’ve just always been curious about it.” Sora says, “And about what Riku mentioned a while back too, about the people on the islands having to have come from somewhere else. I wonder if we all came from other worlds—”

“Kairi, I told you to wake her up, not for you to get distracted too!”

Both of them looked over to see Riku giving them an unimpressed look.

Kairi held up a hand to half-hide her grin. “Oops.”

“What! I was so not distracted!” Sora defended, scrambling to her feet.

He deadpanned, “Didn’t you just wake up from a nap?”

“It was not a nap! It was, uhm,” Sora paused as she undoubtedly tried to come up with a good cover, “It was an interlude. That’s it. An interlude. Yup.”

Well then. She really had been paying attention during their studying after all.

Riku rolled his eyes at her. “I guess that’s the five-dollar word of the day. Come on, let’s get back to work.”

Sora got up, but sluggishly, and Kairi could tell her steps were still mired in thought. Must’ve been some dream. And now that she looked, it seemed Riku was a little bit downcast today too. His Light was much steadier than it’d been in past months, true, but it was still flickering worryingly.

Kairi brightened as she got an idea. “Hey, how about the usual race, but this round we call it keeps? The winner names the raft.”

That did the trick, she thinks to herself, watching Riku and Sora make a mad dash back towards the far side of the island. Everything was back to normal again. Kairi ran after them, but she was left in the dust. Back to normal again, indeed.

But she didn’t mind it. Wherever they went, Kairi always caught up to them eventually.


 

 

R I K U

2 Days before the fall of Destiny Island

 

The score was now 11 to 10, him against Sora. The raft had officially been named Highwind.

He wouldn’t dare confess it aloud, not when Sora had called him on it, but Riku maybe did cheat. Just a tiny bit.

To be precise, he was supposed to find time to help out Wakka with fixing those scaffold platforms on the far side of the play island that they’d built a while back for some obstacle course that never came to fruition, because there was one part that had been a little weaker than the rest. Yet between school and the raft there never really was much time recently, so it’d been forgotten.

And if it turned out to give him a head start…Well. Riku wasn’t one to turn down good fortune. It wasn’t as if Sora got hurt on it anyways, just a little startled before she recovered skillfully (he swore it was like she was part monkey or something) but it gave him just enough time to win.

And it gave him enough time to make sure the raft wasn’t named after a sword. Sora could make fun of the name Pequod all she wanted (and if he had to confess to another thing, that name was a little lame) but at least it’d make more sense for the raft to be named after a fictional boat instead of a fictional sword.

Speaking of the raft, there was still a bit left to do to make sure it was ready. Riku was already halfway towards it when he heard shouting from behind him.

It was Sora. “Riku! Hey, wait up!”

“Yeah? What’s up?” He said and watched how her expression was almost getting hesitant. Hmm.

“So, before Kairi woke me up, I had a really weird dream.” Sora shuffled her feet, kicking around small clouds of sand. “I kinda wanted to ask you about it, ‘cuz I thought you maybe had the same sort of dream before, and you were in it anyways, so it made sense to me to say something.”

Riku turned pink. Then he turned red.

And the most eloquent response he could muster was an “Uhh…”

And he knew Sora could tell in an instant what he thought she meant because she turned pink too.

“I—Wha—Oh my god! Riku! Not that type of weird dream!”

“I-If you run up to me out of nowhere talking about having a ‘weird dream’, I’m going to draw certain conclusions!” He stammered out in defense.

“It wasn’t that type of—! Riku, I meant weird dreams like how you used to dream of the door!” Sora stomped her foot in frustration and walked off with a huff, telling him “Just forget it, never mind.”

Oh. Oh. Okay, that made a little more sense.

His curiosity got the better of him and he gave a short jog to catch up to her, falling into lock-step beside Sora.

“Alright, alright, fine. So, it was a weird dream, but it wasn’t that sort of weird dream. I’m listening, what was it about? Was anyone else in it?”

She glanced at him before answering, in the way that she did when she was making sure he was being serious.

“Kairi was in it too, or I’m pretty sure she was. It was in the very beginning of the dream, which was a blur.” At his acknowledging nod, Sora continued, “You…you were only in it for a moment, before you were caught in a tidal wave, I think? I remember trying to reach you, but we were both caught up in it. I remember looking up to the sky at one point and seeing myself falling, and then the next instant, I was the one falling and watching myself watch me. Like I said, weird.”

“O-kay,” He stretched out the syllables, mulling over what she said. “So was that all?”

She shook her head. “I definitely remember landing in this place, all dark except a stained-glass window, but the fancy window was the floor. It was really pretty. Some of the designs were people, but I couldn’t recognize who they were. I was walking around, and these weird creatures kept popping up that I had to fight off, and there was this weird voice throughout telling me what to do.”

“What did it say?”

“It was just speaking vaguely. Telling me that there’s so much to do, but then it told me to not hurry? I didn’t really get that part, but it did give me a cool weird sword, so it wasn’t that bad. I just kind of kept going from platform to platform, all of them made out of stained glass, fighting more of those creatures. And then it told me to go through this ornate wooden door and I found myself back on the play island from there.”

“That really is weird.”

“Yeah. Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie were all there when I walked in. At this point the voice was saying I’d have to fight, and something about keeping my ‘Light’ strong? I didn’t really understand that. I thought it meant I was supposed to fight Tidus and them right there when the voice said that there were times I’d have to fight, but all they did was just ask me questions instead.”

“Yeah? What did they ask?”

“Weird stuff. They kept asking me these questions that were, what was it…Meh-ta-fizz-eh-cal?”

“Metaphysical,” Riku nodded.

“Yes! Metaphysical questions like what was I afraid of? What do I want out of life? I hadn’t really considered any of these things before then so it was kind of hard to answer.”

She continued, “And then it said ‘Understand that the closer you get to Light, the greater your shadow becomes. But don’t be afraid—you hold the mightiest weapon of all.’ Which I thought was a little silly, cuz the whole dream at this point was getting super surreal and I couldn’t help but be a little scared, with the questions and those creatures and the voice and everything. That, and it was a little silly for it to tell me a weird sword was the mightiest weapon because, well, duh, it’s a sword!”

Riku knew they were both thinking of the endless spars over the years with their wooden swords at this, and they high-fived. He tried to ignore the rushing feeling in his chest, but Riku could feel the grin spread across his face regardless. But then he thought of something.

“What did you mean when you thought I had the same sort of dream before? I don’t remember ever dreaming anything about disembodied voices or existential questions.”

He could see her squirming quite a bit at this, more than the beginning of the conversation.

“Well, the voice…it kept mentioning a door.” As she said that his eyes flickered to the thicket of ferns and palms that marked the entrance to the cave, at the end of which the strange door stood. As they glanced back to each other he knew they both were thinking of his dreams of that door opening onto countless worlds. “But I’m sure it didn’t mean that door in particular, right? There’s like a million doors on Destiny Islands at least, and who knows if it meant a door we haven’t found yet, or—”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry about it.” He reassured her. “It’s just a dream, right? Maybe it means nothing, or maybe it meant something, but in the end it’s just a dream.”

“Just a dream,” Sora echoed.

“Just a dream. What did the voice say about a door anyways, if it got you so worked up?”

At this point, she stopped walking. He turned to her, having taken a step before realizing she had frozen up, and looked to Sora with an inquiring expression.

The look on her face was pondering yet almost fearful as she glanced back to the entrance to the cave.

Her next words made him freeze in place as well.

“At the end, right before I woke up, it told me ‘You are the one who will open the door.’"


 

 

S O R A

6 Hours until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

The raft was done. The sail was finished, the resin sealing the logs had completely dried and cured, the holding bins for supplies were waterproofed and stuffed to the brim. Not a detail was out of place.

So why was she still having to run around gathering supplies?

Well, okay, Sora knew why she had to find fresh provisions to bring along: The MRE’s donated to their project by Zell’s grandfather from his military career tasted like a dusty fart. They could survive on the things, true, but none of the trio were pleased at the idea of having to do so. So along with canned foods and whatever other nonperishable goods the kids could rustle up, Sora was left with the responsibility of the aforementioned fresh provisions.

Which then entailed the unenviable task of prying the resident seagull of the play island from her egg.

“Not it.” Riku spoke first, his arms crossed as they all looked up to the top of the palm tree. The seagull circled above much like a bird of prey, her beady eyes fixed on the trio clustered around where her nest sat.

“Ditto,” Kairi agreed. She chewed her lip at the sight of the bird circling closer.

“Oh, come on, you guys!” Sora protested and looked to each of them. “No help? At all?”

“Not from me.” Kairi answered.

“Riku?”

“Nope.”

She visibly deflated. Sora glanced up at the nest again. The seagull had taken to glaring straight at her, and Sora could swear she had the look of murder on her beaked face.

She decided to try Riku again. “I forgot how to climb these trees compared to the ones with branches on the main island.” Sora coiled one tuft of her unruly cinnamon-brown hair around her finger. “Show me?”

He scoffed. “No way. I am not falling for that trick again.”

Her charming expression dropped into a deadpan scowl. Kairi snickered from beside her.

“Fine.” Sora relented, and tucked her wooden sword into the chain at her belt. She had to ready for battle, after all. And then, at the menacing caw of the seagull from above, Sora began to climb.

Several claw marks, a hard-won fight, and an attempted tarring-and-feathering later (the seagull didn’t have tar, but it made do with a few carefully aimed splatters of excrement instead) and Sora had procured one seagull egg as her spoils of war.

Which she then promptly left with Riku as revenge.

“Here, catch!” Sora called out to him in a dead run, the bird still in pursuit and swiping at whatever part of the girl she could reach. In one swoop she tossed the egg to Riku, who managed to catch it without breaking it and took a moment to look at the egg and process what exactly had just happened. Which the seagull took as opportunity to ambush him.

“Hey--! Hey!” He called after her, trying to dodge the seagull and not break the egg at the same time. Sora only laughed in response and heard his shouts echo into the distance as she made her getaway. “This stupid bird better stop—Ow!”

She only stopped running when she couldn’t hear either of them anymore and took a moment to wash off the remaining feathers and seagull excrement in the ocean. Sora was scrubbing at one particularly steadfast spot on her sleeve when she heard a voice from above.

It was Selphie. “You’re gonna need soap to scrub that out all the way. Irvine got smacked with it last week while trying to chat up some girl, and he said it took multiple washings to get the stain out.”

“I think I almost got it.” Sora threw her a smirk. “It hasn’t dried. It’d still be totally worth it even if it did, though, I got payback on Riku for cheating in our race yesterday and for leaving me with the seagull. But he probably tossed it to Kairi or somewhere else as soon as possible.”

“Oh yeah. You’re helping Riku and Kairi out with something, right? That boat thing?”

“The raft!” Sora replied, “We’re gonna set sail tomorrow to try and find Kairi’s birthplace. I hope we’ll find a real adventure out of it. Today Kairi enlisted me to find some fresh supplies for food on top of what we got.”

“So that’s why you got the egg!” Selphie exclaimed, “I thought you were just doing that for a joke.”

She laughed. “Nah, Kai gave me a whole list of stuff to find. Next up is mushrooms, but I don’t have any idea of where to get them.”

“They’re usually in dark places,” Selphie replied. “Wet, too. Try the crevices near the waterfall and in the cave.”

“You’re right!” Sora readied to run off. “Thanks, Selph!”

“Thank me by bringing back a souvenir from your trip!” She yelled after her.

Sora raced along the walkway and towards the underbrush that concealed the entrance to the cave, careful to keep an eye out as she ran for any relentless birds that might still be pursuing her.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the low light in the cavern. The temperature change was immediate. With the always-warm, and sometimes a little too hot, climate outside, the secret place was always cool in comparison with the air feeling a little damp. And the more she looked the more she saw, with the long rocky corridor of the cave punctuated with the occasional chalk drawing.

Sora walked down the corridor, stopping here and there along the way to pick whatever mushrooms she saw. The air got cooler as she got closer to the chamber at the end, but that was nothing new, and neither was the familiar rustle of the wind rushing against the hole at the ceiling of the chamber.

Upon reaching the wide room of the cave, Sora took a quick moment to look around at the clusters of drawings up and down every part of the walls she was tall enough to reach. She had never been an accomplished artist, but she’d gotten better with time and practice, and you could see it in the progression from the drawings at the very bottom of the walls towards the top. In the corner, a duck and a dog that she’d scrawled back when she first started getting the dreams of visiting different worlds. Another corner, and there was a more carefully done drawing of her and Riku as knights, protecting a castle whose architecture made no sense, but that didn’t matter to her. And another corner…

There. Portraits of her and Kairi and Riku, done by themselves back when they were still little and Kairi was still a relative newcomer to the islands. It was a cherished memory.

Sora heard another rustle behind her, distinctly different from the sound of the wind at the ceiling. She straightened up quickly, stumbling, and spun around to see assembled at the door a dark shape that wasn’t there when she came in.

“Wha—Who’s there?”

The dark shape did not move. It was a person, presumably, hunched over and wearing a brown sack-like robe.

She could feel herself tense and go cold at the sight—whoever they were, they were menacing.

“I’ve come to see the door to this world.”

He certainly didn’t sound like anyone she knew. The voice was far too mature to be any one of the kids.

“Huh?”

“This world is now connected: Its Heart beats in sync with all the others that have awoken. Tied to the Darkness…soon to be completely eclipsed.”

Was this some sort of a joke?

“Wh--What are you talking about?” She thought to what he said. Heart? Connected?

"But, child,”

The figure finally turns to look at her, and in the low light of the cave all that was visible of his face was a dark chasm where his head should be. But even without seeing him properly, Sora got the distinct feeling he was amused at her.

"Don’t you remember?"


 

 

 

K A I R I

A little over 4 hours until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

“I told you to poke the holes in the thin parts of the ridges on the shell, doing it on the thicker parts like that is why your shells keep breaking.”

“I know,” Selphie frustratedly huffed, “I’m trying, it’s just annoying—Stupid!” She blurted out as yet another Thalassa shell broke in her incomplete charm, before she resignedly tossed it to the pile of other broken shells the pair had spent in their efforts.

After the whirlwind of activity earlier from Sora stealing the seagull egg as part of her errands, as she tossed it to Riku, who then promptly left it with Kairi, who then had to hide with it for a while in the bushes in hope that the seagull may give up (which it did, but not without giving one last baleful caw before flying out past the horizon) before she could properly store it on the raft, Kairi had settled down with trying to complete her own Thalassa shell charm. Which was, if she had to be honest, going rather poorly.

Something like this was easily finished in a fortnight if Kairi was feeling normal. But the problem was that she was not feeling normal and hadn’t for about a week now. Just like yesterday, it was like she had a head cold or something and unable to concentrate as well as she usually should.

Maybe she’d been hanging out with Sora so much that she was starting to turn into her, Kairi joked to herself, and tried to thread the shells together again so that the tiny crown-shaped bead in the middle was properly placed. And, again, it was improperly done, the bead falling right through the center and back onto the wooden boards of the pier. Kairi resisted the urge to curse.

At some point Selphie had seen what she was trying to make, cooed over it, and asked her to show her how to make one too, and now here they both were messing up.

Kairi had threaded three of the shells and was working to loop together more as she spotted a familiar face out of the corner of her vision. She turned to see Sora stumbling towards them, her forehead creased with an unusual look that seemed equal parts conflicted, bewildered, and unnerved. The look disappeared when she noticed Kairi saw her, and Sora gave her a toothy grin.

“Got the mushrooms you asked for.” Sora spoke, holding them out to Kairi. A couple fell out of her hands as she did so, with more falling around still as she bent over to try and pick them up. “You said you wanted them in the stockpile?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry about that now,” Kairi assured her as she helped pick up the fallen mushrooms. “Are you okay? You looked a little…” She trailed off, but Sora understood what she meant.

“Yeah! Yeah, I’m fine, there was just a weird guy in the cave where I got some of these at and he spouted some stuff off, but he’s gone now.”

Selphie and Kairi shared a look at that.

“Weird? What kind of weird?” Selphie questioned, and Kairi followed.

“Was he being a creep?”

“What did he say to you?”

“Do you think he might still be on the play island?”

“No!” Sora spluttered, “No, no, nothing like that! Jeez, this feels like an interrogation. It was just some weird gloomy guy in a hood talking about how that door back there is connected now, or something. I don’t know. He wasn’t really making any sense.”

“Huh. That’s odd.” Kairi remarked.

“Yeah.”

Selphie joked, “Are you sure it wasn’t Riku in a costume? He can be pretty gloomy, and he has been mentioning that door a lot lately.”

“Well, I mean,” Sora’s tone got a little defensive as she hesitated, and she kicked her toe against the boards of the pier. “The door thing, sure, but he’s not really that bad, Riku’s got a lot to be gloomy about.”

“Like what?” Selphie asked sincerely, and Kairi could see Sora losing her verbal footing.

“I, uh, you know…like…stuff. A lot of stuff. I can’t tell.”

Sora, Riku, and Kairi knew everything about each other, or close to it, but they had an unspoken knowledge not to mention anything to anyone else. Some things you didn’t need pinky promises to agree to. And Sora, in her momentary overzealousness, had skirted a line. Her standing up for Kairi and Riku was always admirable, but it could be a double-edged sword if she wasn’t careful.

“Now you’re being secretive!” Selphie pouted, and Kairi stepped in diplomatically.

“It was probably one of the older kids playing a prank, and it didn’t mean anything. You know how they like to come by sometimes and do stuff like that to spook us.”

Selphie relented at that. “That’s true. It took me forever to get all that flour off after that stunt Zell pulled on me last week.”

Sora guffawed. “He only did that ‘cuz you got the last hot dog from the stand that day.”

“Yeah, Selph,” Kairi teased, “You don’t get between Zell and those things, everyone knows that.”

“I’ll do whatever I want!” Selphie protested, but whatever fire there was in her rebuttal was drowned out by her overly large yawn. She scooped up the pieces of her charm with one hand and stood to stretch in the light of the sun just beginning to set. “It’s starting to get late. I think I’ll hitch a ride back with Tidus before my mom gets mad. You guys coming?”

They both shook their heads no.

“We’re just doing some last-minute stuff for the raft, don’t wait up on us.”

Selphie gave a nod at that and bade them good luck as she left for the day. And then it was just Sora and Kairi seated alone on the pier, the mushrooms and the unfinished charm’s components left in a pile behind them, forgotten.

She looked over at Sora, studying how her gaze was turned to the water, dismayed and fretful.

“You’re thinking about him again, aren’t you.”

“Yeah.” Sora drew little ripples in the water with her shoe. “Riku’s just…been super weird lately. One minute he’s fine and everything’s normal, the next he’s pissy and brooding and I’m not really sure if it was something I did. The guy in the cave talking about the door reminded me of yesterday when I told him about that dream, the one I told you about later?” She looked to Kairi, who nodded. “Well, when I mentioned to Riku what the voice said about ‘opening the door’, he just got really icy all of a sudden. Today he’s been great but there’s still this weird feeling, you know what I mean? Even Tidus was picking up on it. He was asking me if me and Riku were still pals, saying it was getting really hard to tell.”

Sora sighed and stopped kicking her feet, letting them dangle limply off the pier.

“I said we were, but honestly it’s getting really hard for me to tell, too.”

Kairi had no response for that and thought back to that first day when Riku came over to Sora’s house with the idea for the raft. That first day, the Light she could see in his Heart when she looked beyond was encouraging for once. It was still dim, but less so, its glow tentatively hopeful. And over the past few weeks as the trio hung out more and more, until they were together nearly every day just as they once were, it had grown to twinkle a little more merrily.

But then, there was something else she noticed about it. The Light, however little there was in his Heart, however much it tried to stand out in the midst of all the Darkness that had lingered, it would falter at the drop of a hat. One moment, and it’d be so bright it almost seemed to be a normal amount in the Hearts she’d seen. The next moment, and it’d dim so much it was like watching a sputtering candle at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Kairi couldn’t really figure out a pattern for why his Light was so volatile, it’d be caused by anything. Some perfectly innocent words by her or Sora or anyone, and it’d dim. Or nothing happened and maybe he’d be thinking for too long, and it’d dim just as much. There really wasn’t any predictable pattern to it.

Two things were for certain though: One, he wasn’t confiding in them as much as he’d used to, not in the way they’d all talk to each other in the past. So, Two, it couldn’t really be Sora’s fault, or Kairi’s fault, if he wasn’t communicating with them.

But why did he stop communicating with them?

“He really has changed, hasn’t he?”

“Yeah.” Sora dejectedly agreed.

Instinct warned her against being careless with Darkness like that. Kairi may not have remembered much of her home, but she remembered enough to know better.

(A silver-haired man with two Hearts and a Darkness that reached out to encircle the world)

“Hey, Sora?” Kairi faltered a little when she looked to her. “What if we just take the raft and go? Just the two of us?”

I don’t want his Darkness to stain you. Or anyone. That Light is important, and I know you shouldn’t ever lose it.

Sora did a double-take at that.

“And just leave him behind?”

“I was only joking, don’t worry.” Kairi responded, but she wasn’t joking, not really, and she worried it might be noticeable. But thankfully, Sora seemed to roll with that, and chuckled with a shake of her head.

“Maybe you changed too, Kai.” Sora joked, and Kairi grinned.

“Maybe you’re right,” She quipped, lazily bumping her foot against Sora’s leg. And they both looked to the warm red light of the setting sun.

Don’t ever change, Sora, Kairi thinks to herself. Please, don’t ever change.


 

 

R I K U

50 Minutes until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

It is night. Above, ill-boding black clouds swarm far above the rooftops of the islands, contrasting the announced predictions for clear weather that evening. And moving through the streets is a boy with silver hair, so sick with rage his senses tunnel to nearly nothing but what is right in front of him.

Riku does not know where he is going. He doesn’t care. Beyond the blinders of memories from just minutes before, there is no thought in his mind but a screaming need to get away from everything.

That night, dinner at his house wasn’t any different from usual. That is to say, it was quiet, with only the tinkling of silverware against plates piercing the oppressive silence.

Riku thought to the raft. And maybe it’s brashness from knowing that he’d be gone soon that makes him regain his nerve, or maybe he’s simply forgotten the consequences of speaking up about the more fucked up parts of their family with his father dead and gone for years now.

‘Family’. What he and his mother were, it was too generous a word.

He stomps down the road now, the dark of the night seeming to contort around the cheerily bright windows of unknown neighbors. If possible, the sight of them makes him even angrier.

Because within those windows there is light, laughter, the pleasant din of people who love one another by blood and by choice. Within those windows is a love Riku can never have for reasons he can’t understand. Reasons he never had a say in.

The moment he speaks up, he regrets it. This time, the pain doesn’t come from his flesh, though he remembers the shades of a sickly spectrum on his skin from a time when there were two parents in his life. The pain now comes from a place where no medicine or surgery can reach.

The ensuing argument is the most they’ve spoken to one another in literal years. An amount of time that would be unthinkable to well-adjusted people in well-adjusted households, but Riku and his mother are anything but. The most they’ve ever talked before this was curt exchanges of just enough words to cover the bare necessities, but nothing more.

But the thing about the argument that stands out to him the most is that while it’s the first that he and his mother have ever had, it feels…old. Familiar. Like this is a point of contention that they’ve clashed about all his life, like the two of them have been engaged in a silent fight ever since Riku woke up one day and realized he didn’t have with his parents what Sora, Kairi, and so many other kids he knew had with theirs.

Before that day, he had thought it was normal to feel that cold clench of his veins whenever his parents addressed him, even for something innocuous. Riku had thought it normal to feel every corner of his body coil up with stress and tension the moment he walked in through the front door.

But Riku is a quick learner, and it doesn’t take him many years before Sora, albeit too young to consciously realize what she’s done for him, helps him understand that his home is not normal at all. From there, when he came to know a number of the other kids and especially after Kairi arrived, that understanding was cemented.

And over time, Riku comes to understand a few other things: That adults can’t help his situation, not permanently, not in a way that doesn’t do so much more harm than if he’d just never asked them at all. That he shouldn’t say anything to anyone other than Sora or Kairi about his circumstances, or risk getting those horrible looks of pity he’s come to hate, like he’s weak or a fuckup beyond fixing. And most of all, he finally understands that he is alone in this.

Riku dimly recognizes the area that he trudged to unawares. The houses cast familiar silhouettes against the roiling sky, and he looks up to the corner to see familiar street names.

This is Sora’s neighborhood.

He halfway entertains the idea of stopping by, just like he did ever since he was very small, but immediately decides against it.

A shadowed corner of his mind hissed a hidden thought he didn’t want to acknowledge: Sora won’t get it anyways. It’s wasted on her. Because no matter what she says and no matter how much they talk about it all, Sora doesn’t get it. She’s never experienced the absence of love. She’s never experienced a mother that was never really there at all.

So he walks on. Riku doesn’t know where he’s going, but so long as it’s away from his house, he doesn’t care.

He tells his friends less about what is going on, deciding instead to act like everything’s fine. And for a long time, that’s because it is. When there’s no parents around or mentioned, there’s no painful reminders of how Riku feels like he’s waiting for something that’ll never happen. So he continues the spars with wooden swords, the traded jokes, the long nights spent watching the sky where each of them wonder about storms of shooting stars and strangers as young as them falling out of portals knowing nothing but their names.

Riku thinks to the long-ago memory of a man telling him of a world beyond the islands, who made him swear on his keyblade that he’d do good by others in return for an escape. But the man never comes back for him, and Riku’s sick of waiting. And over time, he convinces himself that likely the whole thing was a dream, or a cruel joke.

The fight hardly even consists of yelling, and it’s nothing like the fights his parents used to have that he could overhear anywhere in the house. But it is brutal nonetheless and cuts him right to the bone. Before he knows it, he’s scrambling to pick up the pieces. He’s not trying to win anymore, but simply trying to get answers.

“I…I tried to do everything right. I tried to be good for so long.” Riku finished, glancing to the walls, the floor, anywhere but ahead of him. “What did I do wrong?”

“It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you are.”

He isn’t sure where he is right now, but he doesn’t care enough to see if anything around him is familiar. Riku only walks, his eyes downcast and teeth gritted, and he can feel eyes on himself but he doesn’t care enough to look and see who. Nobody says anything to him, anyways, not the few pedestrians out at this hour.

Step. Step. Step.

He finally musters up the strength to ask the question he’s not sure he wants the answer to. Somewhere in the back of his head, the small part of him detached from everything, notes the irony of it: Riku’s always prided himself on being the best at everything he can, the strongest, but things like this require an entirely different strength than what he’s equipped for. The realization leaves a bitter taste in his mouth and he tries to forget it as quickly as possible.

“What do you mean?”

She only chuckles derisively, her gaze steeled onto something faraway.

The entire time they’ve been talking she’s never really looked at him once. Her eyes, as they have been for years, look through him. Like he’s made of glass.

Riku is fed up with it. The despair, the confusion, it all bleeds away into one sharp, quick burst of impatient anger.

“Why can’t you look me in the eye and say what you mean by ‘what I am’? Why can’t you just say it—Mom, look at me. Look at me!”

She sets down her glass with a clatter and rounds on him so fast he flinches, afraid that she might strike him. This time isn’t like when he was small, he can fight back now, but that doesn’t stop the old fear.

“’Look at you’? You really want me to look at you? Okay, fine, I’ll look.” Her tone began in a hiss, and slowly raised to a shout. “You want to know what I see when I do? I see a night where I was chasing a love that never existed. I see a day where my own desperation to get back the love of a man that never loved me in the first place ruined my life. I see a failed career. I see irrelevance. I see a prison. I see a relationship I should have known was septic from the start but couldn’t realize because I was too blinded by my own desperate need to not die alone. And look where that got me!” She raised her hands to gesture all around them. “Look at me, all alone. Because that’s what people like you and me end up as, Riku, alone. There is nobody to love us, nobody to tell us things are going to be okay, because we are unlovable. All we are is poison.”

To that, he has countless rebuttals and yet nothing to say.

When Riku does speak, it’s almost unconsciously, the words coming out with no filter or forethought.

“We don’t have to be alone, Mom. We still could have had each other.”

To say it makes him feel vulnerable. To say it, and mean it, makes him feel naked.

His mother’s looking at him still, but there’s no fire in her eyes anymore. There is nothing in them at all.

Riku makes to leave, but his hand stays on the handle of the front door for a moment. He knows it’s childish to try once more, but he’s never been good at letting go. He thinks to the raft.

“I won’t leave if you don’t want me to. I won’t go anywhere. But, I need to know that you don’t want me to.” He took a ragged sigh. “I need you to ask.”

(I need you to tell me you love me, even just a little bit. Even if it doesn’t contain the words ‘I love you.’)

She doesn’t say anything. All she does is shift her gaze, so that she’s looking through him again. Something deep down inside gives a painful squeeze.

“Mom,” Riku’s voice broke. She still didn’t look at him. “Ask me to stay.”

Step.

He’s desperate to know if there’s a part of her that ever cared about him. She’s his mom. Isn’t that what mothers do? Aren’t they supposed to go to the ends of the earth for their children? Aren’t they supposed to tell their children not to do something dangerous? ‘Don’t go on the raft,’ she’s supposed to say. ‘Don’t go out to sea and leave me. Don’t die the same way your father did, even if he was an asshole who deserved it.’

Step.

‘Stay here, with me, because I love you and I want you to be okay.’

But all she says is “I will not.”

Riku grips onto the door handle with bone-white knuckles and leaves. He doesn’t slam the door behind him.

Step.

He walks.

The streets go from unfamiliar to familiar again, but it’s not as if he’s giving any conscious thought to where he’s going. It’s only when he reaches long rows of wooden planks that he bothers to look up.

The harbor. Around him, piers stretch on to form paths through the marina, where households who don’t have shore space keep their personal boats docked. Riku traces a thumb over the sign marked with his surname, designating the section where his small rowboat is. If he’s not going to Sora’s house, he may as well go to the play island to calm down.

He rows, past boats lying in wait and buoys flashing into the distance. The wind is picking up by now, chopping up the waves, but they don’t seem to touch his boat at all. Closely around him, the water is eerily calm, almost supernaturally so, but he doesn’t think about it. Nor does he think about how the skies were predicted to be clear for the next week, yet the clouds look as if a storm is moving in fast.

Riku’s not sure what to do for the night. He doesn’t want to go back home at all, but he doesn’t know where else to go. There’s a conflicting need to leave the play island as he rows towards it, like an instinct in the back of his head registering something foreboding that he doesn’t know, fighting a strange pull for him to wander closer to it.

He docks the boat ashore, just enough to leave it moored onto the sand where the waves can’t carry it off and mutters a curse as the surf seeps through his pant leg and shoes. In his haste to go, Riku forgot to put on his dark blue waders that he usually wore, and instead was only in his jeans. At least there were spares on the raft for when they left in the morning. He’d just worry about it then.

Riku stands on the shore for several minutes and does nothing else. By now, most of the fury had been worked off in the effort of rowing to the play island, and with some literal and figurative distance from what had happened had made it so that the rage had stopped drowning out everything else he was feeling. He was still angry, but in some way or another Riku had always felt at least a little bit angry about his family. It could very well be that way for as long as he lived. And he was sad—that could be there forever too. But both of those things felt somewhat muffled by the feeling of resignation and squandered hope.

The play island is empty at this hour, and it’s a blessing. The shores echo with nothing but the crash of unusually high tides. The air howls with wind and the clamor of the boughs of trees and palms. Riku always did like it when the weather matched his mood.

He decides to stay at the play island for the night. It’s not as if he hasn’t done it before: He and Sora and Kairi would have sleepovers here sometimes in the past, curled up in sleeping bags in the cave. Riku would spook them with ghost stories by flashlight as Sora would doodle on whatever inch of wall she hadn’t covered yet and Kairi would be roasting marshmallows by candlelight.

And behind them, overlooked but not forgotten, the door.

The door.

“At the end, right before I woke up, it told me ‘You are the one who will open the door.’”

The fury comes back as if it never left, this time lined with the bitter pang of soul sickening envy.

It was supposed to be him that would open the door. It was supposed to be him that would keep having the dreams of that key-shaped sword, wandering from one place to another—Riku wasn’t an idiot, he realized later when Sora mentioned having a ‘weird sword’ in her dream very likely meant she’d dreamed of the Keyblade too—but no. Those dreams were Sora’s now, apparently.

And it didn’t matter that he still had dreams every night of that door calling to him, opening up from the secret place to anywhere he could and couldn’t imagine. Riku thought that part was still his, at least, but apparently not anymore. Everything seemed to come so easily to Sora. A happy home, a mother who loved her, an unfettered spirit. Of course destiny would come easily to her too.

Riku walked up the path to the cavern, past the small shack and the waterfall. He kneeled down under the thickest of the branches and crawled in, standing up once he was inside.

Through the corridor of stone, past the pale ghosts of drawings, and there it was.

The door hadn’t changed one bit in all the years he’s known of it. The walls changed over time, becoming more and more cluttered with sketches and marks and encroaching roots, but the door hadn’t so much as a dent in it.

All these years of wondering, all these dreams…and it wasn’t meant for him.

It can be opened now.

Riku nearly jumped out of his skin.

He swerved around, and behind him there was this hunched figure standing there in the cave with him. Riku didn’t have any idea of when he might have walked in after him, the cave was silent the entire time he’d been in it, apart from the whistling howl from the wind running against the hole in the ceiling. No footsteps, nothing to announce this person’s arrival.

Why did it feel as though Riku met him before?

“Who are you?” Riku took a half-step back. “What are you talking about?”

“This world sleeps no longer. And when the world awakens, so too does its Heart.” The figure stepped forward and Riku resisted the urge to step back again. “As for who I am…consider me a friend of Fate.”

Riku said nothing for a moment, taking in the other’s appearance. No face that he could see under that hood, just a black space where something should be, and Riku stifled a shudder. His body was still hunched, but less so, and the figure’s robe draped in such a way that seemed as if there were no form underneath, no familiar bulk of any legs or arms, the sleeves seeming to act as the arms instead. Crossed over what could be construed as his torso were two leather belts in the shape of an ‘X’.

There were countless alarms going off in Riku’s head now, but what the figure said gave him pause.

“What did you mean, ‘it can be opened’?”

A dark chuckle echoed throughout the cave. “It seems you can’t remember either. No matter, the same has happened to me as a boy.” He moved closer and looked up to the door. “What I mean is exactly that: The door you’ve pondered so long can be opened now. You couldn’t figure out a way to open it because there was no way. So long as this world slept, its Heart was closed off to the touch of Darkness.”

So much of what he said still didn’t add up. And what’s more, whoever he was kept talking in circles.

“I don’t believe you. You keep raising more questions than you’re answering—What’s a Heart? Or Darkness?”

He chuckled again, louder this time.

“How little you understand. The islands that imprisoned you, the oceans that formed your warden, all of it is part of the world in which you were caged. And just as people have Hearts, so too do worlds. These Hearts of which I speak are different from the hearts you have learned about, that pump Light and Darkness instead of blood, but it beats just the same. Once this world awakened, its newly-unlocked Heart began to beat in sync with all the other worlds’, and it has given you the opportunity to escape from your home that you sought.”

He seemed to half walk and half glide towards the door, and Riku followed. The figure slowly raised one robed arm towards the wood of the door and felt with nonvisible fingers.

“As for what is Darkness…I’ve studied it for so long that a lifetime more wouldn’t be enough to answer that completely.”

“Then try.”

“You would do well to hold your pride when speaking to your betters, boy.” He warned. “Reality is made of more than physical matter. Darkness and Light are the bonds that hold everything together—Though neither can truly survive without the other, Light and Darkness are in themselves synonymous with Weakness and Strength. It is Light that will fail you when you need it most, but Darkness will never leave you. And it is Darkness that will help you gain the strength and freedom that you seek.”

Strength. Freedom. Everything he’s ever wanted since he was small.

“Do you have proof of this?” Riku croaked. It all sounded too good to be true. But this could be his big break. Isn’t this what he’s been waiting for all this time?

He didn’t need to see his face to know he was grinning.

“All the proof you need awaits beyond this door. I shall guide you to opening it.”

His mind whirled. The first thought in his mind was of Sora, and how she was supposed to open the door. But that was quickly supplanted by a bitter steadfastness in his mind of how he was there first, he’d discovered the door, he was the one with all those dreams, the one with dreams of the door even now, even if he didn’t dream of the keyblade anymore.

But Riku’s second thought was more inexplicable. He was almost afraid of opening the door. He’d wanted to figure out this mystery for so long, and the answer was right in front of him, but something deeper than bone was screaming for him to be careful, to watch out, to run away back to the comfort of endless contemplation rather than an answer, because this answer wasn’t one he would want. But Riku stood his ground. What good was curiosity if he didn’t care about the answer? What good was wondering, to near obsession, if there was never satisfaction?

“Show me how,” Riku said, and then added, almost an afterthought, “Please.”

“Very well then. Stand in front of it and stand proud.” Riku complied. “Hold your hand out towards it, but don’t try to reach for it physically. Reach for it with your Heart.”

“I don’t understand.” Riku spoke, “How?”

“Belief. Trust. These are tools you’ll need to attain rewards your body can’t grasp. Believe in the Dark, believe in power and freedom, and countless realms will be laid bare for you.”

He closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and trusts.

There’s a stirring in his chest, his Heart, he realizes now, though the two can feel the same.

—A young boy stands on the shore alone, looking out to the setting sun. The man promised him freedom, that he’d come back for the boy, but here he is alone. Years later. The man is not coming back. —

—He wipes the blood from his nose in the quiet of his bathroom and detachedly is impressed by how he can hear them yelling through two locked doors and a separate story of the house. Fear curls and uncurls like an awful background radiation of his mind. —

—A promise between two children, a promise made on wooden swords and a necklace in the half-light of shooting stars. It seems so simple at the time, but time passes, and as the two of them grow up he wonders if promises aren’t enough. If he is not enough. —

Riku opens his eyes at the sound of a wooden groan. He gapes at the sight of the door opening, Light dancing merrily through the cracks, lighting up the cave like daylight.

The Heart of the islands…it’s beautiful. Light of all kinds seems to come from one point in midair within the archway of the opened door: the glimmering spectrum of hues of stained glass, the raging blaze of wildfires to the steady crackling of a campfire, the fractured gleam of diamonds. It gave a trilling hum that sounded sweeter than any music.

And even from the short distance he and the figure were from that Heart, Riku could feel the air shiver with its power.

“Well done.”

“I…I’d dreamed of this ever since I was little, but…I never thought I’d see this. What is it?”

“Pure energy. Light, Dark, and everything in between.”

“Dark?” Riku glanced from the figure to the Heart again. He noted that even in so much Light that the cave was lit up like midday he still couldn’t see the figure’s face, only that same dark gap where a face should be. “I don’t think there’s much Darkness in something that bright.”

“And that’s where we come in.”

“Wait, what?” Riku looked to him for good this time, peeling his eyes away from the Heart to do so. That power was tantalizing, but something felt wrong about touching it. Corrupting it.

“All beings need balance between Light and Dark. Even worlds. Too much Light is dangerous, and we must harness the Darkness to bring equilibrium. We must take this Heart.”

“I…I don’t know.”

“You wanted freedom, didn’t you? There is no freedom without power. And this…”  The figure waved to the Heart, “This is power.”

“Is this the right thing to do, though?” He looked to the Heart again. Power. Freedom. At what cost? “We’re going to bring balance by taking it?”

“Indeed. By submitting this world to the Darkness, there shall be balance. The power you get shall merely be a byproduct, you will be a hero for ending the tyranny of Light. And all that Darkness within you…there are no others better suited for the task.”

A hero.

No other suited for the task than him.

More than power and freedom, the idea of reclaiming his status of being something more, of being a hero, Riku wanted it so much that the idea of taking this world’s Heart didn’t sound too bad after all.

It’d be the right thing to do anyways, wouldn’t it?

“What do I do?”

“It is just as before. Only this time, you will have help. Taking a world’s Heart is a strenuous task, so I shall assist. I, and friends.”

The figure gestured grandly around the cave, and the shadows around the room rose up to greet him. Clusters of glowing yellow eyes blinked into existence around the pair, along with gnarled hands and feet, the creatures’ antennae twitching hungrily in the direction of the Heart.

“I will give you some small measure of control over the Darkness. It is enough for you to touch the Hearts of worlds, and to navigate the pulses of Light and Dark that connect them. You can make portals of the Darkness with this, to escape your prison. Now, reach.”

And he did. Behind his closed eyelids Riku saw more flashes of memories this time, painful, but that made the Darkness stand out that much more. And as he opened his eyes, the Heart was gone, and only a tangible blackness lay beyond the opened door. The only illumination in the cave now was by the light of the creatures’ eyes.

There was a small tinge of regret in him, but that was drowned out by how pleased he was with himself. That and the quiet hum of Darkness in the back of his mind.

Riku had power now. He could be free.

He chuckled to himself. No need for a raft anymore, Riku thought.

“Shall we take our leave now?”

He considered that for a moment. He could leave now, but what of his friends? Riku didn’t want to be without Sora. Or Kairi. A journey wasn’t as much fun alone. He’d been here all his life, he could stay for a little while longer.

“If it’s okay, I’d like to wait here.” Riku added, “See if someone else would like to join me.”

“We shall meet again, then.”

The figure opened a portal, a Dark hole like a rip in reality itself, and he was gone. He didn’t even leave footsteps behind.

At that, the creatures in the cave scattered, crawling both out the corridor and out the hole at the ceiling. They strongly reminded him of insects.

Riku walked out of the cave and back out into the windy shore of the play island, to the rickety wooden bridge that connected the larger portion of the play island to its small sandy outpost that Riku had spent so many days staring out onto the ocean on. He sat upon the bowed paopu tree with the roaring of the ocean in his ears.

And Riku waited.


 

 

K A I R I

40 Minutes until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

Dinnertime crawled by at an agonizingly slow pace. And the whole time, her head was pounding.

Kairi had long tuned out her parents’ conversation, both of them chattering on about work or something or other while she absently shifted around small piles of fried rice. Maybe her mom was talking about something that happened in the office, she wasn’t sure. Everything Kairi could hear sounded like she was underwater.

She distractedly chewed at some noodles, but it felt like she was chewing wool. It didn’t have much taste anyway.

“You okay, sweetie?” It was her mom. Kairi hazily looked up at her and had to blink a couple of times so she wasn’t seeing double.

“Yeah, I,” Kairi scrunched her eyes shut and shook her head, trying to not see double again. It didn’t work. “I think I’m getting a migraine.”

“You have seemed to be coming down with something over the past couple of days.” Her mother agreed, putting the back of her hand against Kairi’s forehead to test her temperature. “Hmm. You don’t feel warm.”

“Is it okay if I can be excused?” She asked. “I want to lie down.”

“Of course, dear.” Her mother answered, before getting up and going to the cabinet and handing her a pill bottle. “Here. Take a couple of aspirins, that usually works for me.”

Kairi nodded, and with the bottle in hand, she turned and walked to her room, barely hearing her dad call after her “Feel better!”

With the door closed behind her, she quickly downed a couple of pills before hauling herself over to her desk and turning on her computer. Kairi had opened a couple of sites she usually browsed but she kept zoning out, the clock blinking to five minutes passed, then ten minutes.

She was about to declare it useless and turn in for the night, but then there was a pull at the edge of her consciousness. And then Kairi felt pins and needles in her legs, and a sense of urgency. It was like that feeling of when you realized you forgot something, and you had to run back and get it. Except Kairi wasn’t sure what it is she needed to get, but she had to go. Now.

Kairi stood, and the moment she did so she could see her vision begin to pixelate at the edges like television static. For a moment her sight went nearly black and she could feel her heart thump like crazy, and the feeling of needing to leave only got worse.

She began to walk. Out her bedroom, down the stairs, tiptoeing past where her parents were still chatting over wine and take-out. She slipped on her shoes and walked out the door, closing it quietly behind her.

Kairi looked up. The sky was dark, far darker than it should be for eight in the evening at this time of year. Usually, it would be sunset, albeit the last few dregs of it, the light still enough to see by. But tonight, the streetlights had turned on early, flashes of sheet lightning in the sky. Clouds had covered the stars from view.

And that’s when she began to black out.

One minute, she’s outside her front door, looking up at the sky and there’s no static at the edge of her vision. And all the pain in her head clears for one moment as all she can hear is a voice in her head. Or that’s what Kairi thought it was. Really, it seemed to be more of a part of her thoughts, a voice that didn’t sound like any voice, telling her Come. This way.

Another black out, and suddenly she’s at the harbor where her personal boat is, the one she uses to go to the play island that her dad helped her build a couple of years after she arrived. Kairi feels like she’s going to be sick and leans heavily on one of the posts on the pier as she can feel sweat bead at her forehead, her stomach roiling as much as the waves below. The lights of the pier glimmer as she looks up, and she loses her balance and is terrified she might slip past the rope fencing and fall into the ocean. Kairi can taste bile at the edge of her throat.

She blacks out again, and she’s suddenly rowing the oars of her boat as hard as she can, the nausea gone and replaced by a feeling of frenzied concentration, like every cell in her body is at attention and scrambling to reach some unspecified goal. And she can hear that voice cry to her, Please help. The play island is close, close enough for Kairi to see Riku’s boat already at the shore, but he doesn’t seem to be anywhere she can see when she glances around.

Kairi blacks out, and now she’s alone in front of that door in the secret place, the one Riku kept wondering about, drawings scrawled into the rock walls seeming to dance all around her as her head swims. Kairi stands at the threshold of it and she feels sick again, the static gathering at the edge of her sight. She has no idea what time it is, but suddenly it feels very important that she know.

She presses her fingertips to the door and tries to ignore the feeling that she’s being watched. Kairi can hear a chorus in her head now, screaming Princess, please, you can fix this, only a wielder like you can bring the Light back to me, hasn’t it been done before?

Kairi has no idea what to do. She stands there uselessly swaying, feeling ice spread down to her toes. And all the while the voice is still pleading with her to help.

Inexplicably, she can hear the sound of a door opening from somewhere far behind her. And then footsteps.

Kairi could recognize the familiar sounds of that shuffling run anywhere. It was Sora, and she was calling Kairi’s name, asking if she was okay.

She tried to say a million things at once: Everything’s wrong, Maybe nothing’s wrong but I think I’m going crazy, I’m going to be sick, Maybe he wasn’t kidding at all about this thing because I swear this door is talking to me, Maybe I’m already crazy, Sora I don’t know what to do but I need to do something, Do you know? Do you know what time it is? Every cell in my body seems to know what to do but me. Do you know what I’m supposed to do?

But the only thing she could say when she opened her mouth was “Sora—"

And then, behind them, the door opened. Her sight cleared up enough to see black waves of something move with the gust of wind that poured out from the door. And that gust was absurdly strong, sweeping Kairi off her feet, about to bowl her into Sora, who had opened her arms wide hoping to catch her.

“One day when you’re in trouble, the Light within you will lead you to the Light of another. Someone to keep you safe.”

Where had she heard those words before?

Before she could think on the matter any more Kairi began to feel the strongest feeling of vertigo in her life, worse than earlier. There was a pulling feeling in her chest now, like she was falling, and then it was as if she were watching herself in the third person. She was still in her body, but she had lost the ability to do anything, and Kairi watched herself glide closer and closer towards Sora, who was still reaching for her and now scrunched her face up readying for impact. Kairi tried to ready for it too.

But it never came. There was an over whelming ringing sound in her ears for a split second, and the last thing Kairi saw was Sora’s back as she phased through her.

And then, for the final time that night, Kairi blacked out.


 

 

S O R A

3 Minutes until the fall of Destiny Islands

 

Sora never managed to catch Kairi.

She opened her eyes when she never felt Kairi landing and squinted against the gales. The door in the cave opened and out flew a rush of what looked like wind and smoke, throwing her off her feet and through the long corridor of the cave by the sheer force of the wind. And just when she saw herself reaching the end of the corridor, she braced herself for crashing against that other door that had appeared at the entrance, but it never happened. Everything went dark for a minute.

Sora came to with a face full of sand. Looking up, and blinking against the curtain of falling sand coming out of her hair, she saw that the rest of the play island was gone except for a small circle of beach and broken palm trees, strewn with scraps of wood from the broken structures she’d run and played on all her life.

The main island, her home, wasn’t visible in the distance as it would have been normally. There was not even the ocean in sight around that small circle she sat upon now. All that was visible was a cloudy purple sky that was empty of stars.

She looked around. Kairi was nowhere to be seen. Riku was gone too, most likely sucked into that black portal thing he had summoned. The raft they had been working on so much, the reason she had come over to the play island in the first place, once she saw that storm brewing that threatened to destroy it—it was gone to wherever the rest of her home went.

She looked up. The purplish dark core of energy she’d seen above Riku when she’d last seen him had now graduated to a swirling red vortex, looking so much like some horrible bleak sun, interspersed with green and purple flashes of lightning. Sora watched as a palm tree was pulled towards it, its roots looking like hundreds of fingers desperately clawing at the earth to stay put, but it was sucked in. Sora’s throat clenched.

And then, finally, she looked down. In her hand was that key-shaped sword she’d dreamt of so much in the past year, that she’d dreamt of just yesterday afternoon. Golden hilt, silver blade, capped off at one end with a tooth with the shape of a crown in the negative space, and at the other end it ended in a keychain with a shape formed of three connected circles.

‘Keyblade’, that voice had chanted to her as the yellow-eyed creatures from her dream had reared up around her in real life. She could hear their gnarled feet clawing at the wood planks of the pier even now, when they were gone with the rest of Destiny Islands. ‘Keyblade’.

“But don’t be afraid,” the dream told her, “You hold the mightiest weapon of all.”

“So don’t forget: You are the one who will open the door.”

The door.

Too late to open it now, she thought bleakly.

“Riku! There you are, I was—” She stopped and glanced around him, searching. She checked behind her. “Where’s Kairi? I thought she was with you?”

When Riku spoke, it wasn’t to answer her question.

“I finally opened that door.”

“What?”

“The door has opened, Sora!” He took a few steps toward her and opened his arms wide in anticipation. “Now we can go to the outside world!”

“What are you talking about?” Sora asked exasperatedly, “We’ve gotta find Kairi!”

“Kairi’s coming with us!”

Her jaw dropped. Sora glanced above Riku, to the swirling sphere of energy that blazed hellishly. Around them, black buglike creatures with glowing yellow eyes darted around, no longer constructs of her dream. These were real, whatever they were.

Kairi agreed to this?

“Once we step through we might not be able to go back. We may never see our parents again, there’s no turning back. But this may be our only chance. We can’t let fear stop us!”

Riku continued, “I’m not afraid of the Darkness, Sora. And you shouldn’t be either. Come with me.”

He extended a hand towards her, and she shook her head.

“Riku…” She trailed off.

Beneath him a dark portal yawned open. Thick black vines of Darkness snaked up his legs, and Sora took another step back before that portal and its vines could touch her, but oddly they didn’t even approach her. It seemed their focus was reserved for Riku.

Whatever those things were, whatever was going on, she didn’t have a good feeling about it. And Sora certainly didn’t want Riku caught up in any of it. His hand was still extended, and he looked to her with his mouth curved in that proud lopsided smile he always seemed to have, but she could see right through it. There was a tension in his forehead that wasn’t usually there with that look, a tautness to the arm he extended towards her.

Despite what he had said, Riku was afraid.

But if he wasn’t afraid of what was going on around him, what was he afraid of?

Sora set aside wondering about it any more in favor of reaching back towards Riku, trying to pull him out of the portal he was sinking into, but she couldn’t reach. And despite trying and trying, attempting to get a hold on him, another upsurge of that Darkness he had spoken of had swept in like a tidal wave and just like in the dream, they were separated, their arms still trying to grab onto each other for dear life.

The Darkness had made her lose consciousness for several moments. When she came to, Riku was gone, and in her hand was that key-shaped sword that she had seen so many times before, but never in waking life, its name chanted in her mind over and over—the Keyblade.

She ran to find Kairi.

Before Sora could think on what had happened any more, the ground began to rumble, more so than it was already. She scrambled to her feet, the keyblade in her grip, and turned to look behind her.

A gigantic figure was getting to its feet, and though it looked much like the black creatures she’d been seeing, with its similarly black countenance and glowing yellow eyes, it appeared vastly more ferocious. It was humanlike, though an aberration, with gnarled feet and a heart-shaped hole in its chest.

Sora could hear the chain of the keyblade jingle as she planted herself into the same position she’d done countless times before in spars, the weapon angled back in ready.

Mightiest weapon of all, huh? She thought. Let’s see what it can do.

Then both her and the monster lunged.

Sora caught the monster’s outstretched fist with the teeth of the keyblade and jerked it back to pull the metal edge of it against her foe’s skin, leaving a long gash down its hand that seeped out some sort of blackened sand. It reared, but she straddled its forearm and kept swinging, gash after gash seeping out more into the wind.

She leaped off when she saw the chasm in its chest begin to charge with a violet light and the air began to crackle with electricity. Sora landed sloppily, her shins taking the brunt of the force and protesting for it, but she burst into a run when she saw that violet energy begin to take shape and leave the monster to try and attack her. One bolt stung at her arm, her skin prickling painfully, and adrenaline took over and made her run faster. Sora glanced to the monster, and knew it didn’t have too much strength left, with those Dark particles still seeping out of its wounds.

She kept running. One by one, the bolts tried to hit, but more often than not they petered out after too long and left scorched marks in the sand. When she could, Sora struck—a knee, a leg, the arms again, wherever she could reach as more gashes formed in its skin.

And all around them both, small pieces of the island they were on broke away and were sucked into that portal in the sky.

The monster fell to its scarred knees, and summoned more purple lights to its hand, the magic crackling with power as the monster held its opened palm towards the portal above, charging with energy.

The ground shook again as the monster closed its fist around the magic, light blazing out between its spidery fingers, and smacked its fist to the earth as another portal just like the one Riku had summoned formed just below. Out crawled those dark creatures Sora had seen earlier, clawing at the sand and the leaves and whatever they could reach, moving towards her.

Sora leapt to the portal, the keyblade ready in her hand, and she swung blindly and kept swinging wherever she felt the keyblade make contact. She could hear the creatures dispersing when sliced, the sound just like a burst of air, and she dared open her eyes after a moment to see the portal fading away.

The monster’s fist was still held towards the ground as it swayed in its spot. Now was her chance.

Sora climbed onto its gargantuan fist and ran up its arm, stabbing the keyblade into its wounded flesh as leverage to climb up when the trek got steep. Behind her, more of that Darkness seeping out marked her path.

She had managed to climb onto its shoulder now. The monster had started to raise the arm she had climbed up on and reached to fling her off with the other arm, its face turned towards her. Sora grabbed the hilt of the keyblade and tilted it upwards, towards the monster’s eyes.

She could tell when the keyblade hit, leaving a long ugly tear into the face, and now neither of the monster’s eyes were glowing anymore. It was dead.

By now, Sora felt herself falling along with the monster’s body towards the ground and jumped off at the last moment before contact. The monster’s body never touched the ground, and it was sucked into the portal, its gaze now beady black.

She held on for dear life to a piece of wooden rubble that remained, as the portal glowered angrily far above and intensified in strength. Sora was now upside-down and still holding onto the rubble, the keyblade gone from her grip and who knows where. She wondered if she’d get it back. Her hands were aching from the fight and trying to hold on to the boards, splinters piercing the pads of her fingers.

The portal redoubled its strength and she screamed as she fell upwards.

And once more, everything went black.


 

ILLUSTRATION(S) - RIKU AND SORA

“I’m not afraid of the Darkness, Sora. And you shouldn’t be either. Come with me.” Despite what he had said, Riku was afraid.

Chapter Text

S O R A

 

Far above the rooftops of Traverse Town, one small yellow star was extinguished. And far below the rooftops, unnoticed amidst empty crates and barrels, a girl slept.

Sora came to at the sound of small footsteps clambering at the ground towards her. She had thought for a moment that it was the creatures she had fought coming back for her, but it turned out to be a dog instead. The dog licked at her cheek, waking her up more, and Sora sleepily glanced at it.

It didn’t look like any dog she’d ever seen before, even if it behaved just alike, with its wagging tail and tongue lolling out of its mouth. It looked more like a cartoon.

“What a dream…” Sora sleepily trailed off, thinking herself to be in another dream where she’d run around with the keyblade and visit strange worlds with stranger inhabitants, this dog presumably one of them. Sora closed her eyes again.

And then the dog shoved at her. That woke her up for good this time.

“This isn’t a dream!” She yelped, and finally looked around.

It appeared that she was in an alleyway of some sort. It looked not unlike the streets of Destiny Islands, with the same friendly glow of streetlights, but whereas the islands had pavement for roads, this place had cobblestone. The buildings looked to be made of wood with mortar walls, just like the houses out of a fairy tale. Here and there hung rows of string lights that glowed against the night sky. Which, as Sora looked, seemed much emptier of stars than the sky she knew from the islands that blazed with countless lights. Here, there was only a few dozen at best that fitfully blinked above.

Wherever she was, this certainly wasn’t Destiny Islands.

Which meant…she was on another world.

Sora stumbled to her feet and peered down at the dog, who had continued to watch her with its tail still wagging. Now that she looked, Sora could see that it wore a green collar.

“Do you know where we are?” She asked. Sora figured some of the animals in her dreams of other worlds could talk, so presumably this one could too.

But it didn’t reply. Instead, the dog gave one last wag of its tail and scampered off down the alley and out of sight. She called after it to no avail.

Sora glanced around the alleyway again. Other than that dog, she was the only one here. Her first thought was of her friends—Did Riku and Kairi make it off-world too? Or could they have…

No. She wouldn’t think about that. Riku and Kairi were both among the most capable people she knew, they had to have made it out safely.

Her second thought was of that keyblade she’d had. It wasn’t anywhere in the alley she could see, and Sora figured it probably got lost in the wreckage of the play island with that fight. She couldn’t quell the small tinge of regret she felt for losing it.

With nothing else to do, Sora wandered out of the alleyway towards where she had seen that dog went. The dog was long gone, but what greeted her instead was a town square of some sort, with more of those fairy tale buildings whose rooftops touched to the sky. Crooked streetlights lit the faces of the few people that were around, revealing a number of melancholy expressions. Storefront lights helped illuminate the rest of the square. And along the far wall, over a giant door, glowed a sign that read ‘Traverse Town’.

Turning around, Sora caught sight of a brightly lit sign marked ‘Accessory Shop’. And with one last glance around the town square and its inhabitants, she decided to try the shop for information about this place instead. It seemed more inviting.

The door opened with a small creak, and as Sora stepped inside she saw small rows of jewelry in display cases around the room. In one corner, in front of a wall of more jewelry displays, sat a small couch and footstool. In another corner sat an extinguished fireplace.

“Hey there, how can I help—Aw, it’s only a kid.”

It was an older man that spoke, with blonde hair pushed back by a pair of goggles. He was hardly the sort of person you’d expect to find running an accessory shop. His gruff demeanor reminded Sora more of the mechanics and ship hands that worked in the harbors back on the islands, and he looked like he’d fit right in among them.

“I’m not a kid!” She protested, going to the counter. “And the name’s Sora!”

“Okay, okay, simmer down. So why the long face, Sora? You lost or somethin’?” The toothpick in his mouth shook up and down as he talked.

“No!” Sora reflexively insisted, but then reconsidered. It wasn’t the brightest idea to refuse to be straightforward with someone you sought to get help from. “Well, maybe. I saw the sign outside said ‘Traverse Town’, but where are we exactly?”

“Huh?” His brows knitted together. “Well, you’re in the accessory shop.”

“Okay...?”

“And you’re in Traverse Town.”

“I got that part, gramps! I meant if we were on another world or not!”

“Oi! Don’t call me ‘gramps’, the name’s Cid!” He huffed. “Anyway, I’m not sure what you’re talkin’ about with that. Why don’t you tell me what you mean, exactly?”

Sora decided to start from the beginning. About the islands and her and her friends’ raft plan, the coming storm and how she’d left when she saw it brewing and threatening to destroy their work. About Kairi and Riku, and how she was looking for them. And finally, about the keyblade, and the shadows that she had encountered in that fight on the play island.

“Well, this sure ain’t Destiny Islands.” Cid finally responded. “Traverse Town is a catchall sort of place. Newcomers arrive all the time just like you, from all sorts of worlds. Try looking around to see if your friends made it off okay.”

“Sounds like a plan, gramps.” Sora teased as she went to the door, snorting at his peeved expression.

“I’m no gramps, kid!”

“Not a kid!” She reminded him as the door closed behind her.

“Oh yeah? I’ll stop calling you ‘kid’ when you stop calling me ‘gramps’—Ah, she can’t even hear me.” Cid sighed to himself in the empty shop. On the far wall, a clock ticked, making the only sound in the room.

“These newcomers are getting too young, and I’m getting too old for this.” He murmured sadly and turned to walk out the archway behind him. “Better tell Leon and Yuffie ‘bout that keyblade so they can watch out for her.”

 


 

 

R I K U

 

He awoke on a cold, rough surface.

The first thing Riku noticed of his surroundings was the sound of water. Any resident of Destiny Islands knew the sound of the waves, but this didn’t sound likes waves at all. Nor did it sound like the babbling of a brook, or a river, or even the quiet laps of a pond. If he had to guess, it sounded closer to the constant bellow of a waterfall, but it didn’t quite match that either.

Riku opened his eyes. As it turns out, the sound was coming from waterfalls all around him, but the water rushed upwards against gravity, making for an oddly reversed imitation of the sound he knew. He stumbled to his feet and immediately regretted it. His skin prickled, his arms and legs ached, and there was a crick in his neck from how he slept. Riku held a hand to his head for a moment to try and stifle the dizziness.

“Where…am I?”

There was no response but the sound of the falls.

Riku saw that the surface he had come to upon was some sort of a broken piece of pavement that floated above the water far below. And all around hovered similar platforms of broken-off roads, with large slabs of ice between them in the air. Beside him was the wooden sword he had sparred with for so long, lying forgotten.

When Riku opened the portal below him, he hadn’t had any destination in mind. His only objective was to get away and get to another world. And the moment he opened his eyes he knew he did exactly that. Wherever he had ended up, it didn’t look to be anywhere remotely resembling the islands. The only similarity Riku could see was the sky: It was tired, orange, the last few dregs of daylight before night’s curtain fell on everything. But whereas the islands’ sunsets still seemed optimistic, promising a dawn after the dusk, the glow of this place felt final. Like the sun was still fighting a perpetual battle before it would succumb for good. Riku couldn’t explain how he knew.

If he had managed to make it off the islands, did Sora? Or Kairi?

Riku couldn’t see them anywhere. Not on his platform, nor the others around him, when they floated low enough for him to see.

“Sora?” He whipped around, eyes darting to and fro. “Kairi?”

Nobody answered.

“I’m not afraid of the Darkness, Sora.” He had said, “And you shouldn’t be either. Come with me.”

But Sora did not reach him in time, and Kairi was who knows where.

Riku had escaped alone.

Back on Destiny Islands, there is a legend that goes along with the star-shaped fruit that grows on the trees. The paopu fruit.

Nobody was certain as to how the legend itself came about. Some argued that the first islanders saw how the stars in the trees mimicked the stars in the sky and thought that two people eating the same fruit could help them navigate their destinies so that they stayed together, just as the stars in the sky navigated them back homeward. Others argued that the fruit was the stars in the sky, once. That they had fallen to the ground in a great shower of shooting stars during the very first days of the islands and took root, and if two people shared a fruit from the trees those stars had become, that their destinies would combine into one because the stars that fell sought to recombine back into one.

Either way, the message was the same: Share this, and you’d never be apart. Share this and no matter how horrible things could get, worse could never become worst because at least the two of you would have each other.

Kairi wasn’t here, but she was the smartest and had the most common sense of all three of them. Kairi was able to find her way, he knew, and he’d try and find her as soon as he could. Apart from that, he remembered a distant time when neither he nor Sora even knew she existed, and if he could make it then, he could make it now. As selfish as that felt to think about, it was the truth.

But Sora…

There had never really been a time when Sora wasn’t there. Even for those months when Riku had tried to avoid her to avoid getting hurt, there was still always that possibility that he could just go to see her anytime. And it was a comfort.

Riku knew Sora would be okay. She could beat Wakka, Tidus, and Selphie in spars almost as easily as he could, and even when he wasn’t going easy on her—because he would always feel guilty if he managed to hurt her in their spars, even when she told him not to be—it could still be a struggle sometimes to win.

But he had never truly gone without her in all his life, and the idea of doing so terrified him.

Riku shivered.

He’d never thought much about the romantic implications of the paopu fruit legend, that was more of Selphie’s thing. But if they all shared a paopu fruit, would they have come here with him? Would they have been able to fulfill their dream of traveling different worlds together and finding Kairi’s home world?

He sank to his knees.

“I should have tried that paopu fruit thing.” Riku murmurs.

There is no response this time, either. There is no sound around but the backwards rush of waterfalls, and the quiet rustle of the boy raising one hand to clutch at his chest. At his Heart.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

After leaving the accessory shop Sora had wandered through the First District calling out to her friends, while keeping an eye out to see if her keyblade had ended up somewhere nearby. She hadn’t had any luck, nor had she had any luck with asking around if anyone in the square had seen anyone matching her descriptions. She’d thought she had seen Tidus of all people at one point, but it turned out to be some other kid that looked uncannily like him apart from having brown hair instead of blond and a slightly different outfit. Sora had excitedly gone up to him, but then realized her mistake as soon as he turned around when she said hello. He wasn’t able to help her much, but he did mention that there were two oddly dressed newcomers like her wandering around in the Second District, and it gave her hope.

She walked up the far steps towards the entrance to the Second District. The moment she had opened the doors she had hoped to be greeted with the sight of her friends, but it turned out all that was waiting for her was a fight.

The first thing she saw was a man hurriedly running past her on the balcony of the plaza she had walked in on, his face twisted with panic. Before she could try and see what had happened to him the man collapsed to the ground.

“Hey--!” Sora called out, before trying to race towards him to help. But she was too late. A glowing thing shaped like a heart glided out of the man’s chest with his face still frozen in fear as he watched before his body faded away. Sora froze, too, as she saw the glowing heart-like thing float slowly through the air, and its radiance was soon extinguished as a black wave overcame it. A black wave just like the ones on the play island.

The darkened heart started to shift, morph, until it no longer resembled a heart at all. It turned into a small humanoid creature that uncurled itself from the fetal position and landed on the balcony with gnarled feet, and revealed that it had become just the same sort of being as the ones that infested the play island before Sora left through that portal. It blinked two small glowing yellow eyes at her, and Sora could see that instead of the simple black appearance the other shadows she saw had, this one instead wore a helmet of some sort and had a red heart-shaped emblem on its chest, crossed with two barbed vines.

She thought the creature might come after her just like its kind she had encountered before, but it appeared to not be interested in her in the least. The creature scuttled off, its steps clacking on the pavement, and disappeared into a small black portal.

Sora ran forward into the space where the man had fallen, and the creature had appeared, but both were gone by that point. It was as if they were never there.

She shuffled the incident to the back of her mind as she saw black shadows moving in the corner of her eye. It was more of those plain black creatures she had seen, and compared to the other one that had just appeared and disappeared, these ones were moving towards her. Fast.

“It’s those creatures from the play island!” Sora jerked her head around to assess how many there were.

Sora had already slid into her sparring stance before she realized she had nothing to fight with. The keyblade was gone, or so she had thought. Hardly a second later it landed in her outstretched hand as if it never left, and she looked at it with momentary surprise before looking back to the shadows with a scowl.

Sora twisted forward with the weapon held in front of her, its teeth facing out against the creatures, and she yelled with every lunge she took. Every time she landed a hit on the creatures, she saw the keyblade gave off twinkles of light with a tinkling sound. The creatures, once hit, gave those same small gusty noises just as the other ones had back on the island. And just like the behemoth she had fought, small waves of black dust seeped out of their wounds.

One lunged for her, its feet clawing against the cobblestone, and Sora had heard the noise before she saw it readying to attack and it helped her to brace for it. It collided uselessly with the guard of her keyblade, its small nails leaving scrapes on her forearm as it tried to gain a grip on her.

Sora shook the keyblade to get it off and flung down the weapon so that the weight of its end bludgeoned the creature. It made no death rattle as it was struck, silently dissipating into nothing with hardly a breath. A small glowing heart spiraled out of it into the sky, just the same sort of heart as the one that landed out of the man minutes earlier.

She did a twisting sort of pirouette move after that and managed to strike two of them at once. Sparkles rained out of the keyblade around her as it made contact and it mixed with that dark dust still seeping out of the remaining creatures.

One had managed to grab onto her jacket and Sora could feel it trying to crawl up her back, and as she hurriedly took off her jacket to twist it around above her head, the creature holding on then let go and bowled into one of its companions with another breezy huff. The incident appeared to be the last straw for the creature that was smacked into, and it dissolved into the night with another glowing heart winding towards the sky. That made two.

The one that had hit it stumbled to keep standing, and Sora noticed this quickly, taking advantage of the weakness by hitting the creature twice in short order and allowing herself a moment to watch with exhilaration as it sank to a kneel and crumbled to nothing. Another heart flew to the sky along with the others.

But her celebration wasn’t to last long. Before she realized it, the last two creatures had lunged for her simultaneously and latched onto her arms.

“Ack!” Sora angrily cried out as they tried to swipe at her, leaving small cuts as they went. She pulled her shoulders close and flung her arms out awkwardly, trying to fling them off without letting go of the keyblade at the same time. One fell off, its grip not as tight as the other’s, who only fug in further. But with one hand free Sora was able to reach out and grab the remaining creature and hissed in pain as its claws left marks and tore her sleeve a little. She flung it to the ground hard and used the flat of her keyblade as a bludgeon again repeatedly on the one that hadn’t let go easily. Sora didn’t stop until it finally vanished with a last feeble poofing sound with another heart escaping.

And with that, there was only one left. Sora turned to lock eyes with the remaining creature, and raced to hit it, but it had done a strange motion where it became two-dimensional and sunk to the floor and she missed. Sora backed away, having a feeling it would follow, and once she saw it had risen out of the ground again in the corner of her sight she twisted around quickly to dart forward in a lunge, a move she had learned from Riku back on the islands, and was satisfied to see the flat tip of the keyblade strike the creature’s head.

She knew it didn’t have long now, the creature seemed to be made more of black smoke than any solid matter at this point. Its step wavered, and they both lunged for each other once more.

“Come on!” She goaded the creature, and landed one, two, three strikes in quick succession, starlight blazing out of the keyblade every time it landed. And with that, the last creature disappeared, and one last heart glided to meet its friends in the sky.

Sora watched the hearts fade out of view for a moment, after making sure more of the creatures didn’t appear. Their pink glow went higher, higher, until they disappeared among the few stars she could see.

And then she looked down at the keyblade.

Sora thought she had lost it after the play island fight against that giant thing, that it had gotten sucked into the portal and spat out somewhere else. But thankfully it managed to return right when she needed it. Sora outstretched her hand for a moment, watching it vanish with a blaze of light and return with another every time she flung out her fingers.

Sora felt her grin nearly split her face. She tested it for a couple moments longer, watching the keyblade disappear, reappear, and disappear again. She tried it with her other hand and toyed around with having the keyblade vanish from one extended hand and reappear in the other, back and forth.

“That is so neat.” Sora laughed, making it continue its dance from hand to hand.

“You’re right, that is pretty neat.” A new voice spoke from behind her, and Sora quickly looked over to see a slightly older girl watching her. She was wearing an odd outfit, with a yellow scarf and a blue headband tied around her head that swayed in the breeze. The girl hoisted a large shuriken over her shoulder and gave Sora a grin. “But you know what would be even better? If you gave that to me: The Great Ninja Yuffie.”

“No way, I don’t care who you are! I just got this back!” Sora held onto the keyblade with an iron grip and tilted it away defensively.

Yuffie sighed. “Oh man, I thought this would be easy.”

Yuffie then reared back and charged the large shuriken with a bluish glow and hurled it towards Sora. Sora braced, expecting it to hit, but then opened her eyes when she never felt it make contact and instead passed by harmlessly. Sora guffawed at that.

“You missed—Ack!” She exclaimed when the shuriken looped back around in a boomerang motion and hit her in the back. The sharp points of it stung.

“Good ninjas don’t miss, kid. And I’m great!” Yuffie retorted as she darted in a wide arc around Sora to gain some distance. Once she got out of range, Sora could see she was withdrawing more shuriken out of her waistpouch, and she ran to get closer before Yuffie could throw them.

She wasn’t successful in closing the distance entirely, but she did manage to get nearby enough to where the shuriken wouldn’t hurt so badly if they did manage to land on her. Which some of them did, but Sora was able to keep her eyes on the rest enough to strike them away.

“I’m,” Sora started as she battered one shuriken away with her keyblade with a metallic clamor. “Not,” Sora growled as another one landed, the tip sticking into her leg slightly. “A,” Chink! “Kid!” She yelled as she managed to meet the last shuriken with her keyblade and redirected it back at Yuffie.

The shuriken being redirected back at her and landing dazed Yuffie for a moment, and it was enough. Sora closed the remaining distance and swung her keyblade blindly, trying to fend off the girl and end the fight for good.

Sora could tell it weakened Yuffie, but it wasn’t enough. She reached her large shuriken and grabbed it up before Sora could try kicking it away. She charged it again after jumping for more distance.

“This is gonna hurt!” Yuffie warned as she tossed it.

Sora tried to keep an eye on it, but it was difficult as Yuffie had used the distraction to come in close and throw more smaller shuriken from the shortened range. Sora whirled around quickly to fend her off, landing more blows, but this time the bursts of light coming off the keyblade kept her from being able to see the glow of the large shuriken as it flew towards her.

With a dull clanging noise, it smacked Sora on the back of the head. And as she passed out the last thing Sora saw was Yuffie’s boots stepping closer as she kneeled down to inspect the damage.

“That’s some fancy footwork you had there, kid. Almost as fancy as mine.” Yuffie angled her head a little and saw that Sora had completely passed out. And as she picked up the dropped shurikens and the keyblade, she remarked, while hoisting Sora up over her shoulder, “Still can’t believe I beat Leon to it and found you first. He must be slipping.”

 


 

 

R I K U

 

“And what do we have here?”

Riku heard her before he saw her. He looked up to the other platforms and spotted a tall woman with improbably green skin looking back at him with an inscrutable smile, and watched as she entered through one Dark portal she summoned and exited from another that opened up right in front of him. A raven cawed from far off and flew past the rocks and chunks of ice to alight upon her staff.

She looked like a tall dark flame, with the tattered black sleeves of her robes akin to the ragged twists of a wildfire. He could see glimpses of another set of robes underneath the black, luxurious purple and maroon fabrics peeking out that appeared much more carefully tailored and matched her makeup. The collar of her robes jutted out in two tips like spikes, and atop her head was a horned headdress that gave her a devilish appearance. She gripped a gold staff taller than him with one hand, and the raven that sat upon it dug its talons into the small green orb that capped the end of it. The bird angled its head and peered down at him with a glare.

She would have looked imposing even in the bright daylight of Destiny Islands. Yet in this world, with the dying light of its sun, she looked downright ominous. Riku’s small measure of control over the Darkness given to him by the hooded figure had made it so that he could especially feel the Darkness and power roiling off of her like an avalanche. But even without that ability, her presence had a gravity he couldn’t put into words.

“Who are you?” Riku spat, shifting so that his stance was more guarded. The painted smile she wore got even wider.

“I am Maleficent, and this raven is my familiar, Diablo. And may I ask for yours?”

‘No, you may not’ is what he wanted to say, but the figure’s words from earlier came back to him. He couldn’t afford to push away anyone that could help him. Riku flexed his fingers, remembering the feeling of power at long last. Freedom.

Riku may not have had his friends by his side but at least he was free from the islands. He had power, even just a little bit. And now he might have found someone that was willing to help just like the figure did. Appearances weren’t always everything, maybe he could trust her. Somewhat.

“Riku.” He answered and watched her smile get wider still. “What is this place? Where are we?”

“A place no one ever arrives at by chance. And as for ‘where’…” Maleficent trailed off, and swept one arm upwards towards the floating platforms. Riku could feel a wave of something in the air as the rocks and ice ceased hovering up and down and instead parted to either side, revealing a vast twisting citadel that looked like some sprawling beast both organic and inorganic. Its visage was alive with capillaries of copper and steel that puffed out alternating plumes of Dark smoke. And on the front of it, facing them, was emblazoned a giant symbol shaped quite like a heart, but the end of which curved into three points and it was crossed in the middle with two barbed lines.

“Welcome to Hollow Bastion, Riku. My place of power, and the home of the heartless. Let me show you around.”

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“Come on, lazy bum.” A familiar voice spoke to her. “Wake up.”

It was the third time she had passed out in the past twenty-four hours. Sora really hoped it wouldn’t become a pattern.

Sora slowly rose so that she was sitting upright, holding a hand against her head so that her vision could clear. She wasn’t sure where she had woken up this time either, but it looked like she was in a bedroom of some sort. Thankfully whoever had found her when she passed out once again seemed to at least have the good graces to put her in a proper bed. The cuts and aches she had sustained from her fight against the creatures and that girl still smarted, and she groaned. And then Sora looked over to see Kairi.

She stared for a moment in surprise.

“You okay?” Kairi asked.

“I guess?” Sora supposed. She was awake, at least, and not in the middle of a fight anymore. That, and she had managed to reunite with at least one of her friends.

Kairi looked her over for a moment.

“Those creatures that attacked you are after the keyblade.” She continued, “But it’s your Heart they really want, because you wield the keyblade.”

Sora was still groggy from being knocked out cold, and she reasoned that that must be why not too much of what Kairi said made sense. The creatures following her trying to get the keyblade sounded logical enough, but they were after her heart? Like the organ? What could they want with that?

She dimly remembered one far off memory a few years after Kairi arrived on the islands, where she told her and Riku about being able to see parts of people’s hearts and some sort of light in them, to mixed reactions. Sora had thought it cool, like magic, but Riku had been cynical of it. He had started to be cynical of a few things around then, Sora remembered, like how he told her Santa Claus wasn’t real. Either way Kairi had never really brought it up again.

And then Sora remembered those glowing heart-shaped things that had come out of that man after he collapsed, and that had come out of those creatures just like on the play islands. That must be closer to what Kairi referred to.

Sora winced. Did Kairi run into those things?

Sora looked to her then. She seemed fine, thankfully.

“I’m just so glad that you’re okay, Kairi.”

“Kairi?” She replied in a now unfamiliar voice. “Who are you talking about? I told you, I’m the Great Ninja Yuffie.”

Sora blinked hard and rubbed at her eyes. When she opened them again she saw the formerly red hair had turned into black, and her outfit shifted. Yuffie resembled Kairi in the face, but not much. Maybe Sora wasn’t so okay after all.

They both heard a snort come from the corner of the room.

“Seems like things are worse than you thought.” The man spoke. Sora saw that he wore leather garments and a multitude of belts, with a large sword that looked halfway like a gun at the handle leaning against his side. One long scar ran down the middle of his face. “Wait until Aerith and Cid come in to find you scrambled the keyblade master’s head with a concussion.”

Yuffie paled.

“Well, I’m the great ninja! I overdo everything! It’s not worth doing if it’s not worth overdoing.” She nervously laughed and looked back and forth between them. “But you are okay, kid, right? Right?”

Sora pouted. “I told you I’m not a kid.”

“See, Squall? She’s perfectly fine.”

“It’s Leon.” He corrected her with a huff.

“So, the keyblade.” Sora looked to the doorframe of the room, against which the blade rested. This whole situation still didn’t quite feel real, even if she’d been having dreams of fighting with it for several months now.

Yuffie looked thankful for the change in topic.

“Yeah. We had to get it away from you to shake off the heartless. Those creatures that attacked you.” She clarified at Sora’s blank look. “It turns out that’s how they were tracking you.”

This time, Leon stepped in to talk.

“It was the only way to conceal your Heart from them. But it won’t work for long.” He reached over to grab the keyblade and held it aloft. “Still, it’s hard to believe you of all people are the chosen one.”

Leon did one long swipe with the keyblade to test it, and it made a small swooping noise as it cut through the air. And then the keyblade disappeared into a flash of light, and Sora felt momentary panic at thinking it disappeared again, until it reappeared in another flash of light in her hand.

“Well, I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.” Leon finished, and Sora scowled at him.

“Why don’t both of you start making sense! What’s going on here?” She looked to both of them. “Seriously, I was trying to look for my friends before those creatu—those heartless and ‘the greatest ninja ever’ here decided to pick a fight. And now I’m here in some room listening to you two drop a bomb on me telling me that I’m the chosen one, which sounds cool except all it seems to mean is that those things will follow me everywhere because of one of my organs? What gives?”

Yuffie gave a low whistle.

“Seems things are worse than both of us thought.” Leon sighed.

“I know Cid gave us the shorthand, but why don’t you tell us what you know first?” Yuffie suggested. “Maybe we can fill in the blanks from there.”

She gave them the same spiel she had given him, giving the basic gist on her friends and talking about Destiny Islands, and their plan to leave them. About the door that Riku opened, and the creatures that infested the play island, and how she had found herself with what looked like a giant key in her hand before that behemoth heartless appeared. And finally, how she had awoken here, and was trying to reunite with Kairi and Riku.

“Alright. Well.” Yuffie finally spoke up, “First things first, you’re right in that you landed on another world. And I’m not really sure how to tell you this, but the fact that you landed here in Traverse Town doesn’t exactly bode well for your islands.”

“What do you mean?”

“She means that you’re here because your world fell to the Darkness.”

“Wait, Riku mentioned the Darkness, too! And so did that guy with the hood!” Sora glanced at them both. “And what do you mean the world fell to it? I thought just the play island was invaded.”

Yuffie and Leon shared a look for a moment.

“That door you said Riku mentioned opening, I think that’s how the heartless were able to invade your world.” Yuffie started, her face drooping with pity. “But the guy with the hood must have had a hand in it too.”

“How do you know?”

“Because our world fell to the heartless too, ten years ago.” Leon said as a scowl overtook his already dour expression. He looked at an unspecified point in the room away from them both. “We were young when it happened, and we only managed to find our way here because Cid saw the writing on the wall and got us out on his gummi ship before things took a turn for the worst. All around the city those heartless appeared, and people started to disappear, and we heard from what few newcomers found their way here after us about how black waves of Darkness overtook the entire world. Not long after that the news reached us that our homeworld was no more.”

The entire world. Then that meant…

“So all of Destiny Islands is gone? Not just the play island?” Sora felt her panic rise in her voice. “What about my mom? Or Riku’s? Or Kairi’s parents?”

Neither of them answered her, but their looks of pity were enough. She looked down at the keyblade and her grip on it hardened so much her fingertips began to redden. Sora tried not to cry.

“There’s still hope.” Yuffie said, and Sora looked up and saw her walking over to sink onto the bed next to her through blurry vision. She wrapped an arm around Sora, who realized that her vision cleared suddenly because the tears had finally started to fall, and internally cursed at herself for it.

“Hope? How?”

“The heartless are lured by the Darkness in people’s Hearts, and you can use the keyblade to stop them. That way you can keep anyone else from losing their loved ones, too. But it goes a little deeper than that.”

After Yuffie, Leon spoke up, saying, “Every world has a keyhole, and the heartless seek these keyholes to cause the worlds’ downfall. The keyblade has the ability to seal the keyholes so the heartless can’t get to them, and the worlds will be safe from falling to Darkness. Have you ever heard of a man named Ansem?”

Sora shook her head.

“He was well known for his research into the heartless, and Hearts in general. Ansem recorded all of his findings in a series of reports, and while we’re not sure exactly how much information was held in them, it had to be a significant amount. Somewhere in their pages there could be a way to fix everything.”

“Could I see it?”

Yuffie answered, “If we had them, we’d be happy to let you look. But the problem is that their pages got scattered everywhere across lots of worlds. But another thing you should know is that for every world that falls, pieces of it scatter across other worlds. And that could mean that somewhere out there is your mom, and your friends.”

“Okay,” Sora reflected over what they said, and felt her grip on the keyblade loosen as she did so. Her thoughts turned optimistic, but then she thought of something else. “What about Destiny Islands? Could there be a way to bring them back?”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Leon answered.

“But what about my home?” Sora looked to him. “My world?”

“Just because your world fell, doesn’t mean your home did too.” Leon said, and she angled her head slightly in confusion. “When we lost our world, we thought that was the end. That we’d lost everything. But we didn’t lose each other. Yuffie, Aerith, Cid, and I—We may have lost the house that we lived in, and we may have lost our world, but we still had the family we made. We were still able to come together to rebuild the home we had here, in Traverse Town, along with everyone else that found themselves here. If you find your mom and your friends, you can come back here and we’ll find a place for you too.”

The room fell quiet then as they all processed what he said.

Sora felt an upswelling of hope in her once more, for good this time. He was right: Maybe home didn’t always have to be a place. Sometimes it was a person. People.

“Wow, Squall, that might have been the most I’ve ever heard you speak at once.” Yuffie teased him gently, but Sora could tell she was genuinely happy with him. “And the sappiest.”

“It’s Leon,” he repeated, and shrugged. “And it’s true. Let’s go join Aerith, she should be there by now with the other two that were looking for the keyblade.”

“Looking for me?” Sora asked, but any response Leon would have given was cut short by Yuffie’s shout.

“Leon!” She pointed to the empty corner of the room, where a dark portal just like the one on the play island had appeared. Sora readied her keyblade as Leon hoisted his gunblade into the air above him.

Out of the portal spawned a heartless just like the one that the man who collapsed earlier seemed to turn into. It chattered menacingly and turned its glowing yellow gaze to them.

“Yuffie, go!” Leon barked at her, and Yuffie darted through the door into the room next to theirs. Sora heard an outcry as she did so, but she didn’t look to see what happened. “Sora, let’s go!”

Before the heartless could attack, Leon grabbed it by the helmet roughly and threw it through the window with one hand, shattering it. It flew out into the night in a shower of broken glass and Leon pursued, with Sora following right behind.

“Don’t bother with the small fry,” Leon instructed her over his shoulder as they landed roughly on the pavement outside and were quickly surrounded by identical heartless. “Find the leader. Let’s go!”

They both ran through the entrance to the Second District just beside the hotel they were in and quickly split up. Leon went down another alley, slashing through heartless as he went, and Sora kept running until she reached the neon lights and concrete structures of the Third District. Heartless sprouted up around every direction, and she swiped away at the ones directly in her path, but she mostly ignored them.

Sora looked up when she heard a commotion from above, thinking it to be the heartless she had to find, but instead it looked to be…a duck and a dog?

She paused for a moment, thinking back to the few glimpses she remembered of her dreams, and quickly realized that if she didn’t move they’d fall right on top of her.

Sora broke into a run, her sight alternating between her surroundings and the sky, but it wasn’t enough.

“Woah, wo-o-a—Oof!” Sora exclaimed, as they crashed atop her.

They all took a moment to get their bearings straight, stars still sputtering in their eyes, before the two looked to the keyblade in Sora’s outstretched grip. And then they spoke excitedly in unison.

“The key!”

 


 

R I K U

 

“Tell me what you know.” Maleficent requested, after they made their way through another Dark portal she had summoned and found themselves on the outer walkway of the citadel entrance.

Riku looked up to the overly large stone doors that formed the main entryway, and the carvings of thorned vines crawling up and down their exterior. The Dark portal had left the feeling of pinpricks on his skin and caused a dull ache in his Heart to form, both of which Riku ignored.

Without any better ideas, Riku had told her almost everything. Almost. He told her about his and his friends’ plan to leave Destiny Islands and how they had gotten separated in the end, and about the hooded figure that had come and offered him a way out. And finally, Riku told her the figure’s words on Darkness and Light.

Maleficent chuckled at that.

“Balance, hmm?”

“Yes?” Riku gave her a questioning look.

They both walked along the passage from the central keep of Hollow Bastion that she had just shown him, and were now going to see the bailey of the citadel. All along their path various forms of heartless scuttled about, unconcerned with them. The entire citadel seemed to be poorly lit, with torches of green flames as the central means of lighting. The main theme of the décor continued to revolve around motifs of thorned vines and roses, and Riku could see evidence of it nearly anywhere he looked.

“No matter. I know of whom you speak, and he is not wrong when he says Darkness is strength. Nor is he wrong when he speaks of the need for balance with it. Too much Darkness, and it will consume your Heart, just as too much Light will consume your mind. I have known many a fool that gave all of themselves to the Darkness and were worse off for it, and that’s if they managed to survive. I would say you should take care to make sure you don’t end up the same, but I can tell you’re a smart boy.”

Riku didn’t let whatever flattery he felt at the compliment leave any cracks in his guarded exterior.

“Where is he? The man with the hood that I met?”

“If it is the man I am thinking of, he doesn’t stay in one place for long. Nor does he seem to stay in one time for very long.”

“He said we would meet again though.” Riku was glad he succeeded at keeping any wistful tone out of his voice. The man felt familiar, and Riku couldn’t stifle the small feeling that perhaps they had made some sort of a bond in their short time together. Apart from that, Riku had wanted to thank him for giving him freedom and helping him take his first step.

“Then I am sure you shall.” Maleficent responded. “But he is not the only one that can help you gain back the glory you are looking for.”

Riku looked to her just as confused as before, but with a degree of excitement this time.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that I can help you find greatness too. For a price.”

He bristled at that. Maleficent raised an elegantly arched brow at his glare.

“Nothing is free, Riku. I know that man didn’t help you for free, even if you think he did. Light, Dark, everything has a price. The only difference with me is that I shall not ask you for a pound of flesh.” She gave him another smile, and it was every bit as enigmatic as the first one she gave him when he first encountered her outside. Diablo cawed from where he perched on her shoulder. “Instead, I’ll merely ask you to work with me. That’s all.”

“Really?”

“Indeed.” Maleficent nodded, the horns on her head swaying with the motion. She continued, “Work with me and I will give you room and board in my castle, right here in the bailey, and instruct you on how to forge a weapon from your Darkness that will rival any other in strength.” As she said this, her eyes flickered to the wooden sword he clutched in his hand. “If you do well, I will bestow on you a great number of other powers of the Dark, and you will be formidable.”

Riku wanted strength ever since he was very small. It was his dream, to have enough strength to keep from being afraid and to keep anyone else he cared about from being afraid too.

He walked a few paces away to look out of one of the few windows in this place, to the light of the perpetually setting sun. Somewhere out there was Sora and Kairi. Whatever jealousy he felt before, they were still his friends. And they could be in trouble.

A weapon, a corner of his mind whispers from the Darkness. Riku remembers the dreams, remembers the closeness of companions and the old weight of a keyblade in his hand. He remembers the man he met so many years ago on the shore of Destiny Islands, who promised him a keyblade and never fulfilled his end of the oath. But maybe, Riku thinks as he looks back to Maleficent, that man wasn’t the only one who could promise him such things. Maybe Maleficent was the one he needed to give him back those dreams. And more importantly, to make them into a reality.

Riku thinks of the dreams. And then he thinks of Kairi. And then, finally, he thinks of Sora.

“Alright, I’ll do it. I’ll work with you.”

Maleficent grins for the first time since he met her. It’s a curved, feline expression, and Riku can’t help but feel like a mouse as he watches it. Diablo gave a warbling call that sounded almost like laughter.

“Excellent. I presume you are tired from your journey, so I will show you to your new chambers. Rest well, for in the morning I will give you your first assignment.”

From there, she led him down more hallways, each more winding than the last, before they came upon a large wooden door at the very end.

The location itself was interesting, for it looked like it was part of a relatively untouched area of the castle. The thorned floral motifs were still present, but less so, their only evidence being a small winding vine that was carved into the walls of the hallway. There were still green flames that licked at the torches, that part looked to be constant, but their glow looked to be more yellowed than the flames he saw when they first walked in. As if whatever Dark influence on this place decided to mostly leave this part alone. And compared to downstairs, or many other parts of the place she had shown him, no heartless wandered here. Riku hadn’t seen a single one for a couple of stories now.

She opened the door and he slowly walked inside. After Riku deposited his wooden sword on the bed, as he hadn’t any bags packed and didn’t take anything else with him when he left but the clothes on his back, Riku heard the quiet breeze of her robes as she left and walked back down the hallway. He turned back around and angled his head out the door.

“Hey, Maleficent?”

She stopped, and both her and Diablo angled their heads towards him. The yellow-green flames of the torches left a strange light in their eyes.

“Yes?”

“Why are you helping me so much? With everything?”

What’s in this for you?

“Why, dear boy, I’ve always wanted a son.”

Riku’s face immediately darkened. The sting of the argument he had had was still all too fresh in his memory.

He growled, “I’m not exactly looking for a mother right now.”

She paused for a moment at this and carefully inspected him. Riku remembered the feeling of his mother looking through him, the feeling like he was made of glass. But while his mother did it to look through him towards something else, he got the sense that Maleficent was looking through him into his soul. He could feel his Heart writhe.

“Fair enough, I suppose.” She accepted, and Riku wondered how much of himself she knew. He hadn’t told her anything about his reasoning for leaving the islands, simply that he wanted to get out. But he sensed that she was able to piece together much more than he let on.

Maleficent suggested, “Then how about a fairy godmother?”

“What?” Riku narrowed his eyes. She had to be kidding. “You don’t look like any fairy I’ve ever seen.”

“Appearances can be deceiving.” She started, and Riku could see the shadows on the wall begin to contort behind her, making her look as though she unfurled two bat-like wings though she hadn’t moved at all. The torches began to flicker a little greener and it made for a new hellish light in her eyes.

“I am a fairy quite unlike most others, just as I can tell you are a boy quite unlike most others. But, my child, I assure you I am a fairy just the same.”

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“The key!”

Before any of them could speak on the matter further, the ground began to rumble menacingly. And all around in the Third District, large barriers of stone erected themselves.

It seemed that the heartless had summoned the barriers, as both above and below more of the creatures spawned out of small Dark portals and gathered around. And then, they darted forward towards the three.

Sora got in her familiar sparring stance, and the duck and the dog got in stances of their own. The dog carried a shield, a determined expression crossing his goofy, cartoonish features as he reared back on his two feet. Beside him, the duck brandished a small staff, a similarly fierce look on his face as well.

It was the duck that struck first, giving a small quack as bolts of lightning—Sora did a doubletake at it—sprung from his staff and electrocuted several of the heartless. The action had called together a cluster of the creatures, and Sora took advantage by swinging her keyblade in a wide arc at them, watching with no small measure of satisfaction as a number of the heartless were destroyed immediately. That lightning had done a number on them.

Sora pivoted on her keyblade and did a sliding dash towards two of the heartless that the dog was struggling to keep his shield raised against. She laughed joyfully at how easily she slid around on the ground with the keyblade, small starbursts of light marking her path.

The second she got close enough, Sora swung her keyblade around again and smacked the heartless aside, and the dog gave her a quick thanks for it. From there they both teamed up, the dog raising the shield he carried against more of the creatures that had arrived that raised their claws threateningly as Sora lunged, and kept lunging some more, and with every ‘thwack!’ of her weapon more and more heartless dissipated into Dark smoke.

All around, bursts of fire, ice, and lightning showered down, weakening what few heartless were left before Sora could get her hands on them. She realized that fighting against the heartless now with these two at her side was far easier than earlier, when she had fought them off alone.

It wasn’t long before the last heartless fizzled to nothing with a weary gasping puff, and the three took a short breather, lowering their weapons.

“So, uh, who are you guys? I’m—” Sora began to introduce herself, but was cut short as the ground rumbled again.

“Introductions later,” The duck squawked, raising his staff as high as he could reach and charging it with a glow. “Something’s coming!”

And not a moment later his words came true, as a rattling sound came from far above and got closer.

Sora saw that it looked to be like pieces of an armor, but not for any type of being she could recognize, that fell to the concrete with a deafening clang. She pressed a hand to her ear, which rang angrily with the noise, and as she wrenched her eyes back open she saw the pieces that had fallen begin to come to life and organize themselves into a larger heartless, that same three-pointed heart emblem with the crossing barbed vines in the middle on its chest plate.

The dog gave a startled yelp as another piece of the armor fell from the sky, a round thing with spikes coming out of it and holes on its visor. It fell perfectly onto the chest plate, forming the helmet of the heartless. And then, finally, it turned its unseen eyes to them, the pieces of its body angling themselves independently to do the same.

It was the duck that struck first, with a screeching bolt of electricity fired from his staff. The lightning danced across the metal pieces, creating glowing angry arcs across the pointed claws of the gauntlets that shuddered angrily. Sora ran in a curved path around the armor while it was distracted with the duck, and took the opportunity to strike its back, its greaves, anywhere she could reach. Just as she did with the behemoth on the play island.

For a moment she wondered at how the duck’s lightning spell worked with the metal, and how her keyblade, also looking to be made of mostly metal, didn’t conduct the electricity and spark her since her skin was touching the hilt. Sora figured that was part of how magic worked, since she noticed the dog’s shield didn’t conduct the electricity either. She quickly shoved that thought to the back of her mind with all the rest, as the armor began to move again.

The chest plate and graves stayed relatively stationery, and Sora could see the small slices she’d left in it with the keyblade seep out black smoke. Darkness. And then, she could hear the duck quack angrily as the gauntlets started circling rapidly around the main body as he was smacked back onto his hindquarters.

Sora was safely out of reach for the heartless, but the dog wasn’t, and he yelped as the gauntlets collided with his shield again and again. The duck raised his staff from his spot on the ground, and out of it launched a fireball headed straight for the gauntlets.

It collided, leaving a nearly molten spot in the claws that glowed bright red, and the gauntlets stopped spinning as they instead disconnected from the main body and floated straight for the duck.

Both Sora and the dog ran over to help, striking wherever they could, with more of those scrapes that seeped Darkness forming in the armor’s pieces as they did so. And as one greave finally faded away into smoke, it gave Sora an idea.

“Guys!” She called out to them, and they both looked to her for a moment. “Let’s target one at a time, it’ll be faster to work on it in pieces!”

“You’re right!” The dog shouted.

“Left leg first!” The duck commanded, and they all turned to the remaining greave stomping on the pavement, leaving small cracks and forming shockwaves as it did so.

The dog raised his shield, the duck doing the same with his staff, and Sora matched them with her keyblade before they charged. The greave shuffled back somewhat and then flung itself to try and kick them, but it was no match for the shield. The duck cast some sort of ice spell with an unintelligible shout, judging by the wave of frost that spread over the greave and bonded it to the pavement so that it couldn’t move. It wasn’t long before Sora made short work of the grieve, and it crumbled to Dark dust with a few more slashes of the keyblade.

“Right hand!” The duck ordered, and while Sora could barely make out what he was saying she understood when she saw them heading for the gauntlet. It raised its fingers madly, almost tauntingly, before it joined with its mate and began to try and circle again. Sora wouldn’t have it.

She thrusted the keyblade upwards in attempt to wrench the gauntlet out of its motions forcefully, and it worked. Metal and metal collided with an ear-splitting gong noise that Sora could feel echo through her bones.

“Good thinking, hyuck!” The dog cheered as he brought down the sharper edge of his shield onto one of the gauntlets forcefully. It dissipated as he did so, ending the threat of the circling move it had done with the other. That left only one gauntlet and the middle piece.

The remaining gauntlet vanished soon after the duck started casting a barrage of spells on it, lightning and fire alternating out of his staff. Thereafter, the chestplate rose up, almost out of reach, and tried to circle around.

“Oh no you don’t!” Sora shouted at it and followed. She could see the Dark smoke seeping out of its wounds that it sustained, how its movements were slower and clumsier, and Sora knew it didn’t have much strength left. If she could just land one good hit, it’d be done for.

Adrenaline gave her one last burst of speed, her injuries from this fight and earlier ones going silent as it did so, and Sora gave a running leap. And at the zenith of her jump, her keyblade outstretched, Sora did it.

The teeth of the keyblade tore into the chest plate with a screeching noise, starbursts and sparks angrily sputtering out of the weapon, and the metal started to collapse in on itself. The helmet rolled off and would have squashed Sora, if the dog hadn’t managed to reach her at the last moment and raised his shield against the helmet with one last clanging noise as it collided and fell to the ground. The now mostly collapsed chest plate gave one last rumble and a great burst of light shot out of it, from which a glimmering heart spiraled towards the sky with a chime.

The remaining pieces of armor grew still, and finally dissolved, along with the barriers that rose at the beginning of the fight.

The trio stared after where the heart-shaped gleam went, heaving with exhaustion, and Sora wiped her forehead. The scene that she saw earlier came to mind again.

If that man that collapsed made one of the smaller heartless, she really didn’t want to see what sort of being made that.

“Not too shabby, kid.” Yuffie called out, and Sora looked over to see her and Leon having watched the whole thing.

“I told you,” Sora started, and then decided to let it go. “Ah, forget it. I didn’t beat it by myself, these guys came in and helped me out. Who are you, anyways?” She asked and looked to the duck and the dog.

“I’m Donald Duck, royal magician!” The duck proudly gestured to himself with his staff.

Next the dog spoke up, raising his shield in a wave. “I’m Goofy! And we’ve been looking for you!”

Those were certainly apt names, Sora thought, but didn’t say it aloud.

“You were looking for me?”

They both nodded, and she turned to see Yuffie and Leon having come down to join them.

“They too have been seeking the wielder of the keyblade.” Leon informed.

Yuffie spoke up. “We were going to introduce you three to each other earlier, but obviously we got a little sidetracked.”

“Hey, why don’t you come with us?” Goofy suggested, “We heard you were trying to journey to other worlds. We can go to other worlds on our vessel!”

Sora could feel the corners of her mouth turn up, and then turn downward as she thought about it.

“I wonder if I can find Riku and Kairi,” She wondered, “And my mom.”

“Of course!” Goofy said, and Sora looked to Leon and Yuffie hoping for some kind of advice.

“Sora, go with them.” Leon advised, and Yuffie nodded with an encouraging smile. “Especially if you want to find them.”

“Yeah, okay.” She replied and could feel her shoulders start to unclench. There was a path she could take now, she considered, an idea of what to do. It was always easier to work with direction.

But Sora could feel the tension still in her face. Could she do it? That fight went easier with them by her side, but Sora wasn’t sure if she could keep doing it forever. Her ears still rang, her arms and legs wearier than they’d ever been with so many fights in such a short time, and her head still hurt from where Yuffie got her. Every little pain was starting to come back the longer she stood still.

And there was the matter of her mom, her friends. Needing to find those reports so she could find a way to bring back her world.

‘So much to do, so little time.’ The voice said to her in that dream just yesterday. It felt like a lifetime ago. But the voice had turned out entirely right. Sora sighed.

Donald angled his head.

“But you can’t come along looking like that. Understand?” He spoke, wagging a feathered finger.

“No frowning, no sad face.” He smiled. “Okay?”

“Yeah! You gotta look funny, like us!” Goofy chuckled, and Donald quickly shoved him aside.

“The gummi ship runs on happy faces.” Donald finished with a quick glare at Goofy.

There was a silence for a moment as they all waited for her to respond.

“Happy?” She said, still looking down. The corners of her lips twitched, but she held her solemn demeanor as best she could.

Sora loved making outlandish faces back on the play island. She had an entire collection of them, depending on how badly she wanted to make Riku and Kairi laugh. And much more often than not, all of them worked well. Sometimes she even got into contests with her mom on making them, and they’d both cross eyes at each other in consecutively crazier and crazier expressions until neither of them could hold it in anymore and they would both crack up. That particular apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

She decided to go with an exceptionally foolproof expression. Sora pulled her chin in against her neck, angled the corners of her lips upward while biting down on the bottom lip to keep it in place, and crossed her eyes as far as they could possibly go. It was the one that made Riku always crack at least a smile even on his worst days.

“Like…This?” Sora asked and looked up at them.

She felt a thrill when everyone busted out laughing. Even Leon, with his unflappable demeanor, smiled at it.

“Atta girl!” Yuffie cheered through guffaws.

“That’s one funny face!” Goofy laughed, amidst Donald’s squawking laughter.

Sora smoothed her expression back out and looked to them happily.

“Okay. Why not?” She said. “I’ll go with you guys.”

“Good! And remember, along with ‘no sad faces’,” Goofy put a hand out, and Donald placed his hand on top of it. “All for one…”

“…And one for all!” Donald cheered, and Sora put her hand on top.

The night air was quiet with the heartless gone, but it buzzed pleasantly with their cheers.

Sora looked to them both with a smile, a real one, and for the first time that day she didn’t feel quite so alone.

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

The first thing she heard was the sound of waves.

Kairi groaned against the bright sunlight that managed to blind her even through her still closed eyelids. She sleepily pushed herself upright, holding a hand against her head. She realized quickly that her hand was gritty with sand. Kairi next realized that her headache was gone, and that the weight at the edge of her senses was gone with it. Everything felt normal again.

She opened her eyes.

It was the second time in Kairi’s life that she had woken up on the shores of Destiny Islands. But this time, she was on the play island.

And this time, Riku and Sora were gone.


 

ILLUSTRATION(S) - RIKU WAKES UP IN HOLLOW BASTION

Chapter Text

K A I R I

 

She blinked once. Twice.

“Am I hallucinating?” She asked the empty island.

There was no response, not that Kairi expected any. It seemed that the play island was devoid of anyone else around entirely, not only Sora and Riku. The air echoed with the tides, but there was no distant shouting of the rest of the play island crew. And, she realized with a shiver, there was no familiar calls of birds or insects either. Beyond the tide, there was no noise around except for her.

“Sora?” Kairi yelled, not expecting an answer but hoping for something. Anything other than this silence. “Riku?”

She cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled as loud as she could.

Anyone?!

But nobody responded.

Kairi walked from one end of the play island to the other, starting from where the shoddily built scaffolding was to the far side of the island where her friends raced all the time. She checked the shack, the bridge, all the way to the small island with the bowed palm that Riku sat on so often. And the entire time she called for her friends, for anyone, yet there was no response.

Another strange detail she noticed, beyond the lack of chirruping from birds or insects, was that the main island was absent from the horizon. There was nothing Kairi could see beyond the waves except for the constant line where sea met sky. The sun was high above, with all the splendor of noon, but it didn’t give the almost overbearing temperature she’d expect from this time of day beyond a pleasant warmth. Nor did the air have any humidity. She saw that the sand was the same shade of white, but not too white, so that it didn’t blind you as it often did at this hour.

And finally, there wasn’t any wind. Not even a breeze.

The play island was flawless.

This had to be a dream.

That was it, Kairi decided. This was just some weird, screwed up dream—because she saw that storm, there would have to have at least been some evidence of it in the form of broken palm fronds and windswept leaves if this were real. There would be their home island on the horizon and she would hear at least insects, there were always cicadas here somewhere. It would explain why this play island was so…perfect. Almost eerily so.

Alright, she thinks, I am going to wake up now.

And she tries.

It works, but not quite. It’s like her body is moving of its own volition, and she’s watching it from the third person.

Kairi’s walking on a cobblestone road somewhere that is lit mostly by a combination of crooked streetlamps, string lights, and the glow from storefront signs and windows. On her shoulders is an awkward metal weight she can’t really see well enough to identify what it is. Unruly tufts of brown hair kept falling in her eyes—Wait a minute, Kairi had red hair.

She checked herself on the play island again. Still red. What was she seeing?

Kairi can hear the surrounding babble of several people talking. One is speaking in a guttural, squawking tone that is nearly unintelligible, but their companion, who speaks in weird rounded syllables, seems to hear and respond to him just fine. Up ahead is a man with a scarred face holding a weapon that is a cross between a sword and a gun, rolling his eyes at a girl not much older than her who has a giant shuriken strapped to her back. Immediately beside her is a woman with green eyes and brown hair, telling her about a place that she used to live in with the others.

“I don’t remember too much of it, but I remember it was beautiful.” She starts, “There were blooms everywhere in the city when spring came, window-boxes and hanging planters and trellises that would stretch up the sides of entire buildings. I remember the bakery down the street from our house had a wisteria crawling up its side, and all through spring and summer there was practically a carpet of the blooms.”

She continued, “I worked as an apprentice for one of the city gardeners. My main talent was flowers.” She smiled. “But I wanted to work in the palace gardens. That was where a lot of the masters worked at.”

“What was the palace like?”

Hold on. That sounded like Sora’s voice.

She checked the appearance of this other self she was seeing. Brown hair that was always askew, bright blindingly red swim shorts and shirt that Kairi had seen many a day on the play island when they were working on the raft…

She was Sora. Sort of. It was like she was seeing whatever Sora saw, hearing what she heard.

Well that helped explain why it was like she was watching herself in the third person—she quite literally was. Perhaps not watching herself, but Sora. Kairi decided she’d think on the implications of that in a moment in favor of trying to get back to her own body, maybe she just had to try a little harder with waking up this time.

So she did.

And it finally worked.

Kairi found herself back in her body this time, not someone else’s, but the instant she tried to get up from where she was slumped against the wall Kairi realized something was horribly wrong.

She couldn’t move. Not even a finger.

Why couldn’t Kairi move?

The only thing she could manage, barely, was shifting her eyes. Kairi would have started hyperventilating if she could control her lungs.

As it was, she could feel her Heart clench with panic and it made her unconsciously withdraw right back into the dream play island again. Kairi savored the feeling of being able to move again, and used it to feel the sand, the rim of her shoes, anything physical to keep her grounded. Or not physical, she couldn’t actually grab anything in the physical world apparently, but this dream world was realistic enough to suffice. The air was blissfully soothing on her skin.

Kairi drew her arms and legs into herself and breathed in, out, for several minutes on the shore. Don’t be stupid, Kairi. She admonished herself. Panicking won’t help solve anything. Try again.

And it still doesn’t work. She steels herself against the fear this time long enough to try looking around and figuring out where she was.

The first thing she noticed was that it was dark, and outdoors. It didn’t look like anywhere on Destiny Islands that she knew of, with its mortar walls in wood framing.

It looked to be that Kairi was leaning against a wall that was sloppily constructed of scraps of wood. Through the tiny slits in between boards, she could see the distant glow of streetlights and lights strung up from building to building. Piled high around her were wooden crates and barrels, and the side of the wooden wall she was on looked to be abandoned. She still couldn’t move anything but her eyes.

Well, then.

Kairi supposed the best she could hope for was that it didn’t rain before someone found her.

She went back to the island again. Kairi was still very disturbed from her real body being unresponsive, but she had to keep it together. Breakdowns don’t solve crises, they didn’t even help to make you feel better. All they achieved was making you collapse inward like a dying star.

And Kairi had experience with that feeling every time spring came to the real Destiny Islands.

Finally, she got an idea. If she could hear Sora, and see through her…could Sora hear Kairi? Could the situation go both ways?

Kairi closed her eyes.

“It was beautiful. The pictures you see in storybooks of castles in fairy tales…it was like this place was the inspiration for all of them. Waterways that formed canals throughout the city, tamed into fountains and small waterfalls off of parapets, and all along there were flowerbeds everywhere you looked. I heard that the castle gardens were especially breathtaking, but few were allowed in them beyond the castle’s personnel and the royal family—”

“Hey, Sora?” She tried. “Can you hear me?”

“Huh?” Sora looked around, but it seemed nobody said anything to her other than Aerith.

That was also interesting, Kairi thought. It seemed the connection went a little beyond observing and extended to some information being exchanged. She had no idea who Aerith was, but it was like they’d already at least been introduced.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just thought I heard something.”

Maybe she had to be louder?

“HEY, SORA!” Kairi shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. She might have looked like a lunatic right then, but it wasn’t as if anyone else was here on the island with her.

“There it is again!”

Aerith blinked. “What does it sound like?”

“Just like someone trying to talk to me from far off.” Sora swung around, the keyblade on her shoulders nearly swiping Donald’s hat off, which the duck protested with a huff. “Sorry. Anyways, I can’t really hear what they’re saying at all, or if I’m even hearing anything for sure.”

Well, there went that idea.

Kairi sighed, and decided to just stay tuned in. Maybe she’d hear something useful, and if nothing else it gave a distraction from her situation. That castle Aerith was describing sounded way too familiar, anyway, even if she couldn’t pinpoint how.


 

 

S O R A

 

With no heartless around for the time being, Traverse Town seemed a little more peaceful than before.

The group’s walk back to the First District, towards the hangar where Goofy and Donald’s gummi ship was parked, was much more relaxed than their tumultuous arrival into the Third District and with none of the fights they had expected. Sora found herself getting startled at some points, when she thought she could register shadows moving out of the corner of her vision, but more often than not it was just Donald or Goofy when she turned to look.

It was on this walk that Sora met Aerith. Aerith was one of those people that you got the sense you could innately trust, that you could pour your soul out to and not be afraid of reproach, and Sora couldn’t help but open up to her more than she had to Yuffie and Leon in her first meeting with them.

They talked about Hearts, their homeworlds (or in Aerith’s case she shared what little she remembered of it, and many of the details of it sounded strangely familiar to Sora though she couldn’t figure out why), what Light and Darkness were, and why it was important to fight the Darkness and avoid its call. And lastly, they talked about the keyblade.

“It’s weird.” Sora started, resting the weapon across her shoulders and using it awkwardly to hold up her arms. She was wary of dismissing it from her hand entirely, still afraid of it not returning if she needed it, but Sora hadn’t yet found a comfortable pose to hold it in outside of battle.

“Hmm?” Aerith said.

“I always wanted to be a hero. Even when we were really little, me and Riku would always play pretend as knights.” Sora recalled the childhood games in her mind’s eye. “All of this is exciting! I should be excited! And I am, mostly, but not as much as I thought I’d be. I’m a little scared. What if I can’t find my mom and my friends? What if I can’t figure out a way to fix everything?” She paused, “What if I can’t be a hero?”

“You remind me of someone I knew long ago, before we lost our world and arrived in Traverse Town.” Aerith gave her a lighthearted glance. “His name was Zack.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Leon spoke from his spot at the front of the group.

“Who’s Zack?” Yuffie asked the question before Sora could.

“He’d come by the gardens sometimes and flirt with Aerith. You would have been way too young to remember.” Leon answered.

Aerith cut in, “My point is, he wanted to be a hero too. Just like you. He’d do play swordfights with other kids, the same sort of things as you. And one day he got serious about it.”

The corners of Leon’s mouth twitched. “As serious as someone like Zack could be about something.”

“Which was still plenty serious!” She asserted. “Zack said he was done just playing pretend and that he was really going to do it. That he was going to be a hero. Zack said he’d found a way off-world and someone to train him, and he left.”

Sora lit up. “So he did it? He became a hero?”

“I can’t say for sure. We lost our world not long after that, and none of us have seen him since.” Aerith pursed her lips at Sora’s now downcast demeanor. “Keep in mind we haven’t left Traverse Town since arriving though. I know he’s still out there somewhere, a full-fledged hero by now, saving people and helping the worlds. Zack was one of those people who, when he got serious about something, you would really believe that he could do it—no, you would know he could do it. He played around often and wasn’t usually serious, true, but that made it mean so much more when he was serious. But that’s what I see in you: A hero.”

She finished, “You’re serious about being a hero, I can tell. So I know you will be one. Even if you goof around, or make a mistake, or find you can’t achieve everything you set out to do, you can still be a hero regardless of those things, so long as your Heart is in the right place. I know Zack did it, and I know you’ll do it too.”

Sora stared after her for a moment. “Thank you, Aerith. That means a lot.”

“I’m not quite done yet.” She smiled playfully and reached into her waist-pouch. “This is from all of us.” Aerith handed her five hundred munny and Sora’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head as she held it, the keyblade dismissing itself from her hands.

“Don’t blow it all at once, ‘kay?” Yuffie winked. “I pitched in a little extra to say sorry about clobbering you.”

“We wanted to make sure you’re prepared for the journey ahead of you.” Leon said. “We don’t know how far the heartless have spread.”

“And be sure to take a breather every once in a while, you can’t fight heartless every day.” Aerith spoke up.

“If you run into too much trouble, just come back here.” Leon reminded the trio. “There’ll be at least a few heartless here for as long as the keyhole on this world stays unlocked, but we’ll find it for you guys. Until then we’ll just keep the heartless at bay here like we have been doing.”

“There’s nothing to worry about with The Great Ninja Yuffie on the job!”

“Also, kid, I know Yuffie patched you up as best she could, but you still look a little pathetic.” Leon sighed, and handed her a small corked vial with blue liquid in it. “Here.”

“I…Wow, you guys, I don’t know what to say. Thank you.” Sora blinked and looked down at the vial. “What’s this?”

“An elixir. It’ll heal you better than any bandages or medicine. Try to keep stocked up on those.”

“Got it. I’ll see you all again soon!” She grinned. She turned with Donald and Goofy towards the giant doors that led outside of the town’s walls, where the hangar waited. “Let’s go, guys!”

Beyond the town’s entrance there wasn’t much to see. Much of it was only a flat plain of grass that stretched to the horizon, with the exception of an exceptionally large, flat building with a large open archway at one end that spanned the wall. Inside, Sora could see the building was remarkably better lit than the town’s streets but still somewhat dimmed, like they hadn’t enough resources to light it properly. Several people darted about, one of whom Sora could recognize.

“Cid!” Donald squawked as they got closer, “Don’t touch my ship! Only Chip and Dale can work on it!”

“Donald, doesn’t the ship technically belong to the—Yipe!” Goofy exclaimed as a small bolt of lightning struck him from Donald’s staff.

“Relax, I know gummi ships too.” Cid replied, gesturing behind himself. Sora noticed that he looked much more at home in the hangar than he did in the accessory shop. “Mine’s just over there.”

The ship he was referring to wasn’t quite as large as Donald and Goofy’s, nor was it as fancy. It looked to sacrifice form in favor of function with its smaller more aerodynamic shape, mismatched shell panels, and five rocket thrusters on the back. Clustered around it were a number of small white creatures with red antennae and small wings.

“What are they?” Sora asked, referring to the beings.

“Moogles.” Cid answered, “Clever little guys, but they keep to ‘emselves a lot. Always good at tinkering and figuring out tech. They helped the gang out with modernizing Traverse Town out of the stone ages when they landed here after their home, the Jagd Woods, fell.”

“Whatever they are, keep them away from my ship when we come back!” Donald opened the hatch and climbed in, with Goofy following.

“Yeah, yeah.” Cid rolled his eyes before looking to Sora. “Hey, kid. Make sure that duck throws you a healin’ spell every once in a while, alright? You look like you’re in a sorry state after fending off those heartless back there.”

“Gee, thanks gramps. I got an elixir from Leon, I’m fine.”

“And make sure you eat something every once in a while, kid, you can’t survive off of potions and elixirs.”

Now it was Sora’s turn to roll her eyes. “Yes, grandpa.”

“Hey! ‘Gramps’ is bad enough! Save the attitude for fights, got it?”

“Got it!” Sora grinned and finally entered in the hatch after her friends, closing the door behind her. Looking around the ship, her eyes widened.

She had walked in on what appeared to be a combination of an engine room and an entrance hall, where large machinery chugged as it revved up. On the farthest side of the area she saw a ladder leading up to an opening, from which she could hear Donald squabbling over something. Sora couldn’t help but dart from one machine to the other, watching as it worked. She had never been in a gummi ship or any other sort of spaceship before, and even the smallest details amazed her.

Sora followed the noise into the cockpit, where Donald was fussing over the controls. It was Goofy that spotted her first.

“Welcome to the gummi ship!” He cheered. “Donald’s gonna fly, we’re gonna take off soon since we got stocked up on more supplies in town.”

“Cool!” Sora brightened as she got an idea. “Can I fly?”

“Absolutely not!” Donald exclaimed. “Anyone else but me piloting is just gonna crash the ship.”

“I won’t crash,” She protested. Goofy gave her a sympathetic look.

“Why don’tcha try catching a nap? We’ll all catch a few z’s at some point on the flight, even Donald.” He winked conspiratorially. “Half the time I come in and find him passed out in the chair with the autopilot takin’ care of things unless there’s heartless. You can have the cabin second from the left, it’s just down the hallway.”

“Okay,” Sora turned, and then turned back when she registered what he said. “Wait, there’s heartless? Even in outer space?”

“Sure is! They’re pretty easy to deal with, though. Chip and Dale outdid themselves with the newfangled laser thing.”

“Weapons system!” Donald corrected him, switching around different levers and buttons as he huffed, “And I do not rely on the autopilot!”

Sora left them to their bickering as she found her new room. The gummi ship as a whole was very well lit, its color palette primarily comprised of lighter neutral tones with the occasional stripe of color to match the outside. The room she had was spare, but clean, with the bed able to be folded into the wall when not in use. Sora could spy that other foldable panels were on the other walls, presumably also able to fold out into other furniture when in use. In the top corner there was a speaker-box to the P.A. system, and along the top part of the room ran a bright red stripe.

She hadn’t realized how exhausted she was from the day’s events, because after kicking off her shoes Sora sank right into the bed and almost instantly fell asleep.

And her last thought, before going into a dreamless slumber, was of Riku and Kairi, and how she wished they could see all the things she’d seen today too.


 

R I K U

 

He awoke to something tapping on his nose.

Riku blearily opened his eyes to see the black silhouette that had woken him up was actually a heartless, and he could swear the light from its glowing eyes winked almost teasingly as it kept tapping him on the nose. It was a departure from the normally insectile creatures he knew, who moved in shuddering dances of instinct alone.

This one seemed…almost like a person. Riku couldn’t deny that the thought was unsettling.

“I’m up.” Riku grumbled as he sat up and swatted the small black claws away. “Let me guess, Maleficent sent you?”

The heartless did nothing in response except to tilt its head slightly, antennae bouncing, before flattening itself into two dimensions and crawling out the crack under his closed bedroom door. He stared after it as his shoulders fell. So much for locking the door.

Riku didn’t bother trying to check the time on his phone, his only remnant of the islands besides his clothes and wooden sword. The thing had broken presumably upon arrival here, as it had refused to turn on when he first took it out. Riku presumed that something about the atmosphere here screwed with it. Nor could he very well check the time judging by the sun’s light, as it hadn’t budged one bit since he arrived either, ensnared in a constant sunset. The only way he had any idea of what time it was in this place was by checking the mechanical clock on the far wall of his bedroom, which told him it was eight-thirty in the morning.

The room itself was remarkably nice, considering how antiquated the citadel appeared. Even though it was bare, with only a bed, a desk and chair, and a row of bookshelves, all of the but it was enough to get ready by and read by. Most of the books Maleficent had left in this room—presumably left for him—were dusty old tomes he hadn’t bothered to open yet, given he had just arrived the day before. Beside the door his old wooden toy sword was propped against the wall.

Riku’s eyes lingered on it.

“If a shooting star comes this way, I’ll protect you. I won’t let it come near us.”

“How are you going to do that?”

The question was logical, but Riku hadn’t expected it. Sora had so often taken what he said at face value, never even questioning the older kid’s authority in favor of taking his word as law and imitating everything he did. Riku thought for a moment, and his eyes landed on the wooden sword.

To a child, the toy sword was so much more than what it truly was. To a child wood was as strong as steel, and as strong as the promise he made on that sword. So as long as he didn’t break his promise the sword could never break either, he thought to himself as he grabbed it from its spot in the sand.

“With this. Maybe this is what we’ve been practicing for. The real test. We pretend to be knights all the time, so what would be different about this?”

What would be different, indeed.

Later that night on the way home, he had also promised he’d protect Sora from the dark, too. It was meant more as a joke at the time, but Riku had meant it just the same. Yet it turned out that maybe he didn’t really need to protect her from the Dark after all. Maybe just as many monsters strode in the Light.

Riku hoped Maleficent could show him how to forge a keyblade that he could keep his promises with. A keyblade that he could maybe even make a new promise with, to protect Sora and anyone else he cared about from the Light.

He arose from his bed and got ready for the day.

Once he set foot in the chapel of the citadel Riku saw that she and Diablo were giving him amused looks. Riku stepped out of the Dark portal he’d summoned carefully and dismissed it. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get used to the feeling of passing through one.

“What?”

“I know being able to go wherever you please must be delightful, but don’t rely on portals over more mundane methods of transportation. Especially for merely traversing the citadel. Need I remind you to be responsible with the Darkness?”

“I’ll be fine.” Riku spied a platform still sticking out of the ground to form a makeshift table, with a sigil of thorns crowded around a rose in the middle. “Did you have guests?”

“Something like that.” Maleficent sighed, and magically made the table recede back into the floor with a wave of her hand. “A potential ally I was hoping to recruit, but it seems our offer wasn’t sweet enough for him. Never mind that, though. Today you shall receive a new weapon better suited to you as well as your first assignment.”

The undertone of contempt towards the wooden sword he had arrived with wasn’t lost on Riku, but he said nothing of it.

“You said you’d help me forge it?”

“Indeed. We’ll be able to do it right here and now, in fact.” Her lips quirked up at the look on his face. “Oh yes, it’ll be easy. All you have to do is imagine its shape as clearly as you can, yield your Darkness—just a little, mind you—and my magic can do the rest. Hold out your hand and try it now.”

Riku held out one hand opened upward and closed his eyes.

Just like he had on the islands, when taking its Heart and opening a portal, Riku thought to memories of his home. Memories made so much more distant now within the span of only twenty-four hours and all that had happened within that time. But while the earlier memories may have gone slightly fuzzy, that pain, that fear, that rage, that at the time felt so impotent from being so young, it all stood out so starkly in his Heart. Riku could almost feel the memories Darken his Heart, like a black veil was being draped over his soul, and that veil contorted into the beginnings of a silhouette.

“Good, my child.” Maleficent purred. “You purified the ore, now give it structure.”

Fear made the silhouette in his head jagged, pointed, and pain solidified it. Two types of anger sculpted the form: One was the quick white-hot bursts of anger that directed the rough edges into three points along the blade’s edge, and the other was the patient and planned ice-cold fury that smoothed the other side and made for the beginnings of a recognizable design.

His dreams of being free of the islands, free of his home, the slow sadness and betrayal of days going by where a promise was not kept—the smoothed edges and sharp points began to organize themselves into the shape of a wing. Dark, bat-like, but a wing nonetheless.

And finally, it was Riku’s unbroken hope for the future, still there, even now, that added the final touch: A blue-green eye with a catlike slit for a pupil settled at the topmost end of the blade’s hilt.

“Marvelous. Truly marvelous.” He could hear the smile in her voice. “A work of art. Open your eyes and look.”

He does, and his face falls.

It’s not a keyblade.

It looks so close to how he saw it in his head, the sharpness of the wing-shaped blade and everything, but it doesn’t have the same shape as the keyblade the man on the shore had so many years ago. The keyblade he took an oath on.

Riku had done what he could to keep his end of the oath. He thought he was being good. He was still being good, wasn’t he?

“So long as you have the makings, then through this simple act of taking…Its wielder you shall one day be.”

He’d hoped that day would have been today.

“Are you disappointed?”

“No,” Riku shook his head fervently. A simple sword might not have been better than a keyblade, but it was much better than nothing. “Not at all.”

“Don’t lie to me, child.” Maleficent ordered, but her voice was curiously devoid of any ire. Instead, she angled her head just a bit, horns dipping, and Riku got the feeling that she was looking straight through him into his soul again. “You wished this would be a keyblade, didn’t you?”

His Heart felt like it was climbing into his throat.

“What?”

“I could sense the Mark of the Bequeathed on your Heart the second I laid eyes on you.” She explained. “I don’t know who gave it to you, but I can still sense it there even now, though it is quite weak. Unfortunately, dear child, I cannot forge you a keyblade. Such a thing is beyond even my powers.” Maleficent’s gaze took on a roguish gleam then. “But I could teach you how to reform the one you have into a more suitable look, if you were to ever procure one.”

“How would I do that?”

“I know that there is currently only one in existence, though to my knowledge there were many in a bygone era. I do not know where the rest have gone, but I have seen the one remaining with my own eyes.”

“Do you know who has it?”

“A girl.”

Riku could feel the blood drain from his face.

Maleficent continued, “A trifling little thing, really. Hardly fit to be a keyblade master. It would suit you much better, my dear.”

“I…I don’t know…”

His old doubts came up again, just the same as when the hooded figure was trying to convince him to take the Heart of Destiny Islands. A voice in his head telling him No. Stop. This is wrong.

“But dear,” Maleficent crooned, “You wanted a keyblade, yes?” She swept around the now-sunken platform to put a hand around his shoulders and squeezed. Riku could see her nails were painted as red as her lips. She continued to speak, and Riku could feel Diablo’s eyes on the back of his head.

“If you want something, why not take it?”


 

 

S O R A

 

Sora woke up to the ship lurching so hard she nearly fell out of bed.

As it was, she awkwardly tumbled halfway to the floor, throwing her arms out to catch herself at the last moment. The incident made her remember every last injury she sustained in the fighting yesterday, and Sora groaned as her head hurt while thinking back to Yuffie’s shuriken hitting her twice. It was then that she remembered the elixir the Traverse Town crew gave her, and Sora fished it out of her pocket.

The vial was small and bright electric blue. A shade of blue that made Sora think more of old broken computer screens than any shade found in nature. It didn’t seem likely that it would work, but Sora had seen far stranger things just yesterday, and she uncorked the bottle and tried it.

The first thing she was aware of was that it felt as if her entire body had fallen asleep and was waking up. Like that feeling where you have your arm or leg awkwardly angled and you can feel it go numb and trying to move it sets off the sensation of pins and needles. Such was what Sora felt now: pins and needles everywhere, especially in the spots where she’d gotten hurt, but in some other spots where older injuries had long since happened and healed. She could feel her foreleg’s already healed fracture from a stunt gone wrong years back improve to the point where it was as if it never happened, and scars up and down herself from spars, stunts, and various accidents turned white, then silvery pink, and faded entirely.

The next thing Sora was aware of was that the elixir tasted exactly like her mother’s pancakes. But it didn’t make any sense considering the taste came out of a bottle. Beyond the scars fading and her feeling better than she’d ever felt in her life, the pancakes flavor was what surprised her most. She didn’t think magic or potions or anything could accomplish that.

Sora walked to the cockpit after getting ready for the day, hoping the ship didn’t lurch again and throw her off balance. In it, Donald had already started his squabbling for the day, muttering and yelling in equally jumbled words as he fiddled with the controls. She could start to make out a few things here and there, and from what she could tell the duck was complaining about the heartless ships that were visible through the windows.

“Buckle up!” Donald ordered without even looking at her, keeping his face glued to the battle the gummi ship was caught up in against the enemy ships. “Confounded heartless! Why I oughta--!”

“We’re ‘bout to land, ahyup!” Goofy cheerfully said as Sora took the remaining seat.

“Where are we going?”

“Wonderland!” A new voice answered. Sora looked around, trying to find the source, before it called again and was revealed to be a smartly dressed bug standing on Goofy’s armrest. “Down here! My apologies for not getting the chance to introduce myself properly earlier on. My name is Jiminy Cricket, and I’m coming along on your quest as royal chronicler by orders of Queen Minnie!” He finished, sticking out one tiny gloved hand for Sora to shake.

“Nice to meet ya,” She said, gingerly shaking his hand with her thumb and forefinger. “Are you going to be okay up against the heartless, though?”

“No need to worry about that.” Jiminy started climbing up Goofy’s sleeve in attempts to reach his own tiny seat that was on the dashboard and was helped halfway up by Goofy picking him up and placing him on his shoulder. Jiminy crawled to the back of Goofy’s seat to make a leap to his own. “I’m going to spend most of the time here on the ship, to watch over things. You guys can recount to me what happens on your return.”

“Sounds fine by me. What is this Wonderland place, anyway?” She lit up. “Is it a whole world?”

“Ahyup!” Goofy nodded. “Sensors woke us up when they went off a few minutes ago for heartless presence, so we’re gonna go check it out and see what’s goin’ on. Donald’s trying ‘ta land us on its surface now!”

“I’m trying to, if you could let me focus for one minute, ya big palooka!”

The ship’s engine began to rev up as Donald tried to angle it onto a grassy field on the world’s surface. The sky went from starry black, to blue, and bluer still as clouds began to be visible. Finally, the ship gave one last quake as it landed, and the engine turned off.

The trio walked out, Jiminy staying behind as he’d mentioned, and they found that everything was huge. Trees stretched on to nearly infinity until their branches skimmed the sky, and even blades of grass rose around them like skyscrapers.

“This. Is. Nuts.” Sora gaped at their surroundings.

“I guess we’re seeing what Jiminy sees. No heartless around here, though.” Goofy pushed aside some grass and pointed towards way over with his shield hand, where a cave-like hole gaped open at the base of a tree. “Let’s try there!”

“Good idea,” Donald gripped his staff. “Heartless like dark places.”

The trio entered the cave, and the strangest thing happened: It was as if the cave got smaller the farther they walked in it. The ceiling that seemed miles above before was now only a few feet away.

“Am I going crazy or is this cave getting smaller?” Sora asked.

“Sure is, ahyuk! Haven’t seen any heartless yet, though—A-hyoooooohooohooo!” Goofy yelped as he tried to step out onto air and fell down a previously unseen hole. Sora ran after him and quickly fell down the same hole.

“Goofy? Goofy, did you find someth—Woah!”

Donald stamped one webbed foot at his companions.

“As if one wasn’t bad enough, now I got two of them bumbling around to deal with?” He shook his head and jumped down the hole after them. “Wait for me!”

The fall was fast at first and slowed down significantly. Sora saw the rock walls smooth into painted walls just like ones you’d find inside a house, but with what looked like two-dimensional drawings of household objects plastered throughout: A clock, a bedside table, a lamp. She grinned at the feeling and decided to dismiss her keyblade for the moment, instead deciding to do somersaults in the air. Beside her, Donald unsteadily tried flapping his arms to stay upright, with Goofy reclining leisurely as they levitated down.

Sora and Donald landed on their feet, while Goofy was gently lowered down onto his back, still in the reclining pose. Which was quickly interrupted as a furry foot walked across his stomach.

It belonged to a white rabbit. A white rabbit which was looking quite dapper in his three-piece suit, though harried, as it kept one eye on a ticking pocket watch it carried in its hand and the other on the path ahead of him. He stepped off of Goofy as easily as if he weren’t there and sped down the hallway they landed in.

“Oh, my fur and whiskers!” The rabbit cried, “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”

The three looked after him with inquisitive looks as they saw him disappear out of sight, though they could hear his yelling echo through the corridor.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! I’m here, I should be there. Ooh, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late! The queen, she’ll have my head for sure!”

“Being late can’t be that bad, why’s he freaking out so much?” Sora asked.

“Guess it’s up to us to find out.” Donald replied. Sora noticed she was getting better at discerning what he was saying.

The hallway they followed was winding, turning, with brick walls melding into plaster and melding again into wood paneling. Two-dimensional furniture was painted along the walls and floors, with the occasional real furniture such as shelves and wall votives here and there. At the end of the hallway was a door, which Sora opened, to reveal another door, and another, and another. Each one was progressively smaller than the last, but Sora was still able to stand to full height along with Donald as she led the way through the smallest door, with Goofy having to lean over some.

The second she walked through Sora was hit with a wave of déjà vu. The entire room looked so familiar, but she knew for a fact she had never been here before.

She knew what she’d see before she even looked around all the way: Two-dimensional and three-dimensional furniture in a cartoon room, with the giant stone stove being over there, the weird misplaced faucet high up on one wall, with a bed in the corner. On all sides, different paintings peppered the walls with a variety of scenes and silhouettes.

And then she remembered: the dreams. The dreams Sora would have for months over the past year, before the islands fell, she’d have adventures with companions not unlike the ones she had now. Sora had walked in this exact room before, even, she knew it without a doubt. And she had some ideas as to what other sorts of rooms she’d find around here.

Underfoot, the white rabbit hurried through the room, and they realized with a start that the rabbit—which was of at least somewhat comparable size before, was now quite tiny. He hurried on through the room and a tiny door on the other end was already open and waiting for him. As the white rabbit scurried through the door closed without any help.

Sora didn’t remember this part of the dream. She mostly only remembered fighting in here. She squatted down and peered at the tiny door, and Sora could see the doorknob on it had a face that looked to be still asleep.

“How did he get so small?”

The doorknob groggily cracked open one eye. “No, you’re simply too big.” He spoke, and she saw that his mouth formed the door’s keyhole.

All three of them jumped back with a start at this.

Donald cried, “It talks!”

The doorknob yawned.

“Must you be so loud? You woke me up.”

“Good morning!” Goofy greeted it. It seemed he wasn’t too perturbed by the notion of a talking doorknob, compared to Sora and Donald.

“Good night!” The doorknob retorted, “I need a bit more sleep.”

Sora had to act fast before it fell asleep to the point even they couldn’t wake it up.

“Wait!” She cried. “What do we have to do to grow small?”

“Why don’t you try the bottle over there?” The doorknob gestured with its bulbous nose over their shoulders, and Sora turned to see the previously two-dimensional table and chair rise out of the ground with a sparkling cloud, the table replete with two small bottles on top.

Sora could only blink at it.

“Okay, I was wrong earlier. This is nuts.” A talking doorknob? Furniture that swapped between dimensions?

Donald went over and looked at the labels of the bottles. “This one’s to get bigger,” He said, raising the red one. “And this one’s to become smaller.” And then he raised the blue one.

“Sure makes it easy, ahyup!”

They passed around the blue bottle, each of them disappearing in a similarly glittering fog and reappearing on the table at a vastly smaller size.

Goofy had a thoughtful expression. “Tasted like…cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, toast…”

Sora thought he wasn’t wrong, but Donald scoffed.

“Don’t be silly, that didn’t taste like anything!”

“’Don’t be silly’, you say, but you’re silly to delay. Tarry too much or you’ll rue the day!”

The three looked around. Nobody other than them was in the room.

“Who was that?” Sora asked them. She checked behind them. “One of you?”

“One of me, and three of thee.” A disembodied grin appeared on top of the red bottle, and a cat slowly came into view. “Hearts and Hearts abound, I see.”

“Hearts?” She asked him. “Hey, have you seen any heartless around here?” She saw Donald whip his head to her out of the corner of her eye, but she ignored it.

“Shadows many, but one heartless queen.” He turned his head slightly in a way that looked somewhat unnatural, and his grin never abated. “If you’re looking for her then seek the court’s green.”

“Thanks!” Sora hopped off the edge of the table onto the chair’s seat, and Goofy followed.

“Who are you?” She could hear Donald ask.

“Very well, I suppose, but you’ve no time to chat. You may call me the Cheshire Cat.”

The second Sora and her companions made it off the chair and onto the floor, heartless erupted to fight them. Sora kept running, remembering the cat’s words, but tried her best to defeat any persistent ones along the way as she remembered Yuffie’s words too.

Thankfully the heartless were quickly taken care of with the help of her friends, and they dissipated much faster than they had when she was alone in Traverse Town. Eventually, the three came upon the doorknob again, but this time it was asleep, and locked. Sora briefly considered trying her keyblade on it, to see if it could actually function as a regular key, but Donald called her over to the adjacent corner of the room.

“There’s another entrance over here behind the bed! We’ll have to crawl maybe, but we’ll make it.”

“I hope it leads to where the cat pointed out.”

It didn’t take much to go through, the three of them were able to push the bed aside enough to make a wide enough entrance to the hole and walk through it. And through a small dark tunnel they came out onto what looked to be just as the cat specified: A courtroom adapted for the outdoors in a field of cartoonishly shaped topiary as far as the eye could see, like a green labyrinth. And beyond the heart-shaped archways just in front of the trio sat a grumpy older woman in royal garb, high on a dais and who looked to be presiding over the court. All around on either side stood men with odd playing-card anatomy, more card than human, who crossed spears shaped like their respective card suits. The white rabbit scrambled up the last few steps of his podium before trilling the small horn he held.

“Court is now in session!” The white rabbit heaved; he looked exhausted from his run. “Her majesty, the Queen of Hearts, presiding!”

“I’m on trial! But why?” A girl protested from the defendant platform. Sora could see she was close in age to her, if perhaps a little younger. But her outfit was much simpler than Sora’s, consisting of a blue dress and a white apron, with her blonde hair secured with a black bow headband.

“This girl is the culprit. There’s no doubt about it.” She boomed, sweeping a red scepter with a heart -shaped topper at the end and shoving it towards the girl. “And the reason is because I say so, that’s why!”

“That is so unfair!”

The queen gave the girl a mean look that made her appear quite like a bulldog. “Well, have you anything to say in your defense beyond ‘unfairness’?”

“Of course!” The girl crossed her arms stubbornly. “I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. I wasn’t even there when it happened! You may be queen, but that doesn’t give you the right to be so mean!

“Silence!” The queen pounded her arms against the table of the dais, her voice resounding through the green. “You dare defy me?”

Nobody spoke as the queen continued to yell. Sora could see the white rabbit nervously looking from the girl to the queen, waiting to see if the defendant would protest the matter further, and she was secretly hoping she would. This trial, and the queen’s behavior, seemed absurd.

“The court finds the defendant guilty as charged! For the crimes of assault and attempted theft of my Heart, off with her head!

Sora didn’t have to see the girl’s face to notice her demeanor sinking, and the queen’s words—attempted theft of her Heart, she mentioned—made Sora gasp. There was no way this girl could have stolen a Heart, but the trio had a pretty good idea as to the real culprit.

“Hey, guys, we have got to help her out.” Sora said.

“Yeah,” Donald started, “But the…” he trailed off, but Goofy filled in.

“We’re outsiders, so wouldn’t that be muddling?”

“’Meddling’!”

“Oh yeah,” Goofy glanced to Donald, “And that’s against the rules.”

“You already blabbed to the Cheshire Cat about the heartless earlier, too much meddling and we’ll risk upending the world order!”

“Okay,” Sora kicked her toe against the ground. “Maybe I did kinda say too much, but he definitely already knew what we were talking about!”

“He sure did seem to know a lot, ahyuk.”

“See? Goofy gets it! And if the world order for this place includes watching a girl get beheaded for a crime she didn’t commit, and we know who did it, then to heck with the world order!”

“No! No!” The girl pleaded as the card soldiers began to arrange themselves in formation and approached her. “Please!”

“That’s it,” Sora growled as she summoned her keyblade and rushed in. “Hold it right there!”

“This will not go well.” Donald muttered, but kept his staff at the ready and followed anyway.

“Who are you?” The queen peered down at them. “How dare you interfere with my court!”

“E-Excuse me,” Sora lost some of her bravado at the queen’s steely eye being turned onto her and all the severity that came with it, but she stiffened her hold on her keyblade. She had to do the right thing. “But we know who the real culprit is!”

“Uh-huh,” Goofy supplied, “It’s the heartle—” He realized his mistake in time at Donald’s furious glance, and forcefully closed his mouth with both hands, his shield tinkling against the zippers on his clothes.

“Anyway, she’s not the one you’re looking for.” She pointed to the girl.

The queen held her head in one hand and impatiently tapped the table of her dais with her scepter. She looked between the three, and Sora resisted the urge to squirm.

“That’s nonsense.” But her expression belied her intrigue. “Have you any proof?”

“I, uh, well…”

“Not yet!” Donald spoke up.

“Wait, Donald, you’re going along with me on this?” Sora’s eyes widened.

“Maybe you’re right just this once!” He squawked at her. “But don’t expect me to just roll with it when it happens again.” With this, he turned back to the queen. “We’ll bring you proof, your majesty!”

“Very well!” She barked at the trio. “I declare a short recess of the court for two hours until these buffoons come trotting back with some evidence of Alice’s innocence. Where is my herald?!” The white rabbit scrambled at the command and shakily rose his hand. “Fetch the duchess, I have a round of croquet to get back to with her. Tell her it’s off with her head too if she wins again. Card soldiers: imprison Alice in the defendant cage for the duration of the recess until they come back.” She looked between the three with a final warning. “Fail, and it’s off with all your heads!”

With this both the queen and the rabbit went away, and the card soldiers moved in to forcefully shuffle Alice to the curtained cage. Sora tried to intervene but she and Donald and Goofy were surrounded quickly on all sides by the cards forming a circle, and by the time they moved it was already done.

The cage swung shut with a metallic clamor, and Alice rushed to grip the bars of the cage fearfully. The card soldiers organized themselves according to numerical order in their suits and most left shortly thereafter, with only a couple remaining to keep guard. Sora and her friends ran to the cage.

“Who are you?” Alice asked.

“I’m Sora.”

“I’m Goofy, and that there’s Donald!”

“I’m pleased to meet you three,” Alice smiled, but it didn’t last. “Though I do wish it were under better circumstances. I’m sorry to get you all caught up in this strange trial.”

“You’re only on trial ‘cuz she won’t listen to sense.” Sora huffed. “We know you couldn’t have taken her heart.”

“Precisely! She decided I was guilty the moment she saw me, but I’d never seen her before then!”

“That’s absurd!” Donald stamped his foot.

“Yeah, we’ll find your evidence, don’t worry!” Sora promised. Alice smiled again, and this time it lasted.

“Thank you. I hope so.”

By now, a nearby card soldier overheard.

“The defendant may not speak to their legal counsel outside the allotted times!”

“But--!”

Any protests were cut off by the card soldier approaching a small tower nearby and turned a lever on it. At once, the cage’s curtains drew shut and it skyrocketed to the top of the machine where the pully was, with Alice inside.

With that, the trio raced out of the court green to search for their evidence. And over all, unnoticed and invisible but for the smile across his face, the Cheshire Cat watched.


 

 

R I K U

 

He stepped out onto a checkerboard tile floor and glanced behind himself to see the Dark portal Maleficent summoned for him disappear.

The room around him looked quite familiar from his years of bygone dreams of the keyblade. Its cartoonish proportions that never stayed the same for long, furniture that alternated between dimensions, the only thing that he remembered was constant about this place was that it was never constant.

“So you said you’d give me an assignment?”

“That’s right.” Maleficent confirmed. “Your work today will take place in a world called Wonderland. I had hoped for a companion for you to help on your tasks, but as I mentioned earlier he turned us down.”

“Who is this guy, anyway?”

“My, my, but what have we? Is this another interloper I see?”

Riku turned to see a cartoonish cat curled up on the bed grinning at him.

“Cheshire cat. She told me about you.”

The cat reclined luxuriously and used the tip of his tail to pick up the top of his head as an impromptu gesture of doffing his hat. “That’s my name, don’t wear it out. Now what is all the fuss about?”

“Do you know where I can find Alice?”

The Cheshire Cat laughed, “If she were still here I’d have a retort, but the poor girl’s a defendant in kangaroo court!”

Riku decided he didn’t like this cat much already.

“What the heck is a kangaroo court?” He summoned his sword to his clenched hand with a wave of the Dark. Riku noted with satisfaction how the cat eyed it. “Can’t you give me a straight answer?”

“Phrases are like phases: they change so soon! Since language won’t work just try the next room.”

“Finally. Now which door?”

The Cheshire Cat waved its tail, and its body disappeared with it. All that remained was a curved infuriating smile.

“This door, that door, you are such a bore!” Another wave of its tail and Riku could see the front half of his body returned. The Cheshire Cat snapped his fingers and Riku was engulfed in a sparkling cloud. “Can’t a cat have fun anymore? ‘Tween you and the queen I’d prefer hellebore.”

By the time the dust cleared, he saw that everything was substantially bigger. Or, more accurately, he was much smaller. The cat grinned down at him a smile with mammoth teeth.

“Find a door that matches your size and assure your Darkness isn’t reprised. Not yet you’ll want the door that sleeps, but rather the archway that the cardsmen keep.”

“I…Okay. Thanks.” Riku moved to the archway at the corner of the room and looked back one last time. The Cheshire Cat was gone.

What did that cat mean with assuring my Darkness isn’t reprised? Riku shook his head. He was probably just referring to the sword. Figures that a denizen of the Light would encourage against Darkness.

He soon came upon the gardens and their outdoor court. This must be that kangaroo court he mentioned, Riku thinks, but there’s no kangaroos in sight. Instead there was the cardsmen, but only a few wandering about in small formations. None of them acknowledged him, but that was what Riku preferred. It could help the mission go over smoother that way.

“You need to find a girl named Alice. My scrying showed her to be a young girl, slightly younger than you. She wears a blue dress with a white apron and has long blonde hair, with a black headband. Your first objective is to find her and bring her to me.”

“Alright.” Riku looks down at his new blade for a moment. The blue-green eye in the hilt almost glowed in the dim light of the room. “May I ask why?”

“She’s a Princess of Heart, I am sure of it.” Maleficent continued upon seeing his blank look, “Princesses of Heart are beings whose Hearts consist entirely of Light. No Darkness to be found in them whatsoever. There hasn’t been much research into why they exist, or how, so they are largely shrouded in mystery. This is primarily due to how rare they are: There is estimated to be only seven of them in existence across all the worlds. But Princesses of Heart are theorized to be capable of bringing Light back to worlds’ Hearts and to stem the tide of Darkness across all worlds. Surely you must understand why it is important that we keep them from doing such things.”

“Right,” Riku answered. “Balance.”

“Balance.” Maleficent echoed with a simpering smile.

From her shoulder, Diablo gave a long, baleful call.

Riku looked around, but Alice was nowhere in sight. He remembered the cat’s words about Alice being a defendant, and this certainly looked like some sort of a courtroom. So where was she?

He looked to the side and saw cardsmen standing as sentries on either side of the entrance he arrived through. Riku took a deep breath and decided to take a risk.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?” He asked the eight of spades to his right. Riku waved a hand in front of the card soldier’s face to no response. “Hello? Hello?

The card soldier looked around.

“Over here.” Riku spoke up, and finally the card soldier followed his voice. “Do you know where Alice is?”

“The defendant may not be reached until the legal counsel returns, or until the court recess is adjourned!”

At this, the card soldier returned to his former pose of standing at attention. Court recess, huh? At least that gives me some time.

But that still didn’t quite answer Riku’s question of where Alice could be.

That is, until he looked up.

High in the air above the court hung a curtained cage of some sort, and Riku could see it rattle faintly. The arrangement was so odd he didn’t doubt for a minute that it must be where Alice was.

“How am I going to get up there?” He murmured to himself.

“How, indeed?”

Riku looked up to the tops of the hedges to see the Cheshire Cat looking down at him.

“You’re back? I thought I was too boring for you.”

“Boring to hear, interesting to see. I love to watch a Heart’s journey.”

He gnawed at the inside of his cheek. “Do you know how to get Alice down from there?”

The Cheshire Cat tilted his head unnaturally.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed already. Not much they can hear, not much they can see. What do you think the solution would be?”

That was true, Riku reasoned. The card soldiers didn’t look to have any visible eyes or ears, only noses and mouths. But even so, he still didn’t want to risk causing a ruckus and attracting attention. He’d have to be quick.

He looked beyond the outermost hedges to see a small tower with levers coming out of it on the corner of the court. Riku walked towards it. The cage looked to have some sort of a pulley system that kept it up in the air, but there was a card soldier at the foot of the pole. He couldn’t risk lowering it entirely and having the guard notice.

Riku looked around the court and spied the judge’s dais. It came up to about halfway down the pulley for the cage, and high enough that maybe he could expect for the guard not to notice. Perfect. He could try leaping onto it from the edge of the winding staircase up the side platform and not have to make a Dark portal like Maleficent warned against.

Riku dismissed his sword so he’d have both hands free and made his way to the tower, quickly pulling at the lever just enough to make the cage be reachable from the dais. The clicking sound of it made him nervous, but the guards didn’t do anything beyond the closest ones moving their heads some.

After that he quietly shuffled to the staircase, the guards meandering about down below it. He took off his gloves and put them in his pockets for a better grip. Once Riku got to the highest step, to the edge, he lunged.

He remembered being back on the play island, when he and Sora were racing along those platforms and trying to leap to each one. When he was younger it was almost impossible to make the next platform, and more than once he and Sora would end up with faces full of sand.

The scene is what flashes back in his head now, with the judge’s dais coming closer. For one terrifying moment Riku thinks he won’t make it, that his plan will fail and he won’t succeed at his first task Maleficent assigned him, but then his fingertips grip onto the solid wood and Riku feels nothing but relief.

He wrenches himself up, his fingertips clawing into the wood and threatening to get splinters, and Riku’s feet find some small purchase in the indented panels on the sides of the dais. He pulled himself the rest of the way up and can’t help but feel a little exhilarated at actually making the jump. It was just like being back on Destiny Islands again, during the good times.

Riku looked down around the court from his new view, and he saw the Cheshire Cat was gone. Down below, card soldiers puttered about, still ignorant to the interloper in their midst. It seemed nobody bothered to come back yet. He remembered the one guard had mentioned a two-hour window, but Riku didn’t have any idea of how much time had already passed before he arrived and he didn’t want to risk anything.

He turned to the cage, which had by now started rattling more at being lowered. Riku carefully walked across to it and drew back a curtain. And just as he suspected, it was Alice.

“Who are—” She spoke, and quickly quieted when he put a finger to his lips.

“It’s okay to talk, just do it quietly.” Riku clarified in a whisper. “I don’t want to risk anyone overhearing us when I’m trying to break you out.”

“That is sensible,” Alice murmured. “Goodness, I’m glad to be out of here, you simply have no idea of what happened to me! I was just strolling along, trying to help some friends paint roses red, and this…this truly odious queen decreed that I must be guilty for a crime I didn’t commit!” She sighed, and then looked to him again. “How on earth are you going to get me out, anyway? I had some friends that said they’d help me find evidence, but I’m worried something may have happened to them and that they wouldn’t be able to do anything. Do you have the key?”

“No key, I was thinking of using this.” He said quietly, and summoned Soul Eater to his hand. She gasped.

“Good heavens! Is that the vorpal sword from the looking-glass book?” She asked, her voice threatening to go above a whisper.

“What? No, it’s just a normal sword.” Riku reared back the weapon. “Just stay back a little bit—”

“That sword may too go snicker-snack, but there is no lock that that can crack.”

He sighed as he lowered Soul Eater. “I was hoping you were gone for good.”

“And when, young boy, will you finally see? That friends are the only key you’ll need?” The Cheshire Cat looked forlorn as he faded into view, a strange look that clashed with his permanent smile. He snapped his fingers and the cage opened widely, and Alice stepped out onto the dais.

“Cheshire Cat! How good it is to see you again.”

“It’s not good.” Riku corrected. “He’s mad.”

“I think you’ll find we’re all mad here,” The cat grinned again. “I’m mad, you’re mad.”

“I know I’m not mad like you.”

“You must be at least a little bit mad in more ways than one, to work with her.”

Alice looked between them both. “Who is he speaking of?” She asked Riku.

“I’ll tell you later.” He told her and turned back to the cat. “Why are you still here? Have any more words of wisdom to confuse me with?”

“What a coinky-dink, indeed I do! Forty-six, to be true.” The Cheshire Cat’s grin never wavered. “Take care you won’t fall where the asp doth coil. And I’m not speaking of the dame for whom you toil. Your Light is fitful, I can tell, to the foundations it quakes. Just remember: it is to the Heart that love gives and fury takes.”

Both Alice and Riku could only stare at the cat for several moments.

“Goodness, that was ominous.” Alice finally managed to say.

“Agreed. Look, don’t worry about my Light, got it?” Riku scoffed. “I’m trying to find balance, that’s the whole point of this. If it’s shaky, that’s because I only just started.”

“All night and no Light does not a Heart make.” The Cheshire Cat began to fade from view, starting with the tip of his tail. Soon only its grin remained, and then even that faded.

“Well!” Alice spoke, “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”

But Riku was already busy with trying to summon a Dark portal. And as its Dark edges began to form in midair, she finally looked over.

“My, my, what is that?”

“A way out of here.” Riku said. “Not out of Wonderland, yet, but far enough away you won’t have to worry about getting thrown back in jail again.”

Alice looked surprised. “Out of Wonderland? You mean you can take me home?”

Riku did a double-take. Did she come here from another world too? Just like him?

He said, “I’ve got another thing to do here first, but you can tell me about your home in a moment and I’ll see what I can do.”

“You mean through that?” She looked conflicted. “I’m not sure, it doesn’t seem very safe to me.”

“It’s perfectly safe.” Riku dismissed the portal and summoned another, walking out on the other side of the dais behind her and stifling his shudder as much as possible. She had to go along with this. “See? It’s just a portal. It won’t hurt you.”

“Well,” Alice looked down around them at the assembled card soldiers, and back at the still-open cage. “If you say so, I suppose.”

Riku summoned another portal, and with some hesitation, Alice went through. And then, he followed.

Neither of them noticed the cage’s door slowly swinging shut with a click sound and the curtain lowering again, and with one final sweep the cage rose back in the air to where it was.


 

 

S O R A

 

“Evidence…does that mean we’ll have to bring a heartless into the court?” Donald asked as they walked along the lotus forest, and put one feathered hand under his bill in a contemplative gesture.

The three of them had been walking around the forest for a while yet, and were anxious to figure out a solution before time ran out very soon. Sora thought she’d seen yellow eyes blinking in the shadows here and there, but nothing came up.

She decided to keep the keyblade in her hand regardless. Oddly enough, the trio hadn’t encountered any heartless here in the forest or anywhere else they had looked, only that first room they arrived in, despite the gummi ship’s sensors warning them of a heartless presence. Sora wasn’t sure what could be holding them back.

“Gawrsh! Even if we showed up with a heartless, that wouldn’t necessarily prove anything.”

“It might prove enough when it tries to steal one of their Hearts, though.” Sora said.

“Then if it succeeds, we’ll have two heartless to deal with!” Donald protested. “Maybe more!”

“So what else could we use as evidence?” She asked. “Could we get one of their antennae, maybe? A claw?”

“I’m not sure that would work. Heartless tend to disappear after they’ve been defeated, they don’t leave anything behind.”

Sora groaned. “Why can’t we just tell them the heartless did it, anyway? It’s the truth, and they should know in case they have to protect themselves from any more that could appear like Leon and Yuffie do. We only have like, what, fifteen minutes left for finding evidence if we don’t?”

“Ten minutes.” Goofy corrected with a sad sigh, pulling back up his glove over his wrist watch. Donald harrumphed.

“We have to protect the world order!”

“You keep mentioning the ‘world order’ but that makes no sense!” She exclaimed. Their voices echoed in the forest. “Heartless are already upending whatever order existed before, what harm could we do in trying to fix it? We’re the good guys!”

“Every person should keep living only in their own world, in their own routine! Too much meddling will cause conflict and chaos at worst, and confusion at best!” Donald waved his staff.

“Really?” A wide smile said from a nearby tree stump. “Well, that may or may not be true.”

The smile revealed itself to be the Cheshire Cat. “The Cheshire Cat knows everything. To avoid getting confused is all you have to do.”

His striped tail reached behind him to pull out a small box. “Here you go,” The Cheshire Cat said simply, tossing it to Sora. “The only evidence you need to show.”

“What?” Sora clumsily caught the box, nearly dropping it. “What’s in this?” She asked, holding the box this way and that in her hands to inspect it.

She looked up to where the cat was to see if he’d answer her question, but it appeared he was already gone.

“I don’t like this. It’s too easy.” Donald crossed his arms with a huff. “I don’t think we should trust him.”

“To trust, or not to trust?” The Cheshire Cat’s voice echoed around them. “I trust that you’ll decide! The Cheshire Cat has all the answers but doesn’t always tell. Maybe in that box you’ll find a way to make her anger quell.”

The three waited to see if he’d say anything else, but it seemed the cat was gone for real this time. Sora looked between where the cat had appeared and down at the box clutched in her hands. It looked perfectly nondescript, like any other cardboard box she’d seen, the only exception being that this one was patterned with pink plaid and had a ribbon-like symbol on the lid. It felt like something was shuffling within, and it piqued her curiosity.

“Wow, Donald, you’re right. That really was almost too easy.” Sora said, feeling the box continue to stir.

“Exactly.” Donald said with a huff. “It’s suspicious. Don’t open it.”

“I think I want to open it.”

“Don’t open it!”

“Goofy?” They both looked over at him.

“Uh, gawrsh, you guys, I dunno…” He looked nervous at the prospects of being the deciding vote.

“I’m gonna open it.” Sora reached for the lid and Donald screeched.

“No! Don’t you dare!”

“Too late! Oh, no.” Sora had opened the box eagerly and recoiled when a heartless leaped out and darted past them through the lotus forest. “No-o! Come back!” She called to the heartless, to no avail, and gave chase with the others following close behind.

She yelped between steps when Donald struck her with a bolt of lightning from his staff. “Ouch! Jeez, Donald, save it for the heartless!”

“No!” He squawked. He threw another lightning spell at her, and Sora just barely managed to dodge it. “If you had just—” Another strike, and it singed part of her shoe. “—left the stupid box alone—” Donald grumbled as they leapt to try catching it, almost within reach, but the heartless just barely moved away in time. “—we wouldn’t even be in this mess!”

“We wouldn’t have any evidence, either!” Sora shot back, and nearly fell as she managed to dodge another lightning strike. By now, the heartless had nearly reached the edge of the lotus forest.

A thought occurred to her: If they could just manage to corral it back to the court, where it already looked to be heading anyways, they’d be able to have it restrained as evidence and not have to worry about it making more heartless.

Sora gave another burst of speed as the court came within view. She could see the queen was getting back onto the judge’s dais, and that the heartless angled its head towards her. Card soldiers shuffled in in carefully organized rows back to their predetermined places. Even the white rabbit was scrambling to get back to his place. Court was back in session.

“Look out!” Sora shouted as they ran back into view.

The queen looked to them and looked terrified as the heartless rushed in. “What?! Who is that?” She wrenched her head to the three angrily. “Why, you--!”

“That’s the evidence, your majesty!” Sora readied her keyblade in hand. It looked like the heartless was preparing to leap. The card soldiers ambled quickly towards the commotion and raised their spears threateningly.

“No!” The queen screamed and raised her arms in a defensive position as the heartless got closer and closer to her.

Its claws were reaching towards her as it jumped to a height Sora wouldn’t have thought to be possible for it. This heartless was oddly capable compared to the ones she’d fought in Traverse Town, being able to jump higher and run faster. If she had to face up against a group of heartless like that alone, Sora wasn’t sure if she could have done it.

Sora would only have one shot at this, she realized, and she leapt. She wrenched her eyes shut as she swung the weapon before her, and felt the keyblade slice the heartless in half, only opening her eyes when she felt it give. She tumbled to the ground and finally looked around the court.

For a moment everyone was watching the spot where the heartless was in horrified silence as the black smoke from it dissolved. She, Donald, and Goofy’s panting from the run was the only sound anyone could hear.

“Do you see?” Sora stood and gave the queen a stubborn look. “Now do you get it? Alice is innocent! Let her go!”

Donald and Goofy went to the tower before any card soldiers thought to block them and pulled the lever to make the cage fall to the ground.

One card soldier, an ace of spades, brandished his spear at them. “Hey!” He tried to interrupt but was unsuccessful. “You can’t lower the--!”

It was too late. The two of them had already ran to the cage with Sora close behind. She pulled back the curtain.

And the cage was empty.


 

 

R I K U

 

Both of them stepped out onto the checkerboard floor of the room Riku arrived in just minutes earlier, the room still vastly overlarge. He could see Alice had a chill, somewhat, from the Dark portal, just as he did.

There were twinges of something in his Heart: Anxiety? Regret?

He couldn’t quite identify it for sure.

High above them the furniture loomed menacingly, like it was threatening to collapse in on them any minute. Riku couldn’t tell if that was because of the feeling in his Heart or because they actually were threatening to collapse and he wasn’t just imagining things.

“Your second task is simple enough.” Maleficent stepped away into the shadows of the chapel and looked up. The green torches flickered on the walls and caused shadows to dance around the heartless insignia above the two. “In fact, you’ve already done it once before.”

“What’s that?”

“Using Darkness to take a world’s Heart.”

“So tell me more about how you got here.” Riku asked in a normal tone. Neither of them had to be quiet anymore under fear of being caught, now that they were out of the courtroom.

“Well,” Alice straightened out her apron and held her hands together as she thought. It seemed to be her default pose. “It’s nothing too extraordinary, really. I was only sitting on the riverside with my sister in the middle of history lessons when I was making a daisy crown for my cat, Dinah. I had been ever so bored, you see, for the book I was supposed to be reading didn’t have a single picture in it! So in the middle of such doldrums I saw that dear little Dinah was trying to get my attention, and what to my surprise turned out to be a rabbit hurrying by in a little waistcoat holding a watch! I simply had to see what the fuss was about. And so I followed him down his little rabbit-hole, in which I tumbled and tumbled and ended up here. It’s such a strange place compared to my home.”

That didn’t sound anything like how Riku ended up in Hollow Bastion.

“So you just…followed a rabbit? Down its burrow? Why?”

Alice huffed. “Well, you don’t exactly see a little white rabbit wearing clothes and carrying a pocket watch every day, do you? I got curious about what sorts of worlds he’d go to.”

“You wanted to see other worlds?”

“Of course!”

Riku thought for a moment.

“I wanted to see other worlds too, once. And I did it. Even if my way was infinitely less crazy than yours,” He joked.

“Really? How?”

“The portals. I had some help the first time to figure out how to make them, but now I can do them on my own.”

“But those things seem so…” Alice trailed off, but he could tell what she meant by her look of apprehension.

“Dangerous? Nah, they’re totally safe. Sure, it hurts a little bit, and it definitely feels weird, but the reward is worth it.” He flexes his fingers subconsciously, thinking of that feeling of freedom.

No oceans to contain him anymore. No borders around, or below, or above.

“I could show you other worlds too if you want. Ones that make a little more sense than this one.” Riku cracked a smile.

“That sounds lovely, though I do wonder what would happen to my friends if they discovered that I left.” Alice said. “When should we go?”

“Don’t worry about your friends, they’ll be fine.” Riku wasn’t entirely sure of that, but nothing in there seemed particularly dangerous. Her friends would be perfectly alright if they were residents of this world. “We’ll go in a moment. Just have one more thing to do first.” Riku searched around the room.

“I…I don’t know.”

“You wanted to help bring balance, didn’t you? Balance with the Darkness?” Maleficent gave him a stern look. Riku could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Yeah, b-but,” He scrambled to come up with an excuse. “I had help with taking the islands’ Heart. And I don’t have any clue as to where any other worlds’ Hearts could be, finding the one on Destiny Islands was just a lucky guess.”

Riku didn’t think the excuse would work, but it was enough. Maleficent relaxed her expression into something a little more kind.

“It’s quite alright, child. I’m sure you can do this on your own. As I mentioned, you’ve already done it once before. I believe in you.” She smiled, but it looked fake to Riku. The green flames echoed in her eyes a little too much.

She continued. “And as for finding the Heart, the Heart of a world is always in a significant place. A place that is significant to a person or the world’s people.”

His eyes fell on the sleeping doorknob. Riku remembered the cat mentioning that he ‘wouldn’t need it yet’.

“Alice, what do you know about that doorknob? Have you talked to it?”

“Him?” She turned to look. “Ah, yes! He was such a tricky fellow when I first arrived, but past his constant joking he did seem quite genuine. He helped me when I was crying earlier from how dreadful the conundrum I was in was.”

Bingo.

“Hey.” Riku stalked towards the doorknob and ignored the disquiet in his Heart by acting forcefully. “Hey! Wake up!”

The doorknob blearily blinked against the room’s light.

“What’s this?” He yawned. “What do you want?”

“I need you to open up.”

“No.” The doorknob frowned, and his eyes slowly closed to try and go back to sleep.

“Open up!”

“I said no. And besides,” A slow smile spread across his face, and it made his keyhole-shaped mouth look oddly shaped. “I’m locked.

Riku narrowed his eyes at it. It didn’t bode well if the keyhole to a world’s Heart was locked.

“I thought you said he was nice.” He remarked to Alice.

“Goodness, I said he was genuine!” She looked between them. “Truly, he can be nice too, I—Mr. Doorknob?” Alice tried kindly. “May you please open up?”

“Absolutely not. Not for this fellow.”

“But why?” She asked.

“Why not?” The doorknob scowled. “He disturbed my sleep quite rudely. And besides, I hardly need to look at him to know he’s up to no good deeds here.”

“I’m trying to do the right thing.” Riku scowled.

“Then no good deed goes unpunished.” The doorknob looked over at him. “And no bad deed will go uncorrected!”

“That’s it.” Riku summoned Soul Eater and reared it high. Alice gasped at him.

“How many times have I told thee? That friends are the only key you’ll need?”

“Twice.” Riku didn’t bother looking over to know it was the Cheshire Cat.

“And how many times until you learn? How far will your decorum go out of turn?”

He exhaled. “Look, are you going to open the door or not?”

“Perhaps I will, or perhaps you’ll see. If you had said ‘please’ I’d have done it quite happily.”

Riku lowered Soul Eater and rolled his eyes. “You’re going to do it anyways, aren’t you? Why do you keep helping me if you’re going to keep giving me conflicting advice?”

The cat shrugged, and its head bobbled off of its body somewhat with the movement.

“Can’t curiosity as reason enough suffice?”

The Cheshire Cat grinned wider than before as it snapped its fingers. Riku had a few choice words in mind as to curiosity and cats, but anything he was going to say died on his tongue when he heard the door creak open slowly, the sound punctuated with the doorknob’s protests.

“Hey--! Stop! You shouldn’t be touching this door!”

“Ah, but I’m not touching anything, am I?” The cat said.

Nobody responded as the door opened wider.

And just like on the play island behind its own door, there was Light.

The Heart of Wonderland was almost exactly like the Heart of the islands, but not quite: It had the same appearance of a great star of Light in midair, but this Light was different. Whereas the Light of the islands’ Heart reminded one of the fierce voracious glows of diamonds and wildfires, this Light wasn’t anything like that. This Heart had the dappled glow of sunlight streaming through a forest’s canopy, the twinkle of morning dewdrops on flower petals. But this Heart was every bit as beautiful, too. It trilled in a chirruping note.

All he and Alice could do for a minute was stare at it, before Riku shakily held up his hand to it.

He struggled to rile his Darkness in the face of so much Light.

Riku tried again. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to, but he had to, if he wanted any chance at a keyblade…

“Whatever you are going to do, please don’t do it.”

He opened his eyes and looked to Alice beside him. She had an almost haunted look on her face. In that moment she reminded Riku of Kairi quite a bit, but he couldn’t figure out how.

“What…What makes you say that?”

“It’s as if I know what you’re going to do but I can’t explain it. I would quite like to be able to, but I can’t.” Alice took a shaky breath and continued staring at the Heart. “It’s just a feeling. A quite bad feeling at that. Just, please don’t do whatever comes next.”

He paused and looked to the Heart. Riku studied its Light, listened to its trill.

And finally, Riku slowly lowered his hand.

He used it to grab at his Heart instead. It was screaming at him by now, the gnawing repentant feeling growing only louder as this whole scene went on, and he couldn’t ignore it anymore.

“Okay.” He said, more to himself. And once more, surer this time, “Okay.”

Riku lowered his hand entirely and dismissed Soul Eater from the other. He pulled the edge of the door to where it slowly shut until it was closed entirely.

Nobody in the small gathering said anything for several minutes. Alice still had that haunted look on her face as she looked at the closed door, the doorknob of which stared up at Riku with grimace that was tinged with fear. Up above, but not far, sat the Cheshire Cat who looked at the two children with a smile that was equally proud and playful.

Riku stood a step away from them all and could only examine his hands. His Heart had stopped its upheaval.

“Do you still want to come with me?” He asked Alice.

She tore her eyes away from the door to look at him. “I’m not sure anymore.”

“Look.” Riku closed his eyes and breathed out. “I’m risking enough already by not doing my second task, so I need you to come with me at least. I know I presented it like a choice earlier, but—”

“It’s not quite a choice at all, is it?” She spoke.

“No. It’s not. But the place I’m taking you…It’s nice. It’s just like a castle, you’ll like it.” He decided to leave out the part where the citadel in question looked foreboding inside and out. He was at least being honest in saying it was a nice place. “And the lady I work for is nice too, at least to me. Don’t listen to what he tells you,” Riku jerked a thumb at the Cheshire Cat, who only grinned wider and wider yet. “She’s no asp or snake or whatever he called her. She’s a fairy, and I’m sure she’ll be nice to you too. And I wasn’t lying earlier when I said the world I’ll take you to makes more sense than this one. There’s actual rhyme and reason to it, not just rhyme.” Riku finished with a glare at the cat, who shrugged.

“Fine. I’ll go with you.” Alice smoothed out her apron again. “Just promise me you won’t attempt whatever you were going to do to that Heart again?”

“I promise.” Riku said, and he meant it.

He held out his hand away from them and summoned a Dark portal. Riku put one foot in Hollow Bastion, and kept one foot in Wonderland, and offered his hand to Alice.

She took it, and together they walked through. And with that, the Dark portal disappeared.

In the tumultuous silence of the room the Cheshire Cat gave a pleased huff.

“Well!” He said, “That was certainly a show.”

The doorknob looked at him with outrage. “A show? A show?! You call that ‘a show’?!”

“’Twas all planned, I’ll have you know.” The cat said with a snap of his fingers. “But worry not, to sleep you’ll go!”

“Wait! Don--!” The doorknob stilled for a split second as his features went perfectly blank. “What was…? Why, Cheshire Cat, so good to see you again. Can you come back later, though? I was in the middle of a nap.” He yawned.

“Of course, friend! You’ll have your nap.” The Cheshire Cat stretched luxuriously and yawned. “Perhaps even I could do with a quick nightcap.”

And with that the cat faded to nothing until only his grin remained, until it slowly faded too.


 

 

S O R A

 

The queen was furious, worse than ever before.

“Alice--! Where is Alice?!” She screamed, pounding her fists on the table before pointing at all of them. “All of you! Go search for Alice this instant! I don’t care who finds her, just do it!!”

Cardsmen shuffled left and right, with most of them scrambling through the green court and into the maze of topiary beyond. Even the white rabbit scrambled out of there, the sounds of his pocket watch ticking in his wake. Only a few cardsmen remained to stay with the queen.

She looked to the three in a black mood. “Well? What are you waiting for?”

“N-N-Nothing, your majesty!” Goofy stammered, and Sora and Donald hurriedly followed him out of the green back into the lotus forest.

In the forest they could see a couple of other cardsmen darting about, but the three were left alone. Sora could hear them shouting for Alice in the quiet of the forest to no response.

It was the same quiet that made Sora relaxed enough to vent.

“That queen is crazy!” She angrily smacked away an oversized leaf and looked up when one of the flowers shouted at her indignantly for it. “Sorry! Sorry.” She apologized as the daffodil crossed its leafy arms and turned its nose up at her. Sora continued walking. “Really, she’s insane. She just calls for people to be beheaded left and right? What kind of ruler does that?”

“King Mickey wouldn’t do that, for sure.” Goofy sighed, and Donald looked similarly downcast.

“Oh yeah, we’re supposed to be looking for him too, aren’t we?” Sora wondered as she lifted a leaf for the three of them to walk under easily. “And my mom. And Kairi. And Riku. And those Ansem Reports. No news on any of them.” She listed off dejectedly.

“Well, this is just the first place we’ve been to, remember.” Donald said. “There’s lots and lots of worlds out there.”

“That’s true! We can’t lose hope.” Goofy agreed.

“Yeah, smiling faces and everything.” But Sora’s face didn’t look to be smiling at all. “I’m just worried. I want to at least make sure my mom’s okay.”

“The love you seek, the love he shunts. Even the Cheshire Cat was a kitten once.”

The three looked up to see the Cheshire Cat had alighted on a tree branch and was currently in the process of removing his ever-present smile and turning it upside down so that it was a frown instead.

“A mother’s love is either none or all, and I’m sad to see the children’s pall.” The cat finished with a flicker of his tail.

“I, uh,” Sora wasn’t sure what to say. “Are you talking to me?”

“You?”

“Yes?”

“Who?” The cat started juggling his own head.

“Me!”

“You?”

“We already established this!” Donald raised a fist. “Have you seen Alice or not, you mangy cat!”

“Donald, I don’t think you should be mean…” Goofy cautioned, but the cat curled as his smile returned upright.

“Oh, Alice. Oh dear! The girl you seek is far and near!”

“So, you know where she is? Where is she?” Sora asked.

“Somewhere beyond your eye can see. But I can assure you she’ll sleep peacefully!”

“Wait, sleep?” Donald questioned as he raised his staff. “Did you do something to Alice? Where did she go?”

“Follow me and perhaps you’ll know.”

“And why should I follow you anywhere?” Donald demanded.

“Donald, he might know something.” Sora said.

“Yeah, Donald, he helped us out a bit already, ahyuk!”

The cat grinned widely.

“You should listen to your friends, little duck.”

Little du--! I’ll make you pay for that!” Donald screeched, nearly unintelligible again as he wielded his staff.

The Cheshire Cat’s laugh echoed around them in the forest as he leapt from the branch to the forest floor. And with that, the cat ran as Donald gave chase. With nothing else to do, Sora and Goofy followed as fast they could.

“Donald, wait!” Goofy cried.

“Donald!” Sora shouted as they ran. She wasn’t really sure why he was set off by that comment. Wasn’t he a duck? She was confused.

They ran through the rest of the forest, dodging card soldiers that were running about themselves and ducking over and under the leaves of whatever flowers were along the path. Though more often than not, they were unsuccessful, and angered more than a few daisies and pansies in their wake.

The trio, plus cat, skirted around the edge of the court green in their chase, with the queen barely noticing them in their speed.

It was only through the topiary archways, down the hall, and past the overlarge bed did anyone stop, too tired to continue. The Cheshire Cat gave them all another maddening grin before climbing up onto the chair piece by piece, his paws going first.

“Just wait ‘till I get my hands on you!” Donald said, and his staff crackled with magic.

“It’s not me you need to fight.” The Cheshire Cat started once his mouth had reattached. “When you’re in the middle of Darkness, don’t forget your Light!

Wait, what did that mean? Sora took a glance around to check, but she didn’t see any signs of Darkness around. She could see Goofy and Donald doing the same.

“Darkness?” The trio echoed at once.

“Indeed.” The cat grinned. He didn’t look winded at all from the chase. “Light and Dark, Dark and Light. Only together can things be right.”

He continued, as he snapped his fingers and small flames lit themselves in the votives around the room, “Did you know that when you turn on a light, a shadow is made?” Another snap, and the stove was lit. “And yet it is the Dark of which so many are afraid.”

“But…” The cat trailed off. “Perhaps they are not wrong. But they are not right, either.”

The shadows in the corners of the room and under the bed and table became especially stark. Sora uneasily stepped from foot to foot and summoned her keyblade. She could see Donald and Goofy readying their staff and shield.

“Are you prepared for the worst?” The Cheshire Cat grinned and snapped his fingers once more. “If you’re not…that’s too bad!”

Out from under the bed Sora could see something begin to crawl.

“Guys…?” She said shakily, holding her keyblade out in front of her. She pointed and saw her friends follow with their eyes.

It extended one long double-jointed leg, and Sora saw that whatever it was, it was garishly colored, following a color palette of greens and pinks and purples. Its feet were clawed front and back. And finally, its head—or more accurately, heads—swooped out, one stacked on top of the other, so that it glared at them with five sets of eyes. The heartless made a papery sound as it unfurled its arms like origami, and it revealed to carry two batons in its hands.

“You…You tricked us!” Donald cried.

“Tricked you? Nothing of the sort.” The Cheshire Cat watched them gleefully. “The Cheshire Cat is always there to help the weak!”

The heartless began to stomp towards them, twirling its batons. Sora was unnerved by how its legs bended outwards on both sides when it flexed them.

She took a deep breath, and then she charged.

The thing was tall, no doubt about it. Only Donald could manage to get any significant hits in with his magic, all Sora and Goofy could manage was to jump up and down trying to strike what they could. Which, more often than not, turned out to be nothing but its knees.

Sora saw with a frustrated start that when she could manage to even hit its knees, which was rarely given the thing would not stop moving, which meant its knees were continually moving, she couldn’t even do much damage to it. What little few cuts she and Goofy had managed seeped out piddling amounts of Darkness.

She saw Donald strike it with several lightning spells, which were visibly doing damage. But she could see he was getting exhausted after all of the running around earlier, and whatever magic stores he had must have been running low. Sora wished he hadn’t been so impulsive with striking them with spells. And, not for the first time that day, Sora wished she had magic too.

Crack! Donald gave a victorious cry as he landed a significant hit, even with the cry being laced with his tired panting. The lightning left one jagged crack down the heartless’ faces, which seeped out quite a stream of Darkness. The creature kneeled down in a daze.

Sora and Goofy rushed in quickly with a new burst of energy and struck wherever they could. Faces, arms, its torso. It worked better than hitting only its legs, but not enough.

Sora used her frustration at this to fuel her fighting, and she managed to leave another crack splintering off of the one Donald made. But she could tell even this was not enough. Whatever this thing was, it needed magic to be defeated.

Over the course of the fight, Sora could tell it was moving in a particular direction. Towards the stove, she realized, as she watched it twirl its batons. But why? It seemed to rely mostly on its feet so far.

She didn’t like this.

“Keep it away from the stove!” She yelled to the others.

“What? Why?” Donald asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s heading towards it! I don’t like that!”

“Guys?” Goofy curled himself in behind his shield. “I think it might be planning to use those batons!”

“Get the batons out of its hands!” Sora shouted and followed after the heartless.

They followed behind her, but she realized quickly that none of them could do anything apart from perhaps Donald. It was as if the trio were nothing but ants to the overlarge heartless, and it stepped away from their hits as easily as anything.

And every time it stepped away, it got closer to the stove. Sora saw it hold its batons out towards it.

“No!” Sora shouted at it. “Stop!”

It didn’t work. And with horror Sora watched as a coil of flame snaked its way up the baton. The heartless gave a rustling sound that sounded pleased.

And all along, the Cheshire Cat watched the events with an ineffable grin.

The heartless reared back from the stove with both of its batons lit now, and it juggled them far above. The three split up and ran in opposite directions. And with a warbling sound from its heads, the heartless began to throw fireballs towards each of them.

One hit Goofy head on, and he thereafter began running and screaming, his shield flailing in his hand. Donald turned away from where he was running towards and instead tried to pursue Goofy, calling for him to stay still so Donald could try to put him out with magic.

Sora looked to her friends, and then she looked to the gargantuan furniture around the room. If she needed height to hit it…

She gave a running leap and managed to latch on the seat of the chair. She pulled herself up, using the keyblade’s tooth to latch it over the back of the chair’s supports for extra leverage, and waited for several terrifying moments until the heartless wandered closer. And then, once she was close enough, Sora leapt for it with her keyblade ready.

It didn’t work.

All she managed to do was leave a long scrape down its back and grab its attention. And now it looked to her with ten eyes and all the anger held within. The heartless twirled its batons, making for a circle of flame on either side of it. It reared back its arms with a rustling chatter.

“All right, now.” The Cheshire Cat chortled. “You’ll never make it like that!”

He snapped his fingers, and Sora reflexively flinched. Until she felt pins and needles travel from head to toe down her body, as if it had all fallen asleep and woken up. She looked down at her hands. Nothing seemed different.

“Huh?” Sora asked him. “What did you do?”

“I only gave you something you were missing.” The cat angled his head. “I did say I was always there to help the weak, didn’t I? Try pointing your keyblade at it now.”

With nothing else in mind, Sora did. And with a lunge, the end of her keyblade pointed at the heartless, Sora saw a burst of white energy come out of the end of her weapon as the air around her grew cold for a moment.

It worked. The heartless’ batons went out, a thin crust of ice caked over them. It looked down at its batons with what seemed to be confusion.

“Sora?” Donald yelled from his and Goofy’s side of the room. “Did you just do that?!”

“I…I think so?” Sora called back. She looked up at the Cheshire Cat. “What did you do?”

“The keyblade wielder should be able to use a little magic, right?” The cat curled up. “For your quest to perpetuate the day and stave off night.”

“Wait, magic?” She grew impossibly excited and it was as if all the tiredness from the day were never there. “You gave me magic?

Without waiting for a response, she aimed her keyblade at the heartless. Again and again she fired off bolts of ice, and sometimes they hit. The heartless was maddeningly capable of dodging despite its size.

This isn’t working, Sora thought with disappointment. What was she doing wrong?

“Sora!” Donald shouted as he and Goofy scrambled to get closer. “You need to concentrate!”

“What?”

“Accumulate power at the tip of the keyblade! Focus and imagine the enemy freezing!”

Sora looked to the heartless as it began to amble towards the stove. No, she thought. Not again.

She ran to get closer and readied her keyblade. Sora stopped at a close range, the weapon pointed upward at the heartless, and she closed her eyes.

In her mind she saw ice crust over the rest of the heartless, thick and impenetrable. A transparent film that encrusted its legs and kept it from moving. Batons permanently extinguished, multiple heads and eyes frozen in place.

Snow. Frost. Arctic.

The enemy will freeze, she thought, and could feel the pins and needles travel through her arms into the keyblade. Towards the end of it.

“The enemy will freeze.” Sora said to herself. The heartless got closer to the stove. She tightened her grip.

FREEZE!” She yelled.

An enormous bolt of magic shot out of the keyblade, and Sora could almost feel it as the magic went from hilt to tip. A small blizzard surrounded her and the heartless, small snowflakes forming in the air, and the magic wrapped around every inch of the heartless and solidified into a thick impenetrable coating of ice.

The heartless was completely still. Even the stove was extinguished from the blast, along with every flame in every light of the room. And with a crashing sound just like glass, the now frozen heartless splintered apart. Heads went everywhere, legs broke into fragments, batons broke into so many pieces they could never be put back together again.

And from the frozen rubble a great glimmering Heart rose and disappeared high in the air. And with it, the vestiges of the heartless dissolved too.

The trio stared after where the heartless was defeated in a daze.

Goofy was the first to speak. “Gawrsh.”

Even the Cheshire Cat seemed surprised. “Oh, my.”

And then both Donald and Goofy gave her a hug.

“You did it!” Donald cheered. It was one of the few times Sora had seen him happy and not grumbling about something, the only other time being when they defeated the Traverse Town heartless.

“Wooo-ho-ho-hoo!” Goofy applauded.

Sora laughed. Not at them, but with glee. She had magic now. She had defeated a heartless. Maybe Aerith was right; She really could do this.

Behind them, the doorknob yawned.

“What a racket,” He complained. “How’s a doorknob to get any sleep?”

“How could you sleep in the middle of all this?” Donald flapped his arms angrily.

He yawned again, and Sora got an idea. The doorknob’s mouth…was shaped like a keyhole.

Her guess was right. She saw something glimmering from within his mouth, a shape. Sora bent down to look closer.

And without warning, her keyblade stirred to life. A great glow formed at the end, and for a moment Sora thought it would be more magic, but it wasn’t. Not the kind she was expecting. Starbursts swirled around the end as it gave a chirruping chime, and it forced her arm to aim the keyblade towards the doorknob’s mouth.

A dazzling beam of Light came out of the end of it, and once it reached the doorknob’s mouth, towards the keyhole, Sora could hear a latching sound come from within like it was locking. And with that sound, the Light faded, and the doorknob fell asleep.

“What was that?” Donald asked.

“Did you hear that?” Sora replied. “It sounded like something closed.”

They looked to the doorknob again when he started to cough, and a small colorful chip flew out of his mouth. He wrinkled his bulbous nose.

“I’m probably coming down with a cold.” He yawned again, and fell back asleep.

“I think that’s a gummi block!” Goofy bent down to pick it up.

“Goofy, that came out of his mouth—” Donald started, but stopped himself. “Never mind.”

“I’m wearing gloves, it’s alright.” Goofy replied. He examined the chip and held it up to the light. “This gummi block ain’t like the others, no sir!”

“Can I see?” Donald leaned over. “You’re right. I’ve never seen this type of gummi block before.”

“Gummi block?”

“Yeah,” Donald looked over to her. “They’re used as components for gummi ships. It could be useful.”

They all turned at the sound of clapping.

“Splendid!” The Cheshire Cat cheered. “You’re quite the hero!”

“Hey, cat.” Sora turned to him. He smiled.

“Yes, that is what I am.”

“What side are you on?” She asked. “You summoned the heartless, and you gave me magic. Are you part of the Darkness? Where’s Alice?”

“The Cheshire Cat’s on no side but the Cheshire Cat’s own, and the Cheshire Cat goes nowhere but where the Cheshire Cat roams.” He said. “Darkness? Or Light? Either way, sunbeams set to make way for the night. There is no such thing as a sun with an everlasting Light, nor can a spirit stand an everlasting fight.”

“Are you still talking to us or yourself?” Donald asked.

“Hem, Hum, what can I say? Can roses still bloom with all night and no day? Far from a garden beset with snakes, gone astray?” The cat coiled up cozily.

Sora sighed. “Can you at least tell us where Alice is?”

“My friends, I’m afraid she’s gone! Into the shadows with a moonbeam, who travels pale and wan!”

“What does that even mean?”

The cat laughed.

“A new moon shall rise, wreathed in blacks.” The Cheshire Cat said. “But time will tell if its crescent shall wax!”

And with that, the Cheshire Cat turned his head on its side and faded away. All that was left was a sideways grin, looking much like a crescent moon. Until moments later even that faded too.

“Well that was a waste of time.” Donald said dejectedly. Neither of them said otherwise this time.

Even if the world’s Heart was safe, even if the heartless were gone, Wonderland was still missing its Alice.


 

 

K A I R I

 

She couldn’t deny that the current circumstances were frustrating.

Being able to reach Sora but unable to talk to her, being able to reach her body but not move it, and in between them all she do was sit on this island. In this dream.

One thing Kairi noticed about being able to reach Sora was that she was unable to reach her when she was asleep, as she had discovered over the course of two panic-stricken hours where Kairi thought she had permanently lost contact. And it was shortly thereafter that she then noticed that the passage of time in this place was entirely unpredictable compared to the outside world. She would withdraw from watching Sora to check on her own body and come back to find hours had passed or take a break for an hour or so to find only minutes had gone by in the outside world.

And if anything, that only unnerved her more. If the discrepancy was already so significant, how much bigger could it get? Could years end up hurrying by if Kairi pulled away for only a second? Could she miss some vital piece of information to get her out of here if she wasn’t careful? And what could happen to her body in the meantime?

What could she do, if she couldn’t do anything?

The only clue she had to how she got here was the familiar voice she’d heard when it seemed like she separated from her own body.

“One day, when you’re in trouble, the Light within you will lead you to the Light of another. Someone to keep you safe.”

Light to Light…Someone to keep her safe…

It still didn’t make much sense. If those words—were they a spell? She saw how Sora and that duck, Donald, were able to do magic and perhaps those words were something similar—were meant to keep her safe, wouldn’t they have made it so that her body at least ended up somewhere it wasn’t abandoned?

The only connection Kairi could make was how she could still see Sora. Her Light was connected to Sora’s Light, she could feel it. But it still didn’t explain how they were connected or why.

She supposed she’d have to think more on that bit later. But there was one more clue she’d found. When Sora had locked the keyhole to that door.

Kairi felt a burst of power from behind it, even if Sora didn’t (another fact about their connection Kairi filed away in her brain). Somewhere behind that door…there was a Heart. Kairi was sure of it. And it was a shudderingly powerful one.

When that happened, she was reminded of the door on Destiny Islands. The play island door that called to her on that night. Kairi marveled to herself how it felt both like so long ago that that happened, and yet no time at all. Time here moved with no order.

It gave her a thought: If she was on a play island just like the one on Destiny Islands, here in this dream…was there a door just like that one here too?

Her first reaction to the idea was fear. The door on the play island opened to only Darkness, and it was how Kairi had lost the ability to use her own body properly in the first place.

She forced herself to ignore it. It can’t do anything to me, she thought. This is just a dream. This is just some weird, messed up dream, and nothing’s going to happen.

I’m only going to see if there’s a door, Kairi told herself. That’s all.

She got up unsteadily. Kairi brushed the dream-sand off of her dream-clothes, and she journeyed up the wooden dream-walkway and listened to them make dull thuds under her dream-shoes. This place really was just like a copy of the play island.

Kairi pushed away the dream-plants at the cave entrance to the sound of the dream-waterfall and paid no mind to the dream-rustling of their dream-leaves.

This is a dream. This is a dream. This is a dream.

She repeated the words in her head but couldn’t bring herself to believe them.

Kairi walked down the dream-cavern under the gaze of dream-drawings, and she still didn’t believe the words.

And in the dream-cave at the very end, replete with dream-tree roots and dream-sand and dream-drawings all around, there was a door. A dream-door, she told herself.

And she still didn’t believe the words.

Kairi could only look at it with fear for a moment. But curiously, her Heart didn’t feel foreboding. She used this knowledge to steel herself.

She walked to the door.

Kairi held her hand out, even, to try and open it physically in some way, but she needn’t have bothered.

It began to slowly open on its own.

Kairi froze. The door opened wider.

And all she saw was Light.

 

Chapter Text

R I K U

 

Nothing had changed since he had left Hollow Bastion just earlier that day.

The sun was still low in the sky as it had been since Riku first arrived, still stuck in that never-ending sunset even when the clock struck midnight. Like the sun was an impromptu sword of Damocles hanging over the world.

Riku wondered if night would ever fall on Hollow Bastion. And at the same time, he hoped it never would.

The hallway still bustled with heartless running about on whatever errands Maleficent had commanded them to, the pipes on the outside walls that he could see through the windows still exhaling Darkness and steam in irregular trails. The green flames of the torches on the walls still flickered on their brackets.

Nothing had changed. But why did it feel like something was still out of place?

Riku heard Alice stepping out of the Dark portal behind him and the soft swishing noise as it dispersed.

“You certainly weren’t wrong about this place being like a castle,” Alice mused as she looked around, keeping an eye on the heartless. “Though it is quite dreary. Similar to castles I’d see in history books I suppose, rather than fairy tales.”

He shrugged and gestured for her to follow him as he walked through the halls. “It’s not the happiest place, but it’s still nice enough. I was right when I said this place was nice, wasn’t I?”

“I’m not sure,” Alice said with a pensive expression and a shiver. “It looks nice, but something’s rather…unsettling beyond appearance, I’d say.”

Riku gave her a confused glance. Nothing about this place seemed too off to him after he got used to the initial shock. Was this some sort of Princess of Heart thing?

“Well, other than that, you’re going to meet Maleficent in a bit.” He replied. “Maybe she’ll have you go on errands and give you a place to stay too, like me. That way you’ll see other worlds like you wanted.”

Riku watched as Alice looked more unsure at the suggestion. They walked on together in an uncomfortable silence, neither of the two willing to break it.

For quite a long while as they walked he thought back to what had transpired back in Wonderland. Or, more accurately, didn’t transpire.

Riku pulled at one of the wristbands on his arms.

“Hey, Alice? Could you do a favor for me, when you meet Maleficent?”

“What is it?”

He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding until she said that. Riku knew he wasn’t in much of a position to be asking for any favors from her, but this was important.

“If she asks you what happened, can you say we never found the Heart of Wonderland?”

Alice could only blink at him for several seconds.

“Goodness, you want me to lie?” She gaped. “To her?”

“I, ah, well…” Riku ran his fingers through his hair. He sighed. “Yes.”

“But why? What if she finds out?”

Why? Because I’m scared to see what happens when she finds out I disobeyed her, a quiet corner of his mind hissed. Because I want a keyblade and I’m too weak to do the dirty work of getting one. Because I don’t want mom to have been right when she said I was a prison, or a mistake, or unlovable, but maybe she was right all along.

But what he said instead was, “She won’t find out. I’ll make sure of it.”

Neither of them said anything for a while, both of them lost in thought while walking down hallway after hallway towards the chapel where Maleficent waited, each darker than the last.

“You said earlier, to the doorknob, that you were trying to do the right thing.” Alice said.

“Yeah.”

Alice stopped walking.

“Does this…’right thing’ include doing whatever you were going to do to that Heart?”

Riku hesitated. “Yes, it was supposed to.”

In that moment he knew both of them were thinking that doing the ‘right thing’ also included taking her to Hollow Bastion against her will, to the home of the heartless. But neither of them said anything about that.

“If you’re not just doing the right thing, but anything that isn’t bad, why would you need to lie about it?” She looked him right in the eye.

“And if this Maleficent is as kind as you say,” Alice finished, “Why would you be scared to tell her the truth?”


 

 

K A I R I

 

This wasn’t a dream, Kairi realized the minute her eyes adjusted.

Whatever this place was that she had found herself in—the play island she arrived at, the door she opened, and the room she found herself in now, every little bit of it was real.

And she realized that the second she laid eyes on the boy in the pale throne.

It was his Light that she saw first, that same Light that nearly blinded her without even trying to see beyond into his Heart. There was not a speck of Darkness to be found in him, no shadows in the corners of himself that were there for everyone else she’d ever seen. The Light left not even wavering lilac shadows in him like the ones in this equally overwhelmingly bright room.

But the strangest thing about that Light, beyond its pervasiveness in his Heart, was that it seemed artificial.

That Light reminded her so much of the blue-toned fluorescent lighting in classrooms and offices that left spots in your vision when you looked away from them. The light that moths and spiders would creep towards as night’s veil covered the islands. The Light in the boy that slept on the throne had none of the natural brilliance of the sun or stars, but rather the almost caustic burn of ultraviolet rays.

And this Light, she realized with a start, was familiar. It was a Light Kairi had seen nearly every day of her life since waking up on the islands, one of two in a girl that was her best friend.

Kairi sat back and watched as her friends dueled on the shore. It was coming up on one and a half years since she had first woken up on Destiny Islands, and six months since she’d been assigned to her permanent foster home with the mayor and his wife. Six months since she saw an empty seat beside Sora in that classroom and they became instant friends.

It still surprised her sometimes to see two Hearts in Sora, still brought to mind small whispers of memory from a time before Kairi woke up on the now-familiar shore. But she learned to disregard it. The two Hearts didn’t seem to change Sora’s behavior at all, didn’t do much of anything aside from one’s constant Light quietly remaining alongside the other one’s small measure of Darkness that seemed much more natural in comparison. And so the fact was simply catalogued in the little file in her head marked ‘Sora’, written down beneath the bullet points ‘Never stays sad for long’ and ‘Tends to act on impulse’.

“This isn’t a dream.” She says out loud.

Before her is one of the Hearts she’s seen nearly her whole life. One of the Hearts in Sora.

But if this boy’s Heart is supposed to be inside Sora…what did that make this place?

What did that make this island? What did it make the door in the cavern, and the room it opened into?

Kairi looked away from the boy long enough to inspect the room they were in. It was a circular chamber, all white and brightly lit from a light that didn’t have any known origin. Above her and the sleeping boy stretched a ceiling that seemed to have no end. And all along the walls repeated a pattern that perfectly matched the silver badge on his clothes, Kairi realized—The symbol of a geometric heart with a four-pointed star overlaying the bottom. But whereas the badge looked to be holding together two crossed belts on his torso, the same symbols on the walls had chains coming out of the bottoms of them stretching from the throne lit by alternating pulses of some sort of glowing magic. She had no idea what they were for.

The throne the boy slept on was tall and curved, and just as white as the rest of the room. Its back stretched upwards towards the ceiling, with its armrests just as overly tall. The imperious size of the throne itself made the boy look so much smaller within it, though Kairi estimated that he was likely taller than her. And beyond the throne, she could just barely see the outline of another door.

She walked around the throne, noting how the boy didn’t even stir at the sound of her footsteps, and tried to push the door open. It didn’t work. And even with all of Kairi’s strength—which wasn’t paltry, she’d managed to beat Tidus, Sora, and Selphie in arm-wrestling contests several times before—it still didn’t budge one bit. Kairi wondered if the glowing chains on the symbols on the door had anything to do with that.

She angled her head around the throne to inspect the doorway she came in through. It was perfectly nondescript, no chains or symbols or even a doorframe around it. Kairi could see the other side of the door, the one that was on the inside of the room, was composed of the rest of the wall as if it were meant to be concealed when it was closed. Beyond the archway, she could see the inside of the cave and hear the dimmed rustling of the waves coming from far off.

Kairi looked down to the boy.

“Hello?” She tried, waving a hand in front of his face.

He didn’t wake. Kairi then tried nudging his shoulder slightly, but that didn’t work either. Whatever slumber the boy was in was deep.

The thought reminded her of Sora. And with that reminder came a pang of desolation, of loneliness, as she remembered how she could see her but not talk to her. As she remembered her body lying abandoned in a forgotten alley somewhere, able to see but not speak, not walk, not get away.

Not able to get back home.

Panicking won’t solve anything, Kairi had told herself that first time she’d tried to get back to her body. She wasn’t panicking anymore, but now she just wanted to cry. Kairi knew that wouldn’t solve anything either.

“I hoped you could talk to me,” She said. “Maybe you’d know what this place is. Or at least I wouldn’t go crazy from being isolated here.”

“Well, I guess that’s not true anymore,” Kairi amended. “At least you’re here now. Even if you’re asleep. Maybe I could talk to you instead?”

She looked to him for a response before realizing he wasn’t able to give any.

And between the two of them, in that large chamber where the boy slept and the girl sat, no sound was made but for the quiet rustling of the ocean from the open doorway.

But even with no reply, this time she didn’t feel alone in the strange place she had found herself in.


 

S O R A

 

While Donald steered the gummi ship through space back towards Traverse Town, she stared out the windows and watched the small colorful silhouette of Wonderland get farther and farther away. Beside her, Goofy and Jiminy were forlornly doing the same.

“We’re not finding much, are we?” Sora said, as the world of Wonderland became nothing more than a tiny pink star amongst countless others.

“Nope,” Goofy mumbled. “Gawrsh, no news on the king or any idea where Alice went.”

“Nothing about those reports, either.” Jiminy reminded them.

“Or my mom, or Riku, or Kairi.”

All three of them sighed in their seats. In front of them, Donald grumbled from the pilot’s chair.

“Oi, you can’t carry on to Sora about ‘no frowning faces’ and then start sighing yourself!” He said.

“But Donald,” Goofy asked, “While we’re looking for people, another someone disappears! Don’t you think it’s pretty fishy? And on top of that, there’s been one of those really big, mean heartless in every world we’ve been to so far!”

“We’ve only been to two worlds so far!” Donald said as he angled the ship around the oncoming asteroid field.

“That’s true,” Sora agreed with Goofy, “And Leon and Yuffie said that before their world fell heartless started appearing and people went missing too. Could that have anything to do with what’s going on?”

“That’s what I was thinking!” Jiminy piped up from his miniscule seat on the dashboard, “From what you’ve mentioned, the heartless in Wonderland were stronger than the ones in Traverse Town, especially that one with the batons you encountered at the end. Maybe that means we’re getting closer to the truth.”

“Maybe,” Sora said, but didn’t have much confidence in his words. The more she got entrenched in this whole mess, the more it felt like she was just drifting away from being able to accomplish the bigger goals she set out to accomplish in favor of dealing with all of the immediate issues of heartless and helping the people that were suffering because of them. Not that that wasn’t also important, but it was frustrating to only be able to treat the symptoms and not the syndrome. If she’d only had those reports, at the very least, maybe there’d be a way to get rid of the heartless at the source and bring back the worlds that had fallen to them. And bring back her home.

Then again, it wasn’t as if this whole journey was pointless so far. Every heartless she and her friends defeated was one less heartless that could hurt someone or turn them into a heartless too. And on top of that, she thought with a grin, there was that present the Cheshire Cat had given her, as maddening as he was.

“Whatever happens, we’ll be able to handle it,” Sora asserted, “Now that I’ve got magic.”

She did a teasing waggle of her fingers at Donald, who only spared her a withering glance before refocusing on the asteroid field. Sora cracked up at that.

“Which you’ve only used once so far for good!” Donald scolded over her peals of laughter. “You’re much more interested in just using it to make the gummi ship floor into a skating rink than in using it to fight!”

“C’mon, Donald, that was only in my own room!”

“It wasn’t just in your own room, the ice leaked out into the hallway! I slipped!”

“You’re a duck, can’t you fly?”

“I’m not that kind of duck!”

“What does that even mean—” Sora started to ask, but was interrupted by Goofy’s pointing out towards the windshield.

“Guys! There’s a world we haven’t tried yet, think the king might be down there?”

They followed his pointing hand to see another world become visible against the starry blackness of outer space. It was verdant green, rife with plant life, but it didn’t seem particularly technologically advanced.

“In a backwater place like that?” Donald scoffed. “No way! Let’s move on.”

Before he could angle the steering away, Sora spoke up.

“Hold on, my mom and friends could be down there. What if one of the reports are there too? Let’s just check it out.”

“Forget it! We’re on an important mission!”

“Just land!”

“No!”

“Come on!”

“Aw, guys, cut it out!” Goofy implored, but neither Sora nor Donald were willing to be swayed.

“Let’s just—see what’s down there—for five minutes--!” Sora began wrestling the controls away from Donald, who clenched onto them tightly.

“No! Don’t touch that!” Donald yelled, as the ship began to careen towards the jungled world at a speedy pace.

“The king could be down there!” Sora argued, “Or Riku! Or Kairi! Or my mom! Maybe even an Ansem Report!”

The world got even closer yet, and the sky outside the windshield was beginning to turn blue. The gummi ship passed through a cloud, leaving raindrops on the windows. Sora was still wrestling for the controls from Donald, and she could hear Goofy and Jiminy going haywire in the background as she scanned the dashboard for any controls she could find useful. A big red button caught her eye, and Sora decided to smack it.

“That’s the eject button!” Donald cried. “Ah, who am I kidding, that was probably the only good decision you made in this whole fuss at this point—Gwa-Waaaaak!” And then Donald was vaulted through the now-open cockpit windows as his chair upended him.

And with him, went Goofy and Sora. They sailed off into different directions, each of them screaming on the way out. Even Jiminy was thrown from his tiny chair on the dashboard, but all it managed to do was toss him onto the controls to try and manage the ship as it freefell through the sky.

Sora could hear Goofy crying out as she fell, a faint “Aaaah-hoohoooey!” echoing through the air as they got separated. She could see the gummi ship starting to rock into a position where the nose was lifting into the air as it became righted, and Sora realized Jiminy was probably able to get the gummi ship under control after all.

Huh, she thought as she fell. I thought he was too little to use the controls effectively.

From there, Sora plummeted down through the trees with a rustling crash and tumbled through a hole in the roof into a very aged treehouse speckled with moss. Finally, she hit the ground in one piece.

More or less.

“Agh, ow.” Sora grumbled as she held a hand to the new bump on her head. “Donald? Goofy?”

She quickly withdrew a potion from her pockets and drank it and felt her wounds from the fall heal themselves up. It wasn’t as good as the elixirs, but it made do. Sora looked around at the treehouse she’d landed in.

The first thing Sora noticed was how the air was humid, just like on the islands. But whereas Destiny Islands was comprised of shorelines and the ocean, it appeared that this place was just an endless jungle instead. The treehouse was large, far larger than any she’d ever seen, and old, its boards a withered brown and small plant growth all over the interior. Above, a couple of vines swayed through the air. Mottled sunlight streamed through some of the broken windows and the hole in the roof to leave gleaming striated patterns on the floor.

A footfall and a low growl from behind her made Sora quickly turn around.

And with that she came face to face with a great leopard lunging from the balcony straight for her.

Sora barely summoned her keyblade in time to catch the leopard’s open maw, and she terrifyingly watched as its enormous fangs clamped down on the metal where her hand or head could have been. It swiped, and with its strength Sora flew towards the closest wall of the treehouse, feeling her back collide with the wreckage of crates with a gasp.

She scrambled to her feet, flinching at the pain in her neck, and raised the keyblade into her familiar sparring position.

And with that, both she and the leopard lunged.


 

 

K A I R I

 

It felt like such a familiar sight, watching someone snooze like this, that she couldn’t help but laugh.

“You’re just like a friend of mine. Her name’s Sora. She’d sleep a lot too. Anywhere: In the middle of class, or homework, or even whenever us and our friends would be on the play island doing stuff that didn’t bore her, because school sure did. It would happen all the time, like Riku—that’s another friend of mine and Sora’s—would be wandering around looking for her to have another spar and more often than not she’d be sleeping on the shore, or the little beach shack, or wherever.”

It was such a familiar sight that whenever Kairi returned here from checking on her body or seeing whatever Sora was up to that she half-expected to see her friend sprawled out on the beach. And every time she didn’t see her, or Riku, or any of the other kids waiting for her on this play island that wasn’t the real play island, her Heart squeezed painfully a little. But Kairi didn’t mention that part.

“It made her mom worried at one point, ‘cuz she thought maybe Sora was narcoleptic or something, even though Sora could stay awake just fine when something that interested her was going on. But she got the tests and everything done, consulted doctors, and everything came back normal. Nothing was wrong, she was just a lazy bum.” Kairi snorted to herself.

“I’d wake her up a lot by just staring at her. She has really good instincts, you see, so more often than not Sora would wake right up whenever she sensed someone staring at her. That ability was probably honed from years of trying to convince teachers she wasn’t trying to sleep in class. She and Riku would have staring contests a lot, even before…even before I arrived on Destiny Islands, they’d be competing on everything. Riku would win spars and feats of strength more often than not, but Sora never lost a staring contest with him.”

She added, “It was great. Here was this guy that singlehandedly hauled all of the logs around when we were building the raft, who could beat Tidus, Selphie, and Wakka in a three-on-one spar, reduced to rubbing his eyes like crazy barely a minute into a staring contest. And he’d just go ‘Agh, how are you doing that?’ and she’d only laugh at it. Once Riku managed to last close to a minute and a half, but he still managed to lose, and needed eye drops afterward too.”

Kairi could see it now: She and Sora were twelve, and Riku thirteen, and the three of them were assembled on Sora’s bed in her room after a long summer day of sparring and running around. It was before Riku got those gloves he wore to keep splinters out of his hands from the old wooden swords he and Sora used all the time, so his fingers were pink and raw from dueling that day.

‘Seriously, though, how are you able to do that?’ Riku had asked.

Sora shrugged. ‘I dunno, I just kinda zone out and think about other stuff until you blink. It helps that you never take long.’ She finished with a snicker.

‘Figures that you’d just zone out, knowing you I thought you figured out a way to sleep with your eyes open and just did that to win.’

‘I wish!’ Sora exclaimed. ‘Maybe it’s from all the experience with Kairi staring me awake.’ She turned to her then, and asked, ‘Speaking of, Kai, you wanna have a go? We haven’t had a staring contest in a while.’

She could feel the corner of her mouth turn upward.

‘Sure. What was the score again? Five to seven?’

‘Six to seven! I won last time.’

‘Got it.’ Kairi replied, and so the contest began.

“I miss them.”

Kairi got no response to her words and didn’t expect any. She sat back and listened to the quiet breezes coming in through the open door.

“It’s weird. I’ve been separated from Sora and Riku only for…two days? Three? I don’t know anymore.” She sighed.

“But it feels like an eternity has gone on since then. I don’t know where I am, or how I ended up here, not really. This place, outside of this room anyways, looks exactly like the play island from my home, but there’s no birds or insects or even the main island out along the horizon. Just the ocean and the sky as far as you can see.”

“It’s a perfect replica apart from all those things. It has the shaky scaffolding on the far side of the play island that Riku and Sora would run along in races. Right down to the one board that would snap if you put too much weight on it.”  

Kairi paused.

“It even has the weird door in the cave that’s on the real play island too.”

She sat quietly for a moment, thinking back to that night on the play island when everything went wrong. It felt impossible that all of that happened only a few days ago, but it was the truth.

“The first time I ever saw the door was years ago. It was around two years after I first arrived on the islands, I was six. Riku and Sora called the cave the door was in their ‘inner sanctum’ and said I couldn’t ever tell anyone else about it. You know, normal kid stuff. None of us ever told anyone about it of course, but three years later Selphie would wander in on the place herself while she was exploring, and then the secret was out. But for a while there, the cave was only ours. Having that little piece of the world to ourselves was special to us.”

“Sometimes we’d have sleepovers in the cave, sometimes we’d do nothing in there that day but draw on the walls. But Riku was always interested in that door. It didn’t seem like anything to me—not until a couple of days ago, anyways—but I think that thing talked to him. Or maybe not talked to him literally but messed with his head a little. But it didn’t become apparent that it did anything but in the past month or so, really just the past few weeks at most.”

“He’d always go ‘There’s something about that door’ and we’d always go ‘Riku, it’s just a door, chill’ or some variant of that, and we’d carry on our work on the raft, but he’d keep looking back at it. Or even just watch in the direction of where the cave was.”

“I thought maybe the Darkness had gotten to him finally and made him crazy or something—He’d always had a problem with his Darkness, I could just see in his Heart even when he said things were fine, that nothing’s wrong—But then, that last night on the play island, I started blacking out and eventually ended up in front of the door. And I could swear that thing was talking to me in my head too.”

She gave a humorless smile. “Well, more like screaming really. It was asking me for help, calling me ‘Princess’, asking me to give it back its Light, but I had no idea what it was talking about. What does it mean when your legs know what to do but your brain doesn’t? I didn’t have any clue, I still don’t. When I found you I was hoping you might know, but you’re just stuck on this place with me. Asleep.”

Kairi shook her head. “Sorry, that might have come out a little grouchy. What I mean is, it’s nice to know I’m not alone here. That I have someone to talk to. I just wish I had someone that could talk back, you know?”

“Anyways, I couldn’t figure it out in time, and by that point Sora had found her way to me and whatever she was going to do next was interrupted by the door opening up. By itself! And if things couldn’t get any crazier, so much of this Darkness started bursting out and the next thing I knew I was hearing this familiar voice say these way too familiar words and I was seeing myself in the third person. And then I woke up here.”

She looked up at him, not expecting a response but asking anyways.

“Was that how you ended up here too?”


 

S O R A

 

Before Sora could fight, before the leopard could sink its teeth into her, a figure burst in through the rafters and interfered with the leopard’s lunge with the help of a spear.

The leopard gave a fitful growl at the man, who only stared back with his spear at the ready. Sora looked back and forth between them, the air stiff with tension like the moment before the first clap of a thunderstorm.

But what happened next wasn’t a fight like she had expected. The leopard instead chose to turn and flee, throwing itself out of the closest window and into the blinding brightness of the day where it quickly disappeared from view in the canopy of trees down below the treehouse Sora had landed in.

“Sabor, danger.” The man warned in halted syllables, as Sora slowly turned away from the window where she had watched the leopard escape.

He was tall, with blue-gray eyes that never seemed to focus properly or looked at anything for long. She saw how his gaze darted around the treehouse, like he was continuously searching for more predators like the leopard that could be about.

Sora got the sense, looking at him, that this guy must have been abandoned at one point. His hair was long, matted into dreadlocks, and he wore no normal clothes like she’d ever seen, his attire comprised of a tanned pelt wrapped around his waist that went halfway towards his knees. It was as if this man had never been part of human society.

She thought, what does ‘sabor’ mean? Sora knew ‘danger’ well enough, maybe he was referring to the leopard that tried to ambush her?

“Is ‘Sabor’ the leopard?” Sora asked, but the man only gave her a blank look. “Um…thank you.”

“’Thank you’.” The man imitated her, less in a mocking way and more in that same halting way that made her think he was trying to figure out what she said. Was this guy okay?

“Huh? Er, um, what is this place?” She tried asking.

“This place, this place.” He repeated.

This was getting weirder by the minute.

“Oka-a-y, where did the others go?” She clarified, upon seeing him give her that same blank look, “I mean, I got separated from my friends. Have you seen them?”

He quirked his head in confusion.

Friends.” Sora enunciated slowly.

This time, the man straightened somewhat in recognition of the word. “Friends!” He echoed excitedly.

“Right, my friends!” Sora asserted. “There’s two of ‘em. The loud one is Dona—No, never mind.”

Donald’s probably busy right now being a grump, she thought to herself, I should just focus on finding what I came here for in the first place.

The man returned to looking confused and gave her an inquisitive hum. Sora decided to try again.

“I’m looking for my friends, Riku and Kairi.” She said.

“Look for Ree-coo, friends?” He asked, “Kai-ree, friends?”

“Right!” Sora verified. His pronunciation was weird, but it seemed he had an idea of what she was talking about this time, she thought excitedly. Maybe this could bode well.

“Friends here.”

“Really?!”

The man nodded excitedly and tried to communicate something else with a tumble of syllables Sora didn’t recognize.

“Huh?”

He repeated himself, but Sora still wasn’t sure what he was trying to say.

“I don’t really understand, but…show me!” Sora was desperate for a clue to her friends’ whereabouts, saying, “Take me to Riku and Kairi!”

This time, it was the man’s turn to enunciate slowly.

“Tarzan.” He said, gesturing to himself. It seemed he was introducing himself finally. “Tarzan go.”

She blinked.

“And I’m Sora,” She pointed a thumb at herself, “Tarzan go, Sora go go!” She tried to imitate his body language in hopes of some sort of understanding.

It seemed to work. He nodded and began to shuffle towards the doors of the treehouse, and Sora noticed he walked with a sort of stagger not unlike a gorilla.

Tarzan walked out on the balcony and vaulted over the railing, landing on one of the wooden balusters that held up a long ream of netting under the treehouse. And with one unexpectedly graceful movement he slid down the baluster and landed on a tree trunk that leaned over far below.

And with that, Sora excitedly followed. Her landing on the tree trunk wasn’t as practiced as Tarzan’s, and she nearly slipped on the slippery moss that coated the bark and made it perfect for sliding in the first place, but she managed.

The first thing she noticed about this tree trunk they slid down on was enormous. It was wide enough for both of her, Donald, and Goofy to slide down side by side if they were here, and long enough to wind and twist its way through nearly the entire forest. Sora could only imagine how vast the tree must have been when it was alive and upright. Deftly they leapt and ducked around branches that grew over the trunk, and Sora could see Tarzan several paces ahead going around the obstacles first.

In between dodging plant growth, Sora savored the feeling of the sun on her again. The sunlight, the warm air, even the sounds of birdcalls and insects’ cries made it just like she was back on Destiny Islands again if she closed her eyes.

She could imagine doing this with Riku, or even Kairi maybe if they managed to convince her. Kairi was definitely the more cautious one, but even she could be persuaded to try things from time to time if they weren’t over the top ‘daredevil stunts’, as her mom called them. And Kairi definitely came up with the best antics when it came to prank wars.

Sora sighed sadly as she ducked under another branch. She missed them.

If she did manage to reunite with Riku and Kairi here, she could only guess at their reactions to what she’d seen. About meeting talking animals, fighting heartless, learning magic. Her mom’s hair would probably turn as silver as Riku’s if she saw the stuff Sora got up to so far. Maybe she’d just have to leave some parts out.

“Note to self: See if I can use that freezing magic to make ice cream.” Sora muttered as she saw a clearing coming up at the end of the tree trunk. That would be a great way to show off her magic if it worked.

She grinned as another thought came to her: Sora would definitely win every spar from now on.

They both landed in the clearing, and Sora saw crates and tents everywhere. It only made her more excited—Riku and Kairi must be here! She wasn’t sure where all of this scientific equipment came from, as it seemed much more advanced than their schooling so far, but maybe other people were here too. She couldn’t wait to see her friends again, maybe even her mom.

“Jane!” Tarzan called before stumbling into the closest tent, marked with a globe sitting on a crate outside. It didn’t look to have any landforms Sora could recognize.

Sora followed him in and saw that the only occupant was a young woman busy fiddling with a machine. “Tarzan!” She beamed, looking up, and then noticed Sora. “And who is this?”

“Uh, hi there, I’m—”

“Oh, you speak English!” Jane enthused, clearly delighted with the prospects of meeting someone else with a complete vocabulary. Sora couldn’t help but wonder if she only had Tarzan to talk to all day. Jane bent down to see Sora at her eye level. “So then, obviously you’re not related to Tarzan…Are you here to study the gorillas? An intern, perhaps?”

“Highly doubtful.” A new voice replied, and they turned to watch a man with a shotgun stride into the tent. Sora noticed he kept his finger on the trigger. Behind him were two people Sora recognized.

“Sora!” Goofy cried, and both he and Donald ran to her.

“Donald! Goofy!” She cheered, grasping hands with them both.

And then she remembered, and she could tell that Donald remembered too: The fight on the gummi ship, crash landing here. And with that, both Sora and Donald let go and crossed their arms as they determinedly looked away from each other.

“Aw shucks, you guys,” Goofy said, looking to them both distraughtly, “We’re all together again! Can’t we work together?”

“I don’t know,” Donald scoffed, “Can we?”

“Not with this guy I can’t,” Sora said with a stubborn pout, “Goofy, where’s the gummi ship?”

“Why, so you can crash it again?” Donald cut in before Goofy could say anything, and Sora fumed.

“Oh gawrsh, don’t start fighting again! Let’s make the most of this!” Goofy pleaded and turned to her, “Jiminy’s got it, it’s not too far from here.”

“Gummi ship…?” Jane trailed off questioningly as she looked between the trio.

“Disregard them, they’re just a circus of clowns.” The man folded his arms, tucking his rifle under them. Sora noticed how Tarzan kept glancing to where the muzzle was aimed at with his forehead wrinkling. It wasn’t aimed at anything at the moment, but he remained worried.

The man threw over his shoulder as he wandered out of the tent, “They’re not much use for hunting gorillas.”

“We’re supposed to be studying them, Mr. Clayton! Not hunting them!” Jane said as she put her hands on her hips. “This is research!”

But sadly, it didn’t seem as if the man had heard her. Clayton strolled away from view.

Jane sighed as she turned back to them with a trying smile, her skirt swaying with the movement.

“Well, the more the merrier! Do make yourselves at home,” She looked to the tea kettle readying on the camp fire outside the tent and pursed her lips. “Our tea service got a little, ah, crunched by the gorillas first wandering onto our camp, but there should be enough cups to go around for all of us! I’m Jane, and that was Mr. Clayton, or just Clayton for short if you prefer. He’s here to navigate me and my father through the jungle on our study expedition. Do excuse his demeanor, he’s simply rather set in his ways, if you will. I presume you’re Sora?”

“Yep!”

Jane’s smile became a little more genuine. “Lovely to meet you! And may I presume the two of you are—what was it—Donald and Goofy? I hadn’t ever seen any fellows look like you before.”

“I’m Goofy, and that’s Donald!” He said, and Sora noticed Donald’s conflicted look at Jane’s words with a small smirk.

“I guess I’m not the one disrupting the world order this time, huh Donald?” She said with a nudge, and Donald gave an angry quack at that. But before they could rile up another argument, Goofy cut in quickly.

“Sora, look what we found. Look at this,” He said, holding out a gloved hand to her. She could see a small bright red oddly shaped block cupped in his hands.

“What’s that?”

“A gummi block! It’s the same stuff used to build our ship.”

Her brows raised. “So that means…”

“…The king could be here.” Donald finished her next words. “So we gotta stay here for a while and work together to look for him. For now.” He concluded harshly.

“Fine.” Sora spat. “I’ll let you tag along. For now.” She echoed.

“’Let you tag along’?! Why you little--!”

“Were you looking for someone too, Sora?” Jane cut in, and Goofy gave her a grateful look that Jane gave a knowing nod to. It appeared as though Tarzan had managed to fill her in on their earlier encounter while she and Donald and Goofy were talking. “A uh, Ree-coo and Kai-ree?”

“Yeah! Riku and Kairi, they’re my friends. I’m looking for my mom too. I thought Tarzan said they’d be here, but I guess I misunderstood. I wish I could actually talk to him, though, to make sure.” Sora frowned.

“Tarzan was raised in this jungle by the gorillas. Communicating with him still isn’t easy, but he’s learning.” Jane said as she began to move around the tent and assemble various objects.

“So he was speaking in ‘gorilla’ back there?”

“Indeed.” She replied as she began piecing components together and sliding a lens in place. “The first time he made those vocalizations, me and my father were ecstatic! It was evidence of his theory of non-anthropocentric sociolinguistics, you see, that gorillas formed their own language arising from a need to communicate more complex ideas as symptom of their humanlike intelligence, perhaps even a sign of impending anthropogenesis—Oh dear, my apologies, I have a tendency to prattle on about my studies. Dear Tarzan here does his best to listen but I know I must be boring to you three.”

“Well, it’s, um, it’s alright.” Sora tried, trying not to let on that a good three-fourths of what Jane said went over her head.

“Why don’t we try this?” Jane suggested as she flicked a match, using it to light a candle before setting the now-completed machine carefully on top of it. It looked a bit like a super old camera to Sora, and she watched as it projected an image of a gorilla on the far wall. Tarzan went over to where the image was projected and imitated the gorilla’s squatting pose with his knuckles on the floor. “Whoops, that got left in there from last time. I was going to say we should show Tarzan some slides and see if any of them match that word for him.”

“Wait, so you have pictures of Riku and Kairi?”

“Well, no,” Jane said, shuffling together some slides, “These are simply stock pictures of simple subjects, a house, a chair, that sort of thing, but we can see if Tarzan recognizes any of them with what he was trying to say.” She popped the first picture in, and a picture of two people sword fighting with épées showed up on the screen.

Tarzan had no reaction. Next slide, a man presenting a bouquet to a woman, and again no reaction. Neither did he have any reaction to a gorilla reared back and beating its chest, beyond imitating its posture, and he didn’t seem to recognize the ship either. And then a picture of a castle showed up on the screen.

This time, it was Sora that had the reaction. Donald looked over, seeing her confused expression.

“What’s wrong, Sora?”

(A flower field stretched on almost as far as the eye could see. Not that she could see much, as she was still so small that even the rosebushes seemed to tower above her, their heavy perfume carrying on the breeze. An elderly woman hummed as she tended to the weeds in the begonias’ beds. And far beyond them both, at the edge of the garden, stood a castle whose spires seemed to reach for the sky.)

“What? Um, nothing.” She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

What was that? She thought. That couldn’t be her memory, she’d never seen a castle in person, only in pictures in story books. There weren’t any castles on the islands.

But the picture seemed so familiar.


 

K A I R I

 

“That castle…” She trailed off, as she came to again on the floor of the room.

Kairi checked in for only a moment, just to make sure her body hadn’t been disturbed and to see how things were with Sora, and it turned out she came in at the perfect time. She didn’t dare keep watching beyond that image of the castle that appeared lest she risk disturbing parts of herself that didn’t need to be disturbed.

“I guess I haven’t mentioned much about how I ended up on Destiny Islands in the first place, huh?” She looked to the sleeping boy.

Kairi let her gaze rest on the walls as she remembered.

“There’s not much to say on wherever I was before beyond the bad parts I keep getting flashbacks of. I just remember flowers of all kinds and tending to them with my grandmother. And there was,” Her voice faltered for a moment, “There was a castle, I guess now.”

“I remember being happy, once. That feeling when you’re so little that nothing’s on your mind and nothing really matters beyond the simple things.” Kairi sighed.

“It’s weird how everything gets so much more complicated as you grow up. Or maybe what’s around you doesn’t change at all, but you do. You start overthinking everything. And these…these snapshots of what you’ve experienced but can’t remember start leaving stains on everything you see.”

She dragged one hand over her eyes and thought back to her first spring on the islands.

“I wish I knew why lilacs make me cry.”

“It’s not an allergy thing, if you were wondering. It’s just…an ingrained response I guess. It’s gotten a little easier over time but not by much. I guess that’s how it works: You think you’re starting to be able to handle it and then the grief just pulls you under again and you think you’re drowning.”

“The first foster home I was sent to was about a week after I first woke up on the islands. They were this older couple, two women who had like a million dogs and they were so kind to me. The ladies already had three other foster children under their roof, who were on the permanent residence filing and were already set to be adopted by them at that point, but here those two were still trying to help kids like me when they could.”

“I was there one April for about two weeks. A few days in, one of the women came outside to get the paper and found me clutching to the lilac bushes in the front yard crying my eyes out. She kept asking me what was wrong, was I okay, but I couldn’t really put into words what I was feeling then. I still can’t.”

Kairi went quiet again for several minutes. The boy in the chair continued to sleep, giving no indicators of any possibility he was hearing her. But it didn’t matter.

“Neither of them was sure what to do after that, they weren’t sure what was going on because I couldn’t really figure out how to tell them anything, but they did what they could to make me comfortable. I never forgot that: How people can still manage to be kind even when it feels like everything is falling apart. I took that to heart.”

“After that I was shuffled around from home to home. None of the arrangements in the first year lasted long because I was on the impermanent filing, since I guess the foster system thought there was still a chance my parents would come back for me again. They were all nice people: For about a month I was with another elderly couple who loved old westerns and musicals and the man taught me a little bit about how to play the piano. I was never good at anything beyond playing the opening notes to ‘Chopsticks’, but a couple of days later the woman showed me how to crochet and I loved it. She taught me how to do a bunch of other crafts, like friendship bracelets and charms with seashells, and I still use a lot of what I learned from her even now. At the end when I was leaving to go to my next assigned home, she gave me a small knitted octopus plushie that I still have on my bedroom shelf.”

Kairi remembered the other families she stayed with after that—the family that ran a bakery whose home always smelled like lemon furniture polish and freshly baked bread. And then the elderly woman whose long white hair was still streaked with grey-black and who had let Kairi try riding her motorcycle in the sidecar a few times. But whenever she landed in a home with lilacs, which wasn’t too often, but sometimes—Kairi remembered the pain all over again.

“I heard a lot of horror stories in that time from other kids who were in the system like me. About awful foster families and homes, and I was terrified. I thought that would happen to me, too. But I kept being moved around, and not a single one of the homes was bad. And eventually I felt so selfish that my first reaction to hearing those things was ‘what about me?’ Here were these people who had such awful luck compared to me and here I was focused on myself. So I remembered what those two ladies in my first home taught me, to be compassionate. To be one of the helpers when everything feels like it’s crashing down around you.”

“I’m not going to lie: When I was told I was being put on long-term care, in the hopes of finding a place that would take me in permanently…it stung. A piece of me was still hoping that maybe by then my parents would find me and we could be together again, even as improbable as it seemed.”

“I guess the reason why I wanted to find my real parents so much, even when I had other families that took me in, was because I really just wanted to find a place where I belonged. A Kairi-shaped space just for me, in a loving home that was mine with a family that was mine.”


 

 

S O R A

 

“Ah-yipe!” Goofy cried out, as he fell from his vine yet again, and landed in the hippos’ lagoon with a splash.

Dr. Archimedes Q. Porter—or simply Dr. Porter, for short—gave him a thumbs up from his matching spot in the water.

“Ten out of ten landing, dear chum!” He cheered. “I must say that was a perfect swan dive, mine was more akin to the graceless members of the Anatidae family. Perhaps a barnacle goose!”

“Daddy, would you please keep up?” Jane yelled from above, still clinging desperately onto her vine to try and follow Tarzan. “We’ve got to get to this Kerchak fellow to find the gorillas’ nesting grounds! We can’t dawdle!”

“Come on, Goofy! Don’t risk getting caught by heartless alone, keep up.” Donald used his magic to slow his falls somewhat, so that his swinging from vine to vine came much more easily than it did to anyone else.

Sora looked on at this with a small measure of envy as she tried to swing back and forth on her vine to gain leverage to reach another. “Gee, Donald, can’t you teach me how to do that spell? Whatever you’re doing?”

“And risk you using it for shenanigans? No way!”

After the test with the slides back at camp had concluded uneventfully, to Sora’s chagrin, Clayton had come back to suggest that clues to the people the trio was looking for could be found at the gorillas’ nesting grounds, if not perhaps even find Riku, Kairi, or the king or her mother.

The suggestion seemed to be a point of contention for the camp’s original occupants: Before the group’s arrival Tarzan had refused to risk it, and Jane and Dr. Porter had left it at that to allow the gorillas their privacy. But Clayton wouldn’t let the matter rest.

But now, with Sora, Donald, and Goofy there, Tarzan looked as though he was mulling it over. They could see his eyes turn to the keyblade still in Sora’s hand, and then to the rifle Clayton carried constantly, and then back to the keyblade again. And finally, Tarzan agreed.

“Tarzan, are you sure?” Jane asked with a small measure of awe.

“Tarzan go see Kerchak.”

“Kerchak?”

“He must be the leader. Perfect. I’ll go along as an escort.” Clayton grinned. “After all, the jungle is a dangerous place.”

And now here they were, trying to swing from vine to vine to the area where Tarzan could go meet Kerchak. Maybe they’d be able to see if anyone they were searching for was there.

The idea of seeing her friends again, her mom, in the middle of a place whose climate reminded her so much of Destiny Islands made her Heart nearly burn with anticipation. The calls of the cicadas and birds only made this place’s parallels to the islands that much more apparent.

It was great to be on this whole adventure, but it didn’t stop Sora from missing the old life she knew.

Beyond the edge of the group, she could see Clayton dodging in and out of the branches, just outside of Goofy and Dr. Porter’s path. He didn’t manage well with using the vines, with only one hand available as the other was busy keeping a grip on the rifle, but Clayton didn’t lose pace. And then, Sora blinked, and he disappeared yet again.

“There he goes again!” She whispered to Donald, who had been keeping an eye on him too.

He ruffled his feathers angrily. “I don’t trust him. Where does he keep going?”

“I don’t know,” Sora replied, “Earlier I could have sworn I caught sight of that leopard that I fought earlier, Sabor, I think Tarzan called it, on one of the branches. But I looked again, and it was gone. I keep seeing flashes of yellow out of the corner of my eye though.”

“I don’t like this. Clayton’s up to something, maybe that leopard’s got some sort of a deal with him.”

“Really?” Sora swung to another vine and felt a small thrill when she caught it. She didn’t want to risk falling again. “I didn’t get the feeling when I fought it earlier that it was…well, a thinking leopard or anything like that. I thought it was just a wild animal.”

“I think a lot more of the animals here are thinking animals than we realize,” Donald said as he swiped his staff and made himself float gently to another vine, “Me and Goofy saw a gorilla earlier and it had enough sense to leave that gummi block for us.”

“Really?”

Donald nodded. “Seems to me that they might have an idea of what our mission is. Not just finding the king or those reports or your friends, but fighting heartless. Locking keyholes. Tarzan was looking at the keyblade earlier.”

“Yeah, I noticed that too.” Sora said, “That might be why he agreed to take us to Kerchak now rather than before with just the Porters, Tarzan might need us for help with something.”

At this, the conversation ended as they saw Jane and Tarzan alighting on one of the trees’ boughs up ahead. Upon reaching them, Sora saw that he was looking to one of the distant branches, where one of the largest gorillas Sora had ever seen sat, with a slightly smaller gorilla at his side. One of them had to be Kerchak. Behind them she could see Goofy and Dr. Porter getting a foothold on the bough, still dripping slightly from their crash landing in the hippos’ lagoon. Sora hoped the bough didn’t break under everyone’s weight.

She also noticed Clayton was still absent.

Tarzan looked to the two gorillas with a plaintive expression. The larger gorilla stared back gravely, but the smaller gorilla had an almost…melancholy look?

Maybe Donald was right, these animals really could be smarter than any of the group realized.

Tarzan began speaking to the larger gorilla with more of those disjointed syllables she’d heard from him earlier, though she could recognize the name ‘Kerchak’. He spoke to them primarily in a staccato of grunts and murmurs combined with Tarzan gesticulating wildly with his arms and legs. In the corner Sora could see Jane and Dr. Porter frantically scribbling notes into their journals. Jane appeared to be sketching something.

At the end there was an apprehensive pause when Tarzan finished, and the smaller gorilla looked to the larger gorilla for their response.

“Uh, did you get any of that?” Goofy bent over to ask Donald and Sora.

“No.” Donald said.

“Kerchak…” Tarzan trailed off, watching the larger gorilla stalk off. Behind him, the smaller gorilla followed, but she noticed it kept its gaze on Tarzan, and looked regretful.

“Does Tarzan, um…” Sora looked to the Porters, who were now watching the gorillas stride away. “Does he know them? I know he knows Kerchak, but does he, like, know them know them?”

“We know he was raised in this jungle by the gorillas, when he was presumably abandoned here as a small child.” Jane contemplated.

“His motor skills and posture make me think he was raised by the gorillas since at least toddlerhood, if not infancy.” Dr. Porter added, “Tarzan’s demeanor when we first encountered him was quite like the accounts written of Victor of Aveyron, another feral child from some centuries before. Those gorillas may be the only family Tarzan has ever had.”

Abandoned at a young age in an unknown place, trying to find acceptance and belonging in an adoptive family when his own parents never came back for him for whatever reason…Tarzan was quite like someone else Sora knew.

Kairi.

“My home is here on the islands with you guys.” Kairi said when Sora had asked if she’d ever wondered about where she had originally come from. “I’m happy here.”

Sora remembered how they all pondered over what her parents must have been like in the late nights of sleepovers and lazy autumn days. Spring breaks where there wasn’t much to do. Her and Riku wondered if Kairi’s parents were like some daring souls who had died tragically and heroically, like so many of the orphan protagonists in their books and shows. If her parents were some sort of adventurers or magicians whose journey had gone awry.

But maybe Kairi’s parents were just ordinary people in their own right, even if they’d managed to get their daughter to Destiny Islands in a less than ordinary way. Either way, none of the kids ever found out, because Kairi’s parents never came back for her.

Tarzan turned to them, then, upset.

“Kala mother. Kerchak father? Not father?” He shook his head sadly. “Kerchak not say. Tarzan not know. Tarzan here all life.”

“Oh dear,” Jane sighed as she gripped her notepad.

But whatever any of them were planning to say next was interrupted by the bang of a distant gunshot, and everyone straightened immediately.

“Clayton!” Tarzan shouted.

“Oh no, he must have found a gorilla!” Dr. Porter cried, “He kept insisting on pursuing the poor creatures!”

“That liar! How could he do such a thing?!” Jane spat angrily. “We have to hurry, he could have found more!”

And with that, they ran back for the vines, desperate to make their way back to camp.


 

K A I R I

 

“The day I met the people I’d call ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, I remember staring out the window of my caseworker’s car hoping it would rain. Preferably a thunderstorm.” Kairi gave a small laugh. “But even a small drizzle would have been enough.”

“It was a beautiful day that day, arguably a good omen if you believe that sort of thing, but I was sad from being shuffled to long-term care and it felt like the world was just making a joke out of it by making the weather so nice.”

“The final temporary home I was placed with was the one I was picked up from to be placed with my mom and dad by my caseworker personally. Usually it’s just some cab service they call for you—sometimes they have a shuttle—and they’ll come by the foster home with a letter discussing the new home’s details and a social worker to escort you after giving advance notice, which can sometimes just be two days before.” Kairi shook her head. “The foster system is a little inefficient, like a lot of government stuff. But anyways, I remember being surprised to see my caseworker there personally.”

“She was so excited. I remember her being a really cheerful lady, almost always optimistic, like Sora, but that day it was even more so. It was almost overwhelming. She just kept going ‘Today’s the day! Today’s the day!’, but I couldn’t bring myself to be very excited at all. By then, I still remembered the horror stories I heard of bad foster homes and I couldn’t help but wonder when my luck would run out. I was trying to be optimistic and trying to be compassionate to those whose luck had turned bad, but you can’t help but be afraid a little bit. I had to roll the dice so often.”

Kairi hoped that whoever she was paired with next, that they’d be good. That she’d like them. The one ray of light to her living situation so far was that her luck hadn’t failed her yet, and Kairi took solace in that.

It wasn’t long after that that the drive came to an end, the car giving a low rumble as it was pulled into the side of the street and turned off. She looked out the window.

It was the house Kairi would be staying in for the foreseeable future. The structure itself looked cheery, the siding painted mint green and the front door a navy-blue color with the stoop painted to match. The front window had a planter’s box at the bottom that was blooming with plants Kairi was too far away from to identify. And along the edge of the yard, close to the fence, gardenia shrubs were planted, though it was too far into the season for them to bloom. And in the driveway, a small silver car was parked.

Upon getting out of the vehicle and walking up the driveway with the case worker, Kairi could see the front door open. A man stepped out onto the walkway, a woman that she presumed was his wife close behind.

She relaxed her vision for a moment and quieted her mind as best she could. The couple’s Hearts were bright, lustrous, with hardly any shadows in sight. Kairi could tell they were hopeful for today and yearned just as much as she did for a sense of familial connection. Maybe this would work out.

“Hello, hello!” He greeted, “You’re Kairi, correct?” And at her nod, he grinned, and the woman excitedly clasped her hands together. “It’s great to meet you! Please, come inside. Make yourself at home. I’m Rei Saito, and this is my wife Mari. Please excuse the clutter, campaign season’s coming up and I’ve been running ragged with trying to get reelected.” He apologized, as they walked in and looked around.

The living room was spacious, though there were what looked to be rolled-up banners in the corner and some papers stacked up on the counter. Otherwise, the place was spotless.

“Re-elected? For what?” Her caseworker asked, as she opened her manila folder and spread out the contents on the coffee table as the group sat down. Kairi fiddled with the seams of the couch cushion, looking around the room nervously.

“Yeah,” Rei responded, “And as for what, well…You might recognize me as the mayor.”

“For a long time, I was still scared. They were so nice, and mom and dad mentioned later on that they’d had abused kids before me, so they gave me distance and let me come to them on my own.” Kairi curled up so that her arms were wrapped around her legs. “I appreciated that. I was less outgoing back then with the long-term families than I was with the short-term families for some reason. Probably because I knew it didn’t matter since I wouldn’t be there for that long. I guess I wanted to make a good impression on people that were more likely to adopt me and make sure they wouldn’t do anything. But none of them did. Do anything, I mean.”

“That first day of starting in a new school is never really fun, because foster homes aren’t usually even in the same district for a school, so I had a lot of first days where I was the new girl. Imagine a lot of days where everyone was just staring at me, awkward moments where I had to find a different place to sit in class, that sort of thing.”

“But the first day of starting in a new school when I’d been placed with mom and dad…it was different that time. I realized it the second I walked in the classroom that morning. Because there, towards the back of the desks, sat Sora. I’d already met her and Riku on that very first morning I woke up on the islands alone, they were the ones that found me. And she recognized me too.” Kairi cracked up at this despite herself. “Sora got so excited and started waving me over. And she practically fell out of her chair and said ‘I told you we were destined to be friends! I told you!’ and she kept talking, and eventually the teacher told her to pipe down or she’d get detention, and Sora finally calmed down.”

“It wasn’t until that morning when I finally understood what my caseworker meant by ‘Today’s the day’. I don’t think she realized how perfect the assignment ended up being, but I think she had a feeling. When I was first introduced to her she said seeing a good foster family match was like watching a puzzle piece slide into place, and looking back she was exactly right. It really did feel like a puzzle piece was found. A piece for a Kairi-shaped space.”

A not-too-old memory this time came to the front of her mind.

“A ‘Kairi-shaped space’.” She repeated. “I’ll be honest. I didn’t come up with that one on my own, I stole it from my dad. The day they got approved to adopt me, they had kept it a secret for months, both for the surprise and to make sure I wasn’t let down if it ended up falling through. I came home from school that Friday just thinking about homework or whatever and got spooked by the sound of noisemakers and those squawker things you see at birthday parties when I opened the door.”

“It was my parents. First thing I noticed was my dad saying, ‘It’s your birthday!’ and I was so confused. And then I saw where my mom had put up an ‘It’s a girl!’ banner as a joke, right underneath my dad’s birthday banner he had put up. I had no idea what was going on. And then my mom showed me the papers showing the adoption certificate, with the fancy little seal and everything. My world stopped for several seconds. And then I was just…I was happy. I was so happy.”

Kairi wiped at her eyes. “My dad said even before they knew who I was, there was a Kairi-shaped space in their lives. That they knew they wanted me to stay with them since that first day I came to their home with the caseworker. That was the first time I called them mom and dad, and they cried. The rest of the day was a blur, but I remember it was perfect.”

“When me and Riku and Sora were working on the raft, and they wondered why I didn’t care to try and find out where I came from, who my real parents were…well, that’s part of the reason why. So far as I’m concerned, I have a mom and a dad and that’s all I really want.”

The boy continued to sleep. Kairi shook her head at herself.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. You surely can’t even hear me, you’re probably just dreaming while all of this is going on. I’d be better off talking to myself probably.”

She sighed.

“Why don’t I? It’s not like I’m incapable of walking out that door and just leaving you alone. I don’t really know why I’m even staying in here.”

But she didn’t leave. For a long while Kairi didn’t speak, and the boy continued to sleep on that throne, and so the air was empty of words. The silence was so palpable it nearly rang in her ears, unexpectedly enough.

And not for the first time that day Kairi missed the distant white noise of the wind, the birds, insects, something to distract her from her thoughts. It was so quiet in this room she could almost hear her own pulse.

“Maybe I want someone to talk to. Well, no, I obviously want something to talk to, duh Kairi.” She slapped her palm against her head. “It’s just…I miss people. I miss my islands. I miss my mom and dad and my friends. I miss home.”

“Even though I’ve been isolated from people for only a few days I miss having someone to talk to, so I guess I just kind of settled on the next best thing. You. Sorry you’re stuck in here with me.” She gave him a weak smile. “I’m working on finding a way to get out of whatever this place is, but I’m more lost than when I first ended up in here. I’ll try and get you out, too, if I ever find a way.”

But the quiet went on, and the reality of her situation was too much. Kairi wrapped her arms around herself again and felt her shoulders fall.


 

S O R A

 

“Clayton, no.” Jane scolded, “Don’t do this. I forbid you!”

“On the contrary, Miss Porter,” Clayton smugly loaded his rifle and flipped the hammer as he aimed it at the small gorilla he’d cornered, “There is a clause in my contract with you that stipulates I am allowed to ignore a direct order from my employers—as in, you—if such an order infringes upon your or your father’s personal safety. Didn’t I say the jungle was a dangerous place? Gorillas are certainly considered to be dangerous creatures,” He smirked, “The fact they go for three hundred pounds a head back in England is secondary.”

“They’re not dangerous! The gorillas are intelligent, they mean no harm to anyone that’s peaceful!” Dr. Porter cried.

“Yeah, the only reason they’d be dangerous now is because you’re trying to provoke them!” Sora agreed, readying her keyblade.

Clayton’s disdainful gaze slid onto her. He sneered at her, Donald, and Goofy, who were all ready to attack him.

“Meddling brats should keep to their corners.” He spat. “You’re lucky ducks and dogs aren’t worth much, even if they’re clever enough to talk.”

And that made Donald practically breathe smoke. Sora could see his reared back staff crackling at the edges with magic of all kinds.

“I’ll show you a talking duck!” Donald bristled, “Firaga!

As the roiling ball of fire shot towards the hunter, scorching the earth where he stood, the battle began. And with it, the stony cliffside on one side of the bamboo clearing burst open to reveal a clear blue sky. Did the hunter do that?

“Goofy!” Sora yelled as she dodged falling boulders, “Get the Porters out of the way! They’ll get hurt!”

“Got it!”

“Oh, no,” Jane seethed as she planted her feet, “I can keep up with your magic tricks! I’ll show that incorrigible brute who the most dangerous creature in the jungle is!”

Sora’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”

“Sure as sugar and right as rain!” Dr. Porter chimed in, “Ol’ Archie here may not be a spring chicken anymore, but I know my way ‘round a good brawler! Helps that my opponents are usually books, though…”

And before she could respond, a heartless ducked its way into the fray. Sora shot back in surprise and quickly fired off an ice spell before Goofy finished the heartless off.

“What the—there’s heartless here?! I didn’t see a single one around until now!”

“I think Clayton called them, ahyuk!”

“What?”

“Sabor!” She heard from behind, and Sora whipped around to see Tarzan go toe to toe with a monstrous heartless that was almost as big as the one the trio had seen in Wonderland.

It was no wonder Tarzan had called it ‘Sabor’. It looked like some oversized creature derived from a leopard, but it was by no means the same beast she had encountered earlier. Or was it? The hulking cat’s acid-yellow paws caused small earthquakes as it moved to Clayton, who climbed on top of it much like how you would ride a horse. And then, the spotted pattern on its fur swelled, and the spots began to take on the colors of the trees, the ground. The group watched with mixed shock and awe as the cat heartless became invisible, and Clayton, still riding atop, appeared as if he were flying.

“Did that cat earlier…” Sora breathed, “Did he turn it into a heartless?”

“He must have!” Donald said as he shot off a lightning spell at where he’d last seen a paw. It landed to reveal a wound that leaked Dark smoke. “Keep hitting the cat, the Darkness’ll reveal it!”

At this, Clayton fired off his rifle, and Sora raised her keyblade over her head without thinking. “Don’t forget Clayton!”

Yipe!” Goofy shouted as a bullet ricocheted off his shield.

“Not Clayton! Not Clayton!” Tarzan swung his spear widely, leaving a long black gash in midair as it made contact with the heartless. Sora ecstatically noted it didn’t disappear along with the cat, meaning it would work to keep track of where the cat was just as Donald said. Tarzan made the same vocalizations he’d made earlier when first talking to Sora, the ones Jane couldn’t translate with the slides.

“What does that mean, ‘Not Clayton’?” Sora asked as she begun swinging blindly at several of the smaller heartless around to keep their numbers down. “Did he mean we shouldn’t be focusing on him?”

“Absolutely not,” Jane grumbled as she smacked away the smaller heartless. “We should definitely focus on him, soon as he’s man enough to come down from that beast and face us!” She called out and got a warning shot in response.

The warning shot, however, came very close to clipping Donald in the tailfeathers, and he quacked angrily at Clayton before firing off several bolts of lightning.

This time, the spells started to work, and Sora could see the form of the cheetah heartless a little more clearly as it was framed by the black smoke drifting out of its wounds so far. She did a running dash for the closest paw, and felt the teeth of her keyblade cut deeply into the fur. Sora heard a pained growl at that.

“Keep going, it’s working!” She could hear Dr. Porter yell from the other side of the clearing.

Sora ducked under another paw that tried to swipe at her by keeping an eye on the direction of the smoke and aimed blindly above her head to try slicing with the keyblade, and noted the shallow cut she’d made with satisfaction. She could hear Goofy yelping at another paw swiping him successfully and Tarzan giving a war cry as he threw his spear towards one plume of Dark smoke. It missed, and Sora saw as an invisible paw batted away the spear out of reach. That was from that direction, so if that plume of Dark smoke was on another paw, then that meant Sora was…

She’d have one shot, but if this worked it’d at least weaken the cheetah heartless significantly. Sora planted her feet, gritted her teeth, and steeled her grip on her keyblade as she swiped it in the highest arc she could manage above her.

It worked. At least a little. Her ears rang as the heartless gave a pained noise somewhere between a bark and a howl, and she could see several of the others clutching their ears too. Out of the heartless above Sora dripped not blood, but that ashy smoke, thicker than any of the smoke coming out of the other wounds. She did a roll to the side to get out from under the heartless, which by now couldn’t sustain its invisibility.

The creature looked close to giving out. The group felt small earthquakes underfoot, and Sora realized after a moment that they weren’t coming from the heartless, but rather something else.

Something almost as big.

The bamboo thickets around the clearing parted to reveal the giant gorilla from earlier joining the fray. Kerchak. Around him, smaller gorillas that joined him began to pummel the groups of weaker heartless that remained, the weakest among them finally breaking into that Dark smoke with sickly puff sounds. Slowly, Sora could see the weaker heartless being finished off one by one.

Kerchak dragged his knuckles back and forth on the ground, readying himself for something, and Sora had an idea of what he was about to do.

“Guys, get out of his way!”

Dr. Porter and Donald hurried to the sides, and Sora remembered. Clayton.

She turned to see he was still astride the heartless, and her stomach dropped at the sight of him readying his gun. He had an oily grin on his face at the sight of the gorillas.

Clayton pointed the rifle towards Kerchak and flipped back the hammer to ready it. It was like Sora was watching the horror unfold in slow motion. He placed his pointer finger on the trigger, and then pulled it. The gun did nothing but make a clicking noise.

It didn’t work.

The gun was jammed from the last shot.

Sora was so relieved she almost began to laugh, and then she heard a thud so loud it had to have hurt.

It was Kerchak. He had reared back his arm and landed the final blow on the cheetah heartless, who swayed back and forth in place before finally succumbing. And as the heartless fell to the ground, Clayton fell to the clearing floor as well.

The heartless collapsed into Dark smoke, and a sparkling Heart flew towards the sky. Behind her, Sora could see the remaining smaller heartless do the same, breaking down and having their own captive Hearts follow the leader.

The group turned to watch as Clayton uselessly kept trying to fire his rifle, to no avail. With an angry grunt he tossed it aside, and a gorilla quickly snatched it up to get rid of it.

“Heh, uh, hmm. This is…quite the unexpected turn of events.” Clayton nervously laughed. “Perhaps we can reach an understanding—”

Jane stomped to the front of the group and began to lay into him.

“You miserable oaf! You knave! Liar! Good for nothing piece of, of,” She shrieked between smacks, “I can’t even come up with anything! You’re horrible! Horrible!” Jane’s landing punch was so hard Sora winced as she watched the look in Clayton’s eyes dim as he blacked out.

She almost felt bad for him. Almost.

“That’s my girl!” Dr. Porter cried. “Got the right arm of her mum, that one.”

“Tarzan might have taught me a few things.” Jane panted as she started to relax. “But what shall we do with him until we conclude the study expedition?”

“I think the gorillas got some sorta plan,” Goofy answered as Kerchak moved in and grabbed the front of Clayton’s shirt.

He reared back on his hind legs, almost taller than the cheetah heartless had been—Sora took a moment to be really glad Kerchak was on their side. And then, in one movement, he tossed Clayton up, up in the air, and before any time passed Clayton’s body disappeared from view as it sailed out somewhere over the jungle.

“Oh, wow.” Sora muttered at the sight. “Thank you.”

And with that Kerchak turned to the trio. She gulped. But thankfully, he didn’t seem interested in fighting them too.

Instead, he pointed to the busted former cliff face with a stern visage. The message was clear: Go.

“Gotcha!” Donald saluted nervously, and him and Sora and Goofy hurried their way up the boulders and onto the dirt path that looked to lead to a waterfall. It was a welcome sight after all the jungle settings.

Down the river, Sora could see birds taking flight. She turned to see Kerchak and Tarzan communicating in their own strange language, and a smaller gorilla that she’d seen accompany Kerchak in the place with all the vines earlier look on with a much happier expression. Jane and Dr. Porter were making their way up the boulders to where the trio were as well.

Eventually, Tarzan joined the group on the dirt path, smiling widely. Jane looked over at him and started smiling herself.

“Why, Tarzan, what happened?” Jane asked.

He shook his head, the smile never leaving his face.

“Kala mother, Kerchak father,” He said, “Tarzan home.”

Tarzan had found the acceptance he craved. The home he wanted.

And with that, he started walking towards a cave right under the waterfall, and the group followed.

All around her, Sora could hear the others talking. Donald and Goofy with their own matters, and Dr. Porter and Jane peppering Tarzan with questions about what he meant by his statement.

And then Sora could hear a familiar voice. A very familiar voice.

“I wasn’t telling the whole truth earlier.”

That was Kairi. That had to be, nobody else here sounded like that. Sora looked around desperately, but the light in the waterfall cavern was low, and from what little Sora did see nobody extra had joined their group. Maybe Kairi was somewhere in the cavern?

“There is one part of my life that I can remember from before I found my way to the islands. Beyond what I said of the castle and the gardens and working with my grandmother on the flowers.”

Her voice wasn’t coming from any direction Sora recognized. She still couldn’t see where Kairi could be in the cave.

“She told me a story once.”

Was that voice…coming from beside her? Or from behind? Sora turned to see, but all she saw were the Porters and Tarzan on one side, and Donald and Goofy on the other.

“I remember loving that story so much. I still do. It goes something like this: Long ago, like way long ago before most of history, there was one great Light.”

Was that voice coming from inside her head?

“But the thing about the Light was that people got greedy over it. And that greed formed Darkness.”

Sora whispered to Donald and Goofy, “Do you guys hear that?”

“What are you talking about?” Donald asked.

“I think…I think I hear Kairi. Do you guys hear another voice?”

“Bah, you’re probably just hearing Jane.”

“But that Darkness wasn’t perfect. Even in the worst parts of it there were still fragments of Light in the Hearts of kids like you and me. And those kids managed to find a way to rebuild a facsimile of that first great Light that was swallowed by that Darkness by piecing together those small fragments into something greater. By working together.”

“I don’t think that’s Jane I’m hearing.”

But by now Donald had gone back to discussing the king’s whereabouts with Goofy and the conversation was ended.

“But that Darkness…while it swallowed the Light, it didn’t destroy it. It couldn’t. All the Darkness managed to do was make that great Light sleep deep inside itself. But the thing is that within every Darkness is a door. And within this Darkness, waits a door to the Light. The true Light.”

That was the gist of the story Kairi had told them when they were younger, when Kairi and her and Riku first became best friends, Sora realized. But why was she hearing this now?

Up ahead, she could see Tarzan slow in his walking. Wherever he was leading the group to, they managed to arrive at. Sora saw an enormous tree trunk up ahead that was overgrown with plants. Perhaps it was the same sort of tree as the one whose fallen trunk she had slid through the jungle on earlier.

On the trunk, a vast blue Light shimmered. Sora could feel the keyblade hum in her hand.

Tarzan repeated the grunting noises he told Sora earlier.

“Friends there.” He said, “See friends.”

“Ohh, now I’ve got it!” Jane remarked. She repeated the grunting noises as best she could. “He means Heart. He must have misconstrued that your word for friends could mean the same as his word for Heart. Perhaps it is better understood as friends in our Hearts…”

“Heart.” Tarzan tested the word. He repeated it. It came out guttural, but his pronunciation was improving.

“Oh.” Sora said disappointedly. “So that’s what it meant.”

“One day that door’s going to open. One day, that Light will come back to us. I know it will. And the whole point of that story is that if you believe in the Light, and in turn believe in your Light, then no Darkness will ever be able to defeat you. Your Heart will be too strong for it.”

Sora moved close to the blue Light. She could see the vines pulse with it, like some ethereal Heartbeat, and the moment she got close enough, the Light flickered. Sora stopped. Butterflies that Sora hadn’t seen on the trunk began to move, and their wings reflected the Light, and Sora realized now that that was what was giving it that blue cast. The butterflies scattered into the air.

She heard a very small voice come from beside her, then.

“Sora?”

That was Kairi’s voice again. And it definitely wasn’t coming from inside her head this time. Sora whipped her gaze over to see what was going on.

And between the wingbeats of butterflies, enveloped with the Light of the unveiling keyhole of the Deep Jungle, stood Kairi.


 

 

K A I R I

 

“Kairi?”

“She saw me,” Kairi gasped as she sank to her knees. She was unexpectedly exhausted from what had just happened. “She saw me! Sora saw me! And I…saw her.” She finished with a fallen glance at the boy, still busy sleeping.

Whatever had just happened, it was temporary. And it sapped Kairi of any strength she didn’t realize she had.

So that must have meant Kairi wouldn’t be able to do it again so easily.

Ugh.

“I guess I’ll have to choose my words wisely next time I do that.” Kairi said, still a little breathless. She had to be optimistic. “But at least maybe I can talk to her for certain now? In short bursts?”

“If only I could figure out how I managed that.” She wondered, and finished uncertainly, “But at least this means we’re a little closer to a way out?”

She let the question hang in the air. And before her, the boy remained in perfect silence on his pale throne.

 

Chapter Text

K A I R I

 

If Kairi had been awake, she would have been aware he was in the area long before his hooded visage ever came into view.

And if she had been looking through her eyes—her eyes and not Sora’s—she would have seen him approaching around the corner, over debris and around the abandoned crates that were piled high around her body.

But all things must sleep from time to time, even Hearts.

Thus, so it was that Kairi never saw the hooded figure arrive, and she never saw him leave to pass along news of his discovery to Maleficent.

And so Kairi’s body remained in that alleyway. Untouched, undisturbed, and unoccupied.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

For a while after she woke up, Sora did nothing but lay in bed and hold that projector slide with the castle on it up to her bedroom lights. She traced a thumb over the grooves and ridges that made up the engraving of the image, watching absently as her smeared fingerprints bent the blue-white glow of the lightbulbs into curved paths around the slide.

Kairi was there. Even for just a moment, Sora saw her. She heard her.

But how?

“You can keep it, if you like.” Jane said to her on the trio’s last day in the jungle.

They had been readying to get back to the gummi ship, their time there wrapped up with the defeat of Clayton and the locking of the world’s keyhole. The several days that had gone by in the unfolding of the situation had been rather chaotic—if not Clayton’s antics with trying to hunt the gorillas calling the group to action, it was the heartless surfacing at random times. But Sora often found herself back in the study tent after that first day with the projector slides, trying to spark some other foreign memory to come to the surface. But none ever did.

Yet she kept coming back to that same little slide with the castle, trying to figure out what gave her that reaction in the first place. And eventually, Jane noticed.

“Are you sure?” Sora asked, to which Jane replied by nodding and holding the slide out to her again. “Thank you, but don’t you need it?”

Jane shrugged and turned back to her sketch.

“We’re due for another shipment of supplies in a week and a half or so, and some more slides are already on the way. And it’s not like there’s any castles in the jungle, anyways,” She chuckled, “So from what you described of that vision it might be of more use to you than us.”

But in the end, it wasn’t of much use at all beyond serving as a memento. She had no idea of where the memory had come from and continuing to stare at it was doing nothing but burning the image into her retinas.

Sora sighed frustratedly and dragged a hand down over her face, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. And with that, she dropped the slide onto her bedside ledge and got up for the day.

“We’re going back to Traverse Town, and no detours this time,” Donald proclaimed to her when she walked into the cockpit and buckled in. “No matter what we see along the way. Too much damage to the engine to risk going on any extra jaunts because someone crashed it!”

“Not sorry,” Sora yawned, “Turns out they needed our help anyways.”

“Lucky guess.”

“So how long until we get there?”

“’Bout an hour.” Donald answered, “Could have been sooner if it weren’t for, may I remind you, someone crashing the gummi ship.

“C’mon, guys, I thought we all made up back in Deep Jungle!” Goofy moped.

“I thought we did too, don’t look at me!” Sora waved her hands, “Anyways, whatcha looking at there? Those the gummi blocks we found?”

“Yep,” Goofy held the newest one from Deep Jungle up to the light. Sora could see something sparkling inside of it, like a tiny piece of a star. “I can’t recognize what this one’s for either, ahyuk. Never mind the one from Wonderland!”

“Maybe Cid would know? He did mention he worked on his own gummi ship, at least.” She suggested, and Goofy nodded.

“I can’t help but be a little concerned.” Jiminy pipes up from his seat on the dashboard.

“Why?”

“With what you said went down in Deep Jungle makes it three for three on there being a larger heartless for every infestation, Goofy was right.”

“Remember how the heartless tried to kidnap Jane at one point, too?” Sora pointed out, “Good thing Tarzan’s gorilla friend—what was its name, Terk?—helped her fend them off, who knows where they would have taken her.”

“That’s another thing I was curious about,” Jiminy gestured with his pen, his journal open in his lap, “Why are the heartless kidnapping people and not just trying to steal Hearts like they normally do? Such a thing suggests the heartless have some ability to strategize, which doesn’t sound in line with what we know of them.”

“Those scamps don’t have any brains in them, believe me.” Donald groused as he flicked a couple of levers and accelerated the ship. He quickly switched the levers back to their former position when the gummi ship gave a sputtering sound.

Sora gnawed at her lip as she considered Jiminy’s statement.

“Maybe something’s pulling the strings.” She said finally and watched as they all looked to her.

“What do you mean?” Donald asked.

She asked, “Remember the Cheshire Cat? I dunno about the minor heartless there, but he definitely called on that one with the batons. Clayton seemed to have some sort of control over the heartless too, at least with being able to ride the big leopard heartless and steer it around. Heck, he probably called the smaller heartless there too, their timing sure wasn’t a coincidence.”

“So if Clayton and that hairball were making things run amuck…could someone have been directing them?” Donald wondered with a shiver, “If them and people like them are doing the same things on several worlds, could there be something bigger going on?”

“I don’t know,” Sora was almost too scared to think about it. “We’ll have to ask Leon and the gang if they’ve heard anything.”

It was a tense silence that held a pall over the gummi ship’s occupants for the remainder of the flight back as each of them thought over the implications of what they’d conjectured.

Sora was usually a fan of staring out the windows of the ship on her travels so far, watching the blue-black silk of outer space as its speckles of stars stared back like a thousand eyes of night. But this time, she was more thankful to see those stars spread out and diminish as Donald steered the ship to disembark in Traverse Town, going back to its place in the hangar.

Yuffie was the first to come upon them when Sora, Donald, and Goofy stumbled in through the gates of Traverse Town, their faces crestfallen and pensive.

“Hey, guys! Long time no see,” Yuffie greeted them as she walked over. “What’s up? You’re all so glum.”

Sora brightened at seeing her.

“Hey Yuffie,” She replied, “We were just thinking over some stuff that happened while we were out. Do you know where Leon and Aerith are? I was hoping we could talk about what we saw with them.”

“Ooh, tales of off-world adventures, huh? Count me in.” Yuffie waved them over to follow her through the First District. “Leon’s usually training in that waterway cavern place behind the Second District hotel around this time, but I’m not really sure what the point of it is: The heartless have gone nuts here lately for some reason and fending them off is enough of a workout already.”

“Worse than usual?” Goofy gawked at her. Yuffie gave him an alarmed nod.

“Yeah, I was doing my round of patrols right when you showed up. Just an hour ago I even saw a heartless try to get in the First District and I thought we cordoned it off to them.” She recounted as the Second District’s doors came within view. “Thanks for giving me an excuse for a break, I was desperate for one. We’ve got a few other people helping make rounds and fending off heartless and that’s been lightening the load somewhat.”

“Newcomers?” Sora asked nervously and felt some of the tension drain from her at Yuffie shaking her head.

“Not a single one since you guys left!” She answered cheerfully, throwing Sora a grin. “Whatever you three were doing out there, you were doing it right. Haven’t heard a word of any new worlds falling to the Darkness—Oh dangit, not again!”

Yuffie had thrown open the doors midsentence and was greeted by the sight of several heartless rising from the ground readying to attack. Sora would have laughed if she weren’t busy summoning her keyblade.

As it was she was trying to charge up her keyblade with an ice spell while Donald did the same with his staff, before Sora had to duck quickly to avoid Yuffie’s giant shuriken as she unsheathed it and hurled it at the heartless.

“Hey, watch it! I already got hit with that thing twice,” She yelled in between fending off one pesky heartless that had its sights on her. “I thought you said you were a good ninja.”

Yuffie caught her shuriken with one hand as she threw out several smaller ones with the other. “Never said I was a good ninja.”

Sora used the hilt of her keyblade to knock a heartless off of Goofy’s back, before firing a quick ice spell at it to cause the creature to give up with a weary puff of Dark smoke.

Sora joked, “Well, obviously not—Ow!” she yelped as a small shuriken grazed her in the forearm.

“I said I was a great ninja.”

“Would you two stop messing around for five seconds?!” Donald squawked as he cast another lightning spell around them, causing another heartless to dissolve with its Heart flying towards the sky. Sora and Goofy made quick work of the other two that were ensnared in the magic’s range, shield and keyblade working together to clobber them into dust.

But as those original few were defeated, several more appeared to replace them. And with them came friends. By then enough heartless arrived to overwhelm the four, and Sora withheld from dealing any major blows in favor of trying to guard against the worst of their attacks. From beside her, she could see Goofy and Yuffie doing the same, with only Donald able to continue attacking with his magic. But it wouldn’t work. Sooner or later, it’d be too much.

“We’ll have to make a break for it!” Yuffie declared as she threw around her giant shuriken again, the weapon sailing around with a charged glow. “Jump over the ledge and go for the double doors on your left over there beside the fountain!”

“Are ya sure?” Goofy worried, cowering behind his shield against the onslaught of heartless. “That’s a bit of a height, isn’t it?”

“Come on, ya dodo.” Donald grumbled as he waved his staff over both of them and wrapped them in some sort of a wind spell. “You had worse falls back in that jungle, now follow me!” He said as he grabbed onto Goofy’s collar and forced the both of them over the edge, where they slowly descended to the ground.

After them followed Yuffie and Sora, who had to help yank off one persistent heartless that had grabbed onto Yuffie’s giant shuriken as it returned to her. From there, she jumped, doing a quick somersault at the bottom to absorb the shock from landing. Sora could hear Yuffie following in her steps behind her and ran to where Goofy and Donald had opened the doors and were trying to hurry them through before more heartless could follow after them.

Once they were all safely on the other side the group could only stop for several minutes to catch their breath. Sora groaned at the sight of new tears at the hems of her sleeves and shorts, and a small bloodstain on her glove. Jane had tried to show her how to mend them back in the jungle, but Sora wasn’t exactly a dab hand at sewing.

“So that’s the sort of thing I was talking about!” Yuffie tried lightheartedly. “The heartless were like that all day yesterday and didn’t exactly let up today, either, as you saw.”

“Gawrsh, you weren’t kidding.” Goofy wiped his brow. “Is that the waterway you were talking about?” He asked, pointing out the barred entrance on the far side of the alleyway.

“Hey, yeah!” Yuffie straightened as she looked over.

The four wandered over towards the reservoir as they inspected the grating.

Donald, being the smallest, was the first to try fitting through the bars to no success. He gave Sora a scathing look at her snickering.

“I’d like to see you try,” He suggested, and Sora shook her head.

“No way, I’m not even going to bother.” She inspected the bars, and noticed they were already weakened somewhat, rattling under her grip as she spied the rusted screws barely holding the bars in place. “What if we try ramming it together?”

“Good idea!” Goofy shuffled over into the water with Donald and Sora, and they arranged themselves to form a sort of battering ram. Yuffie gave them an incredulous look.

“Guys, I’m pretty sure there’s another route in if we go—”

But Yuffie’s suggestion was cut off at the din of crashing metal as the trio crashed through.

The three stumbled for a moment as stars swirled in their vision from the impact, and Sora had to blink several times for them to go away. Her head swam as she looked back at Yuffie.

“What was that you were going to say?” Sora asked.

“You know what? Never mind.”

She shrugged as she waded through the entrance. Around the corner, Sora could see a couple of torches flickering. “Suit yourself. Hey, I think I see him!”

Sora slogged through the water as quickly as she could at the sight of Leon’s silhouette waving around his gunblade. And beside him was Aerith. She could hear the others splashing in from behind.

“Welcome back, everyone.” Aerith greeted them with a smile.

Leon squinted at Yuffie. “Shouldn’t you be doing rounds?”

“Oh come on, Squall,” She complained, “I’ve been getting mobbed all day while you hang around down here training. We were mobbed again trying to get here. The others can handle it on their rounds, I haven’t had a break yet.”

“It’s Leon,” He rolled his eyes as he continued practicing his form. “And training’s important, bad form can cause you to sprain something in the middle of a fight and go from winning to losing.”

“Isn’t that what potions and elixirs are for?”

“It’s a little awkward to try and take one while fighting off heartless at the same time.” He reminded Yuffie, who snorted.

“Guess it’s easier for a Great Ninja.”

And to that, both Aerith and Leon gave similarly put-upon sighs of varying degrees. It seemed this was an old topic for them.

Sora spoke up, “We managed to lock a couple of worlds’ keyholes when we were gone. We saw some weird stuff too, there were some things we wanted to ask you guys about.”

“Yeah?” Leon raised a brow as he put down his gunblade. “Lay it on me, kid.”

The trio took turns as they discussed everything that had happened. From seeing the heartless at Wonderland and locking its keyhole to their encounters with the Cheshire Cat. Then from there, the series of events at Deep Jungle that ended with Tarzan leading them to the keyhole. And finally, Sora seeing Kairi for that one quick moment.

“Donald and Goofy and the rest said they couldn’t see her when I did, but I swear she was there!” Sora insisted, “Even just for like, like a moment! And on the walk to the place with the butterflies, I kept hearing her voice in my head. I don’t know what it means.”

Aerith gave her a sympathetic look.

“Certain people, we carry in our Hearts,” Aerith began as she took a step closer. “Perhaps not literally, but figuratively. And sometimes we want to see these people so much that we find pieces of them in everything we do.”

“What do you mean?” Sora asked.

“She means you’re seeing things, silly.” Yuffie piped up.

“Yuffie, don’t be insensitive.” Aerith chided.

“What?” Sora looked back and forth between them, picking up on their tinges of disbelief in their expressions. “No, you guys, I’m serious. I actually saw her. She was right there.”

Leon shrugged, and Sora could tell he still didn’t take her seriously on this. “Well, we don’t know much about how keyholes or worlds’ Hearts work. Maybe it was even something to do with the keyblade. All of these factors involved could mean that maybe you weren’t just seeing things after all.”

“That’s true…”

This time, Donald interjected.

“There was something we were discussing on the ride over we wanted to ask you about: Sora thought something could be controlling the heartless.” At this, he recounted Jiminy’s statement about the creatures’ latest patterns of behavior.

“It’s not normal,” Sora said, “He was right about that stuff suggesting the heartless would be planning something from what we know of what’s going on, but there’s no way it’s the heartless doing it. Just earlier when Yuffie and us were getting slammed with them the heartless relied on strength in numbers and mobbing us like they always do, like they’re following an instinct and nothing else. But kidnapping certain people? Not just taking their Hearts? Something’s up.”

“That’s true,” Yuffie agreed. “Where could they be taking those people?”

Leon was quiet for a moment as he stared at the still surface of the water, deep in thought.

“You mentioned that cat and the hunter had some measure of control over them?”

“Yeah. The cat in particular implied he knew where Alice went, but he didn’t tell us anything beyond how she was ‘with the shadows, into Darkness’. But he definitely summoned the giant heartless that was there. Clayton didn’t seem to have too much control, but we didn’t see enough of him to know for sure. He definitely commanded that leopard heartless, though, he was riding around on it.” Sora answered.

“Still think that cat was full of bologna,” Donald muttered.

“What do we know about the kidnapping victims so far?” Leon asked.

“Nothing really, beyond that they are all girls,” Aerith responded, “But only specific ones for some reason. Other girls have been turned to heartless just the same. What Sora said of Alice and Jane’s incidents was in line with their new behavior.”

At this, Leon looked to the three. “Was there anything different about Alice and Jane that you could recall?”

Goofy shook his head. “Nothing, they seemed perfectly normal.”

They all went quiet at this as they pondered what they learned.

“Ugh!” Yuffie threw her hands up. “This is ridiculous, nothing’s solved and it’s only more complicated.”

“You’re telling me,” Sora cut in.

“From what you’ve told us so far you could be exactly right,” Leon sighed. “There very well could be some other force controlling the heartless and coordinating the people who use them for their own ends. Have you guys found any of those Ansem Reports yet?”

“No,” The trio answered sadly in unison.

“Just keep looking, I’m sure they’re out there,” Aerith consoled them. “In the meantime, Yuffie told me we haven’t had any newcomers since you guys set out. That’s one success.”

“Sure doesn’t feel like it to me,” Donald bowed his head.

At this, Aerith smiled.

“A victory’s still a victory even if it doesn’t feel like you’re winning yet. Sometimes all you can do is stay hopeful, stay aware of any opportunities, and keep trying."

 


 

 

R I K U

 

Another heartless fizzled to nothing but Dark dust with a swing of his sword. Around him, more of the creatures clambered forth towards him.

The days after that mission in Wonderland passed by in a blur. Mostly, Riku spent his days training with the heartless as his sparring partners, who he would round up by strolling the hallways and beckoning them to follow him. He couldn’t quite command them, not in the way that Maleficent could, but they recognized him as a comrade and at least seemed to understand his requests to help him train, and that was enough for him.

Usually the heartless ignored him unless he needed them, or if Maleficent gave them orders otherwise. All except for one little heartless that was currently busy standing to one side of the room watching him.

It never approached him to fight, but it never really moved away from the room either. All it ever did was stare at him, antennae twitching for some unknown purpose.

It was the same little heartless that woke him up on his first morning there. And every day after that it would usually come to wake him up in the same method, poking the tip of his nose with a clawed finger repeatedly until Riku’s face squirmed as he woke up. He wasn’t sure why it did that. At first Riku wondered if Maleficent had ordered it to, but he quickly learned that wasn’t the case upon asking. Nor did she seem to believe him when he theorized that that heartless in particular had some form of individuality or personal identity; Apparently such a thing wasn’t possible with the creatures.

And so, he simply got used to it, and somewhere along the way that little heartless became his first friend in the citadel of Hollow Bastion.

But the matter of the heartless and any traces of personality they may or may not have been capable of developing was the last thing on Riku’s mind today. Instead, between parrying clawed swipes and retaliating, he thought of Alice. In particular, the last time Riku saw her.

“Well, here we are.” Riku said as they looked up to the imposing doors of the citadel’s chapel.

The doors alone were nearly two stories tall and inscribed delicately with scenes of a rose going from a bud, to a bloom, and eventually wilting to nothing. Throughout, motifs of thorned vines wound their way through the roses, serving to both frame and trap them in the composition. Riku raised his hands to grab the handles and open the doors himself, but they opened on their own before he could do so.

One armored heartless gripped onto the blade of Soul Eater to stifle its thrust, its gauntlets tinkling as it did so. Riku scowled and ripped the sword out of its grasp and felt a Dark pleasure at seeing the unarmored parts of its hands start spilling smoke from its new wounds. Another swing and the sword jabbed into the heartless’ torso, and the heartless crumbled to dust.

In the deep depths of the room, Maleficent looked on at the pair as they walked in. She met Riku’s eye and gave another one of her catlike smiles.

“Well, well,” Maleficent strode towards them at a luxuriously slow pace, with Diablo ascending towards the ceiling with hardly two beats of his wings before gliding closer to the pair. “You’ve done a fine job, dear boy. I daresay I’m proud of you.”

Riku bit the inside of his cheek so hard he tasted pennies and ducked as one of the magical heartless floated overhead with a flame spell aimed for him. He got to the ground and rolled out of the way before the flames could touch him, noting how the soot marks from previous spells faded to nothing just like the newest one. Maleficent must have charmed this place just as she did his clothes.

His heart fluttered at the recognition, and Riku swallowed against letting any traces of it show on him. But his hand trembled at his side, and that was enough. Maleficent turned her head to Alice.

Another swing, and another heartless collapsed.

“And you, my girl, will come with me.”

Two of the creatures ganged up on him, one landing on his back and the other struggling to maintain its hold on his sword.

“Where’s she going to go?” Riku asked. “She’s…going to be okay, right?”

Riku gave an angry grunt as he stumbled about with Soul Eater swinging as he tried to fling the persistent heartless off of it. He could feel its companion try to climb up towards the back of his neck, its gnarled hands poking unpleasantly at his back as it climbed. Riku wasn’t worried about holes in his clothes—Maleficent’s magic made it so that his attire was in impeccable condition no matter what happened to it, so long as she still had power. Rather, he was worried about the possibility of the heartless trying to wrap its claws around his throat from behind.

“Why, of course.”

Maleficent didn’t say anything more, and after a moment he decided to press for answers.

“What are you planning to do with her?” He insisted as Maleficent took her by the shoulder.

He dismissed Soul Eater for a split second to free his hands, and the heartless still clinging to it fell to the ground. Riku held it in place with his foot as he reached around as far as he could to pry the other heartless still working its way up his torso and flung that one towards the far wall once he got it free. As it crashed against the stone the heartless dispersed with a fitful gasping noise and a burst of Dark smoke.

She and Alice were already several paces away by then, and they turned to look at him, their silhouettes framed by the dreary light from beyond the opened door.

Riku called forth Soul Eater again to aim a downwards jab at the heartless trapped under his shoe, and the moment he tried to pierce it the creature went two-dimensional, making his sword do nothing but clatter uselessly against the stone floor. He scowled.

Maleficent spoke, “When you first came to me, you spoke of wanting balance and how that man guided you to freedom.”

“Yeah?”

The heartless resurfaced farther away, only visible by the yellow light of its eyes in the shadows.

“Recite to me what the man told you on the fundamentals of finding power in Darkness.”

Riku gripped tightly to his sword with both hands and half-knelt to the floor before racing towards it.

Riku looked down before he spoke.

“’Belief. Trust. These are tools you’ll need to attain rewards your body can’t grasp.’”

Soul Eater met the heartless’ clawed grip with a surprising futility despite the power he had put into the attack. The two struggled in a stalemate for a split-second, before Riku pulled away and did a feint from the side. This time, he was successful; The heartless’ distraction sealed its fate as he spun around it and jabbed Soul Eater straight into its back.

“Precisely.” Maleficent proclaimed as she turned to face him completely. “If you are to attain those rewards and anything I can offer you, Riku, then you must believe in me. Trust in me. The girl will be fine.”

With a small blustery noise, the last heartless vanished, and the room was finally quiet.

“Yes, Maleficent.” He said without looking up.

They left, and Riku stood in the Dark chapel with no company but his thoughts.

That was several days ago, with no mention or sight of Alice since. Riku didn’t want to think of what might have happened to her.

His ruminating was interrupted by slow clapping coming from the doors to the room. Riku looked over to see that it was Maleficent, who had been watching his progress unbeknownst to him. The little heartless that had been watching him was gone.

“Impeccable work, my boy.” She praised him as she sauntered over. Riku fought against his conflicting need to both flinch away and draw closer to her, and tightened his grip on Soul Eater.

“What do you want?”

“All business, aren’t you?” Maleficent simpered at him and gave an enigmatic smile. “But then again, such is precisely why I chose you. I never did like to suffer fools. No, I came in here to summon you for another errand. This time I’ll be the one to accompany you.”

“What?” Riku’s heart began to race as a million questions ran through his mind. Did she find out about Wonderland? Did Alice tell her? Were they going to be punished for it? He cleared his throat against the fear and restrained from letting it seep through into his voice. “What are we going to be doing?”

“Nothing much,” She said airily as she lovingly scratched at Diablo’s head with one long red nail. The bird fluffed his black wings from where he sat on her shoulder. “Merely a short outing is all. I received some interesting news from a friend recently that I wanted to confirm for myself.”

“And that is?” Riku trailed off, waiting for her to disclose the rest. But Maleficent yielded nothing.

“Be patient. I’ll need to verify the information first, and then if it’s true I’ll let you know later on. In the meantime, you can wander around the place as much as you like while I work. A change of scenery will do you well, my child.”

He exhaled. Riku was nervous about the possibility of another task like Wonderland. But if this time all he had to do was go with her, Riku thought, he could do that just fine.

Maybe this could even be fun for once.

“Where are we going?”

Maleficent moved her gaze to the far wall as she lowered her hand from Diablo’s head. And a grin so wide Riku could see her canines began to spread across her face.

“A little place called Traverse Town."

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

“Wow,” She said as she yawned, “I didn’t expect I’d ever be able to fall asleep here.”

She was still in that strange room in the play island that was not the play island, having fallen asleep after the events that unfolded back in Deep Jungle. When she saw Sora.

After Kairi was seemingly transported to her side for just that split second, and returned thereafter, Kairi hadn’t remembered ever closing her eyes and sleeping. But then, she thought as she looked back at the boy on the throne, who was still sleeping himself, it wasn’t that out of the ordinary for her to sleep too.

But then her next thought made her stomach clench in fear.

If Kairi had been asleep…how much time had she missed?

She knew all too well the panic of finding hours had hurried by if she looked away from Sora or her body for even a split second. The fear of missing something important had been assuaged by the discovery of someone else in this place, but it didn’t stop the lingering worry of whether Kairi had missed some pivotal clue.

The first thing Kairi noticed when she looked was that wherever Sora was, it was quite like the cave back on the island. She almost expected to see familiar scribbles on the distant walls when Sora turned around. It was, from what Kairi could tell, some large underground lake, and she and her friends were on an island in the middle of it, staring up at a dilapidated house.

“Was Cid sure that this was the place? Looks like nobody’s home.” Goofy remarked, walking up to the red tarp that was strewn across the front door. “Hello? Anybody?”

“I vote we go on in,” Sora said, “With how dark and wet it is out here it’s reminding me of that waterfall place back in Deep Jungle. It’s spooking me out. Weird to think how that was just yesterday.”

Donald made a disparaging noise. “You’re just spooked ‘cause that place made you hallucinate.”

“I was not hallucinating!”

“Sora? Donald?” Goofy called out from somewhere behind the house, “I found a way in!”

Wait. Hold on.

‘Just yesterday’?

Kairi did some quick math. If the incident at the waterfall was just yesterday, and Kairi had been asleep for however many hours in this room, and suppose that she had been out for about the average amount of time that people sleep (or perhaps some extra, considering how exhausted she was after making contact with Sora and the fact she hadn’t slept for what amounted to a week or so in the outside world)…

“Is the time here fixed?” She looked to the sleeping boy for an answer purely out of reflex.

Kairi tried again to confirm.

This time, she could see Sora and Donald were at the entrance to the house—if you could call it that, since really it was a large literal hole in the wall. They were going inside.

It seemed like only a few moments had passed in the outside world, exactly the same as the amount of time Kairi guessed had passed in here.

She tried again one more time, with her heart racing in anticipation.

And now she could see the trio were all standing around the room they had wandered into.

Kairi pulled away to give a loud cry of joy.

Yes!” She jumped as high in the air as she could, tapping her feet excitedly, “Yes, yes,” Kairi hollered as she pumped her arm in the air with every syllable, “Ye-e-es!”

Eventually her great excitement simmered down into gushing laughter as she noticed the boy on the pale throne again, who hadn’t moved a muscle or gave any signs of stirring at her outburst.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to disturb your slumber,” Kairi said as solemnly as she could, but the smile couldn’t leave her face no matter what she tried. She laughed again.

“Oh my gosh,” She said as she started pacing around, “Should I try and make contact again? What would I say? ‘Hey Sora, that place you’re in sure looks like the secret place back on the islands, remember it?’”

“Wait, no, I shouldn’t squander the opportunity. Last time I made contact it knocked me out. How about, ‘Could you help find my body?’ Agh! No, that wouldn’t work either. What clues could I give that would help? ‘Oh, yes, it’s located right by some nondescript crates and abandoned things that could be in any old place, you can’t miss it.’” Kairi sighed, “For all I know my body’s on a whole different world. Or she’s on a whole other world. Or something.”

“Speaking of, I should probably check on it.” She thought for a moment. “Or would that be check on myself? Whatever.” Kairi finished as she shook her head.

The moment she tried seeing through her eyes, Kairi was very glad she did.

And then her smile died for good.

The first thing she noticed was the usual sight—tall stacks of crates and debris around her, unmoved since likely long before Kairi ended up there. Abandoned. To her side was that ramshackle wall made of mismatched wooden boards that Kairi could just see through if she really looked, beyond which strings of lights twinkled from far off. And high around it all, the sides of buildings constructed of mortar and wood framing stretched to the starry sky.

The second thing Kairi noticed was a woman’s voice that she couldn’t recognize.

“What’s this?” The woman said.

She couldn’t move her eyes much to see, but a moment later whoever it was walked over into her field of vision.

The woman was a stark departure from anyone else Kairi had ever seen: She was tall, taller than most of the people Kairi knew on Destiny Islands, with startlingly green skin. The curved horns atop her head only served to make her seem taller, and completed her imposing visage composed of nearly all black robes with small flashes of red and purple from what little Kairi could see. The older woman was exquisite, in a cruel sort of way, the kind of savage elegance that a snake had as it basked in the sun. As its scales gleamed and it formed strange alphabets with its spine.

And her Darkness…Kairi didn’t need all of her senses available to know it was roiling off of her. More palpable than any she had ever encountered, even Riku’s.

Kairi didn’t have any control over her real body save for her eyes, and even then, it wasn’t enough to be able to look beyond into the woman’s Heart to know the full depths of her Darkness. But regardless of this she could feel goosebumps rising up her arms unconsciously, the hairs on the back of her neck beginning to stand at attention.

“Oh, my. It seems he was right after all. A Princess of Heart, right here and waiting.” She chuckled as she bent down to look at Kairi’s body more closely. “I didn’t expect it to be this easy to find you.”

The woman inspected Kairi some more, and her smile faded to a puzzled crease of her brows. She squinted.

“A Princess of Heart with no Heart? And keyblade magic, this must be. Certainly not fairy magic.” She hummed, “Keyblade magic in the form of…a serendipity charm? Quite the unorthodox choice. One would imagine whomever cast it would have gone with a tracking charm instead, for a Princess of Heart. Too valuable to let get away. But I suppose that’s what made for my good fortune.”

The woman straightened up once more and began to walk away as she clapped her hands twice. At this, a large number of Dark creatures with glowing yellow eyes began rising out of the ground, out of the shadows, from everywhere Kairi could and couldn’t see. They looked to her with interest.

“You know what to do.”

At this, the creatures scuttled forward to grab Kairi’s body. She could feel their sharp little claws dig into her as they held her above their heads, their antennae fluttering against her back.

The woman waved them on to a large black hole she had made in the side of the wall, like she’d opened a rip in reality itself.

And the last thing Kairi thought before being shuffled through was how familiar that Dark portal was, though she had never seen one before.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“So tell me again: How did you guys crash the gummi ship?” Cid asked.

“She started it,” Donald said quickly, pointing a feathered finger at Sora, who narrowed her eyes.

“Hey, you were the one not wanting to go ahead and look around there!”

“I certainly don’t recall it being me who grabbed the controls and threw it into a nosedive!”

“You were wrestling with the controls too—”

“Alright, alright, jeez louise.” Cid cut in, pinching the bridge of his nose and screwing his eyes shut. “Shut yer pie holes and forget I asked. I’ll fix it.”

Sora whooped in joy.

“For a price.”

And her cry of joy quickly fell to an agonized groan.

Cid raised a brow at her as high as it could go. “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘give and take’, kid? Besides, it’s simple,” He said as he reached under the counter display, “All you gotta do is go deliver this book for me to the old house in the Third District. It’s the door with the big ol’ fire symbol on the door, you can’t miss it.” With that, Cid flopped down a large book onto the countertop and the three drew closer to study it.

“What is it?” Goofy asked.

Cid shrugged.

“Someone came in a while ago with this book. See how old it is?” He traced the frayed edges of the book’s cover with his fingertip. “It was in even worse condition when the guy brought it in. Paid me a good chunk of change to fix it since it was so beat up.”

Sora nodded. “All I gotta do is deliver a book in exchange for fixing the ship? That doesn’t seem like much.”

Cid gave a snort at that.

“Kid, have you gone blind? I thought you said you saw how the heartless were out there today, don’t tell me you forgot already.”

“Okay, fair enough.” She shivered as she took the book.

“Say, Cid, you recognize these gummi blocks?” Goofy asked as he pulled the two shards out of his pockets and placed them on the countertop. “Neither me nor Donald have ever seen these types before.”

“You’re kiddin’ me!” He exclaimed as he leaned close to look at the gummi blocks and held the sparkling one up to the light. “You three are flyin’ around in that fancy schmancy gummi ship and you know nothin’ bout navigation gummis and warp gummis?”

Donald stamped his foot at this, but Goofy quirked his head in curiosity.

“Warp gummis?” Goofy wondered.

Cid sighed so harshly Sora was surprised his toothpick didn’t fall out of his mouth.

“Bunch of pinheads, interspace ain’t no playground.” And with this, he picked up both of the gummis. “Warp gummis help you get to places super fast. Like, teleport kind of fast.”

“So, we can teleport past the heartless in outer space?” Donald suggested hopefully.

“Exactly that. Your ship’ll zip right past those suckers on your route. Only drawback is that they can’t teleport you to new places, only to places you’ve been to before.”

“That’d be nice,” Sora grinned, “Donald can’t slam the brakes on the ship and throw everyone around anymore.”

She grinned wider at Donald’s deadpan look.

“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” Cid shook his head. “Alright, how about this. Deliver that book for me and I’ll fix the gummi ship, and I’ll even throw in installing these two gummis for you. Sound good?”

“Sounds great!” Sora chirped as she hugged the book to herself. “We’ll get rolling, we’ll be back gramps.”

“See ya later, kid.” He said and stopped for a moment. “Hey, kid?”

“Yeah?”

“Before you go out there, you got potions and stuff, right?”

Sora smiled. “Yes, gramps, I have it covered. Don’t worry.”

“Good.” He said, and she left.

As the door closed behind them and the trio moved through the First District towards the distant doors of the third, Sora looked a little more closely at the book.

“Doesn’t seem like anything special to me, I wonder what’s inside.” She said offhandedly as she began to pull away the clasp sealing it closed. Donald threw a tiny warning spark at her from his staff to stop her in her tracks.

“Don’t open it.” He ordered.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t open it.” Donald repeated with a stern look. “That’s no ordinary book, it’s got magic all over it.”

“How can you tell?”

“I’m the court magician, what do you think?” He fired back as he crossed his arms. “At the very least, wait until we get there and ask first. Some magic books can be funny about that sort of thing.”

“Fine, okay,” Sora said as she went back to hugging the book again. “How long will it take for the ship to be fixed?”

“Gawrsh, probably a coupla days.” Goofy estimated as the door to the Third District drew closer.

Donald sulked at the words. “Cid better not break anything.”

“Don’t worry, Donald, I’m sure he’s just as good as Chip and Dale back home!”

Goofy grabbed onto the door’s handle and threw it open wide, revealing several heartless already at the scene.

Yipe!

“This is really getting old,” Donald spat before launching fireball after fireball at the foes, but for every one that dispersed two more took its place.

“Guys?” Sora said as she struggled to hold onto the book tightly in one hand and use her keyblade effectively with the other, “I’m not sure I’d be able to fight so effectively with this book,” She snarled at a heartless as it tried swiping a clawed hand at the cover, “These things are gonna damage it all over again if we keep standing here!”

“Agreed,” Donald concurred with a blast of ice, “We gotta get outta here! The door’s just over there, run!”

Goofy and Sora followed his lead as he gestured to a large door settled in a niche in the wall, adorned with a glowing red flame symbol on it.

Upon running towards it, her and Goofy felt around the edges of the door, trying to find a handle. But there was none. And from behind, Sora could hear the heartless horde clamber closer.

“Donald, how do we get in?!”

“It’s a magic door, so use magic!” Donald yelled in between throwing spells at the heartless, trying to keep them at bay.

With one hand Sora raised her keyblade and launched the most powerful ice spell she could at the door, but it didn’t do anything beyond coat the entrance in frost. The door stayed closed.

“Didn’t work!”

At this, Donald grumpily looked towards them, and then at the door. And finally, he rolled his eyes so hard Sora wondered if they’d launch off into space.

“Fire, dummy. Use a fire spell.” He said as fire erupted from his staff to the symbol on the door. And with it, a small chime sounded out as it opened. The group raced inside and put their weight against the door to push it shut. Sora could hear the distant claws and shoving through the thick material.

“I really hope they can’t get inside.”

“Nah, they can’t,” Donald said, straightening his hat. “They’d need to use a fire spell too, and there’s no way they’d be able to figure it out. Where are we?”

The group had found themselves in a large underground cavern, much bigger than the waterway they’d met with Leon and Aerith in. A small sandy bank sloped towards a vast body of water, on which a series of stepping stones moved back and forth. In the distance, they could see a small house perched on an island in the underground lake, that looked to have fallen to disrepair.

“I guess that’s where we gotta go,” Sora began to walk towards the stepping stones and hopped from one to the next easily, thankful for the practice she’d gotten for this from racing Riku across those platforms back on Destiny Islands. “Keep up!”

Donald and Goofy’s journey across the water was less than graceful, with Donald falling into the water with a spectacular splash right after he told Goofy to go faster. But eventually, both of them made it onto the island, and stared up at the crumbling building.

“Was Cid sure that this was the place? Looks like nobody’s home.” Goofy remarked, walking up to the red tarp that was strewn across the front door. “Hello? Anybody?”

“I vote we go on in,” Sora said, “With how dark and wet it is out here it’s reminding me of that waterfall place back in Deep Jungle. It’s spooking me out. Weird to think how that was just yesterday.”

Donald made a disparaging noise. “You’re just spooked ‘cause that place made you hallucinate.”

“I was not hallucinating!”

“Sora? Donald?” Goofy called out from somewhere behind the house, “I found a way in!”

“I’m not sure we should be breaking and entering,” Donald muttered as they both went to go see what Goofy found.

“It’ll be fine,” Sora waved a hand dismissively at him, “Looks like nobody’s home anyway. If anyone does show up, we’ll just tell them we’re there ‘cause Cid asked us to.”

“Still,” Donald started, but whatever he was going to say next seemed to leave his thoughts as they both saw the ‘way in’ that Goofy discovered. “Are you kidding?”

“What?” Goofy asked.

“Goofy, that is a literal hole in the wall.”

“I mean, it does count as a way in,” Sora proffered. Donald scowled at them both.

“And a way to jail!” He squawked, “I vote we wait out here for whoever we’ve got to deliver that book to.”

“And I vote we go in,” Sora said as she stepped inside and brushed aside the tarp haphazardly draped over the hole.

It was quite dark inside the house, and clearly abandoned. There was nothing in the room she had wandered in on but cobwebs and dust. Behind her, Sora heard her friends clamber in.

“You were supposed to wait until everybody voted,” Donald pointed out with a huff. Sora grinned mischievously.

“You still followed me, didn’t you?” She replied, “Besides, Goofy was the one who found this entrance, he would have gone in anyways too.”

“That’s true,” Goofy chortled, and they both laughed at Donald’s vexed expression.

“I see you’ve arrived sooner than I expected!” A new voice exclaimed, and the trio turned to see an elderly man come in through the front door.

He looked to be of average height, if you didn’t count the absurdly tall pointed hat he wore, with an overlong white beard nearly skimming the floor. The man wore plain blue robes that matched his hat, and in one hand he carried what looked to be an antique doctor’s bag that appeared as aged as him, with a wand clutched in the other hand. He adjusted his glasses.

Sora was confused. “You knew we were coming?”

“Of course.”

“So that magic book is yours?” Donald asked as he moved closer. “Who are you?”

“Oh dear, forgive my manners for forgetting introductions.” The man said as he moved to place his bag on the floor and opened it. “And forgive me for taking a moment more to get my sundries out of the way while we chat. Presto!

He flicked his wand, and out of the bag came spilling all sorts of things: Furnitures and housewares, chairs that danced and tables that turned. Sora had to swerve to avoid a fire poker that floated over the trio, which was accompanied soon after by a teapot and its teacups that chased after it. A bed roved over to the corner, with bedlinens situating themselves properly onto the mattress. The room came into view properly as a small fire merrily crackled to life in the hearth, and small oil lamps hovered along the walls that grew flames to match.

Before the trio floated a set of chairs and a table with enough spaces for all of them to sit comfortably, and a tablecloth lounged out across it lazily. And before Sora knew it, the small tea service she had seen floating by earlier steamed with fresh tea inside and a tray replete with petit fours and canapés pranced their way onto the table. At the man’s behest, the group sat down at the table. Sora noticed there was an extra seat left unoccupied.

“She should be along any minute,” He noted with a glance at a small ornate carriage placed gently in the corner of the now-occupied home. She could see it was beginning to sparkle. “Ah! Here she comes.”

A silhouette composed of glimmering blue Light swirled into view, and the Light dimmed to reveal an elderly woman wearing a periwinkle robe fastened with a bright magenta bow, with a hood pulled over her short silver hair. In one hand she held a wand just like Merlin’s.

“Oh goodness, they’re here already!” She held a hand to her cheek in surprise before coming over to occupy the last chair.

“Indeed, quite punctual,” The man remarked as he reached for a teacup. “Now then, introductions! An essential basis for any relationship. I’m Merlin.”

“And I’m the Fairy Godmother!” The elderly woman gave a pleasant smile as she waved her wand with a shower of glitter.

“And I expect the two of you are Donald and Goofy, the king’s cohorts?”

“You know the king?” Donald asked excitedly. Beside him, Goofy leaned closer with a fervent nod. This was the first time either of them had heard news on the king since before their journey began.

“Why, of course!” Merlin said before turning to Sora, “And who might you be?”

But by this point Sora’s shock made her mouth go slack. She blinked in the struggle to formulate words.

“No way. No way!”

“I must say, in all my travels I’ve never heard a name like ‘No way’ before,” Merlin chuckled.

“You’re Merlin?

“The one and only!”

“Like, the Merlin. King Arthur Merlin.”

“I did know a boy named Arthur once,” His eyes twinkled, but now his expression was tinged with sadness. “He made a good king, I’ll say.”

Sora seemed to have lost the ability to speak suddenly. Her eyes gaped open as much as her mouth.

That is, until Donald elbowed her in the side.

“Don’t be rude!”

“Right, um, uh.” Sora tried her best to blink away her surprise, “I’m…I’m Sora.”

“Ah ha! A name!” Both Merlin and the Fairy Godmother shared a smile at this, “I see these two have found the key as per the king’s request.”

“And right on time, too,” The Fairy Godmother added.

“What did the king ask you to do?” Goofy asked.

“Your king asked us both to help you on your journey,” She replied, and looked to Sora. “In particular, to teach you the basics of magic, my dear.”

 


 

 

R I K U

 

Traverse Town was a nice enough place, he thought. It wasn’t quite as sprawling as some of the larger cities of the islands, and it wasn’t anywhere near as modernized, but it had a vibe that felt ‘small town’ and ‘downtown’ simultaneously. Riku could even venture to call it cozy.

But that left out the fact that there wasn’t much to do around here.

After he and Maleficent initially arrived, she waved him off and told him to go explore. Riku was half tempted to try following her for a while, but quickly decided against it. He already disobeyed her once, no need to further risk her wrath.

But that didn’t stop him from wondering what she might be up to. What was the news she had heard? Who told her? Was it related to their mission to bring balance, or was it something else? Riku’s thoughts were disrupted by someone pulling at the hem of his shirt.

He looked down to see a small boy trying to get his attention. On further inspection, he noticed the boy’s wooden skin and boxy joints in his arms and legs, and Riku realized the boy was in fact a puppet.

“Hey, mister?” The boy asked.

“What?”

“Have you seen my father? Or Jiminy?” He scrunched up his face in thought, an odd sight considering he was made of wood. “One’s teeny-weeny, that’s Jiminy.  He wears a little coat and a top hat. My father’s name is Gepetto, he’s about the same height as you and he’s got grey hair too.”

“Are they around here?” Riku asked. The boy shrugged.

“Last I saw them was back in my father’s workshop. That was where we lived, until one day those black creature things came. Before I knew it, I woke up here!”

Riku furrowed his brows.

“Those black creatures…do you mean the heartless?”

“Is that what they’re called?” The boy’s eyes widened, “Gosh! I’ve been seeing them all over the place while I’ve been looking. What are they?”

Riku wasn’t quite sure of that himself. All Maleficent had told him was that they were the Hearts of people who had fallen to Darkness because they weren’t careful with it, but that didn’t make much sense to him. No Hearts that he could see came out when Riku destroyed them in training, supposing that a person’s Heart was anything like the worlds’ Hearts that he had seen so far. No twinkling Light or anything.

But then, he supposed, perhaps that was why they had fallen to the Darkness in the first place. No Light, no balance.

“Basically they’re just products of Darkness.” Riku answered, knowing he technically wasn’t wrong. Whether or not they were Hearts was one thing, but they certainly weren’t created by any Light.

“Darkness? Blech!” The boy made a disgusted expression and Riku scowled. “Darkness is no good, Jiminy told me so. He said it was too dangerous to ever bother with it.”

“Yeah? Well, don’t believe everything you ever hear.”

“But Jiminy’s my conscience!” The boy protested.

Just another idiot kid, He thought. And with that, Riku began walking away towards the door to the Third District. He hadn’t gone there yet.

“Hey, mister, where are you going?” He asked, and Riku waved him off lazily.

“Away.”

He pushed open the door and was greeted by a plaza that was much better lit than either the First or Second Districts, though not by much. Where the other two were lit mostly by gas lighting, this place had quite a bit of electric lighting. On the walls of the buildings decorative lights blinked, with a large golden fountain bathing everything in a soft pleasant glow from the corner. Neon signs that gave navigation between the districts and warned against high voltage lines glistened along the entrance.

Compared to the other districts, the Third District was devoid of anyone. That is, until Riku heard someone coming from around the corner.

“—I was not hallucinating again, you guys—”

“—Second time in as many days, ya dummy, come on!” Another voice chastised.

“—She was right there! Again!”

Was that…Sora?

 


 

 

S O R A

 

Bwa-a-ak! Watch where you’re aiming!” Donald cried as he turned in circles to try and put out his burning tailfeathers.

“Too busy training!” Sora said, before calling forth an electrical storm that bit at every piece of furniture that danced around the room. The sparks popped and screeched as they skimmed over wood, fabric, ceramic. “Wait a minute, I know a spell for that now!”

“I sure hope you do,” Donald grumbled at the new black sooty smear on his carefully maintained plumage.

Sora grinned in response and raised her keyblade as green Light swirled around her and Donald, and the burned pinions straightened themselves and turned white again with a tinkling chime. He tested out his regrown feathers by tentatively wiggling them and gave his approval with a pleased huff.

“Good.”

“Excellent work!” Merlin cheered from the edge of the room. The Fairy Godmother sent small fireworks raining out her wand in celebration as Merlin waved his hands to make the furniture stop dancing, the lesson finished.

Sora couldn’t remember the last time she grinned this much. “Really?”

“Indubitably!” He nodded, “Cure can be a complicated spell, and a costly one. It’ll soak up most of your magic reserves if you overuse it. But in a pinch it can be quite handy.”

She hopped from foot to foot.

“So can you teach me how to do all other sorts of stuff? Make things super tiny, like your furniture? Make them dance? Make fireworks?”

“Please don’t teach her how to make fireworks,” Donald groaned.

Merlin guffawed.

“Patience, patience! All good things come in due time, you see.” Merlin said as he worked to set the room right again with the Fairy Godmother’s help. A wave of magic ran across everything, serving to move it back to its proper place and undo the damage Sora had inflicted on it in her training. “Come back when you’ve mastered what you’ve learned enough that you can utilize it in the height of battle easily and I’ll be happy to show you more. Your king asked me to show you battle magic in particular.”

“Woah,” Visions of an incalculable number of spells danced in her head, and Sora’s eyes widened for what felt like the dozenth time that day.

She’d seen talking animals and flowers, people made of cards, discovered magic and casted it herself, and fought the heartless. Sora had come across a vast number of things she would have thought impossible before this journey began. But discovering Merlin really existed, and learning magic from him? That was the most impossible thing yet.

“Do you have any news on the king? Where he might be?” Donald asked, and he and Goofy both got closer to Merlin to continue their conversation.

Sora could have joined in the discussion if she wanted, but she wasn’t too interested in it. She didn’t know much about the king beyond the snippets she’d heard from Goofy and Donald, but Sora didn’t consider it to have much importance compared to finding her friends and her mother. Or compared to finding those Ansem Reports so she could find a way to bring back her world. It wasn’t that Sora didn’t care about finding the king at all, but merely that she had different priorities.

Before she could think on the matter any more, the Fairy Godmother approached her with her wand outstretched. Sora leaned back on reflex, but the Fairy Godmother tutted at her gently.

“Now now, dear, I won’t bite.” She said as she waved her wand over Sora’s clothes.

“What are you doing?” Sora questioned, watching in surprise her clothes repair themselves before her eyes. The tear in her sleeve from when she’d first arrived, the scrape marks from the heartless’ claws, the small bloodstain on her glove from earlier. All of it vanished into a perfectly untouched visage, the clothes returning to the way they had appeared when they were brand new.

“Oh my gosh,” She marveled as she took in everything. The grass stains on her shoes were gone, right down to the worn-down soles from where Sora tended to shuffle her feet had repaired themselves. Even the buckles on her shoes looked so new they sparkled. “Can you teach me that?”

The Fairy Godmother tittered.

“I’d be happy to teach you, but there’s no need. I simply casted some continuous repair and clean charms on your clothes to help fix you up.”

“Wait, continuous?” Sora asked, “So these charms are permanent?”

“Yes indeed, my child.”

“So…in the middle of a fight, if a heartless’ claw tears my sweatshirt again, it’ll just sew itself right back up?”

The Fairy Godmother smiled. “Absolutely!”

“And if I get in a mud puddle, all of it will just, like, vanish? Into thin air?”

“It shall be as if the mud never existed.”

At this, a lightbulb went off in Sora’s head. And quickly she counted on her fingers. If she had been on the road for a week, and the last time was before the islands fell, then…

“Does this work on, uh, girl stuff?”

“I’m sorry, dear, I don’t understand.” Her forehead creased in confusion as she looked at Sora.

Sora’s eyes started darting about as she noted every exact detail of their surroundings: Donald, Goofy, and Merlin were standing at the other side of the room and clearly engrossed in their discussion of the king. Nobody else was around, thankfully.

“You know,” Sora tried, feeling her ears go hot, “Monthly stuff? Downstairs?”

She really didn’t want to put it any clearer than that. But thankfully this time the Fairy Godmother understood, and she chuckled kindly.

“Oh dear! Yes, my child, it works quite well for that too. Don’t worry one bit.” Sora could feel so much tension she hadn’t realized she’d had relax at this. “My apologies, dear, it’s been centuries since I’d had to consider that sort of thing. I had forgotten.”

Sora shyly nudged her toe against the floor.

“Thank you. That’s…really cool of you.” She said quietly, but then the rest of what the Fairy Godmother said came back to her. “Wait, did you say centuries? How old are you?”

She winked. “A lady never tells her age. I was around for quite some time back on my original world.”

“Your original world? Did you lose your home to Darkness, too?”

“Sadly, yes.” The Fairy Godmother sighed, “It was a place called the Castle of Dreams, but it was so much more than that. There was the village where all the commoners lived, the lovely forests in between, and of course the castle itself. I had been helping this lovely young woman—Cinderella—get ready for the ball, you see, with the help of some gracious young assistants who had found themselves on that world too. And it had worked: Cinderella and her prince charming had managed to find each other afterward despite the best efforts of Cinderella’s stepfamily.”

“But then, one day the heartless came and stole Cinderella away and took the Heart of the Castle of Dreams. And that was the last I ever saw of her.” She finished.

They were both quiet for a moment.

“The heartless stole Cinderella?” Sora asked to clarify, and at her nod Sora continued, “Me and the guys have been encountering a lot of stories like that recently, too. Certain girls being kidnapped by the heartless. But none of us can figure out why.”

“I wish I knew, too,” The Fairy Godmother replied wistfully, “It’s such a shame. The dear had such a pure Heart, I couldn’t ever imagine who would do such a thing to her.”

“I couldn’t imagine, either—” Sora started, but was cut off by Goofy.

“Sora! Merlin says he might have an idea for where the keyhole of this world is, we’ll be able to take care of the heartless problem!”

“Neat!” She replied as she and the Fairy Godmother approached, “That’d be great, those things were relentless today, I was worried they’d destroy that book.”

Merlin nodded fervently. “The fiendish ruffians wouldn’t let up on me, either. I had to cast several shield spells to keep them away when I was walking back earlier. I would have transformed into a bird and just avoided them entirely, or perhaps even go back to Bermuda, of all places, but I wasn’t sure I could keep track of my things. But I suppose I am being a little too palaverous, aren’t I?” He lightheartedly asked the Fairy Godmother, who laughed as she agreed. “But I jest. Nay, the keyhole is certainly somewhere in the Second District. That’s where the heartless were particularly voracious, by the fountain.”

“The fountain,” Sora hummed, and then snapped her fingers. “Alright! We’ll go check it out.”

“Excellent! And never forget what I taught you. Not just the spells,” He said, ignoring Donald’s grumblings that sounded suspiciously like ‘I’m sure she won’t,’ “But of power. Knowledge and wisdom are the real power. Understand?”

Sora nodded.

“Good. Now be off!”

And with that, the group made their goodbye. As the trio made their way across the water, Sora absently played with her magic, sending tiny little fireballs across the lake to light their way, with Donald extinguishing them with frost spells as they passed. It became an unspoken game of cat and mouse, with Sora sending out flames zipping this way and that, with bolts of ice homing in on them like missiles. And eventually Donald started throwing out frost bolts without any targets, and Sora flicked fireballs at them in chase.

“She said she knew one of the girls kidnapped, too.” Sora said as she cast another flame spell.

Donald put it out with a streak of ice from his staff. “Yeah? Who?”

“A girl named Cinderella. The Fairy Godmother said she had a pure Heart, that she couldn’t imagine who could do it.”

“Heartless probably do a lot of things we couldn’t imagine,” Goofy said as he skipped to another rock, almost landing off-balance from the sudden movement of the stone.

“Yeah, that’s true.” She replied.

“Not ‘probably’, they are.” Donald huffed. “Could you imagine ever trying to take someone’s Heart? Or make a world fall to Darkness?”

“Oh gawrsh, no.”

“And that’s the difference.”

The three somberly stepped off of the last stone and onto the sandy bank at the entrance, games with spells of ice and fire left behind. And as they moved towards the exit, Sora looked back at the house. It looked much livelier now with its occupants, its decrepit visage slowly repairing itself back to what she estimated was its original appearance of a tidy home. Maybe inside, the Fairy Godmother was using the same sort of charm on the home that she had used on her clothes.

Sora shook her head. She’d really need to learn that spell.

“Sora, it’s me.”

Her eyes darted to where she’d heard her voice.

 And there Kairi was. Standing on the sandy shore right beside her.

Sora rubbed at her eyes and blinked once, twice. But Kairi was still there.

“This isn’t real. You’re not real.” She breathed.

Kairi gave her a humorless smile. “This definitely feels real. A little too real. Hey, I needed to ask you—”

“Sora, come on!” Donald shouted from the doorway, with Goofy close behind him.

“I, uh,” She tried futilely, and then turned back to where Kairi was.

But her friend was gone.

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

“Damn it.” Kairi held a hand to her eyes and balled her other hand into a fist.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it!”

She wished she could go back to thinking this was all a dream. At least then she’d still be under the delusion that she could wake up from this.

Sometimes ignorance was bliss.

As it was, Kairi paced around the white room of the play island. She traced wide circles around the throne where the boy slept. For the first time, she was envious of him.

Kairi tuned in, out, and in again, and every time what she saw through her eyes was the same: The ornate room the heartless had deposited her in, with but one thin window she could only barely see a sliver of light stream in through. Along the walls crawled engravings of brambles and rosebuds, and on the far wall was a small desk with a matching chair and a bookcase beside them.

Kairi estimated that only about an hour or so had passed since she had been deposited onto the bed by the creatures. Thankfully the moment they finished their work the things had left, whether through more of those Dark portals or by flattening themselves to the floor and moving through the crack under the door.

She hated this place. It left the feeling of pins and needles up and down her arms and that same sense of weight at theedge of her senses, exactly like Kairi had felt in those days leading up to that fateful night on Destiny Islands. That night when everything changed.

That night when everything went wrong.

Kairi had no idea of what to do next. She could try contacting Sora again, she supposed, but it’d be too risky. Kairi was spent as it was. She was staying awake after that last try solely on anger and fear alone, to try it again would make her pass out like earlier. And now she really couldn’t afford to miss anything.

She took a deep breath and exhaled through her nose, feeling her entire body sink with the motion.

Kairi supposed she’d have to keep doing what she had been doing. Watch, observe, and hope. At least the time discrepancy was fixed, she consoled herself.

The scene picked up barely seconds after they lost contact. The trio walked out of the entryway to the underground lake with yet another small fuss by Donald and Sora.

“You guys, I saw Kairi again.”

“Like Deep Jungle?” Goofy asked. Sora nodded.

“Ah phooey, you’re just seeing things.” Donald dismissed, as he pushed open the door. “Maybe you’re just hungry.”

“I’m not kidding!” She protested, following them out, “She talked to me. I was not hallucinating again, you guys, I really don’t think I was hallucinating in the first place.”

“Please, if you’re seeing something nobody else can see, you’re just imagining it. It’s the second time in as many days, ya dummy, come on!” Donald chastised as the three walked back out into the Third District.

“It’s not my fault you couldn’t see her, especially if she was right there! Again!”

“Gawrsh, you guys’ll make a fuss over anything—Ah-yipe!”

Before Goofy could finish his sentence, two heartless appeared before the group. The creatures shifted from foot to foot and lunged straight for Sora.

She wrenched her eyes shut on reflex and summoned her keyblade to guard, holding it out in front of her to prepare against a blow. But the strike never came.

Naught but a gasping noise came from the heartless, the sound they made when they were destroyed, Sora realized, and she slowly opened her eyes. Perhaps this was one of those volunteers patrolling the districts Yuffie mentioned. But it wasn’t.

It was Riku.

Kairi could feel certain things Sora felt sometimes, like if a heartless struck her. But the effect was mostly related to emotional states, she quickly noticed—A rush of anger, the slow icy creep of fear. And sometimes she could feel things Sora didn’t feel, like if there were a particularly strong source of Darkness nearby.

Such was what she could feel now. There was a Darkness emanating from Riku that wasn’t there when she last saw him on the islands. Like a black veil drawn over him.

And Kairi could feel it when Sora’s heartbeat fluttered at the sight of him.

He finished his move with one last flourish of his sword—An odd scimitar-like blade shaped like a bat’s wing, Kairi noticed—and dismissed it from his hand with a black burst of energy.

“There you are!” The corners of Riku’s eyes crinkled as he looked to Sora. “What’s going on?”

And for a moment, all Sora could do was stare.

But then her momentary stupor ended, and she breathed out a quick joyful laugh before rushing forward. Riku met her hug halfway, and together they dissolved into laughter. Her heartbeat fluttered more.

Finally they pulled away, and Sora couldn’t stifle her mirth.

“What’s so funny?” Riku asked, before Sora reached up and squished his face playfully, still laughing in glee. “Hey, cut that out!” He objected, his voice muffled by her hands. Riku gently swatted them away.

“Sorry, it’s just,” She started, still interrupting herself with laughter, “I never knew if you got off the islands okay or not.”

“I’m here now, aren’t I?”

“I hope so,” Sora grinned, “I’m not dreaming this time, right?” She glanced back at Donald and Goofy, who shook their heads, before turning back to Riku and giving him a once-over.

Hold on, what?

“I hope not,” Riku said as he ran a hand through his hair. Sora’s eyes traced the way it caught the light with its silver hue. “It took forever to find you.”

Kairi felt the corners of her mouth tug upwards into a cautious smile as her brows scrunched together. Was she the one seeing things now?

No, no she wasn’t, she realized. Sora really had just given him a once-over, and Riku…Riku was legitimately preening under her attention. Preening, for goodness sake, like he was a bird in a nature channel documentary.

If Kairi ever got out of here and back into the real world, she was not going to let them live this down.

“You were looking for me?”

“Of course!”

Sora bit her lip as she smiled. “I was looking for you too. Is Kairi with you?” She asked as she looked around.

“I’m right here, Sora.” She replied uselessly, knowing neither of them could hear her where she was.

“Isn’t she with you?” Riku guessed and saw that Sora’s shoulders falling at the question was his answer. “Well, don’t worry, I’m sure she made it off the island, too.”

“If you can call it that.”

He stepped away for several paces and looked up at the sky.

“We’re finally free. Hey, she might even be looking for us now.”

Kairi had no response for that.

Before Sora could say anything else, she saw a Dark portal open up on the ground in the corner of her sight. She turned her head and saw a heartless clawing its way out.

“We’ll all be together again soon,” Riku reassured, “Don’t worry. Leave everything to me, I know this—"

But whatever he was going to say next was interrupted by the swooping sound of Sora’s keyblade as it slashed through the heartless in one strike. She grinned as she straightened up again, resting her keyblade on her shoulder and giving a victorious glance to him.

“Leave it to who?”

“S-Sora,” Riku stammered, “What did you…?”

“I’ve been looking for you and Kairi with the help of this,” She gestured with her keyblade, “And these two!”

She nodded to Donald and Goofy, the latter of whom gave a cheerful wave in greeting to him.

Riku’s change in demeanor was instantaneous. His mouth pulled to one side, and his brows fell. He crossed his arms. His gaze never left the keyblade.

“Who are they?”

Donald put a hand on his hip and cleared his throat.

“Ahem! My name is—”

“You wouldn’t believe some of the worlds we visited, looking for you!” Sora exclaimed. Donald gave her a deadpan glance, but she ignored it.

“Really? Well, what do you know? I never would have guessed.” Riku grated, but Sora didn’t seem to notice that either.

“Oh, and guess what?” This time it was Goofy that spoke, with his hands on Sora’s shoulders much like a proud parent. “Sora’s the keyblade master!”

“Who would have thought it?” Donald shrugged. Sora squinted at him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Riku watched as the two got embroiled in yet another spat, the look in his eyes hardening. He hmphed. And then, to the shock of everyone, Riku extended his hand and the keyblade appeared in it, disappearing from Sora’s grip.

“So…this is called a keyblade?” He teased, but the glint in his eyes never left.

Sora looked down at her empty hands and then back up to him again. Riku tested the weapon with a swipe at the air.

“Hey, give it back!” She lunged for it, still thinking this was a joke, but Riku deftly moved it out of reach. He gave her a teasing smile, but now it had an edge to it.

“Catch.” Riku threw it to her, and Sora caught it with both hands.

“How did he do that?” Goofy leaned over to ask Donald, who shrugged.

She grinned up at Riku again.

“So you’re coming with us, right? We’ve got this awesome rocket, wait ‘til you see it!”

Donald gave her an alarmed look. “No, he can’t come!”

“What?” She looked down at him in confusion.

“Forget it!”

“Oh come on!” Sora protested, “He’s my friend!”

Seeing what Sora saw worked oddly. Kairi could see everything in her full range of vision, but her sight was usually focused to whatever Sora focused on. But out of the corner of Sora’s eye she could see Riku’s face tightening at Sora’s words, and he began to move away. And then she saw him open one of those Dark portals and disappear.

And then, a movement caught Kairi’s eye, and what she saw made her pull away from Sora’s sight in panic.

High above the walls of the Third District, watching the trio without being noticed, was the woman that took Kairi’s body to that room.

 


 

 

R I K U

 

The Dark portal he’d summoned without thinking took him back to the First District.

He stepped out onto the cobblestones, Soul Eater held in an iron grip with one hand as the other opened and closed, clenched and unclenched at his side.

There was a lump in Riku’s throat, and every muscle in his torso felt twisted up. And his Heart…his Heart alternated between waves of anxiety and anger. Earlier, Riku was ecstatic to see her. For the longest time, he was sure that was what he wanted—not just to have the keyblade back, but to merely see Sora again. To know she’d made it off the island too.

Well, he got his wish, didn’t he?

He wasn’t sure what he was feeling right now, but it wasn’t good. Riku saw the keyblade in her hand—his keyblade, a Dark corner of his mind hissed, the keyblade promised to him—and new friends at her side and that was enough to ruin his day.

Riku had never been that good at making friends compared to Sora. And for years, he didn’t think it mattered much. There was Sora and Kairi and him, and that was enough for Riku. If he really cared, there was Wakka, Selphie, and Tidus too, Riku supposed, but he considered them more along the lines of good acquaintances than close friends. They were the ones you invited to birthday parties and joked with in class, but you’d still keep them at arm’s length. The ones who, if they asked you how you were doing, you’d say you were fine even if you really weren’t fine, because you didn’t know them well enough to disclose the truth of anything when they inevitably asked what’s wrong if you indicated things were up.

But that was how Sora was. She wore her heart on her sleeve, she always had. Sora would be the one who said things were fine if they were fine and was able to talk about it with anyone when she said things weren’t fine. She was the person who was able to talk to anyone so genuinely, and never stayed sad for long. Of course she’d made new friends in the time they were separated.

But that didn’t stop the news from hurting him.

And that keyblade…

Riku imagined his reunion with Sora in a thousand different ways since they were separated. Countless ways of saying hello, the jokes he’d make, imagining how she’d laugh. But in every daydream, even after Maleficent indicated she was the one who was wielding the keyblade, it never came up.

But it did. And everything was so much worse because of it.

Riku gave a poisonous look at the sword in his hand. And with a grunt he threw it against the wall, where it made a dull noise against the mortar siding and clanged against the cobblestone. And then it dispersed with a Dark burst and reappeared in his hand.

He reflexively wanted to try and break it, but he didn’t dare. It was better to have a sword than nothing at all.

And with that thought, Riku dismissed it from his grip. He could see Maleficent stepping out of a Dark portal of her own in the corner of his sight. He gave a forceful sigh.

“Can you just leave me alone for a while?”

“I came here to console you.” She said with a morose look. Riku couldn’t tell if she was pretending or not.

“You don’t get it. You never will.”

“Oh, but I do. I know the pain of ostracization all too well, myself.”

Riku thought back to that first day they met, when she had told him she was a fairy quite unlike most others. He chewed at the inside of his cheek.

“What happened to you?” He asked, not unkindly, but rather genuinely curious. Maybe Maleficent could understand, just a little bit. Maybe he could trust in her.

“It was quite some time ago,” She started, her horns dipping downward as she inclined her head. “And it was at a child’s christening that they neglected to invite me to.” Maleficent raised a brow at his unimpressed look. “One thing you should know about those days was that such a thing was considered an event that the whole kingdom was invited to. For us fairies, the invitation to royal events was a given even for insignificant fetes. Our power made it so that whoever ruled had to invite us or risk our punishment.”

She raised her chin. “For fairies, our power is as infinite as our pride. And if you insulted our pride…well. Heaven help you.”

Maleficent continued, “The date of the christening soon came upon us, and all of the fairies were busy discussing the details. What gift to bestow, what to wear, that sort of thing. They had all already received their invitations, but I had yet to receive mine. No matter, I thought, they simply forgot. Mortals, the precious things, could be so silly at times after all. So I decided on my gift and I made my way there anyway. But it wasn’t to be.”

“What happened?”

“I came in and made my greetings—compliments to the king and queen for their work, at assembling every echelon of the land in an impressively democratic move, and what did the fairies there respond with? Not even a ‘hello’, or a ‘so good to see you’. No, Merryweather took one look at me and said, ‘You weren’t wanted.’ Could you imagine that?”

“I could,” He shivered, thinking back to his mother’s cold glance. Unseen, unnoticed, unwanted. Riku knew the feeling all too well.

“And what did the queen say next? Why, she asked if I was offended. The audacity!” Her eyes began to glimmer with that familiar green light even without any of the torches of Hollow Bastion around. “Imagine going to an event with all of your friends, and they insult you to your face in front of royalty, and someone dares to ask if you’re offended. Of course I was offended. I was humiliated. But when you’re in front of everyone you can’t let it show. Pride, remember.” She said to Riku, who nodded. “So I acted as though they hadn’t gotten to me. I couldn’t let them get that sense of satisfaction. And apart from that, I had to remember the reason why I was there: Not for me, but for the child. I had yet to give her my gift until then.”

“What did you give her?”

And with his question Maleficent smiled widely, almost a grin but not quite.

“My dear boy, she ended up with the gift of true love.”

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“Jeez, guys, who died?” Was the first thing she said as she walked in the door.

The moment the trio had discovered Riku left in the middle of their spat, Sora was disappointed. But she didn’t let it show.

“Where did he go?” She asked, but neither of them had an answer. Sora’s face fell. “I still had so much to ask him.”

“Sora…” Donald tried, in an attempt to console her, but Sora made sure it wasn’t necessary.

She straightened up. “Oh well, at least he’s okay!”

Donald looked mildly surprised at her.

“And who knows? Maybe we’ll run into my mom or Kairi soon, too. For real this time,” Sora added with a sly expression, and then saw his face. “Huh? What’s wrong, Donald?”

“Nothing,” He said, but he still looked surprised. “You cheer up fast.”

She shoved at his shoulder with her knuckles. “The gummi ship runs on smiling faces, right?”

“That’s right!” Goofy agreed. But before the trio could talk any more, Yuffie had arrived in the Third District looking for them.

“There you guys are! If you’re done with your errand, follow me. Cid called a meetup.”

And here they were all assembled in a little ragtag house in the same district, with the first thing Sora noticed as she walked in was the dour looks on everyone’s faces.

“Yeah, is it gloomy in here or what?” Yuffie agreed.

Leon was the first to speak. “You guys ever heard of Maleficent? We got news she’s back in town.”

“What?” Yuffie replied angrily. The change in her was immediate. From as cheerful as Sora to as grim-faced as the rest.

Sora looked between the group blankly. “Mal-who?”

“Maleficent,” Leon corrected.

“A witch, kid, she’s a witch!” Cid exclaimed, chewing on his toothpick so hard Sora could see it break. “Ugh, I should have known somethin’ was up when the heartless got so gutsy today.”

“She’s been using the heartless for years.” Aerith told the trio, “We lost our world, thanks to her.”

“Really?!”

“Yep,” Yuffie nodded, “After all the other crazy stuff happened with people disappearing and the heartless showing up, one day a whole horde of them came and overran the place with Darkness, according to newcomers that showed up here afterward. Remember?” At Sora’s nod, Yuffie continued, “It wasn’t long after that that we learned about Maleficent and her ability to control the heartless. Didn’t take much to put two and two together after we learned.”

“No doubt she’s the reason why this town is full of heartless,” Leon said from where he leaned against the wall. “Don’t take her lightly.”

“Wait,” Sora said with alarm, as an idea dawned on her, “Do you think…do you think she could be behind the heartless appearing on so many worlds? And those people getting kidnapped?”

“You might not be far off the mark, kid.” Cid spoke up, looking perturbed at the idea himself, but not surprised.

“Oh man, it’s gotta be her,” Yuffie started pacing around the room, “There’s nobody else to fit the bill!”

“What if she’s here to make this world fall to the Darkness?” Aerith asked quietly, “With the heartless today, it’s just like how things were before our world fell…”

“The keyhole!” Sora said with a start, smacking her fist in her palm. She turned to Donald and Goofy. “You guys, we gotta go where Merlin said and see if we can find it.”

Cid turned to them then. “Where’d he say?”

“The fountain in the Second District! He said that was where the heartless were really getting riled up, that it had to be somewhere near there.”

“That’s interesting,” Aerith mused, “That’s the one that revolves when the giant bell above the gizmo shop rings.”

“Was that what that sound was?” Sora asked in surprise, “It rang twice earlier and made me nearly jump out of my skin both times!”

“I hated that noise,” Goofy whimpered as he clutched his ears.

“Oh come off it, ya ding-a-ling,” Donald said as he shuffled Goofy and Sora to the exit. “Let’s go take care of it.”

“You’re not going alone!” Yuffie declared from behind them, and Sora turned to look.

Yuffie, Leon, and Cid were all readying to go, and Aerith was looking on at the scene with a smile. Yuffie made sure her shuriken were holstered, with Leon picking up his gunblade from his side. Cid was hoisting some unidentifiable machine over his shoulder.

“We lost our home once,” Leon said, “We’re not going to lose it again.”

“’Sides, kid, you can’t do everything yourself, even if that dunderhead duck is supposedly helping.” Cid joked at Donald, who spluttered angrily.

“Who are you callin’—” He began, but Goofy put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head at him with a smile. Donald stomped a foot and walked out the door after Leon and Yuffie. Cid only laughed in response before following.

“I’m going to stay here and hold down the fort, but Sora?” Aerith asked after her, and Sora turned. “Stay in one piece, okay? Come back.”

“I will, Aerith,” Sora said, and matched Aerith’s smile.

 


 

 

R I K U

 

“Now, think no more of that girl and let’s return home,” Maleficent said.

She opened the portal, and Riku had already begun to step through, when a distant shout got their attention.

“Father? Jiminy?” It sounded as if he were getting closer.

“It’s that puppet boy from earlier,” Riku said to himself, and Maleficent looked to him.

“Puppet boy?”

“This weird kid who looked like a puppet made out of wood. He’d asked me if I saw his dad and friend, but he was just annoying. I ended up leaving him behind.” He said and glanced up at her. “Why, was he important?”

“Perhaps. Bring him here.”

He shrugged, stepping out of the portal before moving some steps out of the alleyway they were in and searching the area. As it turned out, the boy was right beside the entrance to the alleyway and had been about to walk into it.

“Oh! Sorry mister,” He said bashfully, putting his wooden hands behind his back. “And sorry bout earlier, too. I didn’t mean to offend or anything.”

Riku pursed his lips. “That’s alright, I think we just got off on the wrong foot. Hey, did you say you were looking for your dad earlier? And your friend?”

He looked up excitedly. “Yeah! Father and Jiminy! Have you seen them?”

“I haven’t, but I know someone who might be able to help.”

At this, the boy only got more excited. “Could ya show me?”

Riku waved him along and walked down the alleyway, hearing him follow close behind with wooden footsteps that made dull knocking sounds on the road. And as they rounded the corner Riku could see Maleficent giving that feline smile again.

“How wonderful!” She crooned, “What a dear boy. What is your name, child?”

“Pinocchio!”

“’Pine eye’,” Maleficent said as she studied him, “Fascinating.”

“He said he was searching for his father and a friend.” Riku informed her.

“Really? Well, do tell.”

“Well, first is my father. He’s about the same height as mister here,” Pinocchio gestured to Riku, “And he’s got silver hair too. And glasses. Next up is Jiminy! He’s real small,” At this, the boy put his fingers together to indicate this Jiminy’s tiny stature. “Like this. He’s green like you and wears a tiny little vest with his jacket, and a top hat.”

“How sad,” Maleficent’s expression of sadness was clearly false, but Riku didn’t bother to speak up about it. It didn’t matter, he supposed. “Can you tell me anything else about yourself? What sort of things do you want?”

“Well I don’t really want anything ‘cept to have my father and Jiminy back,” Pinocchio shuffled from foot to foot, and then his eyes widened. “Wait, there is one thing!”

“What is it? Perhaps I can help.”

“I wanna be a real boy! That’s why father made me, because he wanted a son. He was lonely for so long before he made me, that the day he did the Blue Fairy came down and granted his wish! I was alive!” He spread his wooden arms, “But there was a condition. I couldn’t tell any lies, or else my nose would grow like a tree branch. And one day, if I’m good, the Blue Fairy promised to come back and make me real!”

“The Blue Fairy?” Maleficent looked away as she considered his words. “Quite interesting, I’ve never heard of her before.”

“Oh yes! She’s a real nice lady.”

For a moment more Maleficent stayed quiet with thought.

“Well, I don’t know what her magic is like, so I can’t do anything to counteract it and make you real until then,” The boy’s face fell. “But worry not. I can grant at least one wish for you.”

“What’s that?” He asked.

“I can help you see your loved ones again.” Maleficent replied.

At this, the boy’s excitement was extraordinary.

“Really, miss?! You’ll help me see them?” Pinocchio asked desperately as he bounced on the front of his feet. Maleficent chuckled.

“Absolutely. All you need is this,” She said, clasping her hands together for a moment as they could see a green light peek out from between her fingers. She finally opened her hands to reveal a small star-shaped stone that pulsed with that same bright green light. Riku and Pinocchio both leaned in to look closer.

“Golly, what is it?” Pinocchio asked, holding his hands out as she handed the stone to him.

“A star shard,” Maleficent said, “It’ll take you wherever you need to go. But star shards are very rare, so it is important that you keep it hidden as best you can, or else they’ll try and take it. Can you do that for me?”

Pinocchio nodded fervently, but then he looked hesitant.

“This sure is nice of you, miss,” He started, still cupping the star shard as gently in his hands as he could. “But how can I repay you? This is an awful mighty favor you’re doing for me.”

This time, it was Riku who answered.

“Don’t worry about it,” He said. “You wanted a chance to find them again, didn’t you? If you want something, why not take it?”

Riku’s and Maleficent’s eyes met at this, and they shared a smile.

Pinocchio gasped. “You’re right! Gee, miss and mister, thank you for your help!”

“It was no problem at all, dear boy,” Maleficent said as the boy began to walk away. And then, quickly, the boy turned around.

“By the way, how do I, uh, how do I use it?” He asked, peering closely at the stone with one eye shut.

Maleficent gave him a smirk. “It’s quite simple, really,” She started.

“All you need to do is make a wish upon a star.”

 


 

 

S O R A

 

The second the group walked into the Second District, they found the plaza had devolved to mayhem.

The heartless were everywhere. On the ground, on the railings, Sora could even see a few crawling up the sides of the buildings. In particular, they were crawling up the side of a tall white building with stained glass windows. Yuffie pointed it out with a shout.

“The gizmo shop!”

“Those little cretins!” Cid spat, “They must’ve been the ones ringing the bell all damn day!”

“Wait a minute.” Leon started, and looked towards the fountain. “If that fountain’s façade turns ever time the bell rings, and the heartless were making the bell ring on purpose, then—”

At once, the bell sounded once more. Being this close, the group was deafened by it, and all of them covered their ears quickly with varying noises of surprise and discomfort. Goofy tried to hold up his shield against the noise.

And then the group heard a grinding noise of stone against stone amidst the ringing in their ears.

They turned to see the fountain’s façade begin to revolve.

The plaza lights—the ones not destroyed by the heartless yet, anyway—began to twinkle all around the fountain, a cascade of reds and blues and greens. And the face of the fountain turned to reveal a cube-shaped block in it with a different design in every side, turning to settle on a mosaic of butterflies around a blooming flower.

And then, Light began to refract over the mosaic, before it gleamed to reveal a shining keyhole. The keyhole of Traverse Town.

“That’s it!” Sora rushed towards it, terrified of the heartless getting there first.

The creatures had all turned towards the keyhole when it was revealed, their glowing eyes turning to stare at it and the assembled group in eerie unison, glowing spots of yellow gleaming from the cobblestones to the rooftops of the plaza, eyes that looked so much like strange foreboding stars.

And then they charged.

Cid bit out strings of curses one right after another, enough to make even the most stonehearted sailor blush. He revved up the machine he’d brought with him, to make long jets of flame shoot out of it that devoured the smaller heartless that were unlucky enough to be within reach with one blow. Even the stronger heartless stumbled back from it when they got caught in it.

“Keep going, Cid!” Leon yelled, swiping his gunblade at any and every heartless that was close enough. He picked off a heartless that was seeking to get Cid from behind with a scowl and pierced it through with the sword.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy had huddled together back to back, alternating between physical blows and bursts of magic. Sora’s magic reserves were already halfway spent from training with Merlin earlier, she could feel it, and she didn’t want to use too much in case the worst happened and she had to use a cure spell. Sora broke from formation to clobber away two heartless that lunged for Goofy, and chased after them a short distance to make sure they were defeated. She stopped the instant she could see two glimmering Hearts come out of them and sail towards the sky. And as Sora looked around, she could see multiple Hearts sailing upwards, though not nearly as many as she would have liked. There were simply too many heartless around.

“Sora!” Yuffie called to her from the upper deck, where she’d been picking off individual heartless one by one. Sora turned her head. “Seal the keyhole, they’ll be gone then!”

“Right!”

She tightened her grip on her keyblade as she made a short assessment of the distance to the fountain. Twenty feet away, she guessed, or thirty at the most, but there was several heartless already crawling towards it that managed to get past the group’s impromptu blockade, with more undoubtedly coming…

Sora made a run for it, keyblade at the ready and reared back. And then, so quickly she’d nearly ran into it, a glowing barrier formed around it.

It was Merlin. And with him, the Fairy Godmother.

“We’ll protect the keyhole. Defeat the armor first, Sora!” He shouted, waving his wand to flick bolts of magic at the oncoming heartless. “The rest will fall with it!”

“The what?”

The Fairy Godmother pointed behind her, and Sora turned to see several pieces of armor fall from the sky and begin to assemble themselves, exactly the same as the heartless her, Donald, and Goofy had fought when they’d first met.

“Are you kidding me,” Sora groaned, and jumped at the sound of the metal clamor against the ground. She raced back to Donald and Goofy, exclaiming “Guys! Just like last time, let’s go!”

“What?” Donald asked as he turned to see the armor, “Again?”

“Right?” She shrugged, before setting her sights on the closest greave. Sora put one foot on the tooth of her keyblade as she angled it to the ground and flicked it in such a way that she glided on the cobblestone quickly towards the greave before it could strike.

She finished the move by turning in a circle with her keyblade outstretched and gave a powerful blow to both greaves at once. Sora didn’t hide the grin on her face. Already, thick gusts of Dark smoke were seeping out of the wounds. Encouraged, she struck again and again. And every time she did so more Dark smoke poured from the heartless.

Soon, Goofy and Donald ran to her side to join in. Goofy held up his shield against one of the gauntlets that tried to flick Sora away like a bug, and the metal gave a sharp clang!

Donald sputtered out one lightning blast after the other from his staff, the arcs of electricity raining down all around the trio towards the pieces of armor. It worked: the electricity stilled the armor’s movements momentarily again and again, until one particularly strong blast made the pieces shudder and fall to the ground with a cacophony of noise.

The trio stared after it, still hyped up from adrenaline.

“Did it work?” Sora asked, “I think it worked.”

“I’m sure it did,” Donald replied, and turned to walk towards the keyhole.

“Guys, I don’t think it worked,” Goofy said, as he and Sora noticed the pieces of armor beginning to tremble again.

“Nonsense,” Donald waved a feathered hand, “Now about that keyh—Bwa-a-ak!

He reared in surprise as the armor rose up once more, first forming itself into the original arrangement of greaves and gauntlets in their proper places, and then it got on all fours, making the ground shudder. Its parts traded places as the helmet opened up to reveal two glowing yellow eyes deep within.

Cid let loose another string of curses. “I thought you guys took care of it!”

“I thought we did too!” Sora shot back, now holding onto her keyblade with both hands. At least it hadn’t healed from her strikes to it earlier, she thought to herself.

“Oh dagnabit—here!” He yelled as he aimed the machine he carried, letting loose a long string of fire on the armor. It burned and burned, the metal going red-hot and nearly turning molten, and pieces of it began to develop holes from going soft. Out of the holes poured more Dark smoke. “Leon! Cover for me, I’m gonna help them out.” He barked, and Leon shouted an affirmative reply as he swiped.

“Say hello to my little friend, ya prolapsed—” The rest of his words were drowned out by the roar of a stream of fire from the machine, and Goofy darted out of the way of it.

“Gawrsh,” was all Goofy could say as they watched the spectacle. But whatever it was Cid was doing, it worked extremely well. Pieces of the armor began to fall away into piles of molten metal on the cobblestone. But then, Sora noticed, it came with a risk: Those same pieces of molten metal were making for projectiles that could harm anyone, whether on the group’s side or not. She began firing off ice spells at the red-hot sections of armor.

“Kid! What the hell are you doing?” Cid asked.

“That molten metal it’s throwing off could hit our friends!” She yelled back, continuing to fire off ice spells. “Let it keep bleeding out that Dark stuff from the wounds it already has!”

“Oh,” He replied, before cursing more at realizing she was right. “Whatever, I’m about outta juice anyway,” Cid continued as he removed the shoulder strap and began using the machine as a blunt weapon instead.

With the ice spells in place, the metal began to cool down, and the immediate danger of the heartless was dealt with. At least in the case of it throwing around molten materials.

But that didn’t stop it from creating shockwaves.

As one half-melted gauntlet started smashing the ground over and over again, Sora could feel the shockwaves of it resonate deep in her bones. It made it difficult to move.

She had to stop it, but how?

And then Sora remembered.

“Donald! Throw lightning at it again!” She said and gave a grateful grin when he complied. The electricity screeched as it pelted the metal, forcing it to still for a split second. And that was enough.

Sora reared back her keyblade and ran towards the fallen chest piece and helmet, her vision dancing with spots as the lightning flashed. She had to rely mostly on feel for this, as it felt like she was watching a stop-motion video with the light from Donald’s spell flashing on and off again.

 She closed her eyes and swung the keyblade in a mighty arc.

Sora could feel it when the heartless armor was torn through. It parted beneath her keyblade easier than ever before, like she was dragging it through water, and before she knew it the armor was torn clean through. A great rippling swell of Dark smoke emanated from the fallen pieces of armor, mixing with the continued rips of lightning through the air to make an image not unlike a storm cloud over the group.

And through the storm cloud glided a great big Heart, joining countless others on its way to the sky as all of the smaller heartless in the area fell away to nothing.

“Well ain’t that somethin’,” Cid said while he put down the machine at last, which was now dented in on one side from being used as a blunt weapon. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette.

Leon held his gunblade in a more relaxed position now and stood properly as he looked up. Beside him, Yuffie did the same.

“’Ain’t that something’, indeed!” Merlin echoed. With a wave of his and the Fairy Godmother’s wands, the barrier around the keyhole was released. “Shall we get going?”

“Yeah, kid, whatcha waiting for?” Cid joked as he took a drag off his smoke, and Sora laughed.

“Got it gramps, don’t worry ‘bout it.” She replied, and he replied with a good-natured roll of his eyes. Sora walked over to the fountain, admiring the rippling glow of the water’s reflection of the lights across the mosaic for a second, and aimed her keyblade.

Stars of Light coalesced around the tip, before shooting forth in a bright beam to the mosaic with a trilling chime.

And with a shifting sound, the keyhole to Traverse Town was locked.

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

She replayed every second she’d seen that day over and over again. Trying to find some new angle she hadn’t seen, a detail she hadn’t considered. But she kept returning to that short reunion between Riku and Sora.

It was for the best, Kairi reasoned. She couldn’t bear to think about what it meant for that woman—Maleficent, she knew now—to take her here, or why she’d do it. And if what Sora, Leon, Yuffie, and the rest had discussed was true, it meant she probably wasn’t the only person here in this new place either.

No answers were found yet, and only more clues. And all along the mystery deepened.

But her friends…

Kairi thought back to that moment on Destiny Islands. That day when Sora called them over to the play island after she’d told them her mom had said yes to the raft. Little did Sora know that yes was conditional, but Kairi supposed that didn’t really matter now. The three friends had definitely found their way off-world, she thought with a morose laugh.

But the thing about that day was the duel between Sora and Riku. The first they’d had in a long time until then.

The duel that Riku let Sora win on purpose.

At the time she was confused. Why would he do that? Riku loved winning, he was even desperate to win at times. He managed to defeat Wakka, Selphie, and Tidus in a three-on-one match. Sure, Sora beat him fair and square sometimes, but he’d never actually thrown the match against her until then.

And then, the more Kairi looked when she watched Sora’s and Riku’s duels thereafter, she realized something: Riku let Sora win. Not a lot, but sometimes, and it only confused Kairi more. Why?

And it wasn’t until today that she finally figured it out.

Kairi was almost embarrassed at how long it took for her to realize it. She’d seen classmates get crushes on each other a hundred times. She’d listened to Selphie wax poetic about her crushes to no end. But when it was happening right in front of her, to her best friends, Kairi hadn’t noticed.

“They love each other, don’t they.”

The boy in the pale throne didn’t answer. But Kairi had long since stopped sincerely hoping for any sign of life from him beyond sleeping. She laughed. What else could she do? That new Darkness over Riku, Sora going on world after world trying to save everything, and here Kairi was somewhere in the middle. Stuck. Imprisoned. Only able to watch and not much more. She looked over at the boy.

“What kind of mess have we found ourselves in?”

Chapter Text

S O R A

 

“Well, I figure you’re all set,” Cid said as he smacked the hull of the gummi ship twice, much to Donald’s vexation. Around the group, a larger number of moogles than usual excitedly darted around the hangar. “Recoordinated the six-axis gyro, updated the autopilot to be able to handle small clusters of heartless—not whole dang platoons, mind you, just stragglers—buffed out the dents and scratches, and replaced the coils in the plasma turrets.”

“Gawrsh, Cid, nice job!” Goofy marveled.

“But wait, there’s more,” Cid replied with a toothy grin as he looked to Donald, “One feature I added to the autopilot that I think you may be particularly thankful for: Babyproofing.”

“Babyproofing?” Sora and Donald asked simultaneously, with varying degrees of incredulity.

“Yep. After the last crash, I figured there should be some safeguards in place to keep pipsqueak here from taking the wheel again without authorization,” He said with a pointed look to Sora, whose nose crinkled as she crossed her arms. “So I gave it voice recognition override just in case. You’ll have to calibrate it to yourself, but that’s no trouble.”

Donald was ecstatic at this, but Sora was less than pleased.

“So no flying the gummi ship? Ever?”

“Kid, you’re like twelve years old,” Cid quipped. “Can’t let you go getting yourself killed on your way to save the worlds.”

“I’m fourteen.

“Same difference.”

But Sora’s glare didn’t let up, and eventually it was Cid’s turn to cross his arms.

“Look: If a dang miracle happens and all this ends well, I’ll teach you how to fly a gummi ship properly,” He said, and quickly held up a finger before she could celebrate, “But! You gotta be tall enough to reach the pedals in my ship first. Got it?”

“I can reach the pedals on Donald’s and Goofy’s ship, though.” She replied, and Donald gave her an angry look.

“Don’t tell me you’ve been sneaking onto the pilot’s chair!”

“Their ship doesn’t count,” Cid cut in, “It’s made for a duck to pilot it.”

It took a moment, but her stubborn glare began to crinkle at the corners, and Sora’s pout lifted into a beam. Beside them both, Donald muttered angrily.

“Alright, gramps, it’s a deal.” She said and looked down as a moogle shuffled quickly past them on its way towards a flock of its companions, who were all chattering excitedly. “What are they so excited about?”

Cid shrugged. “Dunno. They’ve been like that since I was fixing up Highwind. Oy, Mogwin!” He addressed one moogle in the group, who looked over at him with its coral-colored antenna swaying. “What’s the fuss?”

“A friend of us moogles is supposed to be appearing at the Coliseum for the fighting tournament, kupo!”

“Fighting tournament?!” Sora echoed excitedly. She looked over at Donald and Goofy, the former of whom was now inspecting the gummi ship hull for any leftover dents. “You guys, we’ve got to go compete.”

“No, we don’t have time for a tournament,” Donald declared, but Goofy looked more open to the idea.

“Come on, Donald, we can just take a peek! And besides, it’ll be fun. When was the last time we did anything fun that wasn’t just for our work?” Sora protested.

“How about yesterday when you were trying to replicate the Fairy Godmother’s fireworks magic using a fira spell?” Donald replied, and she scoffed.

“Doesn’t count. I mean like a vacation!”

“She’s right, Donald,” Goofy spoke up, “We haven’t done anything just for ourselves yet.”

“Oh, don’t you start!”

“Too late!” Sora chirped, “It’s two against one. Let’s go!”

Donald looked as if he were going to object to the matter further, but then he sighed.

“Alright, fine. The Coliseum it is. What are the coordinates?”


 

 

K A I R I

 

The first, second, and third times she had come in, Kairi wasn’t sure what that woman—Maleficent, she knew now—was looking for.

It wasn’t as if anything had changed. Obviously she hadn’t moved a muscle, and was still laid down on the bed just the same as when she’d been first dropped off two days ago. And it wasn’t as if the world outside had changed either, interestingly enough: Kairi couldn’t see much from her angle, and the window was nowhere near big enough to offer more than a small fragment of the view, but the light hadn’t changed at all outside. It was held in an unceasing sunset, dusky and forlorn. At the edge of her senses suspended that same weight of an ever-present Darkness that made for an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu every time she woke up, like she was stuck reliving that last day before Destiny Islands fell again and again.

And every time Kairi reverted back into that play island that wasn’t the real play island, she kept grasping at the sand, the leaves, the wooden scaffolding. She kept grasping onto the pale throne and talking to the boy that slept on it, because those were the few things left that Kairi was capable of doing. Because even though they weren’t real, they were convincing enough to give her the illusion, and made for an escape from a terrifying reality that had long since ceased to respond to her.

Watching Maleficent wander around her room was unsettling. Like being locked in a cage with a panther that you couldn’t turn your back on at any cost.

Which made for another strange discovery about Kairi’s current state that she only just realized: Did Maleficent not notice Kairi watching her? Or see Kairi’s eyes moving to look around the room? She wasn’t sure what that meant, either, whether it meant that Kairi’s eyes looked as vacant as her body to the outside world or something else she hadn’t considered.

But before she could think on the matter any further, another Dark portal appeared on the wall, and both Kairi and Maleficent looked to see a hooded figure emerge from it.

And the moment he did, Kairi could feel ice crawl through her veins.

This man had two Hearts, just like Sora.

One coal black Heart with not a single speck of Light inside of it overlaid on top of the other, which was a weeping morose red that was too similar to the last dregs of dusk before the curtain of evening fell for the night.

(Eclipse)

Smothering it.

(Ghost Heart)

There was a living Darkness surrounding the figure, far worse than Maleficent. It was a Darkness separate from the contents of his Hearts, a Darkness that almost had a Heart of its own, or at least a mind.

She fought the urge to withdraw back to the imaginary play island.

Whatever happened next, Kairi had to be here for it if she ever wanted to be free. She couldn’t afford to panic.

“Ah, I was wondering when you’d appear,” Maleficent commented nonchalantly, as if she hadn’t been checking in Kairi’s room several times a day since she’d found her. “As you could no doubt deduce from my note, I have a few questions about the girl’s state.”

“I see you haven’t found her Heart yet,” The figure replied in a strange voice, like his speech was made of more thought than sound. As if he spoke directly into Kairi’s head. He chuckled, “What a surprise, I thought there wasn’t much beyond a fairy’s power.”

Maleficent stiffened slightly.

“Your previous assessment was correct: There isn’t much at all beyond my power,” She defended, “But Hearts are tricky things even for you.”

“Fair enough.”

“Anyway,” she continued, “It’s quite odd. I’ve never encountered this sort of predicament before, at least, not without me causing it. The only evidence I could find of what led her to this state was a lingering serendipity charm cast by a keyblade, but that shouldn’t be possible. The only keyblade wielder I know of still in existence is a foolish child who couldn’t conceivably be capable of such complicated magic.”

The figure looked up sharply at this.

“Cast by a keyblade, you say?”

“Yes. I knew immediately from the signature.”

For a long while the figure didn’t speak. Kairi realized another thing about him as she looked closer: That there was no bulk of any arms or legs under his cloak from what she could tell, and only his head and torso seemed to make up whatever body the figure had. Not that she could see any details, the low light of the perpetual twilight outside and the lack of any other light in the room made it hard to see anything of his face beyond a featureless black mass.

The figure came over to look at her closer, and if Kairi could shudder she would. Still there was no details visible of his visage, not even a silhouette of his face. It only made him more unsettling.

“I once encountered a situation that might be applicable to this.”

“Oh?” Maleficent asked hopefully as she moved closer, “Do tell.”

“He was an old friend—He and I had the sort of friendship that rises between rivals, foes, whatever term you prefer to call such camaraderie turned chicanery. I thought the time had come for me to defeat him, but he had a trick up his sleeve I couldn’t have accounted for.”

“Why, isn’t that a surprise. A case of best laid plans, even for you.”

At this, the figure angled his head slightly, and Kairi could tell he hadn’t missed her note of derision. It appeared her pride was still stung from his earlier barb.

But he continued regardless, saying, “In any case, he must have come across a student of his before his demise. For I later discovered my friend hid a tiny sliver of his Heart inside of his student’s own, a fraction of himself so small that it very nearly escaped even my expertise in sensing.”

Maleficent studied Kairi’s body intently at that.

“You’re not saying this girl could have done something similar, are you?”

“I am.”

She didn’t look convinced.

“One would imagine such a feat to be possible only at the hands of a master, such as your friend.”

The figure laughed out loud at this. It was a gravelly sound that reverberated in Kairi’s mind as much as it did in her ears.

“A master he was, but one as misguided as his apprentices. Nay, I am sure something similar must have occurred here. Perhaps not from the girl’s own skill, but her status as a Princess of Heart may have had something to do with it.”

Maleficent furrowed her brows.

“None of the others I’ve found yet have been able to do the same, though. So how…?”

“Have you been studying the reports?”

She nodded.

“I have. So far, their wisdom has been invaluable to managing the heartless.”

“Then continue to look over them. You’ve been at this for close to a decade now, haven’t you? Between the reports and your expertise, you’ll have the answer eventually.” He answered and began to move away.

“There was something else I wanted to ask.” Maleficent added, before the figure could make his leave.

He looked back at her.

“Yes?”

“The other girl: Sora. She’s the one with the keyblade, not the boy. Yet when I saw her I sensed no Mark of the Bequeathed on her Heart. How can she be the one to hold the keyblade?”

“No Mark of the Bequeathed? Are you sure?”

“I am certain.”

At this, he went quiet again for several beats. And then, finally, he spoke.

“Well. As you may have surmised from my tale of my old friend,” The figure said with some measure of amusement, “Any fool can hold a keyblade.”

He looked away from them both at this, turning his shadowed head to the light of the setting sun.

“But keeping a keyblade…that takes everything.”


 

 

R I K U

 

Usually Riku liked training.

At least, it was usually one of the more pleasant things to do here. Sparring with the heartless as his opponents could even be fun sometimes if he imagined hearing Sora’s voice shouting comebacks at him between strikes. He could close his eyes and imagine the stone floor underneath had turned to sand, hearing the imaginary sighs of palm leaves rustling in the breeze, the call of cicadas and birds.

But today his thoughts wandered from thinking of recent times, in favor of a memory from long ago. Before Riku and Sora had seen the worlds outside of the islands.

As the years passed the memory had lost its golden glow, and the edges of it turned a little blurrier, but it was cherished regardless. But now, well, thinking of it stung a little. Especially whenever Riku looked down at Soul Eater.

The time and place was at sunset on Destiny Islands. Long before that fateful night when the skies would turn black, and the sand would split open like a hungering maw and rent itself in twain. Long before gnarled creatures with glowing yellow eyes set their feet upon the shore.

No, this was a time when both of the kids thought the islands were—or could be—a paradise.

“Giving up already?” Riku teased, as Sora and him raced down the bridge of the play island side by side, “Come on, Sora!”

“That’s enough, I can’t run anymore!” She called out, but still managed to keep pace with the boy until they reached the bowed tree on the outlying islet and climbed on to watch the sunset.

Such was the case with days like these, filled with competitions of all kinds up and down the play island. Where you said you were done, but you were never really done, because there was always one more thing to compete on and one more chance to win. And such was the case with now.

Sora sat up first, looking over to her dad as he called them back for the day. Riku looked over slowly, only just realizing what time it was. He gnawed at his lip.

“Ahoy! We’re over here!” She shouted, standing up on the palm trunk. And with that she nudged the boy on the shoulder, daring, “Riku, race ya. First one on the boat gets to be captain!”

She gave chase and was the first off of the tree and over the pier, calling over her shoulder, “Come on! You call that running?” 

Where she ran, he walked. Riku didn’t mind losing this race.

It would be some time yet before Sora realized why he didn’t bother with trying to get home quick, why he accepted her offers to sleep over so often, and why he came in on a new day with more scrapes and bruises than he’d had yesterday. For now she’d simply glossed over those things and considered them as ‘just how Riku was’, which he personally preferred. It was much easier to roll with that than the strange looks of pity Sora’s parents gave him.

(Because Riku hadn’t yet realized such things weren’t normal, either.)

Sora saw the man first. Her steps slowed to a shuffling canter as she wrenched her head over as far as she could to stare in curiosity, a bad habit her parents hadn’t yet managed to break her of. And then, once he had reached where she was, Riku glanced over too to see what she saw. The man was strangely dressed, with two belts crossed over his chest locked together with a badge and a piece of what looked like armor affixed to his shoulder. He was busy looking out over the ocean. Riku hadn’t seen anyone else look remotely similarly dressed to him on Destiny Islands.

With all lessons of the matters of not talking to strangers far from his mind, he decided to try talking to the man.

“Hey,” Riku called out, “You’re not from the islands, are you.”

The man gave a start at that. “Huh? Why would you say that?”

Riku angled his head. Did this guy really think he blended in?

“Because nobody lives out here. And I know you’re not from the main island.”

He huffed out a laugh and replied, “Smart kid. So how about you? What are you doing here?

“My friend’s dad took us out on the boat. This is where we like to play, but they won’t let us row out here by ourselves. Not till we get older.” Riku answered as he walked closer.

“Must be hard, huh? Stuck in one place.”

The only response he could give the man’s inquiry was a scuff of his shoe against the ground and a downcast glance. And as Riku moved towards the shore to look out towards the ocean, he could hear the man’s shuffling against the sand to do the same.

“I heard from the other kids that there was someone who left for good once, a really long time ago,” Riku said wistfully. He turned to look up at him. “But nobody could ever figure out how he left. How did you get here?”

The man had a shaken look on his face, and Riku couldn’t discern the reason for it.

“Is there some reason you’re interested in leaving?” He said instead, and Riku noticed how he declined to answer his question.

But the man had asked a better question in turn. Why did Riku want to leave? Everyone he talked to would say this place was a paradise, and if asked would say there was no reason to ever consider leaving. But the idea of never getting away, of growing old without ever seeing what laid beyond the waves, didn’t sit right with Riku. He wrapped a hand around the fading yellow-green of his wrist, hidden beneath wristbands.

“I wanna be strong one day. That kid who left—he’s probably seen lots of stuff, learned lots about how to fight.”

The man wrinkled his brows at Riku. “To fight? What do you want to be strong for?”

Riku absently watched the shore lap at his shoes, how small broken fragments of seashells danced with the ebb and flow. One pearlescent shard gave a tired purpling gleam that matched the approaching nightfall and nestled itself in the seafoam. He thought of Sora.

“To protect the things that matter,” Riku smiled. “You know, like my friends.”

Neither of them spoke for several minutes after that, and he let his thoughts be drowned out by the crash of the high tide coming in for the evening.

“Outside this tiny world is a much bigger one.”

Riku looked up when the man had spoken, and he could feel his mouth fall open at the sight of a swirl of light spin forth in the man’s grasp.

The light arranged itself into a circular pattern of whirling glimmers as he outstretched his hand, and with a hushed quaver the glow had settled into a remarkably long sword in the man’s grip. It was quite stout, clearly made for powerful blows, and its blue and bronze form was capped off at the end with four teeth that made the sword look like a giant key.

Riku’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the man kneeling down to his eye level and offering the sword.

“I’m going to make you a promise,” He began as he leveled Riku’s gaze.

“Yeah?”

“One day I’ll come back to you and teach you everything I know. About how to reach the outside world, how to fight, how to become strong, everything.” The man said, “But I need you to promise me something in return.”

Riku’s eyes didn’t look to the keyblade. They didn’t stray to the ocean. He looked nowhere else but towards the man.

“Anything,” He murmured.

“Promise me you won’t lose sight of what’s important. Fighting means nothing if you do it without a cause. Strength means nothing if you don’t use it to protect what’s important. And nothing in this world or outside of it will have any meaning to you if you forget the people who matter most. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Riku said as his voice wavered with awe. “I-I promise. I promise,” He tried again after taking a deep breath. The man gave him a proud smile and began the fateful vow that would come to define Riku’s life.

“In your hand, take this key.”

He looked down at the sword in his hand.

A color palette of reds, blacks, and blues formed into a menacing bat’s wing. No teeth at one end like the man’s keyblade, no keychain at the other end. Just a small green-blue eye embedded in the hilt that stared back at him in the half-light of Hollow Bastion.

He’d kept the secret just as he was asked. He had remembered his cause, used the strength Maleficent had given him for good, and he remembered the people who had mattered most.

Even when it seemed like those same people had forgotten about him.

No. No. Riku shook his head forcefully to clear those thoughts away. Sora hadn’t forgotten him at all, she couldn’t. Not when they were practically joined at the hip since before they could walk. She was just distracted is all.

Distracted with that keyblade, that old Dark corner of his mind whispered.

Your keyblade.

And Riku had no rebuttal for that.


 

 

S O R A

 

“Oh, wow!” She said as she ran past the colonnade on the outskirts of where they had parked the gummi ship. “Do you guys see this huge gate?”

The architecture of the whole place was sprawling. It was as if this place was built for giants, with two statues of soldiers with their swords drawn towards the sky flagging the entrance, which was an enormous set of doors engraved with insignias of lightning bolts. All around them people milled to and fro, and Sora saw that most of them were wearing draped robes in a spectrum of colors.

But some others looked as out of place as Sora, Donald, and Goofy did. Like the stern looking woman with pink hair and odd clothes that was talking to some moogles that were excitedly crowding around her, while her companions milled about—including a red-haired girl with pigtails and an outfit that was bedecked with beads with a fur pelt tied around her waist, and a woman wielding a staff with a rich blue tapestry wrapped around her outfit. For a moment Sora’s pulse skipped a beat, as she thought she saw Riku with them, but she quickly realized the silver-haired boy with the group looked nothing like him at second glance.

She closed her eyes. Why had Riku run off so quickly there at the end of their meeting? Was he mad?

Just like on the islands, Sora thought to herself. Where he’d get mad for no reason and avoid any attempts to communicate. She had hoped he would move past that habit with the fall of Destiny Islands and their being separated, but Sora supposed those things took time.

“Gawrsh, they’re almost as big as the palace gates back home!” Goofy exclaimed, inadvertently interrupting Sora’s thoughts.

“No way, the palace gates are bigger than that,” Donald snorted, as the three of them walked up.

Sora pushed open the doors with a grunt, and the stone material made a grinding noise against the floor.

The lobby was spacious, and mostly empty. Apart from the trio only a few others wandered around the area, all of them dressed oddly. None of the people outside who looked to be natives were in here. On the far wall a short squat satyr stood on a pedestal and was busy drafting a list of rules ostensibly for the tournament the moogles mentioned earlier. He would likely know something, Sora thought as she walked over to him.

“Hey, um, excuse me?” Sora tried, but the satyr didn’t bother looking up as they approached.

He lazily waved his hand towards the middle of the room, still clutching the chalk. “Good timing. Give me a hand, will ya? Move that pedestal over there for me.”

She looked to where he was gesturing and shrugged. The task seemed easy enough.

Sora walked over to the pedestal and planted her feet on the floor, expecting some resistance from the heavy stone.

But she had underestimated it.

The pedestal was beyond heavy, it was immovable. The soles of her shoes had some traction against the floor but not enough, and she first tried pushing it with her hands, and then shoved her back up against it with her shoes grinding against the floor all the while.

Sora only gave up when she nearly slipped the second her foot lost traction and managed to grip onto the pedestal just in time to catch herself. She threw a scowl at Donald when she could hear him snickering, but the effect was ruined by her being out of breath.

“It’s way too heavy!” She hollered at the satyr, who dropped the chalk he was holding with a jerk.

“What?! Too heavy?” He jeered and rounded on her. “Hercules! Since when have you been such a little—Oh. Wrong guy. What are you doing here?”

“We wanted to join the fighting tournament!” Sora said proudly.

Beside her, an ignored Donald grumbled, “Don’t include me in that statement.”

The satyr laughed. “What, some pansies like you? The hoi polloi and some wimp who can’t even move a pedestal?”

He turned serious suddenly, and walked towards the pedestal as he continued, “Listen up! This here’s the world-famous Coliseum, heroes only! And I already got my hands full preparing for the games this afternoon, so…run…along…” The satyr grunted as he tried to move the pedestal himself, to no avail. He fitfully kicked the pedestal with his hoof and sucked in a gasp as he held the now-pained limb.

“Botched toe! I botched that one! Ah, I think it’s bleedin’.” He said as he let go of it for a moment to check his hoof. The satyr then looked to the three. “Don’t suppose y’all got any trash I can plug up this cut with?”

“Trash?” Goofy wondered aloud.

Sora rifled in her pockets. “I think I got a candy wrapper if you give me a sec.”

Only Donald was the one to provide a solution. He had a prideful air as he cast a cure spell on the satyr, who let go of his hoof as it was healed.

“You’ve got heroes standing right in front of you,” Donald replied smugly, as the satyr gave him an obstinate glance.

“You tell ‘em, Donald,” Sora cheered from beside him.

“Yup!” Goofy agreed as he wrapped a hand around her shoulders boastfully, “And here’s a real hero chosen by the keyblade!”

“Hero? That runt?” He barked out a laugh. “Look, I know it takes more than brawn, I know I’m no Chiron myself. But this half-pint sure ain’t no Atalanta either! Come back when you got an entry pass!”

“How do we get one?” Goofy asked, and the satyr laughed again.

“Last one was distributed yesterday. Good luck finding another.”

And with that, the trio left in a sullen mood and sat themselves on the entryway stairs to the Coliseum, watching visitors and natives to the world alike run along busily.

“Well that was a bust,” Sora groused as she summoned the keyblade to her hand and looked at it sadly.

Donald was livid. “Who does he think he is?” He seethed, small sparks flying out from his staff despite himself.

“I’m sure he thinks he’s the crème de la crème,” A new voice answered, and they looked up to see a tall man with pointed features and blue skin leaning on the platform for the entryway. Blue flames licked at his head, forming an impromptu hairstyle. “But really, he’s a stubborn old goat, wouldn’t you say?”

“And who are you?” Donald asked. The man shuffled closer, the hems of his black chiton rippling with a near-invisible pattern with every step.

“Woah, hold on there fuzz-boy. Now let me guess,” He said as he jerked his chin to Sora, “You want to enter the games. Right?”

“Yeah,” She replied.

“Well then,” He outstretched a hand, which was quickly surrounded by a glowing blue light, “Zoop! One entry pass to go, half-caf, no foam and extra soy. Knock yourself out kid,” He amended after a moment, “Not literally, of course.”

“A pass?” Sora looked up at him with astonishment as she reached for the piece of paper and held it aloft, “Can I really have this?”

He nodded. “It’s all yours. Good luck, short stuff.”

Before they knew it, the man was gone as quickly as he arrived, and the three lost sight of him in the crowd almost instantly.

They leaned over to look at the pass. Sora tilted it back and forth to see small stylized lightning bolts shimmer on the golden paper. Beside a signature in the corner was stamped the words ‘ENTRY PASS’.

Huh, she thought. Okay. And without too much more discussion on the matter, the trio decided to go back inside and try again.

The moment they had brought the pass back to the satyr, he snatched it out of Sora’s hand and inspected every inch of it dumbfoundedly.

“No way. How did you get ahold of this pass?”

Goofy opened his mouth to tell him about the man they’d met, but Donald hurriedly waved for him to stop. Sora spoke up.

“We can enter the games now, right?”

He looked back and forth between Sora and the entry pass for several seconds, his expression growing more suspicious as he did so. And finally, the satyr sighed.

“Fine.” He relented and raised a hand to jab his finger at them upon speaking his next words. “But this is gonna be a trial by fire, got it? I gotta make sure you’re all prepared for the prelims this afternoon, no holding back!”

Sora could feel the corner of her mouth start to curl upward.

“Don’t worry about it,” She replied, “We’re heroes. We got what it takes.”

He scoffed. “We’ll see about that.”


 

 

K A I R I

 

It wasn’t long after the hooded figure left that Maleficent did too.

As she closed the door behind her and Kairi waited to be sure nobody else would come in, alternating glances through her own eyes and Sora’s, did Kairi finally pull away and make her way back to that white room where the boy slept.

She paced in large circles around the chamber. Kairi could feel her stomach doing gymnastics with anxiety.

“That guy with the hood,” Kairi’s voice faltered, and she tried again. “That guy with the hood, I’ve never seen his Hearts before. I shouldn’t be able to remember them.”

There was the sensation of pinpricks climbing up her spine.

“But I do.”

She stopped walking for a moment and looked to the boy.

“And his Darkness, how—how alive it felt,” Kairi shuddered as the pinpricks grew stronger, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. But it was familiar too. What was that guy?”

“They said I lost my Heart. But that doesn’t make any sense,” She put a hand to her chin as she resumed pacing again. “I’m still here. I’m still okay, or at least as okay as I can be without being able to use my own body. Is that what they’re referring to? I’m still able to see and hear out of it though.”

“They also keep referring to me as a Princess of Heart. First Maleficent and now that guy. Wait, no,” She corrected herself as she remembered, “The door did too.”

“Back on Destiny Islands, when it asked me for help. It was going on about it like I’d be able to fix whatever went wrong and made us lose our world. Like I’d be able to fix its Heart.”

Kairi gave a bitter laugh.

“So much for that one. I didn’t even realize worlds could have Hearts.”

“There’s got to be something useful about being a Princess of Heart, though,” Kairi reasoned, trying to ignore her resurfacing dread. “Otherwise there’d be no reason for them taking me. Is it because I can talk to Sora? Well, sort of, but is that why they wanted me? No, no, that can’t be it.”

“Unless there was something else about being a Princess of Heart that could be handy. Maybe like how I can see people’s Hearts?” She wrung her hands uselessly, “It feels like that’d be useless to them. Both of them indicated they had some ability to sense people’s Hearts on their own. But that’s interesting, too—I never met anyone else able to do what I could do.”

She could feel the corners of her lips twitch.

“That’s another thing I can’t let Sora and Riku live down. Or at least, I can’t let Riku live that down. Trying to tell me I’m ‘just pretending’,” Kairi huffed.

“But that other thing they talked about,” She said, referring once more to Maleficent and the hooded figure, “That story. What the guy said about his friend who hid a piece of his Heart in another’s. I didn’t know something like that was even possible.”

Kairi stopped pacing.

“But it does make sense. It would help explain why he had…two Hearts…” She trailed off as she looked to the boy, a thought occurring to her. He slept on obliviously.

“…And why Sora has two Hearts, too.”


 

 

S O R A

 

“Buck up! What are ya, one of Penelope’s geese?” Philoctetes, or Phil, as he allowed when none of them could pronounce it correctly, cried as he spurred Donald on through the obstacle course. “We ain’t got all day!”

“I’m a duck, mind you, and I’d get through this faster if you let me keep my staff!” He shouted back, and gave an unintelligible curse as he tripped over the edge of a stone wheel as he hopped his way through its duplicates. Up ahead, Sora and Goofy were making their way through a rope net to the next round of platforms, already halfway through the course.

“Magic’s not always the solution, buckaroo!” Phil stomped a hoof, “What are ya gonna do when you lose your staff in a fight? Shake your tail feathers at them?”

Donald shot a small spark at the satyr from his fingertip, but it was nowhere near as powerful as the bolts he could throw with his staff in hand. He spluttered out an angry noise and outstretched a hand to the sky, yelling “Summonga!”

And with a clamor from the side of the nearly empty arena, the staff whirled through the air towards his hand. As it landed, Donald gave a victorious spark of electricity, much stronger this time, and turned to Phil with a triumphant gleam in his eye.

“I can do that.”

Phil squinted at him, and his frown shifted to something more appraising as he stroked his beard. “Alright. I can respect that. Heroes need to be quick-thinking, at least in a way that doesn’t destroy the obstacles!” He ended with a shout and a pointed look to Sora, who scratched her head sheepishly.

“Didn’t think a fire spell could backfire like that!” She looked away for a moment as she finished climbing the rope net, and said, “Pun unintended. But I put it out!”

“Good thing the vigiles urbani were on standby for the tournament already,” Phil shook his head, and then straightened up and called them over.

“You ain’t heroes yet, but you guys ain’t doin’ too bad. Lucky you came to me for coaching,” He started, “A few hours and you’re all showing potential already: Quick thinkin’, adaptable, could be stronger, but hey! Being strong doesn’t make you a hero. It’s what you do with it that counts.”

“It’s in the Heart!” Goofy recited perfectly. Phil nodded.

“Exactly. Brawns or not, you gotta have a strong Heart to be a hero.”

“But what makes a strong Heart?” Sora asked.

“If you have to ask,” A new voice answered from the edge of the arena, “You’re not a hero yet.”

Phil spun around with a dazzling smile.

“Hercules!”

“Hey, Phil. I’m done cleaning the Coliseum toilets,” Hercules gestured back over his shoulder with a thumb and hefted a bucket of cleaning supplies with his other hand.

Phil quickly turned to the trio excitedly and said, “Let me introduce you the man who’s the most popular hero around here. Hercules! Stealer of apples, slayer of hydras and Nemean lions, yadda yadda yadda. Believe me, this guy’s capable of anything—Wait, did you say you were cleaning toilets?” He cut himself off with a confused expression to look back at Hercules.

“Yeah. That’s what you asked me to do, remember?” He blinked, and then chuckled. “Nowhere near as bad as Augeas’ stables. Man was that guy a piece of work.”

“Can’t believe I made a hero clean toilets!” Phil laughed.

Hercules took a second to pull out a clipboard he had stashed away in his cleaning bucket.

“I also checked over the entry list,” He said as he scanned the pages, “There seems to be a large number of strange first-timers. I wonder where they got their tickets.”

“There were some real weirdos strolling about earlier,” Phil agreed, “Lotsa them got tickets, I didn’t realize we sold so many.”

As the two chatted on the matter, Sora gave a nervous smile and tried to look as unsuspecting as possible. Beside her, her friends did the same.

“Think he suspects anything?” She asked out of the side of her mouth.

Donald shrugged.

“He sure seemed to accept us just fine,” Goofy replied as he fiddled with his shield. “Wonder ‘bout the others Phil mentioned.”

“Who was that guy that gave us the ticket, anyway?” Donald whispered.

“Maybe one of the weird first-timers they’re talking about?” Sora shrugged, “He certainly looked strange: His hair was made of fire.”

“Wonder if that was his ticket he gave to us, then,” Donald wondered. But before any of them could speak further, Phil clapped his hands and the trio composed themselves.

“Okay! Prelims are comin’ up in,” He started as he looked down at the small sundial wristwatch on his arm, and upon seeing the time he reeled. “Thirty minutes?!” At this, Phil started desperately waving them towards the side entrance to the arena. “You slowpokes better go get ready. You’ll be getting your numbers in a little bit for your rounds.”

“Fine,” Sora sighed as she walked a little faster. She called back to Phil, “Hey, when’s the actual tournament?”

“Tomorrow!” He answered distractedly, before hurrying off. Sora turned to Donald, her next question already in mind.

“Absolutely not. We’re not staying here more than a day.” Donald shook his head rapidly.

“But—”

No.

“Hey, uh, guys?” Goofy asked uncertainly. They looked up at him simultaneously.

“What?”

“Are y’all seein’ heartless in line, or is that just me?” He pointed, and they looked to where he was indicating. And both Donald and Sora let out expressions of surprise.

Because right down the corridor and clustered up between the other fighters in line were more than a few heartless, just as Goofy had said.


 

 

R I K U

 

“My goodness,” Maleficent said from somewhere behind him, and Riku quickly shifted his stance into something more defensive to parry his heartless sparring mate’s cutlass before turning around. She raised a brow at him. “You’re quite inspired today. Might I ask why?”

Riku blinked.

He let go of the handle to the man’s keyblade, the oath taken, and the ceremony completed.

“Riku!” Sora called from the pier, unaware of the ceremony taking place. “C’mon, hurry it up!”

Riku could see her impatiently stomping her foot onto the wooden boards even from where he and the man stood all the way across the shore. He smiled again, wider this time, and waved her off. Before Riku could say a word, the man leaned over and gently squeezed his shoulder.

“You’ve gotta keep this a secret, okay?” He said, and when the boy looked back towards him confused, he clarified, “Otherwise all the magic will wear off.”

“It’s nothing,” He shook his head a bit more strongly than he needed to, in efforts to clear the reverie from his thoughts. “What is it?”

The only times Maleficent ever bothered to intrude on his sparring, she had a reason for. Typically the most she would ever do was come in from time to time to silently watch and assess his progress. Or at least, that was the explanation Riku told himself as he’d never bothered to ask her why outright. It helped give a reason for why he always got the feeling she was seeing right into his soul—into his Heart—every time she did.

Diablo fixed his beady eye on Riku from his seat on Maleficent’s shoulder. The bird was quiet today.

“You’ve discussed wanting to be reunited with your friends, yes?” She asked.

He shifted his posture slightly. Where was she going with this?

“Is this about Sora?”

Riku’s voice came out more unsure than he intended, but Maleficent didn’t give any indication of noticing.

“No, dear boy, your other friend. I believe you mentioned one with short red hair?”

He looked down in genuine shock. Riku was ashamed to admit to himself that he hadn’t thought of Kairi much at all in his time off of the islands, even after Sora asked about her in their reunion.

“Kairi?” Riku spluttered, “Wait, what happened? Did you get news on her?”

“Better than just news,” Maleficent turned to leave the room as she gestured to him, saying, “Come. Follow me.”

She waved a hand to the heartless, wordlessly dismissing them from their bout with Riku. The creatures immediately acquiesced and left the room in a variety of ways, with some leaving through Dark portals and others leaving the room by foot. The ones who chose the latter method followed after the two for some time before finding their next whereabouts, and before Riku knew it he and Maleficent were alone on their walk to the bailey of Hollow Bastion.

When Maleficent didn’t volunteer to continue talking, he decided to instead.

“Did you find her?” Riku asked, “Are you taking me to her now?”

It was an obvious question, he admonished himself inwardly, but she give any indication that she minded it.

She glanced to him and said slyly, “Indeed I am,” Maleficent turned her gaze back to the darkened hallways as his expression went incredulous. “Such was the information my friend had provided, and the reason why we went off to Traverse Town in the first place. You see, I learned her body was discovered there.”

Riku stopped in his tracks.

It didn’t take Maleficent long to notice he had stopped following her, and the second she did she and Diablo both turned their heads around towards him.

“Yes? What is it?”

“Her body?” Riku asked, his voice scratchy from his mouth suddenly feeling as dry as sawdust. “Is she dead?

“Heavens, child, no,” She replied immediately, and his shoulders sagged in relief. “Here, I’ll show you. The door’s right over there.”

Looking to where she was pointing, Riku walked quickly to the door she had indicated: It was indistinguishable in the midst of every other door in the hallway, its wooden form carved with the same motifs of roses and thorned vines that marked every other inch of this place. He held the handle for a moment in hesitation. Maleficent’s robes rustled as she came up behind him.

She angled her head at him. Riku could hear her unspoken question: Well? Aren’t you going to open it?

He tightened his grip on the doorknob in efforts to work up the nerve, feeling the cold metal slowly warm up under his hand.

And then, slowly, he opened the door.


 

 

S O R A

 

“And the winner of the final prelim match is…Cloud.”

Sora could hear her pulse thumping in her ears, coming close to drowning out Phil’s words. Not that it mattered, she knew full well what it meant to have her back to the floor and the edge of a sword in her face anyway. Sora glanced to either side of the arena, the overlarge sword looming in her vision.

Donald and Goofy were long since knocked out cold, having been hit with some unlucky (or lucky, she supposed, for Cloud) strikes to the backs of their heads that made them black out. And it didn’t take long after her friends were out for Sora to be finished off as well. She had never encountered a swordsman so skilled. Not even Riku could have matched him, Sora was sure.

Cloud still didn’t move, continuing to hold the sword in her face. He scrutinized her over the brim of his tattered scarf.

“Um, ya know you’re supposed to let ‘em go when the match is called, right?” Phil laughed nervously as he looked between the two of them. Her opponent gave no indication that he heard the satyr.

“Trying to get rid of some kid like you,” Cloud remarked, “What is Hades up to?”

At that, he looked to the keyblade still in her hand, her grip on it loosened. He studied it.

“What’s this? Some kind of toy?”

Her face reddened with anger, and before Sora could bite out a reply the sky began to darken. They both looked up.

And as her pulse quieted in her ears, Sora realized she could hear the audience screaming.

It was a dog. But it wasn’t like any dog Sora had ever seen, and certainly not anything like that cartoonish dog she encountered when she woke up in Traverse Town that very first time. This was a beast with three heads and teeth taller than Goofy, and as sharp as the sword Cloud quickly dropped from his hand upon catching sight of the animal. The sword was so heavy it made a small tremor as it clattered against the ground.

The second her opponent’s sword was away from her face Sora scrambled to sit upright, and then she rose to her feet with her keyblade at the ready. Donald and Goofy were still passed out, she realized with worry. If she had to fight this…whatever this dog was, Sora was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get them out of the arena in time. And then, one of the dog’s heads lunged at her and Cloud.

She wrenched her eyes shut as she raised her keyblade to guard, her face screwing with the expectation of pain.

But the pain never came.

Sora opened an eye at the sound of a whining yelp and opened both eyes when she realized what happened.

Before her and Cloud, barely visible past the waves of Darkness simmering from the creature’s mouths, stood Hercules. He had punched the middle head, the one who dared to try and make the first move, right in the nose, and the unearthly dog recoiled in pain as its other two heads angled forward to take their companion’s place.

“Phil!” Hercules yelled, “Get them out of here!”

“You got it, Herc!” The satyr replied, and raced on his stubby little hooves to make sure the crowds of spectators desperately trying to make their escape didn’t cause a stampede. Phil looked to Sora, and yelled, “Kid! Get you and your pals outta here!”

She didn’t need to be told twice. Sora dismissed her keyblade to have both hands free and grabbed Donald and slung him over her shoulder, while making sure his staff was in her hand. Grabbing Goofy was a little harder, with only one hand available, and as she dodged the three-headed dog’s footfalls she clipped the handle to his shield onto his back holster and dragged him by it, grimacing slightly from the strain of pulling them towards the exit to the side of the arena where Phil went.

A flash of blue flames out of the corner of her eye made Sora turn to look around, but she didn’t see anything apart from the last onlookers making their way out of the arena where Cerberus and Hercules were now fighting. Cloud was nowhere to be seen, but his overlarge sword was still in the arena towards the side, where it had been tossed out of the way. She made her way out of the arena and back into the lobby, noticing how Donald seemed to be stirring finally.

She deposited them against the wall and slunk down to the floor herself, watching as the spectators who hadn’t decided to leave for the day milled about. In the crowd, she could see some of the other participants in the preliminaries among them.

“What was that thing?” Sora asked Phil, who had been standing nearby.

“That was Cerberus, the guardian of the Underworld,” Phil answered, “Hercules should be able to finish it off in a second or two.”

“A second or two?” Donald echoed skeptically, and Sora saw him staggering to his feet. She handed him his staff back, which he took gratefully. Beside Donald Sora could see Goofy was beginning to wake up too.

“You missed it, that thing was huge!” Sora told him, “It had three heads, I’d never seen a dog like that before.”

“Of course it ain’t any ordinary dog, it’s Hades’!” Phil cried.

“Who is Hades?” Sora asked, “Cloud mentioned him too.”

Phil’s surprise was written all over his face. “What? What did he say?”

“He said—” Sora began, but was quickly cut off by the lobby rumbling ominously. From outside, she could hear a vicious bark before a gnashing sound. All of them looked to the exit at this, with Goofy waking up finally for good at the noise.

“Gawrsh, that doesn’t sound good,” Goofy murmured, “Where’s Hercules?”

“Outside,” She replied, her tone coming out hesitant. Judging by Donald’s expression, he felt the same way.

“Can he take them on alone?”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Sora scowled, and got up as she summoned her keyblade back. Phil’s eyes widened.

“Kid, where are you going?”

“I’m going to help Hercules.”

“What?” Phil exclaimed, “This ain’t just some match, this is for real!”

“I know! I’m not afraid,” Sora gripped her keyblade and slung it over her shoulder, saying with a cocky glance, “You can decide if I’m hero material or not later.”

Donald was the next one to get up, and after downing one of the elixirs in his pockets he asked, “Sora, how come you always have to go running head first into these sorts of things?”

“The whole point of our mission is to help people, right? I’m helping.”

“Then we’re going with ya, ahyuk!” Goofy asserted, swaying on his feet a bit. Donald handed him an elixir, too.

“All for one and one for all,” She commented with a quiet smile, and ducked her head. As the three walked out back to the arena, Sora could hear Hercules’ sandals scrape against the pavement, the guttural rumbling of Cerberus’ jaws as it gnashed its many teeth. She walked faster.

Her efforts were rewarded with the sight of an empty arena save for Hercules and his opponent. And, she realized as she looked closer, Cloud, whose comatose form was slung over Hercules’ shoulder as he tried to use his other arm to land whatever blows he could on the beast.

Hercules wouldn’t be able to last much longer against Cerberus, she thought. Not when he was constrained by having only one arm available and having to keep Cloud from getting hurt worse.

She had to help.

“Hercules!” She yelled, and he immediately looked over to them, seeing that they were ready to fight. “We’ll take it from here!”

Sora raised her keyblade in ready for an attack and burst forward without waiting for an answer, hearing her companions scamper along behind. At her shout Cerberus turned its heads towards her, its mean threefold gaze ensuring nothing good.

Hercules relaxed somewhat when it turned its attention from him, but he looked as if he were considering protesting, and then seemed to change his mind. Hercules readjusted his hold on Cloud and darted from the arena to safety.

“Kid! I got two words of advice for ya,” Phil shouted from behind them, as the trio readied their weapons. “Attack!


 

 

R I K U

 

His world went still. All he could do was stare.

Kairi lay on the bed with her eyes half open, unfocused, unseeing. Through the window a wavering beam of sunlight poured through and lit up the room as best it could, starkly bright in some areas and shadowed in the rest. Motes of dust lit up by what light there was danced in circles around her hair, forming a makeshift halo. A small spider made its way over her leg.

Seeing it was what finally brought Riku back to earth. He strode across the room and flicked the spider away, and it tumbled off the side of the bed and continued its path elsewhere.

Riku glanced to her face, which was unchanged.

Kairi didn’t give any sort of indication that she was aware anything had occurred.

“She’s only asleep is all.”

He turned back to Maleficent, suddenly remembering she was in the room as well. She was watching the interaction closely. Almost too closely.

“Asleep?” He glanced back and forth between her and Kairi, “How did this happen?”

“The poor dear lost her Heart,” Maleficent answered.

“Lost her Heart,” Riku repeated doubtfully, “Wouldn’t that make a heartless?”

He looked to Kairi again. She didn’t have any features familiar to a heartless at all. No glowing yellow eyes or even a heartless emblem. Nothing. She looked just like any other person apart from being comatose.

Maleficent chuckled and answered, “Not in this case. Something different from the usual method happened to make her lose her Heart, and it’s what put her into this state.”

“How did she lose her Heart?”

“That’s the very same question I’ve been trying to find the answer to,” She replied, drawing closer. Riku noticed that Diablo was gone. Perhaps he had flown away at some point on the walk over without being noticed. “There isn’t much to go off of in regard to clues, sadly. But the sooner I learn more of her condition the sooner I might find a way to fix it.”

The sooner I might find a way to fix it, she said. The words echoed in his mind as he looked to Kairi’s slackened expression. Her comatose body, with the instinct-driven rise and fall of her lungs the only indicator that she was even alive.

Riku tasted bile on the back of his tongue. Here he was, too afraid to even do his assignments correctly, still too afraid of Darkness to use it properly and help bring balance. And Kairi lost her Heart because of it. He was sure of that. What was wrong with him?

“So Kairi’s like a lifeless puppet now?” Riku asked as he sank onto the bed. Kairi’s body shifted slightly with the movement, but it was obvious it wasn’t voluntary. Merely the actions of gravity. “If she never gets her Heart back…she’ll be asleep forever? Like this?”

Maleficent nodded gravely.

“Precisely.”

There was only one question on his mind.

“What can I do to help?”


 

 

S O R A

 

The moment Phil uttered the word, the trio burst forth.

Goofy readied his shield, unclipping it from his holster in one unusually smooth movement for the normally clumsy fighter, while Donald’s staff gave off writhing waves of heat in ready for a fire spell. Whatever may come, they were ready to face.

And Sora? Sora lunged.

She climbed onto a foot, and Cerberus reactively recoiled it, unwittingly helping Sora by bringing her closer. And just like with the giant heartless she had faced that fateful night on Destiny Islands, where there was nothing left of her world but that small patch of sand and rubble from the play island, nobody left but her and her enemy, she ran up Cerberus’ leg.

There was a perfect clarity in Sora’s mind then. No distraction, no thinking, just her and her objective.

She ran up to the beast’s elbow—or whatever the equivalent to an elbow there was for a dog—ignoring the gnashing jaws of the surrounding heads and the shouts of her friends. Sora reared back her keyblade and time felt as if it were slowing down. Cerberus continued raising its leg, higher, preparing to try shaking her off.

At the closest point, when the middle head’s teeth were frothing at the corners and threatening to gnaw her in two, Sora jumped again with her keyblade raised high.

And she could feel it strike hard against Cerberus’ nose.

The effect was immediate: All three heads gave a deafening whine that threatened to blow out her ear drums from how close she was to Cerberus, and the beast began to fall to the ground. Sora scrambled to get off before it could crush her, and she jumped to the floor sloppily and let out a hiss of pain as her ankle rolled. And with a tremor that shook the entire arena, Cerberus collapsed to the ground and passed out.

For a full minute the trio stopped in place, staring at the fallen beast.

“Did I…did I defeat it in one hit?” She asked uncertainly, “It’s not moving anymore.”

“No way,” Donald answered as he shook his head, “Couldn’t have.”

“I dunno, you guys,” Goofy wondered. “What if Sora did?”

“Remember the armor in Traverse Town we thought we defeated? How it got back up again?”

“Yeah, but that was a heartless,” Sora replied, “This, uh, isn’t a heartless? I think? It used Darkness though.”

They continued staring at it. Finally, Phil poked his head out of the side entrance to the arena.

“What are you guys doing standing around?”

“Is it knocked out?” Sora asked.

“Sure looks knocked out to me,” Phil shrugged.

Sora’s eyes slowly grew to the size of dinner plates. She shared an overjoyed look with Donald and Goofy.

“I defeated it in one hit,” She breathed, “I defeated it in one hit!”

Sora sped to the Coliseum lobby, and her friends followed.

“I defeated Cerberus in one hit! I defeated Cerberus in one hit!” She repeated as she ran in and nearly bumped into Hercules, who was at that point talking to an amused-looking woman in a purple toga that matched her eyeshadow.

“—Already wore it down by the time they jumped in,” He shrugged, “Too bad, they must have been disappointed when—Hey!” Hercules looked between the three of them with a quizzical look. “You guys look excited, what happened?”

“I did it! I knocked out Cerberus in a single blow!” Sora cheered, and jumped in the air. “Ain’t it great?! Woo!”

Both Hercules and the woman’s lips twitched, with the woman sputtering out a laugh before she could bite it back. “Hey, that’s great, kid!” Hercules tried, his lips still twitching despite his efforts, “Awesome job!”

Sora, oblivious, turned to Phil. “Does this make me a hero now? Oh gosh, I bet it does, doesn’t it? Am I a hero?”

Donald tapped his foot impatiently. “We were there too,” He griped, “So that makes us heroes, too!”

“Now hold on just a minute,” Phil objected, “As indicated in rule fifty-one, don’t get a swelled ego. You hear me? You’re still—”

But Sora wasn’t listening. She was already whipping her head around, looking around the lobby. And finally she found what she was looking for.

“I bet I’m strong enough to move that pedestal!” She exclaimed, jogging towards the stone block she had encountered earlier. She gripped it, planted her feet, and began to push. It struggled to budge. Sora grunted, “C’mon! Move, you!”

“What did I just tell you?” Phil cried, but his words fell on deaf ears as Sora felt the stone begin to shift.

“Hey, it moved!” She grinned, and movement from both sides finally made her look around. Donald and Goofy had moved to either side of her and were helping her push the pedestal. “Huh?”

“There’s no rule saying we can’t help you, is there?” Goofy beamed.

From her other side, Donald matched his expression. “Now push! One, two, three!”

On his mark, the trio shoved, and the pedestal slowly budged forward. And then, Sora felt it before she saw it: A small keyhole that was hidden beneath where the pedestal was and had finally been revealed.

“Woah, wait guys, stop!” She waved them off, and the two let go of the pedestal. Sora pointed down.

“The keyhole!” Goofy said in surprise.

“So that’s why we encountered those heartless in the preliminaries,” Donald slapped his fist against his open palm. “They were really after this!”

“Wait, wait, wait, what are you guys doing?” Phil budged in and peered down at the keyhole. “When did this get here? What did you guys call those things?”

“Heartless. Those were the monsters us and all of the contestants faced for the first several rounds,” Sora explained, “We were wondering why they showed up here. They’re actually after the keyhole. Don’t worry, I can seal this right up for you and they won’t bother you again.”

She had barely had her keyblade back out and ready to go before Phil waved his arms again to stop.

“Now wait one minute!” He said as they turned back towards to him. “You’re tellin’ me those things will go away for good if you seal this thingamajig?”

“Keyhole,” Sora corrected, “And yeah.”

Phil stamped a hoof. “Can’t let ya do that.”

Sora, Donald, and Goofy all gave him askance looks.

“Why?” Donald asked suspiciously.

“Because!” Phil answered, “Those things are way too useful to train up and coming heroes with, and to use as canon fodder in prelims like earlier!”

Sora angled her head. “But if they get to this keyhole, the whole world will fall to pieces,” She said, “You don’t want your world to end, do you?”

“’Course not,” He replied, “But it’ll be fine, Hercules here can take on anything. Won’t you, Herc?” Phil finished, looking up at Hercules, who was shaking his head.

“Phil, just let them have this one. We’ll just go back to the targets we used before, don’t worry about it. Maybe I can talk to my dad about coming up with something new.”

“I, but—” He started, and heaved a sigh as he threw up his hands. “Fine! Fine, alright, you win. Seal the darn thing.”

Without further ado, Sora raised her keyblade towards the ceiling, and watched as it gathered starbursts of Light around its tip. The floor vibrated slightly as the keyhole locked, and with a trilling chime the keyhole to the Coliseum was shut.

“So, what was all that light? And whatever that key thing did?” Phil asked, and the trio shuffled nervously at the prospects of saying anything more. It was bad enough they had to talk about the heartless and the keyhole already.

“I, well, um…” Sora started, but found herself unable to come up with an answer that didn’t risk telling more than she should. Then again, she thought, it looked like a whole bunch of people from all sorts of worlds visited this place, judging by the other contestants she saw earlier. So maybe she could risk divulging something?

But before she could think more on it, Hercules spoke up.

“It must be some kind of magical power,” He said, “I tried moving that pedestal before, but I couldn’t do it.”

“What? Really? You?” Phil asked in disbelief, and Hercules nodded.

“You three have some sort of a power that can’t be achieved alone,” He said, and a thoughtful expression spread across his face. “That’s something really special. I still have a lot to learn.”

The woman he was talking to as the trio arrived after defeating Cerberus, the woman with the purple toga, came back up to the group and tapped Hercules on the arm.

“Hey, Wonder Boy,” She grinned, “I heard a racket coming from the men’s toilets. I thought you cleaned them?”

“I did. Something probably broke,” He shrugged, and began to walk towards the restrooms, “I’ll go check it out. But one more thing,” Hercules turned and pointed a finger at the trio, saying, “I better see you guys in the next tournament!”

“We’ll be there,” Sora promised.

Donald added, “Next time you see us, you’ll be calling every one of us a hero!”

Phil put his hands on his hips.

“Ya know what?” Phil said.

Sora pouted, already expecting him to reject the idea. “What?”

But instead he said, “I’m looking forward to that.”

And with those words, the group shared a smile.

Chapter Text

K A I R I

 

“What can I do to help?”

Behind him, unseen by Riku, Maleficent shifted. There was no smile on her face. In fact, if one weren’t looking closely, you’d consider her expression to be quite somber. But Kairi saw a pleased glint in her eye that was more terrifying than any smile she could make.

Because a look like that meant nothing good for her or her friends.

“All you can do for now is continue your work,” Maleficent answered, “Recover the princesses and spread Darkness and its word wherever you go. In the meanwhile, I will do everything I can to try and fix the girl’s condition.”

At this, Riku absently watched the swirl of dust motes in the light of the window.

“Since she wasn’t turned into a heartless, do you think this,” He gestured futilely, “Whatever this state is, could it have been caused by too much Light?”

“Well,” She moved over to sit down beside him on the bed. “As I’ve said, I do not know for sure. But one wouldn’t be wrong to say that.”

“Too much Light,” He murmured to himself. Riku had a vaguely resentful look on his face.

“As you know, I’ve been surveying your training. You’ve been doing well, dear boy. Well enough that I think you may be ready for another assignment tomorrow.”

Riku’s head shot up at this. His resentful look dissolved instantly into something…eager?

“Please,” He pleaded, “Tell me what to do.”

She blinked away from the memory.

Without realizing it, Kairi had backed herself up against the wall of that familiar chamber while she was distracted with her thoughts. The cool stone was a comforting presence at her back. Beneath her fingertips, the imprints of chains gave a glowing pulse. She slid down to the floor and hid her face in her hands.

She knew Riku always had a problem with his Darkness. It’d been obvious since the day she met him. But this…Kairi never expected this. Kidnapping people? Tainting the Hearts of worlds? It was on an entirely new level.

But, a part of her thought, it certainly helped explain quite a few things. Like what Sora had heard of those girls going missing. The heartless appearing everywhere. Maleficent may have been all-powerful, or the closest thing to it, but she couldn’t have achieved such results alone.

Yet Kairi never expected one of her best friends to be part of such things. To even be capable of it.

“Riku,” Kairi said into her palms, “What are you doing?

It was a rhetorical question, of course. She knew exactly what he was doing. Or, more accurately, what he was going to do.

And Kairi knew she had to try and stop it.


 

 

S O R A

 

It was a very nice dream, really.

Her and Riku and Kairi were all back on the islands again, and it was like any other day. The sun was beaming, its pleasant warmth just on the edge of too hot, and the sea was a lukewarm temperature that gave a pleasant respite from the feeling of the sunlight beginning to burn your skin.

(wake up)

Her mom was there, chatting with Kairi’s parents about, well, something. Whatever adults talked about. Mortgages? Subprime lending? Other big words? Sora wasn’t sure. But whatever they were talking about, they were having a blast too.

(Wake up)

They were all together again. No heartless, no fighting. Or at least no fighting where you had to win or else. Fighting more in the sense of where losing wasn’t so bad. And especially fighting against Riku, where every strike elicited a smile and not fear, and a bolster of competitivity. No bright yellow eyes, or gnarled claws, or a glowing Heart flying out at the end towards the deep blue sky. Just their wooden swords. Well, those, and that little thing Riku’s bicep did when he twisted his sword arm just so. How that little muscle on the side danced in and out of sight—

(WAKE UP)

Sora opened her eyes. There was nothing to see at first as her eyes adjusted. Just the flat blackness that slowly became more detailed as her pupils shifted to see by the dim light of the stars outside the window. Her Heart lurched fearfully as Sora realized there was a humanoid silhouette on her bed at her feet. She scraped at the light switch beside her.

The lights in Sora’s room flickered on, and she wrenched her eyes shut tightly against the glare. She peered through her still-squinted eyes until they finally managed to adjust.

It was Kairi.

Sora deflated. She slid a hand down her face.

“Not again,” Sora groaned, “Why’d I interrupt a good dream for another hallucination?”

“Sorry, I didn’t realize I disturbed your precious slumber, you bum,” Kairi replied dryly. “Look, I’ve got something important to tell you. I don’t have much time, I’m running on fumes as it is.”

“What?”

“Go to Agrabah,” She insisted, “Stop Riku and Maleficent. Save Jasmine.”

Well, that certainly woke Sora up.

“Stop…Riku? And Maleficent? What’s he doing with her? And who’s Jasmine?”

Kairi—or, Sora thought, her hallucination of Kairi—shook her head as her eyes turned down.

“I don’t have time to explain. I can’t keep whatever this is stable long enough for that. Just, please,” She pleaded, and Sora felt a pang of empathy. “Go to Agrabah. Stop them. Save her.”

“I-I will,” Sora said, slightly too fast, and tried again. “I will.”

She could see Kairi give a long exhale in relief.

“Thank you,” was all she said, as she disappeared from view. And with that, Sora was alone in her room again. Without bothering to get as ready as she normally did, since the hour on the clock was ungodly late and she’d have to try getting some sleep to prepare for whatever happened tomorrow, Sora stumbled out into the hallway towards the cockpit.

At this hour everyone was still asleep, and the cockpit was empty. That is, except for one chair where two webbed feet poked out from the side. She drew closer.

In the captain’s chair, Donald gave a scratchy snore. His hat was pulled down low over his eyes. Sometime before turning in Goofy had pulled a blanket over Donald before going to bed himself, as the vivid yellow blanket certainly wasn’t there when Sora left for the night.

“Hey, Donald?”

He kept snoring. The control panel gave a quiet whirr as the autopilot navigated aimlessly through space.

“Donald?” She tried again.

And again, no response. Sora sighed.

Donald.

Finally, he stirred. Donald lazily blinked one eye open at her and gave a small start at seeing the blanket draped over him before quickly throwing it off and straightening his hat.

“I, uh,” Donald started, “I wasn’t sleeping.”

“Sure.”

“I wasn’t!” He insisted with a fervent shake of his head. His hat slid around with the movement. “What do you want, anyway? Come to try and sneak on the controls again?”

Her amusement at Donald’s state quickly faded as she remembered Kairi’s words. Sora bit her lip.

“Do you know a place called Agrabah?”

“Not personally,” He replied, “Though with all the worlds out there there’s probably some place called that. Why do you ask?”

She shifted uncomfortably. If she told him that she saw Kairi again and wanted to heed her warning, he might not believe her and decide not to go. Then again, Sora wasn’t sure if she even believed herself at this point. She was following the words of a phantom.

“I just really feel like we need to go there,” Sora said. It wasn’t lying if she just didn’t tell him the whole truth, right?

Donald narrowed his eyes at her. “You just ‘feel like we need to go’?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nope.”

He kept his mild glare fixed on her for a second more before yielding. “Fine. I’ll type it in and see if any matches come up,” Donald turned to the screen and muttered, “That new gummi’s gotta be useful for something, anyways.”

A few taps on the screen later and one result popped up. Thankfully, it looked to be reasonably close by.

“Huh. I guess you were right,” Donald blinked as he selected for the autopilot to begin the course. Highwind swerved a little bit as it changed direction with a pleasant chime. “I’ll make sure the autopilot doesn’t go wonky. You might as well go back to bed for a while, projected arrival’s not ‘till morning.”

“Oh yeah?” Sora joked, “Like you?”

“I told you,” Donald pouted. It was an odd look considering his mouth was a bill. “I wasn’t sleeping.”

“Right,” Sora shuffled back towards the hallway to her room. “Good night, Donald.”

“Good night.”

When she fell asleep once again, Sora did not dream of being back on the islands. She did not dream of her mother. This time, there was only her, Riku, and Kairi. And they were falling.

This was not the same as that fateful dream where she fell through the sky and ended up on a stage of stained glass with a keyblade in her hand. Here, the keyblade was gone. And Sora and her friends plunged through a chasm where no light was to be found. She tried to reach.

It was hard to explain. Sora couldn’t see them, not with all this Darkness. But she knew they were there, and she knew they were trying to reach back. Trying to find some small sense of stability in the middle of a void.

She tried to reach towards Riku, but she got further from Kairi. She reached for Kairi but risked leaving Riku behind. But it didn’t matter.

Sora, try as she might, couldn’t reach either one before the dream ended. And so she lost them both.


 

 

R I K U

 

The dawn that day on Agrabah had been red.

An old adage from the islands came to mind immediately when he saw it as he stepped out of the Dark portal with Maleficent. ‘Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning.’ Of course, not that there were any sailors around in a place like this, where the sand stretched on beyond sight without the promise of an ocean behind it.

Riku was used to sand. He just wasn’t used to a landscape with nothing but sand, and how desolate it could feel. Not for the first time that day, Riku wondered what could have possessed this city’s founders to plop down the first few buildings in the middle of the desert.

At least the final product was admirable, in the sense that the land’s people managed to make a home out of such an uninhabitable place. Rows and rows of structures in that same sandy tone, uniform in their simple geometric construction. Between the streets stretched great canals of water from some unknown source that stretched towards the center of the city, where the palace of Agrabah stood tall.

Agrabah was a beautiful place, if desolate, he decided. Or it would be beautiful if its quietude weren’t interrupted by the screams of its people around them just outside the palace doors. Where Agrabah’s citizens had wandered in the early hours of the morning that day, preparing their wares for markets and going on errands, they now were running from heartless.

Riku gave a small cringe at the sound.

“Don’t you think this is a little much?” Riku asked. Jafar gave no indication he had heard the boy as he watched the proceedings going on in the room just beyond the archway behind them, where the stragglers of the former Sultan’s courtiers were running from the heartless, but Maleficent walked over and looked outside the windows just as Riku did. “All we need is the Heart and the princess, right?”

He saw several guards outside try to put up a fight against the Dark creatures that was quickly lost. And with a black flare that consumed their bodies, more heartless were added to the numbers that were busy terrorizing Agrabah’s people. Riku spied a young man and woman running hand in hand not far from the palace doors, the woman’s jeweled headband peeking out at intervals under her shawl in clear contrast to the man’s shabby attire. Several heartless chased after them.

“Change can often go hand in hand with hysteria, my boy,” Maleficent said, and pursed her painted lips. “Even those that beg for change the most may not always like the face it comes to them in. But you may have a point.”

At this, she turned to Jafar, who was still leering at the sight of several palace guards putting up a struggle against some particularly strong heartless. Riku watched as one guard crumpled to the floor and stared slack-jawed as his companions’ limbs turned black and gnarled, their transformations complete as their newly yellow eyes blinked open and they turned on their remaining former companion. He frowned: Maleficent had never told him the heartless could convert people into their own by force. Riku thought people could only become heartless by falling to the Darkness on their own. She probably forgot, he figured. Still, it was unnerving to see.

“Don’t get greedy, Jafar,” Maleficent reminded, “All you said you needed to dispose of were the ones who would be in our way. Wouldn’t that only include the Sultan and his most ardent supporters in court?”

Jafar finally tore his eyes away from the proceedings to fix the two of them with a sneer. “I must make them forget my days of humiliation as Royal Vizier and remind them of my newfound power as their Sultan. For a task such as this, fear is a strong scepter to rule with.”

“And a double-edged sword.” Maleficent added as her eyes flickered back to the remaining civilians in the streets. She reached into her robes to fish out a single sheet of paper and strode over to hand it to Jafar. “Don’t steep yourself in Darkness too long. The heartless consume the careless.”

He yanked the sheet out of her hands and read it quickly, with his beady black eyes quickly narrowing into a scowling grimace.

“And what, precisely, am I supposed to do with this?” Jafar demanded with the page wrinkling in his grip. Behind him, the last remaining guard was quivering in fear as he watched his own transformation into a heartless. “I’ve read this report a hundred times, you espouse its creed at me every time we see each other.”

“I think it may come in useful as a reminder.”

Her reply did nothing to satiate his question, but his angry retort was stifled at the sight of a parrot circling back through the sky towards the tower. The colorful bird alighted clumsily on Jafar’s shoulder, his claws scrambling to find purchase in the silky material of his robes.

If Diablo were here, Riku thought to himself, Maleficent and Jafar would have looked strikingly like alternate versions of each other—Jafar with his staff and the bird Iago, and Maleficent with her own staff and Diablo glaring at them all from his spot on her shoulder. But even as is they looked quite similar regardless, with their flowing robes and a Darkness so strong it came close to marking their paths.

Iago spoke, “Jafar! I’ve looked everywhere for Jasmine. She’s disappeared like magic!”

“Hm. The girl’s more trouble than she’s worth,” Jafar looked to Maleficent as he asked, “Are you sure we need her?”

“Yes, and you know quite well why we need her. You said you had things under control.”

“Oh, I certainly know why you need the princess of Heart, but I don’t know how it could benef—” His words looked to have died somewhere deep in his throat as his eyes flickered to Riku for a moment. At this, Riku glanced back and forth between Jafar and Maleficent, and saw that the latter was leveling him with a murderous look. She soon noticed Riku looking to her and smoothed her face into a carefully neutral expression.

Jafar nervously cleared his throat. “Anyway, your concern is…touching. But hardly necessary. We have the heartless on the case and even an extra set of hands with us today. I’m sure she will be found quite soon,” He finished with a gesture towards Riku, before tightening his hand on his staff enough that his knuckles went white.

“Be sure of that, or else.” Maleficent threatened, and turned to walk out into the now-nearly deserted market square and towards the thoroughfare, both Riku and Jafar wordlessly dismissed to do their tasks.

Riku looked down and gnawed at the inside of his cheek. He didn’t know how he felt about her leaving yet.

“Hey, Maleficent?” He asked after her, shuffling over quickly to make up for the lost distance before she could leave. Riku tripped over his own words when she turned back to him with a brow raised. “Are, um, are you sure you won’t be here for this one? What if something happens?”

Riku couldn’t keep out the small note of longing in his voice. And this time, he didn’t scorn himself for it. Maleficent’s expression softened.

“My dear, I’ll always be close at hand if you need me. Just because I am out of sight does not mean I am out of reach.” She replied, and he remembered the Dark portals.

“Yeah,” He nodded. And this time, a little steadier in his tone, he repeated, “Yeah, okay. See you later, Maleficent.”

She matched his wave, and replied fondly, “You too, my child. Be well.”

At this, Riku turned to leave. He could see Jafar already readying for their work, and currently busy ordering around numbers of heartless on where to begin searching for the princess. Despite himself, Riku glanced back to see Maleficent one last time. But she was already gone, nowhere to be seen in either the market square or down the street as he looked out the window.

 Jafar gave him a reproachful glance as he went towards the palace doors. “She coddles you, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

He snorted.

“I’m not going to explain the obvious to an imbecile. Now come, boy. We’ve got plenty of work to do today.”


 

 

S O R A

 

That morning, the small crew assembled at the cockpit of the gummi ship and stared at the approaching world of Agrabah.

On one end capped the curved domes of what looked like a palace, albeit one in an architecture Sora had never seen before, in a color palette of tan and gold with red bands finishing the design. The other end yawned open with the maw of a cave that was made to look quite like a jungle cat. And in between, no-man’s-land.

“That’s a lot of sand,” Sora remarked aptly. Donald scoffed at her astute observation and reached over to flick several switches, and Highwind began its descent.

“Of course there’s sand, dummy, it’s a desert.”

“So how did ya guys choose this world again?” Goofy asked.

“Ask Sora,” Donald replied, “It was her idea. Buckle in.”

They complied, and Sora used her distraction with fastening her seatbelt to delay having to give a response. She looked up to see them both looking to her for an explanation.

“What?” Sora flicked her eyes back and forth between Donald and Goofy, and said “I already told Donald last night! I just felt like we needed to be here, is that so crazy?”

“Yes.” Donald deadpanned, and she rolled her eyes.

Goofy gave a thoughtful hum. “Gawrsh, it must have something to do with the keyblade! King Mickey did tell us to stick by the key for a reason, Donald.”

“That’s true,” He conceded, and pivoted the controls to lead the gummi ship’s descent. Sora could see he was aiming to land on the outskirts of town, just out of sight from the locals but not far from civilization.

“Now that I think about it, you guys never really did say why he needed you to stick with me in the first place,” Sora wondered aloud.

Goofy shrugged. “He never gave one in particular, in his letter he only said the keyblade was the key to our survival and to stick by whoever had it,” He answered, his expression falling slightly as he saw Sora beginning to wilt at his words, and hurriedly added, “But I’m sure glad he did! Aside from the whole heartless thing and saving the worlds, you’ve turned out to be a great pal.”

Sora cracked a smile as he ruffled her hair, and said “Thanks, Goofy. I’m just thinking, it’s weird that he sent you to do all of this in the first place without giving a good reason.”

“That’s just how King Mickey is,” Donald said as he flicked several more switches, and the sky outside got lighter as they descended to the ground. “When something big’s going on he’s always the first on the case, but he can forget to explain a lot on the way since he’s so busy. But he’s always got a good reason in the end for what he does.”

Sora could feel the heat from Agrabah even through the windows and the gummi ship’s climate control system that regulated the ship’s temperature. There was a whirring noise from the fans as an icy breeze brushed along her arms.

“Hope we’re not here too long, or Jiminy’ll be having trouble later with the ship,” Donald muttered as he turned off the main engine, Highwind now stationed safely out of sight behind a sand dune not far from the city’s walls. The fans kept blowing onto the trio as they made their way to exit the ship, making for a rude awakening the moment Goofy entered the hatch as the heat from outside made its way in.

“Remember,” Donald elbowed Sora in the side, “This was your idea.”

“I’m sticking by it!” She insisted as they climbed down to the sand below, with Goofy being the last to join them with his work on closing the hatch again. He clumsily slid down the hull to join them to the noise of Donald muttering about fresh scrapes in the paint.

A few paces away from them both, Sora stared at the city walls with her keyblade flashing into existence in her hand.

Go to Agrabah, Kairi instructed. Stop Riku and Maleficent. Save Jasmine.

Sora tightened her grip on her keyblade.

“Let’s make our way to the city,” She told her friends. Sora was too engrossed in her thoughts to hear whatever response they may have had, but she could hear them shuffling along behind her on the sand as she walked quickly.

‘Save Jasmine’. Sora sighed. She had no idea where to begin. Hopefully in the city they’d come across someone who knew who she was, and where she could be. But that still left the matter of Kairi’s next words.

Stop Riku and Maleficent.

Was Riku working with her? Had he lost his mind? If Sora’s theory was right, and Maleficent really was the one orchestrating this whole mess with the heartless across the worlds, and making everything fall to the Darkness…did Riku know about it? Was he helping her?

Sora shivered at the thought of Riku surrounded by those Dark creatures with golden eyes. At the thought of him going from world to world spreading Darkness. He had seemed normal enough back in Traverse Town when she last saw him. He looked great, even, and acting like his old self again before the end of that conversation. When he’d left all of a sudden without any warning or saying goodbye. And when Riku managed to summon her keyblade to his hand.

How did he do that?

Maybe Sora could ask him when they caught up with him and figured out what was going on, she figured. That was it. Maybe this all had to be a giant mistake, or a misunderstanding, and later on they’d be able to laugh about it after they find their way home. Riku could be a bit sullen sometimes, even brusque, but he was never really a jerk and he certainly wasn’t evil. This whole thing with Maleficent was just, well, Sora wasn’t sure what it was, but she was sure it wasn’t the whole story.

“Guys?” Goofy called out from behind her. She turned around to see his leg trapped halfway in the sand. “Something’s messing with my leg.” He tried wiggling his knee for emphasis, and only succeeded in getting sucked into the ground even more.

“Quicksand!” Donald squawked, and took a halted step towards him, as if he had to remind himself not to get too close in his efforts to help. And instead, he held out a feathered hand to gesture for Goofy to stop, calling out, “Don’t move!”

And then, as if his words were a beacon, Dark flashes sprung up all around the group. Sora steeled her grip on her keyblade, and Donald’s staff began crackling at the edges. Portals formed from the Darkness, and out crawled a number of heartless.

“Oh, great,” Sora muttered. Fighting heartless above and around while trying to avoid stepping in the quicksand down below.

Gee, she thought, this’ll be fun.


 

 

R I K U

 

Not long after Maleficent left, Jafar had told him to go wander the streets to look for Jasmine himself.

And so Riku did, choosing to deftly ignore the vizier’s mutterings about how babysitting was beneath his station. At least Riku’s task would be easier than usual, he supposed optimistically, since the streets were now quite empty. No people to get in the way of finding Jasmine.

The less-than-optimistic perspective, though, was that the streets were quite empty. And therefore, no Jasmine.

He decided to just wander for a while, his gaze searching but not really searching, too distracted with thinking back on Jafar’s words from earlier.

“She coddles you, you know.”

It certainly didn’t feel as though Maleficent coddled him. Riku still had tasks to do just as Maleficent’s cohorts did. And judging by today, where Jafar’s assigned tasks were just the same as Riku’s, there didn’t look to be lighter work or anything different at all in his treatment. Only the added-in task of throwing a coup, to help Jafar take the former Sultan’s place as the ruler of Agrabah. Riku still wasn’t entirely sure of the use of that, as it was in Jafar’s terms of agreement for working with Maleficent in the first place, rather than for any good intentions, but they did it anyways. And now, he thought as he angled out of the way of some heartless running by, here he was. Stuck in a hot sandy place wandering around. Just like being back on the islands again. He sighed.

Riku couldn’t stifle the weight of guilt in his Heart as he looked around the empty streets. The abandoned market stalls of the main square, wares sitting abandoned in their baskets, food beginning to burn as it was left on the outdoor skillets with nobody to attend to it. The hiss of the wind with no familiar bustle of people to punctuate its sound. The ones that were smart had already gotten away by now, cooped up behind the closed shutters of identical sandstone buildings.

And the not so smart ones?

Well.

Riku didn’t want to think about that.

Before he could think on the matter any more, Riku could hear a distant scream from one of the many alleyways that made Agrabah a maze. Another gotten by the heartless, no doubt. He clenched his fists. Riku wasn’t supposed to interfere with the heartless’ work, Maleficent had told him so. Leave people to their Darkness, she had said. Let them find their path just as Riku did.

But this didn’t sit right with him. He paced around in small circles for a few seconds, his feet feeling as restless as his Heart. The scream had come from that direction, he thought to himself, he’d just walked there not five minutes ago. If he went now…

“Ugh,” Riku let his arms drop to his sides. “Fine. Fine!”

He ran as fast as he could through the barely familiar streets, small strings of flags strung over the roads fluttering in his wake like confetti. The sand pulled at his feet, slowing his speed, and he could feel where the hot winds pelted it into his skin, biting him and turning his flesh into a pink color. Riku dismissed Soul Eater to furiously rub at his eyes as he ran, feeling small grains crawl into the edges.

He heard another scream. Riku was getting closer judging by the sound of it.

Around the corner, turn left at the fruit stall, dodge the half-broken urns sitting out…there!

A number of heartless were gathered around at the end of the alleyway Riku had found himself in, with several more actively reaching towards something hidden from view. Or someone.

“Hey!” Riku shouted. He lost his voice a little when the heartless turned towards him, curious and hungry. Riku knew he didn’t have anything to fear from the heartless, that they recognized him as a friend. But that never stopped how much they unnerved him, and Riku got the sense that they knew. That somewhere, deep down, the heartless knew precisely how afraid he was of them. That they knew his fear, his anger, his sadness in the same way a shark could smell a single drop of blood in an ocean. And the only thing holding them back was Maleficent’s leash.

He grit his teeth. “Let them go.”

The heartless only stared at him in response, turning away from their target to size him up instead. Their eyes were as gold as the sand in the shade of the alleyway.

“I said,” Riku summoned Soul Eater back to his hand with a Dark swirl, “Let them go.”

They paused for a second more, and just as Riku thought he might have to fight, the heartless begrudgingly moved away. As they shuffled back down the alleyway and disappeared around the corner, presumably off to go search for the keyhole to Agrabah, Riku turned to see who it was they cornered.

A woman, really more of a girl, and not much older than him if he had to estimate. Riku could see where her shawl had slipped away slightly to reveal a headband adorned with a sapphire. Huddled close to her were two small children.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” She replied, her words caught slightly as she blinked away her shock at the heartless’ appearance. The children nodded hesitantly before drawing behind her more, and she looked down at them. “I saw them still stuck outside after those—those things started going after people. I couldn’t let them try and get away on their own, they wouldn’t survive.”

Riku looked to them, and then towards the entrance to the alleyway. The streets just beyond looked to be clear for now. “Where do you live?” He asked the children, “I could accompany you back.”

“N-not far from here, sir, just a couple of blocks over,” The small boy stammered, and his sister nodded hurriedly from the girl’s other side. “Just that way,” He pointed.

“Come on, then.” Riku waved for them to follow him, and they did. The coast was still clear as they exited the alleyway, and Riku could feel the bite of the sun on his shoulders as they walked down the street.

The four of them walked in silence for a little while, with the only interruption being the children giving quick instructions here and there as for where to turn. Riku could feel their eyes on him, curious.

Several minutes later the group came up on a small entryway with a bright green bolt of cloth draped over it to block out the sun, and Riku could see the door to it open up just slightly. A terrified face peered out from behind the door and turned relieved at the sight of the group. They poked a hand out to hastily beckon the children inside.

“I-it’s right here, sir,” The young girl said, and grabbed on her brother’s sleeve. Her eyes didn’t meet Riku’s for long before darting down and then back up again. “Thank you,” She said shyly.

The children kept a close grip on each other as they ran to their parents’ door, and Riku could see the face hidden behind it come into view as they gave him a thankful smile for a moment before quickly closing it again. And with that, Riku and the girl were alone on the streets. He couldn’t help but feel as if there were eyes on him. Perhaps the people in the buildings were still watching the streets and seeing him, Riku reasoned to himself.

“Thank you,” The girl spoke from behind him, and he turned to see her readjusting her shawl to cover her headband. “That was a nice thing you did, helping them. And me,” She added as an afterthought.

“It was nothing, really,” Riku brushed off, “Do you have somewhere to go? The streets aren’t exactly safe right now.”

She gave a bitter laugh. “Nowhere is exactly safe for me right now,” The girl said with a glance to the distant golden rooftops of the castle. Riku furrowed his brows.

“What do you mean?”

The girl gave a noncommittal noise. She glanced at Soul Eater. “How were you able to just call those things off? I sa—um, heard that those things tossed aside the palace guards like they were nothing earlier.”

“Oh. That.” Riku wracked his brain for any answer that could work. Obviously, the truth was out of the question. “It’s, uh, it’s just like dealing with a dog is all.”

Not too far from the truth, at least. He didn’t have any direct control over the heartless but ordering them around at times could be exactly like managing a misbehaved dog. Sometimes they listened to him, sometimes they didn’t. Things usually seemed to go over better with them back on Hollow Bastion than off-world, he noticed.

“A dog?”

“Sure. They can sense if you’re afraid, so you just have to,” Riku waved noncommittally, “Take a stand with them.”

She gave him a skeptical glance, and then laughed. “That sounds like what I have to do with Rajah sometimes. He’s always sweet to me but when it comes to anybody else, he can be so stubborn. But he always listens when I tell him to back down.”

“Sounds like he makes a good guard dog.”

“Close. More like a good guard tiger.

At this, Riku snapped up. He remembered Jafar’s words from not long after they arrived.

‘Be careful,’ He had said, ‘The princess has a despicable pet tiger that’s at her beck and call.’

Riku’s eyes widened. “So where is he? Your tiger?” He tried in the most relaxed voice he could muster.

The girl—Jasmine? — sighed. “I don’t know. He was one of the first ones those creatures got away with.”

He wasn’t sure where to navigate this conversation next. If she was Jasmine, he’d have to find a way to get her to confess her identity to know for sure. Riku couldn’t afford any mistakes with that before making any efforts to complete his assignment. That, and he didn’t want to turn the mood sour, which he suspected that any more mentions of this girl’s pet tiger would achieve. But either way, Riku had to keep her talking. Maybe he’d find out something useful.

“You mentioned that nowhere was safe for you right now,” He began, “But do you think there’s somewhere I could escort you to? Until this all, uh, blows over.”

It wasn’t going to blow over for the foreseeable future, of course, but it wasn’t like she had to know that. Yet.

“Well, I have a friend,” She hesitated, and then shook her head. “Yes, a friend, who took me to his hideout before he left when my home was overrun by those things. He’s the one who’s helped me get away plenty of times, actually. His place is just some streets over.” She finished, gesturing to one side of the intersection they had found themselves walking towards.

“Sounds good. Lead the way.” Riku nodded. “He’s helped you get away ‘plenty of times’? From what?”

“Everything,” She said as her face fell. Riku could see her entire posture droop with stress. “Life at my place can be hectic, to say the least. I have to walk a certain way, talk, dress, do everything a certain way. I’m not even allowed out of the palace, I have to sneak out. Before all this happened, I was being forced to choose from a list of suitors as to who I’d get married to! It’s ridiculous; I have to choose who to spend the rest of my life with, like I’m choosing which fruit looks the best from a market stall. Except every last fruit is rotten to the core! I can’t even get the freedom to love who I wish!” She ended her outburst with her hands in fists.

“Are you sure you haven’t tried letting people know your feelings about these things? Or maybe you have someone who could look out for you?” Riku offered. She scoffed.

“Of course I let them know. I let them know every day. I shouldn’t need anyone to look out for me, I’m the princess, for Allah’s sake!”

Well then. A princess who owned a tiger. Either Jasmine had a sister Jafar neglected to mention, or this was who he was looking for.

She went on, seemingly unaware of her gaffe. She clearly had quite a bit of pent-up frustration from this. “I guess you could say my father looks out for me. I know he loves me and only wants the best for me, but he can be just as bad as the rest! ‘Jasmine, have you chosen a suitor yet?’ ‘Jasmine, the law says you must be married to a prince by your next birthday!’ Jasmine, Jasmine, Jasmine!” Her breath came out harshly through her gritted teeth.

Yep, that confirmed it.

The silence of the city streets had become slightly awkward by this point. Riku’s thoughts whirled with what he’d learned, what he’d seen.

And how he could use this to complete his tasks.

Riku worked his jaw for a moment as he contemplated his next words carefully. He could see Jasmine’s demeanor start to sink as the anger slowly bled out.

“What if I told you there was a way to get out of it?”

“What do you mean?” Jasmine asked.

“If there was a place you could go to, to escape royal life,” She looked abashed for a moment at his words as she realized what she’d confessed in her momentary rage. “Where you didn’t have to worry about marrying anyone you didn’t have to, or walking or talking a certain way or doing anything you didn’t want to do, would you go?”

“In a heartbeat.”

He looked around again. The square was still empty, devoid of even heartless in the distance. So why did he keep feeling like someone was watching him?

“Well, there’s something you should know about me.” Riku announced, “I don’t come from Agrabah.”

He had expected shock, or surprise, anything other than amusement. But Jasmine laughed.

“Obviously,” She teased, “You don’t look anything like the people from around here, and you don’t dress like us either. Are you from one of the neighboring city-states? Another kingdom?”

“Something like that,” Riku chuckled. “I come from another world.”

“Another world?” She replied. He nodded.

“I would be happy to show you,” Riku said, “Actually, I could take you there in an instant, even.”

“In an instant?” Jasmine asked disbelievingly.

“Yep.”

She began to pace around, a cautiously excited look dawning in her face. “No courtiers to deal with, no emissaries, no politics…”

“…No having to marry anyone you didn’t want to, no more being constricted to the palace, no rules.” He finished.

“Could you show me?”

“I’d be happy to,” he said, “But you see, there’s one little catch.”


 

 

S O R A

 

 

Donald’s advice of ‘Don’t move’ was quite quickly forgotten.

As one heartless lunged Sora quickly squatted low to the ground and rolled to get out of the way, bringing her keyblade up in a sharp thrust to jab the heartless in the side as it fell over where she was. It got its blackened hand sucked into the quicksand but pulled it back easily enough before starting to try attacking Donald next.

That gave Sora an idea: The quicksand was a hazard, but maybe it could be useful.

Another grabbed onto her back and she viciously tried to shake it off, loosening it enough to where Sora could yank it away by its shoulder and heave the heartless over its fellows, over Donald’s and Goofy’s heads, and straight on its back in the middle of the quicksand. She allowed herself an impressed smile at her work as the heartless thrashed desperately against the trap, causing the creature to only be ensnared further for its efforts.

Donald, she could see, was trying to take an alternate route: He threw frost spells left and right, muttering an unintelligible string of incantations—or maybe they were curses, Sora was only able to understand him a good three-fourths of the time at this point—in his work, aiming at both the quicksand and the heartless around him. Several heartless spluttered to nothing as they were caught by the magic, quick Dark bursts giving away to glowing Hearts that glided upward and out of sight. The quicksand, as the frost spells hit parts of the patch, solidified enough that Goofy was able to awkwardly grab onto the edge of one frozen solid chunk of quicksand and pull himself out, giving thanks to Donald as he did so before quickly joining the fray.

Freezing the quicksand helped reduce the hazard as well, though Sora was careful not to risk going out too far: Trying to step more than a foot into the puddle on the ice was successful but yielded an uneasy crack. She could see the frozen surface beginning glisten in the hot late morning sun as the ice started to thaw near instantly.

Another heartless lunged, and she batted it away with a swipe of her keyblade, its path now marked by Darkness seeping out of its side. It lunged again, gaining a hold on the tip of her keyblade, and lifted off the ground as Sora desperately tried waving her weapon back and forth to force it off. When that yielded no results, and the heartless tried getting a grip on the shaft of the keyblade to try and climb towards her hand, Sora used the keyblade and the heartless attached to it as a blunt weapon as she spun around in circles with the heartless now unwittingly clobbering its fellow heartless as it was thrown about.

But finally it had taken a few too many smacks in the sides, and it dispersed with a sickly wheezing noise, Dark gusts yielding one more Heart to join the rest. She heard Goofy shout from somewhere to her side.

Sora turned to see him barely holding off one particularly large heartless with his shield. He yelled, “You guys, I think they’re callin’ in friends!”

He was right. All around the trio, Dark portals opened along the ground, with more heartless stepping out to replace their felled companions and then some. They immediately joined the fray, making the already questionable situation dire.

Sora wrenched her eyes shut as sand blew into her face from the breeze, blinding her momentarily. She staggered, holding her keyblade sideways in front of her to guard against her opponent’s reaching claws. And in turn, the heartless’ companions burst forth to rush at her from the side.

In one motion, she desperately kicked at the heartless in front of her and struck everything in an arc around her, hearing Donald give an angry quack from somewhere diagonal towards her left. “Sorry!”

“Watch it next time!” He fired back, throwing out bolt after bolt of lightning from his staff, making jagged pieces of sand-colored glass form on the ground as they struck the earth. Several heartless were disintegrated, likely they were remnants from earlier in the fight, whereas others began to seep Darkness but were otherwise still okay. Donald threw a fireball, making the battlefield blistering hot from where it was already overly warm from the Agrabah sun bearing down.

Sora frustratedly rubbed at her eyes against the sand, and only succeeded in rubbing it in even worse. She blinked past the grains to see Donald and Goofy were struggling with the reinforcements. Donald was knee-deep in the now-melted quicksand, she saw, and struggling to get out. He fell forward and gave a panicked cry as he realized his arms were stuck now, too. Donald uselessly tried pumping his legs in attempt to swim.

Goofy and Sora both reached for him. And at the last second before Goofy could reach Donald, a heartless clamored against his shield, knocking him off-balance and sending him into the quicksand. He tried to keep his shield arm above the puddle to keep it from getting sucked in. More heartless tried to jump into the quicksand, either mindlessly trying to keep attacking or to ensnare them even more at the cost of their own lives, the rippling of the surface of the quicksand sucking in her friends just that much more.

Sora realized she was alone against the heartless. She fired off spells left and right, frost and fire and lightning spiraling across the dunes, Hearts freed from their Dark prisons and gliding far from the fight with every heartless defeated. But it wasn’t enough. More came to join the fray, Dark portals opening all around them to pour forth more heartless. She lifted her leg to turn towards another heartless.

And quickly realized she couldn’t. Sora tried again, uselessly, her shoe nearly getting sucked off her foot as she did so. Sora could see the Fairy Godmother’s enchantment at work, banishing large patches of the quicksand from her sock and shoe, but it wasn’t enough. Where the quicksand vanished, more took its place. And there was who knows how much larger of a lake of it to suck her in.

Two heartless came at her from either side. She brought up her keyblade to block, and still felt the shock from their strikes even if they didn’t land directly on her. Sora wobbled on her feet from the blow for one terrifying second, as she suddenly focused on the sight of the quicksand puddle and her friends trapped in it, before realizing the quicksand was getting closer. And then, she fell right into it.

Her head was above the puddle, so she wasn’t suffocating yet, but she saw Donald behind her desperately trying to keep his bill above the quicksand. Goofy was thrashing against it, still trying to keep his shield hand above himself, but every time he thrashed he only got sucked in more.

This was it, Sora realized. They were going to suffocate in quicksand on a foreign world, who knows how many miles from home. With Sora never having found Kairi, or her mother. Everyone in Traverse Town would still think she’s going among the stars trying to save everything, not knowing the truth…

A distant shout from beyond the dunes prompted Sora to quickly look around. And from behind them, she could see a silhouette fly out from behind a dune that was nearly impossible to see around the sun’s rays.

They flew a wide circle around the trio and the gathered heartless, and Sora could see it was a boy, almost old enough to be considered a man. With a vest and patched billowing pants, and a small monkey tightly gripping onto his knee. He was holding onto the edge of a highly animated rug that looked to be how he was able to fly, darting through the air.

“Hey!” He yelled down at them, “Need some help?”

“Gawrsh, yes!” Goofy shouted desperately, “Yes please!”

The boy darted in and out on his rug, as if he were trying to find an opening. But the heartless were still too numerous, and they flicked their antennae at him menacingly every time he came close. The boy screwed his face in thought before finally shaking his head and reaching into his pocket as he landed.

Sora couldn’t see the object he was holding from her spot in the quicksand, but it was shiny enough to reflect the sun and make her squint. The boy held it aloft before wiping his palm on the surface of it. It began to rattle in his hand.

“Come on out, Genie!” He yelled. A bright blue cloud burst out from it, distracting the heartless as it grew large enough to block out the sun. Sora could see bright sparkles of magic within the cloud.

And then it took shape. A stylized humanoid silhouette was the result, larger than life and bursting with energy. Sora saw that it was a cartoonish looking man with skin as blue as the cloud was, with a grin that nearly split his face with excitement. He had no legs, with his torso instead ending in a tail that tapered towards the lamp.

“Hey, hey, hey!” The Genie called out as he did a lap around the quicksand puddle, shimmying around the heartless before picking one up and doing a quick tango with it and sliding it into a dip. The Genie straightened up to reveal a red rose clutched in his teeth as he twirled the heartless towards its confused companions with one hand, and plucking the rose out of his mouth to present it to Aladdin with the other. “The one, the only, the Genie of the lamp at your service!”

He threw out confetti as he widely opened his arms, and Sora saw gleaming gold cuffs bound on his wrists catch the light. The confetti floated gently to the surface of the quicksand.

“I tell ya, ten thousand years caged up will give you such a crick in the neck!” He said as his grin turned slightly pained and pulled his head off his shoulders with a pop! He rotated it several times before plopping it back down on his shoulders again. “I am so glad to be outta there, nice to be back ladies and gents, lovely to see you, how are you,” The Genie said jovially as he raised his cupped hand in a wave not unlike a princess as small flares of light came forth around him to mimic paparazzi camera flashes. “If you were my one-millionth customer I’d offer you a free toaster, but alas, you’re my nine-hundred-and-ninety-ninth thousand, nine-hundred-and-ninety-eighth instead! Early bird here does not get the worm—or, uh, toaster, heh! —but I’ll offer you a dee-e-e-lightful consolation prize instead…three wishes! What’ll it be, sir?”

“Help us!” Donald squawked angrily past his mouth full of quicksand. Aladdin tore his eyes away from the Genie to remember their plight.

“Right, hey Genie! Save them from the heartless and quicksand!”

“Ooh, was that one wish or two?” The Genie wondered aloud, doing quick math on his fingers that multiplied far beyond his original five. “Worded as one, but if I have to save them from two things then…Ah, I’ll be generous. Here you go, wish number one coming right up!”

With a snap of the Genie’s fingers, the trio were lifted out of the quicksand, and Sora saw the last dregs of it disappear from her clothes. The heartless were vanished away in an instant in a spectrum of colorful clouds, revealing an empty sand dune. The quicksand puddle was gone.

The three were gently lowered to their feet, and Donald gave a relieved sigh. He waved his staff and all traces of the quicksand were cleaned from clothes.

“Thanks, you were a lifesaver,” Sora said to Aladdin.

“Good thing I happened to pass by, caravans hardly ever pass through this side of the city walls.” He replied as the rug lowered him close enough to the ground that he could step off. It started gliding in small circles over the sand around them, bobbing up and down with the small monkey having stayed on it. The Genie conjured what looked like a small rollercoaster track for the rug to follow, and it dipped into a corkscrew twirl with the monkey holding on for dear life. “What’re you guys doing out here, anyway?”

“Well, we got off our ship and got caught up in the heart—Mmph!” Goofy’s voice was muffled as Donald quickly raised a hand to clamp his jaw shut.

Sora laughed nervously, “Gee, Aladdin, what’re you doing out here?!”

“Me?” Aladdin glanced back towards the city walls. “Hunting legendary treasure. I paid a visit to the Cave of Wonders to try finding something useful. That’s where I found this lamp!”

At this, Genie ducked in. “And I’m here to grant my master any three wishes! Except for wishing for more wishes, wishing for someone to die or come back to life or fall in love with you. Ya know, the not so easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy stuff.” He said, conjuring up a hand-held juicer and squeezing some lemons into a small glass of lemonade that looked enticing in the desert heat. It quickly vanished, much to the trio’s disappointment.

“I wonder if he can find the king,” Goofy muttered to Donald, who glowered at him.

“We are not interfering with the world order.”

“So, master,” The Genie batted his eyes at Aladdin, “What’ll it be for wish number two?”

“Well,” Aladdin looked down at the lamp, absentmindedly turning it around in his hands. “I’d love to wish to be a wealthy prince so I could propose to Jasmine…”

“Jasmine!” Sora exclaimed with a start. She immediately remembered their purpose for coming here in the first place, forgotten in the fight.

“Ooh!” The Genie readied his pointer finger as the tip of it crackled with magic, “Money, royalty, fame! Why didn’t I think of that?”

“…But I think I’ll put that on hold until we get back to Agrabah,” Aladdin said as the Genie sagged with a sound quite like the squeal of a deflating balloon, the magic sputtering uselessly towards the ground as his finger drooped. “There’s something going on in the city and I wanted to see if you could help set things right.”

Go to Agrabah. Stop Riku and Maleficent. Save Jasmine.

“No problemo,” The Genie said as he returned to normal form and reclined in midair. “Gives me more time to enjoy the fresh air!”

“What’s going on in the city?” Goofy asked. Aladdin looked towards the city walls with a concerned crease of his forehead.

“I’m not sure,” He replied, “When I woke up I made my way to the market place as usual to meet up with Jasmine, but not long after I got there these black creatures with glowing yellow eyes showed up and started going after people. It took me a long time to find Jasmine, I thought something terrible had happened.”

“Those creatures were heartless!” Sora blurted out, and she shooed away Donald’s annoyed look. “Come off it, Donald, he’s already encountered them twice now.”

“You know what those things are?” Aladdin asked, and at their nod he said, “Hey, maybe you guys can help! Do you mind coming back to Agrabah with me? The magic carpet can get us there quicker than on foot.”

“So long as we don’t have to encounter quicksand again,” Donald replied.

“Sounds good to me,” Sora said as the magic carpet sailed through the air back around towards them, the little roller coaster track the Genie had conjured for it dispersing into colorful smoke. They all shuffled on, with Genie choosing to sail through the air beside them instead.

After the third, or fourth, barrel roll the Genie did in the magic carpet’s wake Goofy asked him, “Guess you don’t get out much, huh?”

The Genie shrugged. “Comes with the job. Phenomenal cosmic powers,” He began as he spun around miniature planets in his opened hand, “Itty bitty living space.” He finished sadly, closing his hand around the planets and opening it again to reveal nothing. “It’s always three wishes, and then back to my portable prison! I’m lucky to see the light of day every century or two.”

“I’d probably go crazy if I had to live like that,” Sora remarked. Donald nodded.

Aladdin looked to the horizon at this, and then down at the lamp still clutched in his hand. His expression shifted to something contemplative.

“Hey, Genie, what if I used my last wish to free you from the lamp?” He suggested.

The Genie stopped in the middle of his corkscrew turn. He stared at Aladdin with wide eyes.

“You’d do that?” He gasped. Aladdin nodded. “That’s so kind of you. Even if you probably don’t mean it,” He added in a much quieter tone.

“It’s a promise, Genie. After we get back and see how to fix whatever’s going on in Agrabah.” Aladdin replied.

He seemed remarkably laid-back for a potentially tumultuous situation going on in his city, Sora thought to herself. Perhaps things weren’t really so bad after all?

“So, um, Aladdin? Do you know where Jasmine is?” Sora asked, “And how were the people in the city when you left?”

“She should be back at my hideout now. I told her it’d be safest there until I came back from the Cave of Wonders with something that could solve the heartless problem. By the time I got out the last of the people on the streets went into hiding, from what I saw.”

Sora gave a long exhale at this. At least the ‘Save Jasmine’ part of what she had to do could be safely checked off.

But that still left stopping Riku and Maleficent.


 

 

R I K U

 

 

“Wait, so I have to go with him? With Jafar?” She asked incredulously.

“Only for a little while,” Riku amended, “You’ll really be going with me and Maleficent, Jafar’s going to be staying here.”

Jasmine angled her head at him. “Wouldn’t that just condemn everyone in Agrabah since he’s the sultan now? What about my father? Or Aladdin, or everyone?”

He remembered Maleficent’s words from yesterday.

“He may have cleverness in spades, but he’s sorely lacking in sense,” She said. “No one like that ever keeps a crown for long. I already have replacements amongst the worlds if he steps out of line.”

“Maleficent said he wouldn’t stay on the throne for long. I’m sure she’ll be willing to help recover your father from exile and get his title back.”

At this, she narrowed her eyes. “But if this Maleficent’s working with Jafar, and you are too, wouldn’t that mean the both of you were in on his coup earlier today?”

The question caught him off guard. Riku wasn’t sure how to answer in such a way that would still keep her wanting to go along.

“Well,” He tried, opening and closing his mouth in attempt to call forth some kind of answer. Riku tasted sand.

A thought occurred to him: What if Riku just tried telling the truth?

“Our goal, mine and Maleficent’s…is to do the right thing.”

“How is overthrowing my father and unleashing those creatures on the streets the right thing?”

“It’s not,” He agreed. “That was Jafar. I’ll agree, he’s not one of the good guys. But sometimes you have to work with the wrong people to do what’s right. He agreed to help us achieve balance between Light and Darkness among the worlds and that’s why we’re working with him now. We’ll be more than happy to work with your father instead, if he’s willing to help us. Which from what you’ve told me of him I’m sure he will. He’s got a good Heart.”

“Balance, yes,” Jasmine nodded and put a hand to her chin. “I’m still not sure I understand everything you’ve told me, but I can agree on balance between the two being important.” She started pacing again. “A number of the guards around here aren’t the best people either, but that didn’t stop my father from employing them. Like Captain Razoul. I can see what you’re saying.”

“So, what do you think?” Riku asked

Jasmine walked in a circle around the square. “If I go with you, will my father be able to come back? The people will be safe?”

“Yes.”

“And Jafar will be gone?”

“Soon enough, yes.”

She continued walking, but slower this time. Riku thought of what drove him on this whole journey: The need for freedom. Jasmine wasn’t so different in that regard.

“You’ll be free from being a princess.” He tried, “No need to marry anyone you don’t love, or do anything you don’t want to. You’d be safe to make your own choices now.”

No borders around, below, or above.

Her steps slowed.

“Alright. I’ll do it,” Jasmine said, “I’ll go with you.”

“Great. Jafar should be somewhere around the castle gates, let’s go,” He gestured for her to follow, and she did. He continued, “I’ll leave you with him for a bit. There’s something else I gotta do first before we leave.”

“Oh?” Jasmine asked, “What’s that?”

“I need to find the keyhole to Agrabah.”


 

 

S O R A

 

“I—What—Where did she go?!” Aladdin cried out as they landed in the empty room in Agrabah that he called home. “Where is she?”

Jasmine was gone. The half-torn curtain that was hung partway over the giant hole in one wall floated on the breeze, revealing flashing glimpses of the sprawling streets of the city. Sora stepped off of the magic carpet, and once no riders were left on it the carpet slunk down to the ground forlornly and held one tassel to Aladdin’s leg much like a consoling hand.

Stop Riku and Maleficent. Save Jasmine. So, this might have been what she meant.

Sora thought to the heartless, how Aladdin mentioned they had appeared in the city as well.

“Aladdin,” She asked him, “Can you tell us exactly what happened with the heartless in the city earlier? Leading up to when Jasmine came here?”

“It started off like any other day,” He shrugged. “Me and Jasmine like to meet up at the marketplace on the days it’s open to forget life for a little while and just have some fun being normal people. Because she’s, well…I can trust you guys not to say anything, right?” Aladdin looked between each of them earnestly. They nodded.

He paused. “The other day, to help me get out of a tight spot with some guards, she revealed herself as the Princess of Agrabah. I’m not gonna bog you down with the details, but today I arrived at the marketplace just as it was opening, the one right in front of the palace. She’s never late, sometimes she’s even there before I am, already in disguise. But today she hadn’t arrived even when the sun was already risen. I was wondering if something came up, but before I could go look for her, the palace doors opened. And everyone started running and screaming.”

“The heartless,” Donald said. Aladdin gave a nod.

“They burst out of the doors and started going after everybody. I had to keep dodging them and run past them into the palace to find her. Jasmine had hidden in one of the servant’s closets, and I got her back to my place here. She’d told me that the Vizier, some awful guy named Jafar, had thrown a coup and exiled her father, the Sultan, using the heartless. They swept aside the palace guards like they were nothing.”

“This Jafar guy might be working with Maleficent,” Sora said to Donald and Goofy. They agreed.

“Who?” Aladdin asked.

“She’s had a hand in the heartless going everywhere we’ve seen so far!” Goofy answered.

“Maleficent’s a powerful sorceress,” Donald supplied, “She’s bad news.”

“Her and people working with her have been using the heartless to do terrible things,” Sora said, “They’ve been kidnapping certain people too.”

Aladdin’s eyes widened at this. “You don’t think they may have kidnapped Jasmine, do you? Jafar and Maleficent?”

“She might have,” Donald replied.

“Then let’s go! Come on,” Aladdin cried, gesturing for everyone to get back on the magic carpet again before jumping on it himself. “We’ve gotta go find her!”

They flew out the window and alighted on an upswell of wind, and before they knew it the group was flying far above the ground. Below them spiraled the countless neighborhoods and alleyways of Agrabah. Behind them, the Genie stayed close by, his formerly amicable demeanor now turned a little more serious.

The streets were entirely devoid of people. Hopefully, Sora thought, that meant everyone had managed to get indoors before the heartless could get them. She didn’t want to think about how many might not have made it in time.

Speaking of the heartless, the creatures were moving in small clusters, roving about through the districts with purpose. Some more minutes of flying later, and she noticed they were following in the same direction.

“You guys,” She shouted above the wind, “I think they’re going somewhere.”

“The castle!” Donald said. “Follow them!”

The magic carpet gave a dizzying swerve to catch up with the closest herd of heartless. Sora could see the formerly distant structure of the castle now getting closer.

“I think I see them,” Goofy announced, “There’s a couple of people right in front of the doors.”

“That’s gotta be them!” Aladdin exclaimed.

The magic carpet gave another sickening dive, and a burst in speed. Sora tightly pulled in her arms and legs to avoid hitting a stray limb on any edges of buildings as they passed. Goofy swallowed heavily and closed his eyes, and she could see his muzzle starting to tinge green.

Finally, they came to a stop. Aladdin had already jumped off before the magic carpet had come close enough to the ground for them to step off easily, with Sora and Donald close behind. The monkey that had accompanied Aladdin scampered to the canopies of the abandoned market stalls, creeping closer to Jafar. The Genie gently floated down with an expression of curiosity as he looked around, with Goofy being the last to hobble off the rug.

A girl that looked to be only some years older than Sora stood in front of the castle doors, accompanied by an older man whose form was enrobed in black and scarlet. He carried a staff topped with a carving of a cobra.

“Ah,” He sneered, “The street rat is back.”

“Jafar,” Aladdin grinded his jaw, “Let Jasmine go.”

“I wonder, are you here to steal some more bread today?” Jafar asked nonchalantly. “Or perhaps you’re looking to set your sights a little higher?” His sneer curled upward at the corner as he waved an arm towards the girl, who looked guilty. Sora could see she wore a jeweled headband that was the same teal color as her outfit. “Though I must say, your sights are set a bit too high. Rats should go crawling back to their holes when the cats are out to play.”

“Aladdin, I—” Jasmine took a halted step forward with her arm halfway raised, before slowly lowering it. “I’m so sorry.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for, none of this is your fault,” Aladdin said, before turning to the Genie with the lamp still gripped in his hand. Sora saw that his words did nothing to ease the look on her face. “Genie, help Jasmine!”

“One wish left,” The Genie emphasized as he disappeared with the swirl of a sparkling bright blue cloud. Upon reappearing behind Jasmine, and quickly scooping her up and holding her aloft in the air as she looked oddly less than pleased at this development, he said “You’re making this really easy, you know!”

Jafar, meanwhile, didn’t look surprised in the least bit at this. His smile opened into a grin. “So sorry, boy,” He began as a dark shape dived down from the rooftops, and Sora could see a mass of red and blue feathers blur around Aladdin, who gave a noise of surprise as he brought up his arms to protect his face from the parrot’s talons. Sora could hear a metallic tinkling noise as the bird pulled away, revealing it to now be carrying the lamp the Genie was bound to. “But I’m afraid your second wish has been denied!”

The bird flew over to Jafar, who awaited it with an outstretched hand. The lamp fell neatly within his palm as the parrot settled onto his shoulder. The Genie sank in palpable disappointment.

“I’m sorry, Al,” The Genie said, before reluctantly lowering his arms and letting Jasmine slide out of them towards the ground. And at once, every urn around the market square came to life.

The closest one, a large red urn beside the palace doors, began to shake as four spidery legs burst out of the bottom. It darted forth to catch Jasmine before she could touch the ground, and Jafar quickly waved his staff to levitate the lid on top to seal her inside. They could hear her pounding her fists against the urn from within.

Before the group could burst forth to try and stop it, urns all over the square started making crunching noises as spider legs grew out of the bottoms and upended the urns’ contents onto the ground for more speed. Pots of all shapes and sizes started to stampede around the group with a variety of legs shapes—One small sand-toned urn near Sora’s foot had what looked like tarantula legs, whereas a tall yellow one that shoved Aladdin aside ran shakily on the legs of a black widow. Red urns identical to the one that imprisoned Jasmine were the most common, and moved as a group, helping confuse the trio and Aladdin as to which one could be holding her captive. And in the middle of it all, Jafar cackled uproariously.

“Finally, I am the master of the lamp!” He crowed, “And I have you to thank, my boy, for doing the grunt work of retrieving it from the cave.”

Aladdin went rigid for a split-second with surprise. “That was you? You were the one that told me about the cave of wonders and the Genie’s lamp?”

“Of course,” Jafar’s face shifted into that of a middle-aged man with shadowy eyes before shifting back. He looked pleased at Aladdin’s reaction to this. “I was worried that you’d decided to forget about it when you didn’t immediately go looking for it like I’d planned you would. So I decided to give you a little push is all.”

“Push?” Aladdin questioned. The urns continued to mill about, faster now.

“Did you really think it was a coincidence that I also overthrew the Sultan today? That I sided with Maleficent to gain control over the heartless that terrorized the citizens of Agrabah? Come now, street rat, don’t tell me your wits only extend to stealing bread.”

“So you are working with Maleficent!” Donald shouted. Jafar finally seemed to notice the rest of the group assembled in the market square at his cry.

“’Was’. I was working with Maleficent,” He answered, “But no longer have I need of that hag’s resources. Why should I, when I have all the power I’ll ever need or want right in my hand?”

“You exiled Jasmine’s father, you hurt all those people…just for that lamp?” Aladdin bit out.

“It’s for far more than just a lamp, boy,” Jafar spoke. “It’s for power. Not that you’ll know anything about that.”

At this, Jafar began to stroll down the main thoroughfare of the market square, surrounded by those living urns. The group made to pursue but were quickly cut off by a slew of heartless that had been waiting in the alleyways. The group readied their weapons—Sora with her keyblade, Goofy with his shield, Donald with his staff, and Aladdin with a scimitar he’d picked up off a nearby market stall—But it wasn’t enough. Sora could see a large blue silhouette morosely stalking off with Jafar out of the corner of her eye.

They were getting away.


 

 

R I K U

 

Thirty minutes into searching and he still wasn’t even sure where to begin.

Where could the keyhole possibly be? Riku considered the castle, but after further inspection ruled it out. The heartless didn’t seem to have any interest in remaining there after the coup went successfully and the remaining servants and guards were chased away. The only ones left behind in that area were the ones Jafar had commanded to stay close to him, from what Riku remembered.

So that only left the remaining entirety of the sprawling chaotic labyrinth that formed the city of Agrabah. He sighed. Riku could feel his mild sunburn bypass into a sun-stained flush and he fished an elixir out of his pocket. Upon drinking it he watched his skin return to its former pallor, but Riku could still feel the echoes of the burn in the way his skin continued to prickle.

“A place that is significant to a person or the world’s people,” He murmured to himself. Was it in a temple, perhaps? Or some other sort of ceremonial area? But before Riku could think on the matter further, he heard a chittering noise coming up from behind him.

It was Jafar. And with him, a herd of pottery running on spider legs that looked to be the source of the noise, and a giant cartoonish looking man whose skin was a surprising blue color.

Jafar threw Riku a scowl. “You’ve been dawdling for quite long enough. Come, boy.”

Riku matched his glower, but ultimately complied. “I’ve been trying to look for the keyhole,” He defended. He glanced around. “Where’s Jasmine?”

“Then you haven’t been trying particularly hard, have you?” Jafar said over his shoulder. A glimmer of light caught Riku’s eye and he looked down to see Jafar tightly clutched at some metal object he couldn’t readily identify. “Don’t worry about her now, focus on the keyhole, boy. The heartless have been attracted to the Cave of Wonders. It must be in there somewhere.”

“Cave of Wonders?”

This time, it was the blue man who answered. “A legendary cave full of treasure, riches beyond your wildest dreams, yadda yadda yadda,” He sighed forlornly. “And the former holding place for my portable prison.”

“Who are you?”

At this, he tried to straighten up somewhat, like he was attempting to feign excitement but failing miserably. “The Genie!” He waved his hands to make a small rainbow between them, but it sagged and went off-toned. The Genie gave up and smacked his hands together to get rid of it, and the rainbow made a sound like wrinkling paper as he did so. “Can grant any three wishes, but no wishing for more wishes, or wishing for someone to die or come back to life, or fall in love with you.”

“No wishing for someone to die? What a pity,” Jafar spoke as he looked over his shoulder, past Iago who was still sitting upon his sloped epaulet. “They won’t be distracted for long. We’ll have to hurry.”

“Oh, that’d be just awful, wouldn’t it master?” The Genie grumbled, and then he got a look of inspiration. His hands were hidden behind the sudden appearance of a sparkling bright blue cloud, and it was revealed he had conjured a megaphone. It was strikingly modern against the backdrop of primitive-looking sandstone buildings. The Genie raised the megaphone to his mouth and flicked it on with an electric whine from the speaker. “That’d be pretty dang awful if Aladdin and his pals pursued us to the CAVE OF WONDERS!” He finished with a shout.

The sound carried widely throughout the city, and Riku could hear the phrase reflected back from a hundred different directions. It appeared the city of Agrabah had remarkable acoustics.

Jafar gritted his teeth so hard Riku could see a vein begin to pulse in his temple. His eyes darted from the direction of the market square to the rest of the way they had yet to traverse before leaving city limits, and he seemed to come to a conclusion.

He waved his staff, the edges of it gliding along the surface of a large Dark Portal. He beckoned forth from it a large heartless that looked quite like a tiger, who immediately kneeled down onto the sand as it saw him.

Jafar climbed on and motioned for Riku to do the same. As Riku awkwardly grabbed onto the heartless’ fur for leverage to climb, he saw one of the pots with spider’s legs hike up onto the heartless tiger’s back as well. The rest of the pots that had accompanied him when he’d found Riku dispersed amongst the streets.

“Perhaps that’ll distract them for a while,” He said, before waving his staff at the heartless tiger. And with this, they traveled fast to the Cave of Wonders with the Genie reluctantly close behind.

Upon their arrival at the mouth of the cave—a literal mouth, Riku discovered, for the entrance to the cave itself was shaped exactly like a jungle cat’s head poised mid-roar—the heartless tiger deposited them in the sand and bounded away at Jafar’s dismissal.

Quickly the group their way into the entrance hall. It was scarcely lit, with the only light coming from flaming torches around some parts of the chamber, leaving swathes of the room in darkness. Riku could hear rumbling reverberate through the walls and he felt the ground beneath his feet tremble slightly. And then, from somewhere in front of them, gushing water.

“More confounded setbacks,” Jafar murmured to himself. As he spoke, Riku jumped at a thunderous noise from very close by, and they saw a giant boulder run down a stone ramp and continue its trek down into the black chasm that yawned open at one side of the room.

Jafar waved his staff again, this time muttering an incantation, and the boulder paused in place. The waterfall ceased to crash against the stony floor. The rumbling stopped. The entire chamber had gone silent, and Riku could almost hear his heartbeat in his ears.

“Keep up, boy,” Jafar commanded as he strode through the walkway casually. The urn crept close behind on its legs, moving animatedly, with the only sound it gave off being a hushed clanging sound as its lid shifted with the movement. The Genie floated behind at a slight distance. “You don’t want to see how you’ll do when those traps come back to life.”

Riku inwardly agreed, though he didn’t want to give the man the satisfaction of voicing it aloud. He stalked behind with soft footsteps, unwilling to disturb the quiet.

Hall after hall they moved, in an endless part of muttered incantations and quietude that paradoxically left Riku’s ears nearly ringing at times. None of them spoke as they moved.

And finally, they came up on a room that was far more brightly lit than the rest. Blazing torches put off light from every corner of the room, with their flickering gleaming cast back in countless reflections from the piles of treasure stacked high to the ceiling. Everywhere he looked, Riku could see his own face stare back in crooked echoes across the polished surfaces of coins, cups, and treasure of all shapes. It was harder to be quiet here as the baubles were spread across the floor, making their footsteps tinkle.

Up ahead Riku could see a long, dark hallway stretch out at the very end of the room.

As the group got closer, his footsteps slowed until he was at the very back of the group. And as they made their way through the hallway he slowed even more, with nobody even noticing his lagging behind. Riku could see a light at the end of the tunnel, and a figure by the far wall. He stopped.

It was Maleficent.

The others walked on into the room, oblivious. Riku thought he could see Jafar’s sloping epaulets shift slightly as his shoulders went perfectly straight. His hand clutching the lamp grew tighter as his shoulders relaxed again. Iago, however, was visibly trembling. The Genie looked just as downcast as he did when Riku first met him, entirely unchanged.

The others continued walking into the room, not noticing Riku’s absence. He sidled up to the wall, trying to remain nonvisible, as he had noticed by now Maleficent had an odd look on her face. Or more accurately, no look at all. Her expression was perfectly blank.

The pinprick feeling returned to his skin, and Riku could see goosebumps begin to surface on his arms. His pulse raced as his breathing went shallow, and the part of his mind that ran on pure instinct forbade him from going into that room. But then again, Riku’s curiosity was never easily managed.

Riku slid down the wall until he got into a squatting position as he tried to take up as little space as possible. He assessed the room. A circular chamber comprised of little else other than unhewn rock. At the far end he could see a platform constructed of stone bricks, just like the ones that constructed the buildings back in Agrabah. Around the edges of the ceiling wrapped a wide stone ring that was capped at several points with giant monkey statues that clutched large glowing jewels in their hands. Maybe Riku could hide behind one of those.

It was a reckless idea, he knew, but his curiosity was mounting. Riku closed his eyes and concentrated on summoning the smallest Dark portal he could, but still just big enough for him to slide through. He saw the other end of the portal open up just behind one monkey statue whose gem glowed green. Nobody gave any indication that they had noticed it form. With that thought in mind, Riku inched the edge of his shoe through the portal, and slowly crawled through.

It worked. Riku squinted to see past the green light of the gem as he huddled closer to it and tightly curled in on himself. He prayed nobody looked up.

But, thankfully, it seemed everyone’s attention was reserved solely for Maleficent, whose eyes bored right into Jafar.

“I suppose I should thank you,” Jafar said airily. He held up the lamp clutched tightly in his hand. “Master of the lamp and master of Agrabah. I couldn’t have done it without your help.”

“And in return, what was it you called me?” Maleficent replied in a conversational tone, “Ah. Yes. ‘That hag’. An interesting choice of words.”

Riku couldn’t see Jafar’s face very well, but he saw his skin blanch to the point of even his neck going a sallow tone.

“I’m not going to apologize to the likes of you,” He spat. “I’m through with being your underling.”

“What a pity. And just as we were getting so close to our reward, too.”

“What, you mean those plans of yours for the Heart beyond the Door?” Jafar chuckled as he strode towards the urn with spider legs. “Please. You wouldn’t know what to do with it when you get there. If you get there. You can’t even corral that boy of yours to do his job right. Do you see him anywhere? Obviously not. He didn’t even bother to show his face here.”

“He’s smarter than you realize. You do not know the value of an intelligent set of hands.”

Jafar scoffed. “He’s a liability. Especially with how you’re willing to play along with his delusions of—what was it? Balance between Light and Dark?” He barked out a laugh. “How childish. What need would anyone have for Light when Dark can do so much more? Here’s a much better plan: Why don’t you put that supposed intelligence of his to work and actually explain the situation to that boy? Stop coddling him with delusions of ‘balance’, tell him of your plans with the princesses. Doing so may actually prove useful to your objective.”

“Patience is a virtue, Jafar,” Maleficent chided, “And so is caution.”

“Virtues? Hah! The professed ‘Mistress of All Evil’ speaks to me of virtue. Now I’ve seen everything. I wonder if the fires of Jahannam have gone cold.”

He continued, shaking his head, “’Patience’. ‘Caution’. Be honest with yourself and say it’s cowardice that stays your hand. And it’s cowardice that’ll be your undoing.” Jafar held up the lamp. “But it’s nothing to me now. You and your league of dunces were never much of a match for me anyway. I’ll have to gather the princesses and unlock the door myself—starting with Jasmine!”

Jafar waved his staff, and the urn that crawled on spider legs was quickly reduced to dust. The cloud settled after a moment to reveal Jasmine sprawled out on the floor, passed out.

When he left her with Jafar earlier that day, Riku didn’t think it would result in this. His Heart lurched with guilt at the sight.

Maleficent looked on at her. At first, she looked disinterested, but then a small sly smile crossed her face.

“And what of the keyholes?” She asked.

“Such is the power of the lamp,” Jafar answered as he turned to the Genie, who had been looking on at this turn of events with growing unease. “Genie! For my first wish, reveal the keyhole to Agrabah!”

The Genie raised his arm haltingly, as if he were actively trying to restrain himself to no avail. His hand clawed fearfully after he snapped his fingers with a wince.

The effect was immediate. A deep rumbling noise resounded throughout the cavern, perhaps even the entire cave, strong enough to nearly throw Riku off-balance and risk revealing his hiding place. He gripped the arm of the monkey statue beside him to hold on as the rumbling continued, the source of which was revealed to be a thick stone veneer crumbling away from the brick platform at the end of the room. As the noise stopped and the dust settled, Riku could see Jafar had turned to Maleficent with a crocodilian grin. And, bewilderingly, he saw that that small smile had remained on her face. If anything, it had widened.

He heard distant footsteps coming from the hallway.

“And for my second wish,” Jafar continued, “Make me the ultimate sorcerer, so that I may fell this demon at last.”


 

 

S O R A

 

Nobody spoke this time as the group made their way to the Cave of Wonders. Even Abu’s constant chirrups and trailing clangors had gone quiet as his eyes darted to Aladdin.

The fight against the spider-pots, as Sora had dubbed them, was short and promptly abandoned. There was no point in getting bogged down with fending them off, especially when the market square’s ground was now slippery with spilled food from the urns upending themselves. The more they waited, the farther Jafar—and Jasmine—got away.

Sora moved to help Donald shake off a dallah with the legs of a black widow that had crawled onto his back, but before she could reach him the spider-pot was knocked off by several pomegranates that were hurled from above. They looked up to see Abu had made his way onto the magic carpet with more edible ammo at the ready.

“Thanks, Abu,” Donald said, and the monkey gave a warbling babble in response. “Aladdin, we can’t stay here. We have to go after them.”

“You’re right.” He said, and looked to the sky towards where Abu was now pelting some of the urns with apples. “Hey, carpet! We have to get out of here!”

The magic carpet waved one of its tassels in a gesture mimicking a salute and bucked off the rest of the fruit Abu had gathered on it, before making its way down to the group. They got on quickly, holding on tightly as the magic carpet careened towards the sky in pursuit.

“Gawrsh, do ya know where they might be going?”

At this, everyone in the group angled their heads sharply as they heard Genie’s voice boom across the rooftops, preceded by a faint electric whine.

“That’d be pretty dang awful if Aladdin and his pals pursued us to the CAVE OF WONDERS!”

The phrase was repeated to them from seemingly all corners of the city. The magic carpet complied without needing a command, veering from one side of the city to making a beeline for the city gates up north.

“Sure was nice of the Genie to do that,” Goofy remarked as he turned faintly green again.

Aladdin cracked a smile. “I think he likes Jafar about as much as we do.”

Sora glanced down to the city streets, seeing more of those spider-pots milling about. One plain red one caught her eye.

She pointed excitedly at it, nearly falling off the magic carpet as she did so. “You guys! That one looks just like the urn Jasmine was thrown into. Do you think she’s in that one?”

Aladdin looked over quickly. “It does look exactly the same.”

“No way. It can’t be,” Donald said, “There was about a dozen other urns that looked identical to hers in the market place, he’d want to keep hers close for sure. No doubt Jafar dispersed the rest to try and trick us.”

And so they decided to stay the course.

After sliding off of the magic carpet, Sora looked up at the mouth of the cave. The feline shape of it, mouth open wide as if it were ready to devour anyone who tried to enter, took her off guard slightly.

“Why is it shaped like that?” Donald asked.

“The name Cave of Wonders is sort of a misnomer,” Aladdin said as he quickly made his way towards the entrance. “Really, this cave is a god.”

“A god?” Donald said incredulously.

Aladdin nodded. “The tiger deity is a god of fortune. Be good, and he’ll bring you luck. But if you’re bad, he’ll give you misfortune instead. That’s what he told me when I came in the first time, when I got Genie’s lamp.”

“The cave talked to you?” Sora asked.

He nodded again.

“He told me to proceed, but touch nothing but the lamp,” Aladdin said, and his words were accompanied by a guilty-sounding whine from Abu, who had climbed onto his back. Aladdin smiled. “Abu here tried nabbing a giant ruby, which set the cave off and nearly got us killed. That took me some thinking, but we got out.”

They stepped over the vicious-looking teeth and made their way into the first room of the cave. There was a rumbling that seemed to be constantly present and the sound of water gushing at intervals. It was poorly lit, with the only light they were able to see by coming from the odd torch here and there on the walls.

“Gawrsh, how did ya—Ah-yipe!” Goofy cried as a booming sound came from not too far off. The rumbling was now joined by the ground shaking slightly.

“We need to move!” Aladdin shouted, as the magic carpet instantly repositioned itself to be at the ready for them to climb on again.

The moment they all made their way onto it and stationed themselves, the magic carpet took off with a burst of speed, ducking and swerving around traps of all kinds. Or, what looked to be traps. Sora saw jets where water or some sort of liquid was supposed to come out of, and a giant ramp high up above them, but nothing came for them. She seized up and kept her eye trained on a series of small holes in the walls as the magic carpet made its way through room after room, each one as poorly lit as the last, but thankfully nothing ever shot out of them. It was as if time were stopped in the cave, or perhaps the god Aladdin spoke of was watching out for them.

The rug finally slowed as it arrived in a room bursting with treasure. The room itself was brightly lit in comparison to the others, with many more torches arranged on the walls. On the sides, ornately carved fireplaces provided more lighting from their flames. Sora could feel her eyes widening at the sight of so much gold, and she wrenched her head left and right as she took in the sight of emeralds bigger than Goofy’s shield. And then, she saw Donald.

“Donald! Don’t touch anything!” She exclaimed, as he snapped his hand away from a pile of coins. Donald looked at the piles of treasure hungrily.

“I just wanna hold it for a second,” He said longingly, “Maybe try and swim in a pile of it. What?” Donald asked crossly as she continued glaring at him. He folded his arms stubbornly. “Don’t judge me, my Uncle Scrooge does it with his money!”

“We’re gonna get killed ‘cause you wanted to try using this place as a swimming pool,” Sora huffed.

“Anyone else hear talking from up ahead?” Goofy asked. They all angled their heads towards the approaching dark hallway at the end of the room, and the closer they got the more they could see a light at the end of it.

“Now that you mention it, I think I can.” Sora said.

The rug slowed to a halt at the midway point in the hallway and they got off and walked farther towards the room. She could see Jafar, the Genie, and most worryingly, Jasmine. She was passed out on a stony brick platform at the far end of the room. Standing over her was a woman in black robes Sora didn’t recognize.

“There she is!” Aladdin said, and burst into a run. They followed closely behind him.

Jafar had his staff in one hand and his lamp in the other, which was raised high. The Genie looked on fearfully at him and the other woman, who, as Sora could now see as they made their way into the room, had green skin.

“—So that I may fell this demon at last.” Jafar commanded. They quickly turned to look at the group as they ran into the room.

That green skin. Those horns. Sora remembered a warning Aerith had given her not long after she sealed the keyhole to Traverse Town.

“She’s easy to recognize. Maleficent is beautiful, but warped: Her skin is green, and she wears a headpiece with two horns on it. Usually she carries a staff. You can’t miss her,” Aerith’s expression then went unusually stern. “If you see her, be careful. Be very careful. Remember, she could be the one behind the heartless everywhere and the worlds falling.”

Sora saw the Genie shamefully cover his eyes with one hand and slowly raise his other hand with the pointer finger outstretched in the corner of her eye, but her gaze was locked on the woman with green skin who stood over Jasmine.

“Wait a second,” Sora gasped. “Are you Maleficent?”

The woman said nothing, her sly smile unfaltering. And with but a second’s pause, she faded from view entirely. Sora could see a large keyhole in the wall behind where she was.

Aladdin spoke next. “Jasmine?” He said, and tried again, louder, “Jasmine! What did you do to her, Jafar?”

He laughed. “’Tis but a short slumber I’m sure, street rat,” And with that Jafar turned to the Genie, who was still slowly raising his hand, and growled, “Any time now, Genie.”

“Genie, stop!” Aladdin cried.

The Genie lifted his hand from his eyes just enough to look at the group. “I’m sorry, Al,” He said, and a bright beam of light burst from the tip of his outstretched finger towards Jafar, who was now wrapped in a light so overwhelming they all had to turn away.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” A grating voice called out from above. They looked up to see the parrot that had accompanied Jafar earlier now flying around the room. “A warm Agrabah welcome for Sorcerer Jafar!”

The light surrounding Jafar began to dim, and they could see his garments had changed slightly: His turban now had developed horn-like protrusions, with the gold detailing now having gone jagged. The sash around his waist now matched the detailing with its gold hue. But the biggest change was to his staff—the cobra carved at the top now had small fangs bared in a hiss, with glowing red eyes.

“I’m so sad to see our guest of honor has decided to leave the party right as it started,” Jafar gloated as he stalked towards the group. “I was right after all, she really is a coward. But I suppose I’ll have to come after her later; I think I’ll test out my power on you first.”

He reared back his staff with a bay of laughter and bursts of light erupted from it towards all corners of the room, leaving trails of smoking soot on the walls. Another jab, and fire that was so hot it was blue at the base sprung up all around the room. The group scattered as they tried to get out of the way of his spells.

Aladdin lunged towards Jasmine, hoping to reach her. But it was no use. The second Jafar caught sight of him, he imprisoned Jasmine behind a forcefield that stretched to the keyhole.

“Don’t pretend that I don’t know exactly what you’re here for,” He called out with another laugh. “The keyblade always seeks the keyhole.”

He snapped his fingers, and Sora’s feet were immediately encased in blocks of stone. She struggled to lift her legs, much less try and fight in any way beyond moving her arms. She gritted her teeth.

“Why are you doing this?!” Sora shouted, “Why are you working with her? She’s trying to destroy everything!”

Donald threw the most powerful frost spell he could at Jafar, and it was immediately reflected back tenfold. The biting chill enswathed the chamber and momentarily weakened the flames to an orange glow, and sharp bits of ice stung against their exposed skin. Sora heaved her legs to get out of the way, but not before taking a particularly jagged piece to her cheek. She tried raising her keyblade in a guarding position to deflect the worst of it, and Goofy jogged over to raise his shield against the blizzard and cover for them both.

Aladdin lunged again, and Jafar lazily waved his staff. Aladdin was instantly thrown to the edge of the room straight towards the flames. Sora caught movement just beyond Goofy’s shield and looked to see Jasmine’s head shifted slightly from how it was before. Was she waking up?

Jafar made the lightning Donald threw at him into a rain cloud that dissipated quickly, before launching a bolt of his own at him. As Donald jumped on impact, Jafar said, “Weren’t you listening earlier?”

With another bolt of lightning aimed at Goofy’s shield, he continued, “It’s about power.”

The lightning struck, and both Sora and Goofy ducked behind the shield as best they could, hearing the electricity shriek. Thankfully, while the branches of it bit and left daggered shocks across their skin, the worst of it was avoided thanks to the shield. Sora could see the lightning begin to strobe behind her wrenched-shut eyelids.

Aladdin, who had by now made his way out of the fire and had been healed by Donald enough to where his skin was a pinker tone, suddenly got a look of inspiration. He glanced at the Genie, who had taken to cowering in the corner and making himself fold up like origami until he was a blue paper swan bouncing around on the ground. “’Power’,” Aladdin said as he smacked a fist in his other hand, “That’s it!”

“Then why are you trying to take Jasmine?” Sora shouted as the lightning continued to wail. “She’s got nothing to do with this!”

“On the contrary, insolent girl, she’s got everything to do with this.” Jafar answered. “You see, she’s more than just the princess of Agrabah. She’s a Princess of Heart. One of seven who somehow hold the key to opening the Door.”

Donald and Goofy shared a quick look at this.

At that, Aladdin jumped in, saying excitedly, “Gee, Jafar. What you’re looking to do sounds like an awfully tall order.”

Jafar fixed Aladdin with a look that implied he thought Aladdin was an idiot. “I have power beyond even Maleficent now, I’m capable of anything I please.”

“I dunno,” Aladdin continued, his voice just on the edge of boasting. He turned away from Jafar and Sora could see he had an impish grin. “You said you were doing this for power, right? Can you really say you’re more powerful than Maleficent if you’re not even the most powerful being in the world?”

“What exactly are you saying, boy?” Jafar grated as he clenched his staff tightly again. Sora could see a malevolent purple light seep out at the edges of it. He lowered his staff, still glowing purple, and the magic he had cast died down somewhat: The flames were now just smoldering blackened sand, the blizzard waned to a chilled wind. The lightning tapered to the point that it was nonexistent. Aladdin now had his whole attention.

“The genie has more power than you’ll ever have! He gave you your power, he could take it away.”

“Al?” The Genie whispered. Sora looked over to see the origami swan he folded himself into unfolded just enough to let his head peek out of the paper neck. “What are you doing? Why are you bringing me into this?”

Aladdin gave the Genie a wink. “Face it, Jafar,” He continued, “You’re still just second best.”

Jafar got a thoughtful look on his face, and his eyes darted about as he contemplated Aladdin’s words. “You’re right. His power does exceed my own, for he could have power over me! Nothing could be guaranteed unless we were…equals,” He said breathlessly, and looked to Genie, who was still mostly folded up and watching him with an anxious expression. “Slave! I will make my third wish.”

The Genie quickly unfolded into his normal appearance and gave a nervous laugh. “The boy is crazy,” he reasoned, “He’s a little punch-drunk, one too many hits! Don’t, don’t listen to him—”

But Jafar cut him off. “I wish to be an all-powerful genie!”

The Genie took a deep breath.

“Alright, your, uh, your wish is my command,” he muttered, “Way to go, Al,” The Genie finished sarcastically.

The Genie clenched his eyes shut again as he slowly lifted his hand in a finger gun pose. He fired a spiraling bolt of magic that hit Jafar square in the chest with a tremulous noise.

The magic spread outwards from where it hit him, and lightning began to snake all up and down Jafar’s body. His face twisted in pain as he bent over, and suddenly he righted himself. His expression distorted into one of malevolent euphoria that was at odds with the lightning still crackling and screeching along himself. Finally, Jafar took several shaky steps forward as he dropped the lamp, which was quickly scooped up by the parrot.

“This feeling,” He howled, “This feeling is everything! Absolute power right at my fingertips!” Jafar brayed with laughter. The ground began to shake violently, and Sora saw Jasmine begin to rise from behind Jafar. She looked over at the series of events with what seemed to be equal parts bewilderment and horror.

And then, a great chasm opened up below.


 

 

R I K U

 

For a while after the chasm opened up, all he could do was sit there and blink.

Sora was there. She was right there, and had somehow known to come to Agrabah in the first place.

How? Was it something to do with that keyblade? Or something else?

He pushed that thought from his mind in favor of thinking on what Jafar had said. What Maleficent had said.

“She’s a Princess of Heart. One of seven who somehow hold the key to opening the Door.”

But that was at odds with what Maleficent had told him.

“But Princesses of Heart are theorized to be capable of bringing Light back to worlds’ Hearts and to stem the tide of Darkness across all worlds. Surely you must understand why it is important that we keep them from doing such things.”

“Right,” Riku answered. “Balance.”

“Balance.” Maleficent echoed with a simpering smile.

No. She couldn’t have been lying, not about that. Because that would mean the hooded figure who had given Riku so much—the one who had taught him about power and Darkness, who helped him open the door, who had helped him be free—was lying. But so far, everything he had told Riku was the truth. So therefore, that meant Maleficent hadn’t lied either, at least in regard to that.

But that didn’t mean she wasn’t telling him the whole truth.

“Tell him of your plans with the princesses,” Jafar had told her.

And then there was what Maleficent had said: “And just as we were getting so close to our reward, too.”

Riku thought she was helping him in all of this for the greater good, not some reward.

He thought of Kairi’s lifeless body laid out on that bed in Hollow Bastion. The image of her, face slackened, with dust motes twinkling like stars around her head and spiders crawling at her feet. Was Maleficent giving him these tasks to help Kairi, even just a little bit? Was she still doing it for balance, or was she just doing it for a prize like this was a game?

Riku summoned Soul Eater to his hand and stared at it. It gave off an infernal light as it was bathed in the glow of the statue’s jewel beside him. The little eye in the hilt appeared as if it were staring back at him.

The man who gave him everything was right about Darkness being strength. And maybe it extended to more than just strength, but wisdom too. The man had the power to give Riku this much so far, who knew what else he was capable of. Maybe he knew of a way to save Kairi. The only unfortunate part, Riku remembered, was that he hadn’t seen him since.

And now Riku wasn’t entirely sure if he could trust Maleficent.

With that thought in mind, he stood up and dismissed Soul Eater from his hand. And Riku held his hand towards the stone wall as he summoned a Dark portal before walking through.

Riku exited onto the stone platform underneath, just below the keyhole. He could hear Jasmine turn to look at him. Riku continued peering closely at the keyhole, ignoring her.

“You,” She hissed angrily.

“Me.” How was he supposed to open this? There weren’t any hinges from what he could tell.

“You had to be in on this. There’s no doubt about it,” Jasmine stomped towards him angrily and lurched to a halt as he mentally shrugged and raised his hand to the keyhole anyways. Her next words came out almost choked. “What…What are you doing?”

“’All beings need balance between Light and Dark. Even worlds.’” Riku recited.

“Balance? It’s funny you decided to bring that up again now,” Jasmine said. “You said I was just going to be dropped off with Jafar for a little while. ‘Don’t worry’, you said, ‘it’ll be fine, nothing will happen.’” Her voice began to raise. “You said nothing about being taken hostage or watching Jafar try to kill the man I love! You come back now with the same story about balance, about doing the right thing, and you expect me to fall for it twice!”

Riku said nothing, and only used his anger at her words to fuel his Darkness further as he continued to reach for the keyhole. I must take this Heart, he reminded himself. If Maleficent wasn’t going to do the right thing, that didn’t mean Riku shouldn’t try to. From behind, he could hear Jasmine give a shudder as his Darkness spiked just a little more, a little closer to the Heart of Agrabah. It was harder to reach the Heart with the keyhole still in the way.

The part of him that clung to hope wished that Maleficent were here to help him get the keyhole and whatever else shielded the Heart out of the way, so that he could complete his task, but Riku forcibly shoved that thought out of his head.

“Whatever you’re doing to that thing, stop it.” Jasmine commanded. He ignored her.

“Stop it,” Jasmine said again. Riku continued to ignore her, dredging up the fear that Maleficent lied to him to force his Darkness further into the keyhole. He could feel it as it crept closer, and in his mind’s eye he saw the outer edges of a great Heart that gave off a Light that sparkled like a spring in an oasis. A Light with a pulsing, spiraling beacon like a lighthouse just before sunrise.

A Light that would soon be snuffed to make way for eventide.

But before he could reach any more, something thwacked against him and Riku’s legs went out from under him. He whipped his head up to see Jasmine staring down at him with a furious expression. She had stopped his tampering with the Heart by kicking him in the back of the knees.

Riku angrily scrambled to his feet and followed her eyes to look down at his hand. He had summoned Soul Eater without consciously doing so. Riku forced it away with a guilty pang in his Heart.

“No,” Jasmine said. He glanced back at her and saw she had clenched her fists to her sides and pushed back her shoulders in defiance. “Bring your sword back. Do it.”

He didn’t know what to feel at that. “Why?”

“Whatever you were going to do next, do it. I dare you,” She spoke through her gritted teeth, keeping her eyes fixed on him. “I have nothing left but the will to fight.”

“Nothing left?” Riku gave a harsh guffaw that hurt to make. “You have everything. Even now.”

“I have nothing!” Jasmine snarled, “My father is gone, Aladdin could be dead for all I know!”

“You had parents who loved you in the first place!” He exploded. All of the quiet little thoughts that had been mounting over the course of the day came to the fore. “You still have your father even now! And don’t try and tell me he could be dead, I saw how the people loyal to him acted in the castle earlier. Most likely he’s just hiding out in some cushy little corner of one of their houses crying about being separated from you and losing a throne he never even earned, Jafar didn’t care enough about him to do anything permanent.”

“How dare you--!”

Riku went on. “Sure, he’s a wimp, but he loves you. He was trying to set you up in a situation where you wouldn’t have to want for anything! Literally, all you’d have to do is just read a script every day and everything would be handed to you on a platter, but what did you say about that? ‘I have to choose who to spend the rest of my life with like I’m choosing which fruit looks the best from a market stall’. Is that really so bad?”

“Yes!” She clenched her fists tighter. “I’d have to marry a man who just considers me some accessory to his life at best, and less than human at worst! The sultanate of Agrabah, all of my father’s work, it’s not even my birthright! The best end scenario would be all of that going to the hands of a man who at least loves me and will do good with the throne, but if I just settle, everything would hang in the balance of someone who just sees me as the means to an end!” Jasmine yelled.

Apart from the commotion coming from below and the rumbling of the cave all around them, there was quiet. She unclenched her hands and took a deep breath, and Riku could see where her fingernails left crescent imprints. “Is it really so bad that I want room for love in my marriage?” She ended in a quieter note.

Riku thought of his parents. His mother tried marrying for love, and his father did too. He had to have, as he’d said yes in the first place. And look where it got them. Look where it got their son.

He tasted bile on the back of his tongue.

“Yeah,” He said sadly. “Yeah. It is.”

Riku continued, “There’s never room for love in something like that. They could say they love you all they want but they don’t feel anything when they do. Or worse, seeing you makes them feel angry.”

She stared at him for a long moment with slight disbelief.

“Did you really think I didn’t already know that?” Jasmine gave a laugh that was more exasperated than humorous. “Did you really think—Did you really delude yourself into thinking I haven’t seen such a thing happen with my own eyes? That I haven’t experienced it? After everything I’ve told you, even what I’ve said a minute ago. You weren’t listening to any of that.”

“Yes, I was—”

“No, you weren’t,” She cut in. “I get it now. You’re just like all the rest. Another jerk who blames everything wrong with his life on some past tragedy. Someone so focused on feeling sorry for himself that he can’t even bother with looking around for a second and realizing that everyone around him is suffering too, but they still manage to keep going. They go outside and pretend like everything’s okay and still manage to empathize with everyone they see. But not you. Boys like you just look at their smiles and don’t look any further, not noticing how they might be strained around the edges, and have the audacity to get angry about it: Because how dare other people try to be happy when you’re not happy. Everything revolves around you.”

“’Some past tragedy” is a pretty light way of putting it.” He fumed. Jasmine shook her head.

“Agrabah is not a pretty place. I know this for a fact,” She said, “Aladdin’s father left him and his mother, and his mother died when Aladdin barely knew how to walk. Imagine a child that young left to the streets, and he’s one of the lucky ones who made it as far as he did.” Her shoulders fell slightly. “Sleeping under the stars sounds romantic until it’s the only choice you have. But he never minded it. Aladdin would point out Syrma or Alrescha and all the lunar mansions, and that alone could make him happy. I love him because he can find the silver lining in anything despite what he’s experienced.”

“After a certain point,” She concluded, “What’s wrong with you isn’t your past. It’s not even your Darkness, or your Light, or an imbalance between the two. It’s you. You are all of the things wrong with you. You need to be better.”

Riku wasn’t sure what to feel. There was fury, yes, but that was slowly being drowned out by the nagging sense of doubt in his own words. His own beliefs.

Perhaps Jasmine was right.

No. She couldn’t be. He couldn’t bear to even acknowledge the idea, and so he didn’t. Riku pushed that feeling aside to a corner of his mind to be quickly forgotten.

He thought of Kairi’s comatose body, and of the man with the hood who had given him what he needed most. Jasmine was wrong, he realized. If only about one thing.

“Despite what you think, I am trying to be better,” Riku said, “Even when the people around me probably aren’t interested in doing so.” He said as he thought of Maleficent.

Jasmine lifted a brow at Riku as a gesture for him to continue.

“Even if Maleficent’s not interested in balance between Light and Dark, I know it’s important. And I’m going to work towards it, even if you say it’s false, even if nobody wants to help. I’m not wallowing in my pain or whatever it is you think I’m doing.”

“Still seems like it to me.”

He stopped for a moment as he bit back his anger.

“Whatever,” Riku spat finally. “I still need you to come with me.”

At this, Jasmine gave him the most disbelieving look yet.

“You really are an idiot. Why are you even bothering to ask?”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. I can’t let you risk continuing the tyranny of Light. Either you come with me or you stay here in a broken world whose new ruler just became a force of nature,” Riku said, “You don’t have a choice.”

“I could stay here and die when this cave finally collapses in. It would be better than going with you.”

“Then you’d be guaranteed to never see either Aladdin or your father again.”

She paused. The cave continued to rumble forebodingly, louder now. And then she exhaled harshly through her teeth.

“Fine. But don’t lie to yourself later and say all of this is for some ‘tyranny of Light’. Do yourself a favor and admit the truth.”

He said nothing to that, choosing to silently raise his hand to summon the Dark portal that would take them back to Hollow bastion. It ripped open on the granitic wall in front of them. Riku could see Jasmine give a shudder at it out of the corner of his eye.

And then, they stepped through.


 

 

S O R A

 

As they fell, Sora’s vision was dominated by a dimmed red light.

It was lava. Somehow, Jafar’s transformation had sparked the opening of a chasm beneath the group that sent them to a chamber through which quite a bit of magma flowed. It billowed with heat far greater than the noonday sun outside in Agrabah had, worse than any heat Sora had faced before save for Donald’s worst fire spells. Though even this heat could have been said to match those.

Her landing on the stone platform was awkward and painful, given her shoes were still encased in stone blocks. They fell with a solid thud as the rest of her landed in a jumbled heap. Sora groaned.

And then, suddenly, her feet felt impossibly light. She looked down to see the stone blocks disappear with a snap of the Genie’s fingers.

“Sorry, kid,” He said, “At least I could undo a part of that wish.” The Genie said with chagrin.

“You can’t do anything to undo this one?” Sora asked as she moved to stand. The Genie shook his head.

“Genies can’t undo each other’s magic directly or hurt another genie in any way directly.” He explained, “So if Jafar made a lightning strike, I couldn’t stop the lightning or keep it from being cast, but I could just wrap everything in an inch-thick layer of rubber to keep the electricity from hitting the target directly. Ya see what I mean?”

“I think I do.”

Their talk was interrupted by the magma from one end of the room beginning to roil and swell. A large glowing red shape slowly lifted from the magma with a boom of laughter.

It was Jafar.

His new form was not unlike the Genie’s, with a hulking visage that was larger than life. But unlike the Genie, whose bright blue color and rounded features made him more approachable, Jafar’s effect was the exact opposite: He glowed as red as a stoplight, with his already sharp features now exaggerated to be so much sharper and crueler. His head was now bare of any head coverings, revealing a mostly shaved head with a ponytail sticking out at the top. His nails were now viciously long and pointed, with his hands crossed over his shoulders and chest. The lower half of Jafar’s torso tapered to a gaseous tail that stayed bonded to the lava.

It all made for a terrifying sight.

“Nice job, Aladdin!” Donald yelled sarcastically. “It was bad enough trying to fight a master sorcerer before.”

“Seriously, Al,” The Genie muttered.

“I have an idea!” Aladdin insisted, and suddenly looked over at the sound of wingbeats. Iago had flown his way into the chasm, now carrying the Genie’s lamp in his claws. “The lamp! We’ve gotta get the lamp!”

“What good will that do now?” Donald asked.

“Just trust me, you guys!”

“Says the guy who goaded Jafar into wishing for even more power—Bwaa-a-a-k!” Donald had barely gotten out of the way in time as an enormous ball of magma went careening straight for him. Jafar had taken to throwing them around on the platforms, using his new magic to command the magma as if it were an extension of himself.

“Say, is it getting hot in here or is it just me?” A grating voice called out close by, and Sora looked up to see the parrot flying about, the lamp shining crimson in the light of the magma. She leapt, but the bird saw her at the last moment and flapped his wings for just enough height to stay out of reach.

Sora gave an angry scoff at that. She’d have to surprise him, she decided. But how?

“Ah-Hoo-Hoo-o-o-ie!” Goofy’s cry of pain forced her to look over, and she saw him running around in circles on the platform with the seat of his pants on fire.

“Hold on!” Sora shouted, lifting her keyblade and firing a quick frost spell at him to immediately put the flames out. At this, Goofy gave her a quick thanks, before raising his shield against the next fireball Jafar hurled.

Sora could see him begin to form another, one long coil of lava rising tentatively from the pool towards his outstretched arm. She raised her keyblade and cast another frost spell, noting with satisfaction how it immediately cooled to a blackened tendril before breaking apart into useless fragments. Jafar bellowed with rage.

“Say, that’s pretty savvy!” The Genie exclaimed, and then snapped his fingers. Around the top of the room formed a thick grey cloud that immediately dulled the overwhelming heat somewhat, and snowflakes began to fall. The magma dimmed in color slightly as it began to cool.

“Genie, what are you doing?” Jafar interrogated, and the Genie shrugged.

“I’m just making snow cones over here, don’t mind me!” He said as he snapped his fingers again and was now in a striped uniform consisting of a visor and apron, with a shaved ice machine and a little display cart immediately conjured up, before inspecting the pile of ice he had prepared and saying “You want one? I’ve got a yellow one right here with your name on it.”

Jafar aimed the next fireball he made straight at the cart, wrecking it.

The Genie frowned. “It was lemon flavored, don’t be a party pooper.”

Sora heard a squawk from close by, and saw it was the parrot again, circling back around. She could see Aladdin trying, and failing, to reach by jumping just as she had. Every time, the parrot would just dart out of reach.

“Finders keepers, loser’s weepers!” He cawed, weaving in and out of Aladdin’s reach. She could see his focus was split between Aladdin and Jafar, who was still throwing heaps of magma everywhere. Sora got an idea.

She summoned her keyblade—having dismissed it before to try and have her hands free to catch the parrot—and kept her eye on the lamp clutched in his claws. Sora thought of the shaved ice the Genie had made, the snowflakes still falling down. She concentrated enough to where she didn’t feel the still-blistering heat from the magma, focusing on the thought of that blizzard Jafar had summoned earlier. She kept the parrot in her sights, aimed her keyblade, and fired off the spell.

It hit. With an angry caw, the parrot fell, its claws now encased in an ice block and too heavy to keep flying with. The lamp clattered to the ground with a metallic noise that was nearly impossible to hear against the roiling of magma and the sounds of the fight going on all around her. Sora quickly scooped it up, ignoring the indignant heckling of the parrot, and shoved it to Aladdin.

“Whatever you’re going to do, do it now!” Sora directed him.

He took it and held the lamp out towards Jafar.

“Jafar!” Aladdin ordered, “Back to your lamp!”

Jafar immediately stilled, dropping the magma rock he had prepared back into the lava with a splatter. He slowly turned his head. “What did you say?”

“The one with the lamp calls the shots!” Aladdin called out, “Now back to your lamp!”

“No, no,” Jafar muttered, as a vortex from the opening of the lamp started siphoning him back in. Great beams of light swirled around him, some of which solidified to form golden cuffs around his wrists, with the rest acting as ropes to draw him in faster. He screamed. “No-o-o!”

Jafar reached one great clawed hand at the parrot and pulled him in with him into the lamp by the tailfeathers, and the bird started shouting “I’m not a genie! I can’t get trapped in there! No—!”

And with one last gust of wind, the last of Jafar and the parrot were trapped inside the lamp, and everything was over. They all stared at the lamp in shock.

The Genie was the first one to talk. He swept Aladdin in for a hug. “Al! That was amazing! All of you were amazing!” The Genie exclaimed as he stretched out one arm into absurd proportions and reached to wrap them all in a hug.

“Thanks, Genie,” Aladdin replied with a slight wheeze before pushing away slightly. Finally the Genie let them go, his arms returning to normal length. “I told you guys I had an idea.”

“Could’ve done without trying to deal with all that magma,” Donald muttered irritatedly.

“Come on, Donald, you don’t want to give anyone credit,” Sora replied, and he squawked. But before they could start another round of bickering, the Genie turned to Aladdin.

“Say, Al, could you hold out that lamp real quick? Just for a second?”

“Sure,” Aladdin replied with some confusion as he did so, “Why do you want it?”

With a snap of his fingers the Genie’s apron and visor had transformed into a baseball uniform, replete with a baseball cap and cleats as his lower half turned into legs. A baseball bat appeared in his hand, and the Genie readied it as he closed one eye and focused solely on the outstretched lamp with the other. “Oh, you know,” He said, “Just a sudden urge to play baseball, that’s all.”

“Hey, batter batter,” The Genie cheered as he reared back the bat and struck the lamp, “Batter batter swing!

The lamp sailed far over their heads, over the platforms, and went straight into the lava. The magma closed around it, and the lamp was gone in the blink of an eye.

A movement from their side made the group’s eyes turn towards it. It was a sheet of paper, fluttering down towards the platform. Goofy picked it up.

“Gawrsh, you guys, what’s this?” He said as he began to lift it up so he could read it. But before he could a spectacular rumble was heard all around them.

“We gotta get out of here!” Sora declared.

“How?” Donald replied, “Where’s that carpet?”

As if on cue, the group could hear a loud whistle from above. At the edge of the opening at the ceiling of the room they could see Abu’s head poke out as he leaned over and waved a paw. Beside him was the magic lamp, waving a tassel.

Abu climbed onto the magic carpet, and it swooped down towards the platform to let them all on. Aladdin gave an exasperated noise.

“Is that why you guys were gone for that whole fight?” He huffed, as the pile of gold coins glittered red on the magic carpet from the lava still around them. “Wait, is that why the Cave of Wonders sounds like it’s going to collapse?”

“Just get on! No time for talking!” Donald demanded, and they did so, coins tinkling as they took their seats.

“Don’t leave yet,” Aladdin said as the magic carpet began to try and duck out to go deeper into the magma cavern to another exit, “We still gotta get Jasmine!”

Abu gave him a confused look and started chittering something.

“Abu, what are you saying--?” Aladdin asked, and Abu started chittering more insistently. The magic carpet began to raise towards the stone room they fell through. “We still have to get her!”

At this, Abu gave an exasperated sigh and stomped his foot.

“What’s he trying to say?” Donald asked, and did a double-take at the stone brick platform he stepped onto to see where Jasmine was. Or, was supposed to be.

Jasmine was gone.

“Jasmine?” Aladdin fearfully shouted as he stepped onto the platform, whipping his head around to look at every corner of the room. “Jasmine!”

A pulling feeling from the keyblade made Sora look up. It’s never done that before, she thought to herself. She glanced over and saw the keyhole on the wall from earlier, the barrier on it gone along with Jafar. Sora raised her keyblade towards it at once. Stars of Light gathered at the tip of her keyblade before a great beam shot out towards the keyhole with a trilling chime, and they could hear the keyhole lock with a final click.

The cavern rumbled again, and rocks began to fall from the ceiling.

“Aladdin! We need to go!” Donald said as the rest of the group made their way to the magic carpet, with the Genie floating alongside. Aladdin shook his head sternly.

“I’m not going without Jasmine!”

If they stayed here any longer, none of them would be able to get out. Sora thought to the disappearance of certain girls across the worlds, the sighting of Maleficent not even an hour prior. Jasmine was gone, Sora realized, and Maleficent must have taken her too.

She wasn’t in Agrabah anymore.

“Aladdin!” Sora shouted, “Jasmine was taken to another world!”

“What do you mean?” Aladdin replied.

“I’ll explain later!” She said, “We need to get out of here!”

With one last glance around the room, Aladdin climbed back onto the magic carpet, and they were off. Coins started to slide off in their wake with the speed they were going, making for a glittering trail back through the treasure room—where Donald didn’t hesitate to grab a handful of gold coins this time as they zipped by—through the darkened corridors full with traps that still didn’t go off as they sped through, and back out the mouth of the Cave of Wonders to the early evening air. The air was now blissfully cool against their skin after the scalding heat of the magma. Sora looked back to see the mouth of the cave closing up, and the tiger head disappearing under the sand. That was probably for the best, she reasoned.

She still wasn’t sure what Kairi had meant by stopping Riku, but she wasn’t sure if watching Maleficent disappear before their eyes counted as stopping her from anything. Not when she’d managed to get away with Jasmine anyway.

Sorry, Kairi.

“Hey,” Sora said to Donald. He turned. “I won’t say anything about you taking those coins as we left if you won’t say anything about me wrecking the world order or whatever just now.”

“Deal.”

“Deal,” She replied, before remembering the piece of paper from the lava room. “Hey, Goofy? What was that paper you got?”

“I almost forgot,” He reached into his pocket and drew it out before handing it to her. “Ya wanna look at it?”

“Yes please,” Sora said as she took it. “I was wondering what it could be—Woah.”

“What is it? Let me look!” Donald leaned over to see, and Goofy did as well. They gave similar exclamations of surprise as they did so.

For at the top of the page it read:

ANSEM REPORT I

By H.R.M. Ansem the Wise

Chapter Text

K A I R I

 

Her sleep had come as inevitable as the night, and her waking as hoped for as the dawn.

There was quite a bit to think on, things that had been put off for longer than they should have. What Riku could be doing next, Maleficent’s plans, that man in the hood. What he had said on the matters of Hearts. How Kairi, and the boy who slept still, could make their way out of this place. But the moment Kairi checked in on her body every thought in her head stilled.

There, in her room, stood Maleficent. Looking straight at Kairi.

Her countenance was no more ominous than usual—even in the brightest of moods Maleficent would probably still be petrifying, Kairi thought—but it was certainly more confusing than usual. She looked down at Kairi with a leisurely delight.

“It’s quite amusing,” Maleficent said, before going over to the window and idly watching the clouds go by, “That the girl with the keyblade found out about my plans for Agrabah early enough that she tried to interfere. And more amusing still that she thought she could even come close to stopping me at all.”

She laughed. If Kairi did not know who Maleficent was, or was blind to what she and that Darkness of hers could be capable of, the sound would have reminded Kairi much of the laughter of some of the more scornful teachers back on the islands. It was a disdainful noise that made Kairi feel insignificant.

“If anything, she only helped me: Jafar was losing himself to his own Darkness, I could see it from the moment I met him. I didn’t even have to get my own hands dirty when the time came.” Maleficent continued watching out the window, and said, “I wonder if he screamed.”

She said it the same way one would remark on afternoon plans, or the idea having a glass of wine with dinner. A mild interest in the banalities of life and living. Kairi would have shuddered if she could.

After having said that, Maleficent’s gaze slowly turned displeased.

“The boy, one could say, did more to interfere than she did. My suspicions about Wonderland were right. He doesn’t have it in him to take a world’s Heart after all, he’s too easily swayed. And to think he was so close this time too.”

At that, Kairi could feel a small upswell of hope in her Heart. Riku’s Heart still had a Light in it yet. It would struggle against the Dark all around it, just as it had surely struggled until now, but it had not gone out. Did he not take Jasmine, either?

It didn’t change what Riku had already done, but it could change what he may do yet.

The din of her own thoughts, having grown excited at the revelation, hushed at the sight of Maleficent turning towards her. “But that still leaves the question of how Sora learned of my plans in the first place. How did she know to go there, at that time?”

With a flick of her robes, Maleficent strolled back towards Kairi again, as if speaking to her personally and expecting an answer.

“I know for sure Riku had nothing to do with it. The others were busy with their own assignments. So that leaves you,” Maleficent hissed as she bent closer.

She finished, “What sort of secrets could you be hiding?”

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“So then, after he decided to free the Genie for his last wish, Aladdin asked us to find Jasmine. I felt a little bad, cuz he wanted to come along with us to find her—”

“And he shouldn’t have!” Donald interjected, “That would wreck the world order even worse than it already is.”

Anyway, he asked us to do it instead, since he couldn’t come because Donald’s a stick in the mud. At least the Genie gave us a free toaster out of the whole deal. Bu-u-u-t,” Sora said playfully as she pulled out the Ansem Report with a flourish, grinning wider at their looks of interest, “I’m not here to bog you guys down with the details. I’m here to show you this!”

“Is that...?” Yuffie gasped as she saw the title on the page, the vellum inscribed with an ink that didn’t look faded despite its assumed age. Sora nodded, and Yuffie extended her hand without preamble, making grabbing motions. “Gimme.”

The moment she had the page in her hand, the others crowded around her to read as well. Sora watched as Yuffie’s eyes skimmed down the page, while Aerith and Leon were reading every line. Cid’s expression clouded over the more he read.

“What’s wrong, Cid?” Goofy asked. They all looked to Cid as he thought for a moment, his ever-present toothpick bobbing up and down.

He crossed his arms. “I remember when King Ansem first sent out the proclamation of a state of emergency in Radiant Garden. There were some naysayers at first, ‘cause to some people the place was still the same paradise it always had been. ‘Ol’ Ansem’s finally lost it’, they’d say, ‘We’d better call him Ansem the Foolish now.’ They were the idiots, though, anyone with eyes could see these weird creatures popping up here and there at times.”

“Heartless,” Sora declared, and looked up in surprise at Cid shaking his head.

“Not quite. Or, eh, maybe they were,” He amended as he shifted his stance to his other foot. “They were certainly just as dangerous as the heartless. Maybe even worse, since they were smart.”

“What did they look like?” Yuffie asked.

“They didn’t have those glowing yellow eyes the heartless have. These things had these squiggly, mean-looking eyes that glowed red. The heartless usually look a little clumsy, kinda bumbling,” Sora begged to differ, judging by the sight of some of the heartless she’d seen, but she figured there was no way to compare to whatever Cid saw as she hadn’t seen anything like what he was describing. He continued, “But these things were vicious. The most common kind I saw were these little black things with curved antlers and hands that bent towards a point like a claw. You could tell from a glance that they had some sort of wits about them: They walked a lot like people. With purpose. Once you saw one, you never forgot, those guys were unsettling.” He finished as he gave an uncharacteristic shiver.

Leon frowned. “I don’t remember ever seeing anything like that,” He said.

“Yeah,” Aerith agreed.

“You guys were young, maybe as young as Yuffie was before we left.” Cid answered. “This was ‘bout thirteen or fourteen years ago,” He cursed under his breath, “Damn, I’m old. Anyways, sightings of them—and attacks, from what I heard—went on for about two-ish years here and there. It wasn’t often that they appeared, I remember that.”

“What happened to them?” Yuffie asked.

He shrugged. “They just kinda disappeared. Nobody knew where they went, or if they would come back. Certainly had to have shaken up King Ansem, since right after that he and those apprentices of his started trying to find out more about Darkness like he says he wants to do here.” Cid said, tapping his finger on the last couple of lines in the report. Sora read them aloud.

“’Darkness of the Heart. How is it born? How does it come to affect us so? As ruler of this world, I must find the answers. I must find them before the world is lost to those taken by the Darkness.’”

“Too late for that,” Yuffie remarked glumly. Leon gave a bitter scoff.

“Gawrsh, did he ever learn anything more about Darkness?” Goofy wondered.

“Who knows?” Cid replied, “That was way above my pay grade, I was just a mechanic at the time. I wasn’t even working in the castle, though I did some jobs for people who did. That was how I knew when to leave.”

“I just wish this one had some sort of hint for how to bring back my world, or find Kairi and my mom,” Sora brooded.

“Or the king,” Donald said, equally troubled.

At Donald’s words, he, Sora, and Goofy shared a sigh. Sora looked up when she felt someone give her shoulder a squeeze. It was Aerith.

“Remember,” Aerith assured, “This is just the first one you found. Who knows how many more are left?”

“Yeah,” Sora acquiesced, “But it took us four worlds to find the first one. How many more could it take to find another?”

“As many as it takes!” Donald answered, attempting to rally some cheer for the three of them. It didn’t seem to work much, so he tried again, his own voice a little more excited this time. “What if we tried that Halloween world next? The one we saw on the new gummi route listings? That could be fun.”

“Hey, you’re right,” Sora replied as she brightened a little.

“Wait, wait,” Yuffie spoke up, growing excited. “A whole world for Halloween? I gotta go too!”

“No way,” Leon objected, “Yuffie, you’re not the one on a quest to save the worlds, you’re staying here.”

“But it’s so boring here now!” She whined, “No heartless? No newcomers? Sure, those are good things, but there’s nothing left to do!”

“I’m sure we can come up with something,” Leon said dryly.

Not long thereafter, the group made their leave from the Accessory Shop, and walked towards the front gates of Traverse Town. There weren’t any less pedestrians around than when Sora had first arrived on that tumultuous day compared to now, but no more either, and it was this that cheered up the group considerably. Their work seemed endless, and it didn’t feel as though they had made any significant strides forward until the procurement of that first Ansem Report, but looking around them reminded the trio of the true measurement of their efforts. The people.

“So, Halloween Town, huh?” Sora remarked, “How long’s it gonna take to get there?”

“I think the autopilot estimated it around two days,” Donald said.

She balked at that. “Two days? Can’t we just use the new warp drive thingy again?”

“Please don’t,” Goofy whimpered from their side.

“That’s only for places you’ve already been to, ya ding-a-ling!” Donald said, “Besides, no frowning from either of you! Remember that Highwind runs on happy faces."

 


 

 

R I K U

 

The chapel of Hollow Bastion was a work of art in itself. Or, at least, it used to be.

Beyond the reach of vines and clawing thorns, scarcely lit by the beguiling waltz of the sconces’ flames, there laid evidence of the former grandeur of Hollow Bastion if Riku looked closely. Faded imprints on the walls where paintings and tapestries had hung. Carved stone basins where water had glided down in great curtains. Speckles of colored glass along the edges of windows where vignettes of all who had come before shined down on you, by the light of a sun that knew dawn and dark.

But time takes the paintings, and larvae take the tapestries. Fountains run dry, and glass breaks. And all along, the vines shall take what is theirs with patience, and every pinprick of blood their thorns may yield.

The door closed behind Riku of its own accord as he walked in, just like last time. The sun left lazy smears down the walls of the chapel, temporarily blinding him whenever he walked in its path towards the round table. Riku tried to look past the stars in his eyes as he made his way to Maleficent and Hades, who were by now giving him looks of varying levels of reproach.

“Sheesh, kid, what took you so long?” Hades grumbled, his head today a low flickering blue tone. “Too busy shampooing your hair to see what time it was?”

Riku squinted hard at him. “You jealous or something? What happened to your hair, did you leave the curling iron in too long?” He paused and said, “It’s a long walk to here from my room.”

Hades matched his glare as his head then began to streak with reds, before turning back to Maleficent. “This one’s got guts, I can say that much. More than any of my guys, anyway.”

“All quibbling aside,” She began as a small smile curled at the edge of her lip, “There is a new development to report. Our associate Jafar is no more.”

Well that was a surprise, Riku thought to himself. He had more power than Maleficent at one point, how did Jafar not even manage to get away from Sora and the rest of them?

Hades gave a low whistle. “Seriously? Did he ever manage to get that lamp he was drooling after?”

At her nod, he looked close to bewildered. “Then how the heck did he still lose?”

“The girl helped, but it was Jafar’s own Darkness that paved the way to his demise,” Maleficent answered. “He was consumed by his own hatred. And the more he reached for power, the more his Darkness festered.”

Hades hmphed at that.

“If he had the lamp like you say, I’m sure that smarmy vizier could’ve had ‘em—if someone had stuck around to give him a hand,” He suggested, giving a pointed glance to Riku.

“Hey, I did my part.” Riku defended as he crossed his arms self-consciously, “I brought the princess, didn’t I?”

“If you can call it that.”

His hackles raised at Hades’ remark and its accompanying eye-roll. “What was I supposed to do, tie her up? She didn’t want to be around me, and I didn’t really want to be around her either.”

“The heartless were able to find her and bring her to me promptly regardless of her decision to roam the halls,” Maleficent cut in before an argument could arise. Riku’s Heart sank slightly. She glanced to Hades, and said, “One should beware of letting their Darkness burn too fiercely.”

Hades recoiled at that. “Woah, woah, woah, lighten up,” He chuckled nervously as he slicked a hand through the flames that wreathed his head. “I’m as cool as they come, okay?”

“Regardless, this meeting is adjourned,” Maleficent said. “You are dismissed.”

Hades left quickly, muttering under his breath and moving away from the table to summon a Dark portal, before walking through it and disappearing in an instant. Riku and Maleficent were alone in the chapel of Hollow Bastion, then. Not even Diablo was there to cast his eye on them.

Maleficent levitated the circular stone that made their meeting table back into the ground with a wave of her hand. Riku turned to walk out of the room and stopped after a couple of steps as Jafar’s words from before came to mind.

“Here’s a much better plan: Why don’t you put that supposed intelligence of his to work and actually explain the situation to that boy? Stop coddling him with delusions of ‘balance’, tell him of your plans with the princesses. Doing so may actually prove useful to your objective.”

And later on, he had mentioned something else.

“She’s a Princess of Heart. One of seven who somehow hold the key to opening the Door.”

“Hey, Maleficent?” He asked, turning around.

“Hmm?”

The question came close to never leaving his throat. Riku braced himself. If he didn’t ask now, he might never work up the nerve otherwise.

“This whole thing with the worlds’ Hearts and the princesses…Why are you doing this?”

“Haven’t I already told you?” She chuckled, “Balance, my boy. Nigh identical to you.”

Riku threw her a suspicious glance. “Really.”

“Really.”

He paused.

This didn’t add up. Riku thought back to what she had said that very first day he had woken up in Hollow Bastion, alone and confused, holding fast to the promise the hooded man gave him that they would meet again.

“Nothing is free, Riku. I know that man didn’t help you for free, even if you think he did. Light, Dark, everything has a price. The only difference with me is that I shall not ask you for a pound of flesh. Instead, I’ll merely ask you to work with me. That’s all.”

He had powers of the Dark. He had a weapon. But she was helping him beyond that, with trying to get back Kairi’s Heart. For seemingly nothing in return. Why?

Nothing is free, Riku.

“Why are you doing all this for me?” Riku asked. “What’s the catch?”

“Catch? What’s the catch?” Maleficent laughed, giving him what looked like a good-natured smile past her chuckles. “Silly boy, you’re like a son to me. I only want you to be happy.”

She reached to cup his face, and Riku flinched away, reaching up to push back her hand with more force than he intended.

“What a pity. And just as we were getting so close to our reward, too.”

She had said that, and he would never forget it.

“I seriously doubt that.”

Maleficent raised her chin slightly as her expression wavered for a split-second. For a moment, she looked suspicious. Then before he could blink it had hardened to something a little more sardonic.

“Believe what you wish. But lest we forget, I kept my end of the bargain.”

She knew.

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

“I guess I don’t have to worry about Maleficent coming in my room much anymore,” Kairi joked weakly. “Since she doesn’t want to risk having me overhear anything.”

It was so quiet she could hear a pin drop in the white room. Part of her wished that she did have a pin to drop, if only to have something to hear other than herself.

She looked down. Those creatures that Cid had described, Kairi felt she might have encountered them before.

(strange creatures with strange gazes, who walked the earth with fury and walked the air with silk)

She held her head and wrenched her eyes shut. An unspoken place in her mind forced her to stop, rumbling No, no, don’t wander here. This way lies ruin.

“I don’t know what to do,” She murmured. It was far from the first time she said those words to the boy on the pale throne. And it was far from the first time he didn’t respond.

Perhaps one’s question would be, she didn’t know what to do about what? Did Kairi not know what to do about being stuck on this imaginary play island with its secret room, its once-comforting palms and sand now slowly beginning to become a cruel reminder? Or how she could only contact Sora through small bursts, and use nothing of her real body but her eyes and ears? Or, perhaps, that she was some sort of hostage in a poisoned world, where screaming memories tore past her eyes every time she slept, forgotten the moment she woke up?

In this case, the answer was D—all of the above. Everything. Kairi didn’t know what to do about everything.

At least Riku seemed to be beginning to fix himself. Or, not getting any worse. That had to count for something.

With nothing else to do, Kairi flip-flopped back and forth between perspectives. There was the white room, her room in that place where Maleficent tread (once tread, now), and Sora’s perspective. Kairi could see she was playing a lively game of go fish with Goofy.

White room, empty room, go fish. Go fish, white room, empty room. Empty room, white room, go fish. Go fish, white room…and not so empty room?

She watched as the doorknob slowly turned, and the door opened to reveal Riku. Kairi wondered if Maleficent had gone back on her own decision to not visit Kairi’s body already, but as he closed the door behind him, she realized Riku had come alone. Of his own accord.

He sat down at the edge of the bed and looked around the room. She could see his head angling around as he looked at the crown trim.

“Thorns and rosebud carvings, huh?” Riku remarked, his eyes still distractedly tracing the dips and rises of the motif. “Lucky you. There’s just thorns along the wall in my room.” He glanced back at her and his expression grew guilty. “Or, well, not lucky you, I guess. Since you’re basically a coma patient or something right now. I’m sorry. I guess I was just trying to fill the empty space with words.”

He dipped his head down, and Kairi could see he was gnawing at his lip past the tufts of silver hair that fell past his face. His Dark wavered.

“Maleficent’s lying to me,” Riku said finally. “I know she is.”

Dang, Riku, she thought, anyone with eyes could see that.

If she could, Kairi would have slapped a palm to her face. She loved her friends, she really did. But they could be so dumb sometimes.

He continued, “All of this—rounding up the Princesses of Heart, spreading the heartless, touching the worlds’ Hearts with Darkness—all of this was supposed to be for the greater good. For balance between Light and Darkness. I thought that’s what all of this was for.”

Kairi didn’t really know what to think about that, beyond that he was wrong. He was so wrong. It wasn’t the Dark that needed saving right now, it was the Light. But there was no way for her to tell him so.

“That’s what all this is for to me, anyway. Maleficent…uh. Not so much, apparently.”

He went on, “When I went to Agrabah, Jafar spouted off some stuff. About the princesses and how if you got them all together some Door would open. I didn’t know any more beyond that much, he was remarkably tight-lipped about it despite going on monologues exactly like some villain in a kid’s movie.”

A Door?

Riku’s voice went low as he kept an eye on the door to Kairi’s room as he continued to talk. “When he alluded to it earlier in the trip, Maleficent just gave him this…this look, like she was about to set him on fire with her eyes. He shut up right then, but later he went on about it to her, they thought I wasn’t there to hear. Apparently Maleficent’s got plans for some Heart behind the Door, she called it a ‘reward’. The Princesses of Heart have something to do with it. I don’t know. The conversation ended pretty quickly after that.”

Kairi’s head was nearly spinning with this information. She was filing it away to puzzle over later as fast as she could, already trying to turn it this way and that in her head to figure out what this Door and reward could be.

“’Reward’,” He snapped. “She’s just in this for a payday. She roped me into all of this just for herself and her cronies to be selfish. What was she going to do with me after we got it? Just give me a pat on the head and say ‘good boy’ like I’m a dog? ‘Good job on saving the worlds, I wasn’t actually trying to be the good guy you thought I was, thanks for doing all the work.’ I thought—” Riku’s breath caught slightly at this. “I thought she liked me. I thought she cared.”

His Dark spread over his Heart just a little more at this. Kairi filed that fact away in her head too.

Riku bit out an unidentifiable sound that came close to laughter, but not quite. “Whatever. Maybe I’ll strike out on my own. If Maleficent’s not actually interested in trying to fix things, or help people, then that’s her deal I guess. I’m not going to let that stop me from doing what’s right.”

“I’m not even sure if she’s still intending to help you with your whole coma thing,” He said as he glanced away from the door back to Kairi. He went quiet for a moment as his expression went sad.

“If she doesn’t, I will. I’ll help you get your Heart back. I promise. It’s just…I don’t know what to do.”

Welcome to the club, Riku.

“Because you didn’t lose your Heart to the Darkness, that would make a heartless. You lost it to the Light. But then where would a Heart go when that happens? It’s crazy, apparently anything can have a Heart. Even,” At this, he seemed to lose his breath a bit as he looked into space towards nothing. Riku’s eyes widened considerably.

“Even inanimate objects,” He breathed.

Before Kairi could wonder what on earth he could be thinking now, what he could be planning, Riku stood suddenly from the bed. His hands moved in halfway gestures as if he were acting out a thought. His eyes darted from point to point, never lingering at anything for long, his brows furrowed in inspiration.

Finally, he seemed to remember he was still talking to Kairi. Riku turned to her suddenly, and said, “I think I have an idea on how to get your Heart back. Or, uh, at least a way to find out more about what happened. I gotta go. I’ll be back later, okay?”

At this, Riku turned and nearly ran out of the room, and closed the door behind him with a clatter.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“Ya got any aces?”

Sora pulled her mouth to the side in a sulking expression as she yanked out the three aces she had in her hand and passed them to Goofy, who chuckled. On the dashboard, Jiminy struggled to keep a hold on his deck of cards, which were much too large for his tiny hands.

“Seriously, how are you so good at this game?” She asked. For the past day they’ve been on the road, Goofy had won almost every game, and came close to winning the ones he didn’t.

“Before Maxie started lessons to join the royal guard like his old man, we’d play all the time,” Goofy beamed. “He’s better than me at it now, ahyuk!”

She looked up. It was easy to forget that the clumsy, bumbling, and aptly-named Goofy that sat in the cockpit with them was actually the captain of the royal guard. It was easy enough to remember Donald was the designated magician of the court, as he reminded them of that fact with every spark of electricity that flew off his staff at a moment’s notice, contrasting with Goofy’s pacifist nature and refusal to ever use any weapons beyond his shield.

“Uh, guys?” Donald spoke up from the pilot’s chair, where he’d had his eyes glued to the expanse of space outside the gummi ship since they’d left Traverse Town. “What is that?”

All three looked over to see a patch of the sky where there were no stars, and it was growing bigger as Sora watched. Her Heart went to her feet.

“I thought we fixed the problem of stars going out,” She mumbled faintly. Jiminy shook his head.

“Look again!”

She rubbed her eyes and strained to see something beyond the black carpet of outer space, and realized the stars were gone not because they had gone out, but because they had been covered up by something else. Something huge.

A whale, perhaps the biggest she’d ever seen. Larger than worlds.

And it was getting closer.

The group heard a baying call, then, loud enough to make the walls of the gummi ship rattle ominously as the whale swooped up and over them, just barely missing collision. Sora unbuckled her seat belt and ran towards the window, completely ignoring Donald’s increasingly louder demands that she return to her seat. She saw the whale’s tail angle up and down as its path bent back downward as the whale circled back around in an unfathomably enormous arc. It called again.

“It’s Monstro,” Jiminy said in a far-off voice. She jerked her head back to see he was as astounded by the sight of the whale as she was, if not more so.

“Monstro?” Sora repeated uncertainly.

“A whale of a whale, and vicious besides,” He informed, his voice slowly returning to normal as he blinked away his surprise. “I’m surprised he made it off my world, I wonder if anyone else got out okay too, then?”

“That’s from your world?!” Donald gaped at Jiminy, before quickly turning back to Sora. “For the last time, you have about two seconds to get back in your seat and buckle in before I get us out of here!”

“Too late! He’s going to swallow us!” She gestured wildly towards the front window.

They followed her hand to see the whale had by now angled himself directly in their path and opened his mouth wide, and with another great swish of his tail Monstro had surged forth, heading straight for the gummi ship. The group screamed.

The lights flickered out in the gummi ship, strobing for a second longer before going dark, and the last thing Sora saw was Monstro’s teeth closing shut as Highwind entered the mouth. The gummi ship hit hard against something with a dull smacking sound, an unlikely noise considering the ship was made of metal, and Sora was swept off her feet when the gummi ship gave a sickening roll inside of Monstro’s mouth.

The last thing she felt was a crack as her head hit the dashboard, and all went black.

 


 

 

R I K U

 

He winced as he felt his shoe step into something squishy.

Just convince Pinocchio to come with you and get out, Riku reassured himself. No need to stay longer than absolutely possible.

It took some doing to find Maleficent, but a friend was willing to show him the way.

After Riku had closed the door to Kairi’s room and raced to the chapel hoping to still find Maleficent there, he was quickly disappointed. The table was long since receded back into the floor, and the sun’s streaks still trailed down the walls, but nobody lay beyond them. He walked out the halls and opened the first door he saw, and Riku found himself somewhere along the outer walls of Hollow Bastion.

He squinted against the full force of the dying sun, still bright despite its perpetual set, and he looked over to see a small heartless staring at it, with black crooked antennae quivering in odd intervals. Riku couldn’t explain how, but he knew this was the heartless that still woke him up every day by poking him in the nose repeatedly. He couldn’t help but smile at the humanizing sight of the little heartless watching the sunset. Not for the first time, Riku wondered who this heartless was before being transformed into its current state. But then he remembered his goal.

“Do you know where Maleficent is?” It looked over at him, antennae still dancing. “I’m pretty sure you can sense her at least a little bit, can you take me to her?”

It twitched its head, almost as if trying to imitate a nod. And with that, Riku was on the chase. It dashed around hallways, past doors, down several floors, until it came to a stop in the library and vanished into a Dark portal.

The library. Riku had been here a number of times in the beginning, less so as his tasks required more attention. Few of the tomes made much sense, as they seemed to be centered around increasingly perplexing research subjects he couldn’t begin to understand. But at times, they had mentioned Light and Darkness. He was curious as to what they discussed.

But that was a question for another day. Right now, he spied Maleficent at one of the desks, papers scattered about her in small organized piles. She looked up as he walked over.

“Was there something you needed, my child?”

Diablo was back, he saw, and now perched on the neck of a lamp at the desk instead of his usual spot on her shoulder. The bird studied him with black eyes that seemed to swallow any light in the room.

“I was wondering,” Riku started, “Do you remember Pinocchio? From that day in Traverse Town?”

“Of course.”

“I was thinking about Kairi missing her Heart, and how Pinocchio has one, even though he’s a puppet. An object. And what he said about the Blue Fairy giving him a Heart, and what you said about not being able to make him a real person because you didn’t know what this fairy’s magic was like?” At her nod, he continued, “Do you think you’d be able to study her magic more and figure out a way to replicate it if I brought him here?”

Maleficent looked intrigued at this. “Perhaps. What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking maybe you could make a new Heart for Kairi, or one just like her old one.”

He looked over at the sound of a warbling cry from Diablo. That same sound that was just like laughter. Riku glanced back at Maleficent to see a spark of amusement just barely around the corners of her lips, her eyes. There but not quite.

“I shall not lie, I was thinking similarly when I first saw him. ‘Tis why I had you bring him to me, so that I could study him for a moment. I’m sure I could find out something useful to your theory if I could study the Blue Fairy’s magic at work for longer.”

He bit his cheek to keep his gratification from showing on his face. If Maleficent were going to use him, he decided, Riku could use her right back. For a nobler purpose than some ‘reward’. Two could play at this game.

“Great. In that case, can you figure out where he is now?”

When she said Pinocchio was ‘in the belly of the beast’, he thought she was speaking poetically, like he was in a dangerous situation. Riku didn’t think she was being literal.

His stomach churned as he could feel the ground beneath him pulse. Riku looked around at the room the Dark portal had opened into and saw that almost everything was made of flesh—the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Contrary to the pink or red color one would expect, the inside of Monstro was instead composed of indigo and purple tones, with an array of other colors speckling the walls in an irregular pattern that pulsed along with the ground. The overall effect was unsettling, but not morbidly so: Somehow the anatomy of Monstro had managed to remain cartoonish rather than realistic. Like a child’s idea of what the inside of a whale would look like.

Around him in the room, Riku could see barrels and crates stacked in the corners. And somewhere around the edge of the room down below, he could hear rustling.

He looked down towards the first story of the chamber. Below, he could spy a familiar wooden figure clacking about on the floor, peering about as if looking for something. Perfect.

“You ever find who you were looking for?” Riku called out to him, and Pinocchio looked up with a grin spread over his carved features. “Your father, I think it was?”

“Mister, you’re back!” He cheered, and Riku went through another Dark portal that took him down to Pinocchio’s level. “I sure did, the star worked! Turns out my father had ended up here after Monstro swallowed his raft he had built to try and find me, he didn’t realize I ended up in a whole other town!”

“A raft, huh?” He mused, thinking back to the raft he and Sora and Kairi had built just before the islands fell. Riku wondered where it had ended up, if somewhere out there in space there was Highwind drifting past the stars. “So, what are you working on now?”

“I’m looking for more gummi blocks to help father build a ship! We might be able to get out of this whale for good, then.”

“Gummi blocks,” He echoed. Maleficent had showed him those, not long after they’d given Pinocchio the star shard. She mentioned the research done on them by a man named Ansem, how they could be used to traverse worlds. Riku personally preferred the Dark portals for their convenience, himself. “You still have that star shard, right?”

“Sure do!” Pinocchio said as he gestured to one of his pockets, which glowed green. “Hope you don’t mind, I showed it to my father right after I arrived. He used it to research the gummi blocks, and that’s how he found out we could use them to escape. Haven’t shown anyone else, though.”

“That’s fine,” Riku replied. It couldn’t matter much if he were going to bring Pinocchio back to Maleficent soon enough anyway.

Before long, without even realizing it, Riku had gotten wrapped up in helping Pinocchio find pieces of gummi blocks, and then in a small game of tag. In a way, he shamefully thought as he remembered his intentions to take Pinocchio to try and find a way to help Kairi, this was nice. Just trying to round up some material and play games in the meantime, like those couple of months back on Destiny Islands where the only objective was to finish the school year and make a raft.

Back when things were so simple. Before there were heartless, or keyblades, or Light and Dark. When all he had to think about was what to do tomorrow, and what could be waiting beyond the waves of Destiny Islands.

Before long they had amassed a number of small shards of gummi blocks, and they heard a far-off voice call for Pinocchio.

“Oh, gosh, I should go see what Father needs,” He said, cupping the gummi pieces in his gloved hands. And then, he turned to Riku. “You’re still gonna stick around, right? We can play hide and seek next!”

Why am I doing this? He thought, I could just drag him in a Dark portal right now and be done with it. Kairi’s waiting for me anyways.

But, Riku supposed, he didn’t mind this so much for the moment. The feeling like things were normal even if just for a short time.

“You know what? Yeah,” He replied. “Yeah, I’ll stay.”

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

“He’s probably going to go do something stupid, isn’t he?” She asked the boy in the chair.

“At least he’s got the idea that maybe Maleficent isn’t one of the good guys, finally. Still, if he says she’s trying to use the Princesses of Heart to gain access to another Heart behind this Door…”

“And I’m one of those Princesses of Heart,” She glanced down at her hands. Kairi could feel her Heart squeeze.

“Maybe I shouldn’t get out of this place and back in my body after all.”

She could feel pinpricks around her eyelids, and Kairi quickly brought her hands to her face before she felt her cheeks getting wet. She pressed her fingers to her eyes with enough force to start seeing abstract shapes spangle across the backs of her eyelids. Kairi’s attempts to hold the tears in didn’t stop them from finding their way out. She raggedly sighed.

“Maybe I’ll be stuck here forever,” Kairi said with a short trilling laughter that was quite different from how it usually sounded. “I’ll be just like one of those princesses in the storybooks, stuck in an ivory tower, except I’ll be here in this white room stuck on this—this fake play island—”

“And that’s supposed to be the good ending,” She sniffed. Kairi gave a small sputtering laugh again. “Kairi never gets her body back and she’s stuck here for all eternity, and everyone else lives because Maleficent and that guy in the hood and whoever else can’t access that Door.”

“Bad ending,” Kairi said in a rasp, “Kairi gets her body back and she and everyone else in the universe dies or worse.”

Black spots flashed at the edge of her sight. She distantly realized she couldn’t take as deep of breaths as she desperately wanted to.

Kairi stood unevenly and took wobbling steps towards the open door of the white room, with her knees threatening to go out from under her at any second. She had to get out of here. She had to get out of here. The walls were too white, the light too much. She felt like she was going blind in a room that was shrinking to the size of a coffin.

“I-I’m sorry,” She gasped as she clawed at the archway and spared a glance back at the boy. His face was still so peaceful, placid, as if he weren’t aware of anything at all. For a moment Kairi hated him more than anything. “I gotta get out of here, I gotta—”

She didn’t finish her sentence as she ran blindly out of the white room, her shoulders smacking against the rock walls of the cave. It was as much of a trek to run in the sand in this fake play island as it was in real life, the grains halfway pulling at her shoes. And just as in real life, the overgrowth of plants at the entrance to the cave thwacked painfully against her as she barged out.

Kairi hated how real this place was in every way but the ways that mattered. She hated how a place for childhood fun had become a prison. She hated how Sora and Riku were able to use their own bodies and do something as simple as walk around without it meaning the potential destruction of everyone and everything. She hated how the boy in the pale throne was able to sleep through his own imprisonment so peacefully. She hated this. She hated everything.

Kairi collapsed against the sand just as she did on that first day when she realized she couldn’t use her arms or legs. When she reverted back to this fake play island as a reflex of fear, because being able to do something imaginary was better than being able to do nothing at all but be a lifeless doll on the outside. She breathed so deeply she risked inhaling sand.

Kairi rolled over onto her back and dug her fingers into the sand, watching it fall steadily through her fingers. Another scoop, and she did it again. And again. Kairi listened to the din of the waves crashing offshore.

She angled her head upward awkwardly to look back at the thicket of plant growth that marked the entrance to the cave. She remembered when Sora and Riku had first shown the place to her, two years after she had arrived on the islands.

That day at school, Sora was antsier than usual. Which was saying something, considering how even on a normal day she’d nearly squirm out of her seat several times before the day was out. Every time Kairi asked her what was up, Sora would only say “It’s a surprise, I can’t tell you yet,” or a variation thereof.

That afternoon, Riku met up with them as they walked home, which wasn’t unusual. He was still in the same school as them, even if a grade above, and so they met up whenever they could. Compared to Sora nearly vibrating out of her shoes, his stride was as even as it often was. Neither of them would give Kairi a definitive answer whenever she asked what was going on.

They still wouldn’t answer her questions as they both walked right past the entrances to their neighborhoods, straight to the harbor. Past the dockhands and boating staffs, to the private piers for resident families to keep their own boats at. Riku gestured for them to get in his little personal boat he sailed to the play island with, made with help by Kairi’s dad once Mina had dubbed Riku and Sora as officially being old enough to go to the play island by themselves. It had happened six months before, but he was still quite proud of the fact, and took Sora and Kairi to the play island nearly every weekend since.

“Geez, Sora, stop rocking the boat so I can get in.”

At his words, she held her knees close to try and stop her fidgeting. “I can’t help it!” Sora protested, as Kairi could see the toes of her shoes wobbling despite Sora’s attempts to stay still. “I’m so excited. It’s the coolest place ever, and it’s ours, and we’re gonna show you,” She added to Kairi.

“Why can’t you guys just tell me?” Kairi asked. They both grinned at her.

“You’ll see,” They said in unison.

They had scarcely spent any time mooring the boat ashore before Sora tugged on Kairi’s arm, nearly dragging her up the scaffolding and past the waterfall. Riku followed close behind.

As short as they still were, they didn’t need to crouch down much at all to walk under the flora that marked the entrance. Only Riku had to angle his head slightly to avoid a branch.

The first thing Kairi noticed about the cave was that it was dark. And from beyond, she could hear the roar of the wind from deeper within the cave.

“What is this place?” She asked.

Sora started hopping up and down, and nearly shouted “Me and Riku discovered this place only a couple of days after we first found you! You’re one of us now, so we wanted to show it to you.”

“You gotta keep this place a secret, okay?” Riku insisted. Kairi nodded.

“What’s it called?”

Sora and Riku glanced at each other and gave mirrored shrugs. It was uncanny how in-sync they could be at times, Kairi thought to herself.

“We never really had a name for it,” Sora said, “We’ve only ever called it the secret place.”

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“I’m serious, Riku!” She pouted as she stamped her foot on the scaffolding, “There’s a monster in there!”

“Uh huh.”

“It’s true, I saw it with my own eyes!”

“Sure,” He drawled, and gave her an unimpressed look. His silver hair looked almost bluish as they walked in the shade, and it reflected the color of the sky slightly. “Are you sure you didn’t just hear it this time?”

She made a frustrated noise. “What difference does it make? There’s a huge monster in there, I’m telling you!”

“Alright,” Riku sighed as they walked closer towards the bushes towards one side of the waterfall, “Suppose there really is a monster. Think we can beat it by ourselves, Sora?”

She gave him a wink as she raised her wooden sword and gestured with it to his, clutched in his hand.

“No problem. We can do anything when we’re together!”

Sora whipped her head towards the bushes as she heard another growling rumble.

“Listen! There! Did you hear that? Please tell me you heard it too,” She nearly begged as he leaned forward, his brow furrowing as he tried to listen.

“Ssh. Quiet,” He ordered as he gripped his wooden sword with both hands. “We’ve gotta be careful.”

Just beyond the copse of shrubbery, the children could see a long dark passageway stretch out in between the leaves. They tiptoed inside, the bottommost leaves grazing past the tops of their heads.

They walked forward, and no monster. Farther in, and still none. Another rumbling roar called out, and Sora grabbed Riku’s arm. She could see his knuckles turn white as he gripped the wooden sword tighter. The only sound the children made was the quiet tinkling noise from the necklace Sora wore.

Down the stone corridor, past the beginnings of tree roots trailing down the tops of the walls, and their path ended at the arrival to a larger chamber the corridor fed into. They blinked at the newfound light source in the ceiling of the chamber after the darkness of the walk in. A hole in the stony construction of the cave turned out to be the source of the roar, from the wind skirting past the opening. Riku pointed at it.

“See that?” He chuckled, as Sora slowly let go of his arm. “It was just the wind making that noise.”

“Aw, man,” She whined as she crossed her arms behind her head, a pose she had seen Riku do not long ago earlier and had imitated ever since. “I wish it was a monster!”

“A second ago you were spooked at the idea of it being a real monster,” He pointed out.

“No, I wasn’t!”

“You were gripping my arm.”

She floundered, trying to come up with a good excuse. “I was…I just didn’t want to lose you, that’s all! It’s a really big dark cave and we could have gotten lost.”

(Riku looks at her and thinks for half a moment of continuing to tease her, in the good-natured jest of lifelong friends. But a flash of blue catches his eye and he looks down, slightly, seeing the necklace mirroring the endless blue of the sky. And Riku remembers his promise to protect her from the dark, too, from the night of the meteor shower two days prior.)

(He decides not to tease her about her fear of the dark today.)

Sora turned to look at something just beyond them both, past the hole in the ceiling. “What’s that over there?”

Riku turned, too, and saw a large wooden something at the end of the room. Finely carved and decorated with gilded trimmings. He walked towards it and felt the edges of it.

(It whispers to him, words too quiet for his mind to recognize, but just loudly enough for his bones to understand.)

“A window, or maybe a door?” He wondered, and saw there were no hinges or doorknob. “It won’t open.”

She quirked her mouth to the side. “Geez, is that really all that’s in here?”

“What do you expect in a boring place like this?” He paused. “Hey, Sora.”

“Hm?”

“When we grow up, let’s get off this island.”

She turned to Riku and saw that he had an unusually earnest look on his face. He took her hand in his and raised his wooden sword in the other, and Sora could see the scratches and dents that had begun to accumulate on it glow in jagged crescents as they caught the light from the hole in the ceiling where the sky shined through.

“We’ll go on real adventures,” Riku avowed, “Not this kid stuff!”

Sora came to on a soft, spongy surface.

She blinked, and saw the gummi ship bobbing up and down on the surface of what looked like a great pond with piles of wooden constructs towering around in it. It mercifully seemed undamaged despite what had to be a crash landing into Monstro’s mouth. She realized the ground she had been sprawled out on was…moist?

“What the—ew!” Sora scrambled to get off the ground and yanked the sleeve of her overshirt to clean off her face, her legs. Was this place made of flesh?

Oh, right.

They were inside a whale.

The chamber echoed with distant rumbling, and the staccato of footfalls as Donald tapped his foot. He was looking upwards at something, as was Goofy, who had his shield raised to halfway cover his head as he tried to peek around it.

“Knock it off!” Donald yelled, his voice making the words come out almost with a scraping sound.

Goofy glanced back at Sora as she walked up to see whatever they were watching for. “Hey, Sora. Are you okay? Ya took a nasty hit there as we landed.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” She replied as she felt her pockets for a potion or an elixir. Better to be safe than sorry. Sora decided not to mention the flashback dream she’d had. “What are you guys doing?”

She took a quick step back as something bright and colorful sailed through the air and landed at her feet. Sora could hear rustling from above.

“Tryin’ to avoid those things, ahyuk!” He answered and gave a start when his shield rang as another object clattered against it. “And for today’s weather expect showers. Heavy showers!” Goofy gulped.

“Hey! Who’s there?” Donald shouted.

Suddenly a clacking noise sounded out, and Sora could see a carved wooden face peek over the edge of the wooden scaffolding.

“It’s me!” The boy—a puppet, Sora realized—said.

“Well, as I live and breathe!” Jiminy exclaimed, and Sora saw he had climbed up onto Donald’s shoulder. “If it isn’t Pinocchio!”

“Jiminy!” Pinocchio cheered, as Jiminy opened his tiny umbrella and was carried to the wooden scaffolding above by a sudden breeze. Pinocchio carefully caught him in an outstretched hand. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“And I’ve been looking for you,” Jiminy replied, “I was so worried. I didn’t think you’d end up in Monstro again! How did you get here?”

Pinocchio’s eyes darted about at this. “I dunno, I just kinda woke up here.”

Right before their eyes, Pinocchio’s nose grew by quite a few inches. Jiminy frowned.

“You know, Pinocchio, you’re not supposed to tell lies,” He lectured, and looked down towards a glowing green light from Pinocchio’s pocket. “And what’s that?”

“I’m not lying,” He protested, and his nose grew long enough to start sprouting leaves. “And it’s nothing!”

Now Pinocchio’s nose was long enough that the leaves gave way to budding flowers.

“Pinocchio,” Jiminy warned.

His eyes fell. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone,” Pinocchio said weakly. Jiminy’s expression softened at this, and he rested a hand on the tip of Pinocchio’s nose consolingly.

“The Blue Fairy asked me to watch out for you, Pinoke,” He encouraged him. “So you wouldn’t stray from your path to become a real boy. I’m your conscience, remember?”

“I remember,” Pinocchio replied with a small smile, and pointed to his overgrown nose. “’A lie only grows and grows—”

“—‘Til you get caught, plain as the nose on your face.” Jiminy finished. “Whatever it is, you can trust us. Right, guys?”

“Right!” Goofy nodded. From beside him, Sora and Donald did the same.

Pinocchio hesitated for a moment more, and finally relented. He placed Jiminy in the brim of his hat and climbed down the side of the scaffolding, and the trio could see the glowing much more clearly now. Finally, as he reached the floor, Pinocchio reached into his pocket and pulled out a star-shaped rock that pulsed with that green light.

Donald gasped. “Is that what I think it is?!”

“A star shard!” Goofy cried. “Gawrsh, I’ve only ever read about those!”

“What’s a star shard?” Sora asked. Donald didn’t dare peel his eyes away from the rock as he answered.

“It’s one of the rarest types of gummi blocks in existence,” He said, “Able to transport the holder to nearly anywhere! The only one I’ve ever seen was owned by the king. The king!” Donald angrily remembered, and nearly shot daggers at Pinocchio from his eyes. “How did you get that star shard?!”

“It was a present!”

“Liar!”

Jiminy was looking aghast at the proceedings thus far, and finally intervened.

“Now, now,” Jiminy opened his umbrella and quickly got in the middle of the two, which was no mean feat considering his stature. “I don’t think he’s lying, his nose didn’t grow! Now, Pinocchio,” He asked gravely, turning to the wooden boy, “Tell us how you got this star shard.”

“It really was a present, I swear!” He cried, “I was telling this Miss and Mister I met in Traverse Town about how I wanted to be a real boy, and how I wanted to see you and Father again! She said she couldn’t make me real, but she could help me find my father. That’s when she gave me this,” Pinocchio gestured to the star shard in his hand. Donald squinted at it fiercely. “Miss told me to keep it secret, ‘cuz somebody might try and take it or else.”

They all took a while to process this information.

“That’s quite the present,” Goofy spoke.

“I still think the story’s fake.” Donald muttered angrily.

“Donald, he wasn’t lying,” Sora replied, “Like Jiminy said, his nose didn’t grow. Besides, King Mickey’s star shard can’t be the only one in existence, right? Maybe there was someone out there that had one and was just really generous,” She finished a little unsurely, the story still sounding a little far-fetched to her. Oh well, Sora thought, it’s gotta be true if his nose didn’t change at all.

“That’s what I thought!” Pinocchio said, “It was a real kind favor of them. But if you want something, why not take it?”

“My goodness,” Jiminy shook his head, “Maybe you could do with some more advice from your conscience, then.”

“You are my conscience, Jiminy!” Pinocchio smiled, and picked Jiminy back up to put him on his shoulder. “I’ll never tell lies as long as you’re around to guide me.”

With this, Pinocchio’s nose glowed, and reverted back to its original size. The small budding flowers fell off and drifted to the floor. Jiminy sighed gratefully. From deeper into Monstro’s mouth, the group could hear someone calling out.

“Pinocchio! Pinocchio!” They shouted, “Are you alright? I heard a commotion!”

“I’m alright, father!” He replied, “I’m coming back!”

Pinocchio safely deposited Jiminy back into the brim of his hat, and climbed up the wooden scaffolding, his hinged joints clicking as he went. He was one of those marionette puppets, Sora realized, but he could walk and talk like a person.

They followed him up the scaffolding, and Sora looked around as they walked over the watery area that made up Monstro’s mouth. Along the front and sides were vast teeth clenched together, with some sort of bony construct that looked like a spine branching out far over their heads. Piles of wooden pieces were scattered all about the area. Sora could see they were walking up on a half-wrecked ship towards the back of the room, where an elderly man stood waiting. Visible beside him was a mostly-completed gummi ship.

“Were you searching for more gummi blocks, Pinocchio?” The man asked and saw the rest of the group walking up onto the ship beside the boy. “My, so the whale swallowed all of you, too? My goodness.”

“Sure did,” Goofy confirmed.

“Oh dear, where are my manners?” He tutted, as Pinocchio went to his side. “My name is Geppetto. I’m Pinocchio’s father.”

After they had introduced themselves, Sora asked, “So it looks like you have a gummi ship here, huh?”

“That’s right, father!” Pinocchio remembered as he put Jiminy down onto Donald’s shoulder gently, “They have a gummi ship, too!”

“Do you, now?” Geppetto asked as he readjusted his glasses. “I’ve been working on trying to construct this one with my boy’s help, so we can get out of here. Monstro has a habit of taking in quite a few gummi blocks as he wanders around, and I discovered they can be used to make some extraordinary machines!”

“How did you discover that?” Donald asked.

“With Pinocchio’s help! That star-shaped gummi block of his gave me quite a fright as he landed right here in Monstro with a great burst of light not too long ago, and it’s helped us discover all sorts of uses for it and other gummi blocks. That’s why I’m making the ship, because it seems to me the star shard’s a little unstable when you use it without other gummi blocks to help control it.”

“Sure is,” Goofy chuckled, “King Mickey had a heck of a time trying to control his star shard when he first got it. He’d go blasting off in the middle of a sentence!”

“Same thing with Pinocchio,” Geppetto replied, “About a day after he first arrived, he disappeared again in another burst of light! I was terrified, thinking I’d lost my boy again, but then he reappeared a moment later when the cuckoo clock went off.” He went over to the stack of gummi blocks beside the incomplete ship and picked one up. “Well, we’ve all had quite a journey. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in joining us for supper? I’m sure Pinocchio wou—Pinocchio?” He looked around hurriedly and searched out over the piles of wooden scaffolding over the rest of Monstro’s mouth. “Oh, dear, he’s been running off a lot today.”

“He’s gotta be close by,” Sora reassured him, looking over the foremost railing of the deck. “There he is!”

Pinocchio was darting off farther into the anatomy of Monstro and going quickly. He didn’t stop or slow down for any of them calling his name.

“Don’t worry, we’ll go see what’s up, sir,” Sora said before jumping off over the railing, feeling her feet sink slightly into the fleshy ground. She couldn’t stifle a slight cringe of disgust at the feeling of the ground yielding slightly. Sora continued on towards the dark archway that she saw Pinocchio disappear into and could hear Donald and Goofy following behind not long after.

Sora’s disgust unexpectedly lessened slightly at the sight of the next chamber she had found herself in: A cartoonish-looking room that was purple-colored, with bright abstract patterns on the walls that quaked in time with the distant rumbling of this place. She realized each of the patterns had their own pulse that they followed. The room was lit by the entrances to other parts of Monstro, which glowed with a color-changing light. By the entrance to the far end of the room the trio could see Pinocchio peeking around the corner with an innocent smile.

“What are you doing?” She asked him, “Let’s go back.”

Next to speak was Goofy. “Y’know, Geppetto’s awfully worried about you.”

Pinocchio looked slightly guilty at this, but he shook his head.

She sighed. “Pinocchio, come on, stop fooling around playing games.”

Her Heart skipped a beat at the sound of Riku’s voice.

“But Sora,” He said, “I thought you liked games.”

 


 

 

R I K U

 

Yeah, he figured, it was probably a really dumb idea to try and rile her up when he was supposed to be just grabbing Pinocchio and getting out of here. But Riku really, really liked having Sora’s attention on him.

“Riku!” She took a step towards him, the quick flash of a smile on her face dampening to confusion. “Wait, what do you mean?”

“Really?” Riku halfway grinned, “Because you keep playing around with m—with that keyblade.”

He had stammered slightly, as Riku very nearly spoken aloud the words that the Dark corner of his mind’s been insisting all along: His keyblade. Riku’s and nobody else’s.

“I’m not playing around with it,” She replied, “You know that. What are you doing here?”

“Just playing with Pinocchio,” Riku answered airily. 

“No, seriously,” Sora nearly pleaded, and Riku couldn’t help but feel a little bad at that. “Did you ever find Kairi?”

Oh. How did he manage to forget that?

Riku glanced down at the puppet, remembering his reason for being here in the first place. A puppet with a Heart, a girl without. One who waited back in Hollow Bastion for help. Here Riku was, running around and playing tag with a stupid puppet because he was chasing some pipe dream of normality, when Kairi’s Heart needed to be fixed.

And at that moment, an idea came to mind: What if he could recruit Sora to help? Maybe with that (his) keyblade, they could get a better chance at finding a solution.

A smile curled around the edges of his mouth again. “Maybe. Catch us and I’ll tell you what I know.”

Riku grabbed the puppet’s arm and led him away quickly through the room beyond, not hearing whatever Sora shouted as he ran.

The two kept going from room to room, organ to organ, and eventually the puppet spoke up.

“Mister,” He asked as Riku continued to hold onto his arm, “Where are we going now?”

Riku wasn’t exactly sure himself at this point. The only thing one his mind as to what to do next was to keep running and hope Sora followed, but he couldn’t exactly tell the puppet that. As he got a thought, Riku stopped.

“New game idea,” Riku said as he grabbed the puppet’s shoulders and got down to one knee to look him in the eye properly. He smirked. “Hide and seek and tag. At the same time. Sound good?”

The puppet looked very excited at this. “Sounds, great, Mister! Or, uh, should I call you Riku now? That’s what she said your name was, right?”

“Call me whatever you want,” Riku felt the corner of his mouth curl up, up, as a Dark joy snaked a vine through his Heart. After this, it won’t matter at all. You won’t be able to say a word.

“Why, is Riku not a suitable name?”

He scowled at the sound of Maleficent’s voice from behind, while the puppet looked almost overjoyed. “Miss!” He called out happily, and would have run to her if Riku hadn’t extended his arm across to block his path. The puppet looked up at him, his rounded eyes laced with some confusion at this.

“I changed my mind, call me ‘it’. Better run before I tag you,” Riku said craftily.

The puppet flashed a gleeful smile as he nodded voraciously and scampered off, his wooden joints clacking all the way away. Riku didn’t bother to look to Maleficent as he spoke.

“What are you doing here?”

“I decided to make a visit to see how your work was going,” She commented, “And if you’d managed to catch the puppet yet. I see you’re chasing him away, however.”

“I have a plan,” Riku asserted, but his tone came out weaker than he’d have liked. Sora’s face flashed in his mind. “Someone just got in the way earlier, that’s all.”

He tried looking her in the eye at this, to hopefully have his stubborn expression give more power to his words than his voice did. But all it did was seem to amuse Maleficent, as she tilted her head slightly and stared right back. Riku got that feeling she was staring right into his soul again, and his throat clenched up.

“That girl again?” She asked knowingly. His hackles raised at once.

“What do yo—”

“Why do you still care for that girl?” Maleficent crept closer with slow, confident steps. Riku wished desperately that just once he’d see her trip, or fall flat on her face, or something. Just a stumble, even. “She has all but deserted you and your dear Kairi for her new companions. And the keyblade.”

(If you want something, why not take it?)

He swallowed and lowered his eyes. “I don’t care about Sora. I was just messing with her a little.”

Riku didn’t need to see her face to know Maleficent was raising an eyebrow at him as far as it could go.

“Oh, really?” Her voice nearly dripped with amusement. “Of course you were. But alas, duty calls for me, and I should be on my way soon. But before I go, I’d like to give you a reminder. And a little help.”

“Help?” All he had to do was capture a puppet. “I don’t need any help.”

“You’ll need it more than you think,” She replied, her fingers teasing a Dark portal out of thin air as she began to step into it. “Just as you’ll need a reminder of the danger of Darkness more than you think. Remember: The heartless prey upon it.”

“Mind your own business!” He bit out. But Maleficent was already gone.

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

Her eyes fluttered shut. Kairi didn’t feel inclined to go back into the white room, and so she didn’t.

But she knew she would go back in there eventually. It wasn’t as if there were anyone else in this place to talk to after all.

Her stomach was still in knots, but at least Kairi could breathe again. The back of her neck still rang with sharp pinpricks of pain. But the part that hurt the worst was her Heart.

The initial terror of the revelation was over, but that still left the aftershock circling through her like a slow flood that threatened to drown her over and over again. A churning riptide just under the surface Kairi could barely keep her head above, that circled around her legs like a shark.

And her only thought was: This is so much worse than lilacs.

Because this wasn’t some unsayable reverie that might come to the fore every once in a blue moon, something on the tip of her tongue that couldn’t get past her teeth. This was her life now. And Kairi would be stuck in this place for the entirety of it with no hope of a solution: The best thing she could do was nothing. No chance of interfering with Maleficent’s plans again by telling Sora, and she couldn’t even hope to get her body back lest everyone else in existence suffer for it.

“This whole being a martyr thing sucks,” Kairi muttered as she scrubbed a hand down her face. There was no reply but the quiet rustle of sand falling away. Fate could have at least allowed her to have a choice in the matter.

She decided to go see what Sora could be doing now. Maybe watching more go fish would help Kairi calm down.

They ran from room to room, chasing any glimpse or sound from Pinocchio that they could. A stray word here, the fleeting dash of a feather there. Sora could tell she and her friends were beginning to get worn out from all the running, but she couldn’t risk stopping. Who knew what Riku was planning to do with Pinocchio?

(‘Stop Riku and Maleficent’, Kairi had told her. Sora followed that order even beyond Agrabah.)

Finally, they closed in on him. It was quick, with Goofy primarily leading the way with his particularly sensitive ears, able to hear the distant clacking noise of Pinocchio’s jointed arms and legs as he ran even when Sora and Donald thought they had lost the trail. It didn’t help that most of the rooms in this place looked nearly identical, with the only visual differences being a fleshy cliff here or a barrel there at times.

Sora slowed down as she came up on Riku, who stood by unconcerned as Pinocchio clambered past him into the next room. Beside her, Goofy and Donald slowed to a stop as well, and looked to her with slight confusion. She ignored them.

“Riku!” She called out to him, and he slowly turned his head, still unconcerned. “What’s the matter with you? What are you thinking?”

Oh boy, Kairi thought. What has he done now.

In a weird way she was almost thankful for this, as it helped significantly to distract her from her situation. But that wasn’t as happy of a thought she wanted it to be.

“Don’t you realize what you’re doing?” Sora finished sadly.

Riku put a hand on his hip. “I was about to ask you the same thing, Sora. You only seem interested in running around and showing off that keyblade these days.” His eyes glanced downward towards the keyblade in her hand, and it took some time before Riku bothered to look her in the eye again.

“Do you even want to save Kairi?” He asked her.

“Of course I do,” Sora faltered to a morose tone. She mentioned looking for Kairi to Riku first, after all, back in Traverse Town. Why was he acting like this?

But before either of them could talk more on the matter, a yell was heard from the room beyond. Pinocchio. Everyone’s heads snapped towards it.

And then they ran.

 


 

S O R A

 

It was a heartless. Which, while technically mundane at this point, Sora supposed, was still somewhat surprising. None of the group had encountered a single one until now.

But then that raised another question: Why now? One glance towards Riku told Sora enough to know it wasn’t his doing, for he looked just as surprised as she did.

Sora ultimately decided to just not think about it, once she saw Pinocchio was trapped in its maw, which had long teeth that worked as makeshift prison bars. The heartless gave a garbled screech.

The sound was what drove her to action. Sora readied her keyblade and leapt forth, raising the hilt of her weapon to guard against the swinging rubbery arms of the heartless coming down from above. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Riku circling around the wall of the chamber, his eyes searching for a weak spot. Sora jabbed the tip of her keyblade into the openings between its teeth.

It gave another garbled noise, pained, and Sora could see a flash of silver hair duck out from behind the heartless and the raise of a sword shaped like a black wing. It screeched again.

At Riku’s strike, the heartless interlocked its arms and raised them high into the air, bringing its arms down heavily as the hands-like appendages at the ends conjoined to make a blunt weapon. Sora raised her keyblade to guard again and could hear Goofy yelping as his shield rang with a gong!

Donald, however, wasn’t quite so lucky. The arms came down on him slightly at first, as Sora and Goofy shared the blow, and then once more with force as the heartless saw he didn’t guard against the hit nearly as well as the other two had. He gave an angry squawk that bordered on distress, and Sora saw he was hurt.

“Heal!” She cried as she nearly jabbed her keyblade at him, the tip glowing green just as the wound did when it began to seal itself up and return to normal. Donald gave a grateful sigh.

Thank you,” He said, and cast a gamut of spells in angered retaliation at the heartless. Fire after lightning after frost spiraled out the head of his staff, and the heartless’ arms forcibly let go of each other as it screeched again to writhe in pain. But then he risked hitting Pinocchio, who was only scarcely protected from the magic by the heartless’ teeth that imprisoned him.

“Ow!” Pinocchio cried as a burst of flame skirted past the edge of his shin. “Get me out of here!”

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Riku groaned, and muttered something under his breath that sounded like ‘stupid puppet’, but Sora couldn’t be sure. The strike of her keyblade against the heartless’ teeth drowned him out. She struck again.

Riku circled around once more, parrying the heartless’ arms as they swung, and brought up his sword sharply. The weapon jabbed into its side with a muffled noise, and it screeched again. A long trail of Dark smoke seeped from the heartless, joining the other hits the creature had sustained thus far.

Sora looked up towards the top of the heartless, spying the head-like part of it from where the arms sprang out of. Perhaps if she hit it, she could damage it more. Or at least maybe it could stop the arms from swinging much. Goofy gave a shout as one arm came down on his shield again, which was raised over him and Donald. Sora began to move away from the heartless towards the outermost edge of the room, her eye twitching at the sight of the walls and floor pulsing. For a place that was supposed to be the inside of a whale, and looked anything but, that didn’t stop this place from being disgusting.

Riku gave her an incredulous expression as he saw her moving away, misinterpreting her as running from the fight. “Stay with it!”

“I have an idea,” Sora argued, and finished climbing onto the highest point of the chamber floor’s edge she could. Then, she jumped.

The ridge she had jumped off of wasn’t quite high enough to do much, combined with the spongy give of the floor not being a hard-enough surface to jump very well on, but it was just enough for the tip of her keyblade to leave a long wound on the face of the heartless’ head to dribble Darkness from copiously. Its arms forcibly parted and its entire body seemed to spasm with pain, with the jaws on its—stomach? Sora wasn’t exactly sure—just beginning to open. Pinocchio reached out towards Donald and Goofy but couldn’t quite reach.

“Do it again!” Riku encouraged, “We’ll do it together.”

“Together,” She echoed quietly, and both of them whipped around at the sound of the heartless screeching again, its loudest yet. “Let’s go!”

They both raced towards the wall and climbed onto the ridge, this time disregarding the moisture of the room’s construction that got on their hands. Sora could feel the tremors of muscle under her feet.

“On three,” Riku suggested, and at Sora’s nod he went, “One,”

Donald and Goofy both readied their weapons, Donald’s staff giving off waves of heat strong enough to turn the air hazy around the tip.

“Two,”

She tightened her grip on her keyblade and reared it back. Riku grabbed his weapon with both hands, his gloves making a rustle against the hilt. The heartless drew its arms back.

“Three!”

They jumped in nearly perfect sync, bringing their weapons down in a slow arc over the heartless’ head. Sora could see it beginning to raise its arms out of the corner of her eye to defend, but it was too slow. The long wound across its face was matched by two more just like it in an instant, their weapons ringing out with a dull clang as they collided slightly. Their eardrums nearly burst when the heartless screeched again, and Sora could feel a fire spell rippling through the air past her as she fell back down to the floor.

The heartless’ arms spasmed continuously as it writhed in pain, and everybody got back as quick as they could when it dug its claws into the purpled ceiling of Monstro’s bowels. And then, with its arms shaking as it struggled to lift itself in pain, the heartless raised off the ground towards the ceiling. Its movements were traced with the waft of Dark smoke that poured from every wound it took.

The heartless’ maw opened wide as its makeshift prison for Pinocchio finally opened, and it spat him out towards the giant hole that suddenly opened up in the floor. He gave a trailing scream as he fell straight through. Riku immediately jumped in after him.

Sora, however, held back. Donald and Goofy were both giving her curious looks as she eyed the heartless still suspended on the ceiling, that was watching them all with a glare.

“We can come back for it, Sora,” Jiminy reminded her as he peeked out from under the brim of Donald’s hat, “We’ve gotta make sure Pinocchio’s okay first.”

“You’re right,” She relented as she gnawed on her lip. She just didn’t want to risk it getting out and going around Monstro wreaking havoc, though. But Sora shook her head and leapt into the hole as well.

 


 

 

R I K U

 

He angled himself mid-fall so the landing wouldn’t hurt and rolled awkwardly onto his back. Riku spied the puppet close by, blinking and rubbing at his head. The puppet’s own landing would have probably killed a normal person by the way he hit the back of his head on the way down. Or at least would have made them black out. But this was a puppet, after all, with a skull of wood and not bone, even if his status of possessing a Heart made certain people forget he was just an object in the end.

“Father!” Pinocchio cried, and made his way towards Geppetto only to be snatched away at the last second. The puppet was lighter than Riku would have thought. “Mister, what are you doing?”

Riku declined to answer and scrambled up the side of the wooden scaffolding along the outer edge of Monstro’s mouth. From behind, he could hear Sora and the rest of the group tumble down into the chamber with them. He climbed onto the top platform and spared a glance to Geppetto, who was looking at him with panic.

“Pinocchio! Pinocchio!” Geppetto shouted out, running to the railing of the crashed ship he had made his home in. “Please, give me back my son!”

Riku had to hand it to him: Geppetto put on a good performance. Riku really could believe that this addled geezer thought the pile of painted wood in his arms was his child. He almost felt bad.

Almost.

“Sorry, old man,” Riku dismissed Soul Eater so he could have a better grip, “I’ve got some unfinished business with this puppet.”

“He’s no puppet!” Geppetto protested, his panic starting to crest into indignance. “Pinocchio’s my son! He’s the Light of my life!”

Riku could see Sora slowly walking up with an uneasy look towards Riku, that shifted into an unreadable expression.

(Sora looks to Geppetto and doesn’t just see an old man like Riku does. Sora sees her mother, wherever she could be, wandering an unknown world in some distant corner of space screaming for her daughter.)

“He is pretty unusual, I’ll give you that—Not many puppets have Hearts.” Riku shrugged. “I’m not sure, but maybe he could help someone who’s lost theirs.”

“Wait a minute,” Sora spoke up, and finally looked away from Geppetto towards him. “Are you talking about Kairi?”

Took her long enough, he thought to himself. But Riku didn’t deign to respond, and instead carried the puppet towards the upper exit out of Monstro’s mouth towards the throat amidst the racket the puppet made as he begged to be let go.

Riku hopped up, slightly off-balance from carrying the puppet, from platform to platform in the throat as the room pulsed and writhed all around him in time with some enormous heartbeat. His jumps were larger in this room, as the vacuum at the top end sucked at him slightly and made for a strange gravity. At the topmost platform Riku gave a great leap towards the black hole in the ceiling, falling upwards to the noise of the panicking shouts from the puppet.

He continued to shout even after they safely landed on the outer edge of the stomach, yelling for Geppetto again. “Shut up,” Riku growled, and thankfully the puppet complied, falling completely silent at once. Riku skirted around the wall of the room and kept an eye on the bright green glow of the pools of stomach acid that laid nearby. It wouldn’t be good to step in it, even if this place looked completely unrealistic to how the inside of a whale should be. Riku wouldn’t take the risk.

He sat the puppet down on another platform at the edge of the room and held out his hand towards the wall. The beginnings of a Dark portal played along his fingers as Riku heard footsteps from the entrance of the room.

“Let Pinocchio go, Riku.”

“Come on, Sora,” Riku sighed as the traces of the portal faded away. She was being ridiculous. “Who is more important to you? A puppet, or Kairi? The choice is obvious.”

He turned to her, then, and felt his expression soften. Sora wore her Heart on her sleeve and forgot to listen to her head first sometimes. Riku held out his hand, just the same way he did that night when the islands fell. When Sora didn’t realize the potential Darkness had for them both. For everyone.

She would learn the truth of Darkness, and Riku would teach her.

“How about it, Sora? Let’s join forces to save her. We can do it together.”

(United, they could handle anything. Nobody and nothing could defeat them. And that was a fact of life, like how the sky is blue, grass is green, and Sora and Riku were unbeatable when they were together.)

He took a step towards her, and another. And another.

(She gave him a wink as she raised her wooden sword and gestured with it to his, clutched in his hand.)

(“No problem. We can do anything when we’re together!”)

But before he could get any closer, Sora steeled her gaze. The keyblade blazed into her hand with a flash of Light and Riku lost the ability to breathe.

She was going to fight him. She was genuinely going to fight him over this.

What about Kairi?

What about him?

“What?” Riku laughed, half disbelieving and half angry. “Y-you’d rather fight me? Over a stupid puppet?”

“He’s not just a puppet, Riku, he’s someone’s son,” She affirmed.

“This is ridiculous,” He fumed, “He’s a puppet! An object! He’s not a person, he wouldn’t even have a Heart if he wasn’t given one by magic!”

“Even if he didn’t have a Heart before, he’s always had a conscience,” Sora said as a small cricket wearing a top hat clambered down the duck’s shoulder and raced towards the puppet, who got up as quick as he could and ran to meet him halfway. So much for trying to catch the puppet.

“A conscience.”

“Yes, Riku,” Sora said, “A conscience. That little reminder of what’s right and wrong. I don’t know what you’ve been doing around the worlds, but I know you haven’t been listening to yours.”

She got into her sparring position, but this time was different: Her grip was tightened on (his) keyblade, her expression gone to stone. The crown necklace around her neck glowed with a green light as it reflected the pools of bile all around them, as if in malevolent teasing. This was no friendly shoreline spar between two friends over wooden swords. This was something else. And he would have no part in it.

“Then you leave me no choice,” Riku extended his hand and summoned a Dark portal faster than he ever did before. I’ll just save Kairi and the worlds by myself.

He heard a tumbling noise after that but didn’t care to look back as he stepped through. Riku’s shoes made a squelching sound as they touched upon the wood floor of Kairi’s room in Hollow Bastion before they could clean themselves, the soles wet with saliva and stomach acid and who knows what else from that place. Riku dragged over the chair from the room’s desk towards Kairi’s bed and flopped down in it, holding his head in his hands. For several long minutes, all he could manage was breathing.

“It didn’t work,” he choked out, “It didn’t work. I’m so sorry.”

Riku tore off his glove to wipe at his eyes, his vision gone blurry and prickling. His throat clenched up around the shaking breath Riku tried to take.

Sora pointed her sword at him. She abandoned him, after everything.

All for some misconceptions and a pile of painted wood.

“Come on, it’s a couple stories up,” Riku sighed as Jasmine stepped out of the Dark portal, her eyes searching the vicinity as her posture immediately stiffened. Her expression was cagey, but it dissolved back to anger as she saw him gesturing for her to follow.

“I’m not going with you,” Jasmine said. “Wherever it is I have to go, I’ll find my own way there.”

“That’s if the heartless don’t find you first.”

“It would still be better than your company,” She snapped. Riku turned to walk back to his room, waving her on lazily. But it turned out that wasn’t the last of what Jasmine had to say to him.

“You were wrong, by the way.”

He turned back around just as lazily, a brow raised in question. “About what?”

Her eye was fixed towards the sun in distrust, and all around them both Riku could see the shadows in the corners of the room begin to dance. Small peeks of yellow eyes twinkled here and there. Finally, Jasmine looked to him, and her next words were laced with a pity he couldn’t stand more than anything.

“There is always, always room for love.”

There was something sticking out of Kairi’s pocket, he realized.

It looked like the edge of a seashell. He reached, and then his hand retracted slightly. But his curiosity overcame his uncertainty, and Riku fished what turned out to be several seashells and a bead shaped like a crown out of her pocket, loosely connected by twine. The thalassa shell charm, he realized. It was still incomplete; the twine wasn’t properly woven yet like he’d seen in finished sailor’s charms. At several points it crisscrossed awkwardly, by no means up to Kairi’s usual quality of work, the twine only precariously holding it together for now. When she’d left the islands, however she had managed to do so, Kairi had undoubtedly brought it along with the intention of finishing it properly.

But the part that hurt the worst was the tiny face that smiled up at him. The face of the girl Kairi had made this charm for.

Sora didn’t just turn her back on him today.

“Sora turned her back on you too,” Riku murmured as he looked to the small smiling face of the Thalassa shell charm. “She abandoned both of us.”

Jasmine could say he was wrong all she wanted, he thought to himself, but it wasn’t the truth. There isn’t always room for love. Here in Hollow Bastion, in this great crepuscular beast of a citadel, there wasn’t any room for it at all.

There was only room enough for the Dark.

 

Chapter Text

K A I R I

 

Funnily enough, Kairi had actually completely forgotten she’d still had the thalassa shell charm in her pocket when everything went down. That entire day was a haze, with only the worst of it still clear in her mind, but Kairi vaguely remembered using the simplest knot to tie the pieces together haphazardly so they wouldn’t come undone and stuffing it in her pocket to think about later.

And later had arrived, it seemed.

She watched Riku stare at the pieces as both his face and his Heart darkened as one. What once had been a candlelight at the end of a Dark tunnel, a hopeful beacon, had now dimmed to one lone star in a sky devoid of its fellows.

A north star. A way to guide the Heart where no conscience was found.

Kairi looked to the charm. And then she found her way back onto the play island again.

After the time she’d spent lying on the shore outside, sifting the sand through her fingers and feeling her pulse begin to ebb with the waves, she realized she was sick of the shore and its reminder of how she was still stuck. She idly wondered if this was a little bit like how Riku might have felt, and then quickly dismissed the idea: Riku had never lost the use of his legs, and he wasn’t trapped at the risk of everybody else’s suffering if he ever gained freedom. It wasn’t the same at all.

But, she thought, what was the same was how they both stared at a horizon that felt like the bars to a prison cell.

Kairi finally trudged back towards the white room.

She hovered in the doorway and absently looked around the chamber, watching the slow crawl of magic lighting up the images of chains through the walls, the floor. The altered symbol of a geometric heart that was imprinted around the room, that matched the silver badge the sleeping boy wore. The throne that was as white as snow, that the boy slept upon even now, completely unaware of their plight.

Kairi walked over to her usual spot against the wall and halfway collapsed against it, and slowly slid down into a seated position. She stared blankly into space.

She wasn’t really in the mood to talk right now.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

She was sprawled out in her chair, the seatbelt now haphazardly buckled over her and her askew limbs (and it was questionable as to if the seatbelt would still work effectively if Sora was in her current pose, but Sora figured there wasn’t anything visible in the part of space they were currently at, so she decided to not bother moving for now unless another whale appeared on the horizon).

Placed precariously on her face was the latest Ansem Report the group had found, courtesy of one Oogie Boogie from Halloween Town. Sora, now long bored of playing go fish against Goofy, who continually won the rounds now with the increased practice, blew on the report repeatedly until it floated on the current and gently floated back down onto her face, in which case then she would blow on it again and reread a little bit more of it.

Psh-whew!

‘—I am studying material from the meteors that rained down that fateful night. What a find! The material is foreign to our world. It is elastic to the touch, and when two pieces are combined, they bond easily. None of the records even mention such a substance. —’

Phoo-o-o-o!

‘—Was it introduced to this world when I opened the door? I wonder how many other such materials drift through the atmosphere of this tiny world…I wish I could soar off and find out! Could there be uncharted worlds up there? —’

Phew-woo-woo!

‘—But I should stop speaking of such unrealistic dreams. For now, there is no way to venture outside this world. My people and I are all but prisoners of this tiny place—’

“Do you guys think Geppetto and Pinocchio got to Traverse Town okay?” She asked, now beginning to get bored of this pastime as well.

“I sure hope so, Geppetto was an expert with using those gummis,” Goofy said optimistically. “That ship turned out pretty neat, ahyuk!”

“There’s no way they couldn’t have made it with that star shard,” Donald grumbled out in response, still disbelieving of Pinocchio’s story and peeved at having to help slug around gummi blocks for a day. He flicked a couple of switches on the dashboard and a menu popped up on the screen before him.

“New route, huh?” Sora asked as she straightened slightly at the sight. “Do we get costumes again?”

Sora hadn’t stopped trying to see if her wings could fly the second she had seen the changes to their appearances in Halloween Town, and this resulted in more than a few accidents—Sora had become some sort of a vampire thing, from what she could judge by her new fangs, whereas Donald had become a mummy (with part of his midsection missing, to his dismay), and Goofy transformed into a sort of…monster thing? None of them were able to figure it out, but the giant screw that had appeared in his head attracted quite a number of the lightning bolts Donald had fired off from his staff in their fighting.

“Only if it’s necessary,” Donald replied grumpily. “We can’t go getting costumes willy-nilly, it’ll drain my magic.”

“You’re just peeved because we kept throwing candies through that hole in your torso.”

“Well, it certainly didn’t help.

“How many points did you manage to score, Goofy? Thirty-five?”

“Thirty-eight,” He chuckled, and Sora couldn’t stifle her grin as Donald threw them both a scowl and switched a lever, making Highwind lurch forward in speed to retaliate. Both Sora and Goofy were jerked around in their seats slightly, and Sora finally straightened in her seat for good.

“Hey, Jiminy? You wrote down our scores, right?” She asked, and Jiminy looked up suddenly from his journal.

“Sure did,” He replied, to Donald’s dismay, and glanced down at the journal again. “But what d’ya guys think Ansem meant when he said he ‘opened the door’?”

Sora shrugged. “Maybe he’s just talking in metaphors?”

“I don’t know about that,” Jiminy tapped his pen against the page as he pondered, “From what Cid’s told us, Ansem seemed to be pretty straightforward on his research.”

“Ya don’t think he had to open a real door to let King Mickey in to visit?” Goofy asked.

“Either that or something similar.” Jiminy hesitated for a moment. “I was thinking about what Leon and Yuffie explained to you, Sora, about how your world fell.”

She blinked. “Yeah?”

“You said that your friend Riku mentioned opening a door of some sort? And not long after, the heartless invaded?”

“Y-yeah,” Sora answered sheepishly, uncomfortable at the reminder in light of the events at Monstro.

“So if King Ansem had opened a door like that by the time he penned this report, and later on his world fell to the heartless like Cid said, what if it was the same scenario?”

“Wait a minute!” She butted in, “Maleficent’s the one in charge of the heartless, who knows if opening the door did anything bad? Remember how my dream right before I got the keyblade told me I’d open some sort of a door too.”

Albeit, that was right before Riku had opened the door on Destiny Islands, and so had fulfilled for himself what was presumed to be Sora’s destiny. But she didn’t mention that particular piece of information.

“That’s true,” Jiminy conceded, and resumed tapping his pen on the cover of his journal as he considered her words. “I guess opening this door just lets outsiders access the world in question?”

“And it lets outsiders in to wreck the world order,” Donald reminded them from his spot in the pilot’s chair.

“I’m sure King Mickey wasn’t intending to wreck the world order when he visited, Donald,” Goofy said.

“Yeah, but I’m talking about all the other outsiders.”

“Like us?” Sora laughed, and laughed again when Donald turned his scowl on her once more. Everyone in the cockpit was jolted in their seats slightly as he made the gummi ship go even faster towards their destination. “Come on, you gotta admit we wreck the world order at least a little bit just by showing up and fighting heartless!”

“I’m not admitting anything,” Donald replied steadfastly, “Except that we’ll be at Atlantica soon. You better get ready.”

 


 

 

R I K U

 

He flung the heartless against the wall, where it slid down with a gasping noise and dissipated into Dark smoke before it reached the ground.

Immediately, another leapt onto his sword arm, the claws on its feet making a hollow ringing noise against Soul Eater as the heartless climbed, and it gave a fitful swipe at Riku’s face before he could grab it off him in time. A stinging feeling on his cheek was left behind as the heartless was picked up, and Riku held out Soul Eater in front of him in a guarded stance as the heartless went two-dimensional and started moving away. Quickly, yet carefully, Riku followed as he kept his eye on it.

It returned to normal form halfway behind a column. The second he saw its head rising back up out of the ground, before it could lunge, Riku swiped right through its short neck with his sword in one fell swoop. And with that, the heartless were gone.

All except for one…or, none?

Riku had turned to look towards the doorway with a smile and was soon disappointed. The little heartless that usually hung around to watch him was decidedly absent today, which was odd. It was always there when Riku had sparred with the heartless. And if not that, it always at least made its way to his preferred training room by the end of the round if it hadn’t already been there when he began, its yellow eyes twinkling in curiosity and antennae swinging, as if the little heartless were desperately pondering something about what he was doing.

He decided to go look for it. Riku hoped it didn’t get destroyed, which he couldn’t deny the irony of such a thing since that was exactly what he was doing to its fellows not a minute prior.

But this heartless had somehow become special to him in the time it had woken him up every day by poking him on the nose—It had started as a nuisance, but Riku had begun to look forward to that part of living here, even when every other aspect of life in Hollow Bastion was beginning to fall short in his discovery of Maleficent’s deception. And Kairi, well, seeing Kairi could only do so much when she wasn’t able to reply to him whenever he talked. If anything, seeing her had sort of become depressing, as it had made him feel so helpless in the face of whatever had happened to her.

Which in itself was ironic too, one could suppose: Riku had come all this way to understand the Dark, to learn and use the power it had, and he couldn’t figure out how to use it to help his friends. It was the whole reason why he had started this in the first place. But Sora betrayed him for (his) keyblade and some new lackeys to hang out with, and somewhere along the way Kairi had lost everything and Sora didn’t even care.

Riku hissed out a forceful sigh as he wandered from wing to wing, room to room. He couldn’t get distracted with that now. No use ruminating on a foregone conclusion, it was time to move on and see what he could fix.

Eventually the familiar walls he had traversed often gave way to unfamiliar layouts and passages. Here and there heartless wandered, just as they often did in some parts of the castle, but none of them were the ones he was looking for. Riku decided to follow them. Perhaps his friend was among them.

Up and down the lift stops, from floor to floor, and though there were heartless of all sizes he still did not find the one he was looking for. What had started as idle curiosity had become something closer to worry: Riku knew the heartless were expendable, he went through them in droves in his training—and though the logical part of himself knew the little heartless was just the same, he couldn’t help but feel a connection to it. Riku hoped nothing had happened to it.

Eventually he ended up back in the chapel. Often it was populated with at least a couple of individuals with the meetings Maleficent held, individuals that Riku couldn’t care much about alive and cared even less for dead. Jafar and Oogie Boogie were never particularly amicable, after all.

But today the chapel was empty. That wasn’t anything new to Riku, but what was new was the cavernous opening on one section of the wall.

His steps slowed as he got closer, and Riku studied it. It looked as if it were part of the room’s construction all along, with its finished edges and carefully laid brickwork inside, but it couldn’t be: Riku had been inside of the chapel many times and never saw it before. All that was ever usually here was just another flat section of the wall framed with the pilasters that made up the décor of the room.

Or was there? Riku still hadn’t pinned down the extent of Maleficent’s powers, but it didn’t seem out of the question that they could include illusions. He cautiously got closer.

Partially into the tunnel, and Riku could just begin to catch sight of a dimmed light at the end of where another room waited. His steps echoed in the passage as the torches along the walls flickered green.

Riku arrived at the steps down into the chamber, the doors to which were already opened. He could see where they were emblazoned with silhouettes shaped not unlike the skeletal remains of cast-iron fencing visible around the outer bulwarks of Hollow Bastion, that cast gaunt shadows that clawed at the pavement. But here there were no broken fragments in the silhouettes, no flaws in the design. Just perfect arches and columns that evoked the image of the walls of a garden.

Farther into the room he could see vast staircases curve around the bottom of a rounded platform, flanking a violet flag emblazoned with a curlicued emblem that was likely left from the previous occupants of this citadel. Running along the floor, extending out from under Riku’s feet, was a luxurious red-and-blue rug that was markedly in better condition than most of the other furnishings he had seen elsewhere. In fact, now that he inspected what he could see of the room a little more closely, the entire area was much more nicely kept than most of the citadel: The walls were free of claw marks, and the floor was free of debris. Large vessels forged of polished metal gleamed with bright blue flames, marking the edges of the rug and framing its design of the heartless emblem. The ceiling stretched far above.

He stepped inside cautiously and stopped.

There, carefully placed inside recesses in the walls, Riku could see Alice, Jasmine, and three other girls fast asleep.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

She screwed her eyes shut and held her breath as they tumbled off of the rocky shore and into the waves.

The gummi ship quickly disappeared beyond the surface of the ocean, the reds and yellows and blues of its hull blurring into each other before all that was visible remaining was the rays of sunlight streaming through the water. Her lungs began to burn, and Sora resisted the urge to breathe in as she could feel her lungs quake as her instinct fought against her will. Some bubbles escaped past her lips, drifting upward and soon vanishing from sight. She could feel her legs sewing together and it became impossible to swim as she normally did. Sora kicked her legs—or, by now she figured it’d be more accurate to say leg—uselessly.

Sora realized something was up when she could still hear underwater. Back on the islands, whenever she’d swam under the waves, the last thing she’d hear before going under entirely was the burbling of water in her ears before everything went muffled. But now, Sora could hear Donald and Goofy beside her still thrashing about, with Donald’s scratchy voice muttering spells and curses at alternating intervals under his breath.

Finally, Sora couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She breathed out, and her vision cleared, with the darkening at the edges of her vision now gone. Her lungs still burned slightly, but nothing like they were before. She breathed in.

Wait a minute, Sora thought with a start.

“I can breathe underwater?” She asked as she opened her eyes, and saw that Donald and Goofy had transformed into some sort of amalgamations between their normal forms and undersea creatures: Donald’s normally webbed feet and feathered tail had shifted into six tentacles quite like an octopus, whereas Goofy’s entire body was now that of a turtle’s, with his face peeking out from between the shell. Donald’s staff ceased glowing once their transformations were complete. If they got turned into fish, Sora wondered inwardly, did that mean she got turned into one, too?

She looked down at herself and let out an excited squeak too fast to be stifled in time.

Sora had turned into a mermaid.

Her legs had been replaced by a deep blue tail similar to that of a dolphin’s, with slick skin instead of a fish’s scales, and she cautiously poked at it, feeling the touch where her thigh had been. Sora wiggled what had been her feet, and the end of her tail waved back and forth in the water, gleaming slightly to reflect the light of the sun far above. She was still wearing her necklace, but the rest of her garments were gone, replaced by a matching blue bikini top made of a clamshell.

“Of course you can breathe underwater,” Donald huffed as he awkwardly tried to upright himself in the water with his lack of feet. It didn’t work well. Beside him, Goofy was trying to wobble each of his turtle legs to move around. “It’d be impossible to blend in with undersea creatures if we were drowning!”

“Donald, I’m taking back all of the mean stuff I said about your magic,” Sora said as she shimmied about, in efforts to relearn how to swim. She slowly drifted around, moved by the current, and saw they were all being twirled about slightly.

“Good, you better.” Donald replied. Sora could see he turned his head at an awkward angle to talk, as he was beginning to drift upside-down.

“Gawrsh, I wonder if there’s another one of those Ansem Reports here too,” Goofy wondered aloud. Donald turned to reply, and Sora decided to take the opportunity to get some distance and angle herself away from them to check the clamshell top. It’d be really awkward if it ever came loose, she thought with a shudder.

A slight tug, and it gave no signs of any risk of coming off. A harder tug, and eventually tugging with all her strength, and still nothing. She let go at the feeling of her skin beginning to burn with the pain of being tugged on so hard. The clamshell must have been welded to her skin, or part of her anatomy in this world. No risk of that, then, she thought with relief.

Sora looked up at the sound of shouting. Coming straight towards them was a group comprised of, from what she could see, another mermaid and two much smaller fish. Sora could hear Donald and Goofy quieting down at the noise as well.

“Come on, Sebastian! They’re right on our tail!”

“Ariel, wait!” An accented voice replied, and Sora saw it came from a bright red crab that could barely keep up. “Slow down, don’t leave me behind!”

“You guys, there’s someone up ahead—!” The other fish called out, and nearly crashed into the mermaid as she stopped suddenly once she caught sight of the trio.

Her previously harried expression shifted as her eyes widened, and the mermaid took in their appearance. Sora with her mermaid tail and silver necklace, and the halfway fish-like visages of Donald and Goofy, who were trying feebly to stay upright.

“Oh, my!” She gasped, “Hello! Are you new around here?”

Sebastian brought a claw to his forehead in exasperation.

“Don’t talk to them, Ariel!” He cried, “They could be enemies!”

Ariel rolled her eyes. “Relax, Sebastian. They don’t look like them,” She turned to the yellow fish that ducked behind her, and asked, “Right, Flounder?”

Flounder poked his head out shyly. “I don’t know, there’s something weird about them.”

“I, uh,” Sora nervously laughed, “What do you mean?”

“You guys do seem a little different,” Ariel agreed and swerved around gracefully to inspect them from all sides. “Where are you from?”

“From, um, from somewhere far away,” Sora tried, and she could see Sebastian eyeing Donald and Goofy suspiciously as they clumsily swam around. “And we’re not really used to these waters. What was it you were running from?”

Before any of them could answer her question, a group of jellyfish-looking creatures bobbed closer from where Ariel and her companions were speeding through, and Sora could see the heartless emblem on their heads. The keyblade blazed to her hand with a gleam of Light, and she raised it in front of her.

“They’re here too?” Sora asked exasperatedly, and swam like how she’d seen Ariel do to meet them halfway. A wave-like movement from the waist as she moved her legs as one, without the kicking she’d done before. Sora could see electricity tingle along the edges of one heartless’ limbs, and the one closest to her raised its arms as if to smack her away.

Fighting as she normally did was harder to do in the water, which pulled at her arms and kept her movements from being as powerful as she’d like. The tooth of the keyblade dragged down one heartless’ head and a trail of Dark dust seeped out into the water, which clouded her vision. The heartless flinched back from the wound and lunged forward to attack as Sora guarded with a swift raise of her weapon.

A flash of light lit up the stony walls around her, and Sora glanced over to see Donald casting one electricity spell after the other. The heartless flinched away somewhat, Dark trails seeping from their wounds, but it seemed electricity didn’t have as significant effect on these as it would other types of heartless. But Donald’s attacks were fast, and that was what made the difference.

She raised her keyblade and joined him. Rather than electricity, she shot out alternating blasts of fire and ice from the tip of her weapon, noting how the frost spells restricted their movements as the ice encasing their limbs tried bobbing upwards, and Sora could hear Ariel giving a cry of amazement at the sight of their magic.

They made quick work of the heartless Sora had already struck, with the Dark trail seeping out into a cloud as a glowing Heart bobbed towards the ocean surface far above. Soon after that, another heartless that Donald had been chipping away at joined its fate. But before Sora could try and see where the others were, for her vision was obscured by the dust, she could feel a harsh slap to her back from another heartless’ arms.

Sora hissed out a fire spell towards where the blow had come from, and Donald joined her. The magic lit up the lingering traces of the Dark clouds, reflecting their light. She swam closer and struck blindly, again and again and again.

A rush of bubbles was her response as the heartless feebly tried lifting its arms to fight back, and with one more fire spell courtesy of Donald, it dissipated into a Dark cloud. Far above them all a shimmering Heart trailed after the others.

And that left one. This time it was Goofy that struck the hardest blow, as he figured out a diving move that sped him across the water in a small, powerful spurt, ending with the edge of his shell leaving a long gash in the heartless’ head. Sora raised her keyblade to cast a fire spell, but before she could mutter the word, Goofy had already taken care of it with another flick of his shell.

“I’ve still got it!” He cheered, and clumsily spun in circles through the water.

“Wow,” Ariel marveled, and they turned to see her and the others with their jaws dropped. “Oh, wow! What was that stuff?”

Sora blinked, and her and Donald shared an uneasy glance. She really hoped they hadn’t disrupted the world order already—ten minutes would make for a new record. “Do you mean the heartless?” She hoped, gesturing to where the creatures had been.

“Well, that too,” Ariel supposed, and pointed to her keyblade and Donald’s staff. “But that bright stuff! It…it made the water warm!”

“You mean fire?”

“Is that what it is?”

Sora blinked again. “Have you never seen fire before?”

“They live underwater,” Donald whispered, “When would they have ever seen fire before?”

Sora rolled her eyes at him but didn’t reply.

Ariel shook her head. “Could you show me that fire again?”

“I, uh,” Sora glanced to Donald, and he gave her a shrug. He must have figured there was no use trying to hide it, since they already revealed its existence. “Sure, I guess. Fire!

She held out her keyblade and fired off another burst of flame, and this time Ariel raised her hand to try and touch it. But before Sora could warn her against it, the fireball had already just grazed along her fingertips and Ariel flinched away with another awestruck look. She looked at her now pink fingertips and flexed them.

“That’s amazing! Fire, you say? Gosh, it hurts. Like a weird sort of hurt, though.”

“Like…it burns?”

“Burns,” Ariel echoed, as if to try and memorize the word. She flexed her fingertips again. Sebastian gave them all an untrusting glance, his eyes squinted.

“I don’t like the looks of them,” Sebastian warned, “Ariel, we’ve got to get back to the castle! Who knows when more of those things could show up?”

“Why, that’s a great idea!” Ariel swam towards the trio. “I can’t believe the way you knocked them out like that, you should come with us back to the castle. We need your help!”

“I didn’t say that to suggest—!”

“I think they should come too,” Flounder agreed, “Only your dad’s been able to hold those things off, Ariel.”

Sebastian gave a drawn-out sigh, and Ariel grinned. Sora looked back towards Donald and Goofy, and they gave her mirrored nods.

“Sounds good to me,” Sora said as she turned back around towards the group. “Let’s go.”

 


 

 

R I K U

 

He stumbled closer.

Beside Jasmine were two other girls he couldn’t recognize: The closest was a young woman in a silvery ballgown, whose blonde hair was swept into an updo and fastened into place with a headband that matched her dress. A wan smile was spread across her mouth as she slept, and Riku could see her gloved hands were restrained behind her by some strange black substance that held her in place in the recess.

The next was another young woman with blonde hair, this time down, with a golden tiara on her head. Her smile matched the other girl’s as her arms were just as restrained, and the black rocky material had crept further onto her blue dress than the other girl’s had.

He stumbled over to the other row. On the end closest to the door laid a girl Riku couldn’t recognize either, her short black hair tied back with a red bow, and her blue-and-yellow dress encumbered with that same black stone. Another wan smile. And next to her, Alice.

“No,” Riku gasped as he unconsciously raised a hand to his mouth. “No.

Her hands were held behind her as the black stone trapped her in the recess. And just like the rest, Alice looked to be sleeping peacefully, a small smile curled at the corners of her lips. To the right of her was an empty space, waiting to be filled. Riku didn’t want to think of who would go there.

This isn’t right, he thought. This isn’t right at all. Why are they sleeping so peacefully? Why were they smiling when they were trapped? Riku looked to Jasmine: Another smile. That couldn’t be natural at all. Jasmine would have not gone gently into that good night, he knew it for a fact. She would have fought with everything she had and more.

What was this place? Was this what his work had gone towards?

A prison of sleep and stone?

He heard a swish of robes walking down the stairs and wrenched his head over to look. It was a miracle he’d managed to hear it past the drumming of his pulse.

It was Maleficent. A movement out of the corner of his eye made him look up and he could see the last vestiges of a Dark portal circling away just past the balcony on the platform above. Who had she been meeting with?

She looked surprised. “My child, what are you doing down here?”

“Tell me the truth, Maleficent,” He commanded, and shook his head when she had begun to answer, already knowing the next words out of her mouth. “And don’t say ‘balance’, there is no balance here. Tell me the truth. Now.”

Maleficent was less than pleased. He couldn’t bring himself to care.

“This is balance, boy,” She began, and cut him off before he could say anything more. “I told you in Agrabah that those who beg for change the most might not always like the face it presents to them. Such is the same here. You came to me asking for change in the form of balance, and this is the face it presents itself to you in.”

“You’re imprisoning them! I brought them to you because I thought you’d—you’d—” The truth was that he hadn’t any idea what she would do with Alice and Jasmine when he brought them to her, but it certainly hadn’t come to mind that she’d ever do such a thing as this. “I don’t know, you’d give them a place to stay! A job! Like me!”

Maleficent laughed, and it made Riku feel insignificant.

“Remember, boy, Jasmine hadn’t even wanted to stay in the same room as you. You think she’d want to partake in our line of work?”

“Well, no,” Riku sputtered, and raced over to the closest recess where the girl in the tiara slept. “But I didn’t think you’d do this! What’s this stuff on them? Why are they under glass?”

“I have a plan in mind for all of this.”

“Then tell me. Tell me what this ‘reward’ is that you were talking about with Jafar,” He exploded, not missing the way her eyes narrowed at this. “Tell me your real plans with the princesses, tell me why you’re helping Kairi!”

“So you were listening, then.”

“Yeah, I was,” Riku spat. “I’m not stupid, Maleficent. I was always going to figure out what’s going on around here one way or another. You might as well tell me yourself.”

She raised her chin slightly, and an unreadable look dawned in her eye at his words.

“Fine, then. I’ll tell you the truth,” Maleficent replied, “As you may already know, what me, Jafar, and the rest of our associates sought was a certain Heart.”

“I already know about the Princesses of Heart.”

“No, boy, beyond theirs. The Princesses are only a means to an end.”

The rest of what Jafar had said came back to him. “You’re talking about the Door?”

“Precisely. Somewhere deep inside the Darkness—and I mean true Darkness the likes of which neither of us have ever seen, that nobody has seen since the age of tales—there is the Door. Behind it lies something that goes by many names.”

She went on, “Some have called it the Heart of All Hearts, the Great Star, the One True Light. Or, if the teller of the tale were being cheeky, the Light That Slumbers Still. But one name that everyone knows it by is Kingdom Hearts.”

She stepped towards the case that held the girl who wore the tiara.

“The measure of a Heart can vary,” Maleficent said. “With the Princesses of Heart, we know theirs is formed of nothing but Light. But for beings such as us, we are something of a Darker shade. As for Kingdom Hearts…well. We know not what makes it for sure, for all we have to go off of are stories from a bygone era, but you may be able to infer enough from a name like ‘the One True Light’. Yet what lies within it is not only Light, but untold wisdom.”

“Wisdom?”

Maleficent nodded. “Such was the reward I spoke of. Wisdom is the one true power, though Kingdom Hearts undoubtedly holds infinite amounts of the latter as well. But it is wisdom that shall bring your foes to their knees, and it is wisdom that shall give you anything you could ever want.”

“And the Princesses of Heart…”

“…They were the key,” She finished, “Technically only part of the key, really.”

“Then what was the rest of it?”

“You and I,” Maleficent said simply. “And Jafar, Hades, Ursula, anyone willing to join our cause. The key to Kingdom Hearts requires seven Hearts of pure Light, and thirteen of Darkness. I am attempting to recruit more to form the Dark portion of the key as we speak.”

“Seven and thirteen are pretty specific numbers. Why those?” Riku asked.

She shrugged. “Who am I to deny the word of destiny?”

He had to admit that much of what she said made sense, even if her methods of fulfilling the requirements were distasteful, he thought with a glance around them. To plant Darkness at a bastion of Light such as Kingdom Hearts could help yield balance—true balance—for good. Somewhere in all that wisdom there had to be a way to save Kairi.

And somewhere in that wisdom lay another chance at a keyblade.

“That reminds me,” Maleficent spoke as her mouth widened into a smile, and then a grin.  “I must say, my child, I was pleased with your initiative in seeking the puppet some days ago.”

“I didn’t accomplish anything, though.”

“Actions are meaningless without their intentions,” She explained. “And you intended to go the distance to find your answers, further than you ever have before. You intend to still. Your Darkness proves it.”

“It does?”

“Oh, yes,” Maleficent drew closer, and Riku took a step back. She drew closer again. “And I think it’s time I taught you a few more tricks with it, don’t you think?”

That made him stop in his tracks. “Like what?”

“I’ve seen how you go through the heartless in your training. I won’t say I’m not impressed, but I think you would become something truly marvelous with a little help. A little authority. What say you to the ability to command the heartless?”

Riku swallowed hard. If he had the power to control the heartless, he’d be capable of so much more. He could stop Maleficent (and maybe even take her place), keep the heartless from turning others forcibly like he’d seen in Agrabah (and open the Door and show the Heart of all Hearts the truth of Darkness).

He could command the heartless to help him get Kairi her Heart back.

(He could open the Door and get the keyblade that was promised all those years ago.)

“I want it. I want anything you can give me.”

Maleficent’s grin had never left her face as the conversation progressed, and at his answer it grew wider still.

“Excellent,” She said. “Then close your eyes and breathe in deep, and brace yourself.”

Before Riku could ask what Maleficent meant by needing to brace himself, she raised her arms, the sleeves of her robes billowing with the movement. His eyes closed of their own accord.

The first thing he felt was a warmth, and Riku could see green light blaze through his eyelids. The warmth grew hotter, and hotter, searing his skin, and just as he began to gasp in pain it subsided into the feeling of sharp pinpricks up and down his arms and legs like they were waking up again after lying still for so long. Like Riku’s blood had been replaced with a static that roared in his ears.

He sucked in a gasp, and Riku finally opened his eyes again. He could see the last traces of that green light ripple across himself before they disappeared.

Soon Kairi, he thought to himself.

Soon.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“Ariel! I’ve told you not to leave the palace!”

“But daddy—”

“No! You know it’s dangerous out there,” King Triton’s voice seemed to thunder across the water as he spoke. “Were you blind to those things trailing after you as you came in here?”

The ‘things’ in question were stragglers to the heartless they had fought along the way, that rapidly gained in number the longer they remained to fight. And just like in Traverse Town, the group elected to start running from the heartless if there were too many at a time to take care of fast enough in favor of getting help in finding the keyhole and ending the issue of the heartless for good. Thankfully, the creatures were felled in one shot by the trident in his hand.

The problem was, though, that while he—King Triton, who was also Ariel’s father—was reportedly capable of helping them find the keyhole, he was not in the least bit willing.

He finally seemed to notice the rest of the group, and cast his eye on Sora, Donald, and Goofy. “And who are they?”

“They saved me from those creatures!” Ariel commended them as the trio introduced themselves. “Daddy, they say they can get rid of them for good if they find something called a ‘keyhole’. Can you help us find it?”

“The what?” King Triton’s eyes widened, and he spoke quickly. “There’s no such thing, certainly not here.”

“But—”

“Ariel, not another word. You are not to leave the palace again. Is that clear?”

Ariel clenched her fists and seemed as if she had plenty more to say, but then she angrily dropped her arms. She swam back towards the trio with Flounder in tow, while Sebastian remained with King Triton. Ariel reached for Sora and Donald to pull them along with her as Goofy paddled by her side.

“Ariel, where are you going?” King Triton bellowed. She ignored him.

“Let’s go,” Ariel said as they moved from the throne room.

“But,” Sora bit her lip as she looked back towards King Triton, who now had sunken into his chair with a sigh. He soon disappeared from view as they continued to move, and soon all that was visible were the distant blue silhouettes of pillars and sea life.

There were no heartless for a while as they swam through the gorge, only the stony faces of the cliffs that ran high above were the group’s company. That, and the occasional fish or coral that teased at their fins and skirted just out of their fingertips.

“I’m sorry he’s so stubborn,” Ariel finally muttered.

“It’s not your fault,” Goofy consoled. “He’s just looking out for ya.”

“He treats me like I’m still a little kid. He never wants to let me do anything,” She sighed. “All I want is to see the outside world, and collect all the little things humans use, maybe even see a human in real life! But he keeps saying it’s dangerous, that humans are barbarians. He doesn’t even try to listen when I tell him otherwise.”

“King Triton doesn’t want you to get hurt is all,” Goofy replied. “When my boy Maxie was little, he’d get into all sorts of hijinks if I didn’t tell him not to. Once he learned why he shouldn’t do stuff that could get him hurt, everything was alright.”

“But he never tells me why. I’m just supposed to listen to whatever he says, but I know he’s wrong.”

“How do you know?” Donald asked.

“Humans are supposed to be scary. But I’ve found all sorts of their stuff, and nothing is the tiniest bit dangerous. If humans were barbarians then they’d make scary things, right, Sora?”

That caught them all off guard.

“W-W-What makes you say that?” Sora choked out.

Ariel giggled. “That thingy you’re wearing, silly!” She replied as she pointed to her necklace. “Mermaid jewelry’s always made out of kelp, seashells, or coral, but I’ve never seen anything made out of that shiny stuff. Did you find it somewhere?”

 “I, uh,” Sora faltered, and nervously grabbed at the necklace, feeling the sharp points poke at her fingers. “It was from a friend.”

“Ya know,” Donald said, “You never told us how you got that necklace before. I thought maybe you just picked it up somewhere.”

“You never asked!”

“A friend,” Ariel murmured, before twirling in place and looking up to the distant surface of the ocean, and the wavering gleam of the sun shining down. “It’s only ever been me and Flounder looking for human stuff. I never knew other merpeople were interested.”

She glanced back over to them. “Maybe you could come with me to search for stuff sometime, and bring your friend along too?”

Sora gave a sad smile at that. “Maybe,” She said, and she didn’t know if it was a lie or not. Only time would tell. And Riku. “But we’ve gotta find that keyhole first.”

“Right,” Ariel grinned, “If my dad won’t help, let’s just look for ourselves!”

 


 

 

K A I R I

 

She decided to check back on her body and was promptly confused.

The first thing she noticed was the feeling of her nose being poked repeatedly, in a staccato that was slowly growing more urgent the longer it kept going. Whatever was poking her felt a little sharp, like a claw.

And then, Kairi realized with some alarm, it really was a claw. Specifically, the clawed finger of a heartless that was intensely studying her.

Kairi watched the heartless, and the heartless watched her. And all along, it continued to poke her in the nose.

Something about this heartless’ Darkness…Kairi knew this Darkness.

But before she could try and focus further, to decipher more, the door opened. It was Riku.

“So this was where you went,” He murmured, and smiled at the little heartless as it turned to him. Riku spotted its raised claw, stilled mid-poke. He chuckled as he shook his head.

“She’s not gonna wake up like I do when you do that,” Riku told it as he reached over and lowered its hand gently. “She’s in a special sort of sleep. She can’t wake up.”

When he said this, his face slowly fell, and he looked away from them both.

“A special sort of sleep,” Riku repeated quieter. He gnawed at his lip and looked back to the heartless before clearing his throat. “I need you to watch over this room whenever I’m not here. If anyone shows up in this room—Maleficent, another heartless, whatever—I need you to find me immediately. Got it?”

The little heartless had whipped its head towards him in rapt attention as he spoke and gone completely still. Its antennae were moving about like feelers now. And finally, it nodded. The gesture was stilted, unsure, like the heartless was doing an imitation of a nod.

“That actually worked?” Riku wondered aloud with a blink.

Then, as Kairi started to think about what it could mean that Riku had the ability to command the heartless—had he had it all along?—Riku left the room.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“Still not here,” She sighed as she put the rock back down. All that was under it was sand, and one obstinate starfish. Sora let her eyes roam over the sea sponge, the anemone. Nothing remotely keyhole-shaped in sight.

“Should we try looking around the sunken ship again?” Ariel suggested as they wandered about the ocean floor listlessly. None of the trio had swum so much in their lives, and Sora knew it was tiring them out even if they’d gotten a rest overnight. It certainly tired her out, anyway. Ariel must be absurdly athletic if she was able to withstand an entire lifetime of this, Sora mused to herself.

“We already looked twice,” Flounder moped, “Nothing around but that awful shark.”

At this, everyone gave a collective sigh.

“I’m not sure where all the human stuff’s gone,” Ariel said, “Usually there’s tons of it around there. Just the other day I found this amazing three-pronged dinglehopper right by the hole in the side of that thing.”

Sora felt her brows wrinkle. “Dinglehopper?”

“Yeah!” She replied, perking up. “I’ve got an above-sea friend named Scuttle, he can identify anything you give him! I brought this little shiny metallic thing, like your necklace, to him and he told me it was used to straighten your hair. I’ve been using it ever since. It’s a shame I left it at the palace, I’d love to show you now.”

Wait a minute, Sora thought. A pronged thing used to straighten hair?

“Are you talking about a comb?”

Ariel gasped, while Donald gave Sora a warning spark from his staff.

“Don’t upend the world order even more,” He warned quietly.

“Donald, we already showed her fire, I’m sure it’s okay to tell her the right names for a couple of things,” Sora murmured back.

“It’s a comb, you say? Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize humans used words just like ours! That’s so weird, what else could we share?” Ariel got a look of inspiration at that instant and raced to excitedly take Sora’s hand in hers. “You’ve got to see my grotto! Why didn’t I think of that earlier?”

“Hey, yeah!” Flounder wiggled his fin. “You guys could tell us the names of all sorts of things!”

“I’ve got a ton of human stuff collected there, gadgets and gizmos, whoozits and whatsits.”

“Thingamabobs?” Goofy asked.

“I’ve got twenty of those,” Ariel grinned. “Will you guys go with me?”

Donald was giving Sora a stern look, then, wordlessly warning her not to risk tampering any more. But Sora figured it would be way more promising than searching for the keyhole under another rock again.

“Sure,” She replied as Donald heaved a sigh, “Maybe the keyhole’s there, too.”

“That’s another good idea!” Ariel chirped, and raced towards another direction with renewed fervor. The trio and Flounder kept up as best they could. “This is going to be great, my sisters don’t even know about this place. I remember this one time Aquata came really close to finding it—”

Ariel continued to babble on about her six older sisters and her various adventures in searching for human things the entire way to her grotto, with several parts expounded upon by Flounder here and there. Hearing about Ariel’s own exploring reminded Sora quite a bit of the times she and Riku (and later on Kairi as well) would run around the play island and the various parks and beaches they’d visited in search of, well, anything. One day they’d play pretend at being pirates and dig countless holes in the ground searching for treasure, the next they’d be searching for imaginary lost ruins as explorers.

And then those memories, in turn, reminded her of Riku’s actions at Monstro. They reminded her how he’d changed.

Sora raised her hand to the pendant of her necklace as she swam and felt the sharp edges of it poke into her fingertips once more. She raised it to her lips without thinking.

At the feeling of the cold metal Sora quickly dropped it again. Why had she done that?

But then, why did Riku do what he did?

She figured that perhaps they were both going a little crazy from being away from home for so long. After all, Riku had to either be crazy or really, really stupid to be working with someone like Maleficent. Sora tuned back into the conversation once she saw Ariel slowing down. In the corner of her eye Sora could see a black flash of something slither by, but it was gone by the time she turned to look.

“—Someday I’m going to see what’s out there. I want to see a whole new world and be where the people are. I just wish my father would understand that. It’s over here,” Ariel said as she waved them over. The group swam over with varying degrees of skill to find a large hole in one side of an undersea rock formation large enough to come close to breaching the ocean’s surface. They started to go inside.

“And may I present,” Ariel started with gusto, “My collection from the outside…world…”

They stopped short at the sight of King Triton in Ariel’s grotto. He was inspecting the room with a furious scowl, and all around him were shelves of ruined objects: Tattered paintings, broken vases, upended crates and chests. Higher up Sora could spot a lute with its strings ripped, and the neck broken off and nowhere to be seen. The silence they shared as King Triton slowly turned towards them was almost unbearable.

“Daddy?” Ariel said, in a voice almost too quiet to hear. His expression darkened.

“Ariel, Andrina told me you never came home last night.”

“What did you—"

“We were worried sick about you. I’ve told you time and time again not to leave the palace.”

Ariel’s lip trembled as she shook her head and reached down towards a piece of a necklace lying on the ground by her fins, and her hand trembled just as much as her chin as she watched the pearls fall right off of the string back to the grotto floor.

“Everything Flounder and I worked so hard to collect,” Her voice was thick, and she didn’t look up at any of them. She just kept staring at that fallen string of pearls. “How could you?”

Ariel heaved a sob and sped out of the grotto before any of them could stop her.

“Ariel!” Flounder shouted after her as he followed, and Donald and Sora scowled at King Triton. Goofy, meanwhile, paddled towards the fallen pearls with a sad look on his face.

“Father or not, that wasn’t very nice!” Donald snapped.

“It wasn’t me. Those creatures you and Ariel encountered were in this room,” He explained. “You three are from another world, aren’t you?”

Their shock told King Triton more than any response could. He hmphed at this and readjusted his hold on his trident.

“Then you must be the key bearer,” He declared to Sora.

“How did you know?” She asked.

“You may fool Ariel, but you can’t fool me. You don’t know your dorsal fin from your tail.” King Triton said. “And as the key bearer, you must know that a weapon such as yours can shatter piece and bring ruin.”

“You’re wrong!” Donald argued, “Sora would never do such a thing.”

“Yeah, she’s not like that,” Goofy added. Sora smiled at them both gratefully.

“The road to ruin is often paved with good intentions,” King Triton said quietly as he observed the broken objects all around them. “I thank you for saving my daughter. But there’s no room in my ocean for you or your key. Please stay out of our world.”

At this, he left the grotto without another word, and the trio were left alone in the mess.

Sora summoned the keyblade to her hand. It twinkled cheerily in the dim light of the grotto, the reflective metal smeared with bluish tones from being underwater. It was a simple design, with a crown shape matching her necklace pendant in the negative space of its single tooth. At the other end was the golden hilt with the keychain sprouting from the end, finished with a design of three circles connected together.

In her dreams of using it before the start of her journey, Sora had never used the keyblade to hurt her allies. Only heartless and denizens of the Dark. The bad guys. Fire, lightning, frost, any magic she cast was for play at the worst, and she’d never use that to hurt anyone either.

‘The road to ruin is often paved with good intentions.’

But that couldn’t be true. Not for her, who was chosen by the keyblade. Sora was one of the good guys.

Right?

 


 

 

R I K U

 

The heartless—and his experiments to see how much he could control them—did wonders to distract him from thinking on his discovery of the Princesses of Heart and the empty space amongst them. Or at least, they could sufficiently distract Riku during the day. During the night, though, their peaceful faces in the middle of so much black rock haunted him.

No borders around, or below, or above.

Riku had to get (his) keyblade back. He had to.

If a key could open doors, unlock shackles, free anything that could be bound regardless of what form the prison took, then maybe it could free the Princesses too. This wasn’t just a matter of getting what was rightfully his anymore, it was a matter of doing the right thing.

The right thing…

“You come back now with the same story about balance, about doing the right thing, and you expect me to fall for it twice!”

Riku gritted his teeth. Obviously he and Jasmine hadn’t seen eye to eye, that was the least you could say about their time together. But she didn’t deserve that. Encased in glass, in stone, with an unexpected smile considering what Riku could only imagine had happened to her. What had Maleficent done?

What had he done?

No, Riku vehemently reminded himself, he hadn’t done anything beyond following orders he was under the mistaken impression of being for the greater good. The only mistake he made was being gullible enough to take Maleficent for anything other than a villain.

And Riku would make sure to stab her in the back with every knife she was foolish enough to give him.

Starting with the heartless. He turned to choose another opponent from the small group he’d gathered.

“Better idea,” Riku spoke, and felt a pleased rush as the heartless hung onto his every word at this. “All of you, fight me all at once. Now.”

Soul Eater came to his hand in a flash as they lunged, and Riku barely raised it in time to deflect most of their claws. He gave a pained hiss as they reached out farther to grab at his arms, and he could see blood begin to bead along the cuts he hadn’t gotten to with a potion yet. He’d have to be quick about this fight, because he wasn’t sure his pride would let him call it off before it was over.

The instinctive anger he felt at being struck was useful for him to call forth particularly powerful Dark attacks, bolstering his leaps and giving him strength beyond what he had before.

One swipe of his sword and three weaker heartless fell instantly, with hardly any time for even a single curl of that Dark smoke to seep out and signify their injury before they succumbed. Riku grinned. He could get used to this.

Another heartless that decided to go two-dimensional rose from the floor and grabbed onto his leg. Riku kicked it away viciously as another heartless lunged for his back and began to climb, and Riku’s attention was diverted to three different things at once: The heartless that were lunging at him from the sides, the one from below, and the one crawling up behind. Another swipe and two more heartless fell, and the third—one that wore pieces of armor—was not destroyed but certainly down for the count. The beads of blood had begun to trickle down and trace paths around his arms, droplets falling with the same intimidating reminder as the ticking of a clock.

Drip, drop, tick, tock. Keep it quick, Riku.

An uncomfortable squeeze at his throat was another reminder of his misplaced attention, and Riku gave a gasping exhale as he forcibly yanked the heartless’ arms away. Its claws left reddened scrapes at his neck but thankfully no scratches, and Riku hurled it to the far side of the room where it collided with the wall with a smack!

He kicked again at the heartless that tried to gather around his legs, and some went two-dimensional to avoid the blow whereas others took it head on and suffered for it. Those were the ones to exude Dark smoke after the blow, and stumble somewhat afterward. Another kick, and they were done for.

The heartless that had clawed at his neck lunged once more, and Riku brought up Soul Eater with a swooping noise as its blade cut through the air and sailed right for the creature and split it in two. It disappeared immediately. A clawing at his foot made Riku look down and he saw the rest were trying to climb up again, and he leapt towards the ceiling as he could feel the Dark bolster his jump to get out of their reach. Angling himself slightly so that he fell with Soul Eater out edge first, Riku managed to defeat the rest of them before they would completely sink into the ground to dodge.

A chittering noise from somewhere towards his left made him look over. One heartless was left standing, one just the same as so many of the ones that attacked him. A small black thing with gnarled hands and feet and crooked antennae. At the sight of the creature an idea occurred to Riku, and he decided to call the fight. He’d be able to defeat this one with hardly a flick of the wrist anyways, so it was as good as done for regardless of it he had actually done anything to it.

“Stop,” Riku ordered as he saw it prepare to spring. It twitched and got back into a normal position, its glowing yellow eyes staring at him curiously as it waited further instruction.

He thought to how Maleficent had used the heartless to round the Princesses of Heart up beyond what Riku did. Using them to round up Jasmine, for instance, when she had decided to traverse Hollow Bastion alone upon arrival. And who knows what else Maleficent’s used them for? Spreading them amongst the worlds to help the onslaught of the Dark could entail a countless number of orders she may have given them, and whatever orders her cohorts like Jafar had to have given the things.

Riku could give them more complex instructions than simply telling them to stand guard over Kairi or fight him with everything they had. But he was a little short on ideas. There were almost too many possibilities.

“Do a cartwheel?” Riku asked the heartless after several moments.

It turned its head slightly, as if trying to remember what a cartwheel was.

Before Riku could try and tell it how, it raised its hands and spread its feet slightly. The heartless looked over to where it would go and tilted to one side and kept its arms extended, landing on its palms somewhat clumsily before it angled one leg over to catch it as it did the controlled fall. And then, to Riku’s surprise, it landed upright on its feet again and resumed looking to him for instruction.

The heartless had really done it. He made it do a cartwheel.

“Huh. Okay,” Riku murmured. “Neat. Do it again.”

It did.

“Again.”

And it did.

“Do three cartwheels.”

By now it had ended up on his right from the movement, and after it was done it stared back up at him. Riku bit the inside of his cheek to keep his smile from showing. This is kind of rad, he thought. The sound of something beginning to drip onto the stony floor made him look down, and Riku saw the blood from his cuts had made their way towards the ground where they disappeared at once. He had forgotten his injury.

After taking care of them with a potion or two, he looked to the heartless again. “Jumping jacks?”

It did them continuously, and Riku was halfway considering just leaving it there to do jumping jacks for eternity, or until whoever else came in and told it to stop, but then decided against it.

“Okay, stop.” It did.

“Um,” He paced for a bit as he decided his next order. “Divide into two heartless?”

The heartless quirked its head again but did nothing. It seemed this wasn’t a possible order, as a heartless was comprised of only one Heart. Or that was the best explanation Riku could come up with. He’d have to research whether a Heart could divide into two later.

“Never mind,” Riku told it. Another idea came to him: If a heartless couldn’t divide, could it change its shape?

It seemed possible, heartless already came in all shapes and sizes. Riku thought back to when he’d made Soul Eater with Maleficent’s guidance. That was a different scenario—he was making something from nothing, or technically something nonphysical, and it required her magic because of it. But if he was already working with something physical, maybe Riku didn’t need her magic at all.

“Become a dog,” He commanded as he closed his eyes. Something simple, he figured, something easy to imagine.

Riku recalled the black veil he had imagined when forging Soul Eater. That formless black shape that could be molded into anything. He imagined the typical form of a dog: Pointed ears, a longer snout. Four paws instead of the heartless’ own hands and feet, and a shift to its posture that made it walk on all fours. A tail at the other end. He opened his eyes.

The thing in front of him was now a dog, but still with some heartless qualities. It stared at him with perfectly circular glowing yellow eyes, and it was an unnaturally black color that seemed to absorb all light in the room, like it was the silhouette of a dog. Its tail did not wag, but rather hung limply.

Riku breathed out a laugh as he walked forward to scratch the heartless dog behind the ears and grinned. It was fascinating to see the effects of his new power even if it wasn’t perfect, as the heartless didn’t give any response to Riku petting it like a normal dog would. Riku decided he’d have to see if he could adjust its behavior to fit its form later.

He stood back up. “Become a cat?”

Riku closed his eyes. It was easier to shape the silhouette now with practice, and it readily yielded to his imagination. The four legs remained but shortened slightly while the proportion of the torso stayed mostly similar as it shrank in size. The shape of the head changed the most, with the ears remaining pointed yet shorter, and the snout receded into the skull into a more feline profile. The tail lengthened.

Riku opened his eyes. Now it was a cat, though with the same typical heartless eyes and color palette as the dog.

Another idea occurred to him. If he could make animals…could he make people?

Riku knew in an instant who he wanted to make. The same person he had wanted to see the most throughout this entire journey, who had fallen out of his reach when he went through the Dark Portal towards the unknown. The one who he had been so desperate to see again. Who made him feel happy, and when she couldn’t make him feel happy, she made him feel like things were going to end up alright in the end. Even if things weren’t so okay right then.

The one who could beat him in any staring contest. The one whose house he had a key to, who never knew how many sleepless nights he had stared at that key even when he had avoided her. Who didn’t know that sometimes he’d still take it out and do nothing but stare at it and think of home. Of her.

And she was also the one who had pointed (his) keyblade at him and abandoned him and Kairi.

It was like fate was playing an awful joke on him. To make Riku still want to see her after everything she’d done, and even though they were technically enemies now. Enemies. The word tasted awful on his tongue, and Riku wasn’t sure if he’d be able to say it aloud if he tried. To say such a thing would make it real.

No. He would save that for another day.

“Become Sora.”

Her image came so easily to him, and Riku wasn’t sure how he felt about that. The black veil in his mind took a general humanoid form and he tailored it to the imprint of her still in his Heart. Shorter, with lean arms and legs, and hair that never stayed neat for long. The swimming shorts and short-sleeved hoodie she’d ended up off-world in, with those garish yellow shoes she loved so much. Her fingerless gloves she’d gotten to match him when he got his own gloves.

More specific, now: The belt that she wore and left mostly undone, which used to be number one on the list he liked to call Fifty Things About Sora That Bugged the Crap out of Riku (That He Wouldn't Change for Anything).

The exact angle of her nose, which Sora loved to demonstrate was perfect for balancing writing utensils on.

The crown chain affixed to aforementioned belt, that he’d gotten for her as a birthday present one year when he saw how perfectly it matched her necklace.

And finally, the necklace itself.

He could recall the shape of it clearer than anything else. The gleam it took as it reflected the light of shooting stars, how it sparkled merrily back in Traverse Town when Riku finally saw her again that first time. Three sharp points with circular gaps in between them. The simple chain that it hung from.

Riku opened his eyes, and there she was.

 


 

 

S O R A

 

“Ariel!” She yelled towards the expanse of the open ocean. “Ariel! Where could she have gone?”

“Ariel! Flounder!” Donald yelled, his scratchy voice elevated to near deafening levels. “Anyone?”

After they had left the grotto, their mood dampened from their discovery and King Triton’s words, the trio had wanted to try and find their companions. Each of their guesses as to what might have happened to her and Flounder were less optimistic than the last, as there was a notable amount of heartless around. Then again, seeing even one heartless could be considered notable, as they did not bode well for the world and could quite quickly multiply. And not for the first time since they landed in Atlantica, Sora wished King Triton would have just put aside his convictions and helped them find the keyhole in the first place so the heartless could be taken care of entirely. She gave an angry sigh.

“Gawrsh, guys?” Goofy spoke up. They turned to him, and he said, “I think we should try going back to the castle.”

Donald scratched his head. “Huh? Why?”

“Ariel wouldn’t go back after thinking Triton broke her stuff, and he wouldn’t be willing to help us anyways,” Sora agreed, “What would be the point in going?”

Goofy moved to paddle back towards King Triton’s palace before he answered. “Just a feeling,” He replied.

“Why, do you think she and Flounder are in trouble?”

“Nope,” He replied, and when he looked back to see them both unsatisfied with his answer he explained, “Maxie would do the same thing whenever he got mad or if we didn’t agree on something. He’d go to the park or somewhere else for a little while to calm down, and usually by the end of the day he’d come home and we’d be able to talk about it. I betcha Ariel did the same thing, and she’d have to go home eventually.”

“I dunno,” Sora could feel stress settle at the edges of herself. “What about the heartless?”

“Yeah,” Donald admitted. She could see Goofy pull his mouth to one side in concern, and then Sora knew he had considered the same.

Goofy shook his head. “We gotta stay hopeful. No frowning, no sad faces.”

She pulled the corners of her lips into something resembling a smile, but that had become harder to do since Monstro. Goofy was right though. Highwind ran on smiling faces.

And the Dark ran on anger, fear, sadness…practically everything else, it seemed.

But the Light ran on hope. It ran on altruism, on joy. It ran on the will to fight.

And if nothing else, Sora was good at fighting. She was good at hoping. This whole thing was just another sort of test, that was all. A test she had been studying for all her life.

“Maybe this is what we’ve been practicing for. The real test. We pretend to be knights all the time, so what would be different about this?”

Nothing at all was different, except for the fact that Riku and Kairi were not by her side. But that was okay. Even if fate or destiny or whatever had set all of this in motion didn’t have plans for the three of them to be together again, Sora planned for them to be together again, and that was enough. There was just the matter of fixing everything and getting Riku to stop this whole Darkness business first.

But first the keyhole. And Ariel and Flounder.

The trio soon realized something was wrong as they approached the throne room where King Triton was supposed to be. But at the moment, as they could see through the pillars, he was absent and only his crown and some small object they couldn’t see sat where he once did. Before the throne they saw Ariel and another figure, the latter of whom whose torso ended in a body skin to an octopus’ instead of a tail like any other mermaid. Flounder hovered close by Ariel with obvious alarm.

“—Now that dear daddy’s been silenced,” The unknown woman cackled, and Sora could now see King Triton’s trident in her hand. “We had a deal, didn’t we?”

Ariel’s shoulders shook.

“Ursula, no! I didn’t want this!” She begged. “Give me back my father!”

Ariel’s hands trembled as she reached towards the crown and scooped up the object that was situated within it. Not an object, Sora realized, but some creature. A creature whose features looked suspiciously similar to King Triton. A pair of moray eels came from either side to circle around Ariel and Ursula, the latter of whom cooed at the eels and brushed a hand lovingly along their spines.

“We cannot find the keyhole,” One eel rasped, its mismatched eyes fixed on Ariel.

“It is not here,” The other chimed in, who looked to Ursula instead. She grimaced.

“It’s got to be somewhere, keep looking! And as for you, dearie,” Ursula turned to Ariel, “Be careful what you wish for. The price of making your dream come true can be huge, especially if it’s an impossible dream. Now,” She said as she reared the trident high into the air, “Time for a little journey to the Dark world of the heartless!”

Ursula turned at the sound of the trio’s shouts of anger at her words, and Sora could see she was indeed like no other mermaid they’d seen so far. For one, Ursula’s skin was a startling lavender color, and a shock of stark white hair rose out of her head. Her rotund lower half writhed with black tentacles as they flared out, and her troubling smile was punctuated with a beauty mark.

“Why, we have company,” She said with mock surprise as she eyed the keyblade in Sora’s hand. “I’m afraid you’re a little late, dollface. I’ve already taken care of things here. Now out of my way,” Ursula growled as they moved to block her path, and she burst right through with surprising speed alongside her eels. Over her shoulder she yelled, “I’ve got an ocean to conquer!”

“After her!” Sebastian yelled from his spot on the throne, and Ariel rushed to put down the creature carefully before taking off herself. Sebastian wasted no time in scuttling over to it.

The trio, now accompanied by Flounder, swam to follow them out of the palace as quickly as they could. Along the way Sora could see other small brown creatures that Ursula must have transformed in her path looking up at the group with dreary eyes.

“We gotta stop Ursula!” Flounder sputtered as they raced through the water. “We can’t let Ariel try and fight her alone!”

“What happened?!” Donald demanded, his grip on his staff tightening as small sparks began to flicker out of it.

“A-Ariel was crying, and Ursula found her somehow,” Flounder struggled to talk as he raced through the water, “And told her you guys came from another world! An’ Ursula said she could take Ariel to another world too but she needed the trident to do it, and I-I-I told Ariel not to do it! I told her this wasn’t like picking up abandoned human stuff, this could be dangerous, but she didn’t listen to me,” They all swam faster now at the sight of Ursula and her eels on the horizon, getting closer. They passed the sunken ship they had searched earlier. Flounder continued, “She led Ursula to the throne room and King Triton walked in just as Ariel touched the trident, and then he saw Ursula and got really angry! That’s when Ursula grabbed the trident and turned him into that thing, and you guys came in.”

“Ursula tricked her!” Sora exclaimed.

“She mentioned the heartless, she’s gotta be working with Maleficent,” Donald scowled. “Still think she just went home to calm down, Goofy?”

“Gawrsh!”

“Donald! Now is not the time,” She scolded. “Besides, Goofy could have been right if Ursula hadn’t shown up. We wouldn’t know.”

“Fine,” He huffed, but his staff still crackled at the edges.

They had come up on a sort of clearing now, where the stony cliffs of undersea mountains were far off and there wasn’t much in the way of coral or any other kind of underwater life out here. Even the sun’s rays from far above didn’t quite reach this place, making for a gloomy environment that would not be out of place twenty leagues more under the ocean’s surface, and looked out of place for an area that was supposed to be in the same depths as somewhere like King Triton’s palace. Had Ursula done this?

“Ursula!” Ariel bunched her hands into fists, “Turn my father and everyone back to normal or else!”

“Or else what?” Ursula simpered as the trident in her hand glowed threateningly, and its light was reflected in the eels’ hides. She slid her gaze onto the rest of the group as they approached and gave a mocking laugh. “I see the rest have come to join those poor unfortunate souls.”

“We’re here to stop you, Ursula,” Sora raised her keyblade to emphasize her point, and saw how Ursula fixated on it with distaste. At the edge of her vision, Sora could see Ariel circle around behind Ursula once she was distracted.

“I’d like to see you try,” Ursula sneered. She raised the glowing trident in response and ran a hand through her hair to reveal a newly-placed crown that was nearly identical to King Triton’s. The trident began to give off an unsettling humming noise as it charged with power. “Now watch the queen conquer, I’m going to wipe out anything that’s in my—AUGH!

Ariel had yanked on Ursula’s hair with astonishing strength, causing her head to be pulled back as her eyes wrenched shut in pain, which in turn caused her aim with the trident to skew. The bolt of energy that shot out of the trident soared far above the group’s heads as they flinched, and at the sound of sizzling Sora realized it had hit Ursula’s pet eels instead and destroyed them. Crumbling black particulate seeped through the current and was promptly carried away as Ursula watched, completely taken aback at the turn of events.

“I…wha…my darlings…” Her mouth hung open for a moment, and then her face twitched once, twice, as her expression turned mean and her eyes turned into something bestial. “You’ll pay for this,” Ursula started in a low voice as the trident glowed again and she smacked Ariel away. Dark clouds began to obscure the group’s vision, and they clustered together as the smoke surrounded everything. “You’ll pay for this!”

Sora kept a tight grip on the keyblade as she was blinded from the smoke and held the weapon out in front of her, ready for whatever might come from the fog. She could hear Ursula’s voice grow monstrous as it boomed over the clearing.

“I rule the sea now, you pathetic fools!” She roared, and the smoke cleared enough to where they could see she had become a giant, dwarfing even the cliffs in the distance. Ursula swung her free arm out widely, and it caused a current that threatened to sweep the group up along with it. Her many legs rose and fell to cause the sandy earth to tremble, and the ocean surface was visibly growing agitated with her movement. Now, the group had to actively swim in directions changing every second to avoid being swept up or become trapped in the grip of a stray black tentacle.

“The sea and all its spoils bow to my power now,” Ursula gripped onto the trident as it continued to glow, and Sora could see it form the center of a vortex as all manner of things got swept up in it. “And you will bow right alongside them!”

Sora fitfully beat back one of Ursula’s legs with her keyblade, noting unhappily how it only left gashes but didn’t stop it in its path. Trails of Darkness seeped out that would have marked the doom of a normal-sized heartless, but the problem was that thi