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The Joining of Unlike Things

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There's a strange power in the joining of unlike things...

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The weather in the Land of Departure was generally more perfect than weather in any real place should be. Warm but with a nice breeze, sunny but the sun was never actually in your eyes. Perfect weather for sparring which, unfortunately, Sora was not doing at the moment.

"Come on, really?" Sora demanded. He was sitting on the steps that led down into the grass of the sparring area, left leg stretched out in front of him with a half-melted bag of ice on his knee.

"Really," Terra said firmly, not even sparing Sora a glance. Terra was focused on Lea and Ventus in front of him, the metallic clanging of their keyblades against each other ringing through Sora's bones like a tuning fork. "Lea, elbows! And your grip's too tight!"

"I know!" Lea snapped, struggling to keep his form while fending off Ventus's flurry of Blitz attacks. Lea switched his grip hand suddenly, a benefit of having fought for so long with both hands, and smashed through Ventus's weak left guard. His height advantage gave the blow enough force to knock Ventus onto his butt in the dust. "HA!"

It did not, unfortunately, knock Ventus's keyblade out of his hands, which he promptly used to hook Lea's ankle and send him sprawling on his back. With the same motion, Ventus hopped back to his feet, while Lea's keyblade skidded out of reach. Ventus stuck his keyblade's tip in the dirt and leaned on the handle, grinning down at Lea.

"Are you even trying?" he asked sweetly.

"Are you?" Terra echoed, not so sweet.

"It's hardly fair that his center of gravity is only two centimeters off the ground!" Lea hollered back. Ventus stuck out a hand to help Lea up; Lea gave him a black look. "Isn't it someone else's turn for this abuse for like five minutes? Or until this guy has a growth spurt?!"

"I feel fine," Sora insisted. He kicked his leg out a little, gesturing with his hands at it. "Look! Sparring's no fun without someone claiming winner, it's much less efficient! And somebody should give Ventus a real workout! He's kicked Lea's butt three times in a row."

"Thanks soooo much!" Lea snapped, struggling to his feet.

"I'm good!" Ventus waved happily. "This is fun!"

"No," Terra said, turning to finally give Sora his full attention. "I said rest, and I expect you to rest." Sora slumped back against the steps with a groan. "Stop that, you're too old to pout."

"I'm really not!" Sora called after him as Terra strode away to correct Lea's stance for the third time. Sora puffed his cheeks and blew an annoyed breath out. Someone's knee jabbed him in between the shoulder blades, and Sora knew who it was before he tilted his head back. "Hi, Kairi."

Kairi grinned down at him, hands on her hips, wisps of hair sticking out all over from being too short to fit in her ponytail. "Aww, won't they let you play winner?"

"Dislocated my knee again." Sora waved off Kairi's frown of concern. "It's healed! I'm fine! But Terra said I'm out until tomorrow, at least. Jerk."

"It's because you won't rest it that it keeps doing that," Kairi reminded, voice sharp. "That's the second time this week! Cure doesn't fix everything."

"It might fix your face," Sora grumbled, still pouting. Kairi cuffed him across the back of the head, then plopped onto the step beside him.

"Quit pouting like a baby and I might show you my new keychain," Kairi said. She reached into her pocket, but kept her fist closed when she pulled her hand out. "Well?"

Sora gave her an extremely fake, over-the-top smile, complete with jazz hands. Laughing, Kairi opened her hand to reveal a short, silver keyblade keychain. The charm on the end looked like an oversized version of Kairi's necklace. "Tada!"

"Cute?" Sora poked the drop-shaped pendant. "So let's see it already."

Kairi held out her right hand to summon her keyblade, at the moment in its base Destiny's Embrace form. It took Kairi a minute to fiddle the keychain's cellphone strap-style loop loose enough to work the pointy edges of the paopu charm through it. "Ugh, this loop. The clips are so much easier." As if to punctuate her statement, she clipped the new keychain on in about one-tenth the time. "There!"

In a shimmer of light, the form of her keyblade changed: the smooth curves of the handguard changed to a circular, spiked stylization of an orange flower, the shaft changing from gold to magenta, the teeth sharpened into something close to castle towers. A particular batch of castle towers, actually.

"Radiant Garden?" Sora asked, tracing the edge of the orange guard. "This is like the flowers that grow all over there."

"Yup!" Kairi looked pleased Sora had figured it out. "I wanted something to remind me of where I came from. Boosts water magic and defense, you know, like the fountains there? I love those. Aqua made it for me."

"Aqua…made it?" Sora repeated, head tilted. "She makes keychains?"

"Yeah?" Kairi giggled at Sora's confusion. "You knew she made the Wayfinders. Did you think she just had a secret metallurgy hobby for no reason?"

"Kind of," Sora muttered while Kairi laughed at him some more. He palmed the dangling keychain charm, examining it thoughtfully. "I never really thought before about making a keychain. All of mine I've either been given or found in different worlds."

"They don't just pop into being, silly," Kairi said. She swung her keyblade back and forth, testing the weight.

"HEY!" Lea shouted, drawing both their attention. When they looked up, he was on the ground again, this time apparently refusing to get up. "A little help over here, PLEASE? Assuming princess tea party time is over!"

"I'm gonna Waterga him right in the face," Kairi said fondly, shouldering her keyblade as she stood up. She looked back down at Sora. "If you're interested in keychains, go ask Aqua about it. You're benched anyway, right?"

"Yeah, sure," Sora hollered after her, loud enough for Terra to hear. "So fighting is out because of my knee, but nine million stairs is totally fine? Makes perfect sense, ok!"

Kairi waved Sora off, and everyone else ignored him since they'd all learned not to give him the satisfaction of paying attention to his pouting. After a minute of watching Kairi and Ventus team up to torment Lea, Sora heaved himself up off the steps and went to go find Aqua.

By the time he'd found her, Sora had climbed enough stairs that he was debating between doubling down on his claim that the ache in his knee didn't exist versus exaggerating a limp for sympathy. Aqua was in the library, re-shelving some books, and she looked Sora over with a critical eye before he had a chance to do either.

"Dislocated your knee again because you wouldn't rest properly, right?" Aqua pushed a book into place firmly enough that it felt vaguely like a threat. "I warned you about that yesterday. Just because idiots can't catch a cold doesn't mean they won't end up with chronic tendon damage."

"Geez," Sora groaned, aggravated. He put his hands on his hips. "Y'know, I pulled you out of Darkness and I'm pretty sure I could drop you back in if I really wanted to."

"Bold words for a teenager who I assumed climbed three sets of stairs to ask me either infinity questions or for a favor."

Sora kicked at the carpet. "It's not always one of those." Sora made big eyes at Aqua until she sighed and ruffled his hair. Take that, Terra. "Kairi said you made her new keychain. Can you tell me about that? How do you do that?"

"You're interested?" Aqua asked. Sora nodded. "Well, it's not that much different than regular synthesis, but there are several skills necessary. It takes a strong imagination to come up with a design rather than following a recipe, and the skills and traits of the keychain have to complement the form. Even once you have the design and traits in mind, it takes strong will to hold all of that together in your mind while you form the magic and bind it to the physical keychain, and let it all set. In terms of physical components, depending on what kind of keychain or skills there's obviously different materials, some common and some rare. Some prefer to start with a physical object to affix magic to, and others start with a strong memory, for instance of a place or a person…" Aqua paused. "You're actually listening to me."

Sora blinked. "I asked you, didn't I?"

"Yes," Aqua agreed, "but usually if I explain something theoretical for longer than thirty seconds, your eyes glaze over until I stop."

"Yeah, that's fair," Sora chuckled, good-natured. "But this is cool. Did Master Eraqus teach you? Can Terra and Ven do it too?"

"We all learned it, but I'm the only one who liked practicing it." Aqua smiled, small and fond, like she often did when Sora asked about her training with Terra and Ventus. "Terra preferred physical training and more offensive magic, and Ventus had so few memories it was almost impossible for him to get anything to hold a shape. He had less patience then, too, but he was so young. He'd do better at it now, I think."

"Can anyone do it?" Sora asked.

"Some have more natural talent than others, or more patience, but essentially, yes, any keyblade wielder has enough magic to make at least basic keychains." Aqua crossed her arms, sizing Sora up. "I can show you, if you'd like."

"Yes!" Sora exclaimed practically before Aqua was done speaking, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Yes, please! It sounds really interesting."

"It'll take more than an afternoon," Aqua warned, waving for Sora to follow her out of the library.

"Aw, I'm benched anyway," Sora reminded, trailing along behind her. "Might as well do something worthwhile."

Aqua led Sora down a few hallways and into a room he'd never been in before. It was small verging on cramped, or maybe it just felt that way because most of the floor space was occupied by a large drafting table, another larger table covered with synthesis materials and tools that Sora couldn't begin to guess at the purpose of. A furnace occupied the whole corner that reminded Sora of the Moogles' little shop in Traverse Town. The floor was cool stone, easy to clean and not flammable, and the ceiling was high. Huge, curtainless windows stretched the length of the wall beside the forge, and Sora wondered exactly how hot it got in here when that thing got going.

"You really do make them," Sora said, almost to himself as he examined the things on the table. Synthesis items and pieces of metal were scattered across the table in untidy piles; right next to a stack of flat, unworked iron pieces was a keychain charm of the same material twirled somehow into a delicate spiral. "Sorry, that's silly, you said you did."

"Seeing is believing," Aqua agreed from her drafting table. There was a row of leather-bound books shelved haphazardly against the corner, held in place by a bookend shaped like a Mastery Mark. Aqua pulled one book out and flipped through the pages, looking for the page she wanted. Sora came to peer over her elbow and realized it was a sketchbook, the unlined pages full of doodles of keyblades and charms, some with notes, some inked in properly, some unfinished scribbles. She set the book down when she found the page she wanted. "This is the one I've been working on."

"It looks like Ventus's," Sora commented, and it did, with the one-sided grip that curved up towards the teeth in a smooth line. It wasn't as blocky as Ventus's base keyblade, though, the edges more jagged, the form lighter. It was labeled 'Spark Raid' and there were a few other notes that seemed to have to do with thunder magic, although Sora couldn't read some of Aqua's quick, cramped handwriting.

"Good eye," Aqua praised. "Ven's had to repair his keychain twice now from using Thunderbolt form too often. I thought it was time for an upgrade. Want to see what I have so far?"

"Heck yes!" Sora beamed as Aqua told him to drag the stool from the drafting table over to the other table. Aqua picked up the half-done charm to show him, only a vague outline at the moment, and went back to work on it while she patiently answered Sora's near-infinity questions.

The afternoon flew by, Sora not even noticing the slide of the sun over the windows as they sat shoulder to shoulder. Aqua had just finished showing him how to attach the c-rings for the chain and handed over the pliers for him to do the last two himself when Ventus poked his head in the door and said dinner was almost ready.

"We'll be down in a minute," Aqua called over her shoulder, nudging the keychain over so that Sora's body was blocking it from Ventus's view. "No peeking."

"Aww, come on, can't I see yet?" Ventus wheedled, but a stern look from Aqua kept him in the doorway rather than coming any closer. "Aquaaaaa."

"Done!" Sora announced. He pulled his hands away to let Aqua see, and a warm sunburst of pride lit in his chest at her approving nod. Sora stretched out his stiff shoulders, wincing when his neck cracked, and unwound his feet from where he'd hooked them over the stool's rung.

"We'll enchant it tomorrow," she told Sora. Sora nodded as he started hopping off the stool. "Wait, be careful—"

Sora's ankle was asleep from holding one position too long, and his stiff knee gave out, dumping him on the ground with a crash. "Ow."

"No wonder you're benched, if you can't handle a stool," Ventus said from the doorway, making Sora mutter that everyone was a comedian.

The next day it was raining anyway, the steady, pattering kind that meant to go on all day, so nobody was out sparring. Lea headed back to Twilight Town after breakfast, while Terra corralled Kairi and Ventus into the library for some long-overdue keyblade lore homework.

"And you need it worse than anybody," Terra said to Sora, who groaned.

"Sorry, Master Terra," Aqua interrupted, teasing with a perfectly innocent expression. "Sora's helping me this morning." Sora's whoop of victory was interrupted by Aqua dropping a stack of plates in his hands. "After he helps with the dishes. And no magic this time, I don't have Master Yen Sid's brooms around to sweep up another disaster."

"That was at least sixty percent Kairi's fault!" Sora protested as Aqua pushed him towards the kitchen.

Finishing the keychain took until after lunch. The spellwork was too complicated, too delicate for Sora to help, but it was still incredibly interesting to watch as Aqua layered thunder magic in between thunder and gust shards. A wellspring crystal was at the base of all of it, flickering temperamentally the entire time Aqua was essentially building a magical house of cards over top of it. Aqua drew a sharp breath suddenly, making Sora worried the entire thing was about to fall apart, and then all at once the entire spell did collapse in on itself, exactly like a house of cards, but one where all the cards fell down into a neat stack, perfectly shuffled.

"Whew!" Aqua said, running the back of her hand across her damp forehead. Sora leaned closer to examine the keychain, which was shaped like a stylized atom symbol. The Wellspring Crystal sunk in the center of it was no longer flickering, but glowing steadily.

"It's still glowing," Sora said, resisting the urge to poke it.

"It'll take the spellwork a few hours to set firm and bond permanently to the physical keychain," Aqua explained. "An expert can layer more spells or materials in before the initial layers set for more complicated effects. Spells hold together better if bonded while 'wet' but you also risk magics bleeding together too much and producing unexpected results or even becoming completely inert." Aqua stood up, leaning backwards to stretch out her spine. "I'm sorry you could only watch all that. I feel like I didn't teach you anything."

Sora tilted his head back to grin at her, eyes sparkling. "No way, it was awesome. I want to make something! Can you teach me how to do this?"

"Of course," Aqua agreed, smile tired but openly pleased.

"Oh man, it was so cool," Sora gushed to Riku on the phone later that night, flopped on his back in bed. "When Ven clipped it on, his keyblade went all lightning bolt zigzag! It pumped up his Aero like crazy, and he nearly took Terra's eyebrows off with a Spark Raid! You should have seen his face!"

"You sure seem excited about it," Riku chuckled, smile crinkling the corners of his eyes just enough for Sora to see it over the Gummi video connection. Riku was sitting comfortably slumped in the beanbag, the familiar walls and bookshelves of their room in the Mysterious Tower visible over his shoulders. "You really sat there for hours watching Aqua? I don't believe it."

"Believe it, mister." Sora stuck his tongue out. "It was so amazing watching her layer all that stuff together, all the magic and tiny synthesis pieces and they're all trying to squirm away, but she told it what to do and it did. It came out almost exactly like she sketched it! You remember when we used to play with clay and nothing ever came out the way it looked in your head?"

"You always ended up rolling a big worm," Riku said fondly. "If your first keychain turns out like a big worm, send me a picture."

"Your face is a big worm," Sora retorted without any heat. "When I'm a worlds-famous keychain artisan, I'll remember this abuse."

"You think wheat bread is artisan, you boob." Riku yawned, ruffling a hand through his hair. "It's nice to hear you really excited about something. And really nice that it's something that might keep you off that knee."

"How do you even know about that?" Sora groaned, throwing one arm out dramatically.

"Kairi."

"Kairi," Sora echoed, deeply betrayed. "Bet she left the part out where it's her who dislocated it the first time, with one of her twirly…" Sora wiggled a few fingers. "…bullshit moves."

Riku sighed through his nose. "She did leave that out, as a matter of fact. Hey. I miss you."

"Me too." Sora rolled onto his side, propping his phone hand on the pillows so it was like Riku was there next to him, sort of. "Are you going to sleep soon? Gimme a head start and you won't have to miss me."

"You're on," Riku agreed immediately, matching Sora's lopsided smile with one of his own. "You've got until I shower and brush my teeth. And try not to dream about Monstro again, it's gross. You always get the smell exactly right."

"I promise nothing," Sora said, snuggling down into his pillow more comfortably. "Love you. Just in case."

"I love you, too. Sweet dreams."

Sora dropped the phone after the screen dimmed, wriggling under the blanket and a little bit skeptical he was going to fall asleep that fast. He was still too excited about new keyblade forms and new magics, mind racing in little circles. But when he got warm and comfortable, his spare pillow propping up the slight ache of his knee, the tapping of the rain against the window lulled him to sleep eventually.

"Took you long enough," Riku murmured suddenly in his ear, close behind him. "Show me this thing you were describing so badly."

"In a minute." Sora turned and stretched onto his toes for a kiss; he hummed into it happily when Riku wrapped arms around his waist to heft him higher. Keyblade forms were exciting and all, but Riku was Riku and the first order of business in any dream was turning Riku's eyes from aquamarine to bright pink.

The next day, Sora came down to breakfast to find Terra and Aqua debating the best way to split Sora's time, as well as Aqua's. Sora only half-listened as he shoveled eggs into his mouth between yawns.

"We can start tomorrow," Aqua decided in the end. "I want to look up some things to make sure I'm not forgetting any basics, and I'll call around to ask if anyone else is interested."

"Great, that means I get you all day. We'll fix your form yet!" Terra turned his ominous smile from Sora to Ventus. "You too."

"Uuuugh," Sora and Ventus both groaned.

Terra was surprisingly lenient about freeing Sora from a few hours of combat training a day for forging lessons. His only stipulation was that Sora had to keep up with his form drills on his own so that he didn't slip back into his old, self-taught stance that put too much strain on his wrists and knees.

Aqua explained that most of the keychain basics would only take two or three weeks to nail down, and after that Sora could come back to it on his own time and ask her questions anytime he needed. Magic lessons usually happened in the afternoon anyway, when some of everyone's excess energy had been burned off by physical training, and Aqua said that keychain forging would tire out Sora's magic just as well as battle spellcasting.

To Sora's surprise, when he showed up to Aqua's workroom the next morning, Roxas was already there, leaning against the wall just outside the door. Roxas and Xion mostly were enjoying their lives as regular Twilight Town teenagers, but once in a while they tagged along with Lea to the Land of Departure and joined in on some training. Xion, more than Roxas, wanted to improve her keyblade skills; Roxas generally seemed content to keep the other two in sight and practice just enough to keep from getting entirely rusty. He hadn't even sparred with them that morning, just sat on a batch of steps and watched, calling out unhelpful advice to purposely distract Lea.

"Hey!" Sora called as he trotted up to Roxas, holding out his fist. Roxas let Sora dangle a second before tapping his knuckles against Sora's, face saying he was just humoring him. "You just hanging out while you wait for Lea and Xion?"

"No," Roxas said. "Aqua called to ask if anyone wanted to make keychains, and I said I wanted to try. That's why Xion and I came this morning. What's the matter, wanted private lessons?"

"No!" Sora shrugged, examining Roxas's neutral expression. "You aren't usually that into learning more about keyblade stuff, is all. But now we get to hang out, so that's great! We don't hang out enough."

"Yeah, I guess." Roxas's stiff face thawed, and he offered Sora a small smile. He pushed himself off the wall and reached for the door handle. "It's just us two, so come on."

"There you are," Aqua said when they came in. The work tables looked much more organized than when Sora had been in here two days ago, the surface of the table swept clear and all the metal and synthesis materials organized into neat stacks. "All ready to start?"

"Yeah!" Sora exclaimed, dragging Roxas along by the arm when Roxas wasn't moving fast enough for him, distracted looking around the room.

"Sure," Roxas agreed. "I brought my keychains like you said." He dug in his pockets and pulled out keychains one at a time until four were lying on the table. Sora only recognized the twin to his own Oathkeeper charm and the one shaped like Roxas's zipper pull; beside that was a yellow star charm and a starburst made out of something black and shiny. "I lost a lot of mine when I gave up my own body, and Xion's borrowing a few."

"These are fine," Aqua assured, tapping a finger on the starburst one thoughtfully. "Sora?"

"Hm?" Sora had been staring at the star charm, something about it pulling his attention even though he was sure he hadn't seen it before. "Oh, right." Sora's keychains came out of his biggest pocket in a tangle of chains, ten or so of them balled together from riding in his pocket all day. "That's the ones I have with me here. There's a bunch more at the Tower." He snuck a guilty look at Roxas, but Roxas's face showed only mild curiosity as he examined Sora's messy pile. "I, uh, have a…lot of them."

"You should take better care of these," Aqua scolded, deftly teasing the keychains apart from each other. "If they get too bent up, they'll stop working."

"Sorry," Sora said, chagrinned. A few of them weren't in great shape already, in need of polishing or all nicked up; on more than one Sora had fixed a loose chain link by just biting down on it. He shuffled his feet when Aqua gave him a look like she knew every stupid thing he'd ever done to them.

Aqua had the keychains untangled in another minute and was sorting them to either side. The group on the left included Pumpkinhead and Divine Rose, while Fenrir and Sora's Oathkeeper went to the right. She finished by sorting Roxas's keychains the same way, sliding everything but the black starburst to the right. "Here we are. Can either of you tell me what makes these two groups different?"

Sora and Roxas examined the piles. It seemed more or less random to Sora, a mix of physical and magic attributes, made of different materials, different sizes and lengths.

"These ones are all places, right?" Roxas asked, pointing to the left pile. "The other ones aren't."

"Exactly!" Aqua said. Sora looked again and realized that Roxas was exactly right. "Excellent, Roxas. The two most common kinds of keychains are those that represent an important place, and those that represent strong memories. It doesn't take any special training to create that kind of keychain, which explains why Sora ends up with a new keychain in practically every world he visits."

"I've been making these?" Sora demanded, face scrunched. Roxas picked up Divine Rose and examined it dubiously.

"That's hardly the most impressive thing you've made real by accident," Aqua pointed out; Roxas rolled his eyes. "Some keychains already existed as you were given them, like this one." Aqua tapped Divine Rose, still in Roxas's hand. "But some of these, yes, you made them. At heart, keychains are just a way to focus the power of your heart through your keyblade in different ways. Your keyblade has enough magic to affect any object you clip to it, if your feelings or memories are strong enough."

"Huh," Sora said. "So if Roxas goes to all the worlds I have, will he end up with as many as me?"

"Nobody in any world needs as many keychains as you've got," Roxas informed him. Sora stuck his tongue out.

"It's certainly possible," Aqua agreed. She picked up the black starburst. "This one is for Twilight Town, right?" Roxas nodded. "So Roxas is capable enough, clearly. There are drawbacks to these keychains, though. Sora?"

"Well.." Sora rubbed the back of his head, thinking. "They're not that strong. I always have to get the Moogles to upgrade them a bunch. And sometimes they look…really stupid."

"The frying pan one," Roxas said.

"The frying pan one," Sora repeated in tones of deep aggravation.

"No control over form, weak abilities," Aqua nodded. She clapped her hands together. "So! Our first lesson will be to try and do mindfully what you've already been doing rather chaotically. Think you two can handle a little homework?"

"Hit us," Roxas said staunchly, folding his arms. Sora nodded, grinning. "It can't be worse than algebra."

"I'm sure I could cough up a little math if you wanted. No?" Aqua laughed at Sora's wrinkled nose. "Magic it is, then. You two agree on a world, pick a physical object from there as a base, and then we'll try to shape a keyblade suited to it. Get some basic synthesis materials from that world, physical attribute ones are easiest. It'll help if you have an idea in mind when you're collecting materials. Both of you have good, strong imaginations, so I'm sure you'll think of something. Any questions?"

Roxas put up his hand. "Sora shouldn't be allowed to drive the Gummi ship."

"That's not a question!" Sora pulled out the Gummi ship keys and jingled them cheerfully.

"Sora, are you using the Wheel of Fate keychain as the Gummi ship keyring?" Aqua demanded, rubbing her head.

"Maybe?" Sora offered.

"Yeah, that's it, I'm taking a dark corridor," Roxas announced, turning on his heel to go.

"Noooo, Roxaaaaas!"

The two of them decided on Twilight Town with a lot less squabbling than deciding who got to drive the Gummi ship. Roxas suggested the tunnels as the best place to gather synthesis materials quickly, then the woods after that or the old mansion if they needed to. Between a nest of Shadows in the tunnels and an overgrown patch of Creeper Plants in the woods, it didn't take long for them to both have a pocketful of Power and Dark Shards.

"Think we need anything better?" Roxas asked as they paused just outside the mansion gates. "Might be some Dusks inside for Twilight Shards."

"Nah, Aqua said we'd be fine with anything from here. Let's head back." For a few minutes, the only sounds were their sneakers crunching through the leaves. "Hey, Roxas. Do you really do algebra homework?"

Roxas huffed a quiet laugh. "Yeah, I really do. Sometimes. Sometimes I copy Xion's. Sometimes Hayner copies mine. It's nice."

"It's not," Sora disagreed, thinking of afternoons of middle school homework at his kitchen table that he wouldn't relive for a million munny. "Math is the worst. Did you really come from me?"

"Not the math, idiot," Roxas corrected. "It's nice having something mundane to complain about with my friends. Understanding everything they're talking about. Doing the same things as them and being in the same places. You know?"

"Oh." Sora thought about complaining about Yen Sid's reading assignments with Riku, and comparing sparring bruises with Kairi. He didn't love those things, but he understood how stuff like made you feel closer. "Yeah, I get that." Sora jingled the shards in his pocket thoughtfully. "It's nice doing this with you too. Did you figure out what you're going to try and make yet?"

"I've got an idea, yeah," Roxas answered. "You?"

"Hm, well…" Sora didn't answer right away as they went from the woods back down into the tunnel passage. Roxas didn't rush him. "If it's what I think of when I think of Twilight Town, it's got to be the station clock, right? The first time I came here I kept getting lost, but you can see that from anywhere so I could always reorient myself if I looked up." The tunnel ended, and they stepped out into the light, the noise of Tram Commons muffled at the end of the alleyway. "But I don't know what to bring back to represent that, though."

"Actually, I think I know just the thing," Roxas said. He strolled ahead without looking back, trusting Sora to follow. After weaving around various people and dodging the tram, Roxas stopped at his destination, Sora bumping into his back.

"The Accessory Shop?" Sora asked, tilting his head. Roxas pointed through the window, and Sora lit up. "That's perfect!"

Mission completed, they returned to the Land of Departure, or RTC'd as Roxas always called it no matter whether they were coming back to a castle or not. Aqua held up the item Sora had handed her, a gold bell on a red braided cord, the kind meant to be hung on a cell phone. "A bell?"

"It's a replica of the bells on the Twilight Town clocktower," Sora explained. "It's a souvenir you can only get there, so that should work, right?"

"It'll be interesting," Aqua agreed, handing the bell back to Sora. "Roxas?"

"I have this." Roxas handed over a blue crystal the size of a large marble. "It's definitely from Twilight Town, and it's already got a hole drilled in the bottom."

"That's the jewel from the Struggle Champion trophy, isn't it?" Sora asked. Roxas nodded.

"If it's special to you, you might not want to use it on this first try," Aqua warned, holding it up to examine the hole drilled in the bottom. "You should save it for when you've had some practice."

"No, it's okay," Roxas said, shrugging. "I've just been carrying it around. It would be nice to use it for something."

Aqua walked them through the basic spellcasting needed to fuse their synthesis materials to their object in order to make it into a real keychain. The important thing, she reminded them, was that they try to keep the shape of their new keyblade form firm in their mind while they were doing it, rather than just letting the magic take its own shape chaotically.

"Will over power," she cautioned them. "The stronger your magic is, the harder it is to keep it from running away with you."

"It's kind of like casting a Gravity spell," Roxas said, brow furrowed in thought. "Guess that makes sense. You're trying to smoosh everything together."

"Oh god, I really will end up with a big worm," Sora grumbled. Aqua gave him a questioning look, but Sora shrugged and said it was nothing.

"Let's just try and see what happens, all right?" Aqua encouraged. "Physical attribute keychains are the simplest to get right, but even if it goes wrong, we'll just try again. And in this case, 'wrong' most likely means another ridiculous-looking form change, you're almost sure to end up with something. There's basically no way you could, say, blow up a handful of Power Shards."

Roxas shuffled several steps further away from Sora.

"Hey!" Sora protested.

"I didn't say a single word," Roxas pointed out, rolling his crystal between his hands. Aqua had epoxied a post into the hole on the bottom so they could attach a chain of gold s-links that reminded Sora of the original trophy. "I want to go first."

"Be my guest," Aqua said. "Three or five shards, always odd numbers, and it's most stable to split them evenly aside from deciding which type should have the odd one."

Nodding, Roxas slid three Power Shards and two Dark Shards out of the little heaps he and Sora had made on the table. Because his crystal was round, there was no way to layer his shards over top of it sitting on the table, so he had to cup his items between his hands, one over and one under like he was keeping fireflies trapped. Aqua had said it was fine to do this barehanded for simple projects like this, but that for more volatile ingredients they would definitely need work gloves.

With Roxas's hands covering the actual fusion, there wasn't anything to watch other than Roxas's face. At first his expression was tense as he muttered his way through the spells, squinting in concentration, furrowing his brow harder and harder. Then suddenly his expression cleared, as if he'd solved a puzzle all at once, eyebrows lifting in surprise. When he uncupped his hands, the shards were gone and his crystal was glowing softly in the center of his palm.

"It worked! Uh, I think." Roxas looked up at Aqua, unsure.

"You think?" Aqua asked.

"No, it did," Roxas said with more confidence. "I felt it. It felt like…well, you'll see."

"Ok, my turn," Sora said. He picked up three Dark Shards and two Power, just to be different, and cupped them in his palm along with the bell. He took a deep breath. "Here I go."

Sora pictured the clock tower in his mind, the details of it sharp from having just been there, the layered circles of its face, the way the sunlight cast deep shadows between the sharp angles of the architecture and gleamed warm bronze on the bells. Once he started on the magic, though, it was harder than he'd expected to concentrate on both things at once, not to let one or the other take over. The shards between his palms didn't move so much as vibrate, a hum that he could feel through his hands instead of hear, until he had to grit his teeth against the buzz of it. It got harder to hold everything together the more magic Sora poured into it.

Folding paper flowers, that's what it was really like. Sora had done loads of them as a kid, every Islander did; when you tried one you'd never done before, there was usually a part where the paper resisted taking shape and you weren't sure where to put your fingers or how hard to push, afraid of squishing the whole thing and wrecking it. But then, all at once, you'd get it right and the paper would collapse exactly the way it was supposed to, along the lines you'd already folded, and there'd be a flower in your hand, like magic.

Just like that, Sora felt the magic and the shards and the bell in his hands all give, folding in on themselves like he meant for them to do. When he cautiously parted his hands and peeked between them, there was only the bell left, shimmering copper as if the afternoon sun was on it. Sora grinned up at Aqua and Roxas, delighted. "Tada!"

"What next?" Roxas asked, still rolling his crystal between his palms. The glowing had almost stopped on his; Sora resisted the urge to blow on his like on something too hot to eat.

"We go test them, of course," Aqua said. "Physical magic sets fastest, so we don't have to wait." Sora and Roxas grinned at each other.

"Race you," Roxas said, not waiting for an answer before dashing towards the door.

"You didn't say ready set go!" Sora hollered, only two steps behind Roxas because he'd invented that trick. Behind them, Aqua shouted that she wasn't healing anyone who went headfirst down the stairs. Sora thought he had a lock on victory because he knew where in the staircase he could throw himself over the railing to drop directly to the ground floor without breaking an ankle, but Roxas cheated by using a couple line-of-sight Teleports.

"You didn't call no Teleporting, so I can't be cheating," Roxas said smugly. He pushed open the door and held it for Sora. "Ladies first."

"And Lea calls me a princess, geez," Sora grumbled, shoving at Roxas's shoulder on the way by.

Outside and down a couple of half-sets of stairs, the swordsmanship lessons seemed to be on a break anyway. Lea was sitting on the grass in his T-shirt, Terra kneeling behind him, using one hand to pull his shoulder back and the other hand pushing in against his shoulder blade.

"Don't push, just lean," Terra was saying as Sora and Roxas got close enough to hear. "You're using your own bodyweight to stretch it out. It hurts here, right?" Terra pushed two fingers down, into the space under Lea's shoulder blade, and Lea grunted a pained yes. "Right. It's basically impossible to stretch that muscle out yourself, so you need someone to help. Xion, you can feel it on Ven, too right?"

"I think so," Xion answered. She and Ventus were sitting beside Terra and Lea, Xion trying to imitate what Terra was doing with his hands and Ventus's shoulder being prodded. "Does that hurt?"

"No," Ventus wheezed, eyes squeezed shut.

"It's because you use that stupid backhanded stance, you get that knot," Terra scolded with half of his attention, most of his focus still on Lea. "Roxas, come here and look at what I'm doing."

"You're just jealous of my cool style," Ventus retorted through gritted teeth. "Ow! Ok ok, switch me, I can't take it, ow." Ventus looked up at Sora, rolling out his shoulder. "Hi! You guys are done already? Blow up the whole place or something?"

"Nope!" Sora held out his bell keychain triumphantly. "We're out here for testing. Want to see?"

"A clocktower bell?" Xion asked. Sora dropped it into her hand to examine. "Roxas, what did you make?"

"You'll see in a second, won't you?" Roxas answered, letting Terra push his fingers down into the right spot on Lea. Lea yelped. "Yeah, I got it. Thanks." Roxas straightened up and kicked Lea gently in the butt. "Out of the way, I want to test my keychain."

"That's what we're here for, after all," Aqua announced, finally catching up to them. She sat on the steps much more gracefully than Ventus flopped himself onto them beside her, complaining that Terra was a dictator. Aqua ruffled his hair. "Roxas?"

"Here goes nothing," Roxas said, once Terra and Xion had also stepped out of the little sparring area. He summoned his keyblade and undid the base mouse head charm, then clicked on his new crystal. Immediately a little explosion of blue and pink balls of light rushed up the length of his keyblade as the form change took hold.

It was a Struggle Bat. An absolutely faithful replica of Roxas's favorite Struggle Bat from last summer, from gold handle to blue foam shaft. Sora burst out laughing and couldn't stop, bracing his hands on his thighs. He wasn't laughing a second later when Roxas jammed the tip of the bat in the dirt and sent out a Stun Shockwave that rooted Sora's feet to the ground. Before he could unstick himself, Roxas followed it with a flurried Blitz attack and sent Sora sprawling hard onto his butt.

Roxas slung his Struggle Bat up against his shoulder and turned to grin at Aqua, one hand on his hip. "So?"

"Decent power, form that complements ground attacks, and it certainly is from Twilight Town," Aqua assessed, chuckling a little herself. "Was it the form you were trying for?" Roxas nodded. "Good. Think it has any abilities?"

"Strength plus, maybe," Roxas said, swinging the bat over the back of his hand and catching it neatly. He looked at Sora climbing painfully to his feet. "A Struggle Bat shouldn't hit that hard."

"Felt like it knocked more energy or magic out of me than it should have," Sora said, dusting off his pants. "You know how during Struggle you lose orbs? Bet it ups whatever you knock out of Heartless."

"Huh," Roxas said thoughtfully, looking it over more carefully. "Have to try it and see."

"Might get a Dusk to laugh itself to death," Sora teased, earning himself a whap to the face. The chirpy sound effect of the foam bouncing off him was even the same as Sora remembered it.

"I think that's definitely a success for a first try," Aqua interrupted. "Sora?"

Sora called his keyblade and undid Oblivion's crown keychain, tucking it safely in a pocket that snapped shut. His bell still had the loop attachment, so it took him a second to nudge the loop through his keyblade's metal circle and then work the bell through it. Once he pulled it tight, magic hummed against his palms and flashed orange, catching Sora like the sun in his eyes. He blinked the glare away.

His keyblade certainly contained a lot of components of the clocktower, if in a somewhat impressionistic configuration. The handle was like the iconic top of the tower, the two bells to either side like a sword's cross-guard. The length of the blade looked like the body of the tower itself, with the several circle clock faces at the tip. Where keyblade teeth usually cut out to the side, Sora's had three clock hands all pointed at jaunty angles.

"Ok, sure," Sora shrugged. It had been worse, surely. He swung it back and forth a few times, testing the weight and finding it a bit heavy but nothing like, say, Fenrir. He called to Roxas, "Ready?"

Roxas took up his own stance, twisting his hands around his keyblade like a batter. "Yup."

Sora charged in directly, not seeing a need for subtlety. The clang of his keyblade against Roxas's had a musical, chiming quality to it, the weight of it satisfying even if Sora couldn't swing it very quickly. The slowness of it was a problem against someone as fast as Roxas, but if he could just hit him head-on…wait, magic. "STOP!"

"Grrrgh," Roxas growled, frozen mid-step. It should have only lasted a second; Stop wasn't Sora's strongest magic and he hadn't even hit Roxas square, but Sora got a solid three hits in before Roxas unfroze and tipped over, keyblade skidding out of his hands.

"Stop!" Sora called again cheerfully, really getting Roxas good that time. Roxas glared as Sora cast it a couple more times until he finally ran out of magic. Sora paused for a second, taking stock of how he felt. He could probably nail Roxas again, if he really wanted to. "Pretty sure this thing has Haste!" He nudged Roxas, still unmoving, with his foot. "C'mon, I didn't get you that hard."

Roxas managed one very slow blink that promised absolute murder when he unStopped.

"He's gonna kiiiill youuuuuu," Xion chanted.

"What? No, we're just fooling around, he wouldn't—" Sora caught a burst of movement out of the corner of his eye. "Uh-oh, Roxas, wait—"

Sora definitely lost the next round, feeling like he'd had more than a couple blue and pink spheres knocked out of him by the time Roxas had him on the ground, squishy blue bat planted firmly in Sora's chest.

"Stop~," Roxas chanted cheerfully, then turned to walk away, leaving Sora frozen on the ground.

"With a struggle bat, embarrassing," Lea chuckled, holding up his hand for a high-five as Roxas approached and dropped onto the step beside him. Xion wasn't even trying to muffle her giggles. "Now that deserves some ice cream."

Aqua meanwhile got to her feet and walked towards Sora. She leaned over him, filling his field of vision.

"So how'd I do?" Sora asked, conversationally, through teeth stuck shut.

Aqua waved an impatient hand for her own keyblade and tapped Sora in the chest to cancel Roxas's magic. "I'm interested in how you think you did, actually."

"I think it went great!" Sora said, in the same voice he used to present report cards to his mother. "I made a keyblade, hit Roxas with it, and nothing blew up. A+!" Aqua continued to stare at him. "A-?"

"Does the A stand for 'Awfully Questionable?'" Aqua asked. "You made a magic keyblade instead of a physical one, which is not at all practical and clearly too heavy for you, and there is no way you can convince me that's the form you imagined. To be honest, I'm not even sure how you managed this."

"Ugh." Sora let the fake smile slip off his face as he hauled himself to a sitting position. "Guess I'm not cut out for this."

"You certainly are," Aqua said crisply. Sora squinted at her. "You pumped enough magic into that bell to get a magic keyblade out of purely physical synthesis materials. I could drop you off in the Dwarf Woodlands with nothing but acorns and you'd come back with a keyblade the size and shape of an oak tree. The problem is, you don't have any control over it. You're just letting your magic run away with you."

"Oh." Sora ruffled the back of his hair uncomfortably, not sure if he was being praised or scolded. Aqua stuck a hand out.

"Want to try again?" she asked, expression softening.

"Yeah." Sora nodded, mollified. He let Aqua haul him up and she gave him an approving pat on the shoulder.

"Good. Only perhaps let's try imagining something shaped like a weapon this time. A clocktower, honestly."

Chapter Text

It got better with practice. Sora managed on the third try to stop accidentally magicking everything he touched and was relieved to move on to keychains that were supposed to end up magic. Even the elemental keychains came out somewhat chaotic in Sora's hands. Roxas was naturally better at producing a form that he meant to, even though he complained that it was Sora's fault that both of them were abysmal sketch artists.

"You can't blame everything on me forever," Sora grumbled, erasing half his sketch for the third time. "Ugh. Do you think Naminé would give us art lessons?"

"Not if she's smart." Roxas heaved a sigh, slumping in his chair. He looked out the wide library windows, thrown open enough to let a breeze in. "Wanna ditch this and go synth hunting?"

"Yes please," Sora said, dropping his pencil with no care to where it rolled as he hopped to his feet.

Roxas stood up and stretched more leisurely, then reached for his backpack where he'd tossed it under the table. They'd been world-hopping for materials so often lately that Roxas always kept his own Dark-resistant coat and a spare close at hand; it was a heck of a lot easier to sneak out through a Dark Corridor than on a Gummi ship.

Sora nudged Roxas's shoulder with his own. "Aqua's gonna yell at us. You don't care, Mr. Star Pupil?"

"Shut up with that." Roxas brushed him off as he stuck his head out the library door to see if the coast was clear. He looked back at Sora, blue eyes lit with mischief, and Sora had a split-second to wonder if it looked the same in his own eyes before Roxas grabbed his wrist and dragged him through a Dark Corridor. They both stumbled in the softer footing of Agrabah's sand. Sora wrinkled his nose at the dry desert air, already sweating underneath the black coat.

Roxas didn't seem bothered by it. "Sometimes there's some Air Battlers around here and they can drop Combo Tech+."

"Lead the way!" Sora said, much happier at the prospect of action.

"Tell someone where you're going next time, you aren't children sneaking out of the house," Aqua scolded when she caught them trying to sneak back in the library windows. "And I still expect those sketches by tomorrow morning," she added, making both of them groan. But Aqua cut her lecture short after they handed over half a dozen Gust Crystals that she hadn't been thrilled about the chore of collecting herself.

"Getting them is the biggest pain in the butt," Sora rattled on to Kairi the next morning while they were stretching before morning practice. "Wavecrests drop them less than half the time, so I get smacked out of the sky by their tails at least ten times for every crystal. They're pretty useful, though, since Aero magic boosts defense magic. A bunch of accessories need them too, like Ribbons, or some of the blocking rings. Roxas was telling me…" Sora trailed off when he realized Kairi was laughing quietly. "What?"

"You sound like one of Master Yen Sid's books," Kairi teased. She lowered her voice to the sonorous, pedantic monotone that Yen Sid often slipped into while lecturing. "The location of Gust Crystals are varied, their uses equally so…"

"Knock it off," Sora said, cheeks warming at being called out.

"It's cool, though, that you're so into it," Kairi said. "Honestly? I'm surprised you've stuck with it this long. It seems so fiddly, all tiny pieces, and you always complain about item hunting. I thought you'd get bored in a week, max."

"I'm not that bad!" Sora protested, reaching for his toes on his bad side. His knee ached dully before relaxing into the stretch.

"Sora, you've been going on about crystal types for five solid minutes. In middle school you pouted if you had to memorize a list of ten spelling words!" Sora shoved Kairi's shoulder hard, but she only laughed at him. "I'm glad you found something to get excited about, finally."

Sora straightened up, frowning. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Mm, well…sometimes it feels like you only do things because Riku and I do them. Sparring, coming to the Land of Departure to train. It's not a bad thing!" Kairi was quick to add when Sora opened his mouth to argue. "Sometimes it doesn't seem like your heart's in it, that's all."

"Who the heck gets excited about Terra lecturing about form and wrist strain every morning?" Sora demanded, still feeling defensive.

"Probably more people than how many people get excited over Gust Crystals," Kairi retorted, grinning. She jammed her shoulder into Sora's. "Nerd."

Sora hit back, palm slapping loudly against Kairi's bare arm. "Jock!"

"Uhh," Lea interrupted their slap fight, looming over them. "If you two are done reaffirming your weirdo Islander pack bonds, can I have my sparring partner back?"

"Two-leafed paopu," Kairi muttered as a her parting insult, hopping off the step and dodging Sora's grab.

"You're a two-leafed paopu!" Sora shouted back, pointing at Kairi like he was tattling to the teacher. "She's calling me names, Lea!"

"Man, so this is where Roxas and Xion get it," Lea said, shaking his head. "Speaking of Roxas, I feel like I've barely seen him since we got here. What the heck does Aqua even have you two doing?"

"Nerd stuff," Sora said, exchanging a sly look with Kairi. Lea threw his hands in the air in exasperation.

Aside from making and designing keychains, there were plenty of practical skills to learn. Aqua taught Sora and Roxas how to improve the abilities of weaker keychains or to layer different magics on top of ones with only basic traits. They repaired some of Sora's banged-up keychains, soldering bent corners and fixing loose chain links. Roxas and Sora created their fair share of dud keychains, but Aqua taught them how to strip them back down to bare metal and start over.

More times than Sora wanted, in some cases. Sora regretted ever asking to learn anything about this as he was hunched over Lady Luck's finicky charm for the third time, cursing softly at it.

"These Moogles are a lot cuter than I remember," Riku's voice came from behind Sora, making him sit bolt upright and drop his pliers. When Sora whirled around, Riku was grinning at him. "Hey there, kupo."

"Riku!" Sora launched himself off his stool and into Riku's arms without touching the ground in between, arms locked around his neck. He squeezed Riku as tight as he could, surprise making his heart race. "What are you doing here?"

Riku kissed Sora's forehead, hugging Sora around the waist just as tightly. "Finished up in Radiant Garden a few days early. Came to see what—" Riku's explanation was cut off by Sora's fierce hello kiss, which lasted until he unfortunately needed to breathe. "Mm. Hi."

"Hi," Sora echoed stupidly. Riku loosened his grip to set Sora's feet back on the ground. "Are you staying?"

"A couple days, at least," Riku promised, making Sora light up. He looked over Sora's head. "Hello, Roxas."

"Yeah, uh-huh," Roxas answered, vague. Sora tried to to shoot a pointed look over his shoulder, but Roxas was ignoring both of them, head still bent over his sketchbook.

"I have something for both of you, actually," Riku said, pushing Sora back far enough that he could unshoulder his backpack and set it on Sora's abandoned stool. He rifled around in it for a second before pulling out a clearfile with the Disney Castle logo. "Naminé said she'd beat me up if I wrinkled them."

Roxas's head finally came up at Naminé's name; he and Sora watched curiously as Riku slid a few sheet of heavy drawing paper out and set them on the table. Naminé's style was more practiced these days, but still distinctively hers, and she still favored bright colors and wax crayon pencils. The first drawing was Roxas holding a Struggle Bat, the blue of his eyes the same blue of the circle hanging off his bat, his grin a dark crayoned line as he loomed over a scribbled Sora on the ground. A small smile crept over Roxas's face as he pulled the drawing to his side of the table.

"Aw, it's us!" Sora exclaimed, reaching for the second drawing. It was him, his own first keyblade attempt rendered comically large and garish in red and orange crayon. A blue-outlined Aqua in the background did not look impressed.

"She said I had to ask you why you're holding the Twilight Town clocktower," Riku said, shaking his head in amusement. Sora cringed and muttered that he'd explain later. "And what are you two doing in this one?"

The third picture was of Sora and Roxas sitting together on a mushroom, more of the Wonderland lotus forest shaded in around them in vague strokes of greens and pinks. They looked relaxed, heads bent together, eyes tilted lines as if squeezed shut laughing at a joke.

"We were stalking Grey Caprices," Roxas said. Sure enough there was one lurking in the corner, crayoned in lines of gray and purple "It took forever, we were in Wonderland all day and missed dinner." He glanced up at Sora and back down, too quick for Sora to read his expression. "But it was fun, I guess. You can keep that one."

"No, that's ok…" Sora tried to push the picture towards Roxas, but Roxas shook his head. "Well, let's pin it up here. Aqua'll think it's funny too, I'm sure." Without waiting for Roxas's approval, Sora went over to the cork board above Aqua's drafting table, covered in half-done designs and a sea of sticky note reminders. He cleared enough space to tack up Naminé's drawing of them. The brightly colored sticky notes he replaced over top the edges kind of looked like Wonderland flowers anyway.

"She wanted to know if the lucky drop charm she gave you was helping with item hunting," Sora heard Riku ask Roxas behind him as he was still sticking things on the board.

"Yeah," Roxas answered. "Tell her thanks."

"Oh!" Sora exclaimed, noticing the star-shaped charm crayoned in on the end of Roxas's keyblade in the drawing. So that was why he always used that one when they were synthesis hunting. Sora tapped the star as he turned to ask over his shoulder. "Is that where that keychain came from? Naminé gave it to you?"

"Yeah, of course," Roxas answered, puzzled. "You don't remember it? You had one for a while too."

"I did?" Sora asked, frowning.

"Roxas," Riku said, soft warning. Roxas shrugged off the argument like he couldn't care less. Riku turned to Sora. "So do I get to see some of these amazing creations of yours?"

It was an obvious change of subject, but Sora let it slide, too excited to see Riku to fight about anything. "Sure! Let's go outside where there's more space." He patted down his pockets, thinking about which keychains he had on him at the moment. "Come on, Roxas, you can show him that new one with the water charm."

"Nah, I'm good," Roxas said, face buried in his sketching again. "I want to finish this."

"Roxas…" Sora started to argue with that obviously bullshit excuse. Riku touched his shoulder lightly, his expression asking Sora to leave it. "All right, I'll see you later."

"Sure."

Outside in the hallway, Sora huffed a sigh. "You two are gonna get along someday."

"We get along. Not everyone has to like me as loudly as you do," Riku said, voice light. "Don't meddle. Anyway, it's nice to see you two spending time together. Weird, but nice."

"Funny, that's what I tell people about you." Sora laughed as Riku pushed him up against the wall to steal another long kiss.

They crashed Kairi and Aqua's magic lesson out on the lawn, Sora chirping a "Sorry!" without a trace of actual apology. Kairi was using her new Radiant Garden keychain, still trying to get used to the overpowered water spells, and was happy to hand it over to Riku for a minute.

"The recoil is murder," she warned, shaking out her wrists.

"This really is something," Riku said, examining it closely from hilt to teeth. Slyly, he told Aqua, "He hasn't shut up about how awesome you are for two whole weeks, you know. I'm starting to get jealous."

"Riku!" Sora protested, flustered. "Shut up!"

"It's easy to look like a good teacher when you have talented students," Aqua brushed off the compliment, but she was smiling, pleased. "Honestly, this one has a little too much imagination most of the time."

"Thanks!" Sora said, as if that had been a compliment. Aqua and Riku exchanged a bland glance. "Hey, Kairi, wanna spar? I definitely got something to beat your little water gun there this time."

"Yeah right," Kairi scoffed, plucking her keyblade back out of Riku's hands. "You're on!"

They stayed out on the lawn until the fireflies came out, taking turns swapping keyblades forms and testing them against each other like a game of arguing over pirate vs ninja. Even when it was so dark that they could barely see each other, Kairi had to drag Sora and Riku inside, ignoring Riku's demands of one more round and Sora's growling stomach. They'd entirely missed dinner and had to raid the kitchen for leftovers. Lea and Ventus turned up eventually, back from some accidental adventure on Ventus's new and less-than-stable keyblade glider, and they joined late dinner themselves while Lea pumped Riku for gossip from Radiant Garden.

It was late by the time Terra appeared and sent them all to bed; Sora and Kairi giggled the whole way up the stairs at Terra's habit of a wearing a floor-length bed robe that made him look like a thousand-year-old master from the age of fairy tales.

Sora was still too over-excited to be sleepy, like when he and Riku had sleepovers as kids and stayed up half the night talking. Stories of the last few weeks tumbled out of him while they were curled up together in Sora's bed, one hand buried in Riku's hair while the other gestured expressively, sending flickering shadow puppets across his ceiling.

"What happened to Sora the lazy bum?" Riku complained, struggling to keep his eyes open. "You used to pass out if we left you on the beach for one minute."

"I was healing a whole extra heart! I'd like to see you do that!" Sora retorted, poking Riku in the cheek. "I'll shut up, though, if you wanna sleep."

"No, I want to hear everything," Riku protested, even though his eyes were already closed. "Everything I missed. Don't hold out on me. I'm just resting my eyes."

"Liar," Sora said. He lowered his voice to a more soothing tone and started in on a winding story about his repeated failures at Lady Luck's repairs, guaranteed to put anybody to sleep. Sure enough, not five minutes later, Riku's breath was deep and even. Sora kept talking anyway, mostly to himself, tracing his fingers back and forth over Riku's shoulder blade where he could feel the edge of Riku's Dream Eater sigil under his fingertips, just barely raised like a newly healed tattoo.

Sora had a half-formed idea just at the back of his mind that hadn't quite crawled into his consciousness yet, an itch that came and went irregularly over the next few days as Riku joined in on the rounds of sparring, magic practice, and library homework. Surprisingly, it was Roxas that ended up asking exactly the right question.

"Do you think I could make a keychain for Xion?" Roxas asked abruptly while Aqua was flipping through a few of his (still terrible) sketches.

"Hm. One of these?" Aqua asked, looking over his drawings.

"No, I've just been thinking about it." Roxas was staring at the table. "She doesn't have that many and they're kind of all the same type and…well, I just want to."

"Oh," Sora said, at least part of his idea snapping into place. "Yeah! I want to make one for Riku. Something good, though."

"I think the two of you are practiced enough to try, but it's harder making them for someone else," Aqua warned. "Even if the form you want turns out solid for you, there's no guarantee it'll be the same shape or traits on someone else's keyblade. All your hearts are unique, after all."

"Wait, really?" Sora asked, perplexed. "Riku and I swap keychains all the time!"

"That's a bit different," Aqua said wryly. Sora's cheeks went pink and Roxas made a childish 'ugh cooties' face. "Dream Eater link aside, you grew up together in the same tiny place, so many of your memories are nearly identical. Not to mention, your keyblade came from Riku's heart in the first place, so their base forms were originally the same."

"Does it really make that much difference?" Roxas asked dubiously. "Xion and I are kind from the same…" Roxas waved a hand vaguely. "Thing."

"I'm right here," Sora complained.

"Let's have an experiment," Aqua said, switching on the teacher voice that meant she already knew the answer and could just tell them, but wouldn't. "Sora, you've got Bond of Flame, right?"

"Yeah." He'd had Riku bring it from the Tower, meaning to fix a bent point, but he hadn't gotten around to it yet. He pulled it out of his pocket and held it up, head tilted in question.

"Roxas, do you mind equipping that?" Aqua asked.

"Sure, I guess." Roxas slid off his stool and summoned his keyblade with one hand, holding out the other for Sora's keychain. "I've seen it before, though…"

He trailed off as he clicked the hook in place and his keyblade's shape whooshed into form in a flare of silver and red.

"Whoa," Sora breathed, stunned. His Bond of Flame was the same color, sure, but basically a simple steel connection between two imitations of Lea's chakrams, one circle as the grip and the other as a spiked version at the end of the blade. It was long and hit hard, but not complicated.

Roxas's Bond of Flame looked like Sora's had been upgraded about ten times. It still had the length but in Roxas's hands looked much lighter; the weight strained against Sora's wrists and shoulders when he used his version. The design was much smoother instead of looking like stuck-on circles, the grip blending into the shaft in twists of black and silver, the curve of it flowing seamlessly up to the spiked blade. It was achingly beautiful and looked sharp enough to cut air itself; Roxas took a test swing and it practically sang, a heat shimmer behind it threatening to ignite at the slightest spark.

Sora and Roxas both turned to Aqua with wide eyes.

"It's your memories that make the difference," Aqua explained, reaching for the keyblade. Roxas looked reluctant to let go but let Aqua tilt it this way and that. In the sunlight from the window, the silver had a subtle shimmer to it, like he'd sunk a whole Flame Crystal in there. "Sora's heart made this out of the powerful memory of Axel sacrificing himself, but they barely knew each other then. Roxas's heart was there too, inside Sora, but with a whole year of important memories of his time together with Axel in the Organization, of living together and fighting side by side. His heart's memory, of losing his first friend, is…well, you can see for yourself."

Roxas shook himself, snapping out of his fog. "That's…" He fumbled for the catch of the keychain hook, fingers shaking. On the second try he got it off and thrust it out towards Sora, scowling. It was almost a shame to see the shape dissolve back into Roxas's Kingdom Key. "Take it."

"Keep it," Sora said, putting his hands behind his back so Roxas couldn't shove it into them. Sora's chest squeezed around a complicated knot of emotions, but he swallowed them as best he could. Roxas was still glaring at him. "Keep it. It's not made out of the best memory for me." Sora had seen Axel's death every time he'd closed his eyes for days on end, and still had nightmares about it once in a while, flames so hot they went white and char filling his nose. He'd never used that keychain much, even when it had been one of his strongest ones, even after Lea had turned up safe and sound. "Your version's so much better anyway, right? It's yours."

"Fine," Roxas said gruffly, jamming the keychain in his pocket. Both of them were still staring at the floor.

Aqua cleared her throat. "So that's the trouble. There's no reason not to try, of course, but as you can see, it's a complicated project. Are you both still interested?"

"Yeah," Roxas said. Sora nodded.

"Even if it means a lot of sketching?" Aqua teased, leaning into Roxas's space.

Roxas shoved her back, exasperated. "We aren't that bad!" Sora grimaced. "Ugh, Sora, stick up for yourself!"

"Nngh," Sora answered, already pulling his Gummi phone out to message a desperate [plz help us] to Naminé.

Roxas had enough of an idea of what he wanted to do for Xion that he and Aqua could start planning right away. Sora's idea took until the next morning to gel, when he watched Riku take an absolute beating from Terra, far too used to sparring with wielders either much shorter or less experienced than him. Riku was covered head to toe in dust when he finally called mercy, and Terra gave him a water break while he picked apart Kairi's weak guard stance instead.

"Sure you don't want a nap?" Riku asked Sora as Sora handed over his water bottle. "I could use some of those extra Dream Eater powers right now." Sora shook his head, grinning up at him as Riku downed half the water then poured some over his head. "No? Oh, what good are you?"

"Riku!" Sora spluttered as Riku dumped the last inch of water on him instead.

It was a good idea, though, wasn't it? Sora turned it over in his head the rest of the morning, more and more convinced that it was. They had some cool keyblades in Sora's dreams that Sora wished they could pull out into reality. A keyblade that gave Riku back any of his dream-only powers would be an awesome present.

"If you could do any of your Dream Eater form changes," Sora asked during lunch, trying to sound casual, "which one is your favorite?"

Riku hummed thoughtfully, shredding pieces of bread between his fingers. "I used Ghost Drive the most because of the teleporting, but…Rising Wing was the most fun."

"You are pretty cute with those tiny wings," Sora teased. "Like a nightmare cupid." Riku bounced a piece of bread off his forehead. "Aw, don't be like that, you can sit on my shoulder and tempt me to stuff any time you want."

"They're actually unbearable," Lea said from across the table, face scrunched.

"Right?" Kairi flexed her spoon back with one finger to catapult peas at them. Riku and Sora didn't even notice, busy poking each other.

"Aw, I think they're sweet," Ventus said. Kairi and Lea exchanged a look and then both flicked peas at Ventus. "Hey! Quit it!"

Thinking about making a Dream Eater keychain was one thing, but trying to figure out what magic that would actually entail was another. Sora remembered that Rising Wing had used mostly dark attacks, one of his weakest magics, and sometimes caused Nightmares to fall sleep or get confused. Gravity magic probably had to do with the flying too, given how Riku's tiny wings still got him off the ground.

"It sounds a lot like Sky Climber," Aqua said when Sora tried to describe it. He had a page full of sketches of Riku in Rising Wing form, but they were frustratingly cartoonish. "That's Gravity and Aero-based, in combination with Blitz attacks or status effects. Sky Climber's finisher is light-based, though, so this would be a dark version. That's a pretty substantial change." Aqua tapped the corner of Sora's sketches, where he'd doodled a little Komory Bat. "Who's this little guy?"

"Riku's favorite Dream Eater," Sora explained. The Komory Bat looked cartoonish in reality, so Sora's doodle was a fairly accurate representation. "So you know Riku combines with them to do form changes, right? He'll turn into Rising Wing if he merges with his Komory Bat no matter what the second Dream Eater is, usually."

"Hmm," Aqua said.

"Sorry, I know it doesn't make much sense." Sora sighed. "Dream stuff never does when I try to explain it awake."

"You create them, don't you?" Aqua asked, tapping the Komory Bat with her finger. "Didn't you tell me that you created different ones? How?"

"Sure, you know, with dream stuff, that Nightmares drop. You smoosh them together and they just make a new thing. It's funny, it's kind of like…" Sora trailed off, eyes going wide. "It's like synthesis. So if I hunted the materials to make a Komory Bat and forged it in with some regular keychain stuff…can I even do that?" Sora tilted his head.

"It certainly sounds interesting," Aqua said, leaning back and crossing her arms. "Let me think about it. Have you thought about your keychain shape yet? I'd rather you and Roxas did the metalworking at the same time."

"Oh, that's easy," Sora said, picking up his pencil. He drew the shape of it as quick and sure as writing his own name, because he'd traced the invisible lines of it with his fingers hundreds of times. "Has to be the Dream Eater sigil."

"Yes, I suppose it does," Aqua agreed.

Casting the metal charms was straightforward enough after some training from Aqua about creating molds, but heating the metal and pouring it was hot work. Even with the high ceiling and windows thrown open wide, the workroom felt like a furnace as soon as the forge was turned on and brought up to temperature. Sora and Roxas's hair spikes were soaked flat after only a few minutes, sweat running into their eyes and soaking their shirts under the protective gear Aqua had them layered up with. It took even longer because Aqua had both of them making a few copies each of their keychains in case of casting disaster.

When it was over, keychains cooling, Sora had never been so happy to strip off his shirt in his life, which for him was really saying something. Roxas and Sora went outside to catch their breath on the cool marble of the front steps; Roxas didn't even complain when Sora doused both of them with a much-needed Waterga. They sagged against the steps in companionable silence; they'd missed the best part of the sunset but the evening breeze was nice, ruffling their hair spikes back up.

"What the heck is Aqua doing to you guys?" Lea asked. When Sora leaned his head back, Lea was looming over them from the top step. He was holding up two Donald Fizz ice cream bars and one Rock Crunch; Roxas and Sora both reached up with grabby hands. "Ah ah ah, what's the magic word?"

"Gravity," Roxas said, making his and Sora's ice cream bars drop to his bare chest with a wet thwap.

"Guess that is a magic word," Lea said, having saved his own Donald Fizz from the same fate with a lucky grab. Roxas shrugged and handed Sora over the Rock Crunch as Lea sat onto the step beside him with a grunt. "So how'd it go?"

"P'good," Roxas mumbled, mouth already full of ice cream. He held up his arm, showing off a crescent-shaped patch of pink skin, shiny from being newly healed. "Lookit my cool burn."

"How manly," Axel said, examining the burn with a frown. "You've only got one body forever now, you know, would you take better care of that thing? Cure."

"Words of wisdom from the fire frisbee king. Watch it, that stings."

Sora listened to them bickering comfortably, sucking the chocolate coating off the top of his ice cream bar. He ate it slowly, not caring when it started to melt since he already needed a shower; beside him Roxas was biting off pieces of his like a barbarian until he whined with brain freeze. Sora was only halfway through his by the time Roxas and Lea were comparing the jokes on their ice cream sticks.

"Why can't Cinderella play soccer?" Roxas read. Lea and Sora shrugged. "She always runs away from the ball. Ugh, that is not a winner."

"Mine's hilarious," Lea announced. "How did King Mickey save Queen Minnie from drowning?"

"A steamboat," Sora said. Lea and Roxas both stared at him. "What? He's got a steamboat!"

"A wife preserver," Roxas said, smug.

"Oh, so close!" Lea grinned. "Mouse to mouse resuscitation."

"UGH!" Roxas threw his stick at Lea's head as Sora and Lea cracked up. "These are awful! I'm bringing ice cream from home next time, I can't take it! Sora, will you hurry up and get it over with?"

"Don't rush me," Sora said.

"That reminds me," Lea said, digging around in his vest pocket. "Took me all week, but…" When he pulled his hand out, half a dozen Silvers glittered in his palm. "Finally had some luck with the Emerald Serenades."

"Awesome, thanks," Roxas said, heartfelt, as he picked up a Silver and inspected it. Sora didn't blame him; tracking down any Serenade was annoying, and the Emeralds were particularly high on health and annoying to wear down. "I think I have enough Combo Techs, so it's just Gear Components."

"Which ones?" Lea asked.

"C." Roxas dropped the material back in Lea's hand. "Stop laughing!"

"Oh, man, hunting C's sucks," Lea chortled, tucking the Silvers safely back in his pocket. "Don't you need a bunch? Three?"

"Four, per attempt," Roxas said sourly. Lea laughed harder, until Roxas socked him in the arm. "Shut up."

"How do you guys even remember that junk?" Sora asked, licking a drip of ice cream off the back of his hand. "Which pieces and where they come from and what drops them, it's so complicated."

"Do heart collection for a whole year and you'd get it memorized too," Roxas said, shrugging. "I got sent to Agrabah so many times I could probably do the entire Cave of Wonders with my eyes closed."

"Sure seems complicated enough, whatever you're making for Xion," Sora said. He'd seen some of Roxas's sketches and listened in on him and Aqua, but he still didn't entirely understand what Roxas wanted out of the finished product. "I'm sure it'll be great."

"It isn't enough," Roxas said, almost to himself. Sora frowned, looking over; Roxas was staring at the ground and Lea was resolutely looking at neither of them, face tilted up towards the evening stars as they started to appear.

"What isn't?" Sora asked. Roxas shook his head, jaw tight. Even though Sora knew he should leave it alone, he nudged his shoulder against Roxas's, pressing gently. "Hm?"

"This! This whole…I wanted to make her something that would be just hers, but it's so dumb. As if a keychain could fix anything, as if anything ever could…"

"Make up for what?" Sora tilted his head. "You guys fight or something?"

"No!" Roxas sucked in a ragged breath. "We forgot her."

"Aw, come on, Rox," Lea murmured, still looking up.

"You come on!" Roxas snapped. He glared at Sora, but Sora only blinked back, no idea what Roxas was talking about. "When Naminé unchained Xion's memories to give you yours back, she unchained all of them, even the ones we made together. We were her best friends and we forgot she existed."

"She knew what would happen," Lea reminded. "She already forgave us."

"Well maybe I haven't forgiven me!" Roxas barked.

"Roxas—"

"I forgot everyone," Sora interrupted, making Roxas and Lea both look at him. Sora scuffed his heels against the dirt. "In Castle Oblivion. I don't remember it, but Jiminy said that's what happened, that even when Donald and Goofy tried to warn me, I kept running in there deeper until I gave up everyone important to me."

"Not Riku," Roxas reminded acidly. "You didn't forget your best friend."

"Only because his replica kept showing up, reminding me. And it all got kind of messed up, though…look, the details aren't important," Sora rallied, squaring his shoulders. "All those memories are still in my heart, Naminé said, even if I can't think of them. Just like you kept Xion's heart safe inside your own even though you couldn't remember her. You must have, right? I didn't know her at all, so it must have been you. That's worth something, don't you think?"

Roxas was silent for a long minute before muttering a quiet, "Maybe." He side-eyed Sora. "You want to hug me, don't you?"

"I wanna hug you so bad," Sora agreed, eyes pleading; just because he understood personal space didn't mean he had to like it. Roxas waved him in impatiently and Sora squished him tight enough to make him grunt.

"Gotta love yourself first, they say," Lea commented.

"Shut up," Sora and Roxas told him in unison. A beat later Roxas shoved Sora off, complaining that he was smudging ice cream all over his back.

"Why can't Captain Hook play cards?" Sora asked. Roxas squinted at him; Sora held up his ice cream stick, chocolate smears hiding half the words. "My joke. Why can't Captain Hook play cards?"

"Because he's standing on the deck," Roxas said without thinking, then scrunched up his face in aggravation. "That's it, I'm throwing myself off this floating island."

"Nooo, you have so much to live foooor!" Lea yelled melodramatically while he and Sora grabbed Roxas's arms, Sora laughing helplessly.

When Sora went up to his room to clean up before dinner, Riku was facedown in their bed, out cold, not even under the blankets. His Dream Eater sigil wasn't visible in the real world, but Sora knew exactly where it was anyway, his hand halfway out to trace it before Sora caught himself. Better to leave Riku be to get a little more rest, Sora thought, dropping his hand and heading to the bathroom.

By the time he was out of the shower, Riku was stirring, rolling onto his side to blink at Sora blearily. "H'lo."

"Hey, you." Sora was only half-dressed in sweatpants and still rubbing a towel over his head as he sat on the edge of the bed. "Took another beating from Terra, huh."

"So many beatings," Riku groaned. "And Ventus just laughed! No darkness in his heart, yeah right."

"Ouch." Sora let the towel fall around his neck and reached to feel Riku's forehead; Riku leaned into the touch, eyes falling closed. "You feeling ok? Napping's usually my job."

"M'okay," Riku mumbled, sounding like he was seriously considering just dropping back off. "We were doing form change stuff, it just really took it out of me. It's so much harder to do awake. How'd forging go?"

"Good, it turned out good." Riku didn't feel fever-warm, just normal sleep-warm. Sora tweaked Riku's nose shut, making him snort. "Don't fall asleep, I wanna ask you something."

"Mmf." Riku flopped onto his back, peeling his eyes open with obvious misgiving. "Nn?"

"In Castle Oblivion…" Sora huffed a breath, trying to force the words out. It was surprisingly hard to do while looking Riku in the eye. "If I'd lost all my memories of you too, would you have been mad?"

"What the…" Riku trailed off, examining Sora's serious expression. "You didn't lose your memories, Naminé took them. It wasn't something you did wrong."

Sora shrugged. "But…it wouldn't have felt good, right?"

"15-year-old me would not have been thrilled, for sure," Riku admitted dryly. "What about you? If Naminé had woken you up early, to save Xion's memory, and nobody remembered you, would you have been mad at her? At me?"

Sora thought hard about that, eyes glued to where he was picking at the edge of the blanket. "I'd have been sad…but you didn't forget me while I was asleep, so I would have still had you." Sora tried to imagine it, seeing Riku's face without thinking of a thousand pointless memories they'd made together, or looking into Riku's eyes and not seeing any love or even recognition, but it was impossible. Even when the replica had worn Riku's face, he still knew Sora, even his fabricated heart bound tight by the strength of the duplicated memories.

Sora shook his head. "I guess Roxas is right, I can't understand. I just wanted him to feel better, but I don't think what I said helped. I feel like I never say the right thing to him."

"Probably doing something is helping him more than talking," Riku said, tugging Sora down by the arm to hug. Sora settled against Riku's chest, the steady thump of his heart comforting under Sora's palm. "I think sometimes Roxas feels like he's taking something away from Xion if he wants to do keyblade training at the same time as her. I think the forging has been good for him, because it's something of his own, and so is the two of you spending time together. I doubt he wants you to do anything, other than treat him like normal."

Sora snorted softly. "Nothing about me and Roxas is normal."

"Two-leafed paopu still taste sweet," Riku said sagely, a saying from home that meant I love you even if you're a weirdo. "Try not to worry about it, hm?"

"Mmhmm." Sora drew in a deep breath, and when he exhaled tried to let it go as best he could. Being a meddler was hard. "Hey. Why is Cinderella so bad at soccer?"

Riku groaned. "More ice cream stick jokes? You know you and the King are the only ones who likes those things, right?" Sora waited patiently, knowing Riku would cave almost immediately. "Fine, why?"

"Nah, if you hate them so much, you don't need to know the answer." Sora yelped Riku's fingers dug into his sides, tickling. "Riku! Ok, ok! It's because she runs away from the ball! Stop! Hey!"

"No, now I want you to suffer more," Riku growled, doubling down on tickling until Sora nearly kicked both of them off the bed. They showed up to dinner with mussed hair, Sora still out of breath, and when Riku complained that everybody was giving them looks, Sora told him he deserved it for maligning the ice cream stick jokes.

Chapter Text

The next morning at breakfast, Aqua announced that the metal of their keychains seemed to have hardened up just fine, making Sora and Roxas cheer and slap a high-five hard enough to sting. So it was down to the last round of synthesis material hunting.

"That's my cue to leave. Have fun with the Gear C's," Lea laughed, roughing up Roxas's hair as he got up from the table. "Come on, Xi, let's go warm up."

"You're a Gear C!" Roxas retorted, slumping in his seat in aggravation.

"Want some help?" Xion offered as she got up to follow Lea. "I bet Terra wouldn't really mind me skipping this morning, if I asked."

"Nah, I got it," Roxas said, a little too quickly. Sora struggled not to chuckle; Roxas was just as bad as Sora at trying to look casual while keeping a secret. "I'll catch up later for your magic lesson if we aren't back too late."

"Sure!" Xion agreed easily, brightening up at Roxas wanting to join in. She grinned at Sora and Riku. "You guys should come too! We're doing fireball home run derby. Ooh, Roxas, bring your Struggle Bat keychain!"

"Hard pass," Riku said, jabbing Sora in the ribs and making him wheeze so he couldn't agree. "I like my eyebrows where they are now that they've grown back."

"Xion!" Lea called impatiently from outside the doorway.

"Don't blow a fuse, I'm coming!" Xion hollered back. She ruffled Roxas's hair more gently on the way by. "Bye, guys!"

Aqua, drinking her tea calmly through all of this, turned to Sora. "I think I should come with you for trying to pick up your…" Aqua's eyes flicked briefly to Riku. "…more unusual components. It'll have to wait until after lessons tonight, if you're up to it. You should go along with Roxas if there's anything else you're short of. You've got quite a pile of Gust Gems and Lucid Stones."

"Rune Techs," Sora said through a mouthful of toast. "I have enough regular but I'd rather have pluses."

"You dropped your Fleeting Crystal and shattered it," Roxas reminded, making Sora grumble.

"What the heck are you making with all that stuff?" Riku wanted to know, eyebrows raised. "How can it take this many items when before you were basically making keychains out of spit and bottle caps?"

"Never you mind," Sora told him, nose in the air. He turned back to Roxas. "So if you need Gear C's and I need Rune Techs…"

"Wonderland," Roxas said, dusting toast crumbs off his hands.

"Yay, Wonderland!" Sora cheered. Roxas did not share his enthusiasm, but he got out of his seat anyway, hefting his backpack up on the table to check his supplies. Sora grinned up at Riku. "Hey, do you want—" Out of the corner of his eye, Sora saw Roxas go still, and changed his question. "…us to bring you back anything?"

"Hmm. Thunder or Frost Shards," Riku said, thinking. He got to his feet along with Sora. "Cracked my 3 Stars ring again. You can take a bunch of my Ethers."

"Sure." Sora happily let himself be gathered into a tight goodbye hug, closing his eyes and breathing in the smell of Riku's soap and leather jacket. One of Riku's hands came down on the top of Sora's head, but instead of ruffling his hair like he expected, it was still and flat. Sora opened one eye. "Are you measuring me?"

"Yes," Riku admitted. Sora pulled back to glare and Riku's hand was marking the exact spot on his collarbone where Sora's head came up to. Riku eyed him back. "So no coming back taller this time! Don't even try!"

"That was one time and it was like two centimeters," Sora scoffed. "Nobody else thought it was a big deal!"

"You mean nobody else noticed but me. Roxas, you're in charge of keeping this guy honest."

Roxas snorted, shouldering his backpack. "You must be joking. Hand over those Ethers and let's get this popsicle stand on the road."

Traveling by dark corridor wasn't Sora's favorite thing to do, even if his borrowed Organization coat made it safe enough, but he had to admit it was the fastest way to get to Wonderland or anywhere else. Before he knew it, they were setting down in the bottom of the rabbit hole without the sickening drop from the top. After a few sips from the bottle on the table in the Bizarre Room to shrink them, Roxas and Sora huddled under the shelter of the table for a moment to discuss the plan.

"Sapphires and Greys out here," Sora said, squinting at the whirring heartless flitting about in the corners. "What do you think?"

Roxas glanced up from swapping his keychain for the Lucky Drop one from Naminé. "Rose maze has those plus Arias. Let's run for it and save fighting for there, maybe knock out everything at once if we're lucky."

"'Kay," Sora agreed, stripping off his black coat to fold it up at the base of the table. Roxas eyed him. "Aw, come on, it's safe enough here and I hate wearing that thing. It doesn't bug you? I guess you're used to running around and fighting in it."

"I don't think about it," Roxas shrugged. Sora straightened up, ready to run for it. "Wait until that Grey turns around…go!"

The two of them made a beeline for the secret door to the Queen's gardens, and from there it was short work around the hedges to hide from the guards until they made it into the rose maze. Sora followed Roxas's lead towards the center without complaint; he'd been lost in here enough times to know that he shouldn't be in charge of the route.

"Hey," Roxas spoke up after they'd been walking for ten or so minutes. Sora looked at him in surprise; usually Roxas was quiet when they were skulking from place to place and got annoyed if Sora was too loud. "You could have asked Riku along. I don't care."

"Oh!" Sora scrunched his nose in embarrassment at being caught. "Well…I can world hop with Riku anytime. This is kind of our thing, isn't it? It's nice. Soon you'll have to go back to Twilight Town when your school break's over and we won't get to hang out for a while."

"That's true." Roxas caught Sora's eye, chewing on his lower lip. "You could visit, you know. If you wanted. Stay a few days. You could even bring that guy."

"Really?" Sora asked, chest warm at Roxas inviting him. He leaned into Roxas's space, examining his face. "It's really all right?"

"Why wouldn't it be?" Roxas asked, a trace of his usual annoyance returning as he shouldered Sora back.

"Because you're doing all your normal teenager stuff there." Sora scuffed his sneaker across the grass, making a face at the grass stain it left on the yellow leather. Oops. "I figured you wanted space to yourself, is all. Like a place where normal Roxas and keyblade Roxas don't mix."

"That's not a thing…" Roxas sighed, dragging a hand through his hair. "Don't worry about it, I mean. It's been…easier, lately. A little. Anyway, whatever, come if you want. But if Riku comes too you gotta find your own place to sleep, I don't want you defiling our couch."

"We wouldn't!" Sora gasped, then dissolved into snickering at Roxas's unimpressed look, muffling the noise behind his hand. "I got it, I got it. Thank you."

"Shut up, the card soldiers will hear." Roxas peered around the corner of the hedge. "A couple Elegies and a Grey. You want air or ground?"

"You take ground, your Lucky Strike is better," Sora decided, calling up his keyblade and swinging it like a batter testing his stance. Roxas nodded, waving for Sora to go. "Here we go!"

The two of them were a good team in a surprise attack; Sora leapt into the air to swat down the flying heartless one a time, leaving them stunned on the ground for Roxas to finish off with a solid downward smash. Only a few Sapphire Elegies were fast enough to teleport out of harm's way, but Sora was usually fast enough to fire off a spell before they got far. Roxas's Striped Arias were more annoying since they couldn't be knocked out with one or two strong hits. At least with two of them, one could rush in as a distraction while the other picked the Aria off from behind with a few direct spell hits. All of it went to plan, except the part where Sora tried to pick off what he thought was a single Yellow Opera and ended up with a whole group of them chasing him across the lotus garden like a swarm of angry bees.

"Oh, shut up," Sora said as they headed back to the Bizarre Room, Roxas still wheezing with muffled laughter. Sora's knee ached, but he refused to limp. "Like you didn't look twice as stupid when you backed into that Loudmouth and honked him so loud half the garden heard."

"It was so confused it healed me!" Roxas cracked up again, hard enough that he had to stop to brace his hands on his knees. "Oh man, my abs. Axel and Xion are never gonna believe this crap."

"Only us," Sora agreed, laughing too. "Come on, let's head back. If I drink another Ether I'll puke, but at least we can watch fireball home run derby."

"Speak for yourself, I've been looking forward to owning that all day."

Back at the Land of Departure, Aqua as catcher had coerced Riku into being her reluctant umpire by the time Roxas and Sora strolled out of the dark corridor. Kairi was up to 'bat' and cheerfully trash-talking Lea as resident fireball pitcher, while Ventus and Xion hollered a combination of Struggle and Blitzball heckling.

"I can do this aaaall day, princess!" Lea said. "The way you're hitting, I might need to."

"Bring it on!" Kairi hollered back, drawing her keyblade back in batter stance. "I've seen more heat from Princess Elsa!"

"SWING BATTER BATTER!" Ventus called, while Xion added, "WE WANT A BLITZER NOT A BELLY-ITCHER!"

"Oh geez," Sora muttered, dragging Roxas along to the relative safety of Ventus and Xion's seats on the steps, keeping one eye on the action so they didn't catch a wild fireball bounce. As magic exercises went, it had a fair enough amount of merit: the 'pitcher' was practicing aim and speed of fire spells while the 'batter' was practicing deflecting shots in guard stance. If they deflected the shot well enough that it went off the edge of the island, it counted as a home run.

"Who's winning?" Roxas wanted to know.

"I got three!" Xion announced proudly. "I hit about seven, but they mostly fall short still. Ven's up next, then we'll switch out Axel."

"Rock paper scissors me for next," Roxas ordered Ventus, holding up his fist.

"Rock paper…oh, you mean sword wing spell!" Ventus realized, making Roxas and Xion tilt their heads. Sora left them showing the differences between their hand signs (it was bird water stone back on the Islands) and turned to call to Aqua that they were back.

"That's ten!" Aqua announced, standing up from her catcher's crouch. Ignoring Kairi and Lea pulling faces at each other, Aqua looked back over her shoulder at Sora. "You're back! Still ready for action? Or would you rather join in with them?"

"Uh, you, definitely," Sora said, glancing at Kairi's sore loser face as he trotted in for a one-armed hug from Riku. "Can you really leave these guys alone, though?"

"Rock beats wing!" Roxas called behind them. "I'm gonna kick your ass next, Axel!"

"Sure, now that I've worn him out!" Kairi accused.

"It would take a lot more than you to wear me out, princess."

"Master Riku's got it, I'm sure," Aqua said cheerfully, ignoring Riku's frown. Slapping her hand down on Riku's shoulder, she ordered, "Don't let them slack off. Come on, kiddo."

"Don't call me that, geez," Sora huffed, pushing up to his toes to sneak a kiss against Riku's cheek.

"Awwwwww!" Xion and Ventus cooed in syrupy voices, punctuated with a saucy, "WOO WOO!" from Lea.

"That's enough of that," Riku said sternly, only Sora close enough to see the faint pink on the tops of his ears. "Roxas, get up here if you want your turn so bad, Lea, I see you still have enough energy to run your mouth, and Kairi, you're taking Lea's spot next so maybe quit making that face unless you want it to stick that way. As for you," Riku looked down at Sora, his frown softening at the corners, "be safe. You get all brave-stupid when you're tired."

"Honk a Loudmouth if you're desperate," Roxas commented on his way by. Sora burst into laughter while Riku scrunched his forehead in bafflement.

"I don't understand half of what you kids say to each other," Aqua tsked as she and Sora headed up the lawn to the main building. She threatened to Silence Sora when he said it was just because she was old.

Sora expected Aqua to lead him either to the library or back to her workroom, so he was mildly surprised when they ended up in the kitchen.

"I want to talk about some things before we go, so you might as well rest a little and eat something," Aqua explained.

"Sure," Sora agreed, always up for food, and went immediately to see if they had any of the nut butter left that Riku always brought from Radiant Garden. Sora had no idea what kind of nuts it was made from, but it had ruined Sora for regular peanut butter PBJs probably forever. Plonking his supplies down on the table, Sora sat down across from Aqua. "Want a PBJ?"

"How can it be a PBJ if you aren't using peanut butter?" Aqua wanted to know.

Sora chuckled. "Terra forbid us to call it just a…well, you know." Aqua opened her mouth, then shut it again, rolling her eyes. Sora finished making his first sandwich and pushed it into Aqua's hand without waiting for an answer. "What do you want to talk about?"

"First thing, your shattered Fleeting Crystal," Aqua said, nibbling on the end of her sandwich. "I've been thinking about that. I think the Gust Gems alone have enough lightness and Aero magic that a Fleeting piece isn't strictly necessary. I was thinking, an Abounding Crystal might do you more good."

"What's that do?" Sora asked, screwing the lid back down on the jam jar.

"Generally, increases drop prizes, but," Aqua held up a finger, "more interestingly, they come mainly from Mandrakes. The reason we all hate fighting Mandrakes is…"

"Confusion!" Sora exclaimed, excited. Sleep or Confusion had been the status effects that Sora had on his list of qualities of Riku's Dream Eater form, but there weren't any synthesis items that reliably introduced those effects, so they'd dropped the idea early. "Do you think that will work?"

"Combined with the Komory Bat recipe, it might?"Aqua drummed her fingers on the table. "I wouldn't get my hopes up, but it's worth a try. Worst case scenario, the crystal serves its original purpose and more dropped drive prizes extends the form change. What do you think?"

"Mm…" Sora took a huge bite of his sandwich and chewed while he thought. "It sounds great, but didn't you tell us a while ago that squishing together very different types of things usually makes everything work less? We picked the Fleeting Crystal because it matched the Aero flight stuff."

"Ability crystal melding is a little different. They don't have any elemental typing of their own, they're more like…" Aqua paused, thinking. "Surface magic. You don't need them. If they add an ability, it's a bonus. What's that saying Roxas has?"

"The icing on the cake," Sora answered, smiling a little into his sandwich.

"Just so. That's that, then. Second thing, retrieving your Dream Eater pieces. I've never seen or used them myself, but I contacted Master Yen Sid and he sent me a summary of the types of Spirit pieces he's aware of and their basic qualities. He seems to think synthesizing them with waking materials is at least theoretically plausible. When you used them in your dreams, did the process seem normal?"

"I guess? Honestly it's all fuzzy now, just dream logic," Sora shrugged. "And it wasn't like I'd ever synthesized anything myself in real life back then, I always just handed everything off to the Moogles. You really think we can take pieces out of a dreaming world? Won't they just…melt? Or something?"

"You visited your Dream Eaters, didn't you?" Aqua asked in between bites of her sandwich. "But Riku said you didn't do it sleeping, that you opened a portal. So you must have visited the sleeping version of Traverse Town while awake. And Riku said his Dream Eater appeared in the waking world when you were still asleep, so at least some aspects of them can exist here. Whether any pieces will retain their qualities once removed from the Realm of Sleep or if that's enough to interact with…" Aqua licked jam off her thumb. "Your eyes glazed over."

"Anybody's would!" Sora protested; Aqua laughed. "You know I have to see it before I understand what the heck you're talking about. Anyway, Jiminy sent me the notes for the Komory Bat recipes." Sora fished his phone out of his pocket and set it on the table, sucking nut butter off his finger so that he could fingerprint unlock it. Once the lock screen of Sora and Riku making faces disappeared, a screen of notes appeared. "I've got five different ones, and they all use Troubling spirit pieces, which makes sense since they're Dark-type."

Aqua leaned over Sora's phone, reading the list. "Does it matter which one we use?"

"Rarer pieces make stronger Dream Eaters," Sora explained. "At first I thought we should do the strongest one, but see that middle one uses Lofty Figments? I can find Lofty Figments in Traverse Town, and I think they make more sense mixed in with the Lucid and Gust materials." Sora looked up, chewing his lip. "Is that right?"

"When you're inventing a recipe there's no right or wrong, just educated guessing. It's your keychain, and you're the only one of us who's ever used Spirit pieces." Aqua dusted crumbs off her hands. "So what do you think?"

Sora looked down at the notes again, then nodded, expression firm. "Lofty Figments, definitely."

"There you have it. Ready?" Aqua asked. Sora nodded, shoving the last bite of sandwich in his mouth as they both stood up. "Out you go. You know the rules, no portals or corridors of any kind in the kitchen."

"Tell me whose fault it is that you needed that rule," Sora pressed as he followed Aqua out. "It's Terra, right? It has to be Terra."

The great hall was more than big enough for any portal Sora could open, plus only up one flight of stairs. With Aqua watching curiously over his shoulder, Sora called his keyblade and braced his feet to call the sleeping keyhole to Twilight Town, gritting his teeth at the way it made his chest vibrate oddly. It was harder than usual, Sora already tired from running around with Roxas all morning, but the portal firmed up eventually from an afterimage to a stable hexagon of blue and orange.

He looked over his shoulder, masking his exhaustion with a grin. "Ready for your first drop?"

"As I'll ever be," Aqua replied, squaring her shoulders.

Dream drops felt weird no matter how many times Sora had done them, like the gravity of a rollercoaster lasting too long, flickering lights and images that all smudged into a vaguely motion-sick blur by the time Sora opened his eyes, flat on the ground. His cheek was pressed against cold, uneven cobblestone, and that, more than his still gently-spinning vision, told him he'd got them to Traverse Town as promised.

"Ugh," he groaned, more drop-sick than usual. Not a smart move to do that when he was already running on Ether-fumes, apparently; Sora's stomach rolled as he pushed himself up to hands and knees. "Aqua?"

"Right here," she answered. She was sitting calmly on the ground as if she'd been waiting a little, arms around her knees. "That sure was something! Did it work? I don't feel unusual."

Huffing a sigh of relief that they hadn't been separated, Sora pushed himself up on shaky legs, nausea fading after a few deep breaths. "Let's find out." Closing his eyes, Sora called for his favorite of his dream-forged keyblades, grinning when the felt the familiar brass of its grip form under his fingers. Sure enough, Counterpoint was solid when he opened his eyes to look, music notes glittering under Traverse's lights. Sora gave it a test swing, pink stars and music notes trailing after it.

"Look at that thing," Aqua teased, but her eyes were sharp as she looked over the details of it from star charm to wizard hat. "And you really wondered if you were making those other keychains when this is the crazy thing your heart dreamed?"

"What can I say, I'm a natural," Sora shrugged. He was glad Aqua hadn't seemed to recognize Counterpoint's trailing melody as the same heartsong that Sora often got caught humming to himself. Embarrassing. He held out a hand to help Aqua up. "Ever been to Traverse Town before?"

"I have not." Aqua accepted Sora's hand up and climbed to her feet, looking around. It was quite a sight; Sora remembered seeing it the first time and being captivated by the electric lights and the endless alleys of a city bigger than his whole home island.

"I'll give you the grand tour!" Sora promised, hand on his hip and thumbing at his chest. "I know the whole place inside and out. Maybe if we have some time we can try out one of the cafes—"

"Grab a coffee?" suggested a voice behind them, too close. Aqua whirled around, but Sora just heaved a sigh at the familiar giggle. "I know a pretty good place."

"Hi, Joshua," he greeted, turning more slowly. Joshua smiled with a face prettier than any real teenager had, pastel button-down and designer jeans right out of a Shibuya fashion spread, as usual.

"Sora! It's been a while. Here to catch up?" Joshua looked Aqua up and down, expression pleasantly neutral but eyes calculating as always. "And with a new partner no less. Change of preference?"

"What? No! This is Aqua." Sora frowned as Joshua took Aqua's hand and made an exaggerated prince's bow to kiss it. "She's my teacher."

"Oh? How unexpectedly naughty."

"Joshua," Sora said, exasperated. He tugged Aqua back, out of Joshua's grip. "Ignore all the weird stuff this guy says." Sora looked back at Joshua, whose expression was amused more than insulted. "We're here to collect Spirit pieces. Any chance you know where to find some Lofty Figments?"

"Since I'm feeling helpful at the moment, I may have run into a Tatsu Blaze or two in the back streets of District 4," Joshua said, twirling a piece of hair between two fingers. "If you see Neku skulking around there, tell him not to be such a stranger, hm? Assuming you can get through the noise of his headphones."

"Can't you tell him yourself?" Sora asked, eyebrow raised.

"Mm, just a little lover's quarrel." Joshua smirked. "It's not my fault he looks so cute in Lapin Angelique."

"Yup, sure, we'll do that," Sora agreed, pushing Aqua in the direction of the door to District 2. "Bye, Joshua!" To Aqua, he hissed, "Hurry up, before that guy decides to dress us up."

"I heard that!" Joshua called after them cheerfully. "And for the record, Sora, you're pretty enough to give even Neku a run for his money if you let me fix that…outfit."

Aqua was laughing behind her hand as Sora shoved her through the District 2 door, then slammed it behind him with an aggravated "Geez." He sagged against the door and rolled plaintive eyes up to Aqua, but it only made her laugh harder.

"Well, you are cute!" Aqua reminded. She turned to look out over the street in front of them, the window displays of the shops and hotel entrance glowing with a familiar warm glow. "Which way?"

"Hang on a second," Sora said, tilting his head to listen. "We've been here long enough that…aha!" Sora grinned when he heard a familiar yip-bark echoing around one of the stone corners. He vaulted over the edge of the stone wall, dropping down onto a bench below before hopping onto the courtyard lower level. Behind him, Aqua came down the steps more sensibly as Sora whistled. "Here, buddy! Come on!"

A second later, a ball of blue and white fur scrambled around the corner, paws skidding on the stone in its hurry to turn, and headed right for Sora, squeak-barking joyously. The Meow Wow launched itself at Sora, knocking him backwards onto his butt and wagging its stubby tail so fast it was a blur.

"I'm glad to see you too!" Sora exclaimed, petting his Meow Wow energetically until it rolled onto its back to have its belly scratched.

"And who's this little…guy?" Aqua bent down to pat the Meow Wow too, making it squirm in delight. "Is it a boy? Or a girl?"

"I've never, uh, checked," Sora chuckled. "Aww, did you miss me? Of course you did! So this is my Meow Wow, and probably in a second…yeah, here comes the other one." A yellow and pink Komory Bat appeared around the same corner as the Meow Wow had, zipping towards them like a homing missile. It landed in Sora's hair, yanking on his hair spikes with its little claws, chirping loudly. "Hey! Not so hard! Man, no mistaking who you belong to. Sorry, buddy, he's not with me." The Komory Bat deflated a little with a softer chirp, but it perked up when Sora reached up to pat it. "This is Riku's Komory Bat."

"It looks just like your drawing," Aqua said, holding out a hand for the Komory Bat to sniff curiously.

"We're here to hunt some Spirit pieces," Sora explained to the Dream Eaters. "I'm making a surprise for Riku, so you can't tell him, ok? You two wanna help us out?" The Meow Wow and Komory Bat both made a cheerful ruckus as Sora climbed to his feet. "I knew I could count on you. Ok, here we come, District 4!" Sora pointed back up the stairs Aqua had come down. "Easiest way is to cut through the hotel; the back alley opens up to the waterway."

"Are you limping?" Aqua asked as Sora started up the stairs.

"Nah," Sora lied through gritted teeth. It was just his dumb knee again. "Must've banged it on the street when we dropped."

Everything in Traverse Town was just like Sora remembered, which made sense since it was a sleeping world after all. Nothing could change here even if it wanted to, aside from the Shibuya-style graffiti in the alleys that was different any time Sora passed the same place twice. Sora thought he recognized one of Beat's tags, Rhyme's bell symbol in metallic gold off to the side. The secret waterway was in the same place here as it had been in the real Traverse Town, and as Sora expected, connected up to the waterways that fed into the Fountain Plaza.

"It's beautiful lit up," Aqua commented, examining the star mosaics under their feet. Sora grinned even though it wasn't like he had anything to do with how pretty the sprays of the fountain were under the golden street lamps. It was nice to hear that Aqua liked one of his favorite places, he supposed.

Fourth District was just as pretty, small clusters of Kyroos and Pricklemanes popping up here and there, but they didn't have any luck with the Tatsu Blazes until they crossed over into the Fifth District. Four Tatsu Blazes were splashing about in the waterway just in front of the Garden entrance, the noise of the water enough to cover the sounds of Sora and Aqua approaching for a surprise attack. The first three Nightmares dropped nothing of note, but the fourth dropped a Lofty Figment at last. Sora gave a victorious whoop as he scooped it off the ground.

"It's so light," Aqua said, examining the wing-shaped spirit piece cupped in her hand. It glowed, pulsing gently, a bright teal that reminded Sora of Riku's eyes when he was in Dream Eater form, and Sora was surer that this was the right choice. "This doesn't look anything like Master Yen Sid's notes."

"There's a lot of different kinds," Sora shrugged. He pulled a flame-shaped Intrepid Figment out of his pocket for comparison, the flickering of its star-shaped center making Sora's heartbeat skip as if trying to keep up. Out of another pocket, he dug out a more impressive Dulcet Fancy, holding it up to Aqua's ear so she could hear it hum. "We can stay and hunt for other kinds, if you want. There's different kinds of Dream Eaters all over Traverse. If sticking spirit pieces in my keychain works, maybe you can use them for new effects in yours too."

"You aren't tired?" Aqua asked, eyeing Sora critically. She hadn't asked about the limp again, probably because Sora was using the tiniest bit of Air Step to keep the foot on his sore side from actually touching the ground.

"Nope!" Sora insisted, having too much fun with his and Riku's Dream Eaters to worry about stuff like that. "Come on, you want to see the other districts, right? And we haven't found any Troubling pieces yet anyway."

"All right," Aqua agreed, giving in to her obvious curiosity. "If you're sure you're up to it." Sora threw his hands in the air in excitement, his Meow Wow bouncing around his feet, mirroring his mood. If things got too bad, he could always ride his Meow Wow for a bit.

"And I can teach you to link up with Riku's Komory Bat!" Sora suggested, bouncing on his toes a little. The bat trilled in interest from its perch on Sora's head. "It's so much fun, you'll love it! And I haven't shown you the really great view from up there!"

Aqua tilted her head back to follow Sora's finger pointing at the soaring glass greenhouse roof of the Garden. "And just how do we get up there?"

"Two words." Sora's eyes glittered with excitement. "Flow. Motion."

They ended up staying for hours, time easy to lose track of in a dreaming world. There were so many corners and rooftops for different Nightmares to hide in, all kinds different Spirit pieces to show Aqua. Sora combined some spare Noble and Rampant pieces to show Aqua how creating spirits worked, and made her a particularly feisty Sir Kyroo. She couldn't form change by merging with it, which Sora thought was a bit of a shame, but their link attack was a string of swift fencing jabs in between short Teleports, and that was more than cool enough to suffice.

After a while, a dull exhaustion ache was pressing down behind Sora's eyes, but he didn't want to interrupt Aqua's fun. He downed a potion when Aqua wasn't looking, and the ache faded until it was easily ignorable. Both of their steps were dragging when they reluctantly called it quits, pockets full of Spirit pieces, shoulders and arms sore. Sora's knees wobbled when they came back through the waking portal, his bad one nearly dumping him to the floor, but Aqua was in too much of the same shape from the trip to notice, her face almost as green as her Kyroo.

"Ugh," Aqua murmured, closing her eyes and drawing in a slow breath. "Did it work?"

Sora reached into his pocket, relief flooding him when his fingers touched the edges of the Spirit pieces. They were cool and hard here, instead of the squirming, warm things they were in the Sleeping Realm, but solid enough to pull out of his pockets and pour into Aqua's hands.

"Thank goodness," Aqua said, equally relieved.

"Day off tomorrow, right?" Sora was trying for cheerfully flip, but his whole face felt funny so he wasn't sure if his smile was pulling that off.

"Kid, you are pushing it," Aqua sighed, giving Sora's hair a rough scrunching before shoving him off to bed.

The stairs up to his room felt like a torture devised just for him, his knee a sharp pain on every step. Sora's whole body felt like lead as he pushed his door open, trying to keep it quiet. He needn't have bothered, since Riku stirred as soon as Sora was inside, Riku's eyes heavy with sleep and a book flattened on his chest.

"You shouldn't have waited up," Sora scolded, leaning hard against the wall to struggle with kicking his sneakers off.

"Shut up, who'd wait up for you?" Riku retorted, softly fond. "I felt you come back. The link." He pushed the book off his chest, careless about it falling to the ground, but concern obvious as he looked Sora over. "It's so late. Everything all right?"

"M'so tired," Sora groaned, digging for the strength to push himself off the wall. The ache behind his eyes was back. Everything was made of too much gravity. Riku held up the edge of the blanket, but Sora shook his head. "Shower."

Sora stripped off his clothes as he trudged towards the bathroom, letting them lie where he dropped them. Truthfully all the Nightmare goo and sweat had been left back in the Sleeping Realm, but Sora still felt like it was stuck all over his skin, so a shower it was. He was as quick about it as he could be, distantly concerned that he might drop right there and Riku would have to fish him out of the tub. Somehow he made it, toweling himself off ineffectually and letting that fall in a damp heap too before using up the last of his strength to make far enough to collapse in bed.

"Warm," Sora muttered in bliss, facedown. He felt Riku pushing him onto his side, draping the blankets over him, but he couldn't open his eyes.

"Did everything go ok?" Riku asked. He settled against Sora's back, warm against Sora's aching muscles, one arm heavy over Sora's waist, strong, safe.

"Mnnn," Sora managed, fading, and anything else Riku asked him didn't reach deep enough to catch him as he went under.

Chapter Text

Sora woke up just after dawn, not because he wanted to, but because his head was killing him. The pain was sharp, grinding, and centered in his forehead, just over his third eye.

Magic migraine. The absolute worst. Sora squeezed his eyes shut and tried to roll over on his side, but even that small motion made his stomach roll threateningly. He whined softly, thinking that he'd rather do ten low-pressure headaches before an island storm than even one of these.

Beside him, Riku stirred. Even with his eyes shut, Sora knew what barely-awake Riku looked like, blinking too much and mussed hair sticking out all over. "You awake?"

"Headache," Sora muttered. He whined again at the soft touch of Riku's hand to his forehead, not because it hurt more, but just for sympathy. Riku's hand felt cool against his skin, which was also not a great sign.

"Overdid it yesterday, huh?" Riku asked. "What were you thinking, keeping that portal open so long after using so much magic in the morning? And don't bother lying, Roxas told me about the Ethers."

"Don't lecture me, I'm dying," Sora said miserably.

"Poor baby," Riku said, emphasis on the baby, but the gentle press of his lips against Sora's temple felt like the only nice thing in the entire world. "I'll get you something to eat if you think you can keep it down." They'd both learned the hard way that Elixirs on an empty stomach was not a solution to anything.

"Urgh." Sora's stomach twisted just thinking about it. Very, very gingerly, he shifted onto his side to curl in against Riku's side. "In a little bit. Please don't move."

"Calling in sick?" Riku asked. Sora muttered a yes, he'd earned it. Riku relaxed back into the mattress, ultimately making a more comfortable pillow for Sora. "Mm, ok. I could use a morning off, given the circumstances." Riku's hand wound gently into Sora's hair, fingertips pressing soothing circles against his scalp. "Sorry I didn't get a chance to tell you yesterday. The King wants me to look at something with him at Disney Castle."

"What?" Sora groaned. He didn't bother trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice; Riku would feel it through their link anyway. "Aw, Rikuuu."

"Sorry. It's only for a day or two. Want to come along? I could put off leaving until tonight, the King said it's important but not urgent."

Sora thought about it, slowly, thoughts woolen. "Can't. Finishing the thing with Aqua."

"Am I ever going to see this surprise?" Riku wanted to know.

"Nobody said it was a surprise for you," Sora replied, never too sick for sass. He felt too awful for sustained banter, though. "Might be done by the time you're back. You really skipping morning training?"

"No place I'd rather be," Riku assured, giving Sora's hair a last scrunch before gently nudging him to roll over. The movement made the room spin, but Riku settled against Sora's back, the weight of him comforting.

"Figures I finally get you in bed all morning and I'm too miserable to enjoy it," Sora grumbled.

"Maybe that'll make the lesson stick. Nothing else seems to."

Sora faded in and out of pained consciousness for a while, Riku stroking soothing fingers through his hair, before managing to fall back to sleep. Eventually he was woken up by Riku climbing out of bed, only realizing it was a few hours later because the room was brighter. Riku returned with toast and coaxed Sora into eating enough of it that he could finally take an Elixir, and then tucked Sora back in to sleep off the worst of the migraine while the Elixir did its work.

It was past noon when Sora dragged himself out of bed for real, still feeling fuzzy all around the edges. He found Aqua in the library, making notes and sketches in a journal, all their collected Spirit pieces spread out in front of her, sorted by color into a rainbow. They looked so different out in the waking world, still pretty, glossy like enamel pins, but ultimately lifeless. Something about it was a little sad.

"Glad to see you up and about," Aqua said, noticing Sora as he picked up one of the hard-earned Lofty figments. It was cool and solid in his palm, making Sora miss the way it had wriggled in his hand before, miss the shifting glow of its original color. As he set the piece back down, he looked up to see Aqua smiling at him faintly. "I had a dream about that Sir Kyroo you made me, you know."

"He found you! I'm glad," Sora said. He pulled a chair out from the table to sit down with a soft, "Oof." He leaned over the table to get a better look at Aqua's sketches. "Those look good."

"I have to send off a copy to Yen Sid once I finish this one for our library." Aqua put her pen down and looked Sora over more closely. "I'm sorry about last night. I'm responsible for you running yourself down too far. I knew you'd had a long morning, and I should have taken that more seriously."

"I'm the one who said I was fine," Sora shrugged, offering a wan smile. "It's my own fault. I didn't want to spoil your fun, and Traverse Town is one of my favorite places. It's where I met Donald and Goofy, you know."

"Yes, you may have mentioned that several times while you were half-drunk from exhaustion and that potion you think I didn't see you take," Aqua said wryly. Sora chuckled sheepishly. Busted. "Let's call it dual fault. Next time I'll be a more watchful teacher, if you be less of a reckless teenager. Agreed?"

"Yes," Sora agreed, relieved to not be lectured at further even if he knew that he deserved it. "Bet Terra has some punishment lesson thought up for skipping morning form practice, though."

"Oh no, you're on magic ban at least another twenty-four hours," Aqua informed him, going back to her sketching. "I've got a much more fitting punishment for you."

Sora winced. "It doesn't involve buckets of water and a lot of stairs, does it?"

A light touch to Sora's shoulder made him yelp and whip around. He found Naminé grinning at him sweetly. "She means me. I hear you need some sketching lessons?"

"Naminé!" Sora exclaimed, all but throwing himself out of his chair to squish her in a tight hug. "How long have you been here?"

"Since this morning." Naminé let Sora push her back a step and look her over. She'd grown another centimeter at least, although she wasn't caught up with Kairi yet, and was wearing a pink dress that looked like a hand-me-down from Aerith over sneakers that had definitely come from Twilight Town. "Roxas came and picked me up in the Gummi ship so I could help him finalize his design."

"You kids go catch up, hm? Shoo." Aqua waved them off, still looking down at her note-taking. "And don't come back until Sora designs something that looks like a weapon instead of a sight gag."

"You're so meaaaan," Sora pouted over his shoulder as Naminé tugged him away by the elbow, laughing softly. "After I made you a cool frog dream buddy and everything!"

The two of them settled on the landing just before the Great Hall, Sora sprawled out on his back on the landing while Naminé sat on the last step with her skirt smoothed demurely behind her knees. Naminé always hid in unusual corners to draw, and Sora liked how the stained glass windows here splashed the white marble with golds, pinks, and blues. The cool marble felt good against Sora's shoulders and head, Sora still shaking off the effects of the migraine.

"Aqua and Roxas told me about your idea," Naminé said, opening her sketchbook to a clean page and settling it against her knees. "Aqua said you know what you want the keyblade to do, but not what you want it to look like."

"Yeah," Sora sighed. Only half his attention was on Naminé, the rest of it occupied holding his Gummi phone up without dropping it on his face, texting Riku to say where he and Naminé were. [u better not leave wo saying goodbye]

[Promise I won't.]

Sora let the phone drop to his chest. "It's Aero and Gravity magic, we're hoping for flight or least glide and effects like Sleep or Confusion. But when I try to picture it…" Sora closed his eyes, furrowing his brow. "I just see him, his Dream Eater form. It's really cool, you know? I can't think of anything that would look cool enough. Half of my stuff just turns out like…"

"The frying pan," Naminé supplied. Sora grumbled a yes. "Let's start with that, then, his form change. What's it like?"

"You can see it in my memories, can't you?" Sora asked, cracking one eye open. "You're the only other person besides me who's ever seen it, really, since it only happens in my dreams."

"But your feelings and your memories of it affect what happens with the keychain, right?" Naminé pressed. "Roxas explained it to me this morning, a little bit. So what does Riku's form change feel like?"

"It's…I like his wings." Sora opened his other eye but let both of them fall half-shut, so that the glowing stained glass above him was a blur of bright colors, reminding him of Riku's Komory Bat. "He can barely glide, and even in Neverland he's a terrible flyer, so dreams are the only place we can really race that way. It's so much fun! And his eyes are so pretty, like ok, they're always pretty, but when he's in form they glow, like those big lights on strings in Christmas Town? Like the ocean back home when the water's clearest."

"Mmhmm," Naminé hummed, encouraging Sora to go on, her crayon pencils scratching softly on her notebook. He could feel her rifling at the edges of his memories as well, but gently, not unpleasantly, as if his thoughts were a stack of pages that Naminé was brushing her fingertips down the outside edges of, ruffling them apart from each other but not disordering them. When embarrassment started creeping in that Sora had been rambling about Riku for minutes on end, Sora pushed himself up off the floor to see what Naminé was drawing.

"They're so good," Sora said jealously, eyeing Naminé's page full of half a dozen sketched Rikus, standing and flying and fighting all over the page in lavender-shaded lines. All of them had a hand out as if they should be holding a keyblade, but without one drawn in.

"Thank you," Naminé said, pleased. "I'm going to ask you questions and just answer them without thinking much, all right?"

"Hm, my specialty," Sora said wryly, leaning his head against Naminé's shoulder to watch. It still felt heavy, and not entirely connected to his body.

"Is it long or short?" she asked.

"Long," Sora answered. "Because he's tall."

"Is it like a sword or like magic?" Naminé began sketching as Sora answered, just faint lines at first, on the first Riku sketch. Something about the way she asked concretely how the keyblade was instead of asking how it could be, helped Sora picture the answer more immediately. "Is it sharp angles or smooth curves?" and then "Are there lots of lines or not so many?" and then "Is it heavy or is it fast?" turned the faint lines into something almost real, which seemed sort of right until it was abruptly wrong.

"No," Sora interrupted. He couldn't say what was wrong, only that it was. The spiraling intersecting lines were beautiful but not Riku's keyblade. "Not like that."

"All right." Naminé abandoned the first sketch without arguing and moved onto the next one, starting with the same basic line shapes before returning to asking questions. Sora was grateful for Naminé's patience as she tried to coax the shape out of him by process of elimination, the stained-glass sunlight shifting slowly across the floor until it was staining Naminé's pink dress purple and rose.

"Sorry," Sora said when he rejected the sixth version. He hung his head. "They're all really nice! I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Don't be sorry, this is fun," Naminé reassured. "But you look like you need a break. Your eye keeps twitching."

"Stupid migraine hangover." Sora reached up to rub at his forehead with the heel of his hand. Now that Naminé had mentioned his eye, he could feel it pulsing, slight but annoying. When he pressed down on it, it still refused to stop, fluttering under his fingertips.

"Can I try?" Naminé asked, and before Sora could say he'd already tried everything, Naminé reached over and covered his forehead with the palm of her hand like she was taking his temperature. "Heal."

At first it didn't feel like anything, nothing like the rush of fizzing energy Sora or Riku's healing spells sent across their skin, rushed relief like cold water on a sunburn or the pop of a plugged up ear. Naminé's magic was much gentler, the coolness of her touch sinking into Sora's forehead like she was somehow putting a cold compress on the inside of his skull, exactly where the magic migraine had dug in its claws.

"Aerith's been teaching me," Naminé explained as Sora blinked at her, dumbfounded. "She's a really nice teacher. Does it feel better?"

"Yeah, it does." Sora smiled, relieved. "Can we quit drawing keyblades, though? I really do want you to teach me to sketch better, if you think you can."

"I've never taught anyone anything, but I can try!" Naminé squared her shoulders and tugged Sora down off the step. She spread her sketchbook flat on the floor, big enough that they could each draw comfortably on one page if they stretched out on their stomachs shoulder to shoulder. "Everything is just shapes, you know? Like, let's take your Meow Wow. If I start like this, all circles…"

After Naminé showed Sora how to break a drawing into shapes, they practiced moving those shapes into all kinds of other positions, until they had Meow Wows and Komory Bats frolicking all over both of their pages. It reminded Sora of all the afternoons of coloring on Kairi's kitchen floor, squabbling over colors and accidentally sending crayons rolling under the stove. That was how Riku found them eventually, his head appearing suddenly when he was halfway up the stairs.

"Hm," Riku said, looking over Sora's messy scribbles. "I thought Aqua said she was punishing you, not Naminé."

"Riku!" Naminé laughed while Sora pouted. "Sora's getting better, don't pick on him."

"Hmmmmmm," Riku drawled, until Sora threw a pencil at him. "I came to get you for dinner, but just to warn you, Lea and Roxas made something they're calling 'the chili that never was.' I'm heading to Disney Castle right after, if you need a ride home, Naminé."

"No, thank you," Naminé said, sitting up and beginning to collect her crayon pencils. "Xion and I are having a sleepover. She said we're supposed to paint the boys' nails and gossip about each other, but I'm pretty sure she has that backwards," she added, making Sora and Riku both burst out laughing.

Dinner and saying goodbye to Riku out on the lawn used up the rest of Sora's energy; afterwards, he sat on the main hall's front steps, moping, until all the stars were out. He could hear Terra and Ventus a few floating islands over, pointing out constellations to Naminé and Xion, but Sora made no move to either join them or go inside. He'd lost track of time by the time Roxas came outside and sat down next to him. At first Roxas didn't say anything, just leaned back to watch the stars with Sora. Ventus's laughter carried on the breeze like bells.

"So," Roxas eventually spoke up, drawing Sora's attention. Roxas was holding out the keychain he'd designed for Xion, three interlocked triangles like arrowheads in sleek black and red. "Want to see it?"

"Sure," Sora agreed, sitting up from his slump. Roxas called his Kingdom Key and hooked the keychain on, sending a flare of red and gold up his keyblade like a match lighting. The grip was jet black, encircling his hand on both sides, while the flat blade was a sunset of pale gold at its thinnest point, to orange and then red at the tip where it fanned out wider, the key teeth shaped like squared off flames. It looked sleek but imposing, and sharp as hell. "Wow, it's amazing! I can't believe you made this."

"Took all three tries," Roxas said, holding it out for Sora to take. It was heavier than it looked, but so well-balanced Sora bet he could balance it on one finger. "First one, the physical components set fine, but then the magic shards mixed all together so that nothing worked. The second try went so bad it melted the whole thing, even the charm. Then, this. It's called Maverick Flare."

"You named it?" Sora asked, tilting the keyblade this way and that to catch the light. It seemed like it should be shiny, but swallowed the light instead, reflecting nothing.

Roxas shook his head. "No, it's just called that. I had one like it, before. I can't remember making it or ever using it, but I remember what it looked like, how it felt. So I think it must have been Xion's, and I just remember it as mine because my brain's trying to fill in the gaps that don't make sense. When I think back, I can only see me and Axel."

"Even with her heart put back together, your memories are all still wrong?" Sora asked, handing the keyblade back. Guilt crawled up the back of his neck when Roxas nodded. "What does Xion remember?"

"Nothing," Roxas said. "Even if the extra memories still exist, there's no telling if they're unchained inside Xion, or me, or you. Naminé said they could even be scattered between all three of us." He unclipped the keychain and rubbed it between his thumb and finger, staring out across the lawn. "I have my journal from back then. Axel kept it. Even though I can read what I wrote about Xion back then, it's like reading some stranger's diary. But it must be burned in our hearts somewhere, all those lost memories, or else how could I make this?"

Sora opened his mouth to ask if they'd really tried everything, if Naminé couldn't help, or Ienzo or anyone, but looking at Roxas's frustrated expression, he forced himself to stop. Of course Roxas would have tried all those things. Riku was right; Roxas didn't need Sora to fix anything or even want him to try. Roxas just needed to talk about it, maybe.

"I think she'll understand when you give it to her," Sora said, making Roxas frown. "What you said before, about it not being enough, I've been thinking about that. It isn't enough, but it's not like you can change that. Even if it never feels like enough, even if making her something like this keychain is for yourself just as much for her, that's ok, isn't it?" Sora nodded at the keychain in Roxas's hand. "Making that for her is proof your wish is strong, even if it never comes true."

"Oh, shut up," Roxas demanded, cheeks visibly pink even in the low light. He didn't sound angry, though. "Save your wish upon a star crap for your boyfriend and your cricket."

"Ok, ok," Sora chuckled. His chest still ached a little, but these days he could accept that just because it still hurt didn't mean things weren't getting better. "Can me and Riku still come visit you in Twilight Town, though?"

"Obviously," Roxas snorted. "I'm gonna ask the Moogles if I can use their forge, and kick the pants off Seifer with my new Struggle Bat. Tournament's always the last day of summer vacation."

"I remember. I'm pretty sure using a keyblade bat for Struggle is absolutely cheating," Sora pointed out, shaking his head.

"Shut up, keyblade chosen one," Roxas retorted, shoving at Sora's shoulder. "Beating up on neighborhood kids, you're the cheater, damn." They wrestled back and forth for a few seconds, until Roxas pushed Sora back hard, obviously done with touching. "Anyway, go to bed, dumbass. I know you're still jacked up from yesterday, I can see your eye twitching from here."

"Everybody's got an opinion," Sora complained, but he heaved himself up because Roxas was right, no matter how annoying that was. He nudged Roxas's butt with his sneaker before he went, though. "Hey. Who won fireball home run derby?"

"Uh, me, obviously?" Roxas leaned back to grin at Sora, sharp and smug. "I'm the only one who had the brains to bring an actual bat."

Sora did his best to send himself to bed early, taking a long bath and crawling directly into his blanket nest after. It didn't work very well, though. He still felt out of sorts, achy and muddled in a vague, unpleasant way, and his bed smelled like Riku without a Riku actually being there to rub his back or distract him with kissing. Loneliness welled up in Sora's chest, overwhelming even though he knew the intensity of it was due to exhaustion and the migraine hangover. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists to keep from reaching for his phone, reminding himself that he slept in this bed alone three times as much as he ever shared it.

His self-control went right out the window the instant his phone vibrated, Sora's hand shooting out of the blankets to snatch it off the bedside table and yanking it off his charging cord. It kept on humming in his hand, a call instead of a text message, and Sora felt a squirm of guilt but answered it anyway.

"What's wrong?" Riku asked as soon as the picture connected, face furrowed in concern. Sora recognized the shelves of the Disney Castle's library behind Riku's head, and Riku was still holding a quill in his hand, papers and books spread across the table in front of him. "You were yanking on the link."

"It's nothing, sorry," Sora said, hunching up tighter in his blankets and struggling to keep his voice even. He could feel himself doing it, now that Riku had said, and tried to release his heart's grip on the link to Riku's, but it only wound tighter, anxiously.

"It isn't nothing," Riku coaxed, dropping his quill to rub his chest over his heart.

"I don't feel good," Sora admitted. He felt childish and silly, but Riku was pushing his own feelings harder back down the link, reassurance drowning out some of Sora's self-pity. "I miss you and I don't want to sleep alone. And now I feel dumb for worrying you but it's just…" Sora took a shuddering breath. Emotional overload was just as common a secondary symptom of magic migraines for him as light sensitivity was for Riku, Sora reminded himself. They'd had enough of them that he should recognize the signs right away, but somehow in the moment it was always too overwhelming for Sora to remember on his own. "Migraine stuff."

"It's still real, even if it's because of the migraine," Riku soothed, leaning back in his chair. "I miss you, too. Do you think you can sleep? If you still feel this bad in the morning, I'm coming back."

"Oh, don't," Sora protested, even though he wanted to beg Riku to do just that, maybe even right now. "It's embarrassing. Nothing's even wrong."

"Shut up, you can't stop me. Put me on speaker and close your eyes, I'll read to you until you fall asleep. The King has me reading warding magic theory, and it's so boring it would knock out anyone. And don't argue, I can see your eye twitching from here."

"Fine," Sora sighed, taking one last good look at Riku. He looked tired too, eyes lined and hair fluffed from dragging hands through it. Sora closed his eyes, taking that image with him. "Go for it."

"The corner anchor points must be chosen with utmost care," Riku picked up in the middle of a section. The timbre of his voice was low and soothing, a tone he'd learned from years of Sora's mother trying to read them to sleep as bedtime-resistant children. "Three concerns are chief in this practice: first, that the locations of the corners be equidistant and within lines of sight but not bisected by any running water or other impediment, second, that the number of corners chosen suit the purpose of the warding as described at length in the following chapter, and thirdly and most crucially, that the number of connections between the corners be always an odd number, preferably three, five, or seven in descending preference…"

"Hey," Sora interrupted sleepily. "Aqua said that, about shards and odd numbers…"

"That's nice," Riku cut him off gently. "An anchor point must be a physical object of material permanence, such as stone, marble, gemstone, or any other substance which neither breaks down over time of its own accord or is worn away by the regular touch of rain or wind…"

"Love you," Sora said, finally starting to fade.

"I love you, too. But more importantly, the material must also be impervious to magical energies, the vibrations of which over long stretches of time can alter the physical properties of many materials in substantial and somewhat unpredictable fashion…"

In the morning Sora woke up to a much improved mental state and a phone run down to 8%.

[i feel better] Sora texted Riku, hoping it was early enough that Riku was still asleep too and not already on his way back. Out of curiosity, he checked the time of the last call, raising an eyebrow at the number. [how much of that dumb book did you read me????]

Leaving the phone to charge without waiting for an answer, Sora went downstairs to appease his growling stomach with anything besides leftovers of the chili that he wished had never been. It was early enough that only Terra and Aqua were up, Land of Departure's resident early risers.

"Feeling better?" Aqua asked as Sora poured himself a bowl of cereal, too hungry to bother making anything.

"Much," Sora said, shoving a spoonful of cereal in his mouth before he even made it to the table. Aqua nodded in satisfaction and went back to her conversation with Terra. Busy stuffing his face, Sora ended up listening in without contributing, at least to the parts that he could hear over the sound of his own crunching.

"I really didn't see any signs of anyone tampering with it," Terra was saying. "Not even animal tracks, nothing. It's driving me crazy."

"Well, something's sure burning them out," Aqua replied, frowning. "I tested the boundary spell just two weeks ago and everything was steady, and you're telling me two out of seven markers were half-melted through. Granite doesn't turn to jelly in two weeks!"

"It should be five for boundary lines, though," Sora spoke up without thinking.

"Sorry," Terra said after a pause. "What?"

"It's five corners for boundaries," Sora repeated, "and seven for transformations. If your numbers and purpose don't match the magic lines shift themselves unexpectedly to eventually create balance. Seven minus two is…" Sora trailed off as he realized Terra and Aqua were both staring at him. "What?"

"Damn, he's right," Terra groaned. "I'm an idiot. Why do you know that?"

"I don't…oh, it must have been in Riku's book." Sora rubbed his head, spiking up his bedhead even higher. "I couldn't sleep so Riku was reading this awful magic theory book to me over the phone. I guess some of it sank in while I was sleeping?"

"Unbelievable," Terra grumbled while Aqua started laughing. "All those times Master Eraqus punished me for falling asleep during his theory lectures, and I can't even rub it in his face!"

"I'm sorry?" Sora offered, not sorry at all, joining in with Aqua to laugh at the aggravated expression on Terra's face as he grabbed a napkin to start sketching a new boundary configuration.

Chapter Text

"This is the form you settled on?" Aqua asked, going over Sora's synthesis notes. Sora's notebook was spread out between them on one of the library tables.

"Uh-huh," Sora answered, hoping his voice sounded casual. Truthfully it was one of the sketches from Naminé that Sora had initially rejected, but he hadn't come any closer to inventing a better idea himself. He'd decided it wasn't worth racking his brain over anymore; it wasn't like anything he forged ever turned out in the shape he'd planned. Naminé's design was nice anyway, a curved, mid-length blade that looked sturdy without being as ridiculously thick as Braveheart. Sora liked it because the cutting edge was on the inside of the curve, making it look a bit like a wing. "Do you think it's good?"

Aqua considered the drawing thoughtfully. "It's shorter than Riku usually prefers, but the curvature is meant for cutting down from above, so it's a reasonable choice." Sora stared at Aqua evenly until she rolled her eyes a little. "Yes, Riku will think it looks cool, if that's what you're asking."

"Good," Sora said, satisfied. "Roxas went over my recipe with me this morning, before he and Xion left for home. He thought all the layers made sense."

"That's good. So you should be able to tell me the whole thing," Aqua said. Sora opened his mouth, but before he said anything Aqua flipped his notebook shut. "Without looking."

Sora huffed, blowing a hair spike out of his eyes. "Aquaaa."

"Don't 'Aquaaa' me, this is a complicated idea. You shouldn't be guessing, you should know with certainty why each piece is in here. Your will, not your raw magic power, is the most important part." Aqua looked Sora hard in the eye. "Right?"

Sora struggled not to squirm. "Right, I know. Really. I can do it."

Aqua leaned back in her chair, arms folded. "Go ahead, then."

Sora took a deep breath. "Keyblade base gears are always four Gear Components and two Techs." Roxas had said as much that morning, and Sora trusted his extra year of synthesis experience. "Mine is four Gear B's and two Rune Tech+'s for teleportation."

"That's Gears B and Techs+," Aqua corrected, "but keep going."

"You're being pedantic on purpose," Sora complained. "Nobody says it like that! Anyway, plus three Dark shards because this is a dark-type form change and you use those in Drive Recoveries too. Or Drives Recovery," Sora added with exaggerated snobbery.

"No! That's not how that one works!" Aqua laughed. Sora stuck his tongue out. "What next?"

"Magic layer is three Gust Gems and three Lucid Stones, plus a Twilight Crystal to make seven," Sora recited. "Sevens for transformation magic."

"Shouldn't you unbalance those, three and two?" Aqua asked. "Which is more important, Aero or Gravity?"

"It's already unbalanced because Lucid materials are Aero and Gravity magic," Sora retorted. "Quit trying to trick me."

"Ok, ok," Aqua said, chuckling at being caught. "You're sure about the Twilight Crystal? I still think Dense would be a better choice."

"I don't like the way they feel," Sora shrugged, not able to explain it any better. Both materials had to do with being in-between and liminal magic, but to him Twilight pieces felt like the peaceful emptiness just before falling asleep, while Dense pieces reminded him of the squirming, barely-realness of Dusks or Creepers. "They're creepy, and heavy. Riku isn't that kind of nightmare."

Aqua nodded. "Fair enough. Then your last layer."

"Four Troubling Figments and two Lofty Figments for the Komory Bat recipe, and then the whole thing sealed with an Abounding Crystal for hopefully Confusion or at least increased Drive Recovery prizes." Sora beamed, proud of himself for remembering everything.

"We still aren't sure Spirit pieces can even be melded in with everything else," Aqua cautioned. "Even if they can be, fusing three layers will be a long and draining process. I think stopping at the first two layers would still make an impressive magic form."

"Nope!" Sora said, bullheaded. "Dream Eater form change or bust! Come on, we did all that work, don't you want to see how it turns out? I bet Spirit pieces make awesome keyblades."

"Here's hoping you feel that enthusiastic a couple hours from now," Aqua said, reaching across the table to bop Sora gently on the head with his notebook. "Ready?"

Sora slammed his palms on the table, hopping to his feet. "Heck yes!"

He tried to hold onto that confidence when he was sitting on a stool in the workroom, nearly two dozen synthesis pieces spread across the table. His heart was skipping with nerves, and Sora had to take a few deep, slow breaths before he felt ready to focus. In front of him, the iron Dream Eater charm glinted silver as Sora rubbed his thumb over the curve of it. He pulled up the sense memory of the real sigil set in Riku's skin under his hands, the feel of Riku running a sharp-tipped claw over his cheek, the exact shade of luminous blue Riku's eyes turned as his Dream Eater, the way that Glide felt and the way that Dark Firaga looked, the faint smell of ozone from a Teleport and the crackle of a Barrier. There were so many pieces to Riku's Dream Eater form, but Sora knew them all, by heart.

"All right." Sora took one last steadying breath, in, then out. "I can do this."

"That's the spirit." Aqua slapped the back of his shoulder encouragingly. "Go for it, kiddo."

The physical base of the keyblade fused without any incident; Sora was practiced enough at the process by now to know when a synthesis felt stable. He'd learned the hard way about how much easier melding things on top of a flat charm was, letting gravity do the work for him of pulling the Techs and Dark Shards down into the metal once he'd focused enough magic into it to turn the iron malleable. He'd also learned that blowing on the just-done piece while it was still glowing was like shaking a Polaroid: useless, but everybody did it.

"How long do you think?" Sora asked Aqua, watching the flickering pulse of his charm. The Dark Shards had given it a purple tint, like a nightlight, which Sora found pleasant.

"Not long," Aqua said, leaning over to watch the rate of the pulses. It was starting to slow already, less of a flicker and more like how Roxas's laptop light 'breathed' when the lid was shut. "Better to guess early rather than late, I think."

Sora tried timing the pulses to his breaths, but they were too quick because of nerves, so he ended up counting seconds with 'one coconut, two coconuts' instead. When he was up to four-coconut pulses, Sora picked up one of the Gust Gems to set delicately on top of the charm, holding his breath; if the first layer was set enough, the surface tension would hold the gem on top, and if it wasn't set, the gem would drop down into it, ruining the layer.

The gem stayed put, and Sora let out the breath he'd been holding. He placed the other two Gust Gems just as delicately on either side of the first one, then the Lucid Stones at the top and bottom as if he were planning to draw a triangle between them. The Twilight Crystal, which was the size of Sora's palm, went on top, sandwiching the magic elements between it and the keychain base. Laying his hand on top, Sora had to balance keeping the image of Riku's form change fixed in his mind at the same time as pouring his own magic into fusing the layers. He had to press down at the same time, steadily to encourage everything to fuse together, but gently enough to keep from squashing it into a useless pancake, a touchy maneuver that he and Roxas had taken to calling 'the magical grilled cheese.'

With this many magical elements, the struggle to hold everything together was bigger than usual. Sora could practically feel the Gust Gems pulsing up against his palm through the leather of his work gloves, while the Lucid ones tried to slip out from the sides. Gradually he found himself having to press his hand down harder and harder to keep everything in place, draining Sora's focus away from the spellwork he was trying to lattice over top of it.

Sora thought he had it, but as soon as he took his hand away the whole thing collapsed in on itself like an underbaked soufflé.

"Ugh!" Sora groaned in frustration, leaning back from the disaster, fingertips on fire with pins and needles from magic backlash. The half-synthesized keychain slumped into a messy lump on the tabletop, undirected magic melting the physical components into slag. Sora poked at it, but clearly none of it was salvageable. "Damn!"

"Any idea what happened?" Aqua asked, leaning over to examine the heap.

"It felt weird," was Sora's knee-jerk complaint as he pulled out his Gummi phone to snap a picture. He texted the shot to Riku, having to squint at his screen as the letters blurred, still light-headed from magic drain. Sora took a deep breath and let it out again, thinking about how to explain it. "I think I squished it too hard, because it was pushing up against me and I was trying to keep it in shape."

[You made the worm!] Riku texted back, and Sora could hear his delight obvious even in the short message. [So nostalgic.]

[SHUT UP] Sora fired back, fingertips still tingling unpleasantly.

"Think it's a problem with the components?" Aqua asked thoughtfully.

Sora shook his head. "No, it was different than I expected so I lost concentration."

Aqua nodded. "All right. Let's take a break before you try again, your hands are shaking."

"Stupid magic backlash," Sora said, shaking his hands out.

The next try made it the entire way to adding a Spirit piece, but ended up just as big a disaster, if that was even possible, an acrid, smoking disaster that sent Aqua running to throw the window open. Drained both magically and emotionally, Sora quit for the day on Aqua's advice and stomped out of the workroom teetering on the brink of a temper tantrum.

"I just don't understand what's wrong with it!" Sora exclaimed, sprawled on the grass in an angry starfish. He'd come out to the farthest floating island to throw rocks over the edge, then had run out of rocks. "It sucks."

"Don't ask me, I can't synthesize anything worth a darn," Ventus said. He was in the middle of his Terra-mandated one hundred keyblade swings, Wayward Wind whistling rhythmically through the air. "Maybe it's because of me you can call a keyblade, but it sure isn't because of me you can forge one."

Sora squeezed his eyes shut and yelled his frustration. "MAGIC IS DUUUUMB."

Ventus laughed softly. "Yeah, it is sometimes." There was a sudden silence as Ventus paused his practice swings. "Shoot. I lost count."

"Sorry."

"It's fine, I want a break anyway." There was a soft thump as Ventus dropped to sit in the grass next to Sora, and a second later the weight of Ventus's hand appeared on top of Sora's head, patting his hair spikes. It felt nice at the same time as it felt weird, his relationship with Ventus stranded somewhere in between big brother and more innocent friend. Eventually Ventus asked, "Want to talk about it?"

"No," Sora grunted. "Just wanna be mad a while." Even that was starting to drain away with Ventus sitting next to him. Sometimes just being near Ventus was soothing, as if Sora's heart remembered how it felt to have Ventus's easy light inside. "Can you just…talk about something else?"

"Sure. So you know Terra's having trouble with those boundary markers, right? Well, he took Lea out to look at them this morning, which is pretty funny. Like the rocks keep melting so you took the fire guy along? You can't tell Terra I said this, but sometimes he's so dumb it's adorable, honestly. What's that thing you and Kairi say?"

"Coconut brain," Sora answered, only half-listening. "Sweet but empty inside."

"That's him!" Ventus laughed. "Geez. Anyway, they were gone for hours, trying to figure out how to re-space the markers evenly…"

Sora let his eyes fall shut as Ventus rambled on, muttering an occasional 'Uh-huh' to keep him going while he let his mind drift. There had to be something he was doing wrong, or something he was missing; he'd made plenty of magic keychains with all sorts of different pieces by now, and none of them had fought him so hard or been so…squirmy. Aqua had cautioned again that maybe dream pieces weren't stable enough to do what Sora was asking, but Sora didn't feel like that was it. They felt like they could meld how Sora wanted them too, or were trying to, but…just couldn't…something?

Something was definitely itching at the back of Sora's mind, but he couldn't get the thought to form fully.

"So they tried swapping in obsidian," Ventus was saying when Sora's attention snapped back to him. He noticed Sora's puzzled expression. "Terra thought it might be more resistant to melting."

"Granite isn't supposed to melt either," Sora pointed out.

"Yeah, but obsidian comes from volcanoes, so it should be…used to it?" Ventus didn't sound sure himself, but that wasn't surprising; he had next to zero patience for the finer details of magic theory. "Like, you know, you're supposed to use stuff that's already like the stuff you're doing. Hey, I'm gonna start my swings over. You ok?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Sora answered, distracted. Ventus swooped in for a quick, crushing hug, thumped Sora on the back hard once, and then got up, dusting grass off his pants. "Thanks, Ven."

"I didn't do anything, but no problem!" Ventus beamed.

Sora almost had it, the something lurking in the back of his head, about magic things and using stuff that was already like the stuff. He dragged a hand through his hair, trying to think about it without thinking about it too hard. Ventus's terrible description of magic boundary theory reminded Sora of something he'd read lately, or heard, but the only people he'd talked about materials with recently had been Roxas or Aqua and Terra or…

"Riku!" Sora exclaimed, sitting up and fumbling for his phone. He hadn't talked about it with Riku, Riku had been reading that book while Sora was falling asleep; that was why he'd had so much trouble remembering. Sora thumbed down hard on Riku in his favorite contacts list, tapping his palm impatiently on his thigh until Riku picked up.

"Hi, Sora," Riku answered, the static of cross-world connection resolving into the soft, attentive look that Riku always wore when answering Sora's calls. Just the sound of Riku saying his name like that undid the last snarl of temper tantrum in Sora's chest. "Everything all right? How did forging go?"

"TERRIBLE," Sora announced, making Riku frown. "Are you busy?"

"Uh, no, I can take a break if you need something." Riku turned his head, leaning half out of the frame. "It's Sora."

"You know that book…hi, Your Majesty," Sora interrupted as King Mickey's face slid in from the bottom corner of the screen. "That boring as hell magic book from the other night? I need you to go get that."

"Raxip's Alchemic Theora and Practical Cantrips, a Breviarium of Applications?" Riku tilted his head. "Are you…trying to nap?"

"Gosh," Mickey said. "That must've been some insomnia."

"You have no idea," Sora agreed, heartfelt. "So can you go get it?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess so." Riku stood up, giving Sora an accidental pan of King Mickey's desk and computer. "I won't be long."

"Sure thing, pal," Mickey answered from off-screen; Sora chuckled at how it sounded kind of sarcastic even though the King probably meant it honestly.

"So it went that bad, huh?" Riku asked as he stepped out into Disney Castle's colonnade, nodding to the pair of castle guards assigned at the King's office door. "Worse than the worm?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Sora grumbled, some of his earlier irritation rekindling. "Tell me what you're doing instead."

Riku did, explaining something about trying to tie together the Disney Castle computer system to the castle's magical wards that Sora understood roughly half of, as Riku reached the library and strolled through the stacks to retrieve the book. "What did you need me to look up?"

"Just go back to where you were reading before, I'll know it when I hear it," Sora said. It was late afternoon at Disney Castle, sunlight pouring through the high library windows and outlining Riku's profile in gold as he settled in a window seat to flip through the pages. He was unfairly hot with strands of hair slipping out of his ponytail and a little frown of concentration, and longing twisted in Sora's chest. "You're coming back tomorrow, right?"

"Yes." Riku's eyes flicked up from the book to meet Sora's, giving him a slow blink. "I miss you, too. It's never warm enough in bed without you."

"Shut uuup," Sora complained, cheeks going hot. He glanced up to make sure Ventus was too far away to hear any of this crap. "Stop being cute on the phone!"

"You first," Riku murmured, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth when Sora groaned at him. "I think I started here. Proper numbering of connection points in warding boundaries. The corner anchor points must be chosen with utmost care…"

"Skip past that part with the numbers," Sora directed, shifting in the grass and wishing he'd had the sense to go back to his room before starting this call. If he tried to go up now, the Gummi connection would probably drop.

"An anchor point must be a physical object of material permanence such as stone, marble, gemstone, or any other substance which neither breaks down over time of its own accord or is worn away by the regular touch of rain or wind. The material must also be impervious to magical energies, the vibrations of which over long stretches of time can alter the physical properties of many materials in substantial and somewhat unpredictable fashion. The most common and stable arrangement is that of an equilateral triangle on a level plane, however in practical reality—"

"Wait," Sora interrupted. "Go back to the part about magical altering material. Is there more of that?"

"Not in this section. The rest of the page is examples of wards with different purposes and terrain." Riku turned a few more pages, then stopped. "The chapter after that is about using different materials, though."

"Try that?" Sora flopped down on his stomach in the grass, arm tired from holding the phone up for too long. He rested his chin on his hand, fiddling with the location of the phone on the grass.

"Before attempting to instruct in the subtle use of material to enhance purpose, oh god, why is this so pretentious, a general survey of the most commonly used physical materials and their correspondences must be mastered by any serious sorcerer or alchemist. Copper, to take an example, is peerless at energy conduction but also prone to melting, making charge by lightning a long-desired but foolish impossibility. To begin with metals, seven are the chief or noblest most principally used in…Sora, if you make me read you all seven metals, I am breaking up with you. It's like being lectured by Master Yen Sid on purpose."

"Don't be a baby," Sora accused, even though his own eyelids were starting to feel heavy after just a couple paragraphs. Maybe this was stupid after all. "What are the metals?"

"Gold, silver," Riku listed, turning more pages. "Copper, tin, iron, lead, electrum."

"Go to iron?" Sora said, thinking of the heaviness of his keychain; it was mostly iron with some wootz folded in.

"Iron for durability, for command and strength," Riku summarized, apparently at his limit for Raxip's prose. "In warding, iron for permanence in defense and aggressive attack magics, inlaid into stone or marble an unyielding barrier especially against ghosts, spirits, or supernatural entities. In luck amulets or doorways, iron—"

"Oh shit," Sora said quietly, the answer clicking into place. "That's it."

"Eh?" Riku asked. "What's it?"

"I have to go," Sora said quickly, hopping up from the grass. "Bye, love you see you tomorrow!"

"Wait wha—" Riku demanded, but Sora had already thumbed disconnect and blacked his phone's screen. He broke into a jog across the grass, waving to Ventus when Ventus paused his practice swings to look.

Inside, after a brief but stair-filled search, Sora located Aqua and Kairi in one of the towers, surrounded by a scatter of star charts that no one had had the time to update in the last decade. Sora tried to call Aqua's name but ended up bracing his hands on his knees to wheeze.

"Ah, the hero of light makes his grand entrance," Kairi said, peering over the drafting table at him. "You gonna live, cowboy?"

"I'm…fine," Sora panted, glaring at her. Huffing a last deep breath, Sora straightened up to look at Aqua. "I think I know what the problem with my keychain is. It's the keychain."

"What's the problem with it?" Aqua asked.

"No, I mean the actual keychain is the problem, physically." Sora shook his head impatiently, trying to organize his words in the right order to explain. "Riku's book said the material you attach wards to have to match the purpose or they go all crazy. It's the same for keychains, right? I'm attaching magic to an object so their…thing…has to match. Their…" Sora groped for the word he wanted.

"Their correspondence," Aqua supplied.

"Yes, that!" Sora nodded. "But the keychain I made is iron, and iron is for being permanent and unyielding and definitely to keep out ghosts and spirits. I'm literally asking it to do a crazy transformation and turn Riku into a dream spirit. So it can't! And then the magic goes haywire and melts it into a worm."

"Aww, the worm," Kairi said fondly, just like Riku had. Sora made a face at her.

Aqua crossed her arms, thinking. "I admit, that's definitely plausible. Iron is supposed to be a neutral material as a keyblade base, but in this case its natural properties may very well be working against your purpose."

"You think I'm right?" Sora asked, torn between pride that he'd figured it out and aggravation that he'd melted a bunch of pieces for nothing. "It wasn't just me doing it wrong?"

"I don't think you did a single thing wrong," Aqua said. "Given the amount of backlash you were getting, I doubt I could have done any better myself."

Sora rubbed the back of his head, pleased and a little embarrassed by the praise. "So what can we do about it? What's something that can take that much magical change?"

"Gold's best for strong magic, or electrum," Kairi said, pleased to show off something from her catch-up magic lessons. "Too soft for keyblades, though."

"Quicksilver, but I don't recommend carrying that around in your pocket." The crease between Aqua's eyebrows deepened. "Sora, to be honest, I'm not sure there is a solution. The Spirit pieces are pure transformation magic, and it's possible no material here in reality can hold any sort of shape with that much energy welded to it."

"What about stuff that isn't from reality?" Sora asked.

"What does that even mean, you weirdo?" Kairi laughed, elbowing Sora. "How can you meld pieces of anything to something that's not real?"

"You're a weirdo, weirdo." Sora stuck his tongue out. "And I didn't say stuff that's not real, I said stuff that's not from reality. Like the dozens of dream pieces I gave myself an epic migraine collecting?"

"What are you suggesting?" Aqua asked, eyeing Kairi and Sora poking each other in the sides. "Children."

"Well…" Sora laced his fingers behind his head, eyes drifting up to the ceiling as he thought. "Maybe we're doing it backwards? The things most in tune with transformation magic are the Spirit pieces, so what if I use a Lofty Figment as the base instead of starting with the physical pieces?" He scrunched his nose. "If I melded all the magic pieces first without trying to force them into a form, and then put the Gears and Techs on last to suggest the shape of a keyblade. Could that work?"

"I've certainly never tried anything like it," Aqua admitted, "but it's a creative solution, all right. What worries me is that if you start with the layer that drains the most magic from you, you might not have enough energy left to do the other layers well, or even be able to finish at all. I wouldn't be in a hurry to drain myself into another migraine this week if I were you."

"Good thing my heart's hot-wired to a magical keyblade master boyfriend, huh?" Sora grinned. All right, so he hadn't ever tried pulling some of Riku's magic down their link before, but the keyblade was for him, right? It could work.

"That's…true," Aqua said, lips pressed together.

"You and Riku can make anything gross," Kairi laughed, shaking her head. "Even keyblade forging!" She snuck one more jab under Sora's ribs, making him yelp, then slid off her chair. "Come on, Worm Master, we better make you something fortifying for dinner since you're so determined to crash your system this week."

"Comfort food for magic recovery!" Sora recited cheerfully, the only magic theory lesson that everybody loved. "Mac and cheese! Ohh, let's bake cookies for Riku, he's coming back tomorrow morning!"

"Eat a vegetable! Cheese is not a micronutrient!" Aqua hollered after them, but only got laughter in response.

Drained from the day and stuffed full of comfort food and several vegetables, Sora slept like a rock and woke up feeling good enough to try just about anything. He had one more chance to get this stupid surprise right before Riku showed up in the afternoon, and anyway he'd have to go synth hunting for replacement materials if he ruined this attempt; he didn't have enough spares of the rarer crystals to try a fourth time. He messaged Riku in between shoveling eggs and toast into his mouth to warn him that if their link activated or felt strange, not to worry about it.

[Gee, what a normal and not at all cryptic warning] Riku sent back, his sarcasm obvious. [I can't imagine what would worry me about that.]

Across the table, Aqua's Gummi phone buzzed. She glanced down at it, hands occupied stirring blueberries into her oatmeal. "He wants to know what you're doing."

"Poor Riku," Sora said, grinning cheerfully. "Send back 'everything's fine' with a smiley face, that'll really send him into a spiral."

"Hm." Aqua leaned over to Ventus beside her. "Show me where the smiley faces are again."

"Aqua! Don't help Sora torment Riku!" Ventus scolded, but he was already reaching for her phone.

Sora should have felt more nervous than yesterday, given what a disaster his first two keychains had been and the fact that he was trying something even crazier now. Instead, having the weight of the Lofty Figments in his palm felt soothing, easy to rest his attention on. They were smooth and still against his skin, nothing like how they fluttered in his hands in the sleeping realm, but still beautiful when the light caught in their translucent teal edges. They felt like things that should be alive, felt like something Sora wanted to pour magic into to make them alive.

"Are you sure you want to hold it?" Aqua asked, looking dubiously at Sora's leather wrist protectors, a spare pair borrowed from Riku. They covered his palms and forearms, but were fingerless. "It really might do anything. Your fingers are still bare."

"Uh-huh," Sora said, sure. "I think I have to be able to feel what's going on, or I'll just squish it flat again instead of melding it. And I always made Dream Eaters by just cupping the pieces in my hands, so…" Sora looked up to Aqua, trying to read her expression.

She didn't look thrilled. "Everything's fine smily face?"

"Exactly!" Sora took the deepest breath in that he could hold, then let it out in a whoosh. "All right, I'm doing it."

Picking up the Troubling figments from the table and adding them to his palm, Sora cupped his hands together, like he was holding fireflies, and told himself that he was making a Komory Bat, just like he'd made dozens of Dream Eaters before. He closed his eyes and pushed some magic into it, not really a spell but just raw magical energy. He could feel the figments in his hand absorbing that energy, growing warm but not doing much else. Sora concentrated on increasing the flow of magic gradually, more and more, the compressed space between his hands humming with it.

"Come on, guys," he murmured to himself, jiggling his hands gently. He was pouring magic into it now, like a faucet thrown wide open, and could feel the heat of the stones on his palm even through the protective leather, the vibration of it buzzing hard enough to make him grit his teeth. Sora was starting to feel light-headed from holding the spell too long, close to draining himself of magic like Aqua had warned. Finally out of desperation he tried what he'd suggested flippantly before: he reached down the link from his heart to Riku's and tapped Riku's magic, sucking it down their link and into his chest. It felt bizarre, like the burn of too-strong mint against his throat, and made all the hairs on his body stand on end.

The instant Riku's magic hit Sora's palms, the figments between his hands melded so suddenly that the air pressure slapped Sora's palms flat together, and the abrupt release of energy made Sora's ears pop painfully. His lungs burned like he'd been winded from a hard fall.

Movement brushed the inside of his fingers, like wings fluttering.

"Sora?" Aqua asked. Her voice sounded like it was passing through water, and when Sora tried to look up at her, her face was distorted from Sora's vision swimming. She touched Sora's shoulder, and jerked her hand back like she'd been shocked. More urgently, she demanded, "Sora, answer me! You're white as paper!"

"I think I should sit down," Sora said faintly, and a second later down he went. Only Aqua's quick grab saved him from going face-first into the stone floor.

"Did it work?" Aqua asked as she was setting Sora safely onto his butt, kneeling beside him. "What on earth happened?"

Sora swallowed, his throat so dry it hurt. "I think I—"

His words broke off in a scream at the sudden WHOOSH-crackle of a Dark corridor popping into existence behind him, nearly knocking both him and Aqua over. Riku tumbled out of it, looking disheveled and panicked, hair wild and unzipped backpack hanging from one elbow.

"What's going on?!" Riku demanded as the corridor snapped shut behind him. Braveheart popped into his hand with a noise like a too-close firework. "Are you all right?!"

"I'm FINE!" Sora snapped, unreasonable anger filling his chest from the scare. "Or I was until you gave me a heart attack!"

"I gave YOU a heart attack?" Riku shouted, brows drawing tight together in a scowl. "Do you know what that felt like? I thought you were hurt or attacked or…I don't know what!"

"You're so dramatic!" Sora scowled right back. "I warned you that might happen! I told you not to worry!"

"You drained HALF THE MAGIC OUT OF MY BODY!" Riku roared.

"Boys!" Aqua's stern voice froze both of them for a second, stalling the argument. "Calm down, you're both panicking. Whatever Sora did, yelling won't help it."

"Right," Riku muttered, dismissing Braveheart and rubbing his hand over his face. He pressed his other hand against his chest, like his heart hurt. "I think the link's still open."

"O-oh." Sora felt it now that his anger had died down, his own adrenaline feeding into Riku's panic in an awful feedback loop. He tried to take a deep breath to slow his heart rate, but it took until the third inhale for his chest to loosen up enough to draw a full breath. Riku sat down on the floor next to him, and Sora pulled his cupped hands in tight against his chest. "No peeking."

"I don't care about your dumbass surprise, I care that you're not hurt," Riku said, voice still sharp. Sora glared at him, cheeks puffed. "You really scared me. You've forged dozens of things lately and nothing like that happened before. What were you doing?"

"The…thing needed way more magic than I thought, so I ran out," Sora admitted, shoulders slumping. "I thought I might be able to borrow some of yours, but I didn't think it would be so…like that. I didn't even really expect it to work. Sorry."

Riku heaved a sigh, reaching to rub slow circles on Sora's back. "I'm sorry for yelling, but not for panicking." Sora muttered that that was fair, slumping into Riku's side so that his cheek rested against Riku's shoulder. "We shouldn't try that again unless we're together. What if I'd already been flying the Gummi ship back?"

"You weren't, were you?" Aqua asked, alarmed. Sora shivered a little at the thought.

"No, I was packing in my room." Riku gestured at his backpack, things spilling out from its open top where he'd dropped it on the floor.

"All right." Aqua pressed a hand against Sora's forehead. She nodded, satisfied, and climbed to her feet. "Your color's coming back. You two have exactly two minutes to kiss and make up while I find Sora an Ether."

"Blergh," Sora muttered, still definitely off Ethers from his last overindulgence.

"You don't have to kiss me if it's that gross," Riku said, his attempt at teasing falling flat, as he shifted his grip to hug Sora properly. Sora's hands were still occupied holding his synthesis result, but he melted against Riku's chest. Riku's grip was too tight and his heartbeat too fast under Sora's cheek, so Sora swallowed his snappy retort and simply sat with Riku, breathing in Riku's familiar smell through his shirt, Riku's face buried in his hair.

"Sorry," Sora said again after a minute, calmed down enough to actually mean it, and turned his head to kiss Riku hello properly.

They had pulled themselves together by the time Aqua returned, Sora still sitting cross-legged on the floor while Riku was shoving things back into his backpack.

"I'm being banished," Riku reported blandly.

"You're such a drama queen," Sora said, wrinkling his nose at the Ether that Aqua held out. He shook his still-cupped hands to show why he couldn't take it.

"You're a two-leafed paopu," Riku retorted. He shouldered his backpack, then reached down to rough up Sora's hair so hard that it stood on end. "I'm going to go call the king before he thinks I've been kidnapped and sends out a search party. Aqua, can you please keep my boyfriend from blowing himself up? Or at the very least from melting my gloves, I like that pair."

"Would you get out of here?" Sora demanded, butting his head up against Riku's hand. Riku ran his knuckles over the curve of Sora's cheek before letting his hand drop.

"Text me when you're done?" Riku asked, and Sora nodded. He sighed in relief when Riku shut the door behind him; trying to keep his surprise a secret when Riku was right next to him had been torture.

"All right, let's see it," Aqua ordered, gesturing at Sora's hands.

"I'm afraid to look." Sora cautiously lifted his top hand from the bottom one, the inside of his hands lit with soft green. To his surprise, the Lofty Figment had changed shape into a Lofty Fantasy, larger and with two wings curving out from its top. The gold swirl in the middle had become a four-pointed star, the same pattern as on a Komory Bat's wings. Colors flickered inside the Spirit piece, as if Sora really had brought it a little more to life. "Wow. Do you think I really made a Dream Eater? Do all Dream Eaters look like this here?"

"I think you're the only one likely to find out, since it took two people's worth of magic to materialize it," Aqua said, kneeling on the floor beside Sora. She held her hand over the Lofty fantasy, but yanked it back immediately. "How is that not burning you? You don't feel that?"

"It feels really warm, but it doesn't hurt." Sora shrugged. "It's my dream, I guess." He laid the piece down flat on his thigh, carefully sliding his hand out from under it so that he could shake his wrists out. Aqua pushed the Ether into his free hands, her expression no-nonsense. Sora uncapped the Ether and took a sip, grimacing as the too-sweet viscosity of it coated his tongue. "Do you think it needs to set?"

"Who knows?" Aqua considered it. "It looks solid to me."

Sora threw back the rest of the Ether in a few gulps to get it over with. "Ugh. Can't you make these a flavor? Meld them with some melon soda or something?" Sora set the jar on the ground and shoved it as far away from him as he could reach, cube charm rattling inside the glass. Sora pulled his Gummi phone out of his pocket to snap a picture of the Lofty Fantasy; the camera couldn't capture the flickering colors, but Sora took a few more anyway, tilting his phone this way and that to catch the light. When he pressed a fingertip gently into the spirit piece, it felt solid, if still very warm. "I think I should just go for it. But I'd better stay here on the floor. Can you grab the rest of the stuff from the table?"

The magic layer proved much easier this time around. As soon as Sora got himself to focus, the Gust Gems and Lucid Stones melted right into the Lofty Fantasy before Sora was even done with his spells. He felt stupid still muttering them to himself, but finished anyway rather than risk more magic backlash. The Twilight Crystal didn't feel to Sora like it changed much of anything, but it did deepen the colors of his half-done synthesis from bright neons down into darker gold and deep teal, ocean sunset colors. The addition of the Dark shards turned the rounded edges of the fantasy's wings into sharp batwing edges. Leaving all of that to set, Sora melded the Gear Components and Rune Techs into his last remaining keychain charm on auto-pilot, worried about what would happen if this synthesis blew up with the combined power of both his and Riku's magic.

"Maybe you should Barrier me?" Sora asked, chewing on his lower lip.

"If I wanted to trap any magic explosions in a confined space and melt you into a smudge on the floor, yes, I would do that," Aqua answered. Sora scowled at her, nerves definitely not eased. "But I promised Riku I wouldn't, so we'll have to take our chances."

"You always know the rules to everything." Sora blew a frustrated breath out, ruffling his bangs. "You never blow anything up, I bet."

"Ha!" Aqua's sudden bark of laughter made Sora jump a little. Aqua held out her left arm and pushed up her white sleeve; Sora realized he'd never seen her bare forearm before. On the inside of her arm, just below her elbow, sat a messy scar, pale with age and the edges sharper than hot water or metal would have created. It looked a lot like the one the wrapped around Riku's hip from Xemnas's Ethereal Blades. "You know the funny thing about Elixir burns? If you use healing magic on them, it only burns deeper."

"Holy bananas!" Sora exclaimed, eyes wide. He had some weird scars himself, but nothing like that. "Does it hurt?"

"It's numb mostly, but sometimes it aches a little when a bad thunderstorm is coming." Aqua shook her sleeve back down into place. "Knowing all the rules and recipes isn't a guarantee that you won't get hurt, either, is my point. You're so creative, Sora, and yes, you do blow things up. But better too much energy than not enough, and better new, exciting things sometimes than only ever safe, easy things. You think's magic fun, right?"

"Sure," Sora answered immediately. It was scary sometimes too, and sometimes terrible, but at this point Sora could barely remember what life without magic had been like. He wouldn't go back to life without it, even if that meant being safer.

"When I watch you, I remember that I think it's fun too." Aqua ruffled Sora's hair. "I've been thinking about some recipes I could try adding Spirit pieces to. I have no idea what'll happen when I do. Would you want to help me with that?"

Sora beamed. "Yes! Yeah, if you want me to."

"I would like very much to continue blowing things up with you," Aqua said, smiling back. She pointed down at the two different syntheses balanced on either one of Sora's knees, the Dream Eater charm on one side and the Lofty Fantasy on the other. "But you'll have to finish this first, I'm afraid. Ready?"

"Ready as I'm getting," Sora said. He picked one item in each hand, weighing the heaviness of the charm against the lightness of the fantasy. "If I die, tell Riku I love him."

"Tell him yourself, he'll Drop straight to the Final World with you," Aqua snorted.

"Too soon, dude," Sora grumbled; Aqua shrugged, unrepentant.

"Keep your form in mind," Aqua cautioned. "Will over power."

"Yeah, that." Sora definitely wasn't admitting that he hadn't been thinking about the keyblade's shape at all during the earlier layer fusions. He'd frankly think it was a miracle at this point if he even ended up with any sort of keyblade and not, say, a giant metal Komory Bat statue.

Sora cupped his hands around the Lofty Fantasy and the charm, trying to decide how to do this comfortably, but as soon as he enclosed the space, he felt fluttering against his fingers again. It felt more frantic this time, more like a trapped thing trying to escape. Sora opened his hands again and everything looked the same as it was before.

"Need more space, hm?" Sora muttered. Riku had a thing he did with his hands when he meditated sometimes, the back of one hand resting in the palm of the other, thumb tips touching. Sora imitated that, his left hand cradling the Lofty Fantasy and the keychain balanced on top of it. As soon as he stilled he could feel the hum of magic in his palms, an echoing hum in his chest in counterpoint to his heartbeat. He straightened his spine and closed his eyes, then focused on inhaling the same length of time as exhaling.

He tugged on the link to Riku's heart, not for anything, just to feel that it was there. Riku tugged back, ever-present, reassuring.

It was more delicate spellwork fusing the physical pieces last, for sure. Without his hand pressing down physically, Sora had only will to coax the layers into fusing together. It was more encouragement than force, suggesting the shape of a keyblade for the spelled pieces and hoping that the magic flowed into that shape cooperatively, pushing back firmly when it tried spilling out over the edges.

Sora had lost all sense of time, palms stinging with heat, by the time it finally, finally took, the layers interlacing seamlessly as they fell flat into their places, a perfectly folded paper flower.

"Nothin' to it," Sora slurred to Aqua, grinning lopsidedly because half his face was numb. The Dream Eater charm in his hands had turned from iron gray to rose gold, the color of a Komory Bat's dream eater mark; when Sora tilted it to catch the light, purple and green iridescence chased over its surface.

"It's beautiful," Aqua murmured, and fierce pride lit up Sora's chest. It really was, and he'd made it himself, a thing that nobody had ever made before.

Sora seemed not too much worse for wear, aside from some dizziness and understandable exhaustion. He went back to his room to nap the worst of it off while his keychain set and was relieved to find Riku already there, curled up with a book that he immediately tossed aside as soon as Sora stumbled in.

"Hey," Sora greeted, sneakers and hoodie dropped haphazardly on the way to his bed. He fell into bed beside Riku, stretching out and wincing as his spine popped. His left hand flopped over Riku's chest. "Can have your gloves back."

"I don't care about the gloves, dork," Riku said affectionately, working fingers between the leather and Sora's forearm to peel the glove off. "I just…Sora, your hand!"

"Nn?" Sora peeled his eyes back open at the alarm in Riku's voice. Sure enough, free from the leather, Sora's palm was scorched the angry pink of a fresh burn clear down to his wrist. Riku reached for Sora's other hand, but that one looked normal. "Oh. Had the charm in my left hand."

"Does it hurt?" Riku asked, pressing his thumb gently into Sora's lifelines. Sora shrugged a shoulder; it ached a little like a deep bruise, and Riku's thumb felt pleasantly cold against his skin, but otherwise it was fairly numb. Muttering that Sora was a menace, Riku pressed his lips to Sora's palm. "Curaga."

Sora gritted his teeth against the rush of magic working its way down into the burn, stinging the raw skin like too-cold water. It faded soon enough, leaving Sora even more exhausted. He rolled onto his side to curl up against Riku, yawning. "Stay here."

"At least get under the blankets," Riku said, but Sora was out cold before Riku finished fussing with them.

The nap left Sora feeling fuzzy and irritable when Riku shook him awake an hour later.

"Aqua messaged to say your keychain seems set," Riku told him quietly. Sora squinted at him blearily. "Do you feel up to going to try it out?" Riku brushed some of Sora's hair out of his face, then let the back of his hand rest against Sora's forehead.

"M'not sick, just tired," Sora grumbled, pushing Riku's hand off to sit up. He scrubbed at his face, trying to wake up the rest of the way.

"Can I come too?" Riku asked, sitting up.

"No," Sora said; he winced at how sharp he sounded. "Sorry. I have to see if it worked first." And if it's bad I want to have a meltdown in peace, he added mentally. He leaned back to kiss Riku's cheek. "I'll get you before we take it outside."

"You'd better." Riku grabbed the back of Sora's shirt to drag him back for a real kiss. When it broke, Riku looked Sora in the eye to inform him, "I've had just about enough of this surprise, got it?"

"It'll be worth it!" Sora insisted with a bravado he didn't really feel, pulling free of Riku's grip.

Standing in the middle of the workroom with the Dream Eater keychain in his hand, Sora really really hoped that it would be worth it.

"Just staring at it won't make it different," Aqua reminded gently.

"Yeah…" Sora held out his other hand to call his keyblade, the familiar weight of it comforting. He thumbed the clasp of the metal hook they'd attached to the keychain with jump rings, then took a deep breath and jammed it on with a decisive click.

There was a soft pop of pressure against Sora's ear drums that he recognized as the noise of a Dream Drop, his keyblade's form change momentarily obscured by a burst of small, magic bubbles racing from grip to point. When they cleared, Sora wished they hadn't; instead of Naminé's curved kopis design, his keyblade now looked something like a long, hot pink hammer with a head shaped like a Komory Bat, roughly the size of Sora's palm.

"You have to be kidding me," Sora groaned, heart sinking into his stomach. "Why is everything I make so stupid?"

"Looks aren't everything," Aqua tried to soothe, but it only made Sora clench his teeth harder. "We should at least see if the abilities—"

"Looks aren't everything?!" Sora demanded, aggravation rising as he took in more and more of the details. "It looks ridiculous."

"It's not that bad." Aqua touched Sora's shoulder. Narrowing his eyes, Sora bopped Aqua on the head lightly; the Komory Bat made a noise like a squeaky toy. Sora knew Aqua wasn't trying to hurt his feelings, but the little snort she couldn't hide fast enough hurt anyway.

"Oh, go on and laugh," he said blackly, shrugging Aqua's hand off. He was trying not to shout but his voice rose on its own. "I should've known better anyway, right? Trying to make something look cool for once when anything I magic too hard turns out like a doofus sight gag! I wouldn't even care if it was for me, looking like an idiot like always, but I can't give this dumbass thing to Riku! He'll hate it! He'll—" Sora's throat closed up as angry tears welled up in his eyes. He tried to swipe the tears away, embarrassed that the angry crying wasn't something he could ever control, but more spilled down his cheeks anyway.

"He won't hate it," Aqua reassured, putting her hand back on Sora's shoulder and squeezing tightly. The touch grounded Sora a little; he took a shuddering breath, trying to calm down. "You put so much work into this, for him, he'll love it no matter what."

"I can't show him this thing," Sora said, despondent. He fumbled with the keychain to unhook it, glad to see the pink monstrosity vanish and the clean lines of the Kingdom Key reappear.

"You can and you will," Aqua said crisply. "In the first place, no matter what it looks like you still have to test out its capabilities, and secondly, Riku certainly won't take no for an answer after you dragged him halfway across the worlds this morning."

Sora's shoulders slumped. "He really won't."

"That's the spirit." Aqua slapped the back of Sora's shoulder. "Off we go, come on."

The trip down the stairs was enough time for Sora to pull himself together, at least on the outside. His heart still felt like deadweight in his chest, reluctance making him drag his feet at every step. They found Riku in the kitchen with Ventus and Lea, all of them with half-empty mugs of hot tea. The plate of cookies Kairi and Sora had made was empty on the table, the last half a cookie in Riku's hand.

"Way to save me a cookie," Sora complained, out of temper with everything.

"Sorry," Riku said through a full mouth, clearly not sorry at all. "Comfort food for magic recovery. And Kairi expressly said you made these for me."

"They were really good, too!" Ventus said, clearly trying to praise Sora's baking. It just made Sora glare harder.

"I'll have to take your word for it, I guess," Sora said. Riku offered his half of the last cookie. "I don't need your pity cookie." Riku shrugged and popped the last of the cookie in his mouth.

"We'll bake you more, you baby," Lea said, draining the last of his tea and setting his mug down with a thump. "Come on, Ven."

"Sure!" Ventus hopped up, all helpful enthusiasm without any baking expertise.

"Kitchen rules! Use the oven, not Firaga!" Aqua hollered over her shoulder, sighing when nobody answered her. When Sora turned back to Riku, Riku's eyes were sparkling with amusement.

"You have to tell me the story behind that rule," Riku said.

"She doesn't have to tell you anything, cookie hoarder," Sora said, cuffing Riku over the back of the head. "Come see your stupid present."

"Why's it stupid?" Riku asked, dusting off his hands and pushing himself up to his feet. Sora shook his head, glaring at the stone floor so that he wouldn't have to meet Riku's eyes. Riku turned to Aqua, frowning, but Aqua shrugged. "What?"

"You'll see," Sora insisted, stomping ahead without waiting.

Once out on the lawn with enough open space around them to be safe, Sora reached into his pocket and pulled the keychain out. He held it out to Riku in a closed fist, so that Riku couldn't see it yet.

"I wanted to make you something to help with your form changes," Sora said, trying to decide whether it would be more or less of a disappointment if he explained first. "So you wouldn't get so tired. So…oh, just take it." Sora flipped his hand over to show the keychain, all but shoving it into Riku's hands.

"Oh," Riku said softly. "The Dream Eater sigil? Sora, it's beautiful."

"You won't think that in a second," Sora muttered, scuffing his sneaker in the grass. Not wanting to see the keyblade transformation again, Sora watched Riku's face instead as Riku summoned Braveheart and clicked on the new keychain. Sora didn't hear the Drop noise this time, but Riku's eyebrows rising in confusion said that he'd heard it, the burst of form change magic washing both of them in pink light for a second. Sora expected Riku to laugh, or keep his face neutral to try and be nice, but instead Riku's eyes went wide with surprise, mouth falling open in a surprised O.

"Oh god, what?" Sora asked, still dreading to look.

"Sora, look," Aqua murmured, voice hushed.

When Sora looked down, the keyblade in Riku's hands looked nothing like it had in Sora's. Instead it was a mirror image of Riku's Soul Eater, only colored like a Komory Bat wing, the dark blue and red replaced by vivid pink with gold four-point stars gleaming up the length of the blade. In place of Soul Eater's ominous eye jewel, this one had a Lofty Figment inset just above the grip, glittering teal. Sora lifted a hand to trace the back edge of the blade, the point where it curved back so sharp that it almost cut Sora's finger at even that light touch. It gleamed with the same iridescence as the charm had, green and purple shimmering as Riku tilted it this way and that.

"Sora…" Riku's voice was choked, and when Sora looked up to meet his eyes, they were liquid with emotion. "How did you do this?"

"Spirit pieces," Sora said, numb with shock. "Like I was making a Komory Bat. But it looked so silly when I tried it…" Sora turned to look at Aqua, helpless.

"Keyblades change depending on the heart of the wielder, you know that," Aqua reminded, even though she looked a bit stunned herself. Sora remembered with a trace of embarrassment that he did, in fact, know that; he'd just been too tired and mad to remember. "It's a dream keychain, after all. Riku's a Dream Eater, and you aren't."

Riku lifted one hand off the keyblade to thread through the hair on the back of Sora's head, pulling him closer to kiss fiercely. It took Sora's breath away, easing the confusing tangle of emotions in his chest as Riku flooded the link with affection and pride. Sora's cheeks were bright pink by the time Riku pulled back, just far enough apart for them to look at each other, Riku still cradling the back of Sora's head.

"I can't believe you made this. You're amazing," he said, so earnestly that Sora squirmed from pleasure and embarrassment.

"Aw, you didn't even try it yet," Sora muttered.

"Take your time," Aqua said dryly; Sora and Riku pulled farther apart, the tips of Riku's ears turning just as pink as Sora's cheeks.

Riku cleared his throat. "What's it supposed to do?"

"Form change." Sora watched Riku take a few test swings of his new keyblade, pleased with how it sliced easily through the air without any drag, how Riku flipped it over the back of his hand and caught it easily, as if already familiar with the shape and balance. Sora called his own keyblade and dropped into ready stance, both hands on his keyblade and knees bent. "Ready to try it out?"

"Always ready," Riku grinned back, taking a one-handed test swing without saying "Go!" that clanged off Sora's keyblade hard enough to rattle his teeth. Riku leaned right then left, testing Sora's guard with slashes whose weight pushed him back steadily step by step. When Sora pivoted right to try and slip in under Riku's guard, Riku had already circled left to meet him, blade sweeping up from below this time to knock aside Sora's lower stance advantage. Only a quick Aerial Recovery kept Sora from sprawling in the grass, crashing back down against Riku hard enough to knock him back a few steps. Riku was glowing a little at the edges, the speed of his Blitz attacks increasing, and Sora recognized the start of a form change he'd seen Riku do in plenty of his dreams, Shining Hammer. Riku leapt, the air around him crackling, and slammed the ground to send out a shockwave that Sora dodged by the skin of his teeth.

"Aero or Gravity!" Sora called, judging that either spell would be enough to trigger the full form change.

"Aeroga!" Riku called, the third syllable barely out of his mouth before, sure enough, a halo of light flared around him and he lifted off the ground, not from the whirlwind he'd called, but from the pair of batwings that sprang out of his back. Swept into his air spell, Riku shot into the air like he'd been fired from a cannon, his startled yelp making Sora laugh as dropped his stance and shaded his eyes to see how high Riku went.

To his credit, it only took Riku a few seconds to get his bearings, and then he was swooping back down towards Sora, testing out his mobility with a few barrel rolls and loop-de-loops on the way down. He hit the ground so hard in front of Sora that Sora's sneakers stuck to the ground from Stun Impact, not that Sora was trying to go anywhere.

"Wow," Sora said, grinning as he took Riku's form change from head to foot. He was still glowing, white to lavender at the edges, his clothes darkened to blacks and purples, his hair the shorter, fluttered style that he always kept as Sora's Dream Eater no matter how long his hair grew out in real life. "Lemme see the back."

Riku turned obligingly; aside from the fluttering black wings that Sora's hands were itching to touch, a bright peach dream eater sigil blazed on the back of Riku's jacket. Sora knew from dream experience that if Riku took off his jacket it would still be on his shirt, and if he took that off it would still be there on his skin, the proof of their connection that could never be stripped away.

"It's Rising Wing," Riku said, turning back around to sweep Sora up in a crushing hug, spinning him around like Sora weighed nothing. His eyes glowed blue brighter than Christmas lights or Blizzaga, brighter than anything, and when he grinned so wide at Sora, the tips of two sharp fangs pressed down into his lower lip. "I don't know how you did it, but you gave me back Rising Wing! I can't believe it!"

"Me either," Sora laughed, giddy from too many strong emotions in too short a time, no idea which were his and which were Riku's. The Dream Eater form change had thrown their link wide open, and Sora was practically vibrating from it, wanting to kiss and fight and fly all at once. Shoving Riku back, Sora kicked off the ground into an Aero whirlwind of his own, hollering, "Race you!" over his shoulder.

They ran out Riku's form change chasing each other through a series of ill-advised aerial tricks. Riku caught Sora easily since he could actually fly in form, not just glide, but used his grip on Sora's wrist to whip him higher into the air, Sora whooping from glee as he Air-Stepped this way and that, darting just out of Riku's grasp. They cut it a little too close, not exactly on the ground as Riku's form change flickered and dissipated, and hit the ground hard enough to bounce against Riku's last-second Barrier before rolling to a stop.

"Owww," Sora whined, but he was still giggling helplessly, Riku shaking with laughter against him.

"I love you," Riku said fervently, grabbing Sora's face between his hands to drag him into a kiss, still muttering the words against his mouth. Already breathless, Sora wrapped arms tight around Riku's neck and kissed back until he was lightheaded and had to tear his mouth away to gasp for air, their foreheads pressed together.

"Hey!" Aqua called. When Sora looked over with glazed eyes, they realized Aqua was two islands over, waving at them. "You two all right? Anything broken?"

"We're fine!" Riku called back, still hugging Sora to his chest like he had no intention of letting him up anytime soon.

"I don't actually believe you after that landing!" Aqua said, hands on her hips. "Maybe try a Curaga on top of that true love's kiss!"

"You're really ok, right?" Riku asked, hands shifting over Sora's shoulders and back to check him for injury.

"Probably?" Sora said; truthfully he couldn't feel anything under the adrenaline still racing through his veins, but he was betting his knee was probably back on the banned list and one of his shoulders felt a little funny too. Riku looked unsteady climbing to his feet, enough that when Sora's knee threatened to give out and Sora grabbed Riku's arm, he nearly toppled them both to the ground. "Oops."

"Menace," Riku accused fondly, sneaking one more kiss against Sora's temple. He unhooked the keychain from Braveheart before dismissing it; thoughtfully, Riku ran his thumb over the smooth curve of the Dream Eater symbol. "Did you name it?"

"Yeah." Usually naming things was the worst part, but Sora had been thinking about this so long that he already knew the answer. "Waking Dream."

"It's perfect," Riku agreed, tucking the charm into his pocket and reaching for Sora's hand to thread their fingers together. "So what happened when you put it on your keyblade?"

"Yeah, we're not going to talk about that," Sora said darkly.

Chapter Text

"You all are up bright and early," Terra said, leaning over the grassy area where Sora, Kairi, and Lea were all stretching.

"You know what they say," Kairi said brightly while Sora kept his eyes down on the sneaker he was stretching towards, trying not to be noticeable. "Early to bed, early to rise. Do they say that here?"

"Yes," Terra replied, "but early to rise here doesn't mean baking cinnamon rolls at three in the morning."

"Busted," Lea teased, making Sora and Kairi chuckle awkwardly. Sora had been too restless to sleep after two days of being forbidden to do anything strenuous to his knee and no keychain drama to distract himself, so after he'd worn out Riku, Sora had ended up in the kitchen in the middle of the night, trying to bake off his extra energy. Kairi had turned up after he'd texted to ask if she was awake; she'd been up too late texting with Olette because of the time change between the Land of Departure and Twilight Town. Calls and texts always seemed to come in the middle of the night from Twilight Town, whose relationship to regular time was tenuous at best.

"Like you weren't up just as late on the phone with Roxas," Kairi outed Lea, making Lea gasp and clutch his chest, affronted.

Terra shook his head. "Do you two mind going to warm up while I talk to Sora for a minute?"

"Sure thing, boss." Lea climbed to his feet and held out a hand to hoist up Kairi like she weighed nothing. Kairi glanced over her shoulder at Sora, steps slowing when Sora made an aggravated face.

"Go on!" Terra made a shooing motion. "I'm not going to scold him, he doesn't need his bodyguard." Terra settled in the grass next to Sora, cross-legged, expectant. "Let's see it."

"Really?" Sora asked, heaving a sigh; he'd been hoping if he got out here early enough to stretch and warm up, it wouldn't be obvious that he was still favoring his bad knee. He straightened out his leg for Terra to examine the knee in question. Terra pressed his finger and thumb gently down on either side of Sora's kneecap, and even that light pressure made Sora wince. "It's fine, Terra, I swear. It's just stiff in the morning, once I stretch it out it doesn't bother me at all."

"Mmhmm," Terra said, voice neutral. He urged Sora's knee up into a slight bend, checking the tendons over with a practiced, clinical touch.

"Please let me back to practice, I'm so bored," Sora wheedled, making his eyes big and piteous. That always worked on Terra when Ventus did it. The last two days of just sitting and watching while everyone else sparred had restlessness itching under his skin. "I promise I'll take it easy."

"I think light practice would be all right," Terra said, sitting Sora's leg back on the ground. Sora heaved a sigh of relief, but Terra wasn't done talking. "However, if I'm speaking honestly, I think you should stop doing combat training. Not because of your knee, I mean in general."

Sora blinked, surprised. "Are you…banning me from practice forever?" It wasn't Sora's favorite thing sometimes, but that stung a surprising amount, coming from Terra.

"I'm not banning you from practice, Sora," Terra reassured, squeezing Sora's knee. "I'm freeing you from it. If you want to come sometimes, I'll always be happy to teach you, but I've honestly been surprised you kept at it this long. You've fixed your form enough that you aren't about to shatter your wrists or elbows at any moment, and I'm satisfied with that. You know you don't have to keep doing combat training to stay here, right?"

"I…" Sora pulled up his knees to wrap his arms around them, not sure he did know that. "Everyone else does it, though. Even Aqua." The idea of being left out felt heavy in Sora's chest.

"I guess we don't set a very good example for variety," Terra admitted. "In the past few weeks you've been obviously happier and more energetic about synthesis hunting and forging than I've ever seen you be about fighting. Haven't you realized that yourself?"

"Yeah," Sora said, not a gigantic fan of introspection but at least as self-aware as that. "But what if something happens? What if the worlds need me again and I've been slacking off?"

"What if the worlds need us and we have a ton of new weapons and forms?" Terra retorted. "Anyway, I doubt you'll be slacking off. I'm sure you'll get more than enough combat practice sparring with Riku and Kairi, or Lea, or Ventus, or Roxas. But you think sparring is fun because it's something you do with your friends, not for the sake of fighting itself. Am I wrong?"

"I've never thought about it," Sora admitted. It was too big an idea for him to take in all at once, his feelings about it confused. Did he really like fighting, or was it only fun because of who he trained with? Did he just like feeling needed? It was all too much. "I don't know."

"There used to be as many kinds of keyblade wielders as there were keyblades, you know. Now that we're not alone, I hope someday there will be again, don't you?" Terra slapped Sora's back cheerfully. "So I have a present for you. Well, two. The first is less exciting though." Terra reached into one of the pockets of his pants and pulled out a black knee sleeve. "I think you ought to wear this when your knee aches, and definitely anytime you spar. Some support should make it ache less often and keep it from swelling up."

"I guess that's reasonable," Sora said, taking the sleeve to examine it. It looked a lot like the compression wrist brace Riku wore, stretchy with some reinforced stitching meant to go around his kneecap. He kicked his sneaker off to pull it on, testing the fit. "Don't these things come in cooler colors?"

"Pass that idea onto Scrooge McDuck and see where it gets you," Terra chuckled. Reaching into a pocket on the opposite side, Terra pulled out a battered paperback and held it out for Sora to take. "This is the real present."

"A book?" Sora asked, puzzled. Aside from its obvious overuse, the cover was somewhat vintage, the colors garish blues and reds, the font sharp for added drama. It was titled "Master Ynos: Secret at Worlds' End," and the illustration was of a dashing man in Eraqus-era Master's robes bringing his keyblade down on a shadowed man in black. It reminded Sora of the cheap, pulpy boys' novels at the grocery store that he and Riku had begged their moms to buy for them, ones with illustrations of pirates and swordsmen that promised 'a thrill on every page!'

"When I was a few years younger than you, that was my favorite book," Terra explained, smile soft with nostalgia. "Master Ynos was a real keyblade wielder from the time not long after the Keyblade Wars, one of the first to start exploring the worlds after their separation. That is an extremely fictionalized, much more fun version of his adventures than the historical versions you can find in the library. I must have read it a hundred times, plus Ven begged me to read it to him a hundred more. Master Eraqus threatened to set it on fire more than once. I have the feeling you'll like it too."

"Thank you?" Sora tried not to make it sound like a question, but he was struggling to process this entire conversation, questionable keyblade master fiction included.

Terra hauled himself to his feet, dusting bits of grass off his pants. "I'd better go offer some organized instruction before Kairi and Lea get any bright ideas of their own. You're still welcome to join if you want? But maybe taking some time to think things over wouldn't be such a bad idea."

Sora watched Terra stroll away. He meant to get up and follow, but by the time he tugged his sneaker back on and retied it, the idea of staying right where he was had gotten significantly more appealing. The breeze was nice and the morning sun was warm…Sora looked down at the book still in his hands. Maybe he'd read just a few pages.

In the dark and uncertain times following the Great Wars, the book started, great heroes arose, master wielders and champions of light, the like of which passed directly into legend. The first of these was Master Ynos, called sometimes Light's Beloved and sometimes Shadowsbane. His body matched well the strength of his heart: standing well over six feet, he was broad of shoulder and narrow at the hips as the rigorous training of a blade naturally produces. His features were handsome and sharp, dark curling hair and steel grey eyes, in which reflected his strong and loyal character. In court, his manners were chivalrous and his horsemanship excellent, while on the battlefield he was naught but fire, a swift terror to any who called darkness their master.

His world of origin is lost to mystery, having fallen into darkness as so many others did at the end of the Great Wars. Ynos himself, thrown into the Realms Between by the cataclysm, awoke in a town of wide, cobbled streets that glowed orange with torchlight and cheerfully lit shops despite the fact that it always seemed night there. It was the town that appears only to travelers in their time of desperate need, a haven that otherwise cannot be found…

Sora was two-thirds of the way through the book by mid-afternoon, curled up on his bed and shifting along with the sunbeam that traveled across his room in the afternoons so that he was scrunched halfway down the bed by the time an exhausted Riku shuffled in. Riku was sweat-soaked and streaked with dirt, hair slipping out of his french braid every which way, which normally commanded Sora's full attention immediately, but Master Ynos had just landed on a new world and Sora loved trying to figure out whether each place was somewhere he knew or not before Ynos named it or met anyone.

"Hi," Sora greeted, trying to hold Riku's gaze over the top of his book while his eyes kept straying back down. "How'd form change practice go?"

"How's it look like it went?" Riku grumbled, bending down to unlace his boots. He scowled at the state of them and Sora knew he'd spend an hour cleaning them later; even though Riku could spell them clean, he always complained that it didn't work as well and wasn't good for the leather. "As it turns out, flying in real life is nothing like riding a bicycle, no matter what you and Aqua say."

"You just aren't good at either," Sora said affectionately. Unlike in Sora's dreams, in waking reality Riku's weakness at gliding and flight was legendary among their friends, and Sora found it charming that it was the one skill Riku sucked at when he learned everything else effortlessly. Apparently access to Rising Wing while awake hadn't generated any sudden improvement.

"Jerk." Riku jerked his chin towards Sora's book. "What are you reading?"

"Terra gave me it…" Sora's explanation trailed off as he found his place and started reading again.

"It looks like one of those cheap things from the grocery store," Riku said, stripping off his jacket. Sora hummed, not really answering. Riku laughed quietly and ruffled Sora's hair on his way to the shower.

Engrossed in his novel, it seemed like barely a minute to Sora before Riku was back, damp hair loose and curling around his face and bare shoulders. He tugged on a worn pair of sweatpants and crawled into bed with Sora without commenting on Sora's weird position halfway down the bed. Riku had to curl up on his side with Sora's knees thrown over his hips in order to fit in the sunbeam with him. Holding himself tight to Sora with an arm thrown over Sora's stomach, Riku let his head drop heavily onto Sora's shoulder. Sora's free hand found its way into Riku's hair automatically, gently twisting damp strands of it into curls around his fingers.

"Read to me," Riku asked. Sora glanced down, expecting Riku's eyes to be shut, but they were open, their green bright from Riku's face being turned towards the sun.

"I don't want to spoil it, I'm too far," Sora said. "Lemme finish and we can start over together tonight."

"I read to you all the time," Riku pouted, even though there was zero energy behind it. "Unfair."

"Yes, I'm terrible," Sora murmured, trying to turn a page with one hand so that he didn't have to take his hand out of Riku's hair. There were talking flowers in this chapter, and Sora was betting on Wonderland. He guessed everybody got stuck there at least once.

The sunbeam had slid down far enough that Sora was thinking about moving by the time Riku spoke again. "Hey. Tell me when you're at the end of a chapter. I want to tell you something."

"Is it bad?" Sora asked.

"No, I don't think so."

Sora read the next sentence three times before giving up with a sigh and letting the book flop down on his chest. "Just tell me."

"Mm, well." Riku shifted up so that they were eye to eye when Sora turned his head. "The thing the King wanted me to see was some new data that he uncovered in the Datascape. The data version of me has been exploring deeper into the Datascape to find out which worlds are connected to it. He discovered digital versions of some worlds that none of us have ever been to, so I was helping the King do some research to see if anything in Disney Castle's library or Yen Sid's mentioned them. We didn't have much luck."

"How would a data version of a world we never visited get in there?" Sora asked, already scrunching his nose at the mention of too much computer stuff. It was weird enough that there was a data version of both him and Riku somehow made out of his old journals.

"We aren't sure yet," Riku said. "It's possible they're scans of worlds that Masters visited ages ago, and then fell to darkness later, or worlds that are still sleeping. Or they might be fine and we just haven't been there yet. The universe is a big place, after all. So…the King asked if I'd go out on another journey. Try to find some of the worlds using the data we have for them, wake them up if I'm able."

"Oh," Sora said softly. Riku would be gone ages on a mission like that. Sora tried to cover up the immediate sadness filling his chest with a smile. "That sounds like a pretty good adventure! When do you go?"

Riku smiled back, but his smile was small and wry. "I told him no."

"Huh?" Sora blinked, smile slipping off.

"I told him no," Riku repeated. "I've been away so much lately, we've barely seen each other. Before I showed up here we hadn't been in the same room in weeks. I don't want us to be separated that long, it's not fair to you. I know you hate it."

"I'm fine!" Sora insisted, frowning. "You've got Master stuff to do! You can't quit that stuff just for me, it's too important."

"You're important. And I'm not the only Master, so there's no reason it has to be me doing everything," Riku pointed out. "There's the King, and Terra and Aqua, and Ventus would be if he just took his damn exam, and any one of them could take along Lea or Xion…I said I just wanted to stay here, for at least a little while, with you. I'll do more research in the library here, or help train the others, I don't know."

He fell silent and they just stared at each other. Sora didn't like what he saw in Riku's eyes or felt through the link, able to recognize easily when Riku was putting up a brave front. Riku's eyes looked frustrated, maybe a little bit sad. It was like looking at 15-year-old Riku all over again, cheerfully making plans to build a raft when even Sora knew it couldn't possibly take him out where he actually wanted to go.

Sora sat up, book falling off his chest. "What if I went with you?"

"You're busy here," Riku said. Sora shrugged. "Sora! What you're doing is important too. You've got training, and you've been learning so much. Your magic's amazing these days. You and Kairi can probably take your Marks of Mastery soon, and—"

"About that," Sora interrupted, rubbing the back of his neck. "I don't think I actually want to take the Mark again, or keep doing training." Riku opened his mouth, but Sora rushed on before he could interrupt. "Terra talked to me about it this morning, that there used to be keyblade wielders who did all kinds of jobs, not just Masters and not just fighting. That's why he gave me this book, where this guy explores worlds and invents new magic and helps whoever he meets and…" Sora let his hands fall in his lap. "You're a super awesome Master Wielder and I'm really proud of you. But maybe I'm not ever gonna be that. Maybe I'm ok with that."

"But you love training here with everyone," Riku said, looking entirely perplexed. "You tell me all the time. I see it all the time."

"I think I just love being here with everyone," Sora admitted, reaching for Riku's hand to curl their fingers together. "Because I get really lonely when you're away. But if I'm with you, I'll be fine! You won't be any happier stuck here then you were stuck on the Islands. You're happiest out traveling, seeing all the Worlds and stuff."

"You aren't like that, though," Riku said softly, squeezing Sora's hand tight. "You need someplace safe to come back to. Someplace that's home, like here."

"Riku, you moron, my home isn't the dumbass Land of Departure." Sora rolled his eyes. "It's you! You're my home, and all I've ever wanted was just to be where you are. You can find new worlds and I'll pick up weird synthesis pieces and make idiot keychains for both of us. If I get homesick, then I'll come back and spend some time with everyone else, but...I think I'm ready to try something new. With you. So say yes, please?"

"Yes," Riku whispered. Feeling like a huge weight had been lifted off his chest, Sora threw himself down onto Riku, banging their foreheads together. "Yes," Riku repeated, muffled because he was kissing Sora's nose, his cheek, his jaw. He sounded like he might cry, and Sora felt like he might too, so he caught Riku's mouth in a kiss to try and distract himself from having a third or fourth embarrassing meltdown this week, depending on how you counted them.

Eventually they broke apart, disheveled and breathing unevenly, the sunbeam somewhere around their knees. Terra's book looked a little worse for wear from Sora lying on it, but it wasn't like it had been in pristine condition before.

"You think they'll write trashy paperbacks about us someday?" Riku asked, watching Sora try to flatten the bent pages back down.

"About you, maybe," Sora snorted. "Master Riku, Light's Beloved, Nightmaresbane."

"Shut up. You'll probably write a textbook about magical forging theory," Riku said fondly. He poked Sora in the side, in the ticklish spot just below his ribs. "The most pretentious one."

"Sora's Brevarium of Synthesis and Spirit Pieces?" Sora laughed, slapping Riku's hand away. "As if, you weirdo." Sora flopped down backwards, head up near the footboard so that he was lying in the puddle of sunlight again. He nudged Riku with his heel until Riku sat up to follow.

"Coconut brain." Riku crawled over top of Sora but then just balanced there on palms and knees, looking him over. "You really want to go the whole way out to the middle of nowhere with me?"

"You're the coconut brain, of course I do." Sora reached up to cup Riku's face, brushing his thumbs along his cheekbones. "You know you're the thing I love most in the whole universe, right?"

"Yeah." Riku's cheeks grew warm under Sora's fingers. "I kind of got the idea when you pulled my entire Dream Eater form into reality. Unless you just wanted an excuse to laugh at my flying."

"Nah." Sora let go of Riku's face to wrap arms around his neck, pulling Riku down until they were snug together. Riku's weight pressed him down into the mattress, making Sora feel safe, protected. "Just wanted to see you with those cute little wings."

Riku's puff of laughter stirred Sora's hair. "Any ideas for your next crazy project?"

"Hmm." Under Sora's cheek, Riku's heartbeat thrummed, as familiar to Sora as his own. He couldn't hear its song while awake, but he knew every note. He still had a few spare Dulcet Fancies… "I might have an idea or two."