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Distant in the Dark

Chapter Text

Sunset.

It's the time of the day where the sky begins to give in to darkness.

Her sister would always say it marked the end of something. She talked about how often the Masters of old would have their bonds altered, their mettle tested, and their fates foretold at light's end. She also said that the beginning of the next cycle, and whether it returns what was lost at that previous end, are up to you and your Keyblade.

Her sister isn't usually that smart. But those words have always stuck with her.

"..."

"..."

Two students sit upon a wide, marble windowsill, a chess board placed between them. The air around them is quiet, composed; only a light breeze tickles the breath. Surrounding them are a pair of translucent white curtains, affixed to a gleaming, gem-laden railing in a hall decor'd full of fool's gold at every corner. It's a material that fixates to this place, spanning past potted flora and tilings on the floor of all kinds; even the trim on the red carpet ephemerally reflects the silent, orange hue of the rays running through the larger-than-life window. It's through this window that one will see the endless, shining beauty of the sky and the verdant sea.

Each student is dressed in a lightweight set of armour; casual enough to include jeans, but protective enough to cover both shoulders, pauldrons blurrily reflecting the Sun's rays in much the same way their metallic chess pieces do. One side looks at the board in calm concentration, while the other... tries her best to look concentrated.

"..."

"Mmgrgrhrhh..."

The quiet, ponytailed wielder rolls up the sleeve of her jacket's brighter half, and moves a piece forward. "...Check."

"Hhhhhrggk...!"

The more rambunctious wielder twirls the un-tied side of her purple hair, fiddling with her ruby necklaces. She tries lifting the fake skull in the center of one necklace and placing it over her eye, pretending to enhance her vision in some arcane way. It's a gesture that makes her quiet companion giggle.

"H-how about... here!"

The quiet wielder moves the largest piece on her board; a golden pawn with a yellow star. "Checkmate."

"Noooooooooooooooo!!!" The rambunctious wielder nudges the tranquility of the scene with her cry of anguish, dramatically throwing her hands onto her head. "You're too amazing at this! I've never been good at strategy games..."

"Fufu. They do say... the light is more unpredictable."

"Then let me pick the light pieces next time!"

"...next time, huh..."

The rambunctious wielder gently leans on the window. "What's up? Did I say something weird?"

"O-oh! No, it's... um..." The quieter one shakes her head. "W-well... I just think the darkness pieces suit you a lot more."

"Mwehehe, don't they~?" A pose. "But The Owner tells me I gotta balance the two. Just like you do!"

The quiet one's heart beats, shot clean by the radiant smile of her beloved. "Fufufu. Yeah... she's right. And I think you can do it. You're the only person I know who wields darkness so well, but... there's... plenty of wonderful light in you, too."

"You think so? Ehehe~." She grins. "You always have so much faith in me. Sometimes I forget you're two sets ahead of me until you knock me flat during sparring."

"Well... that's just because I've had more experience..."

"Nobody says I can't power-level, though! That's how I've stood by your side for so long. Even when all our teachers complained."

Another giggle. "Mhmhm~."

For a while, they look into each other's eyes, transfixed by the way the sunset falls on their faces.

...But as the minutes pass by, the rambunctious wielder sees her friend's expression fall, further, and further.

Something has to be aching at her. "What's wrong? You've been looking stressed today."

A reflexive reaction. "Y-you... noticed?"

"Of course I did! I love you more than anything else in any world."

"T-that's..." The quiet wielder gives a brief blush, then murmurs. "...Of course. It's... just like you, to notice these things."

"Tell me what's wrong!" Her innocent, kind-hearted companion leans forth. "I'm happy to lend the greatest of sorcerors my abyssal aid, as much as I can. I'll always be here for you~!"

"..."

'Always.'

...That phrase makes her heart ache. Because it's not herself who she's worried about right now. It's her merry companion.

"D-don't bottle it all up, okay? Tell me."

It makes the thought of parting all the more painful.

But she was asked to break the news. And she... s-she has to.

"...Um..." she starts, "...I've... the thing is, I'm..."

The rambunctious wielder stares at her with the curiosity of an innocent cat.

"I've... accepted an offer to join the Trial of the Masters."

...

...Red eyes stare at her with narrowing realisation. "W-whoa... y-you mean..."

Even her own breath feels stifling now.

"...y-you're... you're gonna get the Mark of Mastery?!"

"W-well... if I succeed in the Trial, yes. I'll be in a Guardian group with Yukina, Lisa, and... Hina..."

Her companion is positively vibrating in place. "Ohhhhhhohhohh mmmymyy ggggodddddddd! You all got chosen!! That's so, so, mega ULTRA shadow cool!!!"

She gulps, and continues. "T-Tomoe's group... is being accepted too. She'll be joining the Trial with R-Ran, Moca, Himari, and Tsug-"

"WHAT?! They never told me THAT!!!! Oh my god, this is SO cool!" The rambunctious wielder throws her arms up into the air. "You're gonna be a Keyblade Master! And my big sis is gonna be a Keyblade Master too... argh, I'm so jealous of you guys!! This is so COOL!!! Argggghhhh, I'm gonna have to keep studying here so all my annoying teachers stop yelling at me to be better, while you guys-"

 

Tick
Tock

 

"-...ah."

The necromancer's happiness breaks.

"You're... you're all gonna..."

The Gazing Eye, perched on an emblem overhead, watches the two wielders as one's expression fades.

"You'll be away from the academy... in that alternate dimension..."

Her beloved companion grows quieter and quieter.

"...for years."

"...Yeah. It usually takes 3 years to reach the other side of the Keyblade Graveyard."

"..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

...When she looks up, she sees her companion's happiness torn. All because of her. "U-um... yeah..." she tries to speak, "that's what I wanted to tell you..."

"You..." A tear slips. "You're really all gonna... leave the academy?"

Slowly, she nods.

"F-for years?"

She nods.

"..."

Her stomach is crawling. She watches her friend curl up into her knees. She watches the light fade from the eyes of the person she loves the most, realising what kind of world awaits her soon. A world where she'll have to face every challenge without her quiet, black-haired bastion by her side. A world where the dark necromancer fights alone.

She knew it. This was a bad idea. She's just... making her friend's life miserable now, isn't she-

"...I'm happy for you."

-

She looks up. "E-ehehe. At this rate, I'm gonna fall way behind you guys." Her friend is smiling. "I need to keep up... when I get a couple years older, I should make sure I'm accepted for the Trial too. I’ve gotta become the coolest and most mature Keyblade Master there is, just like you."

"I... I'm... I-I'm sorry..."

Her friend shakes her head. "Don't be. You earned this. You deserve everything awesome and more." The rest of her body shakes. "I-I'm just... a little nervous about what I'm gonna do next, is all."

"..."

"C-can..." the necromancer murmurs, "c-can I have a hug?"

Her quiet, black-haired companion moves the chessboard out of the way and opens her arms.

The necromancer dives in and wraps herself around the coolest person she knows, burying herself into a shoulder and a tail of black hair. Second by second, she tries to breathe, in... and out. Again, and again.

They stay there like that, sitting atop the windowsill in the lowering sunset breeze.

A sniff. "...I'm a bit scared. S-sorry."

The quiet companion strokes her beloved's hair. "That's fine. You... don't have to act like you're feeling alright."

Another few sniffs. "I-I'll be fine, honest. I'm just gonna miss you guys, is all."

"Mm. I'll miss you too."

"You gonna be okay?"

She nods. "Things'll be... even scarier for me, without you, but... I won't be on my own. I'll make sure to rely on my friends."

"...You're really cool."

Her demonic companion looks up at her.

"Thanks. I'm gonna be okay. I promise."

"I-I'm sorry. I... wanted to find a compromise. But everyone-"

"They all wanna give the Trial a shot, right? I would too."

Her companion lets go and hops off the windowsill, before beckoning to her. Accepting the outstretched hand, she follows suit. They face each other in the hallway as the sky turns a beautiful, fadeaway red.

"A-ahem!" Another pose. "Seize the Mark of Mastery, my dearest ally. I'll be cheering you on with all my power. Whenever you feel doubtful, just imagine the dark lord's satanic chants, fueling your invincible blade with, um... with strength!"

"Fufu. I..." She breathes. "...I will. Thank you." Her smile slowly returns. "Thank you for everything. Even when we're apart... I know you'll be helping me step forward. Just like before."

"It's the least I can do. I'd have tripped over so many obstacles if it weren't for you, my enchanting comrade!" The red eyes focus. "...I wasn't lying about the catching-up thing, by the way. I'm gonna take training seriously from now on. I'll listen to my teachers, build up all the magic I have and become the best Keyblade apprentice in this entire academy; I'll fight and think, harder than I ever have, until I'm the coolest demonic sorceress around, I swear it! ......D-do you think I can pull it off?"

She nods immediately. "Yeah. And even if you don't get that far... we'll be proud of everything you've accomplished, once we come back."

The pair nod at each other.

The Gazing Eye stares through the still air, finding a mane of purple in its vision.

"Your encouragement has fueled my otherworldly powers," her kind-hearted companion says. "So that settles it. I'm gonna see my own journey through. Even if I have to do it alone."

The Sun continues to turn, shifting shadows across the hallway. Darkness crawls atop their faces like an encroaching forest.

But those red eyes, redder than any passing sunset, keep all of their intensity. There's a look on her friend's face that she's never seen before. Not an ounce of fear, nor glee.

Just pure, inexorable determination.

Her friend takes her hand, smiles, and says:

"I promise I won't fall behind."

The grip tightens. It's warm... it's a sensation filled with all the unconditional love and support her friend embodies. It's a sensation she'll cherish, long after she leaves this place.

"I'll grow up faster than anyone else. I'll fly forward and forward until I'm right by your side, so I can see things the way you do, instead of failing to understand like I do right now. I'll learn enough to stand by the side of the strongest Keyblade wielder I know!"

It's a sensation that convinces her she's made the right choice...

...even as the shadows sneak over.

"I promise I'll catch up to you, Rinrin!"

Chapter Text

Sunrise.

It's the time of the day where the sky returns to light. She's had many beginnings here. That of herself, that of both her dearly beloved, that of her heart, and that of her blade.

...She's late to it this time, though! The source of all life has already ventured past the sea's horizon, and now shines brilliantly upon her in the late blue morning. The world lazily travels by as the daydreamer lies on the shore, on the verge of waking...

"Mmmmmmmmrm~."

She snores with a cat-like grin and rolls half her face onto the beach.

"Mmmhmmhmm~..."

"I dunno how you can breathe like that without getting sand in your nose."

"...mmm... mm?"

A blink. Two more blinks. The cool breeze and the sounds of the lapping waves stir her.

...Wow, she's awake! And it's such a wonderful day!

Kokoro shuffles onto her back and looks at the funny black blob blocking the cloudless sky. "Hi, Misaki!"

"Morning to you too, sleepyhead. Coming up with songs in your dreams again?"

She blinks once more, and her vision finally unblurs, letting her see Misaki's frowny-wowny face. "Yeah! It's a lot of fun; you should write them down sometime!"

A sigh. "This again? No."

"Awwww, why not~?"

"Wha-" her friend sputters. "Isn't this like, the 50th time I've answered that?!"

"Hm."

Kokoro sits up and tilts her head, staring into the dreamy light-blue eyes of her friend. Looking at Misaki's slacked posture just makes her feel all warm and tingly inside.

"Guess I forgot!"

"...Kick me."

"Ehehe," another voice says. "I think it could be fun, though."

Oh!!!!

Timidly approaching Misaki's side is someone soft and wonderful. Her hair's wavy, tied into a tail by a bunch of flowers, whereas Misaki's is all moppy, only held by a little hairclip; and her outfit's a woolly cardigan and skirt, whereas Misaki's is a scruffy jacket and blue jeans. The only similarities between them are their wobbly smiles and the cute matching striped shirts they made; Misaki's is cyan, and hers is pink!

There's nobody else it could be. Kanon's here~!!! "Hiya, Kanon!"

"Songwriting? Fun? You've gotta be good at music to make it fun," Misaki says, tugging on her collar. "If I tried crafting some, it'd just grate on our ears."

"I think you'd make it sound wonderful! W-well, as long as Kokoro's the one singing it..."

Kokoro watches the two of them intently.

"You kidding? Your voice is really pretty, Kanon. You could even duet with Kokoro if she's willing to be reasonable."

Kanon smiles. "So, you actually don't mind songwriting for her?"

Misaki gives off the reddest blush Kokoro's seen in a while. "I-I never said that! That's way too much effort. I can barely survive living next to her!"

"Ehehe~." There's a beautiful smile. "Morning, Kokoro. It's a nice day, isn't it?"

"It is! The sky looks so wonderful, I could stare at it forever!"

Misaki loses the cute blush she had. "An activity in Kokoro's head that doesn't involve somersaults. I can get down with that."

"Ooooo! Do you wanna do somersaults, Misaki~?!"

"Hell no."

"Boooooo!" Kokoro grins. "Come on, you know you wanna! You've done it before~!"

"Fine then. The next time we spar, I'll somersault over you so I can bonk you on the head."

"Yay~!!!"

She gives off her brightest smile; and Misaki returns a messy one. Seeing her friends' smiles is the best!

"Don't be too hard on her, okay? It'll be tricky for you to teach us the Keyblade if we, uh." Kanon snickers. "G-get bonked."

"Don't worry, I'm not gonna give anyone a migraine. It's hard enough to stop Kokoro from trying to do it to herself, anyway."

Kanon makes another giggle at that. Kokoro asks; "So when do we begin?"

"...Eh? You actually wanna spar today?"

"Of course! We could make it a somersaulting spar!"

"That's not-" Misaki sighs. "Look, it's still morning. And it's not like I've got much left to teach you anyway. What's the point?"

"There's plenty of points~! We could always do cartwheels with our Keyblades instead, or make ice rinks using Blizzard!"

"...I... that's not what sparring is-"

Starlight fuels her, and she throws her hands out, rocking on the sand. "Let's make an ice rink, Misaki!"

"But it's Summ-"

"I-I can help with the ice rink part!" Kanon interjects. "You said I had a lot of mana, right?"

Misaki does that 'erghghghhh' thing. "You don't need to take Kokoro's ideas seriously. The rink'll melt in the heat anyway."

"...Oh... right..."

Aw, poor Kanon. "Don't worry~," Kokoro tells her. "We can always wait for winter. Then I bet we could make a whole skating dome, and get a bunch of penguins for it too!"

"...! Penguins..."

Yes! Kanon's always so pretty when her eyes sparkle like that~!

"Uh-huh. Surrrreee we can," Misaki drolls. "You act like you've got a bunch of secret agents who'll just make your wishes come true."

"I don't," Kokoro responds. "But I've got my friends. Isn't that enough?"

Misaki rolls her eyes.

"C'mon, Misaki. When the 3 of us are together, we can make the entire island smile!"

"...Lord help me, knowing what that'd involve." She walks over and grabs the back of Kokoro's white zipper jacket, yoinking her up. Then, she brushes the sand off from Kokoro's pastel unicorn tee and poofy yellow pants. "C'mon, let's do that sparring. That way, I'll be in eyeshot of whatever chaos you inevitably cause today."

"Okay~!"

Misaki breathes a sigh of relief that translates to 'whew, she agreed'. "Wanna come with, Kanon?"

"A-ah! Um," Kanon plays idly with her hands, "well... I have something I'm trying to make today..."

"Got it. Is it another plushie?"

"Ah, not quite. I-it's a secret."

"A secret?" Kokoro asks.

"U-um! Well... once I've made it, I want to show Misaki first..."

Huh.

That's been happening a lot lately. "Hmmmmmmm," Kokoro tilts her head. "Can I see it afterwards, at least?"

"Y-yeah, of course! But... don't ask about what it is in the meantime, okay? Sorry..."

Well, okay then.

"Ahaha. Whatever it is, I know it'll look cute," Misaki sings. "Catch you later. And uh, sorry about the ice rink."

"Catch you later!" Kokoro repeats, waving as Misaki drags her off.

"Y-yeah! Catch you later...!"

Kanon meekly waves them goodbye, her radiant expression dazzling Kokoro as their distance increases.

Now it's just her and her moppy friend. And she has a LOT of questions. "Misaki, that was a really cute smile you gave Kanon. Can I see it too?"

"Ggrk!"

"You're making funny sounds now!" She wiggles in Misaki's grip. "Are you turning into a bear?"

"Bear??? I- no, no, I'm fine. You saw nothing. Stop staring at my face."

"But it always looks so pretty!"

Misaki furiously mumbles and scratches her hair. "I'm... argh, just look at the scenery or something instead. Always makes you smile, right?"

"Aw. Okay!"

Well, Misaki's not wrong. She loves her home!

Destiny Islands. It's an isolated little vista in its own dimension, linked to other worlds by the endless sea surrounding it. That's why you'll hear the relaxing splashes of the waves on the shore, no matter where you are; be it on top of a palm tree, in a lodge up above or on a rock to the side of the island. The breeze is wonderful; it's one of Kokoro's best friends, since it's never too rough. And the weather can be sunny or rainy, but it never tears her hut apart! There's walkways to little islets and paths into many caves, and even a mountain you can climb if you're brave. There's always lots to do and explore here; you could grab some starfruit and make a drink out of it, or go swinging through vines with the others. It's a fun and happy place, even if it's closed off.

It's where she's spent her life with Misaki and Kanon since the day she was born. There aren't that many people living here, but they're all wonderful. Kokoro loves playing with them! And she'll happily mess around with whatever keeps them all smiling. Making this place smile is what keeps her smile going too!

"...Hm. Hey, Misaki," she asks. "Do you think we could hang out with people in other dimensions someday? I wanna see what their smiles are like too!"

"That makes one of us. I can live without bothering them."

"You always say that," she pouts, leaning back on her friend. "Do you not like being happy?"

"That's a leap. I'm as happy as any normal person is."

"Then it couldn't hurt to be happier, right?" Kokoro raises her arm. "C'mon, let's think of something that'll put a grin on our faces! Like, what do you think Kanon's making right now?"

"Beats m-" Pause. "Ah... I... I might have an idea, actually."

Oh? ...She watches as her friend, blush bright on the face again, immediately starts murmuring lots of bad words. "Misaki? You okay?"

"Shit, shit, shi- ah, I mean, I-I'm fine! Completely fine!" Misaki squeals. "Um, I can't tell you what Kanon's making, because, uh. J-just because! And don't ask Kanon about it either! You absolutely can't, got it?"

"Hm. What's with you guys today? You're so secretive. And every time I ask you and Kanon about each other, you blush like crazy. It's kinda cute."

"...No sense of subtlety..."

"Eh? What'd you say?"

"Nothing. Let's get to training already!"

She's dragged across the bridge- oh, it's this little islet. She likes sitting on the coconut tree and dangling over the sea here...

"Hey, earth to Kokoro. We'll start with the obvious."

...Oooo, the sea's really pretty today...

"Kokoro! Your Keyblade! Can you materialize it?!"

"Hmm?"

Hey, when'd Misaki get over there?

"Yeah, sure☆!" She responds.

She raises her hand; and in an instant it's with her, materializing from a string of light.

It shimmers. The hilt, enclosed within a sturdy ring of metal, drops onto Kokoro's hand. Two spiralling shafts, each a different shade of gold, form into a 5-pointed nugget at the tip of the blade, its shape halfway between a key and a star. The center is hollowed out, leaving a set of holes that resemble a fun little Sun, and there's two more rectangular holes on the blunter shaft of the blade as well.

"...How do you materialize it so easily lately? You've gotten it out every single time."

"I just think of you guys when I'm trying to!"

Misaki balks. "Shouldn't have expected an actual answer, huh. Well, here goes nothing."

Shadows whisper.

She doesn't think Misaki's Keyblade looks as nice, to be honest.

It's dark. And it's pretty gloomy. From Kokoro's point of view, it doesn't seem like the kind of thing someone'd be happy to wield. Misaki makes it work, though. She's funny like that. She's summoning a jagged, swirling black blade from a little vortex of darkness, a cyan eye embedded in the hilt and a sharp, leant edge at the end; yet Misaki still looks like her usual self. Maybe her Keyblade's just as grumpy as she is?

Poor ol' Misaki. She deserves to smile more often.

"Oi, Kokoro. Pay attention. We're gonna begin."

"Ooo! Where do we start?"

She dives headfirst into her lovely new day. The waves lap at the shore... giving the two wielders the vigor of a peaceful life.

"Alright, first off. You can cast Reflect, right? Let's make use of it. Neither me nor Kanon can, so this is a good opportunity."

"Okay!"

She twirls her blade and summons a transparent beehive barrier, working up a sweat. "Alright, now get ready," Misaki says. "I'm gonna shoot Fire spells at you. You'll need to deflect each one with your Keyblade."

"Why? Reflect'll just bounce them back, won't it?"

"Because we're testing your reflexes, Kokoro. This is important."

"Doesn't seem like it. Reflect is better at stopping magic than my attacks are!"

"But...!" A groan. "Look, you're not always going to have the mana to cast Reflect! That's why I'm having you do this! So you can deflect stuff in the heat of the moment!"

"Then why are you making me cast Reflect right now?"

"BECAUSE I DON'T WANT YOU EATING A FIREBALL TO THE FACE!"

"Oh, oh! What if, after I deflect Fire a few times, you cast a bigger Fire to make it more challenging?"

"What bigger Fire?! It's just Fire! There isn't a tier system for magic!"

"You don't know that!"

"I- shit, you're right, actually..."

 

 

Time passes.

 

 

"Jesus christ, I'm going to have a heart attack," Misaki pants. "KOKORO! GET DOWN FROM THE TREE!"

"Misaki!" She yells, knowing whatever Misaki just said was probably pretty funny. "Look at me! I'm hanging upside down!"

"Upside down into a watery gr-" A facepalm. "Gah, what am I talking about? You could qualify as a ninja with all your backflipping around..."

Misaki's eyes are always so pretty.

"Why are you staring at me like that? ...Well, sparring's over for today. I'm gonna minimise the risk of you hurting yourself, right here and right now."

"Okay!"

She pulls herself up by the legs over the Starfruit tree, leaping onto solid ground, before sitting next to Misaki. "Here. You thirsty?" Misaki asks.

"Very!"

The waves lap over the islet as they share a bottle of water. "God. If someone ever gets into a fight with you, I'm gonna feel sorry for them."

"I'd feel sorry for them too. You'd get mad if that happened, after all."

Misaki's expression changes. "...Well... yeah. Yeah, you're right. I would get mad."

"And a mad Misaki's the scariest thing there is, right?"

"Not the point I was trying to make, but I'll take it," Misaki says. "Kanon'd be even madder, though. If she ever starts wailing on some poor schmuck, they've signed a death wish."

...Well, that's not very pleasant. "Kanon'd never do that to someone," she frowns. "She's the kindest person we know."

"Exactly. You'd have to mess up REAL bad to make that happen. That's why I feel like shit when she gets mad at me."

"...She gets mad at you?"

"Once or twice. You know what I'm like."

...Kokoro shakes her head and smiles. "Don't hurt each other, okay? Kanon's the only one of us who can use Cure, and she forgets how to half the time."

"Eh? N-no, no, don't worry, we weren't fighting like THAT!" Misaki says. "It was just... me messing up, really bad, and her getting angry. That's all."

"Good! I don't wanna see you hurt. And you shouldn't be getting angry at each other in the first place."

"Believe me, she had a good reason to be angry," Misaki sighs. "I'm a living disaster."

"Don't say that! You're a wonderful person, Misaki☆."

"...Mm. Thanks."

No smile.

She says thanks, even though it's obvious she's still feeling down. Misaki... gets hit by these waves, sometimes. It's hard to know what to do when it happens; nothing cheers her up. Not even a hug. Kokoro wishes she could just wash all of Misaki's sadness away. She wants her friend to smile as much as possible.

...Oh well. The waves never last too long. Misaki always stops feeling bad eventually, sorta; so let's just wait it out again.

Let's lean back silently and look at the clouds on the edge of the sky~.

 

 

 

 

"Hey, Kokoro. Why do you wanna learn the Keyblade, anyway?"

She looks at her friend. "Because I think it's fun!"

"Yeah, but you hate fighting, don't you? I can't imagine you ever trying to hurt someone." Misaki materializes and dematerializes her blade. "Ice rinks are fun and all, but knowing you, you could probably find another way to make those. So, what's the point?"

"Hmmmmm."

Kokoro lifts herself up.

"It's because of you two!"

Misaki nearly spits out the water she's drinking. "Bwuh?"

"You're right. I didn't really care about Keyblades at first. But remember what you and Kanon said when I asked why YOU two wanted to learn it?" Kokoro asks. "You both wanted to protect all of us, if we were ever in danger. And that's really sweet of you. That's why I wanted to learn it too!"

"...You... that's why?"

"Yeah! Ever since that day, my Keyblade always materializes whenever I want."

...

"Misaki, your face looks funny again. You're all red."

"Of all the..." her friend mumbles. "...Gah. Forget it. You can't even swing that thing properly half the time. You really think you'll manage to save me with it when I'm in danger?"

"Well, I know you'd do the same-" Misaki gets up and walks past her. "Hey, where're you going?"

"...Back to my hut," is the response. "G-go and play around some more. You're exhausting..."

"Okay! See you later!"

Misaki really is strange. She spends so much time alone.

Well, guess that's fine. There's always more to enjoy here. Let's have a little solo adventure!

 

---

 

Sunset comes quickly.

She spent so much time having fun, the day just raced by. She swung on the vines in the cave behind her hut, she looked at the little creatures in the tide pools, and she raced the pelicans to the top of the watchtower! They even gave her a big red gem when she won, and it looks really sparkly! What a wonderful time!

Tucking it away, Kokoro wanders back to the best sleeping spot on Destiny Islands; the seaside. On the way, she can't help but gaze in awe at the sky~. It's so pretty... there's a lovely, deep, orange wisped through it, like the colour inside a grapefruit; and all the clouds sitting near the horizon are long, foggy and violet... it looks mysterious! She wonders what it'd be like to fly inside one of those clouds, staring at the intense yellow Sun as it sinks halfway beneath the sea and leaves night coming on the other side.

"...ahaha!"

Oh? Is that someone talking? Maybe it's her friends!

Kokoro hops over the grass and rushes over to the beach. She's right; it is her friends! "Hiya, K-"

...She stops.

Misaki and Kanon are sitting together on the seaside. There's nobody else around.

They're shuffling awkwardly, barely a couple of centimetres apart as they stare at the sunset. There's a little campfire next to them. They're talking so softly... the fire's faintly illuminating expressions on their faces that Kokoro's never seen before. They look so...

...gentle.

...

...

Misaki laughs. Kanon... winks.

...

...

Kokoro stares in silence. Instead of leaping out and saying hi, she quietly stays back, choosing to hide behind a bush and listen.

"...Hey, for real. I'm sorry it took so long for me to talk to you. About... y'know. Me being me."

Kanon shakes her head. "It's okay, really. Just... y-you don't need to struggle in silence when you feel bothered by y-yourself, okay? I... even if I'm not a great listener, I want to be there for you."

"God. I really don't deserve y-" She cuts herself off. "Gah, sorry. I did it again."

"It's okay. You're just letting your thoughts out. A-and I can challenge them!"

Kanon boldly grasps Misaki's hands, eliciting a light squeak. Kokoro can't look away.

"You're... you're always so, so, unendingly kind. You're always looking out for us. We care about you, Misaki. Honestly, I feel like I'm the one here who doesn't deserve you."

"Of course you do! You deserve better, even-" Misaki tuts at herself. "Just... you're the kindest and most patient person I know, Kanon. I can't go 5 seconds without snapping at Kokoro, but you treat her like you'd treat any other friend. You encourage us whenever you can, even if you don't realise it, and-"

"F-fuee..."

Misaki nearly falls flat on her back seeing Kanon's expression. "-S-s-sorry. Didn't mean to ramble."

"N-no, i-it's okay- agh, sorry, I keep saying that. But really... thank you," Kanon breathes. "...I know I say it a lot, but... being useless... o-or detrimental, even... it's my worst nightmare. I'm glad I don't just drag you two down."

"Believe me," Misaki gently holds Kanon's wrists, "whenever you're around, I'm pulled up, not dragged down. It's always 'oh thank god, Kanon's here'."

Kanon giggles. "Well, that's how I usually see you react, but... I never knew if the same was true in your thoughts."

"'Course it is. You're an angel."

"...Misaki..."

Kokoro can't look away. She can't even speak. She's seen the two of them on their own a lot, but... she's never seen them act like this before.

"O-o-o-oh, u-u-um!!!! The weather's nice- ah, no, that's not what I meant to say!" Kanon shakes her head, rubs her cheeks and looks at her friend. "I, um. I almost forgot. I finished what I was making today. It's... a gift."

Misaki draws a sharp breath. "You mean...?"

"Here. This is for you, Misaki."

Kanon takes a necklace out from her pocket. It's-

-Wait. It looks exactly like the one Kanon's wearing.

"This... this is..."

She nods. "Yeah. You made mine, so... I wanted to try and make one for you."

It's not a complicated design. But it's eye-catching; on a glimmering string, pink like a coral reef enamoured, lies a simple clay pendant with a round, beautiful sapphire gleaming in its center.

Seconds pass.

Absent of all hesitation, Kanon places it around Misaki's neck,

"...!"

the sensation of her hands causing Misaki to jolt.

Seconds pass.

...It's rested upon her chest. Kanon gently lets go.

Now, they match. The pendants are perched right across from each other. "D-does it look okay? I know it's not as good as yours, but... I wanted to do this, really badly. For you."

"...Yeah. It's perfect."

Kanon blushes.

Seconds pass. One, by one, by one. Each breath comes in... and out.

"Misaki..."

"..."

The two gaze into each other's eyes.

"..."

"..."

Kokoro watches as Kanon rests her hands on Misaki's shoulders again, leaning over her lap. Wordlessly, Misaki holds her gently around the waist.

...Then... after a minute... they lean in closer, and-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-They...

Kokoro's heart ties into a knot.

...

...

...

...Kanon moves back, parting their lips. There's a soft breath. Misaki doesn't leap back in shock. Kanon doesn't murmur in distress. There's no fear on either of their faces. They just... sit there with each other, having kissed each other, content to look at nothing but each other.

"..."

Kokoro feels strange.

She doesn't know what's going on. Her stomach's crawling with something, she can't move her arms, her throat's dried up... a-and her head is all blurry. What is this feeling? And why does she have it right now?

This feeling... maybe it's...

...

...Ah.

Kokoro's frown loosens, and her breathing stabilises.

It's gotta be happiness!

All the squirming and squelching inside her chest... she must be so happy for her friends that her heart's going to burst! They're so wonderful together, and they trust each other so much; that's why their smiles are so big! Her friends are really happy when they're with each other! "Misakiiiiii! Kanonnnnn!"

"WHA-"

"K-Kokoro?!"

She bullets through the bush and lands into the sand like a meteor, standing before the two of them with a huge grin on her face; nearly tripping, because her head feels light for some reason, but she manages to keep a solid footing. "Let's all go on an adventure together!"

.

"...What????"

"We should build a raft and set sail from Destiny Islands, the three of us!" She says.

"F-f-forget about THAT!" Misaki screams. "How long were you watching us?!"

"The entire time! I watched everything! It was really cute☆!"

Kanon turns redder than a volcano. "Fffuuuueeeeeeeeeeee..."

"Oh my god. Kill me. Just kill me now."

"So that's what Kanon was making! A matching necklace!" Kokoro continues, vaguely parsing the funny noises they're making. "That almost puts as big a smile on my face as it did yours!"

"Kill me."

"Hey, don't say that! You two should be happy! You're having so much fun together!"

"Y-yeah," Kanon manages, "fun..."

"No sense of subtlety, I swear to god."

She jumps down to her knees and grabs both of them in for a big hug. "I love my friends!"

"F-fuee! Kokoro!"

"And here she goes again."

"Ah... ahaha," Kanon laughs. "Yeah. That's Kokoro for you."

Now their expressions are much more like Kokoro remembers. She feels relieved, for some reason! "What do you guys think? Exploring the world sounds fun to me~."

"What do you mean by-, oh, right. The raft. You change topics so fast..." Misaki sighs. "Why do you suddenly wanna go on an adventure? Where would we even go?"

"I just want us all to do something together. Is that bad?"

"No, but it's drastic! There are many things we can do together that DON'T involve leaving home, y'know."

"That's true! But I bet there's also loads of fun things we could only do by visiting other worlds! Like-"

"Like bringing people smiles? Knew it."

"No, not just that," Kokoro says, galloping to the sea's edge and gazing out. "I think it could also let us three smile more too! It'd be a nice change of pace, exploring everything that's out there!"

Her friends walk over to her. "I'm not seeing the appeal," Misaki grumbles.

"Um... Kokoro, this might be a weird question, but," Kanon steps forward, "you overheard what we were saying before, right?"

"Yup."

"Does that include, um... what we were saying... before I gave Misaki the Sapphire Pendant? The part with all the 'sorry's?"

"Yeah! Why do you ask?"

A smile grows on Kanon's face. Did she think of a funny joke? "I see. So that's why you suggested this," she responds. "Thank you, Kokoro. That's very kind of you."

"Is there something I'm missing?" Misaki asks.

Kanon just giggles. "No, it's nothing," she responds. "I, um... I don't actually think it's a bad idea. The exploring, I mean."

"...Huh?!?!"

"Yay☆! Kanon's on board!"

"Aye aye, captain!" Kanon's smile gets even cuter! "Um, well... I think this is a bit of a sudden request, Kokoro. Me and Misaki might need some time to think about it. But that doesn't mean we can't build a raft now, and save it for when we're ready."

"That's wonderful~! I'll start by making a list of everything we need!"

"Hold on, hold on. I'LL be the one makes a list of everything we need. We'll want a raft that actually serves its function, after all."

Oh?!?!? Kokoro lights up; "Does that mean you're on board too?"

"I-I never said that! I just think, so long as we're not barrelling off immediately, we can humour the raft project." Yay! Misaki's on board! "That's all, okay? Don't go shoving Kanon headfirst into the sea."

"Well, I think it'd take more than a few days to leave anyway," Kanon says. "The preparation would take a lot of work, wouldn't it?"

"You're right!" Kokoro cheers. "First, we've got to think about materials!"

"Let's do that tomorrow then."

"Aw. Why not now, Misaki?"

"Because I'm sleepy."

"We could always start without you!"

"Absolutely not."

"U-um," Kanon says, "I think we'll probably need Misaki awake before we can start preparing!"

"You've saved us all..."

Oh! That makes sense. Can't have anyone missing out on the preparations. "Okay! Make sure you get some rest, Misaki~!"

"I'll need it if I'm gonna process the whiplash of leaving my life-long home in a month or so." Misaki yawns. "See you guys. And, uh..."

She looks into a pair of loving amethyst eyes.

"...T-thanks. For the necklace."

She gets a beautiful smile in return. "I'm glad you liked it. Goodnight, Misaki."

"G'night, Misaki!"

"Night."

Their sleepy friend gives them a casual wave and heads back to her hut.

That just leaves Kokoro with Kanon. And there's a question that's absolutely booming itself in the front of her mind. "Hey, Kanon. There's something I don't get. Are you happy around Misaki?"

"E-eh?" Kanon blinks. "That was sudden... yeah, I am."

"That's what I think too. I know you definitely are. But that's why I'm confused!" Kokoro continues. "I heard the conversation you two had. And it reminded me of some of the other conversations you've had."

"Ah. The other conversations you... happen to run into," Kanon smiles.

"Yeah. There were times during those where you'd look so sad! Sometimes you'd be frowning, sometimes you'd be scared... there was even one time I saw you crying."

"Oh. Right... a-and?"

"That's what I don't get. If you and Misaki are so close, and so happy around each other... then why do you also seem sadder around each other?" Kokoro asks. "It's always when you two are together that I see more frowns on you."

"A-ah. Um..."

It's obviously a difficult question. Kanon's having trouble finding her words! Still, all their negative talk is obviously deliberate, isn't it? They're not making each other feel sad on accident.

"W-well, I think it's kind of hard to explain, but I'll try," she starts. "It's kind of embarrassing to say this, but... I feel like I'm safe to tell Misaki about... um... my-" She pauses. "No, no, I can't word it like that... I-I mean, I think there are... darker topics? That we can discuss around each other. Because we feel comfortable around each other. D-does that make sense?"

"Why discuss them, though? If it were me, I'd just never bring them up at all. That way, I'd be happier, and my friend would be happier too!"

"Ahahah... that's a very you answer," Kanon says. "I, um. I don't really know the full reason myself, to be honest. I know it lowers the mood, but I just feel... enabled to talk about that kind of stuff, somehow. S-sorry, this feels weird to explain. Um..." she continues, "...It's... difficult to explain. That's all I can really say."

"Really? I think you're hiding things from me."

"H-huh? H-honestly, that's as much as I kn-" She cuts herself off. "...No, you're right. I'm not telling the truth. Sorry... it's just that I, um..."

Oh, this expression. Now she needs to give Kanon some time, right? Kokoro puts her hands on her hips and waits.

"...Truth is, I sort of know why. But I think it'd be difficult to explain to you specifically, Kokoro. N-not because you wouldn't understand, but...! Just... yeah."

"Hm. Why not talk about it some more, then?"

Kanon looks at her. "Eh? What do you mean?"

"Let's talk it out every now and then! It'll be an emotion workshop!" Kokoro throws her hands out. "Maybe there's things I'm just not getting about you two. Things you two know that I don't. That's why I'm curious. Could we chat more about this another day?"

"...Yeah. That sounds like a good idea. It'd definitely take some time, after all." Kanon smiles. "I mean it when I say I'm happier around Misaki, just so you know."

"Of course! I believe you. You're my friend, after all~."

Kanon giggles again. It's always the cutest thing Kokoro's ever heard... "I'll go to sleep now too, if that's okay. Let's make sure we think about the raft tomorrow."

...There's so many comfy things about Kanon... "...Hm? Oh!" Kanon's waving! "Goodnight, Kanon! See you!"

"Yeah! S-see you tomorrow, Kokoro!"

Kanon pumps her fist in the air before she leaves. It's so charming, Kokoro's dazzled instantly; now she's energized☆!

She starts running leaps and bounds again, trawling across the seaside. Her body felt kinda unstable and whoa-ey earlier, but now she's sticking every landing, just like she normally does. Tomorrow's going to be another exciting day with the two friends she loves the most! She's going to find out more, she's going to learn more, and she's going to play more. She can't stop moving now; she's too excited! Oooh, let's hang out in the caves tonight and scribble on the walls... that'll pass the time until she feels sleepy enough~!

Wandering into the seaside cove, she thinks; tomorrow's going to be a great day, just like today.

...

...

 

 

 

 

...

...

...Beyond the seashore, a figure emerges.

"This world's been connected."

The sunset nears its end, beckoning to the next day.

Watching from the purple clouds, her hidden eyes fall upon the blonde-haired wielder wandering into the cave. One of three wielders living in this twinkling star. "It's been tied to the darkness...

...soon to be completely eclipsed . "

 

---

 

CRRRRRRACCKKKKKKL

A thunderbolt.

The wind rushes at Kokoro's ears. "...mm?"

It's cold. And there's the light sensation of water grazing her, bouncing off from... what sounds like whirlpools outside. There's gotta be a storm.

Her eyes open, welcoming her back to the ceiling of the cave's entrance. It's pretty dark... she can barely see her drawings. That's strange; did she wake up too early? Or is the Sun being lazy about coming out this morning~?

Well, a storm is always exciting, at least! She springs onto her feet, eager to see what it looks like outside and have the wind brush her face as it-

"...Huh?"

 

RRRRRRWWWWWWWWWWRRRWWWW

        SSSHRRWWWSSHHH

 

What she sees is more than just that.

The wind howls, nearly hurling Kokoro back. For a few seconds, she gazes with her jaw dropped, her mind slowly eaten up by unfamiliar feelings.

 

WWRRRRWWWSSSSSHHHRRRWWWWWWWWWW

SLAM! goes a tree, thrown face-first into the edge of a rock.

 

        WWWRRRWRRRRR

                  SSSSHHHRRRWWW
WWWSSHHRRRRRSSS

 

...Curiosity strikes her first. Instinctively, Kokoro rushes out of the cave and onto the winding path, keeping a heavy grip on the ground with her feet. She was right about there being a storm. The whirlpools are raging; moreso than she thought they would. T-they're rampaging with enough force that it feels like the sea's going to split open and fall apart. The winds don't feel natural, either; it's almost like they're targeting her, with the way they batter her as if each's a legion in of itself.

That's not why Kokoro is confused, though. She's seen storms here before! It's just...

...she's never seen one where the sky is THIS colour.

"..."

It's a colour that drains the smile from her face.

She stares, frozen in place by a sensation she can't identify, staring at the violet disaster. Those aren't natural clouds, are they? Clouds float happily in the sky; they don't consume from above and encroach down to the sealine. They don't surround Destiny Islands from every angle and choke on it. And they don't fly at that speed, rushing and whirling around and leaving thunderbolts in their wake.

CRRRRRACCCCCCCCKKLLLL

Kokoro keeps staring. And the more she does... the more her confusion turns into fe-

...

-She shakes her head. What was she thinking about again? "Hm. This storm seems pretty harsh. I s-should probabl-"

Shadows start to slither.

"...!"

bblbblbblbllll...

Her mind short-circuits.

The shadows're... moving. They're bubbling, they're foaming, they're coalescing... they're making themselves, shaping themselves. They've become beings, with bodies, and hands, and legs. When did shadows do that? When did shadows start glaring at her in hordes, approaching her with gleaming yellow eyes? Why are they doing that? Why aren't they saying anything? W-why aren't they emoting anything?

"...u-um... hi..."

N-no. Stop. Take a deep breath...

"..."

W-when did her breath start shaking so much? T-that's not healthy... she should be breathing normally, like she always does.

"..."

H-her breathing should be normal! But it's...

"...!"

The shadows start to surround her. Kokoro stays frozen in place, shaking, for several seconds; until she grits her teeth, flashes her friends into her mind and draws her Keyblade-

One of them lunges.

"A-ack!"

A claw cuts at her abdomen, thawing her mind and making her wince in pain. "T-that's not a nice thing to do-"

Another's attacking!

She leaps back, gripping the Keyblade tight with both hands. Why are they attacking her? What do they want? She doesn't know... she doesn't know, and it makes her sc-

-n-no, it just makes her confused! "U-um... what are you?"

The shadows don't respond. When she stares into their eyes, she can't see any kindness or happiness. They're not friendly. Do they want her Keyblade? ...No, they were a-approaching her before she drew it. There's something else they're looking for, then-!

Another shadow lunges.

"Ah!"

They'll hurt her for it if they have to.

"L-leave me alone!"

Weakly, she swings. But her limbs are trembling too much; the Keyblade only travels with enough force to nudge the shadow aside.

"J-just, hang on..."

Does she have to fight these things?

She tries another swing, but can't muster any power. She doesn't have any courage. She's left with her heart gripped in a chokehold, staggeredly exhaling as she stares into the eyes of something that wants to hurt her. One of the shadows takes the opportunity to swipe again, and-

-N-no. She isn't going to fight these things anymore!

Gasping for air, she makes another swing to protect herself before hurriedly retreating into the cave. She runs as fast and as fast as she can, getting as far away as possible from whatever those scary things are. It's dark, and she can barely see her way through, but she's brave enough to keep running; b-because she's always brave without ever having to think about why, or how, right? And right now... h-her friends might need her help!

The storm's rage echoes across the walls. "Kanon! M-Misaki! Where are you~?" She tries to sing.

"...koro?"

There! That voice!

It's far away. It's somewhere inside the caves; she needs to find it! Because that's...

"K-Kokoro..."

...Kanon's voice!

She runs, and runs;

until she finds a tunnel whose other end is so dark that she can't see through it at all.

The air's thick. Nature is silenced. She can... barely even breathe. It's overwhelming... i-it's kind of interesting, isn't it...

...W-wait! That's "Kanon!" Deep inside the darkness, she sees a slither of light-blue; it's a visible part of her cherished friend. She runs through the tunnel, craving a familiar face. "Kanonnnn!" She slows to a halt once Kanon fully enters her vision, and greets her with a smile! "Are you okay? W-we're together now~!"

"K-...... Kokoro..."

But Kanon isn't smiling.

Kokoro tries to be as positive as possible for Kanon's sake, just like always. Nothing changes. Kanon keeps shaking, her pupils constricted. "K-Kanon? Let's find Misaki, okay?"

"Y.... yeah... l.... let's."

Each syllable is croaked out.

"I'm... I'm fine..... I'm fine... I'm... f... fine..."

Kokoro reaches out.

Slowly, the frozen Kanon manages to lift her arm, trying to take Kokoro's hand. "D-don't worry about me... I'll be... f-fine... let's... go-"

There's a grin in the darkness behind her.

SSKKKRRRKKK

Kokoro's expression shatters. "...Kanon?"

"A-a... a..."

Her stomach tightens. W-what is that? What is that thing?!

Kanon's eyes shrivel, her face turning in terror. A ginormous, thin claw grips her body and drags her back. It's... hurting her...! "K-KOKORO!"

"KANON!"

All at once, Kokoro rushes forward;

but the tunnel suddenly lengthens, trying to take Kanon with it. "N-no! LET HER GO!"

Kokoro runs,

and runs,

and runs,

further and further into the darkness, chasing her friend, desperately reaching out to try and change the expression on Kanon's face. Every beat of her heart aches with the same ache Kanon feels, fear of the unknown stabbing them both as they flail towards each other in life-or-death defiance of the growing distance between them, that looks like it might be closed, bit, by bit, by bit. She reaches out, trying, trying,

"KOKORO!!!"

A gleam of light. Her heart beats,

faster and faster and FASTER,

at twice the speed she was before, Kokoro's body sprints in desperation with a new light booming in her chest, doubling her heartbeat, empowering her, fueling her, keeping her hand out as she reaches forward, and forward, and forward, reaching out to the drained amethyst eyes of her cherished friend, of her wonderful, wonderful friend, trying to save her, because she has to save her, she has to, she has to, she has to, she NEEDS to, she needs to save her, she needs to save herself-

Whoops~.

Black claws engulf Kanon's body.

Kanon disappears.

 

 

 

"Ah-"

Twice the heartbreak.

Kokoro falls, roughly hitting the floor. She lifts herself back up, glimpsing that same grin she saw in the darkness before, trying to search for any sign of her friend...

...and...

"...N-no."

The light returns, revealing the truth.

She hates it.

The cave loses the shroud it was covered in, revealing the scribbles on the walls. Revealing the tree branch that makes its way through. Revealing the sand beneath her feet, and the ceiling up above. Revealing that her friend is nowhere to be seen amongst any of it.

Kanon's gone.

Kanon's... gone.

"..."

Something...

S-something took her friend...

"K-... Kanon..."

...Stop. Don't be scared. Be brave like her. Don't be scared, don't be scared-

Aren't you forgetting someone ?

"H-huh?"

Kokoro looks up, her head pounding. The seconds tick by, each a hammer to the brain.

"...!"

One strikes all the way.

"Misaki!"

She has to find her, now!

Kokoro runs faster than she ever knew she could. Her friend, her friend, her friends, what if she loses them both-

-Her thoughts cut. Her body chilling to the bone, Kokoro flies out the other end of the cave and into the storm, materializing her Keyblade. She doesn't even look at it as she grips it at her side, clotting the blood around her knuckles.

The shadows return.

She growls; "Move!"

Kokoro casts Reflect and charges into one, shoulder-tackling it with the generated barrier and sending it flying back.

"Where... where is she? Kanon would know, but-"

The islet.

Suddenly, she knows it's the islet. That's where Misaki has to be. Misaki, Misaki, Misaki; she's running straight towards Misaki!

Her Keyblade's swung, cutting down a lunging shadow and severing it into smoke, running all the while. She ducks from the attack of another and ignores it, keeping herself moving. The storm strengthens, tempting her to be lost from the ground entirely and fly away; but she keeps running, and running, and running...!

...There!

She sees it. Th-there's someone there... the entire islet's drowned in something, but her friend is there!

"Misaki!"

She dashes across the bridge.

 

                   burden

The sounds of the rickety wood beneath her feet disappear as she steps into a pool of swirling, melting shadow.

She hears panting.

"M-Misaki?"

Kokoro gets as close as she can; Misaki's there, in front of her, her friend's safe, her friend's still here! Her friend's...

burden

                     burden

             burden

...hurt.

     you're a burden to her...

                                                            ...you're a burden to them both, Misaki.

"Gah... hahh..."

Misaki is hurt. Misaki is gasping for breath, collapsed, with her ebon Keyblade dropped to the floor. Her body is lined with lacerations, each a violet pool flickering with small purple flames, scattered around the shoulders and waist, one running across her cheek and another cutting right beneath the ribs. Kokoro sees it all, and holds back her tears; "M-Misaki! I'm here! What happened?"

"...Kokoro..."

 give in.

Immediately, Kokoro grips her Keyblade. Cure, Cure... please, she needs to learn how to cast Cure! She needs to learn it NOW-

 give in, Misaki.

"...Ha... ahahahaha! I knew it..."

"Don't talk that much!" Kokoro shouts. "Stay still and let me heal you!"

"I knew it. The second I saw her, I knew I'd be the first one of us she targeted."

let someone else take your place, and guide your heart,

Before Kokoro can respond, Misaki suddenly stands up, her irises coated in green.

so you don't ever have to be you again.

"It happened right after I confessed to Kanon, too. Now she'll think it's her fault."

"M-Misaki?" ...What's going on? She's moving so naturally, even with those wounds... doesn't it hurt? "Misaki, we-"

"Congratulations, Kokoro. The door's opened."

She stops.

"I've got our little adventure all set up for us. We didn't even need to build a raft."

"W-what are you talking about? We need to heal you! We need to find Kanon!"

"She's already gone ahead! No thanks to me!" Misaki stares at Kokoro with a laid-back smile, drenched in sweat, as the darkness howls around her more and more. "You should get ready too, Kokoro. Destiny Islands is disappearing. We're heading out together on a one-way trip to places we've never seen before, just like you wanted."

With a hollow laugh, she lets a vortex of miasma surround them both.

"And just like I thought,"

It drags her smiling face down.

"I'm gonna be the one who ruins it all!"

"M-Misaki!"

Tendrils of darkness bind around Misaki, weighing on her, sinking her down, already halfway into the pool beneath. Kokoro barely processes the vortex that's trying to drag herself down too, focused entirely on doing anything she can to get any glimpses of her friend, flailing her hand out again, just to try and make sure Misaki is still with her; no matter how many times the wisps drag her arm down, she keeps reaching out, again, and again, her mind burning: Where's Misaki being taken? Why is she being taken?! She's hurt...! S-she's hurt... she needs help. She sh-shouldn't go down there... n-neither of them know what's down there...

...She can't! "MISAKI!"

Kokoro struggles through the blinding grip and reaches, reaches, reaches, fueling her body with a light so powerful it breaks her free;

"MISA-"

but her hand falls on nothing.

All she gets is a split-second sight "-ki..."

of her friend sinking beneath.

Swallowed whole by darkness.

 

 

Misaki's... gone.

"...Mi... sa... ki..."

Kokoro falls to her knees.

 

        WWWRRRWRRRRRrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRWWWWRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

                   R           RRKKKKRRRRRRKRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

 

The storm doesn't wait. It breaks Destiny Islands into pieces, drains every bit of the sea; the kilometres of land around the swamped islet disappear, all thrown into the chaos. She can barely process what's happening to her home. "...Misaki...!"

The islet breaks apart, flying above and leaving her mercilessly discarded below. Her back slams against a bed of sand, barely avoiding the hull of a broken ship.

bbbrbbBBBBBLLrrllll....

The last piece of Destiny Islands is covered in shade. It hurts; it hurts, her head hurts, her heart hurts...

...she gets up, unblurring her eyes.

GGggggggbgfgGGGGRRR....!

Her expression voids. Standing before her and her Keyblade is a gigantic amalgamation of shadow, its yellow eyes staring into her. An amalgamation several times larger than any of the shadows that previously attacked her.

It's the only other thing left here.

"..."

The amalgamation crouches and reveals a looming, heart-shaped hole in its center, forming a bolt of plasma from its malice.

"...Where are they?"

The bolt hurtles towards Kokoro-

CLASH!

Her slash sends it flying back, tearing through the sands until it strikes the amalgamation's chest.

Kokoro's eyes narrow. "...G-give them back..." she murmurs.

The amalgamation fires more, ignoring her words.

"...GIVE THEM BACK..." she spews,

CLASH CLASH CLASH!!!

furiously slamming everything with her Keyblade, rebounding it with the force of a truck. Each bolt ruptures the amalgamation around its chest, causing shadow to puncture out of it.

Incited, it slowly buries its hands into the ground, trying to constrict Kokoro in its ground-swallowing shadow.

"...GIVE THEM BACK!"

she roars,

charging forward. Casting Reflect, she races across the pit, bullrushes one hand, and slams the Keyblade into it.

SHRRRRACCK!

The amalgamation makes a vague howl. Tearing the blade up from the torn dusk, she hacks at it again.

SHHRRKKK!

The amalgamation shudders. She couldn't care less. "I SAID- ack!"

A force bursts from her enemy, throwing her into the sand. As she gets back up, it fires bolt after bolt at her from its chest again, trying to give itself the space to charge something in its unwounded fist; a sphere of hatred strong enough to break the air around it.

"...I-I SAID... GIVE... THEM... BACK!!!"

Kokoro shoves past every bolt with Reflect's barrier, forcing her legs to move. Something running through her blood propels her, catapulting her forward at a demon's pace. She raises her arms, bloodshot on the amalgamation's sphere-holding hand,

SHRKK!

digs her blade into the side of its wrist, and

SHHRRRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!

Tears a scar through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GGggggGGGGRRR...rrrrrbbblllrrr...

The energy the amalgamation was charging disappears. It vocalises indecipherably, losing its remaining strength. Smaller shadows spill from its body and fly up into the storm; as does the abomination itself... and the last piece of land with it.

"Hah... hhah......"

...Kokoro collapses.

It takes her. She doesn't fly. She doesn't set sail. She doesn't land on a bed of sand. She lands on purple and black; a pool infinitely wide, and infinitely deep. It swamps the side of her head, leaving only one of her eyes to gaze upon the horizon.

A horizon swallowed in darkness.

"...Ka... non... Mi... sa... ki..."

She drowns, alone.

The darkness pulls her in, silencing the flowing tears, and her eyes shut. Kokoro sinks into the blackest night this world will ever know. Slowly, but surely... her heart... slows, and slows...

...

...until it stops.

Her heart has stopped beating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

...

...Light.

A small, sky-blue light. It shines from her silent chest. There's the sound of a heartbeat,

 

 

 

 

as Kokoro is hidden away.

Chapter Text

Night.

There's the sound of light.

 

---

 

clunk, clunk, clunk

Affirmative, rigid steps. In a quiet town, two armoured figures traipse across the street, passing the faint yellow glow of each lamppost and window. The smaller knight strides intensely, a family of lilies glimmering on her shoulder.

"Saki-Inari... Saki-Inari..."

She lifts her visor, gazing intensely at the wanted poster in her hands. It shows a most fearsome figure; the chalk sketch of a black-haired demon, her shark-teeth in full display through her big mean grin!

"Hey, Kaoru. Are you sure we'll find her here?"

"But of course, my dear."

The taller knight strides elegantly, a hedge of chrysanthemums coiling near her chest. She removes her helmet and sways her head, revealing a glorious ponytailed mane of deep lavender and two captivating, sharp red eyes. As she winks at her companion, there's a few murmurs from the nearby townswomen, who all shyly look away from her (except for one who stares at said companion and whispers 'god, I wish that were me').

"Would my intuition ever steer us wrong? Traverse Town is one of the only nearby worlds still un-invaded by the Heartless. 'Tis only inevitable that the monstrosity we seek to vanquish will eventually lurk in these shadows!"

"This place IS pretty dark, isn't it..." A lightbulb pops above the smaller knight; "Oh!!! And the Heartless look like they'd live in dark places! So this Keyblade wielder's gotta be making them here!"

"...! A most stunning observation, my dear... your perception is marvellous!"

"Aw, thanks. But you're the smart one! I'd just pick a world at random if I was leading the bounty hunt."

"Fufu. My inquisitive nature is another of my most devilish qualities." The taller knight winks at her admirers, causing them to faint. "In this quest, I must use all of my facets to their full extent... even if it causes the kittens of these worlds to fall into the depths of longing. No less will be sufficient to defeat one who can control the Heartless. Ah, such is my fleeting existence..."

"Not sure what faucets have to do with this, but that sounded cool!" The smaller knight pumps her fists together. "Alright Kaoru, let's search around the ENTIRE town! If we capture this person, the queens're gonna give us a big-big-big-big BIG reward; big enough for us to adopt a big, fluffy doggy!"

WHOOSH! A trail of dust is raged through the unsuspecting streets- "H-Hagumi, one moment!"

WHOOSH! A trail of dust is raged back through the shellshocked streets. "Yeah? What's up?"

"Our target... do we have any idea what she looks like?"

"Eh? It's on the wanted poster! She's got black hair, she's wearing a Sapphire Pendant, and she has a Keyblade, right?"

"Perhaps, but... is her hair truly black? It may be that the artist had no other colours available."

"...Hmmmmm. That's true..."

"And furthermore," she continues, "even if that weren't true, 'tis possible this devil can switch hair colours on a whim!"

"Just like queen Hikawa does! Wow, you're so smart! I would've never thought of that!" The smaller knight raises her mace. "Let's make sure we search this town for any Keyblade wielder, no matter what they look like!"

"Onward, my dear!"

And so one rushes, and the other dashes at a less rigorous and more civilly considerate speed, under the soft golden moon in the starry velvet sky. One can hear the soft tones of many a piano, playing from the pubs they pass, as they continue their quest down the brick path.

 

---

 

...

...

...

...ba-thump

ba-thump, ba-thump

The light protects her. Her heart starts to beat again.

"...Mmmrh..."

Gradually, her body casts off its overwhelming numbness, regaining its senses bit by bit. She feels a solid wall at her back, a pavement beneath her hands and legs. The soft whispers of the cool air run through her ears. A dusty wooden scent faintly makes its way through her nose.

And finally...

"..."

She opens her eyes.

"...huh?"

What welcomes her is a sight she's only seen in storybooks, until now.

Buildings. Bricks, gravel, cement; all a dusty moonlit maroon. They're what welcome her return to light. She blinks once, and again. Then she pinches her cheeks; nothing changes. This isn't a dream.

"Where... am I?"

She's awake, all on her own. The houses that make up a town or city are even bigger than she realised. And when they're packed this close together, leaving her slacked against this quiet, peaceful alleyway... it's like the neverending expanses of all the countless worlds out there fade away. Right now, it's just her, the walls, a wooden fence, and a few rickety boxes to her side.

...She's alive! "I'm alive!"

She jumps to her feet. She survived! ...Wait, what did she survive through, again?

"KOKORO!!!"

\

...Ah.

Now she remembers.

She remembers everything.

...

...

...Kokoro tightly wraps her arms around herself.

...

...

...

...

A brass ensemble plays a slow, comforting piece, somewhere in the town. She numbs her mind, empties it and focuses on the melody, letting nothing else come through.

"...Right."

The golden river flows.

Her heartbeat rests. She shakes her head; if she's alive, then that means her friends are alive too. It's not like she remembers much about what happened, anyway... it all happened too fast. So there's no need to count them out! They've gotta be out there somewhere. They have to be!

Her body still feels a bit tingly, so she does the same funny stretches Misaki and Kanon usually do before sparring, and makes sure she's all in shape.

"Perfect!"

Then, she double-cartwheels onto the nearby wooden box and hauls herself over it using both hands, front-flipping from the alleyway.

What awaits her is:

"...Whoaaaaaaaa☆."

The wonders of the night.

It's built resplendently, of wood and brick. Junctions, crossroads; she's in a small maze of streets and houses. The further she looks, the more she realises how many paths there are, running between building after building; and each building has its own front yard, all of them neatly arranged between rustly bushes and soft, emanating lampposts, the light in each just faint enough that you can see the scattered stars in the sky behind them. One hop takes her from a slanted slate pavement to the middle of the road, the cement arranging each brick in a way that patterns them into wave upon wave. When she looks to her left, she finds a large, domed complex with windows and balconies on all sides, titled marvellously at the neon front 'THREE MUSKETEERS THEATRE'; it sits on the edge of a block and leads out to a quaint, subtly decorated fountain, bonsai resting peacefully at the lapping waters. Enchanted, she then looks up, and up, gazing across the crystal-clear sky and its many glimmering friends, her vision passing the almost-full moon; and then she looks back down to her right, where a staircase leads to a town square below. Various inns and homes line themselves up in twisting, turning alleyways. One alleyway is painted in grey brick and deep blue rooftops; where it leads to, who knows? In that same square is a large pub, the sign at the front listing a set of performers whose mainline act is a band called 'CLOUDY LION'. And finally, when she looks back to the middle of the street she's in, and gazes to the flashing sign above her, it reads:

✶☆TRAVERSE TOWN

"It's wonderful☆!"

The shell-shock of misfortune fades away, her shimmering spirit reviving in full vivacity. Kokoro flips over to the middle of the junction and cheers to the nearby houses; "Your town is wonderful☆!"

A few passerbys gaze at her in confusion. Their outfits are pretty varied! Nothing quite like her own pants and hoodie, but it's obvious their clothes have different materials. Maybe all sorts of people visit this place. And when you couple that with the bands, the theatres, the big streets; there's gotta be so many ways to have fun here~!

"...But..."

Right. She wanted an adventure so 2 very specific people she knows could smile. And right now, they're not here. So...

"I need to find Kanon and Misaki!"

That's her first mission, above all else. If she's started without them, she needs to go right back and get them!

"...But they're probably not at Destiny Islands if I'm not. So where are they?"

Well, guess there's only one way to find out: Let's go exploring!

Curious about the grey brick alleyway, she immediately saunters off in that direction. She calls out to the town on the way; "Hi, everyone! Why don't you all come out and play? It's wonderful out here~!"

No response; only a few strange looks. That's funny... if she lived in a place like this, she wouldn't spend her time hiding indoors. She'd want to marathon down the streets all day! Maybe even start a parade. With the way the town's acting right now, she's not going to be able to ask many people about Misaki or Kanon. And when she talks to the few who ARE walking around outside, they either step away wordlessly or say they haven't seen either of the two. So there's not much information to go on. The only lengthy response she's gotten is someone saying this place is dangerous right now; and that doesn't matter to Kokoro. After all, why care about danger? That just makes you feel scared. Nobody likes feeling scared~.

So Kokoro ignores that and continues adventuring. Because adventures are fun! This is the first time in her life she's ever seen anything like... well, everything here!!! The lampposts, the walls, even the way the sky looks different or how the air feels different, it's all new, mysterious, exciting... she only knows what most of this stuff is called because she's spent so much of her time reading books. When it comes to describing stuff as 'neon' or defining stuff like 'cement', she's just making deductions based on how those books described places; she hasn't actually seen any of it before. So this entire town is a party wave of new sights to her, and it's the best, most prettiest thing ever!

When she reaches that mysterious grey alleyway, she saunters in and finds a large door, decorated with two of those stained-glass windows that she just loves the look of... let's see what's on the other side!

Ooooo, it's more of the lower level~! And there's a staircase to an even lower level of the town, too. Maybe it's built on a hillside? Now she wonders how fun it might be to-

bblbblbblbllll...

Kokoro freezes.

...

...She looks to her right.

It's those things, isn't it?

She recognizes them just by the sound. It's the sound of something voiceless; the sound of the shadows casted by the buildings, the absence of light, coagulating into something whose only purpose is to hurt people.

"..." Kokoro steps back, watching the creatures in question drop out from portals of miasma and splatter onto the ground. They get up and look at her with beady yellow eyes. They're the same creatures as the ones who threw her off Destiny Islands... no doubt about it. "Now I see. The townspeople're hiding because of you, aren't they?"

There's a herd of 5. They start to approach. Why do they have to be here, too? She doesn't want them here. She just wants to have fun right now...

...Breathe. It's okay, Kokoro.

...Right. There's no need to get swept up in sadness. She's always got reasons to smile.

"How about this, then; if you're the town's darkness, I'll be their light!"

She summons her Keyblade. The golden river keeps flowing. For some reason, she doesn't feel reluctant about the idea of fighting these things. They're just as scary as they were before... but something bright is shining in her now, and it's making her feel twice as brave!

bblbblbblr!

To start, she takes a few steps back, avoiding their attacks and thinking. She wants these things to dissipate, right? They'll probably sink back into the ground like normal shadows do, and that'll stop them from scaring everyone. So she's just gotta bonk 'em, like Misaki and Kanon do in training...

...Well, they definitely aren't human, so here's hoping they don't feel pain. "Whoosh!"

thbrck!

The struck shadow recoils. It recovers and slithers towards Kokoro again, but she made sure her attack was light enough to keep her guard up; so when it swipes its claws, she easily strafes. "Guess you'll need a bit more. How about... this!"

One,
thwuk
Two!
thwunk

Kokoro swings her Keyblade in a double arc, landing two clean hits, and the shadow bursts into wisps. "There we go~!"

Next shadow; One,

thwik

Two,

thwick

"Three!"

Thwack☆!

It's gone! 2 down. Next up- "O-ow...!"

She was exposed... a shadow clawed her before she could back off. It stings a bit, but she'll ignore it; let's step back and try this again. "One,"

thwik

"Two,"

thwick

and again! "Three!"

Thwack☆!

"1, 2... Hiyah!"

Thwack☆!

Good! 4 down. The 5th's lunging at her, but she's already recovered this time, so Kokoro leaps into the air and; "1, 2, woohoo~!"

Thwack☆!

The shadow bursts from the sting of a quick aerial combo. Wow, this is a good pattern! Let's remember that, Kokoro; 1, 2 and 3. "Whew... that's all of them, right?"

bblbblllrrr...

Oops, spoke too soon. Another's just fallen out of a portal. But it IS a fair few feet away, so what if she...

...Kokoro impulsively points the tip of her Keyblade forward. "Fire!"

The blade emits a pop of recoiling light, and a little ball of flame splats into the shadow, making it wobble.

"Fire!"

Oops, misaimed that a bit. "One more!" ...Uh. M-missed again. Okay, concentrate; you've got to keep the tip pointed at your target, until you've said... "Fire!"

bwoosh!

The shadow is smacked square in the chest. It dissipates. "That's..."

...all of them!

The district returns to peace. Kokoro wipes a bead of sweat and does a little victory hop, pointing her Keyblade triumphantly at the horizon.

It's at that moment she notices:

Her Keyblade's changed.

The surroundings fade. There were carved holes in the blade and shaft before, but they've been filled in. They're twinkling with gems now, blue like the sky and sea.

And... "...Morning Star."

Suddenly, she knows its name too. Instinctually, without having to think about it.

"...Just what are you, anyway~? I think she told me the details, but I forgot," Kokoro says. "Well, you've changed your look now, so I'll call you Morning Star Aquamarine!"

It just feels right somehow. One part of her smiles in joy when she sees it, and another part feels relieved. Her Keyblade reminds her of her lovely friends and her lovely home. It's all sparkly, and golden, just like them; it makes her feel nothing but good things~!

Anyway, that was actually pretty interesting. She wasn't expecting to enjoy fighting, but she went all ba-thump ba-thump when she swung her arms and legs around. Guess it's fun as long as people aren't hurt! ...Maybe she should get some more experience by fighting more shadows; that'll let her apply what Misaki and Kanon taught her. Besides, if those things are going to keep being mean and negative to everyone, then someone's gonna have to thwomp 'em back into the ground☆. Why not her?

"S-somebody HELP!"

Oooo, good timing!

She starts jogging to the other end of the bridge, following the cry and finding the poor bullying target; a townsperson with a really scared look on his face. He's just fallen onto his back, and he's staring at whatever's around the corner.

"No... PLEASE, STOP!"

Looks like he could use a hand. "I'll be right there!" Kokoro cheers.

Then, a spooky shadow jumps out from the corner, lunging at the townsperson,

SHKSHRSssshh!

and it-

...

...ba-thump

"AAAgghh!"

ba-thump
ba-thump

Her Keyblade drops to the ground.

ba-thump

There's a black hole in the townsperson.

ba-thump

It's large. Claw-shaped.

ba-thump

It's spilling out dark, cloudy smoke. Smoke that covers his body. He stops moving.

ba-thump

His chest beats, and beats, and beats.

ba-thump

ba-thump

ba-thump
ba-thump

He leans back. Something's... floating out...

ba-thump
ba-thump

...His heart.

BA-THUMP
BA-THUMP

Glowing, pulsing, golden; it moves, like it's being dragged away somewhere. And then it disappears.

...That shadow just attacked him. It... hurt him, and it...

...w-what did it do to him...?!

BA-THUMP
BA-THUMP

The townsperson's body becomes a ball of darkness.

BA-THUMP
BA-THUMP

Darkness...

...

...bbblllrrr...

...that turns itself into another shadow, just like the one who attacked it.

BA-THUMP
BA-THUMP

Both glare at her with beady yellow eyes.

And she realises what's happened.

She shakes. "I-it... y-you... you came from him. Th-then, does that mean... you're... human...?"

They're people. When she fought these 'shadows' earlier, she was actually fighting.......

...

"...No... no, don't... stop thinking about it... stop thinking about it..."

Fear,
Fear,

Dread,
Dread,

N-no, they don't exist. Not in her world. Th-there's no point in those things... nobody likes feeling scared-

Her heartbeat doubles. She's scared. She's already scared, and pathetic, and useless and detrimental all the time, but now it feels like everything's breaking around her, like she's sunk to a new low. She can't say a thing. She's all alone-

She's not scared. No, what is she talking about? She's always been scared, hasn't she? No, she's never been scared. She-

bbbbllllrrrrr...!

"H-huh...?!"

She jumps, hearing the sounds of countless portals opening around her; and before she knows it, she's surrounded by hordes of shadows. Each and every one, teeming from the park below to the bridge she's standing on; they're all... looking for people's hearts, so they can...

...n-no... "I-I can't..."

She can't fight these things!

Kokoro's Keyblade dematerializes. "R-run. I need to run!"

Get out. Get out of this place, find somewhere safe, just think of somewhere happy... find Misaki...!

She dashes around the corner, yelping in fright as a shadow nearly claws at her. They keep spawning and spawning around her, seeping out of portals plastered everywhere on the walls and buildings around her. She runs, and runs, but they keep appearing, everywhere... they're searching for something... s-searching for her... and once they find her, th-they'll...

...she's not running fast enough!

Kokoro wipes a tear and keeps going, trying to forget everything she saw. "S-stop chasing me!"

She's in a tunnel with a waterway now, hurling herself down the path. A horde of shadows appear; one's different from the rest, wearing a crooked helmet atop a distorted, humanoid body.

"Go away!"

But she can't forget. The memory won't escape her, no matter how horrible it is. All she can do is close her eyes, a-and... f-fill her head with as many thoughts of her friends as possible...

P-please, be brave, Kokoro!

Before she realises it, her Keyblade's in hand again. She grits her teeth, skidding to a halt in front of the horde and guarding with it; the second it takes an impact, she bears the force, barges forward and runs past. "Hahhh..... hah..."

Keep running! Please, keep-

She nearly stumbles as her Keyblade falls apart and disappears. Her vision starts to blur. "Somewhere... safe...! Somewhere... happy... I need... to find..."

...Light!

She hits the other side of the tunnel, in an even lower level of Traverse Town. The shadows are still coming, they're still appearing everywhere. She hauls herself over the fence-

"A-ack!"

BA-THUMP

Kokoro slips on one foot and tumbles, collapsing roughly to the ground. "O-ow..."

It hurts. Her heel's burning... and her chest keeps aching...

bllrrrrrr...

...She keeps hearing the portals as she gets up. They're still appearing around her, aren't they?

bllrrrrrrrrr...

She's stumbling, looking around. They're crawling out, from the tunnel to the left, the alley up back... some are even leaping down from the fence she just fell off. They're blocking every way out...

bbbbLLLRRR

"...!"

And there's one portal, bigger than the rest.

She gasps as the hugest shadow she's seen in this town coalesces. It's not just a ball of darkness, either; it's magnetised a set of armour onto itself, making a spinning, rotating, multi-segmented body that towers over her. Its arms and legs whirr, disjointed from the torso and aiming their claws menacingly at Kokoro. The Guard Armour's metallic chest is barren, devoid of any emblem, as if it were spiting the image of the knight it might resemble.

"No... no more..."

Kokoro curls into a ball, unable to stop thinking.

"No more..."

ba-thump... ba-thump...

The Guard Armour approaches her. Step, by step, by step.

She looks up. She barely even processes what it is. All she can think about are the memories she tried to ignore, the friends who disappeared in front of her eyes, and the shadows she's already torn apart.

ba-thump... ba-thump...

Shadows that were made from people.

ba-thump!

She doesn't care. She doesn't care anymore... so she keeps crying, and gazes emptily at the armour...

...as it raises one of its clawed hands...

...and

"STOP RIGHT THERE, TRASHCAN!"

 

WHA-BAM!!!

 

something shoulder-rockets from above, slamming it into the wall.

 

CRASH!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

...Kokoro blinks. "Huh?"

Her crying pauses. Rubble spills apart from the ginormous hole caved into the nearby building. The Guard Armour momentarily shudders, struggling from the aftermath of the impact. And whatever just dunked it like a gigantic basketball has now jumped out, emerging from the rubble with clanking metal boots.

It's...

...a girl her size, carrying a big spiked mace and an even bigger round shield. She removes her helmet, revealing her stubby cute orange hair, and stares at Kokoro with a fangy grin. "It's okay. We're here to help!"

"Are you hurt, my kitten?"

...Wait, there's two?

Immediately, a purple-haired adonis swoops in, holding her cutlass and shield with a daredevil flourish and a soul-calming smile. Kokoro stares in awe as the wind from the knight's miniature cape dries her tears. "My, for so many Heartless to target one sweet kitten... the bards have sung of devils less bigoted. Shall we even the playing field~?"

"Look after the cute girl, okay?" The orange knight yells. "I'll beat the Heartless up!"

"Take care, my dear Hagumi!"

SMASH!

Immediately, the knight called Hagumi swings her mace, denting and overpowering one of the Guard Armour's spinning limbs.

"My, her fleeting fire never dies."

...What's going on?

"Well, I shan't slack back here either. Thunder!"

kCrackll!

bllrrrrrr...

Her brain hasn't caught up yet. She's only just processed the hands resting softly on her shoulders, too distracted by the orange knight roughhousing with a monster 5 times her size.

"My little kitten. This garden of machinery is no haven."

She doesn't respond. Everything's too overwhelming...

...But a pair of relaxed red eyes look into her. And it's the most human expression she's seen all day. "I am here for you. You may see me as your unfaltering shield. Please, would you do me the honour of escorting you to a safer place?"

Her heartbeat's slowing down. She can speak. "...That shadow..."

"Yes, it is a most frightening foe. But-"

She can move. "That shadow." She can stand. "It's..." She can stop this. "I-I have to stop her from fighting it... that shadow's a person!" She steps forward-

-and feels the taller knight's hand on her shoulder again. "Please, wait a moment!"

"No! If they keep fighting, one of them'll die!"

"You are a most kind soul. You must have seen what the Heartless do to their victims firsthand, no?"

...Kokoro pauses. "Yeah. I saw someone turn into a shadow."

The knight gently lets her go and steps in front. "I understand. You must be wracked with fear. But please allow I, Kaoru Seta, to soothe that fear; for these beasts are not human."

Her frown instantly loosens.

She's looking into an honest face; not a completely natural one, but... she knows it's trustworthy. "Please believe me when I say this," Kaoru continues. "The heart... it is the true essence of any human. The body can always be remade from it. And the shadow which festers, from one whose heart has been lost, is something else entirely."

"...Then...?"

Kaoru nods. "That applies to the victim you saw too. Their heart may have been stolen, but it is still alive; and so are they. As long as a human's heart persists, they are alive. The Heartless that formed from their body was merely their lingering malice, the callous thoughts locked inside their mind. All we do by destroying it is prevent those thoughts from rampaging free."

They're... they're not human.

She isn't doing anything horrible by fighting them. Her heartbeats can rest.

The golden river can flow.

"Gwah!"

"...!" Kaoru turns. "Hagumi!"

The knight called Hagumi nearly keels over from one of the Guard Armour's attacks. She steps back, bashing a smaller Heartless in the face to give herself breathing room. "There's a lot of them. Can you give me a hand?"

"But of course!"

"Woohoo! Let's go, go, go!"

"Please stay back, my kitten. Rest assured that me and my beloved companion shall clear these fiends." Kaoru whirls around and rushes to battle. "Aero!"

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!

She's... safe, huh? They're watching over her. Then...

...Kokoro tunes out the noise. She lets in the thoughts that were haunting her.

"Fire!" bwoosh! "Blizzard!" krkrsh! "Water!" shhshrm! "That one was none too hardy. Ah, Hagumi, there's another rapscallion behind you!"

Her friends got taken away by something, back on Destiny Islands. And that's... sad. I-it makes her sad. But they're not dead. She knows that. She believes it, so it's true.

"Thanks, Kaoru!" BASH! "Oh, there's a few of the Heartless with funny hats too! Can you clear them out?"

"Of course. You need not be distracted from that metal-clad cyclops."

So there's no reason for her to be sad. There's no point in being sad. Her friends are out there somewhere... and she can find them.

"I have no idea what that means, but thanks!" Hagumi shouts. "Hey, trashcan! Take this; Fire!"

bwoosh!

"Fira!"

Bwoosh!

"...And another Fira!"

Bwoosh!

Kokoro's decided. She won't focus on how that day made her feel. However long ago it might've happened, it's already passed; so instead of letting its darkness drown her, she'll be positive about what's to come. The moment she reunites with her friends, she'll be happy beyond words.

So let's get to that moment as soon as we can!

"Aero!" Gales of wind pelter a small armoured Heartless, juggling it. That charming knight Kaoru runs towards it while it's still in the air, her rapier brandished; "Tell me, shadow, how fleeting is your hatred? Show me!"

slshslshSlash!

Whoa, it's down! "That appears to be all the minions. Shall we take down this blemish on our little kitten?"

"Whatever that means, yeah!"

Kokoro summons Morning Star Aquamarine. Seeing the knights surround their foe, she knows exactly what to do.

Rush forward!

She watches the Guard Armour suddenly step back, spinning its disjointed arms around its torso and causing the clouds to glow... "Uh-oh! Is that magic, Kaoru?"

...and, "Reflect☆!"

she lands, standing tall between her new allies.

ccrhshhshng!!

"...!"
"...!"

Light.

From the gleaming tip of her materialized bravery forms a translucent white barrier, deflecting the thunderbolts back into the sky. They re-aim themselves at the Guard Armour and pound it down, staggering it. "Ah! Th-that's a Keyblade! And she can fight!"

"So it is... could it be...?"

Kokoro turns to her left and right. "Come on, let's take this meanie down! All whoosh and swish, just like you were doing!"

For a moment, they blink in confusion. But Kaoru quickly changes expression. "Are you sure, my kitten? No doubt you've been tormented by these things. We are perfectly willing to finish this in your stead, should you need respite."

"It's fine. You cleared up a lot of things for me, Miss Purple Knight. This Heartless might be scary... but I don't wanna be scared. I wanna help my new friends instead!"

"F-friends?" Hagumi gleams. "We... can be friends now?"

"Of course. You saved my life☆!"

"Yay!! Nice to meet you, new friend!" Hagumi leaps forth. "One for friendship!!!"

BAM!

A big burning hole breaks the Heartless's left arm down.

"Very well, then. I will not blockade your wishes. Allow Hagumi to co-ordinate us, my kitten- ...no, our new lional ally," Kaoru winks. "Follow her lead!"

"You got it~!"

"Let's surround this thing's other parts!" Hagumi declares, raising her mace. "I dunno why, but I think we'll win if we destroy all of them. Go all BAM and wha-boosh to each of them!"

"Aye-aye☆!"
"With pleasure!"

As the Guard Armour whirrs back into action, they each split up to take on one of the 3 remaining limbs. Hagumi wails on the right leg with some really strong strikes and fireballs, and Kaoru keeps her distance from the constantly spinning right arm while firing all kinds of fun-looking magic at it. As for her...

...she's running straight towards the left leg, Aquamarine in hand! "Ka-bam!"

thwik, thwick, thwack☆!

"Wow, you're a tough shadow..."

She steps back. Her hits aren't making it stumble... so let's be patient...

...ah, it's raising itself!

The leg stomps down with a shockwave. She guards with her Keyblade, fighting the pushback. "No more heart-robbing for you!"

thwik, thwick, thwack☆!

thwik, thwick, thwack☆!

The leg raises itself again; but this time, she's realised there's an alternative to guarding. All she needs to do...

...is be brave!

thwik, thwick,

thwik, thwick,

thwik, thwick,Thwack☆!

She jumps and batters it with repeated aerial hits; just like she thought, none of the shockwaves can reach her up here! "Spin, spin, szwoosh!"

Thwack☆!

Nice~! Being brave paid off-

"Pardon me, my lionel!"

"Whoa!"

Kaoru whisks her out of harm's way, just as the right arm is about to bowl her over. "My apologies. That limb is relentless, so I've been wearing it down from afar."

"Thank you... t-that was pretty close..."

"You have quite the talent for that loving blade, I see."

She lights up. "Hehe, thanks! I just think of my friends, and it goes all swoosh~."

"I know a queen you would get along with swimmingly," Kaoru smiles. "Shall we prioritise this malicious ligament before felling that arm?"

"I dunno what you just said, but sure!"

Kaoru joins her as she steps back into the danger zone.

thwik, thwick,
slash-slash!
Thwack☆!
slslsls-slash!
Thwack☆!

They jump away from the incoming shockwave. "You're amazing, Kaoru! You go all swish, swish, swish~!"

"You flatter me with such compliments, my lionel. Ah, mind the arm!" They roll back from the sneak attack, spacing themselves. "Together now!"

"You got it~! 1, 2,"

They point their weapons forward, and:

"Fire!"
"Fire!"

bw-bwoosh!

The left leg breaks down.

"Take this! Fira!"

Bwoosh!

Oh, is all that shouting coming from the Hagumi person?

It is! Wow, the right leg isn't in good shape. "She's moving around really fast☆!"

Slam!

Hagumi intercepts the leg's stomp with her shield rush and sends it flying back. "No more hurting my new friend! Wrrgrah!!"

BASH!

The right leg breaks down.

"Guys, that arm's the last one~! Lemme block it for you!"

"Got it!"
"Take care, my dear!"

Thwonk!

Wow, she actually stopped the arm from spinning by slamming her shield into it! "Now dawns our turn," Kaoru yells. "Magic at the ready!"

Kokoro starts: "Fire!"
"Aero!"
"Fire!"
"Water!"

The arm falters, unable to overpower Hagumi's muscle during the magical barrage.

"Hi-yah!"
"We part ways now!"

thwk-swsh!

A dual attack, and it breaks. "The body's exposed!"

Hagumi immediately decks the Heartless in the chest. Kokoro and Kaoru follow with repeated strikes, stepping back when Hagumi picks up her mace,
SLAM!
and then returning for more!

"Ah, thunderbolts incoming!"

"Reflect☆!"

ccrhshhshng!!

"Wow! I stunned it, you guys~!"

"Superb!"
"Go, go, go!"

thwik, thwick,
Bash!
slsl
Thwack☆
SLAM!
slslSlash!
thwikslslslsSlashthwick, Thwack☆, SLAM!
"Fire!" bwoosh!slash,slash,Bam!
"And another fleeting Blizzard!"
krkrsh!
Slam!thwick,thwack,Thwack☆!

"Guys, it's falling apart! I can see the Heartless beneath the armour!"

"Then all together, now☆!"

"Begone, fiend!"

The three leap forth, raising their weapons...

...and striking true.

Thwack☆!
Slash!
Bam!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Heartless dissipates. The armour fades. She... she did it. She did it! She's alive... she's still alive...

Kokoro looks at the twinkling gems of her Keyblade. For a second, she honestly thought she was done for. That thing attacked her with claws that could've genuinely hurt her; it was honestly really, really scary. It was so scary, she doesn't even know how she managed to stand up. She doesn't know how she was brave enough to fight.

But she fought. And she met new people, too! She smiled with them, helped them, and got out ready to see another day.

She feels safe now.

"We did it~! We did it~! We- whoawhoawhoa!!"

"My dear Hagumi! It's not often you slip upon landing..."

"S-sorry, Kaoru! Thanks for catching me. I was just really happy we won."

"That makes the both of us; and of course, our wondrous ally, too."

"Oh, right!"

Kokoro takes a deep breath and dematerializes her Keyblade, turning around. Two wonderful, smiling faces are beaming at her. "Yeah. I'm happy we cleared those shadows out. Thanks for helping me, you guys; you're really nice!"

"You need not mention it. When a kitten is troubled, no knight would turn away."

"What she said!" Hagumi puts her helmet back on. "The Heartless are mean. If you're not careful, they'll take everything from you. That's why I fight them with all I've got. Oh, oh, speaking of! You weren't half-bad yourself! I was worried about you, but you learned how to fight pretty quick with that Keybla-"

Pause.

"...wait a second. Keyblade..."

"I was truly impressed by you," Kaoru waxes. "You travelled from fear to courage so fast... I fear you almost strained yourself. Are you injured?"

"...Keyblade..."

"A little!" Kokoro responds. "But it doesn't hurt, so don't worry."

"That's a Keyblade... and we fought a big Heartless..."

"Alas, it is in my sinful nature. Allow me to abate your wounds." Kaoru waves her cutlass. "Cure!"

Something inside Kokoro immediately relieves. Her limbs unstiffen, her cuts fade, and her leg doesn't ache anymore; it's like her pain was washed away. "Whoa☆, you know how to use Cure... that's amazing!"

"...Heartless plus Keyblade... equals?"

"Fufu. I could help you learn it too, if you so desired. The Keyblade easily facilitates most kinds of Ma-"

"I GET IT NOW!"

...The two of them turn to the orange knight.

"Keyblade! Kaoru, she has a Keyblade!!!"

"Why, Hagumi, she does indeed. Is something amiss?"

"Our mission! Our target! It's her!"

A gasp. "Wait. Y-you mean..."

Oh? What's going on? Their faces're kinda funny. And Hagumi's suddenly pointing her mace at her, declaring:

"Saki-Inari! You're coming with us!"

In ferocious determination.

...

...

...That sounded cool☆! "Okay!"

 

---

 

clank, clank, clank

Kokoro merrily walks with her two new friends. The orange one's called Hagumi; she's glancing at Kokoro every now and then, like she'll forget she exists if she looks away for too long. Maybe she's being protective? Oh, and the funny purple one, Kaoru; she's still smiling and looking all ka-swish☆ like before, but she's... also started sweating a bit since Hagumi mentioned 'Saki-Inari'. She doesn't wanna look at Kokoro directly for some reason! That's a shame; Kokoro definitely likes looking at her face, after all. Her eyes're so sharp and comfy!

"Right this way, meaniepants. Make sure you get in the Gummi Ship, or else!"

Ooooooo~! "Gummi Ship? What's that? Is it something you ride? Where does it go?"

"It's a very powerful vehicle that goes ZOOM across different worlds," Hagumi growls. "And we're gonna take you straight to Shirasagi Kingdom with it, so you can answer for your crimes!"

Across different worlds?! "That sounds amazing☆!" She turns to Kaoru; "Can we explore all over the universe with it? I need to find my friends Misaki and Kanon. They disappeared somewhere!"

"Ah... ahaha. W-well, my kitten-"

"Nope!" Hagumi stops the both of them, standing firmly in the middle of the lamppost-lit plaza. "You're coming straight with us! You won't cause your mayhem and destruction anywhere else!"

Kokoro tilts her head. Destruction? Now that's not as nice a word as mayhem... "What do you mean?"

"The Heartless!"

Hagumi holds up a poster. It says 'WANTED' in big letters. Someone drew a really fuzzy tumbleweed on it.

The poster gets waved in her face. "They're everywhere! You've been invading other worlds with them!"

"...? Me?"

"Yes, you!"

"But I didn't even know what the Heartless were until today."

"W-what?!" Kaoru gasps. "Then... was she controlling them unintentionally?"

"H-has to be!"

"Why would they attack me if I was controlling them?" Kokoro asks. "You guys're funny. I think you've got the wrong person; controlling things that make people sad is a big no-no in my book!"

"But you have a Keyblade! And look at the poster!" Hagumi presses it into her face. "Look! It says the person who's summoning all the Heartless has a Keyblade too!"

"That's a person on the poster?" She blinks a couple times. "Well, my hair isn't that colour. And that looks more like cactus than a Keyblade to me."

"...Oh, dang. Is it a cactus...?"

"B-but!" Kaoru stammers, "What if she dyed her hair yellow as a dastardly disguise?"

"Dyeing? I've never been able to do that," Kokoro responds. "It looks fun though☆!"

"That, uh! D-doesn't matter! This is only 'testimony', not 'evidence'; and queen Shirasagi says I need 'evidence' in order to prove someone's guilt- I-I mean, innocence!" Hagumi says. "...Was it innocence? ...............Uh........... oh no, I can't remember............. a-anyway, point is, you have no proof you're not Saki-Inari!"

"Actually, I do~."

"...Eh?!"
"Really?!" Kaoru exclaims.

"Yeah. My name's Kokoro!"

...

...

...

"...Oh, dang. Your name's different. That IS evidence!" Hagumi sighs. "I'm really sorry. You had a Keyblade and everything, so I thought it was you."

"It's okay~! We're still friends, right?"

"Yeah! ...If that's okay?"

"Of course it is~!"

There we go! Hagumi looks so wonderful when she's smiling.

"Thank the bards," Kaoru sings, her beads of sweat gone. "O-of course, I had an inkling our assumptions were off, my lionel. What kind of queen would be attacked by her own servants?"

"Whoa, you're right! That's our Kaoru. I bet you knew she was innocent all along!"

"Ah-ahaha... o-of course..."

It's a good thing they cleared that up. She didn't want to argue with her lovely new friends. "But can I come with you guys anyway? I think I'm gonna need to explore lots of worlds."

"'Course you can!" Hagumi says. "Adventuring's always more fun when you're with friends!"

Yeah.

It is.

"If I may cast an unfortunate intervention..."

The two of them turn to Kaoru.

"My lionel Kokoro. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. But know that we are currently on a journey fraught with peril. I, Kaoru Seta, and my lifelong partner, Hagumi Kitazawa... we are on a mission to capture a horrid villain in the name of our most glorious and fair queens. If you have other goals, then you should not throw yourself into danger by travelling with us."

"Danger? Who cares about that?" Kokoro smiles. "Being able to hop between worlds would let me explore everywhere I can. I'll be bound to find Misaki and Kanon that way, right?"

"It would. But-"

"I mean, hey," Hagumi cuts in. "We can always drop her off at Shirasagi Kingdom if she wants to explore. It's the safest place there is during this crisis. Maybe she can even ask queen Shirasagi about her friends!"

A queen... she's never met one of those before! That sounds wonderful!

"As forward as a comet, my dear. I would gladly agree with that plan of action," Kaoru declares, before holding her hand out to Kokoro. "Would you like to visit our most magnificent home?"

Kokoro takes it. "Yeah, that sounds wonderful☆! Let's go!"

"Then follow us posthaste!"

"Race you, Kokoron!"

Traverse Town lives in an eternal, sparkling night. The time where most people sleep.

That's why it's renowned as a breath of fresh air to everyone. It's the gateway to exploring dimensions, the starting line for any adventurer; the first place that makes one truly feel like they're coming across something new. And watching Hagumi storm through the streets with ease, watching Kaoru remember the names of 50 different girls here... it's so new and overwhelming to the little prince known as Kokoro Tsurumaki, that for a moment she forgets her undesirable woes, and absorbs all the experiences her homeworld could've never given her.

"Ta-da! Here's our ship!"

Hagumi throws open a set of giant wooden doors, tucked away in the corner of the town. On the other side is a funky bunk of multi-coloured metal, lying in the middle of a closed-off square. It looks just like the ones she sees in her Star Woofs books; it's got sleek wings, and a wide swooshy visor, and everything! But it also looks just like Hagumi and Kaoru~; there's a little rose on the door at the front, some of the pieces are a chunky orange hue, and there's lots of dents and marks around it that make it look really interesting! Wonder where it got those from...

"Behold!" Kaoru sings. "A most marvellous vehicle, is it not?"

"It looks amazing☆! So it can take you between dimensions?"

"Indeed. 'Tis a companion I am attuned with in my very stomach and spirit... I would dare say it has a soul of its own!"

"Nice to meet you, Gummi Ship's soul!" Kokoro waves. "Oooh, can we go inside~?"

Hagumi opens the hatch. "Step right up!"

"Woohoo!"

Kokoro follows, getting a good look at the chunky, homely-feeling interior...... but Kaoru trails behind for a second. "Hey, Kaoru. Why don't you come on in? There's so many blips, and beeps, and boops n' buttons in here!"

"A-ahaha. I just... require a moment. T-to steel myself, for the journey ahead!"

"You're gonna turn into metal? That sounds interesting." She waltzes in, walloping herself onto a cushioned chair at the front; and oooooo~, it automatically puts a seatbelt around her! "Hey, Hagumi, what's the queen of Shirasagi Kingdom like? Is she nice?"

"Queens! Two of them! And they're two of my best friends in the whole wide world," Hagumi boasts. "They've done so much for us. Did you know they're gonna get married in a few years?"

"That sounds wonderful~! I'd love to meet them!"

"Then what're we waiting for?" She points to the interface. "You gotta press the button in the middle there to lift-off. Try it!"

"Okay!"

The hatch closes behind them. "My kittens, I am now prepared. Allow me to take my seat-"

BEEP

"WAAURGGH!"

The ship rumbles so loudly under Kokoro that its sheer force levitates her from her seat. "Whooo-ooaa-aaaa-aaa☆!"

"Look outside the window! We're going higher!"

"H-heavens help me... ah, existence is so fleeting..."

Kokoro leans forward and sees Traverse Town get smaller and smaller beneath her, the perspective swerving left and right from the ship's constant wobbling. "We really are flying! The Gummi Ship is amazing!"

"Hey, Kokoro, try pressing the button there! Then turn the wheel and go GA-BOOSH!"

"W-wait, my kittens, I must still acquire my-"

KA-WHOOSH!

"M-MAYDAY!"

"WHOAAAA! The stars're racing around the ship!"

"Yeah, yeah! Isn't it great?!"

"My seatbelt... I-I must..."

"Oh! Right!" Hagumi undoes her seatbelt during one of the ship's u-turns and hauls herself towards the other knight. "Here's your seat again, Kaoru. Just sit back and let us handle it."

"A-ah... Hagumi, you are always an angel, descended from the heavens..."

"You okay, Kaoru? Your face is all blue☆," Kokoro says. "Does getting on the ship make you feel sleepy?"

Kaoru closes her eyes. "...Truly..."

"That's really strange~."

"It's her motion sickness. Kaoru can't handle vehicles, so I handle 'em for her," Hagumi says. "Lemme take piloting from here, Kokoro. I'll let you have another run once we're mid-dimension crossing!"

"Aye aye, captain☆!"

Hagumi grins, straps in and slams a few buttons with her hands. "All systems set! Let's fly!"

The wobbly Gummi Ship manages to stabilise, and rushes through the sky above Traverse Town, heading for the stars. One day, she'll bring Misaki and Kanon on this ride too... but for now, she'll smile at how lovely it is to be adventuring with her new friends!

To the kingdom! "Kokoro, look ahead! That's our gateway!"

A huge space-distortion opens up in the sky. "Oooooooh~~~! What's that?!"

"Dimensional hole! Get ready!"

The ship gets surrounded in these shiny rings, and...

SWOOSH!!!!!

IT'S SO FAST! "Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo☆!"
"Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo☆!"
"...How truly fleeting..."

Chapter Text

The incandescent Sun shines a soft yellow upon splendour and safety.

Two of the trio see everything as they descend (the third staying adamantly in her seat). Plateaus stack upon themselves within a valley, surrounded by an enveloping forest; upon each is a segment of the kingdom, all so multi-layered that one from a smaller world could see any individual plateau as an olympian city in of itself. Ramparts of rugged yet furnished stone run through the entire kingdom, creating gateways, bridges, watchtowers, and a variant outer fence whose vigilance is emblemised in how visible the guards are, even from all the way up here. And yet; the multitude of flags near the embassy, the wide-open squares, the way each dot in the distance feels like it has its own motion to Kokoro, its own life... it's like the entire city is an opened book, its citizens and visitors moving in and out of those walls and ramparts as freely as they please. One looks down and thinks 'the Heartless wouldn't last a minute in here', but all the reasons for that seem like jelly to a human, don't they? At least, that's how she feels, watching it all! Hagumi affirms her observations (she's surprised Kokoro can see the people so clearly from this distance), and rambles even further; she points Kokoro to the ginormous, beautiful plazas aligned perfectly across each plateau, making a massive central staircase that entire businesses live in, leading all the way up to the multi-towered castle, as watchful over the kingdom as it is inviting. The way Hagumi makes it sound, an audience with the queens is surprisingly easy to arrange; and even if you couldn't visit them, it's easy enough to picture a charismatic, mantled figure, standing before the glittering fountain on the side of the 2nd-to-top plaza, holding an audience right then and there.

And the center of that plaza; it's by far the most interesting part of this kingdom to Kokoro. Because the way those lines of black metal run through its pavestones, patterned with musical staves of violet... it makes her feel like there's something amazing they're hiding. Hagumi affirms that too, calling them a 'really cool secret', and a dizzy Kaoru preaches to the choir, bantering with her companion and singing of 'how fortunate this world was to be blessed twice'. Instead of responding, though, all Kokoro can do while they talk is stare at this world with a big smile on her face, and think:

☆_☆_ _ _SHIRASAGI KINGDOM_ _ _☆_☆ ☾

This must be a wonderful place to live.

 

---

 

"...Ah."

When she sees that clunky ship flop onto the cliff in the distance, she sighs.

"Guess they're here, huh?"

 

---

 

"Land ahoy!"

Kokoro cartwheels out of the ship's hatch, gazing in awe at the morning sun. It's beautiful... she can see the dawn dip from every leaf on every tree, even from all the way up here. It's such an amazing sight that she doesn't regret leaving Destiny Islands at all anymore. One day, she'll show Misaki and Kanon this place too!

Hagumi follows with Kaoru in tow, the former briefly giving the latter a few seconds to wipe the sweat off her face. "Down there's where we're headed. See the big castle in the middle with all those candelabra towers? That's our finish line!"

"It looks amazing! Do the queens live there?"

"Yeah, yeah! So do a lot of our friends, like Eve and Maya. It's our big family home!"

"And of course, the room of our highnesses is the most glorious of them all. They share a luxurious double-bed, and possess the finest cotton hound I have ever laid eyes upon... it is a plushie I consider myself blessed to have met."

A big room with a double-bed AND a dog plushie? She's only seen one of those things in picture books before! "How big?!"

"Enormous!"
"It's so comfy, too!!"

"Well, what're we waiting for? Let's go to the castle☆!"

They start by walking down the path, but she wants something faster. She wants to see this town up close as soon as possible. So she asks Hagumi and Kaoru for their fastest travelling method:

It's rolling down the mountainside!

Kaoru passes out for a few seconds when she hits her head on a rock.

But it works, it really does! They're back on their feet in no time, and all they get is a bit of mud and dirt all over their clothes. She should do this more often; her friends are really impressed she doesn't need a helmet, so she probably has a talent for it. Although... why would you need a helmet? Lots to think about...

"Over there! See the stone path?"

"Whooooaaaaaa☆!"

They clear the forest and arrive at the very base of the entire kingdom; a stone street strewn with pubs and smithies, humbly yet welcomingly cobbled. There's a huge set of gates behind it; and hey, they're wide open! The guards just let them in with a smile, no questions asked. She can't help but 'ooooo' and 'aaaaa' when she gets inside; there's lots of little houses and markets out in the open around here, and even bigger buildings up ahead, all on what's basically the largest staircase she's ever seen. Way wider, way rockier, way taller and DEFINITELY way longer than the little wooden stairs on Destiny Islands. "It's just a straight road from here," Hagumi says. "You walk up, and up, and up, and eventually you're right in front of Shirasagi Castle!"

"Wow, that's convenient. How long does it take?"

"Usually it would require 4 hours. But my incredible dear Hagumi can scale it in 2!"

"Whoa! That's amazing, Hagumi☆!" She sings. "What's the view from the top like? Oh, do you live in the castle? How often do you go up these stairs? Oh, oh, and does the wind go swoosh in your face or swishslam?"

"That's a lot of questions! Ummmm..." Hagumi thinks for a moment. "Oh, I don't live in the castle. But I do live nearby! Sorta..."

That face... she's pausing in the same kind of way Misaki does.

"...I, um. I don't have my own house. And none of my family lives here anymore, so... yeah. Kaoru's let me stay at her place for 10 years."

"Hagumi, my dear. It is as much your place as it is mine now." Kaoru takes her hands. "Please never think you are an outsider to it."

"...!" Hagumi goes red and immediately jitters on the spot at lightspeed. "I have a HUGE amount of energy all of a sudden! Race you guys to the castle!"

"Ah, Hagumi, wait-"

WHOOSH!

"...How effervescently fleeting... once again, I am but dust in the wind."

"She's so fast~! Go, go, Hagumi!" Kokoro cheers. "Hey, Kaoru, let's start climbing! Seeing her makes me want to go all-out."

"Ah, hold just one moment, my lionel."

Wow. That's the least shoutiest way Kokoro's ever heard 'stop'. "Why though? I wanna race Hagumi!"

"And indeed you shall. But you see, I have refined my racing art to stoke her fiery soul. So, what if I told you..." Kaoru puts a finger to her lips and winks, "that I could offer you a most devilish shortcut?"

...Ooooooh☆!?!

"Fufu. That intrigue in your eyes!"

"Let's see it!" She cheers, up and down. "Is it really faster? Hagumi's running in a straight line, after all."

"Why not follow me and find out?"

Kaoru gestures towards a side-street; Kokoro eagerly follows her along, admiring the fresh breeze and lovely peach sky along the way. She also hears a LOT of hushed whispers, and a few high-pitched shrills of 'Court Mage Kaoru~!' or 'OHMYGOSH IT'S LORD SETA!' along the way, which makes the background noise entertaining enough for her to jump reflexively in shock every now and then. Who knew people in other worlds could be so good at yelling? Even a spooked Misaki can't go that high!

Eventually, the two of them arrive at an underground passageway, which leads beneath the 1st Plateau of the Kingdom. There's a river running into it by their side, and a girl about their age
(slightly older, maybe? 21, or 22...) is standing next to it. She squeals in glee when she sees Kaoru's red eyes; "Y-you're back!"

"Fufufu... it is wonderful to see you again, Ms DiZney. I missed the faces of my lovely kittens while I was away," Kaoru says, giving her admirer a heart-throb smile. "Tell me, how fares the yearly snowman project? Are Anna-sem, Naminelsa and Olaf XIII excited for the winter?"

"Oh, we are, alright! We'll build the best one yet!" DiZney responds. "But don't think too much about me. You're racing cute lil' Hagumi again, right? The passageway's all yours!"

"My humble thanks," Kaoru bows. "And of course, here is my usual gift for Lightning. Send her my regards... and tell her that I hope her rendezvous with Fang goes well."

"You remembered that?! Oh, she'll definitely appreciate it! See you another time, Lord Seta!"

"Farewell!"

Kokoro stares at her friend as they step into the sewers. "Do you remember everyone's names, Kaoru?"

"But of course. I wouldn't forget a fair maiden in any a world."

"That's incredible! If I tried to remember that many, my brain wouldn't have space for anything else."

"Hahaha! Neither would mine, my lionel. Neither would mine."

Their footsteps echo alongside the trailing water running through brick-surrounded streams, treading across worn stone in a dimly-lit maze. It doesn't look like a shortcut compared to Hagumi's path, but it sure does FEEL like one... that's kinda fun~!

"Up here, my friend. Would you like to test your fleeting parkour?"

Kaoru leaps up, grabs a pipe on the ceiling, spins around it and lands on a higher platform. "Whoaaa☆!" Kokoro says, "lemme try!"

Hop! She follows, and leaps from one pipe straight to the next, bar-climbing across; there's an entire cavalcade of them on the ceiling! "Once upon a time, these sewers were rather fragile," Kaoru explains, "but her highness Shirasagi had the construction strengthened, after some... repeat antics, from her highness Hikawa, shall we say."

Kokoro sits atop a pipe. "Does this Hikawa person like swinging on stuff too? I wanna do that together!"

"Well, knowing her mischievous ways? We might even run into her here-"

A Heartless appears.

"-...or we could meet something most unpleasant."

"Not more of them..."

Kokoro momentarily places her hand over her heart as she hears those sounds, letting herself breathe. Shadows fall out of portals in several corners of the underground labyrinth, staring at the pair from the raised pathways. A few of them float above the rivers, wearing funny little glowing hats.

They look cute in some ways... almost like Jellyfish. So don't be scared...

That thought of hers lets Morning Star materialize again. "Are there Heartless in this world, too?"

"They used to be rare. But as of the past month, they've been skulking beneath the Kingdom." Kaoru draws her cutlass. "Let us vanquish them so our kittens may rest peacefully."

"Yeah. I'll help you protect this world's smiles!"

Kokoro leaps down and engages the lone shadow on the nearby platform;

thwik,thwick,thwick,
thwack☆!

It falls apart. "A wonderful flurry! Aero!" Kaoru has her back, firing hefty projectiles at one hatted Heartless after another. "Dare I say it was inspired by my own?"

"It was! I love your triple-swishes!"

The two duck out of the way from a rusty-plated Heartless; then Kokoro leaps forth,

thwick, thwikthwik,

lands,

thwikthwik, thwick, thwack☆!

and sends it home again. "Fire!"

bwoosh!

She takes out the hatted Heartless aiming a spell at her. As for the others hanging above-

"Water! Blizzard!"

-a miniature torrent spawns on one, and a trailing spew of ice travels through the other. "You know so much Magic, Kaoru~!"

"Fufu." Her friend drops to her side. "Would you like to sample my range of skills for yourself?"

"Can I do that☆?!"

"But of course. Allow me to show you the essence of a court mage~; Thunder!"

Kaoru winks, casting the spell in question from her cutlass; it beam outwards in a crackling ascent, and stores itself into a transparent miniature pouch.

...Wait, it stored itself?

Kokoro takes the compressed Thunder, staring at its snowglobe-esque contents. "Try it on the Heartless behind you, my lionel. Simply get in range and give the pouch a light squeeze."

Wow... that's something not even Misaki can do...

Enchanted, Kokoro backflips from one platform to the next, and;

squish!

kCrackll!

A lightning bolt spawns right atop the Heartless, bursting it into wisps. "Whooaaaaahhh☆!"

"And how about this!" Kaoru points her cutlass at a large, bulky foe. "Your gravestone will come from another direction!"

slashslashslash
bwoosh!

In perfect sequence following her strikes, a Fire pouch that Kokoro didn't even notice detonates beneath the Heartless and hits it from below, dissolving its heaving figure. "My lionel," Kaoru says, "there's another behind you."

"Whoa!"

Thwomp! Kokoro steps out of the way before the Heartless's ground slam can hit it, backing off to the edge of the raised pathway. Kaoru swiftly joins her. "I happen to have a couple more gifts saved," she says, holding two wind-swirled pouches. "Shall we grant a marvellous end to this shadowy encounter?"

Kokoro eagerly takes one and nods. "We're thinking the same thing!"

"Then en garde!" A cutlass is boldly pointed at the Heartless as it approaches. "Aero!"

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!

The Heartless is juggled into the air. Kokoro chucks her pouch; "And another!"

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!

"And another!" Kaoru throws hers. "Kokoro, the finisher is yours~!"

"Got it☆!"

Kokoro leaps into the air alongside the thrown pouch, Aquamarine's gems gleaming, and;

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!
thwik,thwik,thwik,thwik

"This is it!"

Thwack☆!

The Heartless is bowled over and vanquished. Kokoro polevaults on her Keyblade and lands with aplomb.

"Splendidly done!"

K-Kaoru's.. applauding her. She didn't do anything THAT great, did she~? Ehehe... "That's all of them, right?"

"Indeed. Now our kittens need not fear the dark so much-"

clunk

"...!"

Oh, Kaoru just gasped. Why? And what's she looking at?

...The ceiling?

Kokoro follows her gaze, catching the briefest glimpse of a cloaked figure, disappearing through the network of pipes above. "That individual..."

"You're making a scrunchy face. Did you recognise 'em?"

"I did not. Their cloak shrouded their identity. And yet..." Kaoru places a hand over her chest. "My heart began to pound when I laid eyes upon them. I cannot decipher why."

"Maybe they just looked pretty?"

"My. Could there be another in this Kingdom with my debonair aura? A worthy rival!"

Not much use thinking about it, is there? She barely even saw the person at all compared to Kaoru. "Well, we cleared out the Heartless, so that's happy enough news for me," she says. "Oh, oh, what was that pouch thing you did, though? It was really cool! Can I do that too☆?"

"Fufufu. I would not know. It is the emanation of my heart... and it may very well be just mine."

She didn't understand a single word of that. "Whaddya mean?"

"Ah, I see. You are still new to combat; I imagine you lay hardly a finger on anything non-Heartless, correct?"

Kokoro nods.

"Allow me to explain then," her friend continues, "the heart is the core of any human being. And much like how we learn as individuals when we dedicate ourselves to a craft... our heart brings out facets of ourselves when we pursue arts such as Magic and the sword."

"...Meaning?"

"A-ah. Hm," Kaoru sweats. "How did the ebon wielder explain it... ah! T-think of them like... Abilities in a videogame, my lionel!"

"Oh, I've played one of those before! Is it like shapes in Tetris being all different?"

"Pr... precisely!" A flourish. "And you, my dear, have even more of your heart's power to unlock; for you wield the Keyblade, a weapon that fashions itself from the very heart of its owner."

Her heart... so that's what Morning Star is?

"Unlike me, you lack the Magic-storing pouches that my Prince's Kindness grants. But you could very well have a vast pool of Abilities unlockable to you too; even Abilities unique to you and you alone."

"Really? None of the stuff I have sticks out to me that much."

"Fufufu. Worry not, my lionel. All potential must be granted time to bloom. And besides... I have already noticed some wondrous aspects of yours. Such early acquisition to Reflect, and the ability to cast it while moving; I do not even see my Queens possessing that."

"Whoa, Kaoru. That's super observant. You're really sweet, aren't you?"

Kaoru blinks. "A-am I?"

"Yeah~! You're nice and warm!"

"...Thank you, Kokoro. Such a compliment makes my soul soar-"

rrrrumble

A small tremor echoes through the ground. They look at each other. "Did... something happen?"

"I know not. But I fear we have kept my dear Hagumi waiting long enough."

"Oh, right, the race! Let's go!"

The two of them haul themselves (and each other) up the platforms, through the tunnels and around the pipes, until they near an exit on a much higher footing than their starting point. "See that light? That leads directly to Lucifer's Plaza, the centerpiece of the 4th Plateau; and arguably this kingdom!"

Finally, fresh air!

But the town doesn't look as calm as it did earlier. Where'd everyone go? It's all quiet and stormy; a few clouds're gathering as they run right into the empty plaza-

Oh! It's the same place Kokoro saw from overhead! There's all these huge violet and black lines, decorating the center.... it looks beautiful...

"Hhhragh!! Hiyah!!"

BAM!

Hey, it's Hagumi! "There's Heartless on the surface too?" Kaoru murmurs.

"Kokoron! Kaoru! Over here!"

The pair head in her direction; and Hagumi gives them such a wonderful smile and cheery wave that Kokoro can't help but run at full sprint. "Hagumiiiii! We missed you!"

"I did too! Sorry about the race; a lot of Heartless showed up, so I got my mace and"

 

...But Kokoro doesn't hear her anymore.

 

Because she sees it.

Another Heartless. Leaping from behind.

Its sword, about to land on Hagumi's back.

 

No.

No...

...NO! I'm not letting that happen! "BLIZZARA!"

The word flies out. The gems on Morning Star gleam. She rushes forward in slow-motion, points the Keyblade out, and fires a spiralling spear of frost-stormed ice without even realising it. It's only when she sees Hagumi's expression begin to change that she even processes the icicle digging through the Heartless;

kr-shrkl-shrkl-shkrl!

dissipating it without any further attacks required.

"Whoa..."

...Whoa. She feels hazy.

"...That was so COOL, Kokoron~!"

"My gratitude, Kokoro."

"Seriously, thanks a bunch!" Hagumi hops over. "If that attack hit me, I probably would've needed a good Cure or two from Kaoru."

She shakes her head, quickly snapping out of whatever that was. "No problem☆! It's funny though; I didn't even realise I casted that. By the time I blinked, the Heartless was gone."

"It was rather shocking," Kaoru comments. "I have only seen you use Fire and Reflect. For you to learn and cast the 2nd Tier of Blizzard so quickly... there must be incredible magical potential in your heart."

So there ARE multiple tiers of Magic☆!

"Yeah, yeah!" Hagumi says. "I mean, I know Fira, but that's just because I have, uh... Kaoru, what'd you call that thing?"

"Your wondrous Ability? I dubbed it none other than..." Kaoru flourishes. "...Really Good at Fire. Ah, so belovedly straightforward and enchantingly ever-burning, just like you."

"Yeah, yeah, that! Kaoru comes up with the names for our-"

bbblllbrrrr
bbbllbbrrr
bblblbbrr...!

The three of them gasp. "There's still more...?"

bllbblrrr
                                  bblblrrrr
bblrrrrrr

"...I'm afraid 'more' might be quite the understatement, my dear," Kaoru sweats. "What on earth is this?"

They're everywhere.

Heartless crawl upon the rooftops, onto the vending stalls, all over the pavement. Some hover above the buildings, some walk in groups, others alone... there's kinds Kokoro hasn't even seen yet, each with their own appearance, their shadows taking an almost fleshy texture. They advance upon the closer end of the plaza, approaching the trio, some of them pincering in from the sides.

The clouds darken. Kokoro feels half of her body go into panic.

But she's with her friends. So there's no point in being scared! "Don't worry, you guys. We just need to stick together!"

Morning Star's golden form gleams. "...Right," Hagumi shakes her head, raising her mace. "I'm a knight. I can't falter at this!"

"Hagumi, let me share your fear, so we may abate it both." Kaoru draws her cutlass. "En garde!"

"Get the jump on them!"

slash-slash!
Thwonk!

Wow, they took that one out qui-

"Kokoro! Behind you!"

"Huh-?"

slam!

The pain hits her before she knows it.

"Ack..."

She tumbles across the ground. Th-that Heartless... it just sent her flying. There's bruises on her arm, and her limbs really ache... it stings...

"Cure!"

I-it's okay. Kaoru's just helped her up. Her friends are here for her. She shouldn't be frowning... she shouldn't be making them concerned...

...she can't be a detriment for the umpteenth time! Not in a situation like this-

Kokoro shakes her head. No bad thoughts; let's stay positive! Ignoring the aching, she gets up and back into it, firing Fire after Fire at the big Heartless before finishing it with her Keyblade.

Thwack☆!

...But...

slslsl-slash! "Excellent work, my dea-"

"Ah, Kaoru, watch out!!"

Cl-Clang!

Hagumi's shield roughly intercepts the blades of two different Heartless. "M-my apologies. Water!"

shhshrm! "Lemme help!" Kokoro yells.

thw-thw-thwack!
Smash!

Kokoro finishes one while Hagumi ends the other. She takes a step back, and;

...There's... "so many..."

It's a stampede. They've barely even faced the vanguard.

"Kokoron. We need to back off!" Hagumi says. "I don't wanna see you lose your heart. I'm not losing anyone ever again!"

"But the townspeople...!"

"Worry not, my lionel. They are unharmed. This Kingdom has a weapon that keeps us all safe; all we need do is venture to the center of this plaza and activa-"

W-why'd she stop?

"My lionel! At your side!"

Oh!

Thwack☆!

As 3 large, speedy shadows encroach, the trio're forced to split; Kokoro handles the one attacking from behind, instinctively giving it a hefty bash~! All thanks to Kaoru's-

 

...Oh.

That wasn't what Kaoru was warning her about.

Time slows. She processed it too late; there's another armed Heartless, lunging towards her sword-first from the staircase as she finishes off her current target.

She's... wide-open.

...This is gonna hurt, isn't it? She's going to feel pain again.

"N-no..."

Stop it! She doesn't want to be hurt again! She doesn't want to be-

SSHHHHHHHHHHHNNG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

blllrrrr...!!

 

 

 

...hurt?

The sensation of a breeze. Kokoro opens her eyes.

Greeting her is a trail of flowing carnation petals; deep-red, bright-red, and purple, born from the swing of a blade. They part, and she's welcomed to a view where the clouds retreat. A faint orange colours the morning sky. The army of Heartless has paused cautiously in place... and standing imposingly before them is...

...

...She's felt this aura before. This awe.

This isn't an ordinary person.

"That's... my Queen..."
"Queen Shirasagi!!!"

Kokoro blinks twice.

"My, my. I didn't expect to have so many guests today."

Standing in front is a warrior who looks 3 centimetres shorter than Kokoro and feels 30 centimetres taller. Her blonde, flowing hair, which she's tied into a waterfall at her back, hovers over her gold-trimmed longcoat awash in the peaceful grey of a rainy day, embraced around the shoulder blades by two light-blue ribbons. Her jade brooch, adorned with light, rests beneath her collar, accentuating a somewhat tattered yet uniform shirt and trousers, coloured with the same slightest hint of blue as two further loose ribbons around her waist.

And in her hand, she's holding what's undeniably a Keyblade; the Sigil of Resilient Hope. An unfathomably intricate, thick blade of pure white, composed of intersecting lines and encrusted with emeralds. It's accompanied by a shimmering turquoise star for a keychain, peacefully dangling beneath her whispering aura.

Kokoro forgets all those details, the instant this person turns around and gives the trio a serene, composed smile with barely anything more than her magenta eyes. "Kaoru. Hagumi. And," she speaks, "may I ask your name?"

"...It's... Kokoro..."

"It's wonderful to meet you. My name is Chisato Shirasagi, Ambassador Queen of this world and Keyblade Master," she says. "Please step back and let me handle this."

The words penetrate Kokoro, lulling her. She's... starstruck. One part of her tells her she should always lend a hand to a new friend, no matter who they are; but the other part just murmurs

"okay."

So Kokoro steps back and keeps her eyes fixed on Queen Chisato, alongside an equally starstruck Hagumi and Kaoru.

Chisato takes a single step.

bbblblblllrrrrr...!

The Heartless are immediately riled up, clamoring against the idea of a bottleneck to their siege. One particularly bold shadow breaks the horde's position and rushes forward with its claws outstretched.

She raises her Keyblade.

cling!

She calmly blocks.

slash, slsh-slsh-slsh-slsh-slash

And with an elegant, demure combo, it's defeated. "My. I fear I'm not strong enough for all of them..."

The rest of the enemies immediately rush towards her. Tens, upon tens, upon hundreds, lunge at her with bold hostility-

"...Just kidding☆."

SLASH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chisato tears through a behemoth in one swing. Another lunges;

"Stopra!"

tick-tick-tick-tick...

Chisato snaps her fingers, freezing it completely. sl-sl-SLASH! She ends it on the spot with three strikes. "Thunder Blade!"

The Keyblade electrifies. SLASH! It ravages a row into shreds. "Blizzaga!"

KKKKrkkKRSHKRSHKRSHKRSHKRSHKRL!!!!!!

A core of icicles rips through an entire horde.

SLASH, SLASH, SLSLSLSLS-SLASH!SWING, SLASH

She clears up the remains effortlessly, swinging her arm like a demon; and after she's done, she stands gracefully in place as if it never happened... even though another horde's claws are mere centimetres from her as she does-

"Weak."

Kokoro's jaw drops.

Chisato isn't there. In an instant, she's skated around the Heartless, leaving a trail of ice in her path that slows them all down in their pointless rush;

"Blizzard Blade!"

STAB STAB STAB STAB STAB STAB

Each falls in frost.

"Thunder Blade!"

She cuts through another, and another, and another horde, and another hoard, gracefully slashing into each Heartless like it's a personalised pinata. Her blade switches between the two elements, any rationale beyond style being unnecessary.

"TEMPEST!"

WWWRRRWRrRSHRSSRSRSRSRRSRSRSRSRSRSRSRS

Slash, SlashSlash, SHING! SLASH!

The trio are nearly blown off their feet as a ginormous tornado launches every fool surrounding the queen. Kokoro sees a barreling line of thunder zip from point A to point B to point U to A to U; Chisato's a comet of lightning, flying through the sky towards each of her sorry victims,

SLSLSLSLSLLSLS-SLASH!!

all failing to resist her merciless blade.

A rain of wisps accompanies her smile to the ground. Without anyone asking for it, she bolts over to another Heartless, strikes it, sails around while it swipes at nothing, and digs three Firas consecutively into its disintegrating head. Another 2 rows of 5 try to capitalise on her taunting; some fly over and aim their spells, while others claw from the ground for a hit.

"Stopra."

tick-tick-tick-tick...

A snap of her fingers, and none of them matter.

"Waterga!"

FLLLllll---Sshhhhhhshllshllshlll!!!!!

An aerial whirlpool slams them all to the grave.

...The plaza's edge is left as clean as it started, Chisato the obvious lone survivor. She stands there with nary a glare, as if she's simply admiring the scenery on a relaxing walk. It's a sight that trivialises the hundreds of Heartless that're still edging around the stairs on each end, hungry for citizens that they somehow can't find; staring at the queen in cold malice, desperate to believe they can harm her.

Exactly one of them decides to attack.

It sees no reason not to. Chisato isn't moving at all; no stance, no steel covering her body... nothing. Absolutely nothing is stopping it from landing a brutal hit on everyone's beloved queen. So it races forth on its legs, thrusting a sharpened spear towards her wide-open abdomen, not a finger being lifted in response, and-

CLUNK!

Failure.

A sphere of shielding wind automatically ejects it, making it flail before Chisato. "ahAHAHAHAhahah~!"

SLASH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"FOOL!"

Her grin makes Kokoro's heart race.

"Tell me, is this all you have?!"

slsh, slsh-slsh SLASH, SLASH,
slsh, slsh-slsh SLASH, SLASH,
slsh, slsh-slsh SLASH, SLASH,
SLASH, SLASH, SLASH, SLASH!

slsh, slshslshslsh SLASH, SLASH,
slsh, slshslshslsh SLASH, SLASH,
slsh, slshslshslsh SLASH, SLASH,
SLASH, SLASH, SLASH, SLASH!!!

Like a ballerina hunting for blood, Chisato gracefully dashes around every enemy, leaving trails of ice as she skates away and bolts of thunder as she flies forth, one after another after one after another after one after another after one after another; the ground is just a platform she can move across without walking, an enabler for her magical mobility while her arm switches between strings of swings to a finisher and elegant, rugged thrusts.

slsh-slsh-slashslashslash STAB!!! slsh-slsh-slashslashslash STAB!!!-Slash! Slash, Slash, slash, slslslslslslslslslslslslslslslslslslSLSLSLSLSLSLSLSLSLS

They all fall.

SSTAB!

A sole survivor is silenced before it can start. There's one last horde on the ground, their page already turned. "Farewell," Chisato weaves. "Thundaga!"

k!!CRACKLRACKLRACKL!!lshRKshKRshKR

A chain of pounding, smiting thunderbolts;

and the coast is clear. "......Wow."

"Go, go, go, your highness!"
"They are as fleeting as you are eternal!"

Kokoro can already tell; it's not that this part of town is weirdly empty. It's that the citizens are just hiding indoors, knowing they don't need to do anything else... because with this person here, they'll be safe no matter who or what invades. With a swi-zash and a crush, Queen Chisato dispels misery and sadness with the kind of finesse she's never seen before. Is... is this what it means to be a Keyblade Master?

bbBBBLBLLRRRRRR...

"W-whoa!"

Kokoro jumps. The ground shakes beneath her. She peers over the stairs with her friends, and...

...there's a huge HUGE wave of Heartless racing up.

Oh god. That's... that's a lot. "It's like a tsunami of darkness."

"How brusque. A pointless application of quantity over quality." Chisato joins them. "Hagumi. Kaoru. Shall I do the honours?"

"Ah. You mean to use that?"

"Ooh, ooh! Make it go all wha-bammm!"

Th-they seem so calm about this! Why? "What's up, you guys?"

"My lionel. Let us all step back to the center of the plaza."

"...? Okay."

She can't deny she's feeling antsy, considering the storm of Heartless is like 30 seconds from reaching them at most. But everyone else is ambling pretty casually. Is this just normal or something??

Chisato runs a hand through her hair. "Please step back, you three. And enjoy the show."

Her friends nod. Kokoro follows them, leaving Chisato standing alone at the center.

BBBBBBBBBBLLLLRRRRR

The ground trembles more with every second. A storm devoid enough to drain the weather's light eats around every building and rushes right up the grand staircase, daring to approach Shirasagi Castle. But the queen simply walks up to a small circle in the plaza's patterns, and places her Keyblade down; it glows with a faint light and hovers in place, its tip resonating in a pool of violet. Kokoro watches transfixed as an encompassing field of light settles upon them all.

And when the wave finally hits the top of the stairs,

Chisato greets them with a smile of eminence. "Stepping onto this plaza was your final mistake."

GGGGGGGGGGGGRWRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"W-whoa!!"

"My lionel!"

Kaoru and Hagumi catch her as she's pushed back. "What's happening☆?!"

The hue runs into Kokoro's eyes. The plaza, it's...

...it's rising! The ground is bending upwards!

All the lines of violet and black paint metres upon metres of bright white light upon the center of the Kingdom, exuding a force so powerful it's a wonder Chisato can stand so naturally upright. Her hair billows like it's caught in a hurricane... as a gigantic, gleaming hill rises and coalesces into something behind her.

Something that makes Kokoro's jaw drop. "What IS that☆?!"

"Our best friend~!"

"Behold, Kokoro," Kaoru sings, "the marvel of our Kingdom, its first savior blessing!"

GGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"The Shirokane Defense System!"

Every Heartless eats a wave of white that freezes it in place. A natural disaster is stopped cold like a toy train on a track.

Kokoro can't believe what she's seeing.

It paints the clouds violet, purifying them of their colourless waste in gales of unmatched power. A being of pure, melting light, seeping and pooling in its refractions. 3 azure eyes on each side gleam with the colours of several worlds' moons, placed upon the titanic shark's head. Detecting the Heartless, it opens its mouth and roars an awe-inspiring ballad, intensifying the illumination that razes the ground.

"Go, Lucifer," the queen declares. "Orchestrate their fall from grace!"

HGRRRRRRRRRRRRRHHHHHHHHHRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Energy drowns Kokoro's eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And just like that...

...they're gone.

The Heartless are gone. The violet in the wonderful sky is gone. The defense system has receded. The metres upon metres upon metres of the plaza behind Chisato are no longer the shark; they are once again the lines sewing into its ground, their colours still as resplendent as they are eye-catching.

The curtain closes as gracefully as it opened... and they are the only 4 standing outside-

THCLUNK!!!!!

"...Oh, for goodness' sake."

-until one last Heartless decides being a party pooper is a great idea.

"Really?" Hagumi boos.

Standing on the street below is a tower-sized shadow, its entire frame covered in jagged mythril armour. The Fortress's frame creaks and groans as it stomps towards the staircase, eyeing the queen. It's the most obnoxiously tough and impenetrable Heartless Kokoro's seen today; enough to make the Guard Armour look like it's made of butter. It... doesn't look like something she'd want to take on yet-

"Stopra."

tick-tick-tick-tick...

-Oh, right.

Chisato Shirasagi approaches the defenseless Heartless. "I'm afraid I don't have time to waste on you," her Keyblade crackles, "so please do me a favour and be a good little punching bag."

A ferocious swipe;

"FIRAGA BURST!"

PSSHOOOOM
FBEWFBEWFBEWFBEWFBEWFBEW-_ -_ -_ -

It spawns a miniature Sun above Chisato, and she zips forward in the blink of an eye ahead its cascading bullets, all homing towards the completely immobilised Fortress.

"Blizzard Blade - Orbit!"

10 swords of crystallised ice are summoned, rotating around Chisato's abdomen as she makes the first strike.

SLAM!

The Fortress is knocked into the air,

SHNG-SHNG

and the swords juggle it.

SLASH!
SHNG-SHNG
SLASH!
SHNG-SHNG
Sl-Sl-Sl-Slash, Slash!
SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG

- _- _- _-FBEWFBEWFBEWFBEWFBEWFBE

The fireballs from Firaga Burst arrive, immediately chaining from the rotating blades and pushing the Fortress even further above, pounding its armoured gut with a hyper-spree of hits. Chisato doesn't waste a second in imbuing her Keyblade with Thunder and racing up, slicing through the poor beast again and again and again and againandagainandagain- with more hits per second than Kokoro can count on her fingers-

SLASHSLASHSLASH

The last fireballs hit. "Stopra! Pulse!"

Frozen again in midair JUST as it's set free, the Fortress gets cleaved with a deluge of space-cutting sea waves, all slowly pulsing out from Chisato,

SLICE!! SLASH SLASH-sl-sl-SLASH,

who wallops its helmet down with an endless number of thrusts,

Wham!

(a kick in the face for good measure),

SlashSlashSlash
slash-SHLSHLSHLSHLSHLSHLSHL

before front-flipping in midair over its head, slamming her blade into its armoured back,

SSHHRRr...!!

tearing the hole upwards... and

sSSHHHRR-SLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

backflipping back over it with the strongest swing she's made, ending the at the bottom of the chest.

All before it's even unfrozen.

Chisato gracefully rotates, drops 20 metres, lands on her feet and walks away. "Land Mine."

6 magic explosives cover the ground beneath the time-suspended Fortress.

She doesn't even look back as Stopra ends. "Your mistake," she says, "was thinking such bloated armour would ever best me."

PPTTT

 

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-- -- --
-- -- ---- --
---- --- --- -- -- -- - - - - -

You.

Not she, who despairs peacefully inside... but you.

There lies a whisper within you.

I see your curiosity, smiling star. I see you wonder worlds not your own, seeking all but the answer.

 

The solemn shark of Lucifer says.

 

Tell me... o errant heart. That glowing cement. The cement you see, flowing in the hands

of the spectrum carnation,

the orange tiger lily,

and the white chrysanthemum of soliloquies.

---- --- Will you ever build with it yourself?--- -- -- -- - - - Or- can you only live-

by gazing-- in self-neglect-- upon what others---- create? --

-- -- --

 

"Kokoro?"

A blink.

 

"...really, really, REALLY pretty, your highness! And"

"Kokoro? Has slumber taken you?"

She blinks again.

The Kingdom's colours are back to normal. Chisato stands a few feet away, smiling at Hagumi's gleeful gushing... and Kaoru is staring concernedly into Kokoro's eyes- "Oh! Kaoru!"

"Whew. For a moment, it seemed like some other realm had whisked away your soul."

She looks back at the plaza; only the circular patterns are present. Oh, her mouth's still agape, isn't it? She was staring at Queen Chisato for like, a minute solid, until now!

Speaking of, Chisato's just approached her. "My apologies. That must have been a rather chaotic first impression. I assure you, I do not normally act so... cocky."

"Huh? Isn't that what you're normally li-
"N-not so loud, my dear!"

"You were amazing☆! I couldn't take my eyes off you," Kokoro responds. "I'm completely lost for words! ...In a good way, I think!"

"Lost for words? Really? I'm surprised." Chisato turns to her friends. "You seem like you're as verbose about the things you like as these two are."

"Ver... bose? Meaning?"

"Dunno," Hagumi says. "Hey, Kaoru, what's verbose mean?"

"Fufu. It, um. It is but that. A fleeting word."

Chisato chuckles. "Think nothing of it. More importantly," ...she smiles, "why, Kaoru. Hagumi. I wasn't expecting you to return so soon."

"W-we're sorry, honestly!" Hagumi hurriedly bows. "Me and Kaoru checked like, 3 different worlds, but we couldn't find any leads."

"We did, however, find a cherished new friend!" Kaoru says. "And this friend is a most curious lion... for she holds a particularly fleeting characteristic, that the bards would sing upon locating outside the borders of that academy crested upon-"

"Kaoru."

She shudders. "U-um. Our dear friend wields a Keyblade, my queen-"

"Your highness," Chisato jabs, "...and I take it she is not Saki-Inari?"

"Wow, your highness~! How'd you figure that out?!"

Chisato gives Hagumi the same kinda smile Misaki uses. "Honestly, you two..." A sigh. "Nevermind. I'm glad to see you're both safe. As for you, our guest," she turns around, "allow me to properly reintroduce myself. My name is Chisato Shirasagi, Ambassador Queen of the Shirasagi Kingdom. Please feel free to stay in this kingdom as long as you wish; we offer food and supplies free of charge. Of course, if it's gil you require instead, the Farron mercenaries stationed on the 1st Plateau can provide you plenty of profitable work."

"That's really kind of you! Thank you!" Kokoro responds. "Your kingdom is lovely! Me and Kaoru and Hagumi were all having a race to the castle just now."

"They flew you here by Gummi Ship, I assume?"

"We sure did!" Hagumi grins. "I let her take it for a spin, too. She's really good for a first-timer! She drove it into this huuuge asteroid belt and zipped through EVERYTHING~!"

"It was evocative of my very first trip with my dear Hagumi. The stars themselves danced around my head," Kaoru sings. "Truly, we are blessed to have met her!"

Aw. All these compliments're making her blush!

"I-I see. I'm glad it's Hina who pays for that thing..."

"Eh? What was that~?"
"Eh? What was that?"
"Hm? Pardon, my Queen?"

"I-it's nothing." Chisato turns around. "Kokoro. We'll be heading back to the castle now. You're free to join us; you might be here by coincidence, but I feel you'd benefit from listening in on our discussion. The worlds beyond Shirasagi Kingdom have become perilous."

"Perilous?" Meaning deadly, right? "Well, that doesn't sound like a fun topic. But I'd love to see your castle! Is that okay?"

"Of course. The castle is always open to visitors."

"And it's got the best dinner hall ever!" Hagumi cheers. "We let the chefs pick out what we're gonna eat, so it's all really tasty stuff."

Kokoro jumps for joy. "Hooray☆! I can't wait! And with all 4 of us together, there's no way any shadows'll bother us!"

"Are you referring to the Heartless? Worry not," Chisato says. "I doubt they'll attack again so soon. The Kingdom's guardian would destroy them in an instant, regardless of their numbers."

"The guardian?"

"A sacred beast as loyal as any knight, my lionel."

"That big, huge thing! It's almost as strong as each of our queens!"

"Hmhmhm~. No need for flattery, Hagumi." Chisato looks back at Kokoro. "Do you remember the six-eyed behemoth of a shark you saw, rising from the plaza?"

Her expression slows. "...Yeah. It was... incredible."

"It left quite the impression, I imagine. As it does with most people," Chisato continues. "That beast's name is Lucifer. It is the core of the Shirokane Defense System; the very being that keeps this world safe."

"Awe-inspiring, was it not?" Kaoru weaves. "When it is summoned, it bursts with light, instantly eliminating every single Heartless in the kingdom. There are none inhuman who can escape its judgement."

"Really? So the town barely has to worry about Heartless at all?"

"Yup! Her highness doesn't even NEED to flex on those meanies," Hagumi grins. "It's named after the weapon of the person who made it. Isn't that cool?"

Ooooo☆! "Somebody made it?! Who was it?"

"A Keyblade wielder. Not even a Master; merely a student. She visited this Kingdom as part of a sanctioned trip from the Keyblade Academy 3 and a half years ago, at Hina's request," Chisato explains. "Her name was Rinko Shirokane. The most powerful wielder I've ever met. When she helped us make the Defense System, the only thing that flabbergasted me more than the beast itself was the way she downplayed the feat of creating it."

"Rinko? I know that person~!"

.

...

...All 3 of her friends stop and turn towards her. "You... you've met her yourself?" Chisato asks.

"Of course☆! I'd never forget her!"

Kokoro cheerfully puts her hands on her hips.

"She's the one who gave me and Kanon our Keyblades!"

"...What?!"
"What?!"
"WHAT?!"

Chapter Text

Kokoro's seen a lot of fancy castles in her storybooks. Sometimes she imagines what it'd be like to live in one... they're all really twinkly, and ba-dummm!, and golden, and full of stuff that apparently costs LOADS of gil.

But Shirasagi Castle isn't like that at all.

It definitely seems like it'd be stuffed to the brim with gold. It's huge, the hallways are twice as tall as they are wide (and twice as long as they are tall), it's got tons of little secrets Hagumi and Kaoru're showing her, moss that looks older than the kingdom itself, enough rooms to hold every kind of treasure imaginable... but somehow, despite it being this bendy bush of buildings and towers, it's barely golden at all. Where there'd be chandeliers on the ceiling in Kokoro's books, there's lamps instead. The walls don't have anything beyond banners... the tables're just wood and cloth... heck, even the classic red carpet, the thing every castle has, doesn't have any gold trim on it here; even though there's little marks on its edges where the trim would normally go. From the looks of it, the food in the dinner hall? Probably more expensive than most of these decorations are.

Unusual as it is though, Kokoro likes it. It feels just as cozy as her friends say!

"That was a most delightful meal."

"Man, I'm stuffed!" Hagumi stretches with a cute wobbly grin on her face. "It's so nice to eat at home again with everyone."

"Your friends are all really nice, Hagumi!" Kokoro says. "When that retainer chopped the roast chicken in half with her samurai sword, I was really impressed!"

"Right?! Eve's amazing!"

"Fufufu. And let us not forget the court's knife juggler."

Kokoro's eyes light up. "The masked one? She was amazing! I wish Chisato saw her."

"Saw who, exactly?"

Whoa! Feels strange for a queen to pop out from the corridor and walk alongside them. But it's nice too.

"My Qu- Your highness," Kaoru waxes, "we were just talking of the masked jester. She gave us a most fabulous and perilous performance as we feasted."

"Ah." Chisato sighs. "So, she's up to her antics again..."

"What kind of antics?" Kokoro asks. "Can I join?"

"Don't pay it any mind. She's an unhealthy influence," the queen... smiles? "Though you'll be meeting her soon enough anyway."

What's that supposed to mean?

Before she can ponder any further, they've come across a giant set of wooden doors. "Kaoru. Hagumi. Let's report the results of your expedition to Hina, before she scampers off again."

"Got it, Ch- I mean, your highness!" Hagumi salutes. "You coming with, Kokoro?"

"I'd love to! I wanna meet the other queen!"

Kaoru gestures. "Then come in, and know her better, lionel."

CCRRRRREAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAK!!

 

"...We need to replace those doors, don't we?"

They walk together through the larger-than-life center of Shirasagi Castle; although it isn't really any more decorated than the rest of it. Once they're out of the hallway and into the bulk of the room, what's essentially there is just a few tables and chairs, next to- ooooo!! "Is that a staircase at the back?"

"Fufu. Kokoro, would it not be wiser to see Queen Hikawa first?"

"Oh, good point!"

"...Thank you, Kaoru."

...next to 2 rusty thrones, each with their own coloured cushions. They look both ancient and clean at the same time, if that makes any sense. As for the two huge banners above 'em, well, those're probably a lot newer. The one on the right's got a dragon, and the one on the left's got some four-legged creature with a bushy tail Kokoro hasn't seen before. Their designs make a circle between the two banners, which she thinks is really neat...

"Where is she? I told her to be here at 3pm on the dot."

...Oh, and this room actually DOES have a chandelier! Cute-

"Did you miss me☆?"

Kokoro stops.

Right on cue, before she can even realise there was a person on the ceiling, said person drops to the ground, so painlessly and effortlessly and naturally that her sudden presence slams Kokoro's view with a cavalcade of information in an instant.

...

...

...ba-thump

"Hehe~. I bet only Chisachi expected that."

"Hina!!" Hagumi cheers.
"My queen!" Kaoru rejoices.

Kokoro freezes.

ba-thump ba-thump

Her eyes are golden, galaxial. Her hair's a sea of turquoise; it barely reaches the shoulders, but it comes in wide waves, leaving curls flying outwards and inwards at inconsistent curves, messily, lusciously. It's held at two braided points below the ears by a pair of invisible, snaking ribbons, one adorned with a small jade brooch. The left half of the fringe is combed back behind her ear, and the right is kept in place above the eye by two hairclips; one simple, the other a star. She's not dressed for a fight; she's barely even armoured. Her outfit's just an asymmetrical black-and-green top that exposes her right shoulder, a pair of jeans stuffed to the brim with star-spangled chains, and a comfy pair of shoes. Her arms and neck're bare, her stance is fluid, and it feels like she's moving even when she's standing still.

ba-thump ba-thump

"Hm..." She stares at Hagumi and Kaoru with a merry, slowly widening grin. Then; "Missed ya~!"

"We missed you too!!"

She collides into the pair, eliciting a yelp of surprise from the latter as her arms wrap around them both for a big hug. Hagumi happily returns it with laughter, and Kaoru soon overcomes her shock as well. "How do you fare, my queen?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine~!" Hina puts on a jester's mask. "Can't believe you didn't realise, though."

"Ah!!!"
"The knife juggler! My goodness!"

"Honestly, you guys~." Hina giggles and takes it off. "Anyway, how was the trip?"

"It was lots of fun! Oh, and I think I found another gemstone, Hina!"

"Boppin☆! Let's see, let's see!"

Hagumi sets her rucksack down and hauls a cragged, orange crystal out of it. "It looks pretty, right~? I thought it was just a rock, but it was too shiny and gleamy to pass up."

"Oooo, a Carnelian. Nice find, Hagu! I'll add it to the collection~." They high-five. "So, that means you two went to that world again, right?"

"Indeed," Kaoru responds. "I suspected there we would find-"

Hina smirks and leans closer. "How'd it go~? Nice scenery to do something boppin'☆ with Hagumi, right?"

Kaoru's face instantly bursts into flames. "I-I-... why, whatever could you be-"

"Yeah, we did plenty of boppin' stuff, Hina! We found this pretty river that sparkles when you stand over it; you should come with us there sometime."

Chisato sighs.

But Hina keeps going. "And, and~? Did you do anything else~?"

"O-of course not!"

"You surrreeeee? C'mon, Kaoru, you can tell me~. Did you hold hands? Did you k-"

"P-p-p-p-please don't say that, Hina! ...I-I mean, I assure you, I acted in only the most n-noble of-"

"Bahahahaha!!! I'm kidding, I'm kidding! Your expression's priceless!"

ba-thump ba-thump

The whimsical queen leaves Kaoru blushing next to a confused Hagumi and saunters over to her stoic other. "Don't worry~. I made sure the agriculture bill got passed while you were gone."

"Thank god," Chisato responds. "If you hadn't even done that much, I would've torn down the disco ball you installed in the common room."

"Ehhhhhhhh? That's mean!"

For a few seconds, they gaze at each other, smiling. Then Chisato steps forward and pulls Hina closer:

"Mm...!"

ba-thump ba-thump

...She lets go. "What's the matter? I almost miss the Hina who'd kiss me the second I entered the room."

"Boppin☆..." Hina's eyes sparkle. "Can I start doing that again?"

"My concerns about our reputation've never stopped you before, have they?"

"Hehe. Nope~," Hina beams. "Welcome home, Chisachi."

"It's good to be home."

ba-thump ba-thump

"Though I'm not the one who's been absent a while. I imagine Hagumi got rather homesick."

"Ehhh... she had Kaoru with her, so I'm not worried!"

 

ba-thump ba-thump

 

Golden eyes look Kokoro's way. "And who's this~?"

Kokoro doesn't respond.

ba-thump ba-thump

What's... with her heart right now? Why's it acting all weird? When she stares into Hina's eyes, she sees a trace of the cloudy sky painted in another colour. She can't look away.

ba-thump ba-thump

"Her name is Kokoro. She's a Keyblade wielder. Hagumi and Kaoru became acquainted with her during their expedition."

"That so? Nice to meetcha!"

ba-thump ba-thump
ba-thump ba-thump
"Heyyyyy! Earth to the new person!"
ba-thump ba-thump
ba-thumpba-thumpBA-THUMP

Kokoro blinks. "...For some reason, my heart beats really fast when I look at you!"

.

Chisato and the others look at her with varying levels of surprise.

"Bwahahaha~! Wow, Kaoru, maybe I should start doing the kitten thing too!"

"P-perhaps."

Kokoro throws her arms out. "You're all swoosh, n' swish☆, your highness! I like you!"

"And you seem pretty swazzin'☆!" The queen gives her a high five. "Hina Hikawa, uh... Internal Relations Queen, I think it was? At your service, 'n all that. Anyway, just call me Hina. What's your name?"

"...Didn't I already mention her name?" Chisato says.

"It's Kokoro Tsurumaki! I'm on a journey to look for my friends right now."

"One of whom was apparently given the power of the Keyblade by Rinko; alongside Kokoro herself here."

"Ehhhhhh? You know Rinko? Now that's whooshin'!"

"Do you know her too?"

"'Course I do! She's one of my friends at the Keyblade Academy!"

She's talking to a friend of Rinko's?! "Whoooaaaa☆! What's she like? I only met her once like, 3 years ago."

"She's boppin'! She's kinda wobbly, and she's cute, and she makes these funny noises, and she can whoop my ass, and she always does some really interesting things. When she makes a statement, you know you can trust it."

"I only knew her for the time she was at the Kingdom," Chisato says, "but I can vouch for the less backhanded compliments Hina gives her. She may be shy, but she is one of the wisest and most resolute people I've ever met."

"...Huh. That's different from what I was expecting."

"Eh? Why's that?" Hina asks.

"She almost looked like Misaki when I was talking to her! I don't think she was happy about giving me and Kanon a Keyblade."

"I'm surprised," Chisato says. "I doubt she'd grant someone that power without thoroughly assessing their character. I know I, for one, trust her judgement in giving it to you."

"Same here~! I bet she was overthinking it. Academy sends us on all kinds of pointless quests like that anyway."

...Was it just a matter of overthinking?

Chisato coughs. "Kokoro. You mentioned you were looking for your friends?"

"Yeah. Me, Kanon and Misaki all got thrown off our homeworld, and now I don't know where they are."

"...Ah. What was the name of your homeworld, may I ask?"

"Destiny Islands! It's a really nice place." Her friends' expressions darken at that. "Something wrong?"

"Should we tell her?" Hina asks.

"Yes. She has the right to know." Chisato stands at the center of the room and turns around. "I believe now would be a good time for our briefing. Everyone, please allow me to begin by summarising the current situation. It'll be particularly helpful for Kokoro to know."

Well, this seems pretty dreary... but if it's helpful, she'll listen.

Chisato gets out a small device and presses a button on it. "Maya. Could you please project your desktop to the main hall?"

"Ah, has the briefing started? Roger that! I'll open up the world map."

Kokoro's vision is lighted in luminescent green as this huuuge, digital screen occupies the center of the room. It's got lots of little dots on it...

"This is a map of the universe, Kokoro. Or at least, what's nearest to us in the universe," Chisato says. "Every star you see is a world surrounding Shirasagi Kingdom."

"Whoa... so, all of those stars are their own worlds?"

"Indeed," Kaoru says. "But about a month ago, some of these stars started to disappear. When we investigated, we found that they were being shrouded in darkness; snuffed of their light, one by one. And present in every world before it was engulfed was..."

"...Heartless?"

Chisato nods. "I'm afraid this includes Destiny Islands. Its star disappeared from our view two weeks ago."

Wait. Two weeks? But barely a day's passed since she woke up in Traverse Town. Was she unconscious for that long? ...What happened to her in the meantime?

"Kokoro. You okay?"

Hagumi's holding her hand. "Yeah," she responds. "Um... I saw it get torn apart. I was there when... y'know."

"Th-that must've been scary."

...Kokoro gives Hagumi a hug. "It's okay. It's not as if it's gone forever. And I know my friends are somewhere else, too. I just need to find them."

"Gone forever... I truly hope that isn't the case," Chisato murmurs. "We don't want any other worlds to see such a fate. That's why we've been doing everything in our power to defend them from the Heartless, while we investigate the cause."

Kokoro's heart beats blue. "There's someone behind it, right? Th-this Saki-Inari person."

"Correct. At first, we didn't know there was an identifiable culprit. But within the past two weeks, more worlds were engulfed, and we rescued some of their survivors. They told us of a black-haired Keyblade wielder, who commanded the legions of Heartless and made them steal their victims' hearts."

S-so that's the person who lured Misaki? Why...? Why would they do something so horrible to her? "...Why would anyone do something like that? Invading worlds, turning people into hearts... there's no reason for anyone to cause so much pain."

She feels a warm hand on her shoulder. It's Hagumi's. And Kaoru's standing right beside them.

"I suppose we should be grateful Saki-Inari is merely stealing hearts. Heartless can be far more lethal when untamed," Chisato sighs. "...I'm afraid we don't know what this person's goal is. But our goal is to capture her, interrogate her, and rescue every stolen heart for revival, wherever they may be. Then we will do everything in our power to restore the enshrouded worlds." Chisato turns to her. "That includes yours, Kokoro. Please consider Shirasagi Kingdom your home in the meantime. We will provide you accommodation and food for as long as you wish."

"We can lend a hand in searching for her friends, too, right☆?" Hina asks.

"Of course," Chisato responds.

"Any of my lionel's friends are mine too."

"Wouldn't sit right to let her dry," Hagumi says. "Not after all she's done for us!"

"Eh?" B-but I'm the one who got saved by you two. Not the other way around... "What've I done for you guys?"

"You've been our cherished companion."
"Isn't it obvious? You've been our friend!"

"You guys..."

Aw, they're the best. Her chest feels so warm. She feels so happy and safe with them... maybe they can be friends with Kanon and Misaki someday too!

"So, Kokoro. What do your friends look like, anyway☆?" Hina smiles. "Are they as boppin' as you? Because I don't think I've met someone like you in a long while."

"They are! Kanon and Misaki're my bestest, loveliest, most wonderful friends ever!" Kokoro throws her arms out. "Who should I describe first? Well, Kanon's really kind, and sweet, and brave, and pretty, and she worries a lot, so I love making her smile."

"Wow... so you really like her then☆."

"Ahem," Chisato coughs. "Appearance-wise?"

"Oh, right! She's got long, wavy light-blue hair with a cute sidetail, and she's wearing a woolly cardigan."

"I see. Hina, please note that down. You'll be making the poster instead of me this time," Chisato says. "What about Misaki? What does she look like?"

"She's adorable! She's got this moppy black hair that feels all sandy when you touch it, and she's wearing a cardigan and jeans."

"..." Chisato's eyebrows lower a bit. "...How long would you say her hair is?"

"Medium-ish? Reaches just above the shoulders. It's got these super-cute hairclips too."

"By any chance, does she also wield a Keyblade?"

"Yeah! Just like me and Kanon," Kokoro responds. "How could you tell? You're really smart."

...

"Everything okay?"

...Chisato glances at Hina.

Hina gives her a smile.

Chisato waggles an eyebrow twice.

Hina looks confused, sorta.

Chisato frowns. Hina's expression doesn't change, so she frowns harder. Then Hina giggles and nods.

Kokoro... has no idea what they're doing-

"Would you mind leaving the search to us?"

-wait, what did they just say? "You mean for my friends? Why?"

"As we've explained, every nearby world is in danger of being invaded by the Heartless. Would it not be best to stay at the kingdom instead of getting involved in this conflict?"

"I don't like fighting, but my friends're more important than that. I can deal with the Heartless if it's for their sake!"

"What about your safety? They would be concerned if you were hurt trying to find them."

That's true. But Kanon and Misaki worry more than they need to. "I'll be fine! I'm not gonna die, y'know."

Hina tilts her head. "Why's that? You a mercenary or somethin'? Used to the whole survival stuff?"

"Nope; but I've gotta stay alive if I wanna see my friends, don't I? So obviously, I'll just fight off the Heartless!"

"And what'll you do if they're stronger than you?"

Now Kokoro's the one tilting her head. "Be stronger than them, obviously."

"What, mid-fight? How're you gonna do that~?"

"By thinking of my friends!"

Hagumi and Kaoru're looking at her in agreement.

Chisato's looking at her in confusion. "I-I... I see."

"Ahahaha☆! You really are boppin', Kokoro! Even if you don't make any sense." Hina puts her hand on her hips. "Alright, why not let her tag along with Hagumi and Kaoru? They seem like a good team."

There's a sigh. "Hina, can we talk for a moment? ...You can't be serious. This isn't a school trip; without survival training, Kokoro'll..."

Chisato's voice turns to a whisper. But Hina's volume stays the same. "Then let her get some training. Simple. Keyblade'll do half the work anyway, right?"

"No it won't. Love fuels the heart, but it can only take you so far." Chisato sighs. "...Still... I imagine you won't be satisfied with sheltering yourself here, will you, Kokoro?"

"Sorry, but nope. As lovely as this place is, my friends come first!"

"........." Another sigh. "Very well then. But I have some 'recommendations'," she says, with a kind of smile Kokoro's never seen before. "It would be VERY wise for you to hone your survival and combat skills here before you start exploring other worlds. And once you start, it would be a very, very smart idea for you to follow Hagumi and Kaoru at all times. Understood?"

"Don't you worry, Chisato!" Hagumi says. "We'll always be there for her!"

"I concur! We wouldn't leave a kitten of any kind without company."

"Ehehe. Thanks, you guys~!"

Group hug!

...Oh, Chisato and Hina're...

Kokoro watches them. Hina's arms wrap around Chisato, and Chisato places a hand on Hina's chin in return. She can tell their hug's unique somehow; it's a different kind of hugging from the kind she does. Something about the way they're moving, the expressions they're making... is that something she can do too? Who could she hug like that...?

"I'm surprised you agreed," Hina sings. "Seems like I learn more boppin' things about you every day☆."

"Flattery won't let you slack your work on me." Chisato gives her a peck on the cheek; the kind that'd cause Misaki secondhand embarrassment because 'people are watching'. "Since you suggested it, I do hope you're going to find a way to fit the training into Eve's schedule. She's the only other Keyblade wielder in this kingdom."

"Why don't I just train Kokoro myself instead☆?"

Ooooooo!

"...What?" Chisato states.

"WHAT?!" Hagumi jumps. "Her highness is gonna train Kokoro?!"

"I mean, why not? Kokoro's pretty funny, so I wanna get to kn-"

"Hina. You're not using this as a way of avoiding the next council meeting, are you?"

...She turns to Chisato. "Mayyyyybe. They're pretty boring, after all~."

"I'm afraid you can't shirk monotony every time you face it."

Whoa, Chisato's just pinned Hina's back to one of the thrones. "...Hey, didn't we make out the last time we were in this si-"

"You're not worming your way out of this one by kissing me."

"I can't~?"

Chisato gives an exasperated sigh. "No, you can't. Who's going to pick up all your work while you traipse around with our guest?"

"I dunno. Maya? I mean, it's not like we need to get stuff done THAT fast around here."

Chisato leans back. "We do. If you won't fill out the paperwork on your desk, then I'm going to glue you to a chair until you do."

"So I really can't train Kokoro~?"

"You cannot."

"Not even if I kiss you☆?"

"Not even if you kiss me."

...

...

"...Chiiiiisaaaaachhiiiiii! Noo faaaiiir!!!!!"

Hina barrels onto Chisato and starts wiggling and groaning, quickly causing Chisato to laugh-

-Huh. Why can't she take her eyes off this scene? "Chisachiiii! Pretty please with a cherry on top!!!"

"No~."

"You're mean! You're mean, you're mean, you're a big big meanie~!!!"

"Call me whatever you want, but you're not skipping any more meetings, you pipe-parkouring fiend."

"Fiiiiiiine, you win this time. I'll just do everything, training n' meetings n' all of that! How does that sound?"

"Hmm..."

"Please?"

"...Hmmm..."

Hina wobbles Chisato around some more. "Pretty please??"

"I'm only joking," she chuckles. "I know you'll handle all of it. So long as you're not running off again, you can train Kokoro. I feel like you'd be the most suitable to anyway."

"You're truly okay with it?" Kaoru asks. "The way you strung her along with such tenacity suggested otherwise."

"Only because she'd slack off if I let her go too easily~." Chisato goes for Hina's lips. "There. NOW you can kiss me."

Hina immediately does the same in return. "Boppin'☆!!"

...

"...Kokoron? You okay?"

"Oh!"

She blinks. Everyone's looking at her now. "Is something the matter, Kokoro?"

"Fufu. I suspect she was dazzled by your amorous bond with Hina."

"O-oh, please," Chisato stammers, "that was merely... a whim. Don't pay us any mind, Kokoro. I promise we're not usually this brazen about our relationship."

Kokoro shakes her head. "It's okay! You were really cute. Kinda reminded me of my friends, actually!"

"You mean... Misaki and Kanon?" Kaoru asks.

"Yeah. I dunno why, but it just felt similar somehow. I couldn't stop watching."

"Me neither. They're just so *wow*, right?" Hagumi adds. "Our queens're the best!"

"...Hehehe!"

Kokoro jolts. W-why's Hina laughing again?

"I see, I see~. So that's how it is. Hey, Kokoro☆, tell me more about-"

Chisato cuts her off. "Could we save the gossip for later? I'm afraid we don't have all day, dear."

"Aww, sorry, sorry~." Hina turns to Kokoro. "So, you down for the training?"

"Depends! What am I gonna learn?"

"Well, we can start by-" Hina blinks. "Oh. Guys, we've got company."

"Eh?"
"Pardon?"
"Huh?"

blrr blrr blrr blrr

THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP!

...What was that?

"What the f-?!" Chisato snarls. "How on earth did Heartless get summoned inside the castle?!"

Kokoro turns around-

Her jaw drops upon finding 4 cragged truck-built Titans at the throne room's door, staring everyone down with their beady eyes. "They're HUGE!" Hagumi exclaims.

"Hmmmm..."

She's about to draw her Keyblade when Hina taps her on the shoulder.

"...Why don't I just show you☆?"

And then Hina's gone.

ka

BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!

...The next thing she sees is a Titan in midair.

Gravity crashes it down to the rubble-spewed floor; Hina raises her leg and

ka

BAM!!!

BAM

BAM

BAM

Four roundhouses; a finger's pointed at the Titan's back,

"Spark!"

zZzZap / Zap/ Zap /!

BAM!

Hina zips back to the front so fast you could swear it's teleportation. Then... she puts her arms behind her back. She walks around and watches, as the Titan stumbles forward, balls its stone fist up, and hurls it at her in a punch heavy enough to rumble through the walls.

"...Yeah, this'll be easy~."

Hina crushes the stone beneath her,

KBOOM!!!!!

and overwhelms the human-sized fist with her own.
zZapZap/Zap
                                                 / Zap/ Zap /!
Zap/ Zap /Zap
                                       /Zap / Zap/ Zap
BAM
             /zZzap
ka-BAM!

"Firaga!"

bbFFFWOSHHH! in the face. Two electrical backhands, palm strike, somersault kick,

BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

and it's gone. The other 3 Titans charge at her from all sides. "M-my queen!"

Hina just shrugs.

CRaSH CRaSH CRaSH!

...Wait, did they actually hit her-

-Oh. No, they didn't.

Each mammoth-stone fist stops cold against the temporary... barrier Hina's made? She can just make those by guarding with her Keyblade?

Wait, her Keyblade's out-

SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH
       SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH
              SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH
       SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH
SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH
       SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH-SWKSH

Light and darkness run a tornado through the Heartless.

THUNK!!! THUNK!!!
                                THUNK!!!

They all lose their balance and tumble to the ground. Hina lands with her carefree grin, twirling...

...two.

Wait, two!! "Two Keyblades☆?!"

zzzZZZTCHRK!!!!

Freedom's blade sparks a beam sword of light.
Tyranny musters one of neon darkness.

"Let's bop☆!"

zip zip
                                              zip

Freedom's thrown upward; it spins like a serrated shuriken and devastates the front of one Titan's body.

                    zip
BAM!

The shoulder tackle breaks it apart further; and when another Titan throws its fist at an ambling Hina, one big swing from her Tyranny matches its force and shatters the entire arm.

"C'mon, c'mon. I'm barely even moving~."

The other two charge; Hina stands on her hands, fending off their heavy punches just by kicking them back. Then, right as one's about to fire a laser from its chest, Hina annihilates the limbs of its incredibly screwed colleague with a quick razor-combo from Tyranny, before spinning Freedom in her other hand and deflecting that laser for its entire duration.

"Oh?"

She sees the crumbling Titan try to get ba zip

BAM!

Her knuckle dents it in the jaw.

SsKkLl-
         SLA-SLASH-SLASH-SLASH
                                            SASSH!

Two overhead swings dissipate it. The other Titans keep charging-

wwwwwwww

-and Kokoro just realises that Freedom is boomeranging around-

sw
                 SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-
SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG
               SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG-SHNG

-before Hina catches it with ease.

Last Titan. "What," Hina smiles, tapping Tyranny on her back, "you think I'm showing off?"

The Titan lunges.

"Well, you're right~!"

Hina leaps, bouncing to and fro across air,

"After all..." zip
"Firaga!" bbFFFWOSHHH!
                                      "Blizzaga!" KrSHKRSHKRSHKRL!!!!!!
"Thundaga!" k!!CRACKLRAKL!!shR
                                          "Waterga!" FLL--Sshhhhhshllshllshlll!!!!!
"Aeroga!" WwRsRSR-SRsR-sRSRSRsH!

zip

She's in 15 places at once, firing spells here and there and here,

"...I'm the queen!"

zip-
 -zip
                    zip

before finally using Freedom to cast one instead of her finger.

"Solar Flare! Balloonga!"

A gigantic sun tapes to the Titan's back and slowly chunks it away, locking it in place while Hina polevaults from a pile of projectiles and sends them all flying.

Bop-Bop-Bop-Bop-Bop-Bop

She leaps in.

SLAM!

Freedom and Tyranny dance with any and every element of Magic one after the other, flipping between them all.

                  SLASH SLASH
     BAM

SlashSlsash-Slash
  SlashSlsash-Slash
    SlashSlsash-Slash
      SlashSlsash-Slash

SLASH                       SLASH
        SLASH        SLASH
                 SLSASH!
         SLASH             SLASH!
     SLASH                        SLASH!

wha-BAM

Hina smirks.

BAM,

            SLS
         SLS
      SLS
   SLS
sLS

Freedom's white beam sword dances through the titan, somehow imbued with Thunder that Kokoro didn't even notice,

"Holy Blade!"

And...

...5 Hinas are holding a Tyranny each, dark blade circling with light.

SL- SL-
SLASHH-sh-kh-sh-kh
                             SSLASH-sh-kh
SLASSHHHH
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her Keyblades spin back down. She quietly catches them both and lets them disappear.

Then she turns to Kokoro and smiles. "So, wanna do stuff like that☆?"

Chapter Text

Back at home, Misaki and Kanon took the bottom bunk during sleepovers. But Kokoro slept by herself on the top bunk; she loved feeling the air through the window as she woke up the next day!

There was one problem with the top bunk, though. The bed didn't have safety rails. So once everyone learned how dangerous that was, she started taking extra, extra care when rolling around on the bed, and always made sure she got up from it very, very carefully. Her shoulder's been moving properly ever since.

"...Misaki..."

When Kokoro woke up this morning, she couldn't stop thinking about her friends, both old and new. She thought about how nice Kaoru was to let Kokoro live in her house for the time being, and how nice Hagumi was for lending Kokoro her room. Apparently Hagumi doesn't use it much anyways, since she prefers to sleep in Kaoru's room. Funny compared to Misaki, who took years to acknowledge that sharing a bed with Kanon again (plus Kokoro, if she could fit!) wasn't 'the worst idea in the world'. And even then, she and Kanon would always blush at the prospect and make excuses like 'I smell terrible, ok?' or 'I don't want to accidentally push you off', or-

-so Kokoro's thoughts kept going.

She had a lot of time to reminisce on her way to the castle. It was a solo trip, since Kaoru and Hagumi got to packing for their next expedition immediately after having breakfast with her. They're fast! Anyway, the expedition stuff is the reason she's here today; Chisato asked her to train at least a little bit before she can join them and start searching for her friends. Not that she understands why, but it's sweet that Chisato's worried about her. And if there's one thing Misaki and Kanon have taught her, it's that worried people have surprisingly good advice sometimes. You'd think all the thoughts in their head would stop them from strategizing~.

"Yo, Kokoro!"

Besides, Hina's bound to know plenty of fun stuff. Kokoro can tell. "Hiya, Hina~!"

"Woohoo! The less people call me 'your highness', the better." Hina joins her in the empty cobblestone room. "Were you sitting here this entire time? I thought you'd be szwooshin' around the place."

"Yup☆! I dunno why, but it helped take my mind off things."

"What things?"

"Beats me."

Hina laughs. "That checks!"

"What's this room for, anyway?" Kokoro asks. "It's huge, but there's nothing in it. Seems like a waste of perfectly good space."

"So you'd think, right~?" Hina gets up and throws out her arms; Kokoro takes the time to admire the cool, raggedy tartan jacket she's wearing now. "But this is the best kinda space for training, precisely because it's got nothing in it. Funny how that works."

Wow. Hina seems super smart... "Is it because we can just put whatever we want in here?"

"Exactly!"

Da-dun~! Maybe she's already getting smarter too. "So, what kind of training are we doing then? Should I get out my Keyblade?"

"Hmmmm... hadn't thought this far ahead." Hina puts a hand to her chin. "What do you wanna learn?"

"The stuff you did!"

"Like what?"

"The clones you summoned at the end of that fight!"

"Oh, Duplicate? That's something only I can do."

"Really? Is it another of those unique Abilities? Hmmmmm..." Kokoro puts a hand to her chin as well. "What about all that magic? Like Firaga, Blizzaga, whoosh, whash!"

"Oh, I dunno how to learn that stuff. I kinda just picked it up."

"So it comes with time?"

"Yup!"

"Hmmmm... what about all those backflips?"

"Didn't you backflip down the entire hallway leading here?"

"Wow, how'd you know?" Kokoro's in awe. "But yeah, I guess you're right. I can already do that; just not as fast as you."

...Wait.

What CAN she learn, then? Misaki's mentioned stuff like 'reading your opponent', or 'understanding your strengths', or 'finding somewhere safe when you're on the verge of a panic attack', but none of that ever seemed interesting. "Any ideas? I'm kinda stuck."

"Guess we'll go with those fundamental thingummies! Gimme a sec."

Fundamentals? Kanon and Misaki've mentioned that term too. But maybe Hina can make it sound more boppin'☆.

"Right... just need to empty my mind, and..."

...Wait, what's Hina doing? She's standing at one end of the room and taking some deep breaths. Oh, maybe this's one of those 'fundamental' techniques? Kanon'd do that sometimes before she got out her Ke-

"Spirit of the Explorer Star, heed my call! Join my side, and.... whoosh, wha-bam~!"

Fwoosh!

A beam of light emerges around Hina. When it fades, there's a little glowing axolotl at her front with a big grin on its face. "Hey, it worked~! Hi, Wooper!"

"wwawow~."

Kokoro's eyes instantly light up. "Did you summon that☆?!"

"Yeah, yeah! I've been trying to emulate the stuff Rinko can do. Nowhere near it yet, though." Hina points forward. "Wooper, you can shoot mud, right? Let's bop up the terrain!"

...Wooper smiles and pukes a puddle of dirt onto the cobble.

"Wow, that's amazing!" Kokoro says. "Good job, Wooper!"

"Hmmm~." Hina seems less enthusiastic, weirdly. There's a Chisato-esque smile on her. "Yeah, I'll probably need more than this." She snaps her fingers, dissipating the Wooper into wisps. "Spirit of the Explorer Star, heed my call! Bring an effigy of the Continent Pokémon to my side... bring me Groudon~!"

rrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRSSHH!!

A burst of light nearly knocks Kokoro off her feet. This pillar's way, WAY bigger than the previous one!

"FFWOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!"

...And out from it emerges a titan that'd make the Heartless yesterday look mouse-sized. Her mind screams; W-what is that thing?!?! Her mouth goes; "WHOOAAAAAAA☆! What IS that thing☆?!"

"Cool, right? Whaddya think?"

"I can barely hear you!"

"WHADDYA THINK?"

"I'M KINDA SCARED, BUT IT LOOKS AWESOME!"

"Ahaha, thanks! But it's nowhere near as huge as the actual Groudon!" She sees Hina do a fingersnap. "Alright, big bud, let's bop up the place☆!"

"FFWOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!"

Groudon lets out an ear-splitting roar, and engulfs the entire room in light as it dissipates.

When Kokoro opens her eyes...

...The scenery's changed!

"Woah..."

Her heart pounds. Suddenly, instead of cobblestone, there's this reddish rock covering the floor, littered with pebbles and boulders. There's even a huge cliff looming over above her. If it wasn't for the ceiling, she'd swear she was transported somewhere else entirely.

"This'll be our training ground!" Hina materializes Freedom into her hand and plants it upon the ground. "Ready, Kokoro?"

Kokoro materializes Morning Star Aquamarine and does the same. "R-ready! What am I gonna be doing?"

Then Hina sits down. "Walkin' around!"

...

...

 

"...Eh?"

"Just have a look around. Do what you want!"

Oh. Wow, fundamentals really ARE fun!

Kokoro breaks into a skip and starts wandering through the place; it's almost like she's back on the Islands already~. She takes a few steps, then she starts taking leaps, gliding through the air briefly each time. Hina's lounging in the middle of the room and watching her as she zooms across. "Moving around's easier when you have your Keyblade out, right? Lets you float, makes your runnin' and slashin' stronger just by existing."

"Whoa, you're right," Kokoro says. "I never noticed!"

"Try reaching that spot over there. The one surrounded by boulders!"

Kokoro jogs through an increasingly bumpy ground until there's nothing but slanted stones ahead. Then she hops across each, one by one, getting a feeling for how far Morning Star lets her go. Even with Morning Star, it's not all that easy; the slopes would probably make Misaki shudder in concern. By the end of it, she has to flat-out rock climb just so she can reach the little clearing on top of the hill.

Still, she manages it with aplomb and nails the landing. "Ta-da!"

"Woohoo!" Hina makes a single clap. "Hmmm... what next? Oh!" She smiles. "Kokoro, search for food here."

She tilts her head. "Food?"

"Yeah. Gotta be able to find resources while you're exploring, right? Can't starve. So find some grub! You've got until 1 'o clock."

Ooooo, this seems fun~. Searching for food in the middle of an empty plateau like this... she's gonna be like one of those explorers from her board games, who find their meals as they go. It's interesting enough to make her chest ache.

...Is a chest ache normally something that happens when you're excited? Probably.

Kokoro spends the next half an hour or so singing and skipping around again, relishing in the swiftness of her legs when she holds her Keyblade. But she doesn't come by anything food-shaped in the process. She asks Hina if rocks are edible, but Hina just laughs and says no. Dang. "Hmmmm." Eventually, she stops. "I'm at a loss. Maybe there's something underneath the ground?"

"Nah, nothing but rock under there," Hina responds.

"What about the sky?"

"I can't summon birds~."

"Well, I'm stumped, then," Kokoro pouts. "This is kinda hard."

"Anywhere you haven't explored yet?"

She has a look around. "Not that I can tell... I've ran around the entire room 3 times."

"Really? What about the cliff up there?"

...Wait. That one?

Kokoro stares at the towering slope of rock, covering the wall and reaching all the way up near the room's ceiling. It... dwarfs her, in a way that makes it impossible not to be reminded of how much larger the world is than you. "There's some more ground up there," Hina says. "Well, not a lot, but it's better than nothing. All you gotta do is climb 150 feet or so."

...

... "Somethin' wrong?"

Kokoro blinks.

"You're spacing out, Kokoro. Y'know, if you were actually stuck in a place like this and didn't have any food, you'd be in trouble."

Don't climb it.

"It's tough, but stuff like this is what it takes sometimes. That's the explorin' life for ya."

What Hina's saying... makes sense. And honestly, Kokoro knows she's perfectly capable of climbing this cliff. Looks tricky, but doable. It's just... if she happens to mess up, then...

"Time's tickin'. You gonna get your lunch by the deadline?"

...Right. She shakes her head. Why be scared? No point in worrying about what'll happen if you fall; if you don't mess up, then you won't. Simple as. "I'm on it," Kokoro responds. "Here I go, Hina!"

"Good luck~!"

Kokoro materializes Morning Star Aquamarine again and starts heading up, turning her brain off so her body can do the work. She uses her free hand to grab bump after bump on the cliff's surface and vault herself higher, feeling the boost in her veins from her Keyblade each time she does. Sometimes, everything flows so freely that she leaps on impulse and starts running up it on her feet instead. Which, i-if she thinks about it, is... really dangerous...

"...Ah!"

She gasps. Her heart freezes. Her momentum stills.

"N-no, wait...!"

Reach it, reach it, REACH IT-

-...Kokoro's hand barely grips onto the next rock.

...

"Whoa, you just stopped~," she hears. "What gives?"

Her arms are shaking.

Kokoro dangles far above solid ground, her Keyblade wobblingly embedded into the stone. She tries to keep her feet on the cliff too, but... they don't have the strength. She's trembling. Why? W-what's making her feel like this?

...Is it...

"Eh? Oiiii, Kokoro! Why'd you dematerialize your Keyblade?"

Kokoro hauls herself up the rest of the way using both hands, slowly but surely. Once she stands at the top, she ignores the scratches on her palms and looks downward. "I made it!"

"Good job! But seriously, don't do that," Hina laughs. "I'm surprised you managed to climb the rest of the way."

"Eh, you worry too much~."

Now that her heartbeat's settled again, Kokoro starts traipsing across the plateau. She can't help but wonder though; what gives? Why'd she start shaking once she neared the top? Why'd she keep thinking about how high above solid, hard ground she was? She kept worrying about how it'd feel to fall, and she couldn't block the idea out, even though it's completely pointless to dwell on it. That was weird.

Anyway, her search doesn't last much longer. "Hey, Hina," she yells, "there's nothing up here!"

"Well, that sucks. Guess you should come back down then."

...Kokoro materializes her Keyblade again. But the second she does, all she can do is stare at the rock 150 feet below. "Hey, Hina. If I... jump off, will my Keyblade make the landing safe?"

"Who knows~?"

Oh no. "O-oh well! Guess I'll just have to climb down~!"

"Keep your Keyblade out this time!"

Right. Deep breaths, then. Deep breaths. She... doesn't normally think about what she can't do. But somehow, when she looks at the sky-blue gems in her Keyblade, she knows; she's not humanly capable of scaling this cliff without it. "Here goes..." She shakes her head. "No, I need more cheer. Here goes!"

She ties the strings of her hoodie around her Keyblade, tucks it into her arm, and starts climbing down. Push the wobbly parts of your brain out, Kokoro... focus on the excited parts. The parts of your brain that go 'whoa,' and 'this is fun,' and 'we're really high up!'

'We're... really, r-really high up...'

 

 

"Kokoro? You stopped again."

Kokoro imagines a wide blue sky.

She imagines a whole world full of rocks and cliffs.

She imagines a suffocating breeze that plummets past her, down to the ground.

She imagines her right shoulder, frozen. She imagines her hands bruised and stiff from repeated climbing. She imagines her legs worn down from running between place after place, finding nothing, finding no-one. She imagines her arms failing to grab a ledge. She imagines what it'd be like to fall, all the way until...

Until...

...i-if she falls, then-

"Oiiiii, I told you not to put your Keyblade away!"

...Kokoro takes a deep breath.

She's thinking too much. Obviously, she's not gonna fall here. That's silly; she's having a fun, exciting rock-climb down, because it's giving her a good workout and a cool birds-eye view of the room. That's all there is to it!

"Kokoro? You gotta get your Keyblade back out!"

She looks down at the bite-sized Hina as she starts moving again. "I'll be fine! Here I come-"

Then her hand falls on nothing.

"-Huh?"

.

  .

    .

  .

.

  .

    .

  .

...

...Oh.

Wasn't there a rock there? Guess not.

She made a mistake.

Now she's falling.

...She's falling,

She's falling,

she's falling,
she's falling,
she's falling,
no,
no,
NO,
NO,

"Kok..r..! Y...r Key...ade!"

D-deep breaths. Deep breaths. Misaki said take deep breaths. When it hurts, when it's scary, she needs to breathe in... a-and out... a-and, i-in...

...She's falling. She's falling, she's falling, she's falling, what can she do, what can she do? R-right, her Keyblade! Kokoro materializes it, and... a-and... w-what does she do?! D-don't think about the ground, just, just... h-help, someone, help, please, she needs to...

...she needs to... uh...

...u-uh... th-that! N-NOW! "R-r-r... REFLECT!"

The second she casts it, her momentum disappears.

Like a peaceful spring breeze, her Keyblade bounces her back up and rolls her through the air. It worked! Now, um... Fire! Right; she shoots Fire 3 times, using the recoil of each to push herself up and keep herself suspended, diverting her crash course until it's gentle and sideways enough to-

"Ack!"

-H-hit the ground.

"Ow, ow, ow..."

M-Misaki said... take deep breaths... don't think about the pain...

"Hey, you figured it out eventually! Good job, Kokoro!"

...d-don't think about the pain...

"Hey, Kokorooo? You're alive. You can open your eyes."

Don't think about the-

-Oh. Oh, it doesn't hurt that much, actually.

She opens her eyes and lifts her head up. "...Hina..."

"Maybe I should've rescued you myself. You looked like you were gonna faint up there~."

"...Really...?" She gets up; gradually, at least. "I feel fine..."

"Your limbs're shakin'."

"Are they...?" She dematerializes her Keyblade and immediately feels better. Though her mind's a bit hazy, for some reason. "How about now?"

Hina pokes her on the forehead. "Your sweat's really cold. You sure you're not terrified?"

"Why would that mean I'm terrified?" Kokoro asks. "I mean, I've got no reason to be."

"You could've died just now~! That's a pretty big reason."

"Not really! I came out alive, so there's no problem." She brushes her unicorn shirt. "See? Not a scratch!"

Hina raises an eyebrow. "I've never seen someone switch moods so quickly. What's going on in there, Kokoro?"

"You tell me. Why're you staring at me like that? I've felt energetic this whole time, y'know."

"...Ahahaha☆!"

Now she's just confused. Is Hina worried about her? Doesn't really need to be; Kokoro can't recall anything from the last 30 seconds that'd be worth worrying about...

"You really are funny, Kokoro. I like you!"

...Awww! "I like you too, Hina~! Thanks for the advice," she says. "You were right. Having my Keyblade out really is important. Guess that means I've gotta ignore the shaking."

"The shaking?"

She waves her arms around. "For some reason, it made my limbs freeze up while I was climbing. I feel way less stiff now that it's gone."

"Huh. That's... not how it's supposed to work. Not in your case, at least," Hina says. "Like, your heart seems all wa-BOOSH and zammin', so I figured the Keyblade would make you really mobile."

"I mean, it was. But then it just... stopped, while I was climbing."

"You suuuure you weren't terrified? If your heart was beating like crazy from worrying about heights or whatever, then that'd explain the stiffness."

"Didn't feel terrified at all!"

"Now that's SUPER weird☆," Hina says. "Oh well, whatever. You're alive and kickin', so that's what counts. Here's your reward!"

Wait, a reward? Hina's handing her...

...a lunchbox. "Sorry, I tricked ya. There's no food anywhere in this place."

"Oh." Kokoro blinks. "So, if I was actually in a place like this without any food,"

"Yup. You would've starved."

.

 

...That makes a lot of sense! Kokoro puts her fist in her other hand. "I see. So to be a good explorer, you've gotta pack your lunches beforehand!"

"You got it!" Hina gestures to the lunchbox. "Go ahead and eat up. Hagumi made these for me and Chisachi, but you can have mine. I'm not all that hungry."

"Aw, thanks! Lemme know if you wanna share."

"Boppin'! Before that though," Hina rolls up her sleeves. "I, uh. Gotta figure out how to remove the terrain."

Kokoro munches on some very delicious salmon. "Why not keep it? It looks nice!"

"No can do~. Chisachi'd make me sleep on the floor if she found out I turned this room into a savannah," Hina smiles. "The rocks're blocking the door anyway, so I gotta. Now, how to do this... maybe if I just blasted it all with laser beams..."

As Kokoro watches chunks of boulder fly around the room and eats the best lunch she's had in a long while, she realises she's ready for an expedition. She knows what her Keyblade can do, and she knows she has to pack things like food; that probably means she's learnt everything she needs to know about 'fundamentals'. Kaoru and Hagumi're leaving this evening, right? Now that she's done with her training, she'll head right over and join them. Shouldn't be all that dangerous; thanks to Hina, she's already figured out how to survive and avoid getting hurt, so she'll be fine.

Her shoulder's still moving.

 

---

 

"Kokoroooo! You're late☆. By 25 hours!"

Two days later, she's back in the same room (it still has debris in it). "Morning, Hina!" She waves as she enters. "I didn't realise you wanted me to train yesterday."

"Well, I guess I didn't actually tell you, did I? Ahaha!" Hina grins. "Still, where were you? All I know is that Chisachi's maaaaaad."

"Oh, I was on an expedition with Kaoru and Hagumi!" She responds. "See, I thought I was done with training, so I told them that I was done, and then we all headed off to this cool world where people had these spinning tops they fought each other with in arenas. We battled some Heartless, and then I got lost for a looooong time, but I packed lunch before we set out so it was fine, and then when we got back home Chisato said she was forbidding me from going to another world until you say otherwise."

"Boppin'! ...Except for that last part." They both grin. "Honestly, I would've said you can go. It's just Chisachi who's worried."

"Well, I don't mind. She's probably worried for a good reason. Misaki usually is."

"Sounds like they'd get along~."

Misaki and Kanon meeting all her new friends...

...Yeah. That'd be nice, once she sees them again. "So," Kokoro asks, "what do I need to learn before I can really go exploring?"

"Mmmm... well, how to not get lost, for starters." Hina wags a finger at her. "Hagumi was really stressed when you disappeared, wasn't she?"

She recalls the strain on Hagumi's face after they reunited. "Yeah, you're right. How'd you know?"

"You think there's things about those two I DON'T know☆?" Wow... Hina's smile is radiant. "You're lucky she had good ol' Kao-chan with her. If that wasn't the case, she would've torn some buildings apart just to find you."

"...Was she really that worried about me?"

"Yeah."

Kokoro nods. "So this is important then. What should I do to not get lost?"

"Stick with 'em, obviously. Make sure you never leave their sight~!" Hina says. "Just, like, look at them every now and then to make sure they're still with you. That should work."

"You're good at coming up with ideas, Hina! I'll do that."

"Swazzin'!"

Swazzin'! Now she won't ever be the cause of Hagumi's frown. Whew.

...

...Oh, that was pretty simple then. "Uhhhh..." Kokoro tries her best to ponder, "what else should I learn?"

"Beats me."

They sit down and contemplate many things for the next 15 seconds, before Kokoro's mind trails off into song. La-lala, lala...

"Oh, right. Kokoro, you gotta learn how to fight!"

...la, la-

'Fight.'

That one word freezes her solid. "Wait. What do you mean, fight?"

"Well, you've gotta beat up the Heartless that get in your way. They're all over the place right now. How'd you do against them on your last trip?"

"They were a bit bigger than usual. I just chipped in here and there!"

"Do you think you could fight them by yourself? Sometimes there might be too many for Kaoru and Hagumi to protect you."

"Mmmm..." She frowns. "Yeah, that's true. I guess I should learn how to deal with them better," she says. "But you can't summon Heartless, right? So how would you train me?"

"Well, that's obvious." Hina materialises Freedom. "You fight me for a bit."

"..."

'No.'

She can tell. What Hina's suggesting is a different kind of training than Misaki's. Misaki teaches you to defend. She telepaths attacks and teaches you how to block, or dodge, or disarm. She taught Kokoro how to keep herself and her friends safe. That's what she's been doing this whole time. And that's... all she really needs to do, isn't it?

"What's up? S'nothing complicated."

"..." Kokoro looks at Hina. "You want me to hit you like I'd hit a Heartless, don't you? You want me to learn how to destroy them."

"Well, obviously. If you don't destroy them, they're not gonna stop attacking you."

She shakes her head. "I know that. But you're not a Heartless. You're a person. And you're not even trying to hurt me."

"Uhhh... I don't get it." Hina scratches her head. "Why does that matter?"

"...It'll hurt if I hit you."

"That's fighting for ya."

"But I don't want to hurt you, Hina," she says. "You're wonderful. You put time out of your schedule to train me. You come up with lots of fun ideas. And anyone who likes whoosh-ing around the place can't be a bad person."

"Aw, thanks. You're so gooey, Kokoro☆."

Hina closes her eyes and breathes for a moment.

"...Well, it's not nice to see someone you like get hurt. Especially if you're the one hurting them. I know how that feels. So..."

She takes a few steps back and throws out her arms.

"Lemme show you something. Kokoro, can you cast Fire at me real quick?"

"Huh? Um... okay." She gets out Morning Star. It doesn't make her feel any happier. "You'll block, right?"

"Sure, sure~."

"Okay then. I trust you."

The tip of her Keyblade is pointed at Hina. Time slows.

Then, a flame bursts out and barrels towards Hina.

bwoosh!

"H-Hina?!" N-no! She didn't block it! "Hina, you-"

"Ahahaha☆! You really are a funny person."

"...Eh?"

Hina pats her abs; there isn't a single scratch on them. "I've been in more slugouts with Hagumi than I can count. And I duel Kaoru a lot too. I've seen them attack and evade so many times, in so many ways, that I know exactly how strong they are," she says. "Know why they do it? Because they wanna learn how to protect Chisachi. No offense, but your one fireball is pretty easy to shrug off in comparison to them."

...Protect, huh.

That's a wonderful word to Kokoro. She heard it a lot back at Destiny Islands. It's what spurred her to learn the Keyblade in the first place.

So we can all protect each other, in case we're ever in danger.

Kokoro thinks the world is nice and warm by default. All the nature, the sunlight, and the people who make it that way; it makes life wonderful. Everyone back home, and everyone here... they're strong and lovely in their own ways, and they're all worth cherishing.

But they're not invincible. Far from it. Kokoro knows her friends have a lot going on in their minds. What if, one day, they were being threatened by something, and Kokoro was able to help? What if Kokoro could get rid of the darkness? What if she could help them smile again? Maybe, if she learned how to do that, Misaki and Kanon wouldn't ever need to feel sad or depressed again; they'd stop having a reason to. They'd finally, finally get to be happy all the time like they deserve. Is... that the kind of feeling that motivates all of the kingdom's knights? Is it what motivated Misaki to teach herself in the first place, and Kanon to follow? "...Alright then. I'll do it," she says. "But promise me I won't be hurting you much. At least, not as much as I'd hurt a Heartless."

"Don't worry. This is just sparring. And believe me, I know better than anyone else how to keep sparring safe." Hina whirls around Freedom. "I'm not gonna bonk my protege on the head too hard!"

"Hehe." Kokoro smiles. "Thanks, Hina!"

 

---

 

1 and a half days pass. She becomes fervent, full of starlight. Her mind's racing with everything she can do, fueled by thoughts of the life she wants to return to.

And there's something she learns, the more Hina teaches her how to land hits. Hina just... recovers. Kokoro'll land a slash, or some Magic, and it'll cause damage; probably some pain. But in Kaoru's words, it's... 'fleeting'. It's not even enough to cause a wound like it is with a Heartless. "Hina," she asks. "Are you a Keyblade Master like Chisato and Rinko are?"

"Nah! But I've beaten masters in sparring before. Even some teachers at the Academy." Hina lowers Freedom and wanders around the room, spinning it on her index finger. "I had a whole title of 'Prodigy' going on back there. It made everything a real bore. There's so many things you can do with a Keyblade, but all they care about is 'dispelling darkness' and 'dedicating yourself to the worlds' and all that."

"Well, that doesn't sound too bad."

"You don't get breaks on weekends there."

Kokoro shudders. "Whoa, they should lighten up!"

"Right~?" Hina winks. "Anyway, you've gotten pretty good, Kokoro. I'd say you're ready."

To explore?! "Really?"

"Yeah, yeah. You've got a bunch of boppin' stuff," she continues. "Remember when you saved yourself from that fall by casting Reflect? The barrier came out below you; normally it's supposed to appear around you, but you can summon it anywhere. And, and! When you used Fire to slow your descent, I saw the fireballs bouncing off it too."

"...Wait, really?"

"Yeah, yeah. There's other stuff too; you casted it in midair, I've seen you cast it while walking," Hina rambles, "and you know already how to swing that Keyblade, from the looks of it. You're super zippy. Oh, and for some reason, Blizzara barely costs you anything! I dunno why you can spam that spell so much. Well, actually, I did kinda figure out why, but..."

Whoa... maybe she knows more stuff than she realises! The Keyblade's really inter-

"-Ah." Hina cuts off. "You've also got a big problem, though."

Kokoro blinks. "What sort of problem?"

"You're afraid of getting hit, aren't you?"

...

...Kokoro lowers her Keyblade. "I can tell~," Hina continues, in the same tone as before. "Training's less like a fight to you and more like a playground. You focus on dodging rather than hitting. You're even pre-emptively trying to predict and dodge things while doing the hitting."

"Well☆. Nobody likes getting hurt."

Hina puts her hands on the back of her head. "Fair enough! Getting hit on purpose'd be pretty counterintuitive for your style. But you know I was taking it wayyyyy easy on you, right?" She jovially continues. "Pain's unavoidable. That's just how darkness works. In a real fight, you're not gonna be able to dodge everything just because you want to. "

Kokoro shakes her head. "Not with that attitude. I'm pretty confident I can."

"Sure, sure. And if you don't?"

Now that's a silly question. "Where's the fun in imagining being hit☆?"

"...Ahaha! That's a Kokoro thing to say, alright. Well... it's a problem, but I guess you can blop it somewhat by relying on others. Point is," Hina waves, "you'll be fiiiine~. Queen's seal of approval. Just stick with good ol' Kao-chan n' Hagu and figure stuff out as you go."

"Woohoo! Thanks a bunch, Hina. Now I can really start looking for my friends!" She smiles. "Y'know, I thought your training was gonna be really violent at first. But it wasn't as bad as I thought."

"Hey, I'm not a bully! ...Usually." They giggle. "Misaki, huh. I hear that name from you a lot-"

Then Hina's eyes brighten.

"Oh, oh, oh, oh-oh-oh-oh☆☆☆! I finally remembered!!!"

Ooooooh? What's she excited about? She's leaning in with this merry-go-around grin on her face.

"Kokoro, Kokoro, tell me about your friends☆!" Suddenly, there's barely any space between them. "Chisachi cut me off back in the grand hall, but I wanna know!"

"My friends?! I'd love to!!!" She happily responds. "Promise you'll tell me more about the others too? I wanna know stuff like... why Kaoru blushes sometimes when you and Chisato talk to her, or why Hagumi likes collecting flowers, and gems!"

"Sure, sure, sure!"

"Thanks, Hina! You're the best," she giggles. "Who should I start with... oh, Misaki! You remind me of her, so-"

"Eh? Wait, hold on," Hina leans sideways. "I remind you of her? I assumed she was all 'grrrgggh'. More like Chisachi than me."

"Chisato's more like Rinko and Kanon, to be honest. As for you and Misaki," she says, "I think it's like... you both always stick around your friends, you're super talented and can do lots of stuff... oh, and you're also really, really strong! You even use your Keyblades in that same bashy and roarrr-y style."

"Roarrrrr! Grrowlll!" They giggle again at each other's imitations. "So Misaki's really strong, huh?"

"Yeah, yeah. Strong enough to teach me and Kanon!"

"That's interesting~. If we got into a fight, I wonder which one of us'd win."

She feels her heart drop. "Hey, don't say that-"

"Ahahaha☆! Just kidding. I'm not fighting Kokoro's friend if she doesn't want me to."

-And rise again... "Phew. I don't ever wanna see my friends hurt each other."

"Sorry for scarin' you, honest." Hina waves. "Lemme find something else to ask... oh, you said she was really talented too."

"Misaki's amazing!"

"Whoa☆!" Hina looks at how wide she's throwing her arms. "That's a lot of amazing☆."

"Yeah, yeah. She always says she's lazy, but she handles most of the chores and helps out whenever Kanon's having trouble with something. Oh, and she runs a farm!"

"Whoa, for real☆? A farm?"

Hehe. Boasting about these two is so fun! "A whole farm! She grows fruit for everyone on Destiny Islands! We all help out sometimes too," she says. "None of us knew our parents, but Misaki had a grandma who stuck around the Islands for a while; apparently, she taught her how to raise all those fun-looking plants."

"Huh... never woulda figured. I'm nowhere near as grumpy as Misaki is though, right~?"

"Nope. But you're both wonderful~!"

"Aw, thanks," Hina grins. "So, so, what about Kanon then☆?"

"Kanon's the kindest person I know☆! I love her this, this, this, this, THIS much☆☆!"

"Dang! That's as wide an armspan as the Misaki one!"

"Ehehe~." The warmth rushes through her cheeks. She can't stop herself anymore. She just keeps going, and going, and going; "Me and her don't do as much around the island as Misaki does, and she gets sad about that sometimes. But she's really, really wonderful; she's so patient, and she always talks to us, and she's so brave, too! There was even one time where she casted Cure before she had a Keyblade. I couldn't stop staring into her eyes when she did that. She's always the one who rushes out when someone's in trouble; she and Misaki are like heroes!"

"That's a lotta words. You really like those two, huh."

"'Course I do! I like them more than anyone else in the entire world; they're my bestest, closest friends ever. I've been with them my entire life, and they're just the best, and they're warm to cuddle with, and they're so cute, and pretty, and, and... and!!!!"

...Hina stays silent and watches her.

"Should I talk more about them? Can I? Okay! Ooo, what about, what about... oh☆!" Kokoro grins. "Did you know there was this one time where Kanon gifted Misaki a pendant? It had this beautiful, round, smooth sapphire in it, and it looks exactly like the one Misaki made for her, so now they match. When I saw that, I couldn't look away."

"Uh-huh?"

"It was... um..."

...For some reason, her mind starts drifting.

"I... I can't remember what happened next. I..."

ba-thump

ba-thump

Her chest goes from beating to squelching.

"...Oh!"

Kokoro puts a hand over her heart; she remembers this sensation!

"After she gave Misaki the pendant, the two were like... really close to each other. Like you and Chisato were in the throne room."

Hina's eyes glisten.

"It was... I dunno how to word it. But they were really affectionate. I think It shocked me. My heart felt like it was gonna burst, because I was so happy from seeing them like that. I ran over and cheered for them because of how joyful they looked. My stomach was squirming, and I thought I was gonna trip and fall over. I felt so happy."

"Happy, huh?"

ba-thump "...Yeah... I was... really happy..."

"I see, I see~. And they were acting like me and Chisachi, huh."

ba-thump

"Oh. Hey, Kokoro☆. You feelin' ok?"

Hina steps closer. "Wh-what is it?" Kokoro asks.

"Your face looks cold again. It's shivering."

"Eh...?"

She feels her cheek. Hina's right. Her body's starting... to feel numb. "What's... making me shiver...?"

"Dunno. Are you worried about something☆?"

"Not... really... why would I be...?"

The world gets blurrier and blurrier. The bricks on the walls and the ceiling blend with each other, falling apart.

Shivering... if she's shivering, then the reason must be... "I-I think I'm shaking, because... seeing Misaki and Kanon so close to each other, is... a really fond memory to me. I think i-it's making me" ba-thump "buzz with joy...!"

"You sure? Doesn't seem like it to me. I don't think people's limbs shiver when they're joyous."

...What...? Hina's not making any sense... if her heart is pounding, that means she's excited, or exhilarated. If her limbs are shaking, that means she's anticipating something wondrous, or buzzing with energy. Sure, those sensations aren't inherently caused by positive emotions, but... Kokoro has nothing to be negative about. If she's shaking because she's talking about her friends, then that must mean she's feeling joy.

There's nothing about Misaki

ba-thump

and Kanon,

ba-thump

her best friends,

ba-thump

that'd ever make her feel sorrow.

Shadow.

"Kokoro, are you sure you're happy right now?"

She can't move. Hina's eyes are staring into hers. "O-obviously. I've got nothing to be sad a-" She hiccups. "A-about~!"

Wait, why is she hiccuping? "I dunno☆," Hina whispers. "Seems like you've got something to be sad about to me. Scared of, even."

Shadow. "I-I... do?"

"Yeah. It's because of your friends."

Her heart beats faster. She doesn't understand. She doesn't understand. She doesn't understand. Shadow. She has no reason to be scared. She has no reason to be scared. There's... nothing... to be afraid of...

...

Shadow.

...She... she can't remember what she's thinking about anymore. Shadow. She can't remember. Her mind's gone.

Shadow.

"Kokoro." Shadow. "You love Misaki and Kanon a whooooole bunch, don't you~? They're your best friends."Shadow.

Shadow."...Yeah..."

"And maybe, they're even something more. Right~?"

"...Yeah..."Shadow.

Shadow."You like them as much as they like each other, right?"Shadow.

"...Yeah..."

"Well, the answer seems pretty obvious to me, then☆. When you saw them being so close, you weren't feeling a positive emotion." Shadow.Shadow.Shadow.
Shadow.Shadow.Shadow.Shadow.Shadow.

Kokoro stops breathing. "I... wasn't...?"

"Mhm~. Seeing them be all lovey-dovey... it made you sad, didn't it?" Shadow. "You were envious," Shadow. "about how close they were to each other."

"...Close..."

Shadow."That's right. You weren't happy, Kokoro..."

Close.

"...You were jealous☆."

Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,Shadow,

 

 

A worm of darkness whispers.

 

 

"Kokoro? Heyyy, Kokoro!!! Don't blank out on me!"

"H-huh?"

She blinks. Her veins feel like they've been blocked.

"...Hina...?"

Hina's gripping her upper arm, wobbling her back and forth. "Wake uuuup- oh, you're still awake!"

"W-what... what w-was I..."

"You seem really out of it. All of a sudden, you just stopped responding." Hina steps back. "You okay?"

"...Yeah, I think so."

"Test time, then. What were we just talking about?"

"Um... oh, I remember now!" She snaps out of her haze. "Misaki and Kanon. I was talking about how happy they made me feel, right?"

"That wasn't THE most recent part, no."

"...Eh?" She tries to recall if anything else happened. But her head clogs up when she does. It's an unpleasant sensation, and she feels perfectly alright now, so she decides not to give it any more thought~! "Nah, I don't remember anything else."

"Mmmm... did I say something insensitive again...?"

Hina's started mumbling. "What's up?" Kokoro asks.

"Ah, nothing, nothing." It's shrugged off with a wave. "Jeez☆, did gushing about your friends make your head overload or something?"

"Well, it's possible☆!"

"Ahahaha! That's Kokoro for you."

Is that what actually happened? From the looks of it, Hina remembers more of the details than she does. Well, whatever~; it probably wasn't important anyway.

"I'm surprised you two didn't gallivant off somewhere else."

Oh, that voice!

They turn around and find; "Chisachi! Welcome home~."

"Hina, I've been home the entire day."

"Ehehe, I know. I've just always wanted to say that."

"...Then it's good to be home." Chisato smiles, combing a stray tuft of hair back into place and adjusting the collar on her longcoat. "I'm glad to see you two're thick as thieves. Though just to make sure... Kokoro, Hina hasn't put you in any danger, has she?"

"Nope! 'Course she wouldn't."

"C'mon, Chisachi~. I'm not THAT bad."

"The miniature desert and jungle you summoned here yesterday implies otherwise," she emphasises, "but still, I'll take your word for it. I know I can trust you."

"Oooo~. So you'll believe anything I say?"

"Don't push your luck." She brushes her fingers on Hina's cheek in a way that makes Kokoro feel all fuzzy. "Do you think Kokoro's ready now?"

"Yup! As long as she sticks with Hagu n' Kao-chan."

Chisato giggles. "Quite the trio they make. Well, Kokoro," she turns, "if you feel you're prepared, I'll make no attempts to stop you. In fact, I've already briefed my dear knights on their next expedition. Would you like to join them?"

"You bet!" Kokoro gives her the biggest salute possible, feeling as happy as she can possibly be. "I-I promise I won't get lost this time!"

Chapter Text

She promised the queens she'd stick with Hagumi and Kaoru. And she wants to keep that promise. Because now, something feels like it's burning in her; something that makes her never want to be separated again. "Nice try," she says, rolling between a pair of Heartless, "but this is it!"

Thwack☆Thwack☆!

That was a good decision on her part. Turns out, sticking together is really important in a place like this.

Crystals. They're the standout feature of the passage Kokoro finds herself in right now; and also of every single other passage here. They're buried around the walls, into the ceilings and on the ground of every floor this cave has; crystals, crystals, crystals. Shapes and sizes, gems and minerals of what seems like every kind, tunnels of emerald or jade and stalactites of amethyst and citrine, each individual kind of gem sometimes clustered for minutes on end. When there is water, and rock, and dirt instead, it takes a glitter-dusted hue, usually of a soft purple-ish blue, gleaming as it's trod upon. Kokoro can't take her eyes off the scenery, even as she fights off the Heartless and protects the local denizens of this world. It's just so, amazingly pretty. It's incredible. It almost feels like the kind of extravagant castle she thought Shirasagi Kingdom would have, except it's a completely natural environment. The only artificial things she's seen in here so far are the carpets and merchandise laid out in a few areas by chameleon shopkeepers. This is probably the prettiest world she's been to so far!

But now, she can also tell it's dangerous. She only has a couple packed lunches with her; and she knows that if she got lost in here, she could end up staying lost all the way until her belly's gone. Travelling worlds is fun (says her brain's angel Misaki and devil Hina), but you can't wander into one without making sure you'll stay healthy. In a way... she actually kind of likes that about expeditions. If you prepare yourself properly, you get rewarded with sights as wonderful as these. The crystals are as tough as they are beautiful; just like several people she knows.

And this is just one single dungeon of the countless this world has.

ᕙ✶✶◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇CRYSTAL CROSSING◇◇◇◇ᕕ

She can only imagine the sheer thrill of exploring every single one with her friends once they reunite.

"Kokoro, heads up!"

"Oh!"

BASH! Hagumi jumps to her side and banishes a clattering Heartless with one hard swing. "Whew, that's the last of them."

"Thanks a bunch, Hagumi!"

"No prob!"

"You are safe now, little kitten," Kaoru says to a smitten cat with a spring-shaped tail, placing onto the ground. It meows in gratitude and then trots away. "Fufu. This world's lovely associates are as fleeting as ever."

Kokoro's eyes light up. "Are you friends with some of them? That's amazing! ...Wait, does that mean you've been here before?"

"Yup! We had to protect this place from Heartless a few days back. That's why I recognise a lot of these tunnels."

Makes this trip a lot safer, doesn't it? ...Ah, that's probably why Chisato let her go with them so soon. Felt strange at the time, considering how much she seems to care about safety. Although with how little Kokoro's seen her, it's hard to tell...

"We haven't been outside this cave yet, but we'll work up the courage for it eventually," Hagumi says. "Hey, Kaoru, got the map? There's a lot more Heartless here than there were before, so I was thinking we should check lower down too."

"A marvellous idea! However..." Kaoru brings her map out. "...I'm afraid I'm not quite sure of our current location. Mayhaps my brain fleets, but it feels as if the coves around us have been... swapped, since our last visit."

"Swapped?"

"Th-that is the only way I can explain the phenomenon. Perhaps... um..." Kaoru's sweating again. "...Ah! It could be that this cave's layout changes with each passing day!"

"Whoa, really?"

"O-o-of course."

Ah. That's the 'I don't know' face.

"You're so smart, Kaoru!" Hagumi cheers. "Well, if the map's not working, lemme navigate instead."

"That would be much appreciated..."

Hehe. Kokoro can't tell if Kaoru's blushing because of Hagumi or because of the bluffing. Either way, it's cute-

-Hm? They're switching roles. "Is Kaoru not good at exploring without a map?" Kokoro asks.

"Yeah, she gets lost all the time!" Hagumi says. "I usually find my way around sooner or later though; so I handle exploring when we don't have a map, and she handles it when we do!"

"'Tis a stratagem we established after many a journey... I carry more pride in it than any other!"

"Yeah~!" Hagumi runs over and grabs Kaoru's hand, to which Kaoru... shyly looks away. Yup, Hagumi's causing the blush~. "We'll always be together. 'Cause together, the two of us can get through anything!"

"...Ehehe!" Kokoro smiles. "Just looking at you two makes me feel warm. Sounds like you've been to lots of different worlds☆."

"We've helped out the kingdom's security for 8 years now, so we know a lotta stuff." Hagumi steps a bit closer to her. "...You stick with us too, okay? We don't want you to get lost again. I know it's fun to run around, but it's scary if you don't know when a friend's safe, so... please?"

"Don't worry, Hagu. I don't wanna be distant from my friends either. And Hina gave me some good tips for sticking☆!"

Hagumi breathes a sigh of relief. "Whew... thanks a bunch. Ah, sorry if I sound persistent! It's just a bad idea to deal with Heartless on your own, that's all."

Kaoru intertwines their fingers. "No need to worry, my dear. We'll ensure Kokoro never faces such a situation."

"...Eheheh~. Thanks, Kaoru." Hagumi gives Kaoru's hand a squeeze, then parts from it, scouting the nearby area with a sudden burst of energy. There's a really intense expression on her now as she hops between crystal ledges and looks into every nook and cranny. "Let's see, let's see... oh! Over there!" She yells. "I remember that entranceway! We saw it before we left last time!"

"What astounding memory, my valiant dear!" Kaoru winks at Kokoro; "Let us proceed, my lionel. We've found the path to the deepest floor!"

"Oooh?! Lemme see!"

She follows the knights, heading through an opening within a cluster of spinels. Through the opening lies a long, dark tunnel, its cold and fractured surfaces illuminated only by the glittering gems they're made of. "Looks like it gets pretty tight up ahead. Kokoro, lemme take the front. Kaoru, could you watch her back?"

"But of course, my dear."
"Aye aye, captain☆!"

"Good. Take it steady; this is unknown territory now, so we gotta stay on guard."

"Ooo, can we play I Spy?" Kokoro asks.

...But Hagumi isn't responding anymore. "You feel her blaze, no?" Kaoru whispers. "It would be best if we let her focus. May I be your partner in the wondrous game of I Spy instead?"

"Sure! I'll start with..."

They take turns and happily chat with each other. But it doesn't last long. Turns out I Spy is pretty hard to play when you can't see anything...

...

...Kokoro's smile fades.

She doesn't like being in such a gloomy place. When it's silent and dark, it makes her feel alone, even if her friends are right there. It's a strange kind of loneliness, and... it's familiar somehow. In some ways, it feels like the time she was unconscious, when Destiny Islands disappeared and she woke up in a completely different world, all by herself without knowing why. 2 whole weeks of lonely, separated nothingness, passed in the blink of an eye. But it also feels like the time where she was at the beach during the sunset, eavesdropping on Misaki and Kanon... and it also feels like yesterday, when she was with Hina, and...

...

...No. Don't think any further.

She doesn't know why, but she wants to stop thinking about this as soon as possible. She's lucky she's with Hagumi and Kaoru; even in the darkness, Kokoro can see the gleam in their eyes, and the glimmer of the flower petals on their armour. It distracts her. Kaoru's eyes are brimming with confident warmth, while Hagumi's are fierce. Fiercer than usual. Her irises're intense... burning, like a thistled lance of pinpoint light. It's only when they get closer to the exit that Kokoro sees just how ferocious her expression is for a split second, before it snaps back into the Hagumi she knows; "Oh! There's a cove over there!"

They exit the tunnel, and...

...It's a large, circular clearing. Three tall, pointed crystals stick out from the ground, forming a triangle formation around the center. "Hey, Kaoru," Hagumi says, "didn't we see a place like this last time we were here? It was up in the section Bidoof called Crystal Cave."

"Indeed. But there was a hill in the center of that room. It had an opening that led to Crystal Crossing," Kaoru says. "This room has no such hill. Does that mean this is the deepest level?"

'Do you hear me?'

Kokoro stops. She closes her eyes; there's an echo coming from somewhere...

"Gotta be, right-"

"Hold on," Kokoro says.

'I sense a heart beating with my spiritual element. Please listen closely.'

Hagumi turns around. "What's up?"

"I'm hearing... a voice," Kokoro says. "I don't get it. It says it's talking to me through my heart, but I don't hear anything in my heart."

"Th-through your heart? My, what a fleeting-"

"Shhh! Let her listen."

Kokoro shuts out all her senses.

'This room is a defense mechanism I summoned to block off the lowest level. It can only be unlocked through the crystals.'

...The crystals?

'Yes; the three large crystals surrounding you. They are extensions of my spirit. Unify them, and the path will open.'

U-unify them? What do you mean?

'They... m...st...'

The voice begins to fade. Ah, wait!

'...h...ve the colour... of willpower...'

Then it's gone.

"Are you alright, my lionel? You look as if stars are dizzying your eyes."

"...Whuh...?" Kokoro's vision returns. "Oh, I'm back. I wonder why it disappeared..."

"You mean the voice?" Hagumi asks. "Hey, where're you going-"

Kokoro touches one of the crystals.

"-Ah! It changed colour!"

It's now a shining yellow, like Kokoro herself. "Hmm..." Kokoro tilts her head. "Hey, guys. What do you think the colour of willpower is?"

She hears a duo of confused hums. "The colour of willpower... hm, yes," Kaoru smiles. "It is but that."

"Does willpower have a colour, Kokoro?"

"Apparently! That's what the voice said. All 3 of these crystals have to be that colour."

"Then, let us paint them until we find our answer! It shall be an artist's paradise."

"Sounds fun! Dibs on the crystal over there!"

She watches Kaoru and Hagumi skip over to each crystal, repeatedly touching them. But she doesn't join them yet. Her mind's racing... she can tell she's got an idea. So she wanders across her thoughts instead, like a path through the cosmos. Is there a colour that immediately sticks out to her as representing willpower...?

...

"Dang. We've tried orange, purple, green, and yellow, but none of them're working," Hagumi says.

...a certain person comes to Kokoro's mind.

"'Tis a conundrum indeed. What colour must these fleeting crystals be?"

"Blue."

The knights turn around. "Eh?" "Eh?"

"They all have to be blue," Kokoro says.

"Blue...?" Hagumi's brow furrows. "Blue doesn't feel like a positive colour, though. It always looks sad to me."

"A common sentiment. A kitten I know by the name of Saki sings of fear and anxiety when plagued by azure."

"But blue isn't just sadness," Kokoro smiles. "It's also the colour of the sky and the sea. There's lots of lovely things about blue."

Hagumi tilts her head. "Does that mean the sky's super brave? Hmmm... doesn't seem right to me. If anything, I'd think it's the opposite. People always say they're 'feeling blue' when they're too sad to do anything."

"So that is the meaning behind the phrase? A-ah," Kaoru coughs, "I-I meant, naturally, I know what it means. I hear it from my kittens all the time."

"I can't really explain it well, but trust me," Kokoro says. "I know it's blue!"

"Let's give it a shot then!"

They each take one crystal. Kokoro gets to blue first; it makes the crystal look misty, and faded. There's something deep inside it, shrinking. Honestly, she kinda gets what Hagumi and Kaoru mean; it's not usually a positive colour. But... somehow, she just knows.

SHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

KGKGKGRRGGGGGGGGG!!!

"A-ah!" Hagumi steps back from her crystal. "Guys, look! There's a hill rising in the center! And it's got an entrance!"

"Just like the one in Crystal Cave. Marvellously done, my lionel!"

She was right! "Let's go, you guys☆!"

Once the dust settles, the three of them pour in and head down a winding pathway, spiralling lower and lower. The walls gradually hue into a reflective, hazed blue, and the ground slowly morphs into sets of dilapidated crystals in that same colour. Eventually, every millimetre of the surface surrounding them becomes a near-continuous blue crystal, until it's essentially the ground itself. And when they hit the bottom...

"....Whooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa☆☆!"

She's captivated. She can hear her friends gasping right beside her. "It's... it's... it's huge!!!"

They're on a strait next to an enormous lake, surrounded on all sides by shimmering pillars, stalagmites and stalactites. Their pathway shines in pure, calm resplendence, its smooth surface jutting out at the edges of the waterbank. Every surface in this place is crystal, save for the water itself.

"Hey, guys! There's a little island at the center!" Hagumi points to a far-away place. "It's got a bridge leading to it."

"If we have yet to vanquish the last of our foes, this will be their den-" Kaoru stops. "Hagumi. Kokoro. Do you see it too?"

"Yeah," Kokoro nods. "There's something glowing on that island!"

They rush over, managing to get there after a couple minutes. At the center of the island is... "Wait. What IS that?" Hagumi asks.

"No doubt a most foul creation..."

Kokoro stares at it and immediately feels uncomfortable. It's a hovering, iridescent gem bathed in black and bleeding purple, about as large as a chandelier. Sets of chains orbit around it, their cold 'clangs' whispering through the air. "It almost looks like a prison of some kind."

"If it's a prison, then what-"

KkhhhHHRAAAGYHHHH!!

The ground rumbles. "...Did you guys hear that?"

KKkhhHHRRAAGGYHHH!!!

The silence of the cave is destroyed by ripples running through the lake; they're currents at first, but grow more and more furious as the seconds pass. Soon enough, tidal waves have started to rush through the walls of Crystal Lake.

"Kokoro! Kaoru! Take cover!"

"A-ah!"

One of the waves comes right at them, nearly making Kokoro's heart stop. But Hagumi pulls her to safety behind a cluster of gems; the water courses around them, and soon her ears ache from the sound of them breaking apart and shattering.

"Goodness..." Kaoru's the first to stand following the aftermath. "What on earth is causing that?!"

"The bridge to the island's breaking apart!"

Crystals are tossed from the straits and walls, scattering across the surface of the lake. The rumbling drills into Kokoro's stomach. It's an unpleasant, malicious sound; she feels its intention, the way it wants to screech daggers into their ears. "..." She gets up and draws her Keyblade. "S-something's coming."

A cutlass. "We're with you, my lionel."

A mace. "You don't need to be scared of anything when you're with us!"

She imagines a golden river flowing, and takes a deep breath. "...Thanks, you guys. I'm ready!"

Eyes open, body relaxed. Just like Hina said.

The moment she takes her stance, a colossal beast bursts from the water and makes the entire cave tremble in its wake:

KKkhhHHRRAAGGYHHH!!!

Her jaw drops. "Wh-whoa..."

This isn't an ordinary creature. Even calling it a 'creature' feels wrong. When she stares at it, she feels more like she's looking at a deity of some kind. Its hard, impenetrable shell is sheened in violet, and its underbelly is painted in black. The two halves of its body are separated by a glowing red line, a line which pulses, throbs, vomits with power; through the ridges on its back, its flowing quadruple-ribboned tail, and its planet-shaping hands, which flash crimson like beacons in the azure water as if to say they command it.

"Th-that thing's huge! I could stack 3 of myself across that fin!"

"Those beady red eyes..." Kaoru frowns. "Kokoro. Hagumi. It's a Heartless!"

Kokoro can feel her heart pound. "Heartless like this can... exist? That shouldn't be allowed. There are people living here." She grips Morning Star tighter. "We can't let it destroy their home!"

"Exactly what I was thinking! Let's thrash it."

"Don't endanger yourselves, my kittens; approach it with care!"

Staring them down with titanic eyes, the Sea Basin Heartless lets out a savage roar:

KKRGGGGGGGRRRROHH!!!!!!

Kokoro lets instinct drive her, in place of the experience her friends have.

Immediately, she gains some distance by hopping across the broken crystals and takes a deep breath. Kaoru and Hagumi follow; she's learnt they try to stay back at first whenever they find a new enemy. They want to know what it can do, before launching an offense.

But Kokoro doesn't feel the same way.

"Ah, my lionel!"

"Don't worry about me☆!"

The Keyblade lets her sail forth. It's a beacon of hope, of promised peace. She skips and hops across the surface of the water, her heart beating like she's skimming atop a rink. In response, the Heartless begins tunnelling up and down through the lake at a horrific pace, leaving enormous tidal waves wherever it travels in and out, threatening to drown her,

"Fire!"

so she keeps herself in the air by using the recoil of her spells, shooting them aimlessly from her Keyblade. Then, at the precipice of the Heartless's next leap;

"Blizzara!"

krrr...

...shrkl-shrkl-shkrl! "Dang, it missed-" Kokoro looks down. "Oh, you guys! The ice is freezing bits of the lake!"

"...You're right! But Kokoron, be careful!"

She fires a few more down, leaving platforms of ice to make her travel easier. The Heartless immediately sails around the platform she's on.

"Ah! Above you!" Hagumi yells.

She looks up instantly and finds a thundercloud ready to smite. "Right!"

KKRRkKROWWWW!

She leaps from the ice; a second later, a bolt incinerates it and breaks it apart. She didn't think her enemy'd have that kind of attack... but it's so telepathed compared to Hina's that she doesn't really care. In fact... "Hiyah!"

It gave her the perfect opportunity to land on its back!

thwikthwik, thwick, thwack☆! thwikthwik, thwick-thwick-thwick, thwack☆,
thwik-thwik-thwack☆!

"Whoa, nice attacks!" Hagumi cheers. "Fira!"

Bwoosh!

"A fleeting Blizzard!"

krkrsh!

For some reason, the Heartless momentarily pauses. Not that she's complaining; that just means she can wail on it more. Considering how Hagumi and Kaoru keep firing at it too, it's only a matter of time before it goes down!

"Kokoron, don't stay up there for too long!"

Thwack☆! "Why not?" She asks.

"Because, it's going to try and-"

GGGRGGRROOOHHHH...

What's Hagumi worried about? It's so obvious how the Heartless's gonna attack. "Don't worry about me, Hagumi. Just get ready☆!"

"H-Hagumi!" Kaoru yells. "It's moving!"

"No, guys, that's not what-"

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

Kokoro fires a Reflect to recoil herself up; she's already out of range by the time the Heartless rips through the air with a huge swirling movement, tearing its tail through all the surrounding platforms, and...

CRASHHHHHH!!!

...Good! Kaoru and Hagumi moved away too! They're all safe. If they hadn't retreated, that tail swipe would've done more than just- "KOKORO! LOOK OUT!"

-...Wait, why is Hagumi still yell...

Kokoro freezes.

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

The Heartless is up in the air with her.

Did it... vault itself up with the tail flip?

There's water searing in front of its teeth- "A-Aero!"

   kKKKRRRRR
Kokoro shoots herself sideways a millisecond before it fires.

k-SHW

BBOOM-BBOOM-BBOOM-BOOM
KRRKRKKRRAACRKCKRKCKSSHHHHHHHKKCKKSSSSHHHHHSS
SSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

KKRAACRRKckRKKKKK!KRK

"Agh!"

Hurricanes of air throw Kokoro's back all the way to the ceiling, forcing her to slam her Keyblade into a shredded stalactite. The water spout fires from the Heartless's mouth at breakneck speed and annihilates the walls, its sheer force rupturing whirlpools through the lake and shattering crystal pillars all across the location.

CRRASHHH!! CRASH!!!

"That attack was monstrous!" Kaoru roars.

"Are you okay?! Kokoro!"

"I-I'm alright!"

Kokoro spell-vaults herself to their current location; a newly collapsed pillar sitting on the lake's edge. "It disappeared underwater..." Hagumi says. "That's why I shouted, Kokoron. It stood still because it was figuring out a way to hit us all at once."

"You were thinking further ahead than I was, then! Thanks for the save."

"No problem. Just don't attack too much, okay? Safety comes first. If you pace yourself, you'll have time to react when it retali-"

"It's coming!"

Kaoru's yell stops them cold.

"Hagumi, Kokoro, w-we need to MOVE!"

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

Kokoro looks at where the Heartless just shot out from, sees the searing water in its teeth, and immediately understands. Her legs propel her sideways before her mind even reacts.

   kKKKRRRRR

"We need speed!"

"My lionel, ready another Fire!" Kaoru gets out 3 Aero-filled pouches. "Take my arms now, both of you!"

"Right! Fire!"

Hagumi polevaults on her mace and hauls them both up as Kokoro and Kaoru aim at the pillar, throwing their magic down. A tornado of wind and fire strongarms their ascent.

"Woohoo☆!"
"G-get ready, Kokoron!"

k-SHW

BBOOM-BBOOM-BBOOM-BOOM
KRRKRKKRRAACRKCKRKCKSSHHHHHHHKKCKKSSSSHHHHHSS
SSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

KKRAACRRKckRKKKKK!KRK

Devastation tears apart the lake. The serenity is shattered.

The trio grit their teeth and land themselves on a platform hedged near the wall. The Heartless begins to burrow in and out from the water again. "Such power..." Kaoru brushes a pebble off and heals the scratches on Kokoro. "Cure!"

la-la-ra-rrrsh... "How on earth do we fight that...?" Hagumi mutters.

"Well, it's only firing at its front, right?" Kokoro says. "So we just need to attack it from behind."

"What if it flips in the air like it did before, though? Then we won't know where it's aiming!"

Kokoro shakes her head. "You said it yourself. If we don't attack constantly, we'll have time to dodge and react."

"I-is that gonna be enough? Ah!" She hears Hagumi yell as she jumps away. "Kokoro!"

 

---

 

Sometimes, the smiling star's mentality worries Kaoru. The recklessness carried in the swings of that Keyblade, during every battle... it's as if Kokoro believes there is nothing to fear in life. It's only inevitable that such a bold approach will lead to injury.

But Kaoru does not frown. She labors for everyone's happiness, no matter the hardship. "Hagumi." She puts a hand on her beloved's shoulder. "Our lionel is faster than both of us. Worry not."

"I-I am worried, though! Kokoro hates being hurt. When we got surrounded at the plaza-"

"...Have faith. She is not so easily hit. And we are the Shirasagi Kingdom's knights, are we not? We have the knowledge and experience to protect others."

"Kaoru..." Hagumi nods. "Right! If she's in danger, we know how to save her."

"Precisely. Are you ready, my dear?"

"Yeah! Let's go!"

 

---

 

Kokoro notices lots of things. The rush of the air, Cure's smoothening of the skin, the feeling of moving freely... they're what let her gallivant through the aching in her muscles, the worms in her stomach, the sensations that come with being thrown around by attacks as strong as that. They'll hurt her if she's hit, and they cause discomfort just from the aftermath of their impact. But she knows how to evade... Kaoru can wash away what hits her... and she doesn't have to wince at all the minor scrapes of battle, if she focuses on what makes her feel alive. What lets her seize happiness. "Blizzara! Reflect! Fire!"

Morning Star Aquamarine slugs her momentum as it fires a bolt of blue, blooming into a platform upon the lake. Then she double-jumps in mid-air with the recoil of casting Reflect, and shoots herself down by aiming 3 Fires at the ceiling, slamming onto the platform and surfing it forward.

crash!

It breaks into pieces against the titanic Heartless's side, causing it to stop in confusion. Kokoro takes the opportunity and leaps forward.

Thwack☆!

Twisting her jump by pivoting from her ankle, she flies forth like a whirlwind.

thw-thw-thw-thwack☆!
thwack-thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack-thwack,
thw-thw-thw-thwack☆!

'The Keyblade isn't like other weapons, Kokoro☆. If you swoosh it in the right way, it'll cut through anything!' thwack, thwack; "Aero!"

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!

"You learned that spell? Marvellous," Kaoru declares. "Allow me to assist!"

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh! "A double! Nice~!"

Kaoru leaps back gracefully and fires more from a distance.

bwoosh! bwoosh! Kokoro goes right back for it; thwack-thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack-thwack, Thwack☆!

"Coming through!"

Hagumi rockets in, and

SMASH!

slams her reinforced mace onto the Heartless, making it snarl. "Kokoro. I'll protect you no matter what. I promise!"

"Hagumi..."

Whether she needs protecting doesn't matter. It's the warmest declaration she's ever heard from Hagumi.

"...Ehehe, thanks!"

SMASH!
thwik-thwik-thwik
wha-BAM!
thwick-thwick-thwack☆!

Infuriated, the Heartless bucks them off with a huge flip. Hagumi lands atop the water with her shield, surfing forward again immediately; and Kokoro's piggybacking on top!

ggGGROOOHHHHH!!

It's summoning another thunderbolt... Kokoro raises her Keyblade; "Reflect!"

KkR-

crshng!!

KKRRkKROWWWW!

The barrier she forms deflects it onto the Heartless, smiting it with red-hot electricity. It howls. "Kokoro, that was amazing!" Hagumi whirls her mace. "There hasn't been any backup fire, so Kaoru must be stocking up on pouches. Let's go!"

"Aye aye!"

Hagumi shoots up, flipping the two of them through the air, and;

kw-THwack☆!
wha-BAM!!!

Right on the forehead!

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!
wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!
wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh! "Aero pouches! Nice, Kaoru!" Hagumi immediately gets back up. "Take this!"

wa-KR-BAM!!! BAM

She smashes the dent left by Kaoru's magic, making the Heartless howl again. "Woohoo~! Kokoron!"

"Let's win this☆!"

thwik-thwik, thwick, thwick, thwik-thwik-thwack☆!
CRASH! Bam,thwik-thwikBAM-thwack☆!
thw-thw-thw-thwack☆!

They whale, and whale, and whale,

BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM
thwik, thwik, thwik
BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM

and whale, and-

"HAGUMI! KOKORO!"

 

 

 

 

-They're flying.

...Kokoro's flying. "Wha...?"

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

The Heartless roars, having bucked them both off. Water sears through its veins again.

   kKKKRRRRR

They... got too invested in attacking. She was so excited about Hagumi's declaration that...

 

---

 

Kokoro's only just realised, hasn't she?

Hagumi watches her as they're flung into the air. She sees her eyes, processing what's happened a second too late.

   kKKKRRRRR

It's Hagumi's fault.

She knew they should've been cautious. But she kept attacking anyway. She was reckless, and she hyped Kokoro up, and now... now...

...because of her, Kokoro's...!

...No. She's seen this scene before. She's not letting it happen again! "FIRAGA!"

Hagumi's body bursts aflame. A sphere of fire rockets her towards her precious friend.

k-SHW

She sees the change in Kokoro's expression for a split second...

...before she barges her out of harm's way.

BBOOM-BBOOM-BBOOM-BOOM
KRRKRKKRRAACRKCKRKCKSSHHHHHHHKKCKKSSSSHHHHHSS
SSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

KKRAACRRKckRKKKKK!KRK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

---

 

"HAGUMI!"

A blood-curdling scream wakes her.

Kokoro shuts out her thoughts. She shuts out everything. When she sees Kaoru ditch the ground level of the lake for the first time and leap up across the walls to where the debris is falling, she follows and doesn't think about anything at all. At some point, she doesn't even remember why she's headed there anymore; she simply runs, watching as Kaoru grabs three pouches of Cure and throws them down onto the crumbled pillar like her life depends on it.

"...I've... HAD IT WITH YOU!"

But before the pouches even land, the sound of Hagumi's mace rings through Crystal Cave.

In one swing, she rips the ground to pieces and clears the dust, revealing her cracked armour. She doesn't notice Kaoru land at her side, nor the Cures that come her way. She only stares a thistled lance into the Sea Basin Heartless, shaking. "Do you like tearing people apart?! Do you like watching them hurt?!" She screams; "THEN DIE FOR IT!"

Fire rises through her lungs until it veins into her mace.

"Limit Break!"

She brings it around her back, wills flame at her front,

and bellows.

"FIRAGA!"

Kokoro watches her slam a meteor into the Heartless,

FFF-BAM!

"FIRAGA!"

again,

FFF-BAM!

"FIRAGA!" and again, "FIRAGA!" and again, and again, and "FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA,

FFF-BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA, FIRAGA,

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

BAM!

FIRAGA!!!"

FFF-BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dust settles. What's left...

...is an intact Sea Basin Heartless, with only one new scratch.

"You're..." Hagumi's eyes blank. "You're... kidding..."

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

Kokoro runs over. Her friend's alive. Th-that's... all she needs to know. Well, i-it's obvious Hagumi would've been fine. Why wouldn't she be?

...What was she worried about, again?

 

---

 

She labors for everyone's happiness, no matter the hardship.

"You guys~! Over here!"

Having Kokoro's smile nearby is a blessing; it calms Kaoru down after her life flashed before her eyes. But it would be foolhardy to ignore the Heartless, who now leaps to swing its tail at the cliff. So Kaoru grits her teeth, hoists up Hagumi (in all her muscle and metal), and leaps back down, joining Kokoro on the strait with a spell and a roll as the wall crumbles behind her.

"That was a nice jump, Kaoru!"

"Th-thank you, my lionel-" Kaoru coughs. "B-but it was nothing-"

"Kaoru. You okay?"

Ah.

Even in this situation... her companion can see right through her. "That was a big jump you made," Hagumi says. "...Thanks."

"But of course." Kaoru loosens her grip, allowing Hagumi to stand. "My phobias matter not. I would make any number of those for your sake."

"Hagumi, you feeling okay☆? You just used up a lot of mana-"

"I'm fine."

She says it bluntly.

"Thanks for worrying, you two. Just had to let out some stress." Hagumi's expression is an unchanging smile; one that Kaoru has seen many a time before. "I don't think Fire magic is working against this thing. Let's come up with something else."

"You got it!"

Kokoro might never know the reason behind that smile. But if Kaoru can shoulder it, then perhaps Hagumi can shoulder anything. The same thought has driven her, time and time again. "Hagumi."

"...! W-what's up?"

She tenderly takes Hagumi's hand and leans their foreheads together. Hagumi looks at her in surprise. "Ours is a crafty family, is it not? We have overcome situations countless." She squeezes. "I suspect this shall be no different."

"..."

The Heartless roars from beneath the lake. The ground rumbles again.

"...Yeah. You're right."

Hagumi's muscles loosen slightly. That's all Kaoru needs; hearing her companion's voice relax is what keeps her heart going.

"Let's do this, guys!"

 

---

 

Kokoro isn't naive to how the fire in Hagumi's eyes simmers a bit. And she isn't naive to how deliberately Kaoru chose her words. What it means, she has no idea.

But it's sweet.

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

Kokoro re-materializes her Keyblade as the Heartless bursts from the lake. "I don't quite remember what happened, but... let's make sure we have room to dodge next time, okay?"

"Oh, Kokoron!" Hagumi says as they skip across the crystals, "I noticed something about that huge water laser. Feels like it gets weaker every time the Heartless uses it."

"Oho?" Kaoru fires a Blizzard at a boulder thrown their way. "Perhaps it cannot muster as much strength now that we've harmed it."

"Could be! Soon enough, I bet it won't even try to use it anymore."

"How long'll that take, though?" Kokoro asks. "This thing is pretty mean. It took all those Firagas without much damage."

"Fufufu. Allow me to postulate," Kaoru waxes. "What if, this Heartless was perhaps fashioned on the likeness of one of this world's denizens? Perhaps a mighty god, of some kind-"

Hagumi interrupts Kaoru mid-spiel so she can tackle her down and avoid the Heartless's tail. "A god?"

"Indeed!" Kaoru immediately gets back up and flourishes. "B-but godly or not, that means its, um... 'biology' is similar to others in this world. And the little kitten I rescued earlier told me about a most interesting dynamic they fare with, known as 'type matchups'. My theory is that this beast is 'resistant' to Fire!"

"Then, is it weak to something?" Hagumi asks.

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

Kaoru gestures towards their foe. "I believe so. In fact, it might even be using the very attack it is weak to right now. Kokoro, if you will!"

Huh?

Oh! It's preparing another thunderbolt! "You got it, Kaoru! Reflect!"

She summons the barrier above them. The lightning heaves down, and;

crshng!!

KrrKKROWWWW!

The Sea Basin Heartless wails. "A brilliant hit!"

"Whoa, so that means..." Kokoro puts two and two together. "It's weak to its own attacks?"

"Nay, to ANY lightning, even. Thunder Magic is our key!"

"Oh, oh! I learned some with Hina recently! Let's go!"

"Keep your distance!" Hagumi yells as they sprint ahead. "I'll protect you if you're in danger!"

No. She'll make sure nobody takes a hit for her again.

The Heartless roars. Kokoro charges ahead with full speed. She won't keep her distance; she already knows everything it can do anyway. She'll just attack fast enough that she never has to be hurt. "Thunder!"

kCrackll!

Kokoro bounces midair and lands a stream of lightning bolts across the Heartless's back. It leaps high into the sky, swinging its tail again, and she hears her friends yell in concern; but she's fine. She can see it coming from a mile away. She bounces to and fro with repeated Reflects and Blizzaras, dancing around her flying foe and hitting it the second it lands again, never letting up.

"My lionel! Allow me!"

kCrackll!
                         kCrackll!
                           kCrackll!
                 kCrackll!

At her next cast, Kaoru throws another trio of pouches down, for a total of 4 Thunders raging through the Heartless's body. "And again! Thunder!"

"Thunder☆!"

kCrackll!

kCrackll!

Kokoro slides down to the Heartless's fin and swings, leaving more damage in her wake. Trails of smoky darkness begin to leak from its wounds.

"It's working!" Hagumi cheers. "Just a bit more! Be careful!"

"With pleasure!"
"Aye aye!"

At the Heartless's next swing, Kokoro leaps back, landing on Hagumi's shield and then bouncing from it immediately, barreling around the Heartless again, landing strike after strike,

thw-thw-thw-Thwack☆, thwack-thwack-thwack, thwick, Thwack☆!
kCrackll
kCrackll

she keeps going, and going, and going, it's fine if she keeps attacking, it's fine; she just wants this thing gone! Anything that spews darkness doesn't belong. All darkness does is hurt, just like Hagumi said; and Kokoro doesn't want anyone to be hurt anymore, so

   kkkkrrrrr

she won't get hit! "Fire!"

k-SHW

The Heartless fires another water spout; but it's far slower now. She easily vaults out of its way using Fire's recoil. Nothing this monster can do will hit her. She already knows how to dodge ever-

"Kokoro! Watch out!"

-...ything...

GGGGGRROOOHHHH!!!

The Sea Basin Heartless's veins turn blue. It summons a horde of pulsing spirals above its head, glistening with primordial force. It... it can do that? S-she didn't know. How should she-

They all rocket towards Kokoro instantly.

"Not a chance!"

She's a second too late in processing anything that happens next. Hagumi is right in front of her, blocking one of the pulses with her shield.

CLRASH!

The sheer force of it sends them flying backwards. "Hold on, Kokoron!"

She's... she's in Hagumi's arms now. They're both flying down. She sees a storm of bullets, chasing them relentlessly.

CLRASH!
CLRASH! CLRASH!

"You're not..." Hagumi's shield endures another. "...Getting her that easily...!"

CLRASH! CLRASH! CLRASH! CLRASH!

A horde of them slam the pair backwards, Hagumi's shield being the only reason they don't hit directly. Hagumi crushes the wall beneath her feet and keeps running across it. Hagumi's...

CLRASH!
wha-BAM!!!
CLRASH!
CKRACKRACKRACK

...She watches Hagumi grit her teeth. She watches boulders crumble all around them. She watches Kaoru's magic block the debris from hitting them. She watches Hagumi endure and deflect pulse after pulse after pulse, all of them rocketing in, and...

...W-why? She asks herself. Why couldn't I have dodged?! "Hagumi!"

"You'll be alright!" wha-BAM!!! CLRASH! "Trust me!"

"What about you-"

CLRASH!

A pulse misses Hagumi by a millimetre.

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH
CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

...She opens her eyes. Hagumi is carrying her through, never lowering her shield. "Don't worry about me."

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

"If I can take Freedom and Tyranny," CLRASH "time after time..."

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

"...Then this loser's attacks're nothing!"

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

CLRASH!

Hagumi clears past the wreck and lands on solid ground. Kokoro gets off immediately. "I-I'm sorry... I'm so sorry... i-if I had-"

"Don't worry about it!" Hagumi bumps her chestplate. "See? Barely another scratch. It's all a learning experience!"

"Kokoro! Hagumi!"

Kaoru already has another trio of pouches prepared; all Cure. "...Right." Kokoro nods at her wonderful friends. "Thanks a bunch. I promise that won't happen again!"

"Even if it did- whoa, Kokoron!"

 

---

 

Kokoron's flown off again... "Kaoru." Hagumi frowns. "I don't think she realises yet."

"That mistakes are inevitable?" Her partner responds. "Indeed. Knowing her aversion to injury, it is quite a daunting prospect."

She raises her mace. "...Yeah. That's why I'll be her guardian angel."

Kaoru nods. "And I yours."

 

---

 

Hagumi disappears from her view. The world is racing.

Kokoro is smiling.

It's all instinct. If she questions herself, she'll realise she doesn't have a reason to smile; the air is pressing down on her. But Morning Star Aquamarine shines blue, deep sky blue; so even though she feels like she should be exhausted by now... even though she feels like her memories are scattered... she keeps pressing forward, again and again. She flies; leaps high, leaps higher, bounces across the air through her spells' recoil and flies right in once more, never letting the expression on her face change. "I'm not letting my friends get hurt, so watch out, Heartless☆! Hiya!"

kCrackll!

thw-thwa-thwa-THWACK☆!

The Heartless roars and swings its tail. "Not a chance!"

thw-Thwack☆,

She dodges again,

thw-thwack, thw-thwack,

And again,

thw-thw- kCrackll! Thwack☆,

And again and again and again

thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thwack,

She's a tornado, she's a gale, she's a beam of light, she's the reflection of a crystal on the wall; if she's anything but sad then she's fine. Pain isn't real; it hasn't been real at any point. She smiles, swings, slashes through the slow, bumbling Heartless again and again, gashing the darkness out, never letting up, knowing that another second of its existence is another dagger pointed at her friends.

She only allows happiness!

"My lionel, artilllery support!"

kCrackll
kCrackll
kCrackll!
thw-thwa-thwa-THWACK☆! kCrackll!
thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-THWACK☆!

"Kokoron, you're so fast!"

"Unbelievable... from where does this ferocity spring?"

thwack, thwack, thwack,

Her surroundings blur, and yet she still knows where everything is. Morning Star lights the way with its swings. "She's not the only one," she hears Hagumi say. "Kaoru, can I have those pouches?"

"With pleasure."

She looks aside. Three orbs of Thunder are tossed towards Hagumi,

...

...wha-BAM!!!

and get slammed towards the Heartless.

kKKkkKKKKkCrCrCrackll!!!!!

The segmented impact practically home-runs it into the air. "Nice one, Hagu☆!"

It's near its end. It doesn't matter whether it wants to exist; Kokoro won't let it. A Fire's recoil more and she's back in swinging distance, upending the fins with zigzag strikes and bolts alike. As it lands back in the water and washes over the surroundings, she lands a slash hard enough to make it groan again, pressuring it to unleash the move that'll be its end.

..ggggGGGGGRROOOHHhH!!!

And unleash it it does.

Kokoro somersaults to a nearby platform. The hordes and hordes of spiralling pulses, shaped like the origin of water itself, cluster above the Sea Basin Heartless. They're a storm, the eternal gray covering the sky, the waves that always come and go. But Kokoro swears they'll never arrive again. "Get behind me, you guys!"

"You have a plan?" Kaoru says. "Hagumi, let us rendezvous!"

"Aye aye!"

Hagumi hoists up Kaoru and leaps over to Kokoro's location.

The pulses fire.

As each rockets forth with killing intent, hellbent on being her end of days, she stands forth without a shred of fear. Because fear is pointless. Kokoro raises Morning Star and shouts:

"Reflecra!"

Four shining barriers enshroud the trio upon the Crystal Lake.

Every last pulse is deflected.

ccrhshhshng!!

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH
CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

The wind billows through their hair. The light shimmers in their eyes. "Whoa☆..." Hagumi says, "Kokoron, that's amazing..."

"...A most suitable finale. Marvellously done, my lionel."

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

Kokoro stands tall, boring her golden eyes into the Heartless, watching the pulses fly back. With one spell, its own volley is tearing it apart. "I don't care what you want, or how strong you are," she says. "My world is one where nobody will ever be hurt."

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

"So leave it."

CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH CLRASH

CLRASH!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kokoro lowers her Keyblade. Its gems flicker as she lets it dematerialize. Her mind feels clear again, as if a blockade was just removed from it. "Whew. See?" She turns to her friends. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"M-my," Kaoru stammers, "you have a rather upbeat perspective on this, my lionel. The ceiling could've collapsed if that battle went any further."

"Nothing wrong with being positive! It was pretty dicey, but we all got out just fine," Hagumi says. She then holds Kaoru's hand; "Thanks for the Cure pouches. Don't think I didn't notice them."

"B-but of course. It was nothing."

"No. I know it wasn't."

"..."

Kokoro smiles. "You two look so gooey. It's cute."

"Bw-bwuh?! I-I-" Mwehe, Kaoru's blushing again~. "I-I mean, why, thank you, my l-lion. But we were merely, um-"

"Isn't Kaoru the cutest?" Hagumi grins. "...Ah, Kokoro! Look! The center of the lake!"

The center? Isn't that where the island was?

She looks back and finds a shining light. "That dark sphere we saw... I think it's collapsing."

"Do you think it was a prison like you suggested, my lionel?"

"Yeah, I think so. Let's head over!"

The gaps in the sphere and its shackles increase, the closer they get. By the time they arrive, it shatters. Kokoro feels a wave of warmth calm her body as what was inside breaks free.

sssssssssssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!

Light restores the lake.

It echoes across the walls, easing the cracks in the environment as it does. The stress in Kokoro's body wanes, the knots in her mind untangle... if she closed her eyes, she could picture a field of green in a cloudless summer sky, breeze weaving through her hands. She and her friends gasp in awe as they watch the light brush across the wreckage left by the Sea Basin Heartless, taking every crystal and reconstructing it. Stalagmites are put back into place, broken chunks of the strait are re-formed, and every fissure closes. The molecules reform their fire-forged bonds, overcoming their brittle, hard divides to become as smooth as ice.

"Excellent. Now Crystal Lake is good as new."

"...!"
"...!"
Kokoro's eyes widen. "That voice...!"

Once the light's job is done, it retracts to the center of the lake and forms a levitating silhouette; one Kokoro recognises as a person. A creature of some kind, reminding her of a jellyfish, with two dextrous tails and a small body. They're as blue as one, too; a deep, ambient, resounding blue. One that reverberates in you and lifts your arm from its weighted slumber. "Correct," they say. "I'm the voice you heard speaking to your heart."

They turn around and greet the trio with amber eyes.

"My name is Azelf. The bringer of willpower," they state. "...Oh, wow, you look different from what I expected."

"Me?" Kokoro asks. "What were you expecting?"

"Are humans a fleeting sight in this world, Mx Azelf?"

"They are! But that's not why I'm surprised. This isn't the first time I've met a human," Azelf responds, staring at Kokoro like she's an anomaly. "Rather, it's your appearance I'm surprised by. When I communicated with you through your heart, you had a rather calm visage, but in person you appear with a wholly different radiance. More like a Pikachu than a Piplup."

"Visage...?" Hagumi ponders. "What's that word mean, Kaoru?"

"It is... but that."

"Sounds like a compliment to me! Nice to meet you, Azelf," Kokoro says. "My name's Kokoro, and these're my friends Hagumi and Kaoru."

"Hagumi and Kaoru... ah, I recognise your auras! You two were here a few days ago, right?"

"That's right! We were sent here by Queen Shirasagi to defend this world from the Heartless," Hagumi responds. "I'm glad we could help, Mx Azelf!"

"A Heartless. So that's what that fake Kyogre was. I'll make sure to remember it," they mutter. "Visitors from another world... I believe the person who imprisoned me was also one of those."

"Is that true?" Kaoru steps forward. "That may be the criminal we seek. Could you describe what happened when they attacked you?"

"Of course. It's the least I can do." Azelf sighs. "It occurred soon after those Heartless first appeared; the ones you and Hagumi vanquished. Shortly following your leave, I suffered a brutal ambush. The perpetrator was a warrior with black hair, wielding a weapon similar in nature to yours." They're pointing at Kokoro; probably referring to a Keyblade, then. "She defeated me and tried to steal my heart. But my soul is not tied to my body; so I left it, took my heart from it and escaped. Frustrated, she decided to seal my body here and leave that abominable Heartless as a trap. That is why I locked the passage; so none could suffer the loss of their hearts at its hands."

"That's really crafty of you," Kokoro says. "You care a lot about the people in this cave."

"Ha! I'm no pushover. That mystery figure isn't the only outlaw who can testify to my abilities," they boast. "You mentioned you're looking for her, right?"

"Indeed. She is launching similar attacks on every nearby world, and there is an enormous bounty on her head for her capture. As knights, it is our duty to subdue that which threatens people," Kaoru says. "...Perchance, do you happen to know where this monstrous individual lies now?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Blast!"
"Dang!"
"Oh well☆."

Azelf chuckles. "Sorry about that. The encounter was embarrassingly brief." They frown. "Be careful if you're planning on fighting her, alright? She's unbelievably strong. And I'm saying that as someone acquainted with deities most perceive as myths."

"There are always powers more frightening than a deity. We won't back down so easily," Kaoru responds. "But thank you for your warning. We'll act with caution."

"Yeah, yeah! We haven't been knights this long for nothing."

"I see. And what about you?" Azelf turns to Kokoro. "You seem pretty repulsed by the idea of conflict."

"My goal isn't to capture Saki-Inari," she responds, "it's to find my friends. And I don't have any reason to be scared of her."

"That's because you haven't met her yet. What if you do?"

For a moment, she imagines confronting the person who imprisoned Azelf face-to-face. The person stealing the hearts of countless. But she stops those thoughts before they can go any further. "..." She takes a deep breath. "I'm finding my friends. No matter what."

"Ha! That wasn't exactly an answer. But I can't fault your stubbornness. It took down an imitation of Kyogre, after all. Perhaps you're more attuned with my element than I thought."

A warm light coalesces at Azelf's front.

"Here. I'd like you to have this, Kokoro. Thank you for rescuing me."

It forms a necklace made of turquoise, diamond-shaped beads, glittering with energy. "This is for me☆?"

"Yup. Consider it a parting gift, to make up for my lack of info." The necklace falls into Kokoro's hands. A gift from her new friend... it brings a new smile, bright on her face, as she puts it around her neck. The necklace sounds like the winds in the sky and the waves upon the sea. "Think of what's important to you, and it'll give you the power to press forward when you need it most."

"Thank you so much, Azelf☆!" She throws out her hand; Azelf gives her a little high five with their paw. "We've gotta head home now. I hope everyone in the cave will be okay. Oh, and I'll take good care of the necklace!"

"A glorious and most fleeting evening to you."
"Bye-bye, new friend!"

Azelf chuckles. "Farewell. And find your resolve. You'll need it."

They wave Azelf goodbye and head off, crossing the crystal bridge and aiming for the staircase back up. Now that her heart and mind are refreshed, Kokoro feels great; it's like the headache from before's disappeared. She's made a new friend, gotten a nice gift... and she appreciates Hagumi and Kaoru more too. The way they fight... they really have been through a lot together, even if they don't say it to Kokoro. If facing that Heartless is what let her learn more about them, then she doesn't regret coming here in the slightest!

And if every other expedition goes this way, she'll never regret any of them. Sooner or later, she'll find Misaki and Kanon during one, and then they'll all go back to the Islands together. Everything will go back to the way it was, just like she wanted...

...back... to the way it was...

...

"You were jealous☆."

...

"Kokoron? You okay?"

"Huh?"

She blinks; the world dizzily snaps back into place, and she finds her friends looking at her with warm eyes. "You stopped, my lionel. Is something bothering you?"

"No. I'm just... thinking about how nice it'll be to see Misaki and Kanon again." She looks down. "...Back when we were on Destiny Islands, we hung out together all the time. Nobody ever got hurt. We just had fun. Seeing them smile with me... it was all I ever could've asked for. I was always happy when I was around them. I... want to go back to that time. I want to find them as soon as possible."

"Fufu. No doubt you will, my lionel. 'Tis a crime you were ever made distant by that loathsome Saki-Inari."

"Seconding that!" Hagumi says. "I wanna meet them too~. Sounds like you were as close to each other as can be."

"Yeah. Close to each other... as can be..."

...For some reason, saying that doesn't make her smile. Her body just feels weak for it. Groggy. Why?

She looks around the lake. It's still as beautiful as it was before. So why isn't it making her happy anymore, like it did when she first saw it? Back home, every beach and cave she explored with her friends was wondrous, no matter how many times they'd already visited it. So why is it that, when she brushes her hand on these crystals as if they were those grains of sand, she-

"...Hm?"

-Wait. There's something here.

Kokoro reaches down and finds a ragged gem. She recognises this one; the traces of deep blue, like a bottomless sea... "Hey, that's a Sapphire!" Hagumi says.

"What a fleeting gem. It hardly seems smooth to the touch, but its luster is still marvellous."

...Yeah. It's not smooth. Or round. Or pure. It's pretty garbled for a 'gem', honestly. It pokes at Kokoro's palms when she shuffles it around in her hands, and its colour is a lot murkier.

But she can't stop looking at it. She can't stop being reminded of those pendants.

When she stares into it, she remembers the kiss at sunset between her two best friends.

"This one kinda stands out. It's just sitting there," Hagumi says. "Didn't Azelf move all the gems back into place earlier?"

"Ah, perhaps this one is special, my dear. It might not have come from this cave."

"Mm? Whaddya mean?"

Kokoro keeps staring at it. She feels like it's staring back into her.

"Well... hmmm... aha!" Kaoru exclaims. "Perhaps it was a... c-catalyst for summoning that enormous Heartless. Yes, that must be the answer."

"Wow, Kaoru, you're so smart! That's gotta be right!"

"O-of course! My sharp, fleeting intellect will never fail you, my dear!"

"Ehehe. Well, even if it does, I'll still always be by your side!" A squeeze. "Love you~!"

'By your side.'

The words echo in Kokoro's mind.

...She takes the chunky, impure Sapphire and presses it to her necklace. The crystal beads part for it and place it upon the center, becoming a makeshift pendant.

"Lookin' good, Kokoro☆!"

"A most impeccable fashion statement."

"...Hehe." She turns around. "Thanks, guys. Let's head home!"

She doesn't really have a reason for taking it with her. Not as far as she can tell. But... she wants to keep it. As they head back up, she can't stop herself from holding the Sapphire in her hand, and staring into the muddied reflection it gives... for minutes at a time... without ever knowing why.

All she knows is that it's more than just a memory.

She'll keep this Sapphire alive, no matter what.

 

---

 

Her lab, um, isn't as spick and span as it used to be. "Saki-Inari, huh..."

That name's the cause. The days've become frantic ever since this mess started. Gives her an excuse to keep track of the date, at least.

She waves her hand, causing the spherical drone near her head to fly away and fetch a few resources from one of the cupboards. Ack, she should really turn the lights on soon; computer screen in front of you all day isn't good for your eyes, Maya... not for human eyes, at least.

...Hm. What if Kaoru really is right? Maybe all you need to hand-make Heartless is a dark environment. Crackpot theory, sure, but there's gotta be some reason the number of Heartless Saki-Inari controls is so much higher than her body count in just a month and a half. Maybe she's making several from one person somehow?

Actually, that isn't even the biggest question. Biggest one is, how is she controlling them? Making Heartless is one thing, but leading them is another ballpark entirely. And Saki-Inari isn't throwing them around like loosely guided mobs; she's a lot more precise. She can command them to be non-lethal; to just steal hearts instead of permanently take lives. The only things Maya's seen command so many Heartless with that much precision is... well, other Heartless. And as far as she knows, there aren't any Heartless that can take the shape of a person, let alone wield a Keyblade!

"A Keyblade wielder who can command the Heartless..."

She slumps at the desk for a moment. But her mind always races anyway. So she thinks; is it possible Saki-Inari's a human who found a way to control Heartless? Or, maybe, could it be that Saki-Inari IS someone's Heartless, and just happens to look like a person? Seems more likely, but how'd that work... did she somehow manage to keep her body intact after losing her heart, or did she yoink the body off one of her victims and assimilate it? Maybe she even assimilated some poor wielder's body AND heart, so she could use their Keyblade as her own. That's extremely difficult to pull off, yes, but it makes sense. It'd also explain why it took a few weeks until Saki-Inari was even identifiable as a person. Man, that's morbid...

...W-well, hang on. That's all assuming Saki-Inari is even a Heartless to begin with. It's normally impossible to use a Keyblade without a heart, right? Maya only knows one exception to that rule. And if Saki-Inari really IS a Heartless who's controlling the body and heart of some black-haired Keyblade wielder she got 2 weeks ago, why is there also a witness testimony that describes her as a Keyblade wielder with purple hair and a completely different appearance, 2 and a HALF weeks ago? Is she possessing multiple wielders? No way, that'd be insane; possession of another human is already difficult enough when you don't have a human body of your own. Ack, are all of these theories bogus, or- "Aggghhh, fuck, I dunno..."

...

...Brainwave.

BRAINWAVE! "Oh!!!" She shoots up from her seat, brushing the sweat off her freckled cheeks. "Heartless with human bodies... I think the Master had a book on that somewhere! Just gotta-"

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP

Maya freezes. "...Oh crap. That's the invasion siren, isn't it?"

Research'll have to wait. She adjusts her glasses, sits back down and opens up the star map. Which world got invaded this time? She needs to let Queen Shirasagi and Hina know immediately. Let's see... the world's name is... "Stigmatika?"

She wants to open the information page, but her jaw drops before she can even start. See... normally, there's a few red dots on the map for any given world that's being invaded by Saki-Inari. Each dot represents either a large number of weak Heartless, or one individual stronger Heartless. For example, when Destiny Islands was invaded 2 weeks ago, there were 2 red dots; probably one for a horde and one for some big boss (maybe Saki-Inari herself, assuming this radar can detect a 'Heartless' like her).

...There's a lot of red dots on this world.

Chapter Text

"Kaoru~!"

A song of affection snags Kokoro's attention from her sapphire necklace. She leans up from the wall and stares at the scene before her: Hagumi's just wrapped around Kaoru for a soft, squishy, super-snuggly hug... it's the kind of sudden action that was probably pulled from Hina's book. Kaoru reacts with a flustered smile, blush growing on her cheeks as her arms rest on Hagumi's back, while Hagumi buries her head into the crook of Kaoru's neck, squeezing ever so tight with the biggest grin on her face. It was only a second ago that they were standing there and chatting while Kokoro was staring at the ground, so this... basically happened out of nowhere. It...

...must feel nice.

Isn't it wonderful that you can be overcome with love for someone? Isn't it wonderful when the people you love the most are right beside you, standing right there, standing right in front of you? Able to receive the affection you feel for them and happy to give it back? Even just the little pangs of adoration you express on a whim?

...

"Ehehe. You're always so comfy, Kaoru~."

"May I confess something, my dear? I started wearing a sweater under my armour for this exact reason."

"Whoa, so that's why you feel squishier... I'm gonna reward you with a million more hugs then!"

"Splendid! A-all according to plan."

...With a vacant look in her eyes, Kokoro stares down at her sapphire; deep into the jagged hills and murky swamps of its seabed blue. When did blue become such a strong colour to her? What does it mean?

"Kokoron, you feelin' okay? You're spacing out."

"...Eh?"

She lifts her head up. Kaoru and Hagumi are looking at her. "You seem kinda tired lately, don'tcha think?"

"Am I?" Kokoro tries to wave her arm. It feels... heavier than usual. "Huh, you're right. When'd this start...?"

"My lionel, if I may," Kaoru says, "I believe 'tis a slowly growing condition. Since we first met, I've observed your expression deteriorating with each passing expedition. Is something ailing you?"

She reaches out. Not to Hagumi, or to Kaoru, but to the blank space in-between them; to the brick wall at the back, which fuzzes in her vision as her eyes lose focus. "I've been thinking... the universe is really big, isn't it? There's so many worlds out there."

"Right?" Hagumi says. "There's tons I've never even been to. Most of them're places you could spend your whole life exploring!"

"Yeah. And I've only been to 5 of them. All these huge worlds, like Time Gear, and Shirasagi Kingdom, and Traverse Town..." Kokoro lowers her hand. "My friends could be in any of them, couldn't they?"

"Yeah, that's true."

"Even so, I'll still be able to find them, right?"

...Silence.

"I know it'll happen... I'm sure it will. It has to. But how long's it gonna take...? That's what I've been wondering lately," Kokoro continues. "Sometimes, when we're exploring places like Crystal Cave, I feel like I could get lost forever if I'm not paying attention. There's so much to the universe. Hina told me expeditions need food, and drinks, and sleep... it all takes time. I don't know how many worlds I can cover if they're all going to take this long." She grips her necklace. "I know we're probably not that far apart, but... sometimes, I feel like... it could be years before I see Misaki and Kanon again, and I... I know, I know I'll find them eventually, but... it's like the word 'eventually' just drains the energy from my arms. I dunno why. I feel really strange..."

"Perhaps you are fatigued?" Kaoru says. "It may be best to rest before embarking with us again."

"Fatigued...? Is that the same as tired?"

"In a sense. But I would also describe it as draining emotional energy. You've been making a long search for your friends, my lionel. And it is natural to feel this way after a particularly frenetic expedition; the encounter with the Heartless Kyogre was most definitely that."

This is... confusing. "Why would that drain my emotions? I've always had fun whenever I explored with you guys."

"Even enjoyment drains energy, no?"

"Does it?"

"Yeah, yeah," Hagumi says, "think of it, like... uh, what's the example I always use, Kaoru?" She blinks. "Oh, I remember! It's like when you've gone rock climbing, and you get to the top, and it feels great! But it's also made your hands achy and ouchy, so you wanna rest before givin' it another shot."

"...Is rock climbing 'ouchy'? I never paid attention to my hands during it."

Kaoru and Hagumi give each other a concerned look.

"I don't understand. I just want to see them again," Kokoro murmurs. She tries to keep smiling, even though her cheeks feel stiff. "I... I know they're probably doing fine, and I know we're not all that far apart, and I know it's only been a few weeks since I last saw them, but... it's like... if I don't see them again, I... I... I don't know what'd happen to me. It feels like I'm looking at nothing. What's... happening to me...?"

It's the same safe surroundings, the same chaotic castle, the same caring companions... the same comfy home to live at in the meantime, and the same Keyblade in her hands.

But none of it offers what she wants. She's... not even sure what it *is* that she wants. It's just to find her friends, right? Once she's with them again, everything will go back to normal. And yet, despite knowing that, she has this... weird, numbing sensation that tells her otherwise; one that's been growing with every new experience she has, and every new thing she's seen. It's a feeling that's strongest when she watches Hagumi and Kaoru, or Chisato and Hina. When she sees them being so close to each other, it's like... water trickles down, from a wall, to a lake, howling and hushing in the back of her head. It yells, and then it's silenced, and then it yells again; and the yelling gets louder, and louder, and Kokoro sees an image of Hina telling her something, and then the yelling gets so loud that it feels weird and uncomfortable, so she silences it, just in case, because she has to, because she doesn't want it to get any louder, because that's no fun, and...

...and...

...Everything in her mind feels fuzzy. It's all static. She gently places her palms over her head, grasping lightly at her bangs... feeling the worried gazes of her friends between her fingers.

Then Kaoru's expression softens. She takes a step closer and offers Kokoro her hand; "Worry not, my lionel. We will find them. I promise." Kokoro slowly takes it. It feels warm. "After all, we are not searching aimlessly. The knights, we all gather intelligence and information during our expeditions; shining gems, that will illuminate the path to your loved ones."

"I've never been too good at the information stuff, but trust me," Hagumi says, "We'll run into them at some point. That's what my gut says!"

Kokoro blinks. The pressure on her head softens. "Really?"

"Yeah! It says we'll find them soon!"

"How soon?"

"REALLY soon! And if it's not soon enough, then we can just explore twice as fast!"

Her eyes brighten. Whoa... that makes so much sense, actually! If an exploration's looking too long, she can just speed it up. That way, she'll be able to find her friends in no time!

Kaoru chuckles. "A marvellous idea, my dear. That will make it thrice as soon!"

"...Yeah. That's great," Kokoro grins. "Thanks, you guys☆!"

"Anytime, my lionel. Remember, you are never as far apart from your loved ones as you think."

"And besides," Hagumi says, "we're your friends too! Group hug?"

"Group hug☆!"

Now she's on top of the world again. So much for this 'fatigue' stuff! Seems pretty pointless; after all, if she stops all this dwelling, then there's nothing to even be fatigued by. She's got plenty to be happy about, and there's no use in overthinking what's missing, right? So let's look at it simply; she's not distant from Misaki and Kanon at all. Not in the slightest. The memories of all those years they spent on Destiny Islands will keep them together, even when they're far apart. Heck, she's probably as close to them as they are to each other. If she keeps at it, she might even reunite with them today!

knock knock "Apologies for the wait," a voice travels through the door. "You can enter the throne room now, you three."

Hand-in-hand with Hagumi and Kaoru, she merrily strolls in. "Morning, Chisato☆! Where's Hina?"

"Gallivanting somewhere else again, undoubtedly." There's a heavy sigh. "Not the best time for her to be absent, but that's simply how she is. How are you all faring?"

"We're doing great! Hagumi and Kaoru have done a lot for me," Kokoro says. "They've cooked me so many nice meals. You should join us sometime~!"

Kaoru's eyes instantly light up. "A marvellous idea! My q- I mean, your highness," she says, dropping to one knee, "you haven't had a dinner party with us since Kokoro arrived. How about we schedule one? We could have Hina, and Eve, and Ma-"

Chisato coughs. "Not in the near future."

"Ehhhh?!" Hagumi immediately whines. "But why, your highness?"

"I-I think 'Chisato' works better at this point then 'your highness', Hagumi. I won't have that title for much longer," she says bashfully. "In any case, I've been very busy as of late. My apologies."

Kokoro tries to look into Chisato's eyes. "...Is that why Hina's always the one who supervises me instead of you?"

But there's an immediate change in tone when she asks that question, and she suddenly finds that Chisato is turning away, her expression hidden. "You can ask me another time."

Huh. Is Chisato... avoiding her, for some reason?

"I'm afraid we have more pressing matters at hand. Allow me to brief you on our most recent development regarding the Heartless. Maya, if you may?"

"Roger that!"

That's all the time Kokoro gets to ponder. Once she and the crew look up, her attention is snagged by the map displayed before them.

It's centered on a particular star, drowned in blinking red dots.

 

---

 

Deep within a blade-riddled wasteland, a wielder with black hair walks.

She's been here for more than 2 and a half years now. Her shadow grows endlessly and quietly, staring over her trodden path as she travels.

...She can tell someone's tailing it. For a moment, she stops... and stares at the empty, pearl-sunset sky.

Suddenly, a figure stands before that sky, as if she was here to begin with. She wears a comfortable ebon jacket that covers her entire body, the hood shrouding her face so it cannot be seen. "Uh-oh. Busted~," the Hooded Figure says. "You doing okay? Lisa'll get worried if you're too far behind, y'know?"

"..."

...The wielder shakes her head. Nothing should ail her. "If you say so," the Hooded Figure says. "But, uh... you don't need to act like everything's fine, yeah? If you wanna quit the trial and go back, then just ask me. It's not the, uh, normal way things're done, but that's no biggie~. Already did it for Hina a while ago, anyway."

Then the figure disappears.

...The wielder keeps walking. She will not pretend she is okay.

But for that person's sake, she cannot let anything bring her down. She... can't waste the blessings she's been given.

 

---

 

The second the Gummi Ship's doors open, Kokoro covers her face.

...Soon enough, the sands calm down. She opens her eyes... and immediately gasps, spotting what looks like a gargantuan serpent. It's collapsed into the sand, still and unmoving, to the point where you could almost mistake it for a statue from this distance. Not only that, but if Kokoro stands on her tiptoes, she can see scorch marks peeking out from its side over the dunes; it's like it got struck by lightning! "My goodness," Kaoru says, "that's Golgonda, is it not?"

Hagumi turns to her. "Eh? That's the thing this place is named after?"

"Yes... and it seems to have been slain. It was apparently a fearsome beast, so this should be good news. But with the Heartless here..."

Kokoro takes in a big, big view of the sandy wilderness. She can't actually make out any Heartless from the cliff she's standing on, which means they're either hiding, or this place is just REALLY big. It's not an empty expanse, either; there's huge pillars made of some green metal, towering like gods over the dunes and mountains. They're so tall and intricate that you'd almost think there was some kind of grand, ancient city living here long ago☆. Who knows? Maybe there's even treasure strewn all over this place, waiting to be dug up! Makes her heart race in excitement~.

"If you wish to join our dispatches, I won't stop you. But please... be very careful."

Still, Chisato's words echo in her mind.

"There's something about this invasion that unnerves me. We've never seen so many Heartless in one place before. Perhaps the Stigmatika world is one that necessitates a brute, drawn-out approach, but for Saki-Inari to suddenly be so brazen after weeks of guerilla warfare... it's unnerving me. I can't quite put my finger on why."

"Fufu. It's rare for you to be swayed by intuition, my qu- Chisato."

"I'm aware~. Perhaps being stuck with Hina has let me nab some of her instincts," Chisato responds. Kokoro notices she's wearing a cool smile over her perpetual frown, just like always; it's probably for Hagumi and Kaoru's sake. "...Nevertheless, please exercise caution and engage only with the smaller hordes near the outskirts. We'll do what we can to protect this world, but we do not want to stare down a legion of Heartless unprepared. I emphasise; do not throw your lives away. Understood?"

"Yes, your hi- I mean, Chisato!"
"Of course, my q- Chisato."

"My, it seems some habits aren't so easy to break." Chisato chuckles, her expression softening slightly. "And you, Kokoro?"

Kokoro gives a thumbs-up. "No need to worry☆! I won't be in any danger at all."

"Good. Playing it safe is the best option here. Oh, and... one more piece of advice, if I may."

"Eh? What's up?"

Chisato looks at her head-on for the first time that day. "...Don't focus too much on finding your friends, alright? They're probably in another world."

That 'advice'. It sticks out. Kokoro rarely ever gets to talk to Chisato... but she feels like Chisato is someone who worries a lot about others, picks her words carefully, and doesn't always tell the truth. Did she say that because she's doting on her? Or is it because she knows Misaki and Kanon aren't here somehow?

Well, if they are in another world, hopefully it isn't as big as this one. This place would take an age to explore, even if she ran as fast as she could. Not just because of its size...

...but also because of what it's saying.

Kokoro feels like the desert is telling her its history. The towers, the holes flickering in the sky, the enormous bones and skulls, the fallen serpent, the broken-down ships littered across the dunes; they're all a living storybook.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ ^ _ _ GREAT SAND SEA - GOLD GOLGONDA _ _ ^ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"My friends are probably in another world, huh," Kokoro mutters, traipsing across the sandy waves. "I wonder why Chisato said that?"

"Even my daring wit cannot discern the full answer. But perhaps it was partly out of concern," Kaoru says. "With this much Heartless activity, it is possible Saki-Inari herself is here too, and a world with Saki-Inari in it is a perilous one. I believe that is why she has taken extra measures to ensure we stay backstage."

"Aw, she worries too much. After all, I've got you two with me☆!"

"Ehehe!" Hagumi gives her a lovely grin. "I really wanna give that Saki-Inari a big Thwam!, but orders are orders. We'll stick to the sidelines and leave the sluggin' to the other knights."

"A sound plan, my dear."
"Aye-aye, captain☆!"

Fearlessly, Kokoro leads the expedition alongside Hagumi, strolling across the dunes with their eyes peeled for darkness while Kaoru watches their backs. It's nice that she never has to venture on her own. Exploring a desert isn't as fun as she thought it'd be, though... why's the sand so prickly? Why's the air so stiff? Is it shy or something?

"Ah, my lionel. Perhaps you could try wielding your Keyblade? It may accumulate you to the climate."

...Accumulate? Does Kaoru mean acclimate- oh, right, the Keyblade! She totally forgot. Leave it to Kaoru to remember these kinds of things. "I'll bring it out, then~!"

Kokoro materializes Morning Star Aquamarine, and sure enough, just looking into its gems makes her body feel cooler. Calmer. It's like a blanket of snow is protecting her~. Now it's much easier to whoosh around!

"Hmmm... still can't see any Heartless," Hagumi says, surveying from the peak of a dune. "How about you guys?"

"Alas, not a soul. At least, none in plain sight. Perhaps our foes are, um..." Kaoru pauses. "Hiding underground?"

"Ah! Actually, they might be!" Hagumi leaps back down. "They're not very solid by nature, which makes stuff like sand easy for them to slither through. I've got pretty good instincts, so stay close to me, you guys; I'll give 'em a big bash if they crawl out!"

Kokoro can't help but giggle at that. "Hehe~."

The knights turn to her quizzically. "What's up, Kokoron?"

"I know I'll be safe with you guys around☆. I dunno how to explain it, but... you feel really sparkly and warm. It reminds me of Misaki and Kanon. No matter what kind of Heartless we fight, I know you can beat it, even if it's really strong like the Kyogre one."

"But of course! I will conquer any mountain standing in my kittens' path."

"What Kaoru said! Mountain-climbing's pretty fun."

"Ehehe~!" Kokoro smiles. "See, that's why. You're both so calm, and tough, even when the Heartless keep hitting you. It's like you don't feel any pain at all!"

Honestly, she wishes she could be more like Hagumi and Kaoru. Dodging everything is fun, but it makes Kokoro's fights take longer compared to theirs, and fighting on the whole isn't really THAT fun. If she could just ignore a Heartless's attacks instead and charge through, then things'd be over way-

...Wait, why aren't they responding? They seem pretty quiet. "Something wrong☆?"

The two knights look at each other for a moment... then turn back to Kokoro, with weird smiles. "Nah, it's nothing. Let's keep moving-"

That is, until Hagumi's eyes fire up.

"-Guys! Over there! There's a couple of knights fighting the Heartless!"

That's their cue!

Kokoro follows the direction Hagu's pointing at and slides down the dunes at full speed. But as the trio gets closer, she notices something about the people they're going to help; "They don't look like knights, do they~?" She takes a closer look at the pair; neither their appearances nor their outfits are familiar. It's hard to make out from this distance, but one of them has long blonde hair like Kokoro's, except much curlier and softer, while the other's got a short, scruffy grey fringe (and seems to have fire around him?). They're dressed pretty lightly compared to Kaoru and Hagumi... well, no time like the present to say hello! "Let's go, you guys!"

"Fira!"
"A fleeting Fire!"

Two fireballs whizz past Kokoro as she leaps ahead, taking out a pair of serpentine Heartless. She aims a Blizzara at another, dissipating it as she vaults through the air with the recoil of her Magic, and drops down to the battlefield beside her new friends. The blonde-haired one yelps; "Whoa!"

"Ecks, stay back," her companion says. "Who're you? Are you with those things?"

"A-Albaz, it's okay! She just saved us from them!"

Kokoro looks at them with the biggest smile she can make and declares; "Help is here☆! Everything'll be alright n-"

"B-behind you!"

Oh, there's three more! Kokoro twirls Morning Star, turns, and dashes forward; "Reflect!"

The friend called Albaz runs alongside; "You take the right, I'll take the left!"

Albaz enshrouds himself in a barrier of fire, while one of glimmering light surrounds Kokoro. They leap forth to tackle their assailants and slash 'em to wisps!

RRrrrip!!
Thwack☆!

"E-excuse me!"

Kokoro hops to the side, just as 'Ecks' has leapt forward,

THWAM!

resulting in the blunt end of a steel hammer being jammed into the last Heartless. Ecks tightens her grip, and a canister in the hammer's cogwork emanates a brilliant blue, thrusting her forward and finishing it off with a pummel to the ground.

K-Thwam!

And that's...

...Huh, that's all of them! Didn't take long. Kokoro does a little leap to celebrate; she didn't even get a scratch~. Forget the whole 'dodging vs blocking' thing; maybe at this point, she can just cruise through any Heartless she sees with zero effort. All the more reason to help people then!

"Sheesh, that hammer's no joke," the one called Albaz says, momentarily distracted. "You already look like a natural with it."

Ecclesia wields the weapon proudly, her eyes sparkling. "Hehe~! ...To be fair, it's Kitt's, not mine. She's the one who made it."

"Yeah, but I doubt she has the muscles to use it..."

Ecks... Albaz... Kitt... Kokoro doesn't know anyone with those names. That confirms it; they're not from Shirasagi Kingdom.

"Is everyone unharmed?"

And there's Kaoru and Hagumi. Now they rendezvous~!

 

---

 

"From another world...?"

Kokoro's just noticed; Albaz has been hiding behind Ecks during most of this, staring at the trio with a creased frown. But those words made his eyes light up all of a sudden!

"...Ah, whatever. So those shadowy jackasses are called Heartless, huh?"

"When I first saw them, I thought the church made them. I'm glad things aren't that dire yet," Ecks sighs. "...O-oh, I'm sorry! We haven't even introduced ourselves yet."

"Hm? Of course we have. We did that during the scene transition," Kaoru says.

Everyone looks at her. "The scene transition?" Hagumi asks.

"Fufu. It is but that. A few line breaks is all it takes for the actors in the script to become acquainted with each other, my lovely Ecks."

"I... see... ah, wait, hang on! It's Ecclesia. Not X."

Kaoru blinks. "My, what could you be referring to?"

"M-my name."

"Ohhh, I see!" Hagumi puts her hands together. "Albaz called you X, and you have an X on your forehead, so I thought that was your name."

Now Kokoro's confused. "I thought her name was Ecks."

"Doesn't that have an X in it?"

"I-I'd hope not," Ecclesia says. "My home country has this superstition that anyone with an X in their name is possessed. The church listed it as one of the 13 signs that someone's a heretic."

Wow, really? Doesn't sound like a nice place to live...

"Uh. Back on topic," Albaz says. "So... you guys say you aren't with the church, or the Heartless, or anything else trying to kill us or 'take our hearts'. You promise that?"

"Of course!" Hagumi responds. "Killing is bad!"

Ecclesia suddenly pipes up. "G-great! Whew, that's a relief. I don't like murder either...!"

...

...She awkwardly trails off after that.

It's enough to break Albaz's frown. "What kind of- okay, look, I'm not one to talk, but I don't get how you're so nervous around everyone you meet. Didn't you use to be a saint?"

"Ch-churches aren't the liveliest places!" Ecclesia taps her head with both hands, then addresses the trio. "R-right, um... apologies- I mean, sorry for being awkward! We've had a bit of a messy journey, so we've been on edge for a while. Thanks for helping us!"

"Anything for a kitten as charming as you," Kaoru winks. "We believe Saki-Inari, the culprit of this inter-dimensional invasion, is currently in your world, attempting to drown it in darkness. But worry not, my friends; for we have many fellow knights currently engaging her forces with aplomb."

"Good to know. Me n' Ecks have our hands full as-is."

"Oh! Are you headed somewhere?" Hagumi asks. "The three of us were told not to get too smashy, so we can help out if you want!"

Kokoro lights up. "That sounds like a wonderful idea☆! The more friends, the merrier. Why not travel together so the Heartless are less of a problem?"

"Oh sheesh, you guys wanna come with? ...You've got your own food, right?"

"Of course," Kaoru responds. "We need not take your supplies. We can even offer some if need be."

"Then I think the company'd be lovely!" Ecclesia speaks up. "Although, uh... we are planning to cross the entire desert. We're trying to reunite with a friend on the other side. We'd definitely have trouble getting there on our own, but... a-are you sure you're okay with helping us?"

"Can we? Can we?" Kokoro asks. "I think it'd be whooshin'~!"

"Yeah, that's fine!" Woohoo! Hagumi gave it the thumbs-up! Now they can have lots of fun together- "We can't go too far from the Gummi Ship though, so it'll only be for a few hours." -Aw, dang. Not THAT much fun then. "Eccly, Al, you okay with that?"

"Th-that'd be plenty... thank you so much!"

"No complaints from me," Albaz sighs. "At this point, I should be used to the rowdy crowds."

Perfect! Now Kokoro has plenty of time to ask her new friends a BUNCH of questions!

...Or so she tries, at least. But Ecclesia doesn't seem to like talking about her hometown, so Kokoro ends up talking about Destiny Islands for 10 minutes straight instead. Then she tries asking about Ecclesia's friends, and that turns out MUCH better since Ecclesia has lots of interesting friends, so Kokoro spends the next 5 minutes pressing for details non-stop, and then when Ecclesia deflects the next question and asks what Kokoro's friends are like instead, Kokoro spends the next 30 minutes-

"M-Miss Kokoro, um..." Ecclesia sweats. "Sorry, I'm a little tired of talking. Do you mind if I switch to scouting duty for a while?"

Oh! Kokoro snaps out from the middle of her 6th story. "You're already tired? Now that's funny," she responds. "You're pretty different from most of my friends!"

"I'm pretty sure you and your friends are the odd ones out," Albaz butts in. "Go, Ecks. I'll keep her company for a while."

"Th-thank you... I hope Miss Kaoru and Hagumi are less talkative..."

"Don't worry about her," Albaz says, turning to Kokoro. "She's got a lot on her mind lately. Throw the words at me instead."

"You got it☆!"

Albaz has the same bags under his eyes as Ecclesia; but while Ecclesia's more like Kanon, Albaz seems much more like Misaki. Ecclesia responds to everything in full even though she's tired, while Albaz doesn't usually say more than 'mmhm', or 'that so?'. He likes taking it slow and enjoying the scenery (although he never seems to need any water, which is a big difference from Misaki- actually, wait. Why does she always compare everyone she knows to Misaki and Kanon?). "You seem pretty relaxed, Albaz," she comments. "In the world I'm staying at right now, most people go 'arrrrrgh' or 'bwaaaargh' when they think about the Heartless."

"Whooshin', boppin', bwaaaargh," he tilts his head. "You've got the vocab of a 10-year old sometimes."

"Really? But I took half those words from a queen."

"You know some interesting queens, then." ...Albaz slows down a bit. "Hey. You've been travelling across worlds, right?"

"Yeah! I... haven't been home for a super-long while," she says. "Me, Kanon and Misaki got thrown off Destiny Islands by the Heartless, so I need to find them first."

"I've heard you mention those names like 50 times to Ecks. They your friends too?"

"Uh-huh! Misaki and Kanon are my best, best friends in the whole wide world☆!" Kokoro throws out her arms for emphasis. "It's... been a really, really long time since I last saw them. I know it's only been a month, but it feels so much longer."

...She pauses. Something's different about how she talks lately... normally, she feels on top of the world when she says Misaki and Kanon's names. But now, bringing them up puts a strange husk in her voice, and it makes her arms feel like they're being dragged down. If it wasn't for her Keyblade, she'd probably spontaneously collapse into the sand.

Albaz doesn't call her out for slowing down, though; he just waits as she looks down at her sapphire necklace and tries to think of the good times. "Everyone's been really helpful to me," she continues. "And I'm not gonna waste it. Nothing's gonna stop me from seeing my friends again. I'll bring them back home, safe and sound!"

For the first time, she sees a more positive emotion on Albaz's face. "Heh. Home, huh..." He looks up. "Wonder if I have one."

"You don't know where you came from?"

"Nope." He points up. "Got dropped out from a hole in the sky one day and crash-landed in Ecks' hell of a home with 0 memories. Makes me wonder if there was some country back on the other side too."

Huh. He says it like it's a bad thing he's here, even though Ecclesia's mentioned plenty of friends the two of them have now. Is it even possible to miss a place you have no memory of? ...Maybe. That might be the kind of feeling Albaz has that Kokoro doesn't... a kind of experience Kokoro doesn't understand. Oh well; it's not like that stops her from being his friend! "Only one way to find out, right?" She says. "Keep travelling around, and you'll find a way back there somehow☆!"

"You think so? Guess it couldn't hurt to try... been a wild enough trip for me so far." Albaz smiles, offering his hand as they scale a rocky dune. Kokoro takes it and hauls herself up to the peak, reaching a flat, sandy plateau miles wide. "Good luck from a fellow wanderer, then. Hope we both find what we're looking for."

That expression conveys a lot to Kokoro. So she decides to be encouraging and offers her biggest smile in return: "Thanks, Albaz~! Don't worry; as long as we keep going, we'll get there one-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Uh. You okay, kid?"

-...day..."

Kokoro completely stops in place.

It's on the other side of the horizon. All she'd need to do is race through the dunes. Two minutes of running, and she'd be right there. Right next to what she's been looking for, this entire time.

"Albaz? M-Miss Kokoro? Is everything alright?"

"Oh, you guys. She's, uh. Stopped."

"Stopped? My, has something caught our lionel's attention?"

"Kokoron? Kokoron?"

All it'd take is a sprint, and she'd finally be home again.

"Where's she looking? ...Oh, isn't there another person over there?!"

"It would seem so. I also spy a couple of Heartless with my fleeting eye."

"Do you think they're fighting- a-ah, Miss Kokoro!!"

Kokoro runs.

The air of the desert breathes. The blue of the sky is becoming a sea, the ground and its cracks are her soul. Her field, her world, it expands, it expands, and she shoots across it, across it, further, further, holding her Keyblade and guiding herself forward, her life becoming an arrow pointing at one singular positive space, her footsteps following it, leaving tiny indents in the thin layers of sand at her feet, the vast wastes conjuring an oasis where water runs in your body with all the nourishment you could ever need, flowing oxygen from your frozen voice like rivers from a dam in the shape of a quaint golden chalice, pouring upwards through your head, away from your parched lungs, gently through your mind, numbing it, letting Kokoro feel at ease, letting her smile, letting her think:

I never thought I'd see you again.

"...Kokoron...!"

Her running is the only thing she can hear now.

 

---

 

"Kokoron!"

Hagumi thought she was faster than Kokoro, even with the Keyblade out. But she's never seen Kokoro run this fast before, ever.

"Sh-she's speeding like a bullet," Ecclesia pants, "what happened?"

Hagumi doesn't know. All she knows is that Kokoro's bolting headfirst towards a small, rocky clearing in the middle of the plateau, right next to an enormous sinkhole that probably goes way way down. Why?

"T-'Tis a struggle to keep up," Kaoru manages. "Haha. Her vivacity... I think I know who that person on the horizon is."

"Eh? Who?"

"Her face changed in an instant when she saw 'em," Albaz says, "think it's one of her friends?"

"No doubt," Kaoru responds.

...Wait, isn't that great, then? It is! Woohoo! This is the best news they've had all week! She sees Kaoru smile, and she starts smiling herself too; even Albaz and Ecclesia're smiling, and they haven't known Kokoro for all that long. This is great... finally, after all this time, Kokoro gets to be happy. "Ehehe. I'm finally gonna meet one of Kokoron's friends... c'mon, guys!"

"A-ah, my dear...!" Kaoru speeds up too. "Fufu, it seems energy has overcome us. I wonder which friend Kokoro found?"

Oh yeah, that's a good question! Hagumi squints her eyes... there's one person standing in the clearing. The Heartless that were surrounding her just disappeared, so she probably beat them up. She's strong! Which friend is it, though? If it's Kanon, it'll be blue hair, and if it's Misaki, it'll be black... "Ah, she's got black hair! Heck yeah! That means it's-"

Then she and Kaoru see it.

Their blood chills. "Kaoru? Hagumi?" Ecclesia asks. "Is something wrong?"

They're about a minute away now. Kokoro's already there. Hagumi wants to celebrate, to pump her fist in the air... but she knows what she just saw. There's a pile of thick, empty clothes next to the black-haired Keyblade wielder... and above those clothes...

...is a glowing heart, disappearing into nowhere.

That means the Heartless are still around. If they don't hurry, Kokoro's friend might be next!

 

---

 

I-I never thought I'd see you again.

I was so worried about you. After I watched you disappear, I spent every single day wondering where you were... whether you were even still with us. I-I felt like... if I assumed you were gone, I wouldn't have a reason to get up again.

There were so many nights where I couldn't sleep. I'd pretend it was a coincidence, but I always knew why; it's because I knew I could distract myself if I stayed up. That way, I could keep hoping I would find you again, hoping you were okay... hoping you hadn't been hurt. Just hoping, that you were out there somewhere, wandering the worlds like I was, waiting for the day where we'd see each other again. Waiting for the day where we could be together again... waiting for the day where me, you, and Kanon would be back at home again, closer to each other than to anyone else. The three of us, who know everything there is to know about each other, who know each other better than anyone else does... I missed you. I missed you.

I missed you so much. Even though I can't shed any tears like this, I know I've been crying since it happened. After it happened, all I could do was just... lie there like the useless idiot I am, feeling how powerless I was, realizing how many mistakes I made. If I'd figured out what happened even a little bit sooner... if I'd realised why you were acting that way, just a second earlier... you wouldn't have disappeared, would you? I had such a long time, where... wh-where the only thing I could do was realize how much I'd screwed everything up, and... hope that you were okay.

But you are.

And you're here.

Right in front of me.

Just a little further, and I'll be there.

And I'll get to tell you about everything that happened.

I'm... so glad you're okay.

I'm so happy you're here. I'm so happy you look the same. Because,

You don't deserve to be hurt, Misaki.

 

Kokoro throws her arms out and yells:

"MISAKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII☆☆☆!"

She nails the landing, dropping herself right on the edge of the clearing, staring at the lovable, wonderful, huggable person standing in the middle. It's the same hand-made sapphire pendant. The same soggy black hair. The same comfy blue hoodie, the same matching striped t-shirt, and Wishful Thinking; the same ebon, spiralling Keyblade.

There's only one person who has that Keyblade. There's no one else it could be! "Misaki... Misaki☆!!! Over here!"

...Misaki turns around. She looks exactly as disgruntled as you'd expect her to be, but when she sees Kokoro and looks at her face-to-face with that anomalous, misty sky-blue, her expression softens in an instant, just like it does when she's with Kanon. She's giving Kokoro a tired, happy little smile, and it means everything right now. Everything about her is... so Misaki, so, so Misaki. It's like nothing ever changed. She's looking at Kokoro the way she and Kanon look at each other. It's everything Kokoro's ever dreamed of... a-and it's a dream come true. "Ah. Was just thinking 'I only know one person who could make such a ruckus'."

She stops in place when she hears that voice. Weirdly, there's a part of her that even wants to cry. But she doesn't; she doesn't have a reason to cry anymore. "Misaki... it... really is you."

"And you sure are Kokoro, unfortunately for me." Misaki beams, dematerializing Wishful Thinking. "There goes my peaceful summer vacation."

She hasn't changed. Not one bit.

"You haven't been dragging TOO many people into your shenanigans, right? ...Ah, what am I worried about? You're in one piece. That's all that matters-"

"Kokoronnnnnnnnn!"

Hagumi and Kaoru land beside her, Ecclesia and Albaz right behind. "Oh, god," Misaki says, "you HAVE been dragging people into your shenanigans!"

"Ehehe☆! Isn't it great? I made so many new friends☆!" Kokoro says, bursting with energy. "This is Kaoru, and this is Hagumi, and these're Ecclesia, and Albaz... oh, and there's also been Chisato, and Hina, and Eve, and Azelf, and Maya... I met so many new people! They're wonderful, and they always help me out!"

"You've been hanging around them this entire time...?"

"Fufu. Indeed, little kitten," Kaoru says. "It was all leading up to this grand reunion."

"Thanks for helping her. S-seriously, sorry for all the trouble she's caused you," she sighs in exasperation. "Oh, yeah, I'm Misaki Okusawa. Nice to meet you guys."

"Nice to meetcha!" Hagumi waves. "Phew, looks like there aren't any Heartless left after all. Maybe I was just seeing things!"

Misaki chuckles. "What, mirages? Tell me about it. This desert's a pain."

Everyone laughs. It's... the warmest Kokoro's ever felt since she woke up. Every place she's been, everything from Traverse Town to Golgonda, felt like it was all leading up to this. Now there's no more distance. Nothing between them. Just like before. All the days she spent searching... really did bring her back...!

"Must've been rough, Kokoro. You look pretty worn out," Misaki says, smiling. "You doing okay?"

"...Yeah."

Kokoro takes a step forward.

"I've been doing fine. I'm not that tired, honestly, and I've never been sad or miserable or anything like that. I made a lot of new friends, so exploring was a lot of fun." She takes another step. "But... you and Kanon matter more than anything else to me. I missed you two so much. That's why, Misaki... I..."

She breathes. Everyone is by her side, surrounding her in warmth. Standing in the clearing with Misaki, she smiles with all that warmth in her heart and looks at her one of her best friends with all the love in the world. She reaches her hand out as she says,

"I'm so glad we're together again☆!"

"Yeah. Me too."

Misaki takes a step forward.

"Saves me a lot of trouble."

SsSLASH!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

...Huh...?

Why am I... looking at the sky...?

There's shouting. There's screaming. For a split second, Kokoro sees the endless, empty blue, far beyond her reach.

Then she hits the ground.

She tumbles across the desert until her back slams against a lone pillar. The pillar breaks. She falls down, chest suffocating as she slumps onto the cracked soil. She can barely process the feeling... it's like... every cell in her body is slowly being opened...

...it's pain.

She's feeling pain.

Why?

Why did it happen?

Why did it happen to her?

Why does she have to feel this...? What did she do to deserve it? Why can't she go without it? She'd lived without it for so long, she'd spent so many happy years free of it, so why, why does she have to feel it now...

"KOKORO!"

...Her consciousness is dragged back. She looks down through her flickering eyes, sweating coldly as she sees her shaking body. She puts a hand to her stomach; there's no wound. Just a horrible, swelling ache. Th-that means she was hit by a Keyblade. She looks up-

-and Misaki's Keyblade is rushing down "KOKORO, GET BACK!"

CcCLANG!

Her blood runs cold.

Kaoru's shield just blocked Misaki.

Misaki is trying to hurt her. "Damn. You guys're faster than I thought. What a pain."

CcCLASH! "Ggh! M-my lionel-"

          CcCLANG
SLAS-CLANG, sl-CLASH,clang,CLANG,CLANG,CLANG,CLANG -Sl-Sl-Sl- -CCRASH,

CCLANG!! "G-gah!"

Everything is racing. The shield crumples, Kaoru is hurled to the side, there's a grin on the face of her cherished Misaki as the Keyblade is raised again, aimed right at her-

"Get away from her!"

CC-SLAM-

-CCLANGgggggg "Gggrh...!"

...She opens her eyes. A solitary mace is pushing against the black blade. "I should've known," Hagumi growls, "you're Saki-In-"
                        ww
CKKRASH!!

"-Gagkh!"

Hagumi takes the brunt of the Keyblade, and she's sent flying. Adrenaline devours Kokoro. Her body ignores her mind's excuses, forcing her to realize why her life is in danger:

Misaki is trying to hurt her.

"...Why," why is- CcCLANG "N-NO!"

On instinct, she weakly swings,

CcCLANG! "S-stop! Pl-" CcCLANG! "M-Misaki-"

CCLANG!

"MISAKI!" Thwi☆-clang, thw-CcCLANK, CLANG-CLANG-CLANG "Misaki, I don't want to fight y-"

CcCLANG,

Morning Star falls from her hand.

SsSLASH!!

"Ack!"

Misaki's Keyblade slams into her side, sprawling her onto the dirt. It hurts. This isn't a dream. Her body can't pretend it is. The same Misaki who's so comfy to hug, the same Misaki who'd make worried faces when she climbed the treetops, is... i-is... "Huh, you're not smiling. Makes a nice change for once," it stabs. "But I'm in a hurry. Gimme that heart."

CCLANG!

She barely covers her abdomen. "M-Misaki..." she sobs, beginning to cry as her friend's Keyblade screams against her own, "please, stop...!"

"What's the matter?! Given up on thinking this is fake?" Misaki pushes forward. "That sure is a pain. It'd be so much easier for me if you just curled into a ball and pretended none of this is real. Isn't that what you always do when something bad happens?"

"Misaki...?"

"GET AWAY FROM HER!"

RRRrrRR CcCLANG!

Misaki jumps back and clashes with a claw of fire, shrugging off the impact and knocking Albaz away. She speeds around as Ecclesia's weapon swings forward, causing the hammer to land on nothing; Ecclesia lights up its engine, trying to roar forward for another attack,

THW- CcCLANG!

but it's deflected too.

Misaki is surrounded. Kokoro watches as all 4 of her companions point their weapons at one of her closest friends. "Misaki... why...?"

"Oh, nothing special. I just feel like being honest for once. So, how do you like the REAL Misaki?"

"Wh-what are you saying? I don't understand!"

"Kokoron, get back!" Hagumi yells. "She might look like your friend, but she's not! That's Saki-Inari!"

"No. That's Misaki." She clutches the coarse, blunt sapphire on her chest; "Nobody else has that pendant. Nobody else has that Keyblade. And nobody else has that hoodie... I made it for her. It can't be anyone but Mis-"

W-wait. I'm not seeing things. There's some kind of glint in her eyes...

...Kokoro's body freezes up. She takes a step back, raising Morning Star Aquamarine. "W-who are you? Give Misaki back... please, give her back."

"You realized I'm possessed? Wow, you sure are smart!" Misaki weakly applauds... and then smiles. "Nah, as if. A pathetic, worthless crybaby like you wouldn't have figured that out on your own. Hell, if you WERE on your own, that first slash I made would've dragged your stupid heart out already."

Please... just give Misaki back, please!

"How about you leave in the next 3 seconds," Albaz says, "or die."

"Wow, talk about mean. You really wanna separate her from her childhood friend after our touching reunion?"

"I believe she's plenty company right now as-is," Kaoru responds. "Perhaps you could separate yourself from said friend and leave us be?"

Misaki laughs, in the same morose way she always does. Then she gives a chilling grin. "Separate? Who says I'm even being controlled right now? Maybe I've just had it babysitting this idiot for my entire life!" She lunges towards Kokoro again: "It's pretty cathartic seeing the look on your face!"

CcCLANG!!!

Kokoro swings, but it's nowhere near the force Misaki has. She doesn't even bother trying to fight back.

It's too much.

CCLANG, CCLANG, CCLANG,

She starts sobbing. She'd take being a Heartless over this.

CCLANG,

THWACK

Misaki lands a punch and crumples her. She stumbles, losing her balance. A cacophony of noise follows; her vision whites out, her throat dries up, and her heart breaks as she begins to hear attack after attack launched between her wonderful friends and her beloved Misaki, each desperate grunt and violent swing being the only thing stopping the Keyblade that gently tutored her from hurting her again at any given moment.

"Gotta be faster than that if you wanna protect her so bad!"

CL-CL-CL-CcCLASH!

The wind howls. Kokoro hears her friends cry out in pain; she knows she's exposed now. Misaki's footsteps get closer and closer, at the exact same pace they would if she was treading idly through the beach with Kokoro and Kanon on a happy summer day, dragging her murderous blade through the sands and

CcCLANG! "Ggh!"

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG

No. Stop it. She doesn't want to look at this anymore...

Her body tells her to fight back. But she can't. There's no reason to. Her arms just get heavier, and her chest just gets emptier. As Misaki continues the onslaught, Kokoro meets each merciless swing with the bare minimum, letting herself be pushed to the edge of an enormous sinkhole. Any further, and she'll fall. All the way down. That'll hurt even more... won't it?

"C'mon, hand over that heart already! Do it for your friend, won't you?!"

"..."

CL-CLLANG!

...Kokoro opens her eyes, wondering why she hasn't been hit.

She should've fallen just now. But Kaoru's shield stands in the way again, desperately holding its ground. "Kokoro, please, run!"

"...Misaki... why...?"

"Gimme a break," Misaki says. "Is 'why' the only question you can ask?"

It is.

Kaoru grits her teeth. "Kokoro, please-" CcCLANG! "Ggh...! You have to run, now!"

"Y'know, sure, I'm being possessed and all," CLANG "But honestly? I let it happen." CLANG "When it happened, all I could think about was how much of a pain you'd been to me from start to end."

Kokoro's heart boils. "N-no... stop doing this to Misaki! Stop making her say that!"

CLANG "I'M the only one talking right now, Kokoro."

SLAM- "Kokoron, don't listen to her-"

-CLANG "You were a drag on Kanon, you were a drag on me," CLANG "you're just a selfish, immature, spoilt little prepubescent BRAT who doesn't know when to stop bothering people."

THWAM- "Miss Kokoro, please retreat-"

-SsSLASH, SLASsSH! CLANG "You're the only one who ever thought we were your friends. All Kanon and I wanted was for you to leave us ALONE."

"S-stop it... please...!"

CLANG "Stop? Even though I'm having the time of my life letting this out?! Yeah, right! Make me!"

RRRrR-CLANG! "Hey, kid, get the hell out of here-"

SSLASH!

Misaki blocks every single attack and crushes every one of her friends, until Kaoru is the last one standing. "K-Kokoro... run!"

CLANG

It's not Misaki who's saying this.

CLANG

She knows it's all a lie. After all, she knows Misaki better than anyone, right? Misaki would never say this. Saki-Inari is just pretending to be her friend so she'll let her guard down.

CLANG

Misaki would never say this...

CLANG

...

...Right?

CLANG

"Please, I'm begging you, RUN!"

CLANG

But if that's true, then... would Misaki really be attacking her?

CLANG

Would Misaki really be letting this happen? Without any resistance? Kokoro can't see a trace of it in those endless eyes. What if everything she's hearing is the truth instead, and Misaki really did let Saki-Inari take control?

What if this is her fault?

CLANG

"K-Kokoro...!"

Maybe all this time, she just assumed she knew how Misaki felt, when she didn't. Maybe, during all those months she thought she'd cheered Misaki up, she hadn't. Maybe she acted like she was wanted... when she wasn't. Because otherwise... the things Saki-Inari's saying wouldn't feel like the truth, would they?

Misaki always said she was a pain. "K-Kokoro-"

CcCcCLANGG!!

"Aggh!"

She hears Kaoru get knocked aside. She opens her eyes. "Stop doing this to her," she mutters. "Stop making Misaki say this."

"God, you piss me off."

CcCLANG

The clash pushes Kokoro further and further back. There's no relent. Her arms wail as she feels herself being forced all the way to the edge of the cliff, until her body is leaning right over the sinkhole and the feeling of agony is staring into her everywhere. "You really are a 20 year-old toddler. Even while I'm beating the snot out of you, you're still in denial," Misaki says. "No wonder I always hated you."

N-no... that's not true... "Inari..." The force gets stronger. Her limbs tighten further. The more she tries to push back, the more useless it feels, the more useless she feels. "Is it true...? D-does Misaki really hate me?"

No response.

"She doesn't, right? You're just forcing Misaki to say these things... right? Th-that's the truth... th-that has to be. I know Misaki and Kanon better than anyone els-"

     CLANG

 

 

 

 

 

 

...The shadow on Misaki's face is the last thing she sees.

"Gimme a break. You'll never understand a single thing about us."

She plummets.

She falls,

and falls,

and falls.

The dam in her head collapses,

and as the abyss assails her, the tears that flew upwards

come flooding down.

"...M-Mi... sa... ki..."

Chapter Text

"AERORA!"

W<-SR-sr-sr-SR-sr-sr-SRsH!

               Sllllllllllllllllllll-
-
CCLANG!!!

Cutlass meets Keyblade with an ear-splitting spark.

Right now, all Kaoru can think about is her failure. But she can't express it. The second she relents, the second she lowers her weapon to show her fear, Saki-Inari will have jumped down that sinkhole and taken Kokoro's heart. So she keeps swinging, desperately, desperately, desperately, CLANG, -CcCLANG, CcCLANG, "Oh, sheesh," Saki-Inari says, smiling as the winds roar. "I was kinda counting on you guys to give up after that. What a... pain!"

CcCLANG! "Ggah!"

Kaoru barely shields herself in time; but it doesn't stop the impact from sending her flying. Kokoro's friend has monstrous power, and her possessor knows how to use it. A cyclops with a steam train's throttle would not match her. Every time someone's tried to get the jump on her, she's found an opening and brutally overwhelmed them with a lightning-speed assault. Kaoru would have sprawled head-first into the sand again from that swing if she hadn't put all her strength into making her landing stable - and by the time she finds her footing, Saki-Inari's already shot forth:

CcCLANG!!!!!!!!!!

Colliding with Hagumi's mace. "Kaoru!"

"Th-thank you-" That's all they get to say before the assault continues. Every breath is a moment where any number of swings could be thrown their way, a moment where the horrid, prickled edge of that Keyblade is trying to chew through their shields, or a moment where its opposite, blunt-force end is slamming into their armour. Its wielder flips between using each side as the handle, launching attack after attack that poses different kinds of threats, without any hesitation or slow-pace planning, be it from behind, or the side, or above, or below, or above... it just... doesn't stop- CcCLANG, "Gah!"

It's the most violent Keyblade-

CLANK "Ggh...!"

-she's ever faced-

SsSLASH "Agh!"

-...and she left it one opening.

SsSLASH-SLASH-SLASH-SLASH-sl_sl_sl_- THWACK!! - SLASH

For that one moment of weakness, she's met with a sensation like rapid-fire battering rams, and even an elbow for good measure, hurling themselves into her body.

"Get... OFF her!"

She's blessed to have allies. Following Hagumi's yell, she and Saki-Inari hear a Fira being launched; Saki-Inari relents, allowing Kaoru to escape the onslaught, and suddenly Ecclesia has rejoined, swinging the hammer at where she thinks Saki-Inari will dodge to. When the prediction proves wrong, Albaz runs in, streaks of flame obligating Saki-Inari with another attack to dodge, and Ecclesia joins him in sequencing attack after attack. Neither of them ever land a wound, only clashing or missing instead; but it buys Kaoru just enough time. She grits through her bruises and immediately throws a set of Aero pouches as fast as she humanly can, to which Hagumi wastes no time, using her mace to bat the pouches onto the ground.

CRASH!

The resulting turbulence rips up the ground; with this, they'll probably have a couple seconds of safety. The 4 of them position themselves before the sinkhole Kokoro's in, letting the tornado cover them, and stay on guard... desperately trying to catch their breath... waiting as the dust clears...

...to find their opponent simply standing there. Kaoru shivers. When someone who's given you no room to breathe is now content to relax... what does that say about your chances? "Look, I'm not a fan of putting in effort," Saki-Inari says, shrugging. "I've already had to emotionally traumatize one person today, and the whole 'pretend I'm the schmuck I've possessed' plan was pretty tiring. Any chance you could just step aside?"

Hagumi grips her weapon tighter. "How can you say that so casually...? You attacked Kokoron with her best friend! You're horrible!"

"You didn't know? Hearts soften up when you crush 'em. Makes them easier to snatch from their owners. I'm not trying to be cruel for the sake of it; it's just practical."

"I hardly think that matters," Ecclesia responds, "leave Miss Kokoro alone and depart from her friend's body at once!"

"Sheesh, what a pain." Saki-Inari points her Keyblade at Ecclesia and Albaz. "I was expecting Shirasagi knights, but what about you two? Why're you so invested? Bet you haven't even known the kid for that long."

Nobody says a word. If they mindlessly lunge forward at this monster, they'll be destroyed.

"Well, if you care about her that much, why not check how she's doing?" The Keyblade's eyes stare at them. "That sinkhole's pretty deep. You sure she's okay down there?"

"...If we take our eyes off you," Kaoru says, "Kokoro's peril goes from possible to certain."

"Dang. And here I thought watching her fall would make you mopey enough to buy me some time."

Wait, where'd-

"Guess it just stopped your purple prose instead."

CcCRASH!

Only now can she process it. Saki-Inari leapt over them and tried to cut them down from behind; if it wasn't for Hagumi blocking it, then-

"I'm over here, y'know."

-Wait, that came from the front-

"Triple Spark!"

Kaoru turns around, tries to deflect the magic-

-and feels the blunt end of Saki-Inari's Keyblade in her back.

BRZZK BRZZK BRZZK!!!

The nerves in her arms freeze; nothing stops the azure sparks from rocketing into her front. Their impact chokes the air out of her, letting Saki-Inari ready another swing.

"Miss Kaoru!"

"Tch!"

THWAM!

...Th-thank goodness. If Ecclesia hadn't forced a retreat, she'd be far worse off. Fighting this demon pushes your body and mind to its limit, too quickly... they need distance, now! "Aero!"

 

wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!
wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!

              wh-sw-sw-sw-swsh!

 

3 pouches create enough of a storm to hide behind; but she knows it's only a matter of time before Saki-Inari is breathing down their necks again. "Kaoru, Alby, support us at range!" Hagumi yells. "Me and Eccly'll do the bashing. Swap when it's needed!"

"Right!"

'Support from range.' Hah... she means 'fight from afar if you're scared'. Hagumi knows how scared Kaoru is.

But she can't help but be grateful, as pitiful as it is. At this range, Saki-Inari isn't focusing as much on her; eventually, she has a chance to Cure herself while Albaz covers her. That's the only reason she can compose herself before readying her next slew of magic. Breathing slowly, she keeps her eyes on their opponent like a hawk, tension high in her muscles.

It's true. Seeing Kokoro fall didn't put them into despair. But it pushed them close enough to make Hagumi cry. And for that, even Kaoru will bare her fangs.

 

---

 

CcCLANG!!
                   BASH

KL- -CLANG cCLANG
CLANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hagumi's stable.

She's fine. Kokoro's fine, Kaoru's fine, and she's fine. Even when things seem bad, she can make them good.

CcCLANG,,

She's strong enough to make them good.

CcCLANG,,,

She's-

CcCLANG!!!

"Ggrh...!"

-...Agh! No, you're being too reckless... calm down...

Right now, attacking makes her feel like sand is lashing into her body; but she's attacking, attacking, neverendingly, aiming right for a knockout on Saki-Inari's head. It's not enough to be stronger, or tougher than the bad guy; she needs to swing constantly. Kokoro's friend is fast, probably faster than Kokoro herself, so Hagumi... needs to match that! "Ggragh!"

CLANG!

Faster, faster,

CLANK, SLAM-CLANG, SLAM!!-CLANG, -weave under, get in- CcCLANG! -no, it's not that easy... -CLANG,CLANG,CLANG,CLANG- even if she goes as fast as possible, she can't land a hit-

CcCLANG!

"Ggh...!"

"Come on," Saki-Inari gloats, winning the next clash and leaving her stumbling, "you can do better than that!"

"Miss Hagumi!"

THWA- CLANG!!

Eccly saves Hagumi's hide immediately, slamming against that Keyblade with a force strong enough to summon gales;

"That all you got?"

but not strong enough to push back its wielder. "...Ggh...!"

Saki-Inari completely tanked it. Whatever her Keyblade's made of, it's a juggernaut; it could take hits for ages, even from weapons as big as theirs. Her arms don't look any worse for swinging it so hard, either. She's pushing back against Ecclesia now...

cccccccccc

...and she's probably about to win out again,

    cccccccccCcCLANG!! "Agh...!"

so now's Hagumi's chance!

SLAM- CLANG!

Gah! She went for the back, right as Ecclesia got knocked away, but her mace just CLANGED into that Keyblade again. How's this person so fast?!

A flurry of Blizzards fly out from Kaoru's location. Saki-Inari blocks them and retreats, leaving flickers of lightning behind as she zips back. Hagumi tries to chase her and catch her where she lands, but misses; then Ecclesia leaps one step ahead, and misses,

"Try again!"

then Hagumi does it again, then Ecclesia, then Hagumi-

CcCLANG!

"Agh...!" -who barely raises her shield against the swing to her left. "Stop moving around!"

"Make me!"

THWACK

She feels a foot bury into her leg, and...

SsSLASH-SsSLASH-SsSLASH-SsSLASH--

"Hey Orange, we've got you!"
"Thunder!"

RRrrr- cling!
kCrac- cling-cling-cling!

-concentrate... concentrate,

Gritting through the pain, she jumps back when Kaoru and Al interrupt the onslaught, catching the Cure pouch Kaoru throws her way. Even with it soothing her wounds, she feels like she's just had the wind torn out of her. "Miss Hagumi," Ecclesia yells, "together!"

"...Right!"

Her body aches, but she can't let it stop her. She viciously attacks Saki-Inari from the front again and again and again while Eccly circles from behind-

"Think fast!"

SsSLASH-sl-sl-SLAM,SLAM "Ggragh...!"

-something that keeps having to be re-done, because Saki-Inari keeps moving around too fast, so they keep having to re-position... again, and again, and again- "One more!"

BRZZK BRZZK BRZZK

It's a mountain. The sweat is pouring down. Breathing is as hard as fighting. She and Ecclesia keep getting hit by slam after slam, spark after spark, each with the force of a telekenized train; their energy's cut apart in gargantuan chunks whenever they leave themselves open, and it happens so often that it feels like they're barely even able to protect themselves, let alone try and keep up the pressure...

...agh, concentrate! C'mon, Saki-Inari'll slip up at some point. She'll attack from somewhere that Hagumi can predict eventually. Somewhere like...

"...here!" She swings demonically-

-hitting only the air. "That all you got? Thundara!"

k cC CRCKL-RCKL

In one fell swoop, bolts of lightning exploit Hagumi's miss and stun the pincering Ecclesia in midair; Saki-Inari dives down on Ecclesia with a swing that sends her hurtling away, before racing around and barreling into Hagumi with her Keyblade again-

"Th-Thundara!"

kCRCKL-RCKL

...That was... Kaoru's Thundara. She feels herself stumbling into Kaoru's arms, reeling from the pain. "Hagumi!" She feels another Cure pouch in her hand. "Let me-" CcCLANG "-take over!"

"R-right...!"

She doesn't stop. If she can't last long, then neither will Kaoru. Kaoru's as scared as she is; maybe even moreso. They're scared because of all the people who could end up hurt if they fail. That's why Hagumi doesn't relent just because she's at the backline now; she launches Fira after Fira whenever she can, urging her muscles to keep fuming, forcing her body to fight and recover at the same time... anything that keeps her in control while the world is burning down around her-

CcCLANG! SsSLASH-SsSLASH

-Hagumi sees the cutlass drop from Kaoru's hand and shoots in. "Get off her!"

THWAM!!!

THWAM, THWAM--CcCLANG!! CcCLANG, CcCCLANG!!! "GrrrRRR...!"

THWAM!!!! THWAM, THWAM, THWAM,

THWAM- CLANG!!!!! "Aggh!"

Every single swing is being parried. "Sheesh," Saki-Inari says, "I really didn't" CcCLANG "sign up for" CcCLASH, CLANG "this much of a workout today!"

CCLANG, CRASH, CRASH, CRASH "Ggrh...!"

Why can't she do it? Why? If she hits Kokoro's friend on the head hard enough, they'll have some time to think about what to do next; that way they can rescue Kokoro, a-and then Kokoro'll be fine! It's that simple! That's the way they can get out of this awful, awful situation; so why can't she-

CRASH!!

"Ack!"

The blunt end of the Keyblade lands a direct hit.

SSLASH, Thwam, SLASHSLASHSLASHSLAM, SSLASH

The next few seconds are a repeated blur of pain, until she finds herself pulled away by Kaoru. "Hagumi, you haven't recovered yet. Stay back!"

"N-no..." She forces her body to move. "Let me fight-"

"Haul outta there and let me tag in! Ecks, we're up!"

"...Eh? You guys...!"

K-thwam! "You two're worn out," Albaz grunts as he shoves a barrier between Saki-Inari and them, "we've gotta switch, NOW!"

"Leave this to us!" Ecclesia says, jumping in and clashing, "we'll be fine, I promise-" CcCLANG "Urgh...!"

Before Hagumi can object, the two of them are already knee-deep in the fight. No, this isn't fair... they have nothing to do with this conflict. Why are they having to protect her now...?! If she was just a bit stronger...

Clang, clang, CLANG

Kaoru puts a hand on her shoulder. "Hagumi."

"...Right."

She has to stay calm. She really could use the breathing room; especially considering how scarce it is. One moment, Saki-Inari's flipping over claws of flame, swinging around Albaz's barrier, and the next she's suddenly shot to the backlines, throwing her blade at Hagumi's face just to make it harder for Kaoru to heal everyone. Then, right as Ecclesia's going to intervene, Saki-Inari'll disengage off-beat and shoot back to Albaz, so now the frontline's getting caught off-guard instead. It's hard enough to keep Kaoru safe, let alone herself, or the sinkhole, or everyone else...

But at one point Ecclesia catches on; she thrusts her hammer forward, blocking off the path with a pre-emptive swing right before Hagumi is targeted. "That's enough!"

KKCRASH! "You wish!"

CcCLANG!!

Ecclesia's pushed back. Albaz tries to follow up, sending currents of flame around Saki-Inari, but; "Spark!" she fizzles them out one by one with ball after ball of electricity, easily keeping up. No matter how many times the pair sling their attacks in succession, their opponent is always one step ahead, creating distance, making brutal swings, exploiting openings and suppressing them with savage burst fire at every possible moment.

That's when it becomes clear. "It's not working," Kaoru manages. "She's whittling them down too... at this rate, we'll all be too tired to keep up."

"...Then let's get it done faster!"

Hagumi stomps the ground. If it's going to hit, it has to be fast, and it has to be a surprise. She waits... waits, until she sees Al's flame magic again. Then she rushes to the opposite side of the battlefield, shoots a few Firas of her own, pincering Saki-Inari, and right as she does, Ecclesia readies another swing, all of it converging;

cling, cling, cling! "Try again!" CLASH!!!

It's... guarded.

Saki-Inari just blocked them. She hunkered down, covered the shots with a barrier, and then just... tanked Eccly. "Y'know, I'm trying to keep those Shirasagi schmucks out of this," she says to her, "but I don't really care what happens to you."

CcccccCCCCCC---CLANG! "Gah...!"

"Ecclesia!" Albaz roars.
"Eccly!!"

The Keyblade seizes the clash with a dreadful whirr, blasting Ecclesia into the air. Saki-Inari roars back into top speed; "How about this?!"

brrzztSLAM
kCRACKL-KkrackL-kCRACKL

No... she can't let this happen! "H-Hagumi, wait!"

She sprawls ahead at a breakneck pace, Kaoru following shortly behind. She sees the blunt end of Wishful Thinking tear streams of dark energy through the ground, their crackling wavelengths battering Ecclesia. An enraged Albaz tries to- Thwack! "...agk!"

Saki-Inari's roundhoused him in the back. "Triple Spark!"

BRZZK-BRZZK-BRZZK

...Hagumi runs faster.

Her friends are helplessly blasted by static, only a second before Saki-Inari leaps up and bursts into a string of teleporting lunges, slashing from every single side, again and again and again and again and again until she lunges upwards, raises her Keyblade and thrusts down through the sky with her entire electrified weight. "I'm done with you!"

K-SLAMMMMM
CRACK-CRACKL-CRACKL-CRACKL-CRACKL!!!!!!!

Plasma rips through the desert like a generator.

Hagumi reaches out on instinct. As the brute force of the electric impact throttles her friends and cannonballs them away, she strains and reaches her arms out, catching the crumpled Albaz. "C-c'mon, you guys... we're not done yet!"

Kaoru does the same for Ecclesia and immediately heals them both. But neither of them can vocalize a response; they have to put all their energy just into standing on their feet. It's at that moment the four of them see Saki-Inari land in the smoking crater left behind by her attack; she's just turned to face the sinkhole Kokoro's in, her heel's digging into the ground, and,

attack

Hagumi has to attack, now!

She bursts forward. She isn't fast enough to take Saki-Inari by surprise. But that doesn't matter; because Saki-Inari isn't taking this seriously. That's why... she isn't going to try and avoid THIS!

CLANGG!

A clash! "Guys, now!"

Everyone rains down with all they have.

Sl-Sl-Sl-CLANG-SLASH-CLANG/
Rrrrri-THWACK "...Damnit...!" CLANG
THWA-CcCLANG, CLANG-CLANG-SLASH-SLASH "N-no!"
"Get off her!" SLA-CcCLANG, SLASH!!!- "...Ggggggrh...!!"

Hagumi feels the entire force of a Keyblade in her stomach; but she headbutts Saki-Inari in retaliation anyway,

"Tch...!"

before yelling as she takes every inch of the reinforced steel in her mace and SLAMS it downwards. "GGRAGHH!"

THWA- CcCCCLANG!! "Whoa there...!"

"...H-huh?"

It's... not enough.

Even with all her might, even with the surprise factor, Saki-Inari slowly bears the brunt of her swing, heaving her Keyblade forward, and forward, and forward, until Hagumi's arms can't bear it any more-

THWAM!

Ecclesia's hammer misses again. SsSLASH! She scowls as she's hurt for thinking she had an opening.

RRRrrri-

CLANG

Albaz is hit bluntly in the face before he can rage. Kaoru tries to punish Saki-Inari for it-

SsSLAS-

SLAM!! -and Hagumi barely saves her from the counterattack. "Leave... my friends... alone!"

THWA-

"I said... leave them alone!" Hagumi growls, as she bucks her knee forward, colliding with Saki-Inari's leg. Finally, finally, she has her chance to slam her mace down again and-

...

-...hit nothing but the ground.

SsSLASH-SsSLASH!

Her only reward is two brutal swings into her back. "Hagumi!"

Sl- CLANG!

Kaoru's attack is deflected,

SsssssSSSSLASH

and Albaz finds a Keyblade boomeranging into him. "NO! ALBA-"

SsSL- CLANG!!

H-Hagumi barely shields Ecclesia,

"Triple Spark!"

BRZz -Cling-cling-cling! "Ggrh...!" Kaoru b-barely shields Hagumi,

"Magnet Pull!"

...And then all 3 of them are hurled into peril.

Like bags full of sand, they're dragged off their feet and sent right towards Saki-Inari. "Triple Spark!"

BRZZK-BRZZK-BRZZK!!!

Lightning burrows into their sides.

"You like it? Have some more!"

They... can't keep up.

BRZZK-BRZZK-BRZZK
BRZZK-BRZZK-BRZZK
BRZZK-BRZZK-BRZZK
BRZZK-BRZZK-BRZZK,

Bursts fire into them, again, and again, from the front, from the back; they're defenseless, pummelled in midair. As the unending, chain-revolving pain blunts her senses, she can barely make out twisters of spiralling energy, pouring from the jagged end of Saki-Inari's Keyblade, giving it an enormous electrified edge made of neon darkness.

She grits her teeth before it engulfs her.

 

SSSSLAM!
      ZL-ZL-ZL-ZL-ZL-ZLAS-SASH-SASH
             ssSSSssSLASH-SsSLASH-SsSLASH-SLASH-
                                       SSssSLASH!!!

 

 

...

...Everything's... starting to blur...

Colours race around her eyes until her back hits something solid, stopping her body in its tracks. Her arms won't move. She can't lift herself up. She can't even feel the weapon in her hand.

It's like a mountain is weighing down upon her.

...

...It's too much...

...

...n-no...

...no! She's... she's fine... she's not done yet...!

Hagumi stares into hell and reaches out. She's fine. She has to be. She can still see, and sh-she can still move, right...? She has to... 'cause otherwise, Kaoru... Kokoron... everyone's gonna...

"...ggggrh...!"

She has to move.

"Y-you're... not... taking them from me..."

It doesn't matter how hard it is. She has to.

"Everyone's staying right... here...!"

 

---

 

"Thank god. That took WAY too long." Saki-Inari wipes the dust off her clothes, unscathed, and heads towards the sinkhole with exactly one target in mind. "I just wanna get this stupid plan done already. What a mess..."

Then she stops. Because there's still one person standing in the way.

It's Albaz. Shaking and clutching his chest, he stands his ground, giving her an inflammatory stare.

"...Look..." Saki-Inari sighs. "Didn't you hear me the first time? Knights're off the table, but you? You're collateral. Get out of my way."

Albaz doesn't respond. He just raises one of his arms.

"Kokoro Tsurumaki's a Keyblade wielder. The energy in her heart could outmatch yours one-to-a-thousand. So save me the trouble and let me de-heart her. That way, I won't have to do it to you and that precious Saint-Blonde of yours..." she shrugs, "is what I would say. But you really wanna make this a pain, huh?"

"...She'd been looking for them for so long."

Saki-Inari frowns.

Flames loop around Albaz's back, circling infinitely. "She's probably been waiting for this for ages; dragging herself all the way through this worthless desert, just to reunite with the people she calls home. And you... you took that from her like it was nothing."

"I mean, duh. I'm the one who separated them to begin with. Got a problem with that?"

"You're pure evil."

Saki-Inari readies her Keyblade, striding forward as heat pulses through the sands.

"You don't know what it's like," Albaz mutters, "searching for so long, doing everything you can to find something you might never see again... never knowing when it'll end... never knowing whether it'll even be worth it in the end. Family, friends, home... THOSE DON'T MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU!"

...She laughs hoarsely, letting her fingers slide down her face.

"I'LL TEAR YOU OUT FROM THAT BODY YOU'RE POSSESSING!"

Then she lunges.

sSSSHRR-RRRRRR!!!!

But pure white blasts her away.

"What?!" She lands on her hand and flips back onto her feet, analyzing the situation in an instant. 4 gems on Albaz's body are gleaming, coursing with a light that envelops him until he can no longer be seen. "Okay, that's not your power. Who...?"

She looks around...

...and finds a wounded Ecclesia, gritting her teeth and raising her hand. The scar on her forehead shines, pouring its energy into Albaz. "Oh, for crying out-!"

SHOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By the time she tries to attack, it's already complete.

 

---

 

"Kokoro~, you're doing it again!"

She lowers her Keyblade. "Eh? What's up?"

"Too much dodgin' and not enough blockin'!" Hina says cheerily. "At this rate, you'll never be prepared for when you actually take a hit. You won't be used to it."

"Eh? Haven't we gone over this before?" Kokoro asks. "Nobody likes pain. I'm not interested in getting used to it."

"I mean, I get that~, but c'mon. You're not even gonna block?"

"I was okay with it until now, but... if you think about it... blocking gets kinda oofy on the arms. Makes my entire body go stiff," Kokoro says. "Where's the fun in that☆?"

There's a jovial sigh; the kind that says 'sheesh, what am I gonna do with you?' when it comes from Hina. "Nobody can just dodge things forever, Kokoro. You're gonna feel pain eventually."

Why's Hina so caught up on this? She talks about pain and stuff like it's naturally bound to happen. Talk about pessimistic! "I dunno about that," Kokoro sings, "besides, didn't you say I could rely on Kaoru and Hagumi to block things?"

"Ehhh, did I?" Hina pouts. "Well, you know by now they're not invincible."

"Actually, I kinda wonder if they are sometimes," Kokoro says. "These days, I don't look out for them as much; it's like no matter how many times they're knocked down, they just get back up. They're amazing!"

"....Ehhhhhh??"

Now that's a face she's never seen from Hina before. What's it mean? There's a smile, but it doesn't feel like a 'happy' one.

"Mmm... nah, this won't do. Gotta prepare you somehow."

Hina approaches her.

"Hey, Kokoro. Do you remember when I made that big savannah in the training room, and you nearly went splonk after you fell from the cliff?"

She ignores the 'splonk' bit. "Yeah. Wasn't a big deal, right? I just shot myself up with magic until I could float down~. No harm done."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. But thing is, even someone like you isn't always gonna pull that off. One day, you're gonna be attacked, or fall from somewhere, and you're not gonna react in time. You might not even see it coming."

"-

Before she can respond, Hina points Freedom and Tyranny at the wall.

PTOOOMMMM!!!

"See?"

...Kokoro's lost for words. She stares at the wall's remains. What... just happened?

"Sooner or later, you're gonna slip up. So make sure you're ready for that, okay☆?"

 

...
...
"...Mi... saki..."

Everything hurts.

For her entire life, Kokoro's always wondered why you'd want to cry. She thought tears were like seawater; they're beautiful to look at, and lovely to embrace. But you can't let them inside. If you do, they'll turn your eyes red and drown you in the depths. Whenever she saw them stream down Kanon's face, she'd ask herself why anyone would ever want to experience such an awful feeling.

Now her veins are filled with water. And as it courses through her sand-battered limbs and into her lungs, she understands.

"..."

She can't speak. She can't move. She can barely even see. She wishes she could cry again... maybe like Kanon does. But even that feels like it's too much to ask now. The world feels like it's imprisoning her... like it's an invisible, omnipotent force, laying her body flat into the ground, pressing down against her arms until they no longer want to reach up.

...Hah... ahaha. This isn't 'a wound you can solve with a band-aid', is it? That's what... Misaki would say, when she climbed around the caves. She never actually fell, but Misaki would worry all the same...

...

"...Misaki..."

That name. Kokoro doesn't know how she fell down here, but that name hasn't escaped her mind since the moment she regained consciousness. Her hand weakly grasps a clump of sand, feeling it slip through her fingers as she tries to remember how she ended up like this. So weak, so vulnerable; so opposite to free. She's here because... because...

...th-the reason she fell down here... i-is because of...

...

...- no

no

Kokoro tries to move-

"A-a- ack... !"

-And she cries. N-no... n-no, she's changing her mind! She didn't want to feel this! She doesn't want to cry... stop it already, stop crying... if remembering what happened will make her cry, she doesn't want to remember. She'd rather just lie down in this ditch until the end of time.

For a moment, she lies back down and lets her eyes stay devoid of light.

...

...Her arm twitches. "No..."

She's... changing her mind again. She might not want to cry, and she might not want to remember, but... she doesn't want to rot down here either. She wants to go back up. Not because of the world, or all the wonderful things in it; but because of her friends. The people she needs to see again. The people who're probably worried about where she is right now. People like...

...Misaki.

Misaki's-

"N-no." She grasps her head. "Don't... say that name."

It keeps echoing... 'Misaki.' Two voices in her head are repeating that, again and again. If she concentrates, she can stop the first. But the other keeps wailing, no matter what, and she doesn't have the heart to make it stop too. It just feels cruel for some reason; when she tries, she imagines what it'd feel like to suppress someone else's memories like this instead of her own, and she can't bring herself to do it. She doesn't even know why there's this part of her, that... tells her to remember everything that happened. No matter how painful it could be.

But even if she rejects it, she knows it's right about one thing; deep down, she refuses to stay in the darkness.

So she concentrates. She ignores every ounce of pain she's feeling, and stops crying. There's nothing inside; no pain, no joy... just her, and the darkness surrounding her. That's what she tells herself. Slowly, she manages to get up; her legs are shaking, and her vision is fluttering, but she ignores it. How can she get out...?

...Found it. There's a pathway to her left, spiralling up to the top of the sinkhole. Let's... go back to the where the light is. Back to the desert. Kaoru and Hagumi're probably worried about her, so she can't keep them waiting. Maybe the other new friends she met will be there too. All the more reason to start moving...

...That's it. Keep going... keep going... you're not giving up here, are you? There's s-still so much fun to be had. So many adventures. After all, you haven't found Kanon and...

...Misaki... yet.

Wait. Didn't she... see Misaki? Yeah, Misaki must be waiting up there too. Misaki's probably worried about her, even moreso than everyone else; she's always been like that. Whenever Kokoro disappeared for this long, she'd panic. She's probably standing at the top of this sinkhole with the rest of her friends, looking for her right now... so Kokoro needs to hurry. There's still so many wonderful stories she hasn't gotten to tell yet, so much about what happened since they got separated. So much to catch up on... so much to-

Please, you have to remember!

S-so much to-

Misaki isn't-

She freezes. "I-I..."

Go away. Please, go away... No, please, listen. Misaki's-

"-possessed," she gasps, "I-I know... I know, so stop it! S-stop reminding me!"

...The voice disappears.

But it's too late now. Kokoro falls to her knees, and her tears flow. "I know what happened to me... and I know what happened to her. Misaki, she..."

It's flooding. The memories are flooding back in. She can't forget anymore. I-it's just like Misaki said... she can't curl up into a ball and pretend it isn't happening anymore. Why? Please, she wants to forget... she just wants to forget all of it, that's all she needs!

...Except...

...She'd feel even worse if she forgot now, wouldn't she? Deep down, she... she doesn't want to forget what happened anymore. Why? It hurts so much, having these memories, and yet more than anything her heart is telling her she needs to keep them.

In desperation, she lies against the stone wall and tries one last time to forget. Nothing's wrong... Misaki's fine. Make it stop, please...

...

...

"...No."

Aquamarine gleams. She's materialized her Keyblade, even though she didn't try to.

"I can't stop."

It gives her the power to stand up. It hurts. Remembering what happened hurts. But she knows, precisely because she's remembered; if she gives up here, then Misaki will be alone. She needs answers. She needs to know why this happened, and she needs to know how to free her friend. She can't stop until she knows. She won't. She has to keep going... no matter how much it hurts.

Through sharp breaths, she drags herself up through the sinkhole... up, and up, and up. Kokoro looks up, as far up as she can look, until the beautiful, radiant Sun stares into her eyes. It feels fake right now; like there's no reason for it to shine. But it's a reminder of why she's moving right now. So even though her body can barely function, even though she'll probably collapse again and again, she keeps moving towards it. Nothing will stop her. Even as she struggles, she keeps going up, and up, and up...

...Until a bright white pulses, near the top of the sinkhole. "Huh...?"

What caused that? Are her friends still fighting? Does that mean Saki-Inari... hasn't disappeared yet?

...Yes. She knows it. And that means Misaki is still here, too.

 

---

CLANG

A 30-foot tall limb slams against Saki-Inari, its burning claws heaving like pyramids against the black, jagged crystals of her Keyblade. Her arms strangle the hilt with overflowing ferocity, pushing back with all her might. "That... the best you've got...?!"

SsssSSSS SLA- CLANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Grinding her teeth, she tightens her muscles and overpowers the entirety of the limb, the force of her swing so strong that its gales tear the dunes surrounding them apart.

SLAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's only a second later when a massive, flaming tail comes hurtling her way, ramming against her weapon and sending her flying back; she quickly adjusts and lands on her feet, taking a good look at her new opponent. Standing before her is a building-sized dragon coloured entirely by red, its jagged wings pouring molten lava and its fangs releasing steam ablaze. "Fancy trick you have there," she smirks, "got a name for it?"

ROARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"Pretty fitting!" She twirls Wishful Thinking around,

CCRACK!!!

and then impales the ground with it. "Gotta say, I wasn't expecting today to be THIS much of a pain." Darkness pours through its length. She heaves it out and makes a few confident swings, letting its energy distort the air. "But I guess it's more fun when you don't know what's gonna happen. Bring it!"

GGGGGGGGGGGGRRRRRRRR...!!!

Flame covers Albaz's skin as if it were a mantle, seeping across his scales and into his blazing eyes; coalescing upon his fangs until it builds into an inferno. Albaz launches the whole of it directly at Saki-Inari.

Not that it'd hit.

FWOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By the time the ground is razed, she'll already have disappeared, lunging at every weak point she can find. Albaz acknowledges this immediately and takes to the air to defend himself, breathing a neverending flamethrower to chase Saki-Inari with. His wings barrel him across the dunes so he can keep up as she runs, making sure she never has a moment to rest-

SSsSLASH!

-Until he realizes he can't rest either. Small scars, small breaks in his mantle of flame; they appear across his ankles and legs, suddenly and unexpectedly, as if trying to drag him down. He's being attacked so fast that he can barely process it in time. And the perpetrator...

...is there!

CLANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's too big an attack to be dodged. But that Keyblade matches it in speed and outweighs it in sheer power, forcing him back. Saki-Inari wastes no time in gaining distance afterwards, keeping herself just out of reach... but also close enough that she could zip to his throat in a moment's notice. Albaz knows this, and he's not going to play into it; he continues to space himself, engulfing the desert in flames while he anticipates where he'll be struck at next.

FWOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM

FWOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM
...SsSLASH-SLASH!!!!
SLAM

Missed. He ignores his wound, looks through the coughed-up sand...

SLAS-

...There!

CLANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Still no dice; it's blocked. Somehow, even as strong as he is now, he can't overpower this one person. If he keeps forcing these clashes, it'll delay how often he gets hit, but it won't let him win.

Fine, then. She won't get another clash. He'll just melt that Keyblade down until it can't defend her anymore!

FWOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM

Burn, burn, make ashes of the ground, make a pyre that walls Saki-Inari from the sinkhole where her target lies. That's his plan-

-...until he hears his friends. "Alby! Be careful!"

He snarls. They're awake... Hagumi's waving to him, keeping herself near Kaoru and Ecclesia. The trio's slowly recovering thanks to Kaoru's magic, trying to stay back. It relieves him... but at the same time, he knows he's at risk of hitting them with friendly fire if he gets any closer.

Saki-Inari knows this too. Because she's stopped racing around all of a sudden, and started casually waltzing towards him. "What's the matter? Thought you had plenty of firepower now. What's giving you so much trouble?"

The taunt works.

SLAM

Albaz makes a guttural roar, and immediately starts attacking with no relent.

SLAM

 

             SLAM

 

SLAM!!!
                     SsSLASH-SLASH-SLASH-SLASH-
       CLANG!!!!!!!!

RRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrr-CLANG, "That all you got?!"

cc
CLANG
                  SSLASH-SLASH-

ROAARRRRRRRRRR!

FWOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM, SLAM!!!
SsSLASH-

-THWAM-

Albaz cuts her next swing off, trying to bury her into the ground with the weight of his talons.

---------CLANGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG

He pushes forward with all his rage, forcing Saki-Inari further and further back... until...

GGGGGGGGG---------....

 

            SsSLASH!!

GGGrrrRR...?! -Until he winces, feeling wounds open up all over his body.

              SsSLASH
                    SsSLASH
SsSLASH
  SsSLASH
               SsSLASH

There's nobody under his talons anymore. Teleportation...? He should've known. It's the same attack that walloped him and Ecclesia before; a merciless string of lunge after forward lunge, its wielder striking, and warping, and striking, and warping, again and again countless times in the span of just seconds. Howling, he summons the flames inside his body and induces explosions around his scales, forcing her off.

GGGrrrRRRrr...

Saki-Inari brushes off the slight singe on her arm and grins at Albaz. "Heh."

"Fira!"

CLING!

With horrifying speed, she raises her Keyblade and blocks the flare aimed at her back. She sees Hagumi; a few metres away, mace pointed forward, refusing to step down.

Albaz takes the opportunity immediately.

SLAM!!!

...No, it's not enough. He still misses. And when Saki-Inari starts attacking his friends again, he knows he has to make the next attack count. His mind races as he watches everyone else desperately try to fend her off. Everyone here knows how to fight... they know he can't easily attack now without risking collateral damage. So someone, probably Ecks, will try and create distance as soon as they can; a window where he can attack Saki-Inari freely.

CcCLANG, CcCLANG "Ggh...!"

It'll be small. It'll probably only happen once. And if he goes in mindlessly, it'll just fail anyway. So... he waits patiently, planning exactly what he's going to do when the time comes. He claws and swipes when he can, but most of his seconds, each and every painful one, are spent watching Saki-Inari break the defenses of his friends further and further... waiting... waiting.

He feels something resonate in him. It's a message from Ecks.

5 seconds.

He flies in from one side while everyone else surrounds Saki-Inari from the other. Together, they race towards her, in the impression of a pincer attack. Wait for it... wait for it...

...Ecclesia yells, "Hyargh!"

There!

Ecclesia fakes out her swing, stopping just short of Saki-Inari. Then she immediately takes three Aero pouches from Kaoru, sets them on her hammer and devastates the ground with a whirlwind slam. The pouches detonate, coughing up a tornado around the entire area thanks to Ecclesia's force. Everything's covered in dust now... nothing's visible. This is it!

"Hah! What're you up to now?"

As he lunges in for the ambush, he finds Saki-Inari is already facing him, Keyblade at the ready. His claws ignite into yellow and swipe at her in full force.

RRRRRrrrrip!!!

He misses. "Can't you even think one step ahead," Saki-Inari- "...wha-?!"

CLANGRRRRRRR-

And then his mirror image hits.

-RRRRRRRRRRRRRR-

He's been blocked, but Saki-Inari did it with too much haste. She can't stand her ground; she probably didn't even think Albaz could manifest a clone from light. With enough stubbornness and sheer force, his mirror image's claw finally breaks through.

-RRRRrrrr-POW

She's sent cannonballing into the sand a mile away. He can't let up now; this is the best time to strike. Albaz roars and breathes jets of lava around his neck, the magma becoming a radiant turbulence on his wings as he rises into the sky. Hopefully that Misaki person's stubborn enough to endure this, even if her piece of garbage possessor isn't!

"Cure!" Saki-Inari says.

Albaz barely even registers that word; he's too focused on trying to capitalize on the momentum, right here and right now. He sets his sights on the shadow-crackling silhouette, standing in the cloud of dust... and bellows.

RRRRROAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!

Fire travels like lightning, barreling down full-throttle in a building-sized barge. Saki-Inari raises her Keyblade, shouts "Limit Break!" and brutally cleaves upwards in a breakneck tornado.

sSSHRrrrRRRRRRR
                  FWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW-

      shFBOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Saki-Inari drops down to one side. Albaz drops to the other.

 

                 ...........slsh!

Pain shoots through Albaz's body, causing him to wince.

"Sheesh, that was pretty dangerous. Thought I would've been burnt to a crisp."

A myriad of wounds course across his scales... while Saki-Inari doesn't have a single cut.

Her tone only makes it sting more. "Are we done yet? Like I said..." CCRACKL! "I'm not a fan of putting in effort."

...This isn't working. Everyone's getting more and more desperate by the second. But they need to hold out against this monster... they can't let her-

"Misaki!"

 

---

 

The fight stops.

Hagumi turns around immediately. She and everyone else look towards the sinkhole and find a gasping Kokoro, clutching her arm.

She's bruised. She can barely even stand. But she made it back up.

 

---

 

"Huh? You actually climbed back up?"

The words reverberate through Kokoro. It's Misaki's rough-but-warm tone, slashed by malice.

"Talk about a wasted effort. If you stayed down there, it would've taken a little longer for me to reach you."

'Misaki hates you.' The more that phrase repeats in her head, the more she sees it as the truth. But she can't let it stop her. "I'm... not... leaving," she manages. "M-Misaki..."

She's not leaving Misaki alone again.

She's not.

 

---

 

It's at that moment Hagumi notices; Kokoro isn't the only person who's appeared. Over the horizon, there's also a fleet of ships heading to their location. "Wait," she hears Ecclesia say, "Albaz! They're here... I think Kitt knew where we were somehow!"

She sees Albaz nod. Does that mean... those ships're allies? "Hagumi..." Kaoru manages, "look at the dunes. Some of the Shirasagi knights are here too."

"Ah! You're right...!"

Raucous cheers can be heard inside each ship. They start unveiling their massive suits of weaponry, all aimed at Saki-Inari; and at the helm of the biggest one stands the silhouette of a swordmaster, armed with a blade of lightning. "Wh-who is she? A friend of theirs?" Ecclesia asks. "Wait, nevermind that; now we have a chance!"

Hagumi doesn't contemplate it. All she needs to know is that things are looking up. She takes a huge, deep breath of relief, letting her tension ease... then readies her weapon. There's no way even Saki-Inari is gonna fight all these people; with this much manpower, Kokoro will definitely be safe now. Everything's going to be okay... her efforts paid off!

She feels like she could pass out at any moment, but that can wait. She and Kaoru nod at each other. First things first, they stumble hurriedly through the sands, trying to get to where Kokoro is as fast as they can-

 

---

 

"Eh, y'know what? This isn't worth it."

...H-huh?

Kokoro freezes. Misaki's just... dematerialized her Keyblade. "Wh-what do you mean? Where're you going...?"

"To another world," Misaki responds, waving. A dark, ominous portal emerges at her side. "No point in being around you. Taking your heart's too much of a hassle. Guess I'll have to go with the 'steal thousands of them' plan after all."

"What?! N-no, wait...!"

"Later."

No... no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! "Misaki, come back," she croaks, trying to move, "I need to know! Why are you doing this?!" The world slows. Her ankles feel like they're drowned by tar, making each of her steps weaker than the last. She desperately limps forward, reaching out, trying, trying, trying to catch up to Misaki before she disappears into the portal. "It took me so long to find you... please, don't go!"

"...Sheesh." She sees a smirk. "If you're that desperate, then just follow me."

With that, Misaki sinks into the portal. Kokoro's heart crumbles as she watches her friend disappear. It took her so long to get to this point. She looked across so many dimensions, doing everything she could just to reunite with her friends. And now, after she finally pulled it off, after she finally got to see Misaki... Misaki's gone.

They've been separated again.

...She can't accept that.

She won't accept that.

Move... please, keep moving...

...follow her...

...go after her...! "Gggh...!"

"Kokoron, don't!"
"My lionel!"

She never wants to be apart from Misaki again. Ever. Seeing the portal begin to shrink, she bursts into one last desperate sprint, makes one last desperate leap...

...and manages to enter the darkness.

 

---

 

"Gotcha☾."

 

---

 

"K-Kokoron...?"

By the time Hagumi reaches out, the portal's gone.

Her friend is nowhere to be seen.

Chapter Text

Misaki feels like she's neck-deep in muck.

Everything around her is dark. Her body's cold, it's lifeless. She doesn't have the strength to do anything. Even if she did, she wouldn't want to try. She doesn't want to sleep, and she doesn't want to be awake either. She'd rather just stop... being. She wants to think this is all a dream, so she can just blink and magically wake up at home. All the stupid, idiotic mistakes she's been flogging herself over like a dramaqueen feel like they're gonna drown her. They may as well drown her, honestly; not like she's had much else to do here. The only other activity she's had is lashing out like a toddler, and the only company she's had is the waterfalls gushing around the barren, floating isle of rock she's been tied upon. Hell, realizing she's tied up is hard enough on its own sometimes; the shackles binding her wrists aren't visible, and they barely even feel like they're there.

...Oh, who cares. Saying she's captive because of them would be a lie anyway. Why should she even try moving her worthless carcass? There's no way she could.

Not after everything that just happened.

"Sigh..."

...That voice.

She knows that voice; it's the voice that makes the veins in her head start throbbing with rage. Even when it's quieter and hollower than usual, she knows who it belongs to. Screw it, she's moving; she takes a deep breath and drains what little energy she has to open her eyes. A choking, violet fog surrounds her on all sides, swamping the surroundings like rivers of prickled leaves. It takes a pathetic amount of strain, but she can make out a fountain if she squints; one whose waters dimly reflect a light from nowhere.

splash

From its ripples, a figure slowly emerges. Darkness pools around her legs. Her thick, wavy hair, a curl of it bathed in glowing blood-red, drips with water, shadow obscuring the expression on her face. She leans back and lets herself look up, wordlessly; almost as if she's meditating. It's such an eerie, unexpected sight that you can't take your eyes off it. For a moment, there's complete silence as she stares numbingly into the nothingness.

...Then, Misaki can tell; she's smiling now. She has the audacity to smile after everything she's done using Misaki's body. God, she wants nothing more than to deck this asshole and her stupid smile right in the face-

"Hey~. What's up? How're you doing down here?"

...Misaki grits her teeth as ??? steps out of the fountain and slowly approaches her. The faint light reveals a torn jacket made of black denim, complimented by spikes and studs that glimmer almost as sharply as the fang on that grin. ???'s irises gleam a chilling red as they look quietly and cheerily into Misaki's; the same chilling red as the strands on her otherwise curly purple hair.

"Fine, I won't play pretend this time. Pretty easy to tell you're pissed," ??? says, "but, hey, look at it this way; none of this's your fault. I'm the one who's pulling your strings, so you don't rrrrreally have a body right now, technically speaking. S'probably a stretch to even call it a will. Why not kick back and relax? I could get you a couch if you w-"

"...you..."

"-Hm? Hey, speak up. You're too quiet."

"...you," Misaki weakly tightens her fists, "you're... human... garbage..."

"Huh? No, I'm a Heartless, silly~!" ??? bends to her knees, crossing her arms and looking at Misaki's scrunched-up face. "Don't take it too personally. Stealing hearts is just what I do."

"...Why?!"

??? blinks.

"There's got to be... some stupid reason behind it," Misaki says, shaking. "Why?! WHY are you doing this?! What did Kokoro do to deserve this?! The hell does she have to do with ANY of this?! You... y-you used my body to-"

"Don't worry. It's not your fault."

"I DON'T CARE! Let me out..." she fumes, "let me out! If you go after her again, I swear I'm gonna-"

"No can do! I'm already deep inside your heart," ??? sings. "You can't boot me out, whether you like it or not. After all,"

...No. Stop it...

"you're the one who let me inside in the first place."

Misaki tries to lunge forward-

-and finds her chin in ???'s grasp. "Poor you... c'mon, isn't it better down here? There's no farm to manage, no wonderful people to worry yourself sick over, no pain you can cause to everyone you care about... didn't you tell yourself you wanted to stop being a burden?" ??? says. "Now that you're like this, it's impossible. You're not responsible for anything anymore. Isn't that great?"

"Eat... shit..." Misaki spews, "I didn't want any of this...!"

"...Ahahaha, you're right. I just beat you up n' exploited those kinds of thoughts so I could sneak my way in."

"You...!" But it's useless. No matter how much she tries to struggle, she can't even lift a finger. All she can do is wobble over the ground, helplessly. Pointlessly. It's like the culmination of everything she's felt in her worst moments... except now, it's her neverending nightmare. Like hell it'll stop her from trying, though; she'll friggin' wobble her fist all the way over to her possessor's gut if that's what it takes to punch the living daylights out of her. Move... move your limbs already, you idiot... if you don't stop her, she's gonna keep using your body and-

"Don't worry☾."

-Misaki goes limp. She sits back in place, staring at the ground. Shackled and empty.

"I know it hurts. But it'll all be over eventually. I just need to borrow you and your friends' hearts, that's all," ??? whispers. "Once I'm done, I'll give everything back. I promise. So just close your eyes. That way, you won't have to see yourself hurting the people you love. Before you know it, you'll all be right back at home, in each other's arms, safe and sound."

"...like... hell..."

"You haven't done anything wrong, okay? You're just...

 

...dealing with stuff you can't control. That's all."

Everything around her sinks into nothingness. The memories of her hurting Kokoro play on repeat,

again,

again,

and again. "I-I..." she sobs, "I r-really am the worst."

Chapter Text

Over the past 4 years, one idea has haunted Chisato more than any other: The idea that she's taken her wonderful new life for granted.

--

"...I see."

The first thing that stood out to her, was how surprisingly... calm she felt. A guest she took in and looked after was kidnapped; not only that, but she was kidnapped in exactly the way Chisato thought might happen. Considering Kokoro's connection to Misaki, how Saki-Inari resembled her description of Misaki, and how strangely coordinated the Heartless's maneveurs were, it was honestly foolish in retrospect to believe Kokoro would simply be able to 'stay on the sidelines' when visiting Stigmatika. In other words, everything Chisato feared would come true, did come true. Almost as if to spite her for being so naive.

And yet she doesn't feel fear.

Perhaps it's because of Hagumi and Kaoru. Their distress is harrowingly clear; Hagumi's always worn her heart on her sleeve, even if she tries not to, and when Kaoru can't put on a suave expression you know things are bad. It's the kind of sight that naturally fuels Chisato to play the pokerface role; to be a beacon of calm her closest friends can stand beside, no matter what. Having Hina by her side certainly helps in maintaining that role without cracking under pressure, as do their many years of experience together. And her own anger plays a part, too; she'd sooner barrel into action to rescue Kokoro than wallow in sorrow. The dried tears beneath Hagumi's eyes are reason enough for the Queen's wrath to be sworn on Misaki's possessor, no holds barred. But... deep down, she knows there's another reason.

It's relief.

Chisato is relieved that the world is not as joyous as she thought it was.

"M-My qu-... Chisato," Kaoru says, "m-might we have any leads on our lionel's location?"

For once, she'll humour the prose. "It depends. We're not quite aware of how far Saki-Inari can travel. There's a number of potential locations she could have teleported Kokoro to."

"Hey, why don't we bring up the map?" Hina asks, leaning over. "Those Heartless she has aren't comin' from nowhere. If she's really controlling that many compared to her heart theft count, then there's gotta be some place she's boppin' them up in."

"But... couldn't that just as easily be anywhere?" Kaoru asks, trying to hide her rasp. "Theoretically, she might need nothing more than darkness to make them."

"No, Hina has a point," Chisato responds. "Maya's technology is extremely good at detecting Heartless in the surrounding worlds. The world we're looking for would need a way of masking their presence if so many of them are being created."

"Right☆? That narrows down the list a lot. She's probably swoodlin' away in some world we don't know much about-"

"...What's the point?"

Everyone looks at Hagumi.

"Who says Kokoro is even still awake? Saki-Inari was after her heart. If she's kidnapped her, then she's probably already taken it...!"

...There's silence for a moment. Chisato's had moments like these before; moments where she can't offer more than cheap consolation. It happens rarely enough that each time still feels like a bite into her stomach, all the less solvable by her realist approach.

But someone else she knows is jovially effective at reassurance. "Eh, says who?"

"Huh...?"

"You get down so easily, Hagu~," Hina smiles. "Think about it. You can't see Kokoro at all. How're you supposed to know what's happening to her?

"W-well-"

"C'mon, be a lil' more zappy!" She says, sauntering over and pumping Hagumi's arm up. "We've seen what Kokoro's like; she's got more energy than you do these days. No way she gave up that easily. Besides, the person being possessed is her friend, right? She probably isn't letting Saki-Inari control her without a fight."

...Hagumi takes a deep breath, before gripping her fists. "Th-that's... true. And hey, we don't even know if they landed in the same place! We don't know anything about how those portals work."

"Yeah, see? We don't know a thing!"

Chisato can't help but chuckle. That's not normally a positive phrase, but Hina can make anything sound positive, can't she? ...Perhaps Hina's trying to reassure herself too. She certainly didn't look happy when Kaoru and Hagumi returned in such distress; she wore a smile, but she has a habit of not understanding her own emotions. Chisato's noticed how her right arm tends to twitch at times of sorrow lately, even when her expression seems positive.

Letting the trio support each other, Chisato turns to the center of the throne room for a moment and rings the buzzer. "Good evening, Maya. Could you display the map?"

Roger that!

A world that could hide Heartless in it... depending on the method, there could be a very broad list of qualifiers. "Maya, do you know of any worlds Saki-Inari might be using as her base?"

Wuh-?! Th-that's a tough one... um, lemme think for a moment. Well, there's a few things I've noticed. I don't think our radar can pick up Saki-Inari herself; she's probably a special kind of Heartless. I'll explain later if you need me to, but I've gotta do some more research first. Oh, and! I also noticed the radar didn't go off when those huge Heartless appeared inside the castle a while back.

"The four that Hina destroyed when Kokoro first visited?"

Yes! I only have theories to go on, but I think Saki-Inari might be able to mask them if needed. It'd require an enormous amount of energy, but she could be using energy from the hearts she stole to power herself. In other words, what we might actually be looking for is a world that can hide lots of hearts. A heart research institute of some kind would do, even if it's an abandoned one.

A heart research institute... those are few and far between, thanks to the Keyblade Academy's influence. As far as she knows, there aren't any worlds holding one near the places Saki-Inari's attacked-

-...wait. An abandoned one would do too...? Chisato expands the world map slightly beyond the neighbouring stars, and... "Found it. Maya, I've highlighted the location," she says. Then she closes the map and returns to the others. "I know where Kokoro might be. Let's go."

Kaoru and Hagumi brighten immediately. "Really?!"

"I do. I'm also going to send scouts to other potential worlds, just in case," she says to them. "The 3 of us will be leaving now. Any questions?"

"Nope! This is gonna be-" Hina blinks. "Wait, what do you mean, 3?"

"I mean that you're staying behind to guard the castle, Hina."

"...Ehhhhhhhhh?!?!?!?!?"

"R-really?" Hagumi asks. "Why's that? Wouldn't it be best if we all went?"

"I'm trying not to fall into Saki-Inari's hands," Chisato responds. "Apparently, she may be capable of masking the Heartless' presence; that means we can't rely on Lucifer alone. If this is a trap so that she can invade Shirasagi Kingdom, then it would hardly do to leave just Eve and the guards here."

"Ehhh☆? But Chisachi, Chisachi, why me? All you're doing is giving the place one extra person~!"

Oh dear. Even in times like this, she can't help but smile at that mischievous behaviour. "If it's Hina Hikawa, that's hardly just 'one extra person', isn't it?"

"Why me instead of you, though?" Hina pouts. "I wanna do some boppin'~... lemme go, lemme go~. I promise I'll cleave through all the Heartless like, sha-zam!"

"And would you be able to pay attention to Kokoro's safety as you 'sha-zam' around?"

"Sure I would~."

Chisato sighs blissfully. "Enough attention that she doesn't disappear from your sight after you rescue her?"

Hina grins. "Mmmmayyyybe."

A note of silence.

...The two of them chuckle. Hina hums as she ambles over to Chisato and leans their foreheads together. Chisato sighs again and says "You knew from the start I'd ask you to stay behind, didn't you?"

"Hehe~. You're such a worrywart, Chisachi☆."

"Shush, you," she sings. "Kaoru. Hagumi. Pack your things. I'll meet you at the Seta residence with the ship in tow."

"You got it!"
"Y-yes, my queen!"

They quickly leave the throne room. Chisato's intent on following so that she doesn't waste any time in her own preparations. That is... until she feels Hina's hand on her wrist; cold, like a surprise can of soda on the back of the neck, yet playful and gentle. "You wanna see Kokoro's safe with your own eyes, don't you?"

Without looking back, she says "Call it an act of selfishness."

"Kaoru and Hagumi too. You never leave those two alone, even when you look as restless as they do."

Chisato lets the pokerface come off. Her muscles unwind. She holds Hina's hand, sighing again as she feels Hina's breath on her back. "You've seen right through me, haven't you?"

"I don't get it, Chisachi~," Hina says softly. "I don't really get most people. But the more time I spend with you, the more I can tell what you're thinking. It's pretty fun, and it makes my chest go whoosh, but..."

Silence. Chisato turns around, looking at her beloved directly.

"...it's scary too, isn't it? Knowing so much about each other. That's how I feel, at least."

"..." She's not used to this kind of body language from Hina. It's quiet. Quiet in a way that makes her want to keep herself in Hina's eyes, like a lighthouse; like the kind that Hina often is for her. "...It is," she says. "Sometimes, I can't tell how close is too close for my own good." She then kisses Hina on the lips, eliciting a brighter expression. She lets go. "Hina. Make sure you don't gallivant away from the castle tonight. This isn't the time for games."

"Hehe. Don't worry~," Hina says, hopping back and grinning, "I promise I won't disappear most of the time~!"

Chisato rolls her eyes, letting a small smile onto her face. She steps away from the room and walks through the exit.

"Chisachi☆."

she hears, as she holds the door. She turns around, looking at Hina's expression. It's soft... a sea's breeze. So far from her usual self that it warms Chisato in a way nothing else does.

"Take care of yourself. I love you."

...Chisato looks at Hina's arms. "I love you too," she says. "Make sure you're here when I get back, you devil."

With that, the door closes.

--

Upon rubble, mired light shines; faintly, from a dusty sheet of clouds whose hue is mulled by dirt. Chisato finds an opening among the cracked bricks and leaps in, landing upon the top floor of a tower with Sigil of Resilient Hope ready. The Keyblade glitters with a resplendence betraying its worn surroundings. "We'll need to look through as much of the castle as possible," she says. "Follow me, you two. Getting lost would be extremely dangerous with Saki-Inari about."

Hagumi and Kaoru jump down, standing firmly beside her as they look below. They're on a floating platform, connected to the wall by a path that spirals across the inner edge of the tower, down and down into darkness; as if, with every step they take, they'll only find less and less light to guide themselves with. The cogwork sunset above them fades further into rainclouds as they tensely but unhesitantly begin their descent, the glimmer of Chisato's Keyblade giving Hagumi and Kaoru something they can cling to in this abyss.

"This tower's on the right side of the castle, isn't it...?" Hagumi mentions. "Wh-what if Kokoro ended up on the left side instead? We might have to search for ages... assuming she's here."

"My, it's not every day you see Hagumi unenthusiastic about a marathon," Chisato says. "But stay focused. We're combing every last inch of this world, whether you like it or not. Understood?"

"...! R-right! Leave it to me!"

Kaoru whispers a small 'thank you' to her. But she's not letting this fool's sorrow slip under the radar either: "Kaoru, that bracelet; where did you get it?"

"O-oh." Kaoru blinks. "Um. My, you noticed! Yes, this is a gift from some admirers of mine."

She sighs. "Meaning?"

"Ah... before we parted with our wonderful friends in the Stigmatika dimension, two of them gave this to me." Kaoru raises her arm, showing the white and golden waves on the bracelet. "This belongs to a gallant kitten named Ecclesia. Ah, and it was imbued by magic courtesy of her friend, a most delightful woman named Fleur."

Good. She's starting to look more composed. If there's one reason Chisato can be grateful for that ridiculous persona, it's in how it gives Kaoru confidence when she most needs it. "I see," Chisato responds. "Imbued by magic... does that mean it's more than just an accessory?"

"A last resort of some kind, I believe-" Kaoru's voice sharpens. "Heartless!"

"Stay calm."

SLASH SLASH SLASH!!!

She destroys them all in an instant; nothing but cannon fodder. Hagumi breathes a sigh of relief. "Th-thanks a bunch, Chisato."

"No need to thank me. Remember what we're here for, and keep a firm grip on your weapon."

The adrenaline makes way for silent concentration. Now that they're far enough down the tower, Chisato can see rows of yellow eyes, slithering around the walls. "Feels like there's enough of them to plug a moat," Hagumi says. "Do you think...?"

"That we're in the right place? Undoubtedly," Chisato states.

It isn't what she actually believes. True, there's a high chance this is Saki-Inari's den, considering how many Heartless there are around here; the more of them she cuts down, the more she becomes certain of that. But that doesn't mean Kokoro is here. For all they know, she might be somewhere else entirely- "My queen, to your left!"

SLASH! "To your right, Kaoru."

"Ah!" sl-sl-Slash! "M-my gratitude."

"Focus on yourself, alright?"

"Understood. Fufu... I have a foul habit of underestimating your strength."

No, she's on the money. Chisato is tense too. Of course, she doesn't let tenseness dull her blade; she wouldn't have survived this long without that kind of grit. But to say she's certain of Kokoro's presence here would be a lie. If enough time passes, then she'll probably flatten the entire castle alongside the Heartless, just to hasten her search.

That's why she couldn't be more grateful that she isn't doing this alone. Hiding her own doubts is her way of showing Kaoru and Hagumi gratitude; if she can make them certain Kokoro is saveable, then that's all she could ask. "Pardon me," she tells the approaching monsters, "but I'm in quite the hurry, thank you."

SLASH-SLASH
                            SHHHHHIIIIIINNGG!!!

 

---

 

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

The wind rushes, then quietens.

...

...

...

...

...Slowly, it creeps back in.

...

...

...

The sand is warm. The sky is blue.

"But personally, I... wouldn't call it a weapon, Kokoro..."

"Huh~? Is it not?"

"No... I think, um... it's more like a shield. Fufu... I guess that's a strange analogy for a Keyblade, isn't it...?"

 

 

 

 

"That's why, Kokoro... if you ever want to use it... make sure it's for your"

"...friends."

That's how Kokoro finishes it.

The sand is warm. The sky is blue. There's someone with long black hair and violet eyes sitting next to her, smiling at her. Isn't that... Misaki? Kokoro reaches out, wanting to wrap her arms around her friend as snugly as possible. She finally found Misaki again. She... finally... found...

...

...ah. That's not Misaki.

This isn't even real. She's dreaming. She knows; because the second she tries to stand, the weight pressing down on her body is so immovable that it barely even feels like it's there.

So her mind falls back into unconsciousness, drowning.

...

...

...

"...nnh..."

...until she finally realizes where she's landed.

The wind comes and goes. Silent, an occasional echo, chilling Kokoro to the bone until she realizes she's awake. Her vision flickers in and out, as she lies upon the ground and moves her head the slightest bit, trying to get a grasp for her surroundings. Her senses leave and return to her like empty waves, letting her feel the rough dirt she's lying upon one second and leaving her with nothing in the next. Her consciousness is flickering in and out of the darkness.

"...Misaki... I found... Misaki."

What happened? She got back up the sinkhole, and she saw Saki-Inari fighting her friends, and then Saki-Inari disappeared into that portal, and she entered it too, and... where is she now?

Forcing her mind to boot back up, Kokoro summons all the strength left in her exhausted body, clambering to her knees. She sees a sunset sky, blanketing the world in a weak, reddish-orange with no Sun to speak of. What time is it...? How many hours have passed since she left Stigmatika? ...When was the last time she even slept?

"Urgh..."

Her body still aches at the idea of getting up, but she's almost used to the aching at this point. It's better to try and ignore it... so she manages to stand up, her Keyblade subconsciously materializing in her hand. Did she end up crossing dimensions...? It seems like it... this place doesn't look familiar at all. The world she's in now is surrounded on its edges by an enormous mountain expanse formed from cold blue rock, but there's miles, upon miles, upon miles upon miles of a deep, dark abyss... an abyss separating her from those mountains. She's on a pillar of redder rock, connected by an earthen bridge to a massive floating isle of the same colour. When she looks down from the edge, she can see a garden, far, far below, connected up to said isle. It looks... abandoned. It makes her feel like she's the only one here. All the bricks down there seem rusty and colourless, and they're connected in a kind of maze that looks like it hasn't been explored in ages. But despite the lack of people down there, nature hasn't taken over; in fact, it's in just as weak a state. The fields and trees look lifeless... parched, drained of green, barely even forming in clumps across the dirt it lies upon. Slowly, her eyes look across the garden's length, until they find an enormous tower of rock, that widens and widens and goes higher and higher until it reaches back up to the isle. And when she looks up...

"...Ah!"

A castle.

Nested within the floating isle, deep within the empty expanse, is a castle. She can barely see most of it... how big is it? There's no light coming from the towers tall enough to be visible from this distance. Is Misaki... in there? She has to be. "Gggh..."

Kokoro moves; slowly, she grits her teeth and tries to move. But she starts to wonder if she'll even make it across the bridge like this. She feels weaker and weaker with every second she spends treading the barren soil. She's... so tired. Her body feels so weak... too much has happened, and she doesn't want to process it anymore... she's sick of it. She just wants to see her friend again. She doesn't care about the fights that happened, or the fall she took down the sinkhole, or the time she spent climbing back up; she just wants to see her friend.

"...keep... moving," Kokoro rasps. "Misaki... I'm not leaving without... Misaki!"

The aquamarines in Morning Star shine, and her vocal cords move on their own:

"Cure!"

Suddenly, the strain eases.

Her bruises disappear. Her muscles relax. Her posture loosens, and her nerves begin to calm, physically and mentally. "Huh...?" She looks at her Keyblade. "Since... when did I know Cure?" It's not like Misaki or Hina ever taught it to her. Where did she learn it from? How?

...She's not complaining. Kokoro grips Morning Star and begins running towards the expanse, crossing the entire bridge. As she weaves her way through the mountainous path, the dirt slowly turns from red to blue until she reaches a cliff. Greeting her is a canyon, residing beneath a disconnected staircase of floating azure rocks. The castle looms on the other side.

                        __ _
                       / \ / \
                     / \ / \
        ☾ | | | | ___________
                     | | \ \ / \ / \
                        / / | | / \ / \
                       | | / / / \ / |
 \ / \ _| |_ / / / \ / / \
  \ \ / \ | | | | / | \
   \_ \_ _ _ | | _ _ HOLLOW BASTION | _ _/ |
    \ / \ / \/

"..." Kokoro looks silently at its visage. The sky might be bright, but... it feels like darkness is seeping out from the castle windows, all the way into her. It creeps into her limbs and tells her to give up. She tries to respond with all the courage she can muster: "...A-ah..."

But she doesn't find any. Instead of smiling, she gulps, finding her eyes drawn to the bottom of the canyon. There's no sign of a rocky ditch or a river down there... just nothingness. If she falls... th-then...

...W-wait. Why is she hesitating? Since when was this something she cared about?

She's mobile. She's a shooting star. She barely has any trouble traversing places. The idea of some peril meeting her if she failed never mattered, because she never fails. Why is she scared now...?! "H-hiyah!" She shuts off her thoughts and... l-leaps to the first floating rock, grabbing its ledges and hauling herself up. "S-see? No problem! Th-this is fun, even..."

...It isn't.

She grimaces, standing in place for a minute before leaping to the next rock. The third platform she targets is a longer distance away; the gap's big enough for the abyss in-between to terrify her. She... knows what'll happen if she fails. But the fact that she's thinking so much about 'what-ifs' doesn't make any sense, because as long as she does her leap right she'll be fine. Why does she care so much about the idea of messing it up? She can't AFFORD to care about that; Misaki is in danger. This feeling's just getting in her way... w-why is she having it? This isn't the time to be scared, Kokoro... it's never the time to be scared, especially not now!

And yet she's scared.

Ah. She's... scared of the unknown, isn't she...? It's because of Misaki. She had no idea what'd happened to Misaki until they reunited. Until today, she'd just assumed Misaki was okay, ready to go back home with her once they found each other. She thought it'd all go fine... she wasn't expecting this. She wasn't expecting it to hurt so much. Who's to say... everything else will go as she expects too? Who's to say she'll even make this next jump? This one, singular jump? Let alone the one after, or the one after that, or everything else she'll need to do to find what she's looking for. The castle's so far away. One mistake could be the end, and she can't be certain it won't happen. It's paralyzing. It's making her shudder... it's stopping her from going any further. Sh-she can't be brave like she usually is anymore... she's useless...

...

...D-deep breaths. You're not useless. Feeling fear... doesn't stop you from being brave.

You just have to leap in spite of that fear.

"No. I can't do it," Kokoro says. "How can anyone look at this gap, and say they'll cross it? Nobody could do that... nobody could."

...

"...But... Misaki needs me." She grips her Keyblade. "N-no. Misaki needs me. I can't stop."

Right. If she stops here, she'll never get Misaki back. Kokoro ignores the gulf of darkness and begins to leap from rock to rock, travelling at a faster pace, but still careful, and cautious; frustratingly so. She wishes she could just... fly around freely again, like she used to. Though even if she can't, she'll still try and get across as fast as she can-

bbblllrrr bbbllrrrr...

"...!" She turns around, finding Heartless on the opposite side of her current platform. "Fire! Blizzara!"

fwoosh!
kr-shrkl-shrkl-shkrl! THWACK☆

She rushes in headfirst. She could try and avoid them, but they might disrupt her when she tries to leap-

clank!

"Agh!" She ignores a bruise from one of them and gives it another solid thwack in its weak point, causing it to dissipate. "Cure...!"

Forget it. They're not worth fighting. They're just gonna slow her down if she lets them. Shrugging the damage off, she keeps going; a few more Heartless appear along the way, usually floating orbs of darkness dressed in robes; but she casts Reflect around herself and deflects their spells, ignoring them and pressing forward. More than anything, she wants to speed this up by firing herself across the canyon with the recoil of her magic; but she doesn't. Much as she'd want to, her newfound fear stops her. All she can do is cling to her spark of determination, grit her teeth, and keep leaping one rock at a time. Soon, she nears the top, and she's barely a hundred meters away from the stretch of solid ground where the castle lies. The less rocks there are left to climb, the more daunting each leap feels; the fear of a fall becomes worse and worse, the distress in her heart festers, and all she can do is remember the days she leaped around Destiny Islands to try to find her spirit again.

Greeting her on the last platform is a squadron of Heartless. They resemble knights adorned in frozen mythril, silently carrying their blades forward alongside their aerial companions. Wiping off a bead of sweat, Kokoro readies her Keyblade... and runs right past them all. "I-I don't have time for you!"

Just one more leap. Haul yourself across and you've made it. Leap... just leap... "leap-" CLANG "H-huh?!"

Before she can jump, she sees a mythril sword swing her way; at the last second, she blocks in a panic, and sees two yellow beady eyes staring into her. Th-these Heartless... they're strong! "F-Fire!"

Kokoro shotguns it in the face with a fireball and flips back, clashing with the blades of the others. She needs her arms to stop shaking... she needs these Heartless out of the way!

Thw-thw-thw-thw-thw-THWACK☆!

Recklessly, she swings up a storm and manages to brute-force one of them into being knocked down. Seeing that the frozen knights are winded, Kokoro growls and then dashes past them without any hesitation, trying to leap again. She hits the apex of her jump, well on her way to solid ground-

Fwoosh! "Gah!"

-Wide open for a direct hit from the mages.

She's falling. Sh-she's going to fall into- no, stay calm; it's no use thinking about that! "Blizarra! Fire!"

kr-shrkl-shrkl-shkrl!!

Stay up in the air through the recoil of your spells. You did the same thing when Hina was training you.

Right. Ice seems to move her slowly, Thunder stops her in place, Reflect lets her bounce over the barrier it makes, and Fire... "...shoots me back!"

Fwoosh! She retaliates against the Heartless that hit her with a Fire of her own, simultaneously forcing her momentum backwards until her Keyblade awkwardly stabs into the cliff behind her.

D-don't panic. Just ignore the rest and climb up-

Kokoro grits her teeth. "I know! I've got this...!" She looks at the top of the cliff; closing her eyes, she somersaults around Morning Star, praying her hand'll reach... and succeeds, grasping the rocky edge. She then frees the Keyblade, points it downward and shouts "Fire!"

With that burst, she's on solid ground now.

"I-I... I made it..." She runs for several minutes, ignoring her own panting, until she's firmly away from that place and closer to the castle instead... refusing to turn around until she's certain she won't find Heartless behind her. Everything feels nauseous once she finally pauses. "Gh... ha..." She wipes the sweat from her brow. "...I'm fine. I-I'm fine."

Kokoro shakes her head and gives her temples a few light slaps, shaking off the dizziness. Much as she wants to forget everything that just happened, she knows she'll probably find more danger up ahead; she can't get rid of her fear and distress anymore, even if she wants to. She'll just have to bear with it. The castle's getting closer; she can see more of it now. She can see just how tall it really is, just how endless it looks to explore through... she can see the emblem of a heart cut in half and wrapped in thorns, emblazoned in towering metal at the front gate. Taking a few deep breaths, Kokoro tries to get used to the new feelings running around inside her body, cooling herself down and letting them settle rather than doing something that could amplify them. She never reaches the point of feeling 'ready'; but once she's as calm as she can manage, she starts pacing towards the castle, knowing that within its pitch-black windows lies the friend she loves the most. She can bear with this... she can bear with it, because she's going to be the one who saves Misaki...

She's in the castle. From the massive, crumbling gate she climbed through, she's entered into a spiralling rampart that looks just as abandoned as the garden below this place. Light only comes from the cracks in the walls. There's nothing that even hints at a history this place might have; if Kokoro squints, she could look at the curly patterns carved around these maroon bricks as much as she wants, but there's no kind of ornamentation, or artwork, or any other kind of decoration that implies anything more about this castle. It's all empty... as if it was eroded from the inside until nothing was left of it.

Kokoro tries not to be unsettled, focusing on Misaki first and foremost. But just as she's calmed her heart down, something new begins to stress it.

"You were jealous."

              "You were jealous."

"You were jealous."

"...Huh?"

Kokoro shakes. Darkness is seeping out from the corners, voiding any intersecting point between the walls and floors.

"You were jealous."

It's whispering. She shuts her ears, but that doesn't change anything. She closes her eyes, but it doesn't change anything. The darkness seeps into her no matter what she does. "Who is this...? Wh-where's this voice coming from?"

No answer. The same line just repeats, again and again:

"You were jealous."

"..." She frowns. "I don't have time for this."

Get to the bottom of this rampart, then search every single corridor; that's her plan. Actually, no, just go deeper instead... find whatever's causing this darkness. It's going to be at the very bottom of this castle, without a doubt. She can tell; Saki-Inari's trying to lure her in. If she keeps running, as deep into this abyss as she can, then-

bbblllrrr bbbllrrrr...
bbblllrrrbllrrrr...
bbblllrrr bblrrr...

"Grrr... not again...!" She doesn't have time for this! She just wants Misaki back. She dashes past every species of Heartles spawning around her, all of them swiping at her- "-Ah!" clang! Thw-thw-thwick,thwick,Thwack☆! "Get out of my way! Just... move!"

Fine. This is still okay. At this pace, only one or two of them are catching up to her; so she dissipates them as quickly as she can with as much ferocity as possible, then keeps moving.

But then the corridors get darker. And the voices in her head multiply. The Heartless appear, in larger numbers, eyes creeping through the darkness, all searching for her. Her legs shake, and she slows down, too afraid to believe she won't slip on a ledge or an outstretched claw if she keeps rocketing forward- Clang! "...! LEAVE ME ALONE!"

THWACK!

Her head boils. Why is she slowing down?! Misaki needs her! Why does she HAVE to feel scared? Why can't she go back to the version of her who didn't? ...Misaki... if she reunites with Misaki, then she can go back home, and she won't have to fear anything anymore! "Move! Move already!"

THWACK

Thwack, Thwack, Thwack, Thwack!

She starts brutely forcing shadows out of the way, be they miniature or afloat; if they're small and destructible enough, she'll bash them so they can stop pestering her and then just keep searching, quickly-

thw-Clang!! "Gah!"

Morning Star clashes with a cold blade. It's another one of those Frozen Knights... "Go away!"

thw-clang, thw-clang, thw-clang--clang-clang

"Just... move already- gah!"

kkkrrCLANG!

The Heartless breathes ice onto its blade, causing it to batter Kokoro with magic upon their next clash. Infuriated, she leaps back, desperately finishing it off with a flurry of Fires right before it closes in again. "Argh... I'm... c-can I even make it all the way down...?"

"You were jealous."
"You were jealous."
"You were jealous."

bbblllrrr bbbllrrrr...

Everything becomes blurrier. The darkness becomes stronger. The Heartless keep coming, and coming, and coming; the whispers never stop. Gasping for air, Kokoro desperately runs to another corridor, only to find herself surrounded on 3 sides in the midst of a split path, shadows of all kinds blocking the exits. "No... th-there's no way," she manages, "how am I supposed to get past all of this?"

How many of them are there now? Twenty? Thirty? She can't tell; it's hard to see anything other than the brick floor they're standing on, let alone count. A-at this rate, she's going to lose her heart before she can even find Saki-Inari again...!

"I-I can't do it." Clang! Another Heartless has to be deflected. "I-I can't..." Clang, clang, clang, thwack! Clang! "I can't...!"

In her desperation, she disarms the crooked vanguard currently attacking her, slipping by one of the hordes and retreating to another corridor... only to find herself being surrounded there too, slowly and surely. No matter where she goes, sh-she's going to have to fight these things. Why does she have to fight so much? Why does she have to go through all this...? It's not fun anymore, it's not easy anymore... it just hurts. She's getting hurt, again and again, and no matter how many of them she beats, there'll always be more who inevitably land a hit or two. Why can't they leave her alone...? Why can't she just see Misaki again?! Why... can't she...

I-it's okay. Let's... focus. Find the most efficient way.

...She lifts her head up, her frown getting stronger.

"You were jealous."
You're stronger than you think. You've trained a lot by now. The only thing you have to overcome is yourself... i-it's not easy, but-

"I-I know." She says to herself, her heart pounding, not understanding why there's so many voices inside her head. "I know. I know I can do this. I'm just... scared."

Then let's be confident.
"You were jealous."

Kokoro feels a chill in her body now; not a harsh one, but a softer, enveloping cold instead. It lets her breathe in and out... trying to compose her until she can decide how she'll approach this. But it's also irritating her; what's causing this chill? Is her heart doing this too? She can't tell what's going on, but there's not time to ponder it; she needs to keep fighting! "Blizzara - Bloom!"

-Wait. That's not how Blizzara works...

Her confusion doesn't stop her body from casting it. Instead of firing out as a slow, threatening projectile, the ice spawns in 5 clusters above one of her opponent's heads. The central cluster descends, the others following, and in their combined deluge they impact the ground and grow fiercely in the shape of a flower, dissipating the Heartless while piercing several of its cohorts too. Since when could she-

-T-to your right! "Watera! Water - Drench!"

A sphere of torrent surrounds her immediate assailant; then, as if operating on pure instinct, her arms swing her Keyblade like a conductor, summoning a harmless river that pushes the rest of the Heartless away from her current location. "...What's... going on?" Kokoro asks. "N-no, I can't complain. I need to move, now-"

Cure, too!

-! She forgot she even had that...! "Cure!" She shouts, soothing her bruises. "H-how did I already forget...? I'm an idiot."

Don't worry. Focus on Misaki, first and foremost.

...Well, obviously. Why is her mind repeating that to her?! Why else would she even be here?! Sh-she's fine... she has this-

"You were jealous."
J-just think about Misaki. I-I think, if we just keep in mind who we're doing this for, then-

Kokoro snaps. "I KNOW! SHUT UP ALREADY!"

Her senses collapse into a vortex of noise. She bashes a Heartless out of the way, then illuminates her surroundings with another Reflect, bouncing over it and raining Thunder after Thunder upon her enemies. Her swings become more planned, more focused on specific targets; and they also become more brute, more determined to make sure she can overcome anything she faces by herself. "Fira!"

FWOOSH! After patiently whittling it down, she dissipates another frozen knight by blasting it point blank and shoves its crumbling armour out of the way. Every time she's blockaded, it takes all her self-control for her body to wait for the moment where she can bullrush through, and it takes enough concentration that she can barely spare any for the infuriating maelstrom in her head, furrowing her brow and gritting her teeth even further. Why is her head so noisy...? Why?! She doesn't want to hear ANY of this! It's all such a pain... it's all just getting in her way... she's sick of it!

clash! clang, CLANG, thwack-thwack-thwick-thwick-THWAM!!! "I'M the one who's going to save Misaki. Me and no one else," she says, deliberately emphasising each word as she grips her sapphire necklace. "I-I can save her all on my own. I love Misaki more than anyone else, and she loves me more than anyone else. It has to be me. I have to... no, I AM going to save her! I won't stop until I've saved Misaki!"

thwam-thwack-thwack-thwack,THWACK,

SLASH!!!

She cuts down a Heartless 3 times her size using her own strategy and nothing else. She knows she's getting close; she's behind a pillar that feels like it's as far down this castle as it can possibly be, searching the walls for an opening... "There," she manages between her breaths, "that has to be it."

She shoves the doorway open and finds a tunnel containing another set of stairs; different stairs from the rest. Their colour's off, and they're far, far wider. They're leading down to something.

The fear starts crawling back. Kokoro gulps, shoving off the wreckage behind her and carefully stepping down; her body unwilling to rush at full speed, even though she should. Only the steps themselves are visible in this dark, dark tunnel; the rest is pitch-black. They start off being made of bricks, but after a certain point, they start being made of metal instead. Railings start to emerge at their sides, plated in some kind of rusted fake gold.

Bbbbbbllllgr...!!!

Her inflamed stare returns. "Get out of the way!" thw-Clang! "I don't have time for you!"

A Heartless donned in regal metal, one arm missing and the other wielding a blade of glowing black, swipes at her like a robotic leopard. Kokoro keeps her distance and parries each of its swings. Its arm is shaking... if she keeps deflecting, maybe she can wear it down-

      swwwww
SLASH!

"-Gah!" The arm suddenly makes a disturbingly clean cut, sending Kokoro flying. Her back hits the stairs. "...Cure..." As her body heals itself and stands up, her head boils. "I've had it," she growls. "Get. Out. Of. My. Way!"

Thwack!
   clang!
         Thwam!
Clankkk-thwack!

She hurls herself back into the battle with reckless abandon. Keyblade drawn, she starts speeding around the Heartless with swing after swing, generating and leaping between Reflect barriers to dizzy it, to slice it apart, to tear it to shreds already. She's landing blows, but it's not enough yet... she needs a bigger opening. Gritting her teeth, she decides to stop and stand still, baiting the Heartless into believing it's found an opening; then she guards the attack, bears the excruciating burden of the clash, takes a deep breath... and pushes back until the tip of Morning Star is pointed at the Heartless's stomach. "Blizzara!"

Kr-shrkl-shrkl-SHRKL!

It dissipates. The second she's alone again, her anger flatlines, leaving her panicked. J-just stay focused... a-at the bottom of these stairs; that has to be it!

Panting, Kokoro runs, and runs, and runs, her body swaying and her grip on her Keyblade uncomfortably tight. She runs, and runs, and runs, further and further down... deeper and deeper into the darkness... focusing her eyes with pin-point tension as all the noise fades away, until her footsteps and ragged breaths are all she can hear.

She goes down,

and down,

and down,

and down,

and down...

all the way down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"...Here."

She takes a moment to breathe. Cure herself. Make sure her body's in good condition. Keep her posture stable... a-at least, as stable as it can be. You're supposed to place your better foot forward, right...? I-It's hard enough right now to remember everything Misaki taught her... everything she learnt on the islands... the reason she even managed to get this far to begin with... the reason she was able to hold on that long against the Heartless, back in Traverse Town, until Kaoru and Hagumi saved her.

Deep breaths. As long as she remembers, as long as she doesn't panic... she'll be fine. She's Kokoro Tsurumaki. The person her friends would look at and say 'there's nothing that could ever stop you.'

She can save her friend.

...

...

"...H-here goes."

Her heart pounding, she pushes open the mechanical doors in front of her.

CRRRREAAAAAAAAAK.................

The cogs inside them wail as Kokoro forces her way through. They wail, and wail, until Kokoro has opened them far enough that she can step inside. Holding Morning Star close, she focuses, looking through the darkness and...

...finding herself baffled. Wh-what is this place...?

She has so many questions she could vocalise. Questions about the countless large pipes, running all the way from where she stands to the back of the room. Questions about the strange, nebulous energy that lies in a heart-shape at the back of the room, surrounded by said pipes. The crater of broken tiles before her, the staircases and devices scattered around her.

But she doesn't ask any of those questions. Because they all stop mattering the second she finds who she was searching for. "Misaki!"

"Oh. Look who it is."

A few steps, and the body turns around...

...revealing her beloved's face, drowned in evil. "Hey, Kokoro," the demon says, tone laced with malice. "You've finally reunited with me again, after all this time. Seems like a dream come true, doesn't it?"

"N-no. You're a nightmare." Kokoro grips her Keyblade. "The worst nightmare I've ever had."

 

---

 

SLICE > < SLICE!

Chisato envelops the scenery behind her in a cross-slash, cutting all down. "Are you two holding up?"

"We're in stable condition, my queen."

"A one, and a two, and a KNEE!" Hagumi says, bashing a Heartless's chin. "Still here! I could do this for ages."

Chisato twirls her Keyblade, letting its emerald lines shine. "They're getting restless. No doubt about it; Saki-Inari is here."

sl-sl-Slash! "I can only hope we'll find her before long," Kaoru says, covering Chisato's back. "We've been searching for a while to no avail. At this rate, I fear these monsters will multiply enough to impede our exploration."

"Follow me."

Chisato takes a shortcut and leaps down to solid ground at the bottom of the tower, hurtling past the veritable vertical maze of platforms, ledges, bridges and slopes. Her landing is both swift and graceful, with Hagumi and Kaoru following. "Where next?" Hagumi asks her, bashing another Heartless out of the way. "Where's Kokoro gonna be, if we had to guess?"

"Somewhere deeper. We'll make this quick!"

 

---

 

"You really are still a toddler. The same one you were back at the Islands."

"Stop it," Kokoro says. "Stop acting like you're Misaki."

Saki-Inari sighs. "...Oh, whoopee. You realized. Guess that means all the effort I put into imitating her's just gone down the drain, huh?"

"You're not her. I-I... I know Misaki better than anyone else. Misaki doesn't hate me."

"Guess the name-calling's become pointless then. Well, not that it matters anymore; you really crawled all the way down here, just to save me the trouble of looking for you! I mean, I figured you would, but I'm still shocked at how easy you're making this."

She steps forward. "Let Misaki go."

"Not a chance."

"...Why?" She asks, trying not to crack. "Why do you need her?"

"Because it's the easiest way to get her friends' hearts," Saki-Inari responds, materializing Wishful Thinking. "Forcing someone to fight a loved one... that's one of the most vulnerable situations you can put their heart in. Especially if you make it seem like the loved one hates them. Everything I've done has been to get your heart, Kokoro Tsurumaki."

"But why?" She shouts. "I don't understand! Why are you trying to steal peoples' hearts? Why are you going around the worlds and drowning them in darkness? Why are you ripping everyone's smiles away, and... a-and-"

"Putting their hearts in a state where they're unconscious until their body can remake itself?" Saki-Inari finishes. "Because I need their energy. Hearts have a stronger energy than anything else. And it's not just physical energy either; they've got so much self-sufficient mental and metaphysical energy that keeping them is more efficient than breaking them. Don't you realize just how much power there is inside the thing that can make its own damn weapon through sheer emotion?"

"...The Keyblade..." Kokoro says, looking at her own. "...Is that why you want mine too?"

"Bingo. Keyblade wielders have manifested their heart's power into physical form. When that happens, the heart starts resonating with the rest of the wielder's body, becoming even stronger. And that makes it pour at the seams with energy. There's as much energy in a wielder's heart as there is in a hundred normal people... a THOUSAND, even. Hell, if it was a Keyblade Master's, it'd be THOUSANDS of thousands. Don't you get it? If I snag you and your friends' hearts, I can just shortcut this entire process of hopping across worlds and get all the energy I need instantly!"

Energy...? She caused all this suffering just for some kind of energy?

"C'mon, don't look at me like that. I'm not a complete monster. I tried things that weren't human at first, like artifacts and stuff, but they just didn't work. Even while you were scampering around after I attacked Destiny Islands, I was still looking for alternatives to humans, like that lake trio from Time Gear or the big serpent from Stigmatika. Problem is," she continues, "they could either hide their hearts, or they just straight up didn't have one. At the end of the day, Keyblade wielders are the easiest route to getting what I need."

Kokoro grimaces. "That doesn't explain anything. I still don't get why you're doing this," she says. "What do you need all this energy for? What is it to you that's worth causing so much pain? What are you even trying to do?!"

Saki-Inari points at the heart-shaped pool of energy behind her, framed within the pipes. "Simple. I'm opening the portal to the Edge of Existence."

"The... Edge of Existence?" Kokoro mutters. "What's-"

KCCRACKL

Kokoro jumps back as Wishful Thinking shudders with electricity, blaring out thunderbolts around it. Saki-Inari smirks, pointing the ebon Keyblade towards her. "You really think I'm gonna explain all that? Boring! That's a waste of my time. After all... you're the last thing standing in my way. Once I beat you, I'll finally have the hearts of all 3 Keyblade wielders from Destiny Islands. You and your friends have enough energy combined to open this portal, so I'm gonna finish you off right here and get this stupid plan over with already!"

rrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.............

 

---

 

RRRRrrrRRRRRRRRR!!!!!

"...!" Chisato's eyes narrow as she feels a powerful earthquake run through the castle. She and the knights stay close, watching each other's backs. "What's going on?"

BBBLLLRRRRR
BBLLLLLRRRRRRRRRR
BLLLLLLRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

Berserk, frothing sounds fill the entire tower, a cacophonous echo of evil. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose; hordes upon hordes upon hordes of Heartless burst through every single opening and corridor in the bastion, desperately crawling upon themselves in trawls to get to Chisato's location. "There's so many of them!" Kaoru shouts. "What on earth...?!"

"Holy!" Chisato incinerates an entire row of them with blinding rays. "Stay calm. We can handle this much."

"But we can't find Kokoron like this! We're surrounded! What's going on?"

Chisato concentrates until her stare is lethal. They've just walked into a trap, haven't they? Likely, most of the Heartless in this place were hidden until just now, so they could swarm the trio and prevent them from going any further.

Cute. Does Saki-Inari think something like this will stop her?

Her Keyblade roars. "Attempting to quell me through numbers, are you?" bbBBBBRRRRZZZTTKRKL "Very well. Let's see how long this fodder of yours can last."

 

---

 

Kokoro shudders nervously on her feet, as darkness shrieks above the bottom-most chamber of Hollow Bastion. "What did you do?"

"Nobody's gonna help you now, Kokoro. This battle's between you and me."

The ebon Keyblade with deep eyes; the Keyblade whose wielder she's known for her entire life... it crackles, with the intent to hurt her. For a moment, Kokoro remembers everything she went through in the desert. The idea of going through it all again... it causes enough pain that part of her mind just wants to give up. It hurts, and it hurts, and it hurts.

But...

...she w-won't give up. Ever. Even if the darkness is drowning her, she won't stop. Even if the last of her light fades away, she won't stop. She won't stop until Misaki is safe... because the two of them can't smile again until she's safe. She's going to save her friend, no matter what... she won't let anything stop her!

CLANG!

Anguish spreads across her face as they clash. Intercepting the brutal swing from Saki-Inari, she tenses her shaking arms and stares into her friend's drowned eyes. "Misaki... I promise..." she manages, putting all her strength into pushing back as the sapphire necklaces glow, "We're going home together!"

 

---

 

"Stopra! Thunder Blade - Spiral Cloud!" Swords of lightning boom throughout the tower, mowing down the Heartless unfortunate enough to have been time-stopped. Chisato returns the swords to her and lets them orbit her body, catching the stragglers as she monitors her allies. "Make sure you're not overexerting yourself. They're starting to realize they can't attack us all at once; there's a limit to how many we'll face each minute."

"Understood. Fufu... with you at our side, these beasts mean nothing."

"Don't lower your guard for it, Kaoru," she swipes, ripping a distant horde aflame, "we need them gone as fast as possible. Firaga Burst!"

"Have another Firaga to go with that!" Hagumi cheers, adding to the chaos. "I'm feeling pumped, Chisato. I'll make a baseball game outta them and let Kokoro watch from the seats!"

"Fufu~. That's the spirit-"

 

                       "..."

-Chisato sees it in the corner of her eye. "Who's there?!"

"My queen?" Kaoru says. "What h-"

Then the knights notice too.

Instinct steels Chisato immediately. The second this person dropped down, all the Heartless fell silent, beginning to hide in the corners; as if awaiting orders. At the bottom-most suspended platform, right across from Chisato and company, lies a figure enveloped in a black coat with a hood covering most of her head. "Is that... Saki-Inari?" Hagumi asks.

Chisato doesn't say a word. She feels like simply tearing her eyes away from this person is a death wish.

The Enigmatic Figure stands...

...and Chisato looks into the darkness covering her face.

The second she does, memories surge- "Ggh...?!"

-
--
---

    "H-hey! Open your eyes! You're alive, aren't you?!"

          "Chii-chan?! CHII-CHAN!"

"Chisato, stay with us! Don't leave me...!"

    "...Th-this is a joke, right? H-haha... i-i-it has to be."

"You can't leave. I can't have someone leave me again."

    "I-I didn't want this... I... I-I thought you'd block..."

          "Chii-chan... please..."

    "This wasn't supposed to happen... I-I swear...

    ...you're... you're not a-actually going to die from this, r-right?

    ...right...?

    Please...

    p-please...

    ...don't die... I'm begging you."

"Chisato!"

She blinks. Kaoru's voice wakes her; her adrenaline courses back, nearly overdosing her. She feels like a mountain's just been pressed against her back; like every breath is so heavy that it's choking her. She can strangle the feeling until her body composes itself, but the horrid sense of dread won't leave.

Those memories don't belong to the figure. They have nothing to do with the figure.

They're her own.

She points her Keyblade forward. "Who..." she says, "who... are you...?"

"I see. So you're her future."

"...What?"

The Enigmatic Figure approaches. The shadows of the castle growl as she moves, clamouring out from the corners.

Chisato frowns. "Kaoru. Hagumi. Handle the Heartless. I'll take care of this myself," she says, gales rushing through her hair as she makes her limbs pulse with magic. She stares bloody spears into her opponent and says "Answer me. Who are you?"

The figure stops. She leans out her arms... and in her hands, two blades of ice appear. They're not Keyblades; they're pure, razor-refined weapons. She takes a stance and gives only one response: "Her past."

Chapter Text

"That all you got?!"

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG

"C'mon, make this painless for the both of us! Triple Spark!"

cling,cling
                    BRZZT
                     Kokoro ducks beneath the third and- CLANG! "Ack!"

"You call that a swing? Wha-BAM!"

CLANG!GGgggg 'Misaki is trying to hurt me.' That's not the truth. But Kokoro can't close her eyes; if she wants to free her friend, then she has to keep looking at Misaki, e-even as Saki-Inari is using her body to attack her. "M-Misaki, please... you have to fight it!"

CLANG "Hah! You think she even heard that?"

CLANG "I didn't ask you!"

Clang, clang, CLANG "Well, that's not very nice," CLANG!! BRRZZT-
-cling,cling,cling-
                      -CLANG! "I'm offering some good advice here, y'know!"

Kokoro turns around as fast as she can and retaliates. "Forget it! I'm not listening!"

CLANG!GGGggggg-----CLANG!!! But it's far from enough to stop her from being shoved back. She has to grind her shoes into the floor, just to stop herself before she hits the wall. "Fair enough," Saki-Inari says, twirling Wishful Thinking. "Lemme ask you a question though. How are you going to free Misaki?"

"...! I-I'm... I'll do it by calling out to her! I know she can hear me!"

"Ahahaha! That's not how possession works, Kokoro," Saki-Inari says. "Not that it matters anyway. I've locked her heart deep inside her body, so she's not hearing you at all. Forget about setting her free; you're not even gonna reach her!"

CLANG! Kokoro grits her teeth as the blunt end of Wishful Thinking slams down on Morning Star. "I'm not believing... anything you say...!"

Clang! clang- CLANG! Clang, -she's switching to the other end, block, block, block- CcCLANG, CcCLANG -keep blocking-

ccCCLANGG!

-Morning Star is knocked out of her hands,

SsSLASH!!!! "Aagh!"

"Give up already." SssSSLASH, SssSlash-Slash-Slash-Slash-Slash SLAM! "Thundara!" k cC CRCKL-RCKL SLASH!!!

Pain courses through Kokoro's body. You have to concentrate... y-you're in the air, Saki-Inari's leaping up, you have to move, "F-Fire!"

cling!

Even as Saki-Inari deflects it, Kokoro throttles herself away with the recoil and narrowly avoids another slash. "C-Cure!"

la-la-ra-rrrsh-

-CcCLANG! "A-ah!"

"Gah, too late," Saki-Inari says, swinging, "if I was any faster, I could've been DONE with this by now!"

CLANG!!! Sh-she's too strong. We need to keep a distance, or we can't- "No... I'm going back in!"

Clang, clang, Cl-

-THWAM!! "Ack!"

But she can't make a third swing without being kicked in the waist. Shaking her head, she ignores the pain and tries again:

CLANG! Clang-CLANG, CLANG-CLANG-CLANG-CLANG -w-wait, NO, that's too fast- CLANGCLANGCLANGCLANG, CLANGG,

-behind you-

CLANG!!! whoosh

-wait, where'd she go?! Kokoro's eyes dart desperately in fear until they see Misaki's Keyblade-

jump back JUMP BACK NOW

ssSSWING...!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"...Hah... hah..."

Kokoro lands at the other side of the room, panting. She dodged by an inch... if she'd been any slower, then...

bbrrrzzzkkkttt "Hey, you're already better than you were at Stigmatika," Saki-Inari says. "Hah. Wonder who's responsible for THAT!"

She's coming!

CcCLANG,

the saw howls,

CcCLANG, CcCLANG, CcCLANG,

"...gh!" Clang! CcCLANG, the Keyblade howls, "Ggrh...!" CcCcCLANG, CLANK-CLANG-CLANK, s-stay calm, swing under, don't take the brunt of it directly-

"Gotcha."

CLANG, "Gah!" -N-no! She switched to the blunt end-

CLANG!!!!!!

Kokoro's Keyblade shrieks as the force of Saki-Inari's swing hurls her against a pipe. "Ack...- ah!" CLANG! -it's too much- CcCLANG,,, CcCLANG,,, CLANG-CLANG-CLANG-CLANG "Stop it...!" K-Keep your back to the wall; that way, she can't get behind you!

CLANG, CLANG, "Thundaga!"

-cling!cling!cling!cling!cling! Th-that's it; Misaki always controls her Thunder magic, so it always has certain spreads. Just keep blocking at the right time- CLANG!!! "Ack!"

Saki-Inari flips Wishful Thinking around so the spiked end is being swung:

CcCcCLANG, CcCcCLANG, "Ggh... M-Misaki!"

CcCLANG!!

Gasping, she tries to back off;

SLASH

only for Saki-Inari to close-in immediately, giving her a flurry of blows to her chest with a brutal finisher. "Aghh.......! F-Fire!" Before her back can hit another wall, she grits her teeth and resists the sheer knockback with her Magic's recoil, trying to- CLANG! "Ack! N-no... BLIZARRA!"

cl-cl-cling,cling,

"Cure!" She shouts, then swings,

CLANG! "Talk about stubborn!" Saki-Inari says.

CLANG, CLANG, t-to the left, CLANG, sh-she's behind you!

CLANG! Saki-Inari leaps away: "Triple Spark!"

"Reflect!" She deflects the bolts of plasma and-

SsSLASH

-Feels Misaki's Keyblade hitting her side. "Gah!"

"Thanks for taking the bait!"

Slash-Slash-Slash SLAM, Thwack, sl-sl-sl sl-sl-sl SLAM! Slash, SLASH-SLASH-SLASH, SsSLASH!!!

Kokoro falls onto the floor. N-no, please! You have to get up before-

THWAM

At the last possible second, she clashes with the downward slam Saki-Inari makes. It's too much. She hates this. She can't take this anymore. It hurts too much now...

...Misaki. It hurts for you too, doesn't it?

Suddenly, Kokoro's body cools. "Give Misaki back," she says. CLANG! Clang, clang, clang, "Give... her... back!"

CLANG! Saki-Inari lifts Wishful Thinking. "You again. You keep getting in my way, you know that?" CLANG, she clashes again, then zips back; "Thunderstorm! Magnet Pull!"

Now's my chance! "Water - Drench!"

KKCRACKL KKCRACKL
                                        KKRACKL
                     KKCRACKL

     KKCRACKL

Kokoro's body moves on its own, the gems in her Keyblade gleaming as she counteracts the Magnet Pull with Drench's currents and stays away from Saki-Inari, dashing between the bolts that boom down from Thunderstorm as the black blade chases her. Keeping her breaths stable, she skids to the corner and yells: "Blizzara - Forest!"

"C'mon, make this easier for me, will you?!"

kkRSHRKL          kkRSHRKL
    kkRSHRKL      kkRSHRKL
kkRSHRKL          kkRSHRKL

Crystals of ice ascend and clash with the descending thunderbolts, light and darkness colliding. Kokoro darts between the frozen trees for cover and fires spell after spell faster than she ever normally could, continually contesting Saki-Inari's rabid approach with pure magical power. "Blizzard - Bloom!"

kkr-cling,cling, Clang! "There you are!" CLANG! CLANG, clang, CLANG! "Hah! Not bad!"

CLANG, "Water-"

"But not good enough."

            SSLASH! "Agh...!"

With that one opening, Saki-Inari clots Wishful Thinking with electricity and plunges it into the ground, simultaneously hurting Kokoro and shattering the icicle forest. Kokoro's heartbeat doubles as she finds herself back in darkness's clutches, enduring swing after brutal swing from every angle at a demonic, merciless over-pace.

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG

Concentrate. Please, keep concentrating.

What... wh-what's happening to her?

Kokoro can't explain what she's feeling. Her mind feels like it's splitting. The best way she can word is... she doesn't even feel like herself right now! "S-stop it. Leave me alone... just give Misaki BACK already!"

CLANG!!! "Whoa there!" CLANG! "What's the matter, Kokoro? Tired out?"

"Ack! Bl-Blizzard - Thistleburst!" k-SHRACKL!! A shotgun of ice forces Saki-Inari to dart away-

-there it is again.

Since when could she cast Blizzard like that?

It's infuriating her. Something isn't right. This isn't how she wants to save Misaki-

CLANG!!!

Her thoughts are cut short by a brutal swing. "Agh!" Her burning arms try to retaliate-

N-no! That won't work!

"-Shut up!" Kokoro shouts, her head pounding, swinging, CLANG, CLANG, CL-

CLANG!CLANG,

"Ggh...!" CcCLANG! "Agh! Get... off!" Her eyes narrow further as she casts messy arrays of Fires and Thunders again and again and again, swinging and swinging. Then she hears:

"Triple..."

"That's not gonna work!" Before Saki-Inari can finish casting, Kokoro thrusts Morning Star forward at maximum speed-

-only to hit thin air.

The cast was never finished.

"Where'd all that power go, huh?"

she hears.

slash-slash-slash slash-slash-slash SsSsSLASH!!!

Agony follows. Her vision spins with no end, and everything around her seemingly collapses, the walls and ceiling and floors all falling away as she tumbles across the rusty, reinforced steel. Every part of her body starts to hurt. Then, she feels a sudden THUD... and all the movement stops; as if the world just disconnected from her mangled perception of it. "Ack..... M-Misaki..."

Stand up. You have to stand up... you have to-

Anger suddenly flows through Kokoro's veins. More than anything, she wants her head to shut up; so she forces herself to get up. Get up. Get up already. Misaki's right there. She's right in front of you. All you need to do... is free her... what's stopping you?!

With enough force, she manages to stand. "Well, looks like this'll be over soon enough," Saki-Inari comments idly. "I can't even tell if you're trying anymore. What, you think just swinging that stick around is gonna accomplish anything? Forget it."

Her vision's blurry. It takes all her effort to even look forward. "I'm... not... leaving... without Misaki..."

"Like I said, you can't reach her, let alone free her. Quit thinking you're enough of a special someone to her that you can do that; because trust me, you're not."

Kokoro doesn't listen. She just shakes, desperate to stay on her feet even as her dizziness grows stronger... desperate to shut her noisy mind down and keep looking forward. "I CAN do it... I'm not stopping until she hears me!"

"Meh. Suit yourself." Two steps forward; the ebon Keyblade's eyes stare at her. "I mean, I didn't pin you for the sadistic type, but if you wanna beat her up that bad..."

"H-huh? W-wait, no, I'm not trying to hurt her!"

"Sure seemed like it to me. What else were those swings for?"

"No! I don't want to hurt Mis-"

"Then give up already," she hears from behind, "you don't have any way of separating me from her!"

SsSsSLASH!!!

Kokoro takes another blow. Everything gets blurrier; each movement of her arms, each spell she uses, they all become more and more impossible. Her nerves aren't working. Her body is burning.

CLANG, CLANG-CLANG

How can she free Misaki? Sh-she doesn't know. Is there even a way for her to do that...?

CLANG, THWAM!

"Ggh...!" I-if she can't find it, and if this keeps up, then-

SLASH!!!

"Aggh!" Another bruise. Even saying the word 'Cure' is painful now; Saki-Inari's too fast. She's too strong. Kokoro can't breathe for a second without her arms falling to the brunt of another clash.

CLANG, CLANG,CLANG, CLANG,CLANG,

She can't lose her heart. Not now... please...

...p-please don't do this...

 

---

 

"Stopga!"

The Enigmatic Figure is frozen.

Kaoru and Hagumi've taken their positions at the bottom of the tower, covering each other's backs. Letting them handle the Heartless, Chisato locks the bridge in stasis as the Figure crosses it, then flips over from the platform above, flying flawlessly through the air with a trail of aurora and her Sigil of Resilient Hope blaring as the wind makes way for her. The Figure is stuck in place, seemingly defenseless now; so Chisato descends mercilessly upon the bridge, aiming straight for her chest, gazing into the darkness shrouding the Figure's face and-

"...!"

She's moving!

CLAsSH!!

Chisato finds her Keyblade clashing with two shortswords of ice, their grit matching her own. That Stopga barely lasted a second on this person... "...Ggh!"

Clang!!

Chisato and the Figure disengage,

CLANG

before re-clashing with lethal intent.

Clang-clang-clang..... CC-CLANG!!! CLANG, CLANG-CLANG-CLANG

She doesn't cast any Magic. Not yet. She doesn't even need to assess whether it'd be dangerous to; she knows it is. The power behind this person's swings are a measured atrocity, a knell of speed and strength sliced with pinpoint precision.

CLANG CLANG CLANG

If Chisato relents at the wrong time to cast something... she'll instantly give her opponent a free hit.

clang, cl-CL-CLANG! cling,cling, CLANG!!!

The Figure makes an overconfident clash; Chisato matches the dual-swing of those swords with equal measure, bringing them to a deadlock, then takes the opportunity: "Thunder Blade - Advanced!"

BBRRTZKKZK!!!!!!

A surge of power forces the Figure back and shoots Chisato up. Lightning crackles beneath her as she soars and utters two commands: "Tempest! Blizzard Blade - Orbit!"

WWWRRRWRrRSHR- cling,cling,cling,cling,cling,cling,cling,cling,

The Figure blocks each and every gale of Chisato's tower-tearing tornado in regimented silence, before bursting upward in a cross-slash. The storm clears, and she collides with an electrified Resilient Hope-

SHNG!!!

-But the second she does, she finds her side smacked by an icy blade bigger than her own; and it's only one of several. She shoots down to a nearby ledge before she can take further damage, and observes how many are orbiting Chisato.

"You won't run!"

KR-CLANG!!!

A millisecond later, Chisato zips beside her and immediately begins to barge forward, forcing the Figure to deflect both Chisato's electrified Keyblade and the Orbit Blades.

cling,cling-KR-CLANG, KRZZZZT-CLANG, cling, the Figure takes a step back, Chisato circles, shng-shng-KrCLANG-krclang-krclang,

She doesn't let the Figure breathe, not for a single moment; allowing that would be too much of a risk. If this person can have an Orbit Blade as large as herself slam into her stomach, and not feel enough pain to be immobilized... then she's stubborn enough to deserve no mercy! "You're open!"

KKRRZZZZZTTT-SHATTER!

A calamitous swing from Resilient Hope annihilates the Figure's icy dual-blades, so quick that they can't even become dust. Chisato lets the lightning roar through her Keyblade, readies another lunge, and-

"Blizzard."

-moves on instinct just in time.

cling-cling-cling-cling-cling!

...If she hadn't stopped her lunge and blocked, she'd have been wounded by a storm of icicles,

CLANG!

and in the very next moment, she finds herself clashing with a new pair of dual-blades, staring into that hood of darkness again. The Figure... she can regenerate as many of these as she needs!

CLANG, CLANG, Clang, CLANG

The blades in question aren't large, or imposing; but their strength is so simultaneously brute and precise that it's chilling. They can easily match the power of Chisato's Keyblade through some kind of sheer will, even though they look so shatterably fragile- Clang!!! "Gggh! You...!"

The Figure finds an opportunity. "You're open," she says, swinging down and- CLUNK "...what?!"

-finding herself deflected by a barrier of wind ejecting from Chisato. The resulting force mangles the Figure's grip and causes her to stumble backwards; Chisato takes the opportunity, dashes in, and blasts the Figure's chest with a point-blank Fira.

Bwoosh!

She swings:

KRSLASH,SLASH, sl-sl-sl sl-sl-sl SLASH-KR-SLASH, Shing!!!!!!!!

She doesn't have time to make it as damaging as possible; if she'd capitalized any later on this opening, the Figure would've broken free. She lands another SLASH! for good measure, then jumps away to a different platform, keeping her distance. It'll be 60 seconds until the Wind Barrier regenerates... and now her opponent's going to be planning around it.

CLANG!

Sure enough, the Figure is already right behind her; she turns around and meets those icy swords with a perfect swing, leaving her and the Figure in a stalemate. There's an atmosphere of fear; each side is as desperate to land a hit on each other as they are to not be hit. They clash, again and again, their veteranship clear in their continued conflict, both of them knowing that one single mistake or sign of weakness could result in immediate pain. "Kkh...!"

CLANG!!

They deadlock again. Chisato wants, more than anything, to have a moment where she can surge Resilient Hope with as much Magic as possible and overwhelm this person; but she can't find the opening yet...

"Go, go, Chisato! Get her!"
"P-please be careful, my queen!"

Confidence... no, it's more like certainty. The Figure plans each attack believing she always knows the outcome, and she's trying to wear Chisato down. Is it possible to surprise her in some way?

CLANG, clang, CLANG, clang

The clashes never relent. Chisato furiously matches the precision of her opponent; the two of them speed around the tower, running on the ceilings of each platform and flying between levels to try and find any opening. Attempting to cut off the Figure's path, Chisato steps back; "Blizzag- ...ah?!"

-Wh-what?!

She's being... pulled?! From one end of the tower to the other, straight towards the Figure... quickly, she needs to break free- Clang! "Ggh-" SLssH!!! "Agh!"

Sl-slsl-slsl-slShnG-ShnG, Sll-sllsll-SllSll-sll SLssH-

-CLANG! "You... what did you-?!" CLANK! The Figure breaks through her guard again. "Gah...!"

SLL--SLl--Sll-sll- SLssH-SLssH-SLssH! sl-sl-sl-SLssH, SL-SLssH!!! "Limit Break! Ice Cage-"

Chisato narrows her eyes the second the Figure stops slashing, and lunges like a bullet train. "I'm afraid NOT!"

SHHHHHHNGGG!!!!!!

An electric slice cripples the Figure and causes her to groan. "Holy Blade!" Chisato has every intention of taking advantage; Thunder and Ice combine into one, surging a powerful light into Resilient Hope. "Let's see if you can handle this!"

wwSHHHHAAAOOOOWWW

SWING-SWING-SWING
              SWING-SWING-SWING
SWING-SWING-SWING
              SWING-SWING-SWING SHHNGG!!

"Limit Break - Electroweb!" Having thoroughly diced away in retaliation, Chisato flies up and summons strings of Thunder magic around her, letting them weave through the platform floor until they've cut deep inside. With a gleam of Resilient Hope's emeralds, the webs explode and electrocute the Figure, paralyzing her. "Now!"

"...Blizzard...!" The Figure stubbornly gets back on her feet and raises her blades as Chisato descends. Chisato holds her Keyblade up and guards against the storm of icicles the Figure summons, not letting herself be deter-

-no, wait. Are these Blizzards firing on a delay? The Figure is acting independently of them. If Chisato stops guarding and tries to finish her descent by clashing with the Figure, then... "...Tch! Pulse!"

She lands by the Figure's side instead and summons a set of spiralling waves, shielding herself from the rest of the icicles as she settles for an even trade:

CLANG!

"..."
"..."

The tension is thicker than mud. Neither side can overpower the other, no matter how much force they use.

They leap away as the platform beneath them crumbles, and wail at each other from up-close and afar, striking back and forth. Chisato finds her body being pulled around by that strange Magic on multiple further instances; the Figure seems to be hurling her around with a force of some kind, summoning un-cuttable vortexes that draw Chisato either straight towards her, or towards another location the she can try and pressure Chisato from. Fortunately, Chisato's too strong to be controlled by it; it can only send her flying, rather than directly manipulate her movement. That's what lets her plan retaliations in advance; she summons storms of ice and water whenever she's subject to it, so the Figure can't close in and take advantage. But... just what is that Magic? Chisato's never seen anything like it. Where did this person get it from?

               zzip

"Ah!" On pure instinct, she turns around and swings:

CLANG!!! "...You're fast," states the Figure's soft voice. "I was unable to surprise you, even with that."

What's going on...?! Wasn't the Figure on the other side of the tower just now? ...She can teleport?!

CLANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As the Figure swings down mercilessly with both swords, Chisato mercilessly swings up with her Keyblade. The resulting collision sends them both skidding back; they each pause and catch their breath, letting the Magic inside them automatically heal the scant wounds they've sustained.

This person... just who on earth is she?

 

---

 

"Ugh...!" Morning Star clatters upon the ground as Kokoro is sent sprawling. She shudders as she tries to stand up- SSWING! "Ack!"

-Barely having dodged. "C'mon, you're just embarrassing yourself now," Saki-Inari says. "Give up."

"N-no." Gritting her teeth, she dematerializes Morning Star and re-summons it; "I won't-"

CLANG

"Ack!" ...Her heart nearly stops when she sees Saki-Inari's Keyblade, lifting up her pendant. "NO! Don't touch that!"

CLANG! "Oh, is it important? My bad!"

CLANG "Ggh...!"

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG, "C'mon, c'mon," it drones, "you were almost doing good when you used those fancy Blizzards; those were fun. Why not cast them again?"

C-Clang, "I-I don't need them to beat you...!"

CLANG! "Ahahaha! What kind of logic is that? Are you trying to lose?" CLANG, CLANG, "If you've got Magic like that, now's the best time to use it, you dunce!"

Y-you have to! You'll be overwhelmed if you don't! "Blizzar-"

...Kokoro stops her own words from finishing. What's going on? There's some kind of voice inside her head... and it doesn't feel like her own! Why?! "F-Fire-"

SsSLASH

"Ack!" Her temper flares; "get off...!" C-CLANG! "Get... OFF!"

CLANG! "So you're not gonna use it? Suit yourself."

CLANG CLANG, CLANG, CLANG CLANG, CLANG

It only takes a few more seconds until she loses out again, her grip too weak to fight back. Her body gets battered further and further, sent flying around the bottom of the castle, bruises racking up until everything is aching too much to bear.

SsSLASH!!! "Triple Spark!" Brzzk-brzzk-brzzk, SsSsSLASH!!!

It's impossible. This... this is impossible.

"C'mon, just call it quits. Ragdolling isn't my idea of fun."

"...Ggh..."

Saki-Inari gazes at Morning Star as it shakes in Kokoro's grip... eyeing the aquamarine gems upon it. "Aren't you stubborn. Go on then," she says, spinning Wishful Thinking. "Gimme your best shot."

...c-clang!

It's weak. It's hopeless. "Hey, hey. What about Cure? Don't tell me you've stopped using that too."

"I-I..." Kokoro gulps, her limbs shaking as Saki-Inari starts pushing forward. "I... don't need it to beat you..."

"Man, you're funny." The pressure gets worse. "What's going on in that head of yours? If you're gonna try and 'win' in some way, then the least you could do is use all the power you have-"

C-clang! "It's not my power! It... it can't be," she murmurs. "I don't know how to use Blizzara like that. I don't know how to use Cure. I don't know how-"

Use Thistleburst! She's wide open for it-

"St-stop talking!" CLANG, "I-I can do this on my own! I can save Misaki by myself-"

"Nah. Not a chance."

CLANG!

SLAM

Saki-Inari shoves an elbow into Kokoro, launching her into the wall. She drops and hits the floor, her senses breaking apart. "Ggh... ack..."

P-please use that Magic. You have to.

"...No," she says. Even though it's impossible, she stands up. "If I... can't save Misaki by myself, then..."

"Eh? Then what?" Saki-Inari asks. Her words are barely audible to Kokoro at this point. "Who're you even talking to, dummy?"

"I'm... going to free Misaki. No matter what..."

"Look. I'm not a fan of needless cruelty, alright? This is like the 50th time you've stood up and said that, and it's not gonna end any different. Hell, you're so exhausted that you can't stand straight. Just give up!"

"I... I have to free her-" mid-sentence, she falls to her knees; she has to hold her Keyblade to stop herself from keeling entirely. "I-I have to. It has to be me..."

A sigh. "And why's that?"

She lifts her head back up. "Because I care about her! A-and I know she cares about me. Misaki... we're best friends, aren't we? N-no, more than that, even. We've known each other for ages. If we really are that close, then... you can hear me right now, can't you? Please, you have to break free... you have to!"

"...Oh my god, this is gonna take forever. Fine then. I'll break that stubbornness of yours in one fell swoop."

Kokoro looks up. "H-huh?"

"Misaki can't hear you."

Her eyes narrow.

"I've already said it, but her heart is locked," Saki-Inari states, matter-of-factly. "Lemme try and visualize it for you. Picture a dark, dark cave, so long that almost nothing echoes through it. Then, picture me, putting a giant wall in front of it. That's her heart right now. That's what you're trying to shout into, Kokoro."

Her vision crumbles. She sees Saki-Inari's blurred form, approaching.

"Even if you managed to yell past that wall, you wouldn't reach; because your words're getting lost in tunnels that'll never go far enough to find her. Got it? You can't reach Misaki... because you're not close enough to her heart."

"...Close enough...?" Her body trembles. "What do you mean?! I've been her friend for her entire life! I know more about her than anyone else! If anyone can reach her, it's me!"

"But that's not quite true, is it? Sure, you're close... but you're not THAT close."

"I-I am!"

"You're not." Saki-Inari says that without a jeer or smirk on her face. Her expression is neutral. Clear. As if she's just stating the truth. "Her memories tell me the whole story. Even IF you had a way of freeing her from me... you two aren't close enough for it to work. There's only one person who could reach her now."

"Who...?" Kokoro mutters. "Who is it?"

"Kanon."

.

"You want the truth? Here it is, then: Kanon's heart is inside you."

"...What...?"

The second she hears those words, the voice in her head grows:

Kokoro...!

Th-that voice... it's...

"Bingo. Let's put it simply, so you can give up already," Saki-Inari says. "Kanon is the only reason you've lasted this long. If it wasn't for her, I'd have gotten your heart ages ago!"

K-Kokoro... please, run!

Kokoro can't process it. "But... back at the Islands, you-"

"Took her away. Yeah, that was the plan," Saki-Inari continues. "But I only managed to get her body. She was so stubborn that when I caught her, her heart flew out and hid inside YOUR body instead. She was so stubborn that when I tried to catch you by swallowing up the Island, her heart took you across dimensions all by itself, just so I couldn't find you!"

"Th-then I was in Traverse Town because-?"

"Now I'm starting to get why this has all been such a pain. I've slashed away at you so many times, both at Stigmatika and here, just to try and get your heart out, and HER heart's been getting in the way each time, protecting you. Her Magic's been manifesting inside you, letting your body use it, just so she could keep you safe. She's been helping you fight the Heartless all this time, just so they couldn't finish the job for me, and she's the entire reason you've become stronger so quickly. You wouldn't be here without her."

She drops to her knees. "K-Kanon... Kanon, you..."

"Honestly, when you think about it... it's kinda messed up for you to reject her help, isn't it?" Saki-Inari grins. "She's done so much to keep her precious Kokoro safe, and how'd you pay that back? By telling her she's not wanted. Because YOU want to save Misaki by yourself. Because if you relied on her... then that'd mean acknowledging SHE'S closer to Misaki than you are!"

...

"Admit it. That's what this has all been about."

Kokoro looks down. She holds the sapphire on her necklace. It's coarse. Murky. Uncomfortable. It's nothing like the ones her friends have.

"You're jealous. Because Misaki doesn't look at you the same way she looks at Kanon."

...

...why...

...why did she ever think she would be loved like that too? She's horrible... she pushed away one of her closest friends, just so she could be closer to the other. And it all amounted to nothing. If Misaki was watching this...

...she'd hate her.

Tears spill down Kokoro's face. They stain her shirt. She looks up as Saki-Inari towers over, and stares in anguish. "Where..." she asks, "wh-where's Kanon's body? Where did you put it?! Where is she?!"

"You think I'm gonna tell you that? Nah."

Her head swells with rage. She screams, stands up, runs toward Saki-Inari and swings.

"Guess you'll never know."

SLASH!

Then she falls to the ground.

She tries to move. But she can't. No matter how hard she tries... she can't make her body move anymore. She doesn't have any strength left.

...There's no point, anyway. Even if she could move... why would she? Why should she even try, knowing what a horrible person she is? There's no reason.

There's nothing. "...Kanon... Misaki..."

Everything slowly fades to black. She couldn't save her friends.

It's over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

...

...It's dark. She can't see. She can't tell where she is. But to her right, something appears. There's a figure shrouded in light, looking at her. Who is that?

...No. There's only one person it could be, couldn't it? "Kanon?" She asks quietly.

There's no response.

"Kanon... Kanon." Kokoro's words are frail. She swims weakly through the darkness, reaching out. The figure doesn't respond. "Kanon. I..." Kokoro wraps her arms around the figure, her tears falling. "I'm... so sorry... I'm so sorry... th-this is all my fault. We just wanted her back, and I... I...!"

There's no response. Every word becomes harder to say than the last.

"It's all because of me. I'm an idiot. I didn't understand. I thought that... I was with you two... i-in the same way that you were with each other. I didn't get it. I got confused, I felt like we were drifting apart somehow, I..." She holds her pendant. "I just wanted to believe Misaki felt the same way about me... as I did about her. Because then she'd be able to break free, right?"

No response.

"...Right. Hah, yeah, I forgot," she mutters weakly. "That wouldn't free her anyway, would it?"

No response.

She holds the figure closer. "I just... I-I couldn't bear the idea, of not knowing what to do, even as she was suffering right in front of me. And I just... couldn't stop thinking about whether I was important to her or not. Because no matter what I said, I couldn't reach her. I knew you probably could, but... I wanted to believe she loved me so much that she could break free for my sake. So I started telling myself that I didn't need your help. That I was enough on my own. I didn't think about anything else at all. I was only thinking about whether Misaki loved me... even though you were right there too, experiencing everything I was. It... probably hurt for you, didn't it? It hurt a lot for me. But I was only thinking about how much I was hurt. I... I'm the worst."

From the thawed goblet flows water. It rushes through the lungs, letting Kokoro breathe short, raspy breaths as she lets it spill.

"I'm the worst... I'm s-selfish... I'm so sorry, Kanon. I-I'm so sorry..."

...No response. There's only silence, as the light fades, and Kokoro sinks further.

Further and further into darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"But personally, I... wouldn't call it a weapon, Kokoro..."

 

 

Strange.

Since when did darkness feel like grains of sand?

Kokoro is weightless. She finds her body devoid of the need for strength; so she opens her eyes. Her arms are wrapped around someone's jacket, worn over their chainmail-laced shirt. She looks up; and above a silver pauldron, she finds...

...a face with violet eyes and black hair.

The figure disappears, leaving Kokoro's arms to hold nothing. Memories run through her.

"Meh, I just don't see the point, is all..."

The sounds of waves and seagulls decorate the air.

She's watching herself; a younger Kokoro, from 3 years ago, who's idly tilting herself left and right atop a tree stump as she looks at the golden blade she's holding. The blade isn't very sharp, and it looks kind of strange; above the handle, there's just two discombobulated beams of metal, connecting to an oddly-shaped star. The only other feature of note is the colourless gems, laden into its length. Idly, she stretches out her hand, and positions the blade in front of a backdrop; the sea surrounding Destiny Islands. "I mean, it's funny to look at, but I don't think I'd ever use it. Fighting isn't fun, so I don't need a weapon."

"..."

She turns to her right. Sitting beside her on another stump is that violet-eyed girl; she looks mature, but she's actually not much older than Kokoro is. "What's wrong, Rinko?" Kokoro asks. "You look distracted."

"Um... to be honest, I feel the same way," the girl responds. "I'm... not sure why I should be giving this power to people."

"But you're doing it anyway? You're pretty strange☆!"

"A-ah, sorry... I'm not allowed to explain," the girl says. "But personally, I... wouldn't call it a weapon, Kokoro..."

"Huh~? Is it not?"
"No... I think, um... it's more like a shield. Fufu... I guess that's a strange analogy for a Keyblade, isn't it...?"
"It is! But that's interesting~. I guess I can kinda see it," Kokoro responds, tilting her head and lightly poking herself with the object. "After all, it doesn't look like it hurts much."

"It can, but... it depends on the wielder. The Keyblade is shaped by the heart it was made from," the girl explains. "It can do lots of things; more than just fighting. It's very powerful... using it has helped me a lot."

Kokoro hums, backflipping from the stump and landing on a few large stones. "Well, I've never really felt in danger before, so I don't care whether it's powerful or not."

"Fufu. I can see that..."

"Can it make people smile?" She asks. "Kanon says she doesn't really know what to do with hers, so that's what I suggested. But neither of us know if it can do that."

"S-smile?" The girl seems surprised by this. "Well... in a way, y-yes, I think... but not directly."

"Eh? What's that supposed to mean?"

"It can make you feel safe. I'm... not a Keyblade Master, so I don't fully understand it, but..." the girl manifests her own Keyblade; a beautiful symphony of black and white. "I feel like... the Keyblade is a manifestation of yourself. It's a crystallisation of your desires. When you hold it, it reminds you of them... so if your deepest desire is to see your friends smile, then the Keyblade will remind you of that."

"...But I always want Misaki and Kanon to smile. I don't have any trouble remembering that," Kokoro says. "If it's not actually making them smile itself, then I don't need it, do I?"

"Yeah... I suppose so. In that sense, it... might not be useful to you now. It's not going to do anything for your friends. But if there's ever a day where you're feeling lost, or scared, then... I think having something like the Keyblade will reassure you."

These words go over the head of the young Kokoro. She doesn't really understand them yet.

"That's why, Kokoro... if you ever want to use it... make sure it's for yourself."

 

But now she does. "Because that way... I can smile, too."

 

Everything returns to black. It's cold, and empty. It's all so undeniably real that Kokoro feels like she's breathing fresh air for the first time. There's a soulless chill, running through her body and rapturing her with fear, drawing out her unlocked sorrow more and more. Her tears begin to flow again... her face drowned by all she's gone through.

In front of her lies Kanon; head-in-hands, sobbing. The sweet, wonderful person she's known all her life. Beneath that soft blue hair and those gentle eyes are as many tears as there are on Kokoro's. No, more. She's been crying for a long, long time now... ever since the day they were separated. She's felt all the pain Kokoro has, and more.

Kokoro reaches out. Slowly but surely, she swallows her fears, moves towards where Kanon's sitting... and grasps her hands. Kanon looks up at her in shock; and in response, she clings tight, saying:

"...I'm scared."

I'm scared.

It resonates. Their fingers curl around their palms, feeling each other's warmth. Kokoro stares into Kanon's eyes as her tears flow, just glad to see Kanon's face. Even at a time like this.

Kanon looks at those tears... and holds Kokoro's hands firmly.

Suddenly, willpower runs through Kokoro's body. She finds herself back at the bottom of Hollow Bastion. She sees herself, lying on the floor, swallowed by pain... and Misaki, controlled by someone else. Someone with an empty expression, who's about to sever the hearts lying in Kokoro's body, and end it all.

She takes a deep breath.

"I'm... not as close to Misaki as Kanon is. And I'm not as close to Kanon as Misaki is,"

she states.

"It hurts to say. It really does." She puts a hand to her heart. There's a soft, serene smile on her face. "But I won't run. I have to face it. Because if I don't... then it'll keep getting between us. Just like it's doing now. I want the three of us to be together again. I want us to be happy. So if this sadness will let that happen..."

Her hand reaches up, until it clutches the coarse sapphire resting on her chest.

"...then I'll accept it."

A soft, blue glow embraces her. Blue, like the lovely sea... blue like the endless sky. The diamond beads of the necklace Azelf gave her respond, suddenly glimmering in resplendent cyan until she transforms into Kanon. Her determination pillars unto itself, resting upon her body.

Then, she reaches out to the Kokoro lying on the floor... and the gems of Morning Star Aquamarine shine with her colour.

 

---

 

sssSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRR...!

"Wh-what?!" Genuinely staggered, Saki-Inari leaps back, gripping Wishful Thinking. The hell is that light...? It's enormous! "Oh god, what now?!"

Kokoro is flowing with energy; energy so azurely pristine that it pours out around her. A peaceful wind runs through the strands of her colour-changed hair, as her body slowly rises from the ground, enveloped in light. Her eyes open. She stands up. If Saki-Inari squints, she can see the source of the light: A coarse sapphire, dangling from Kokoro's neck.

And when she looks down, she can see Misaki's sapphire, glowing with the same colour. "No. You're kidding me."

 

---

 

sssSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRR...!

"...!"

Chisato steps back, startled. An enormous, azure light is glowing beneath the Enigmatic Figure's coat. The Figure seems just as surprised by it as she is. "Eh? What's going on?" Hagumi asks, looking around. "The Heartless seem scared. Is it because of that light?"

"...I see."

The Figure stares down at her chest, where the light is at its strongest, and states those two words... looking at how the glow colours her hand. For a moment, there's silence. Chisato contemplates attacking, but the sudden lack of tension in the air is disorienting her.

Turns out, she doesn't need to anyway. "The situation has changed," the Figure states. "This plan will most likely end in failure."

Chisato frowns. "Are you and Saki-Inari working together? For what purpose?"

"I've been unable to deter you sufficiently. My presence has become pointless... so for the time being, farewell."

"...! Wait!"

But with that, the Figure disappears, blinking away. "Chisato!" Kaoru yells. "The Heartless are relenting. There's still many of them, but...!"

Right; now they have their chance. They can proceed.

Chisato leaps to her friends' side in an instant with a storm of lightning. "Then there's no time to waste. We've kept Kokoro waiting long enough!"

 

---

"Blizzaga!"

Ice blooms from nowhere and batters Saki-Inari by the thousands, throttling her towards the back of the room. She grits her teeth before she falls and manages to land on her feet,

CLANG✶☆!

blocking just in time. "Ggrh...!"

Clang✶☆, CLANG,CLANG, Clang✶,Clang✶✶

She doesn't have a retort, nor any bluster. She's been rendered speechless by what she sees; a beautiful, crystalline-blue Keyblade that isn't Kokoro's, and Kokoro wielding it. Kokoro's hair is silked with a soft blue, and one of her eyes has turned amethyst, just like... just like... "...Kanon Matsubara!"

"G-give her back. Give Misaki back!"

SHHH-RACKL

The fear in her opponent's voice betrays the power of her attack; it generates a trail of ice that catches Saki-Inari's arm even as she parries properly, locking her in place for a flurry of arctic slashes. The swings don't feel any stronger than Kokoro's, but there's power... there's so much power behind them! How?!

Shng-shng-shng✶, shng-shng-shng✶, "Watera - Rapids!" FLLl---Ssh- ssh-ssh- ssh-ssh- ssh-ssh!!!!!

A tube of lasers formed from spiralling currents slashes into her, leaving her wide open for another swing. Her opponent, Kokoro or Kanon be damned, makes it count:

SSSLll -s-- -s-- -s-- sHNG✶☆! "Watera - Drench!"

And right as she recovers, she feels a river surge at her knees, preventing her from leaping in to retaliate. "Pattern-casting Tier 2 Magic... you're kidding. Kanon isn't supposed to be THIS strong!"

CLANG✶, Clang✶,

"Kkh...!" Sure, as far as Misaki's memories indicate, she's more capable than Kokoro; but not by much, right?! "H-Hah. If you really ARE that strong, then... that's actually kinda interesting-"

Clang✶, clang-clang✶, SHNG

"-Gah!" She swings back furiously; "Though I'd probably find it more interesting," CLANG, CcCLANG-CC-C-CLANG "if you weren't getting in my way!"

CL ANG✶

Her opponent leaps back, covering her path with a hail of frozen flowers. After Saki-Inari blocks them, she looks forward; only to find no one there. Instead, there's now a lake of lilypads replacing the ground beneath her feet, and she starts being assailed by swings imbued with Water and Ice, coming gracefully from different sides, their perpetrator skating just out of her sight; they're such smooth, fluid motions, and yet they're so forceful that it takes her full concentration to clash with them properly. "Who the hell am I actually fighting?" Clang☆! Clang✶, Clang☆! "Which one of your hearts is in control?! Kokoro's or Kanon's?!"

"Both!"

✶CLANG☆! Th-then there's only one explanation. Their hearts fused!

"Blizzard - Thistleburst!"

k-SHRACKL!! "Gah!" Trails of ice begin to surround her with each of her opponent's attacks, trying to encapsulate her. She adapts and flips Wishful Thinking around, swinging forcefully with its spiked end to rip through and shatter them. This is happening too fast... she can't afford to fall behind. She needs a plan, now! "Thundaga!"

KkCRACKL- KkCRACKL
                               - KkCRACKL
KkCRACKL-

     - KkCRACKL

BRZZT-BRZZT-BRZZT-CLANG!!!

She follows up her lightning volley with a Triple Spark, locking this confusing Kokoro look-alike down and pushing forward with a brutal lunge. She makes another dark swing, and another, and another, forcing the offensive as much as she can so she doesn't have to face any more of that crazy-ass magic;

CLANG, Clang✶, CLANG, Clang✶✶,

Kokoro and Kanon might be moving as one; Co-Kanon, she'll call them. But whose powers are being used more? Whose knowledge is controlling their swings more? This Keyblade she's staring down looks a bit more like Kanon's, and Ice magic is Kanon's thing, so... ah, damnit, she's never fought Kanon before! What should she do?! This magic's super constrictive on her movement, and Misaki's body is weaker than her own, so she can't freewheel it... agh, but she doesn't know enough about Kanon to be more strategic either! Think, think for once...

...oh snap, right! She has access to Misaki's memories! She's gotta check them again; they might tell her Kanon's habits-

G̨̧̢͘E̵͡T͠͡҉͡ ̵̨͞Ơ̴U̡͘T̴̡͘͞

-

...oh, shit.

Saki-Inari gulps. As she swings, she stares down at her chest; and sees that Misaki's pendant is glowing.

ĢE̢̨͡T͞

OUT

"Ack...!"

CLANG✶✶!!!

As Co-Kanon lunges towards forward, Saki-Inari suddenly feels drained of energy; she only barely blocks in time. "Gggh...!"

"Misaki, c-can you hear me?! Please, you have to fight it!"

"Rrrggh... aggh!" The pendant shines again, and Saki-Inari's head violently aches. Her voice - Misaki's voice - lets out a mangled groan, causing her to shudder in pain. Moving this body is getting harder now... damn it, Misaki's awake, isn't she? She heard Kanon's voice and woke up!

GET OUT OF MY HEAD

Saki-Inari redoubles her focus and starts attacking like her life depends on it, deflecting the incoming swings with so much force she nearly knocks Co-Kanon down in the process. Concentrate, she has to concentrate; screw the headache, she's gotta stay focused! "Aerora! Magnet Pull! Tr- agh...! Tr-Triple Spark!"

Despite the stammer, she still manages an overwhelming assault, pulling Co-Kanon towards a sphere of gales and then forcing her to block the sparks. Shooting around to the other side, Saki-Inari tries to swing as fast as she can:

CLANG!! Cl-Clang! CLANG-CLANG-

Clang✶, Clang✶✶, Clang✶✶✶, kkkkkrkl

"Ack!" Shit, the ice! CcCLANG, CcCLANG-

Clang,clang,clang,clang✶,clang✶

"H-hah, you're fast!" CLANG,CLANG,CLANG

CLANG☆,CLANG☆,CLANG☆

Gah... she actually can't respond quickly enough... damn it, if Misaki would just sit still, then she'd be having such an easier time with this!

        swwww

"...!"

Frightened by a low-angled swing, she jumps back and-

SHNG-SHNG-SHNG

"Gggah...!" That was a feint!

SHNG-SHNG-SHNG, SHNG-SHNG-SHNG, "Thistleburst!" k-SHRACKL!!, k-SHRACKL!!, k-SHRACKL-

"Don't... mess with me!" -CcCLANG-clang-clang-clang-SLASH!! SL- cCLANG☾✶!!!

Curves of thunder and ice strike exactly in intersection, forcing both sides back. Saki-Inari shakes her head and stares, dumbfoundedly, at the aura coursing from the person whose hearts she's trying to snag. "Sh-sheesh... you're being unfair... where's all this power coming from?!"

"My friend," rings the response, as the turquoise Keyblade is raised.

Her gut sinks. "Hah... of course it is." She mutters. "...But you know what? I c-can handle this. Besides, that power doesn't mean anything. It doesn't matter whether you win or not; you can't free Misaki from my body, no matter how much stronger you get. All you're doing with these attacks of yours is hurting her!"

Yeah... exactly... sure, Misaki can make it harder for her to move, but it's impossible for Misaki to actually break free. That's not how possession works. Misaki's soul can't be separated from hers unless she deliberately lets it happen.

And yet Co-Kanon isn't hesitating.

CLANG!

She's still attacking. With just as much power as before. She's taking the lead and forcing Saki-Inari to dart around the place. Saki-Inari has to keep stepping back so she can avoid the full brunt of Co-Kanon's magic and deflect any swings thrown her way; that's all she CAN do, thanks to Misaki. It's like with each call Co-Kanon makes, Misaki's body is fighting her control more and more. "Just... g-give it up and make this easy for me already," CLANG "it doesn't matter how much you beat me up," CLANG,CLANG "and it doesn't matter how much of a pain your friend makes this for me," CLANG-CLANG-CLANG, "she's not breaking free from my control... and you're not getting her back! She can struggle all she wants, but it won't accomplish a thing!" CLANGCLANGCLANGCLANG "There's no known way... of freeing a human... from a Heartless's possession... so just, give, UP!!! Thundag-"

k-SHRACKL✶!! Clang✶!

"Argh!"

Co-Kanon fires a Thistleburst and swings immediately after, overwhelming Saki-Inari with a sudden burst of force,

Clang✶

then she swings, and swings, and swings again, her flowing cuts emphasized by explosive shrapnels of frost. It takes all of Saki-Inari's effort just to keep up with them.

Clang✶

Her heart pounds. Wait, no, she doesn't have a heart; it's Misaki's heart that's pounding right now...!

Clang✶

"Th-this has to be a joke," she manages. "All these swings you're making," Clang✶ "there's nothing backing them up but some wishy-washy hope. Possession can't be undone by force-" Clang✶ "Agh...! Quit it! Like hell you two actually know a way to free your friend, right?! You can't...! There literally is none!"

Clang✶

So... why do they keep swinging? Why aren't they listening to her? Hell, she's doing them a favour by telling them this! This is wasted effort!

Clang✶

Think. Why are they acting like if they thrash her hard enough, they'll win? Is it something instinctual...? Do they know, subconsciously, that there's something they can do?

Clang✶

Subconsciously... no, it can't be the Keyblade, right? Sure, she's no expert on the thing; it's not like she ever became a Master herself. But surely those things aren't capable of separating souls... right?!

Clang✶

There's no way. There can't be-

-Saki-Inari gasps, as she remembers something an old friend once told her:

"I feel like... the Keyblade is a manifestation of yourself. It's a crystallisation of your desires."

...No.

There's no way.

GET
OUT
OF
MY
HEAD

CLANG✶

Her head pounds - Misaki's head, even. She looks at the very Keyblade she's using; Misaki's blade, Wishful Thinking. Right now, Misaki's desire is to break free.

CLANG✶

She looks at the Keyblade she's fighting; it's probably a combination of Kokoro and Kanon's. Right now, their desire is to free Misaki.

Clang✶,
Clang✶,
SHNG✶!!!!

"Agh!"

Her limbs fail to move in time; she's sent flying by the next swing, slashes of frost marking Misaki's jacket. The sapphire on Misaki's pendant keeps glowing, just like the sapphire on Kokoro's. It's glowing, because...

"I, um. I almost forgot. I finished what I was making today. It's... a gift."
"You mean...?"
"Here. This is for you, Misaki."

GET OUT
"This... this is..."
She nods. "Yeah. You made mine, so... I wanted to try and make one for you."

GET OUT
"D-does it look okay? I know it's not as good as yours, but... I wanted to do this, really badly. For you.""...Yeah.It'sperfect."Seconds pass.One,byonebyoneEachbreathcomesinandout"Misaki..."
GET
OUT

Saki-Inari growls. "LIKE. HELL!"

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!!! "Kkh...!" Co-Kanon stands her ground. "Misaki!"

Saki-Inari starts retaliating in full force. It's funny; she's not normally the type to get angry. But being in this body f-feels like it's making her act like its owner. Maybe all the snark she's been spouting, all the decisions she's been making in her fights, the hostility, the anger... even the panic she's feeling now... hah, i-is Misaki affecting her this much? Th-that's actually kinda interesting! She didn't know possession could do that! "Thunderstorm!"

"Blizzaga - Rainforest!"

Her jaw drops. "Tier 3 Pattern-casts?!"

KKCRACKL KKCRACKL
                                        KKRACKL
                     KKCRACKL

     KKCRACKL
kkRSHRKL   kkRSHRKL   kkRSHRKL
    kkRSHRKL kkRSHRKL kkRSHRKL
kkRSHRKL   kkRSHRKL   kkRSHRKL

Saki-Inari finds the very ground beneath her remade into a magic forest, bark and grass alike formed from ice, attacking her with autonomous Blizzards as if alive and fighting the thunderbolts she rains from above. Furiously, she becomes a living maelstrom, trying to deflect and crush all in her path; "If you want Misaki that bad," she spews, "then try and take her! Limit Break - Dark Aura!"

In an instant, she disappears, her eyes finding that glowing blue hair in a second flat. Then she teleports to the side, and lunges,
CLANG
and then warps to another side, and lunges,
CLANG
then she warps again, and lunges, CLANG and lunges,CLANGand lunges,andlungesCLANGandlungesCLANGCLANGCLANGandlungesandlungesandlungesandlungesCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANG✶CLANG✶CLANG✶

CLANG✶!

-only to be stopped. "You...!" CLANG, Clang✶! "Give me your hearts! They're the last thing I need!"

"Misaki... you can hear me, can't you?!"

The pain surges. "...Ggh...!"

"It hurts. I-It hurts to have to do this," Kanon says, "but right now, I know you're hurting more than anyone. So I'm going to save you, Misaki... I'm going to repay you for all the times you've been there for me."

N-no! Her grip's getting weaker!

"I'm here for you. So, please, hear me... come back home, Misaki!"

"N-no... you're staying... right... here!" Demonically, she swings:

Clang,clang, CcCLANG, CcCLANG, CLANG-CLANG- clang,clang✶,clang✶✶,Clang☆☆!

clang, clang, SHNG! "Ggah...!" CLANG, CLANG, CLANG... clangclangCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANG CLANG✶☆!!! "Give... up already... all I've been dealing with is setback after setback... so just give me what I need already!" CLANG, CLANG, "Give me those hearts so I can open the damn portal," CLANG, "and get this plan OVER ALREA-"

"...There! Blizzara - Thistleburst!"

k-SHRACKL!! SHNG☆✶☆! "Argh...! Like... HELL!"

CLANG,
          Clang,
CLANG,
          Clang,

Saki-Inari feels the pain wash over. Her vision gets darker as she swings. She has to keep going... she can't stop now!

CLANG,
          Clang,
CLANG,
          Clang,

Keep swinging... she has to keep swinging. It doesn't matter how much Misaki tries to stop her, she HAS to see this through... she's getting those hearts, one way or another!

C-cLANG,
          Clang,
clang,
          Clang,

It's taken her too long to get to this point! She didn't get this far just to fail at the last moment!

She didn't throw away everything for nothing! "LIMIT BREA-"

Before her dark aura can flare, she's cut off by a burst of ice, suddenly detonating from the trail of Co-Kanon's swings. Gritting her teeth, she zips around in a split second and tries to exploit an opening:

C-CLANG!

"Got you!" Now-

SHNG☆!

"Ggah-!" N-no, no-

Shng☆,shng-shng-shng✶, shng-shng-shng SLASH✶✶!

one opening, one opening, that's all she needs,

Clang, clang, clang, c-clang, CLANG, CLANG,

THERE, NOW, THAT'S IT

CLANG!!!

There, you've done it, one last slash, that's all you need, it's right there-

fllll

SHOOOOOOOOOM

...

...

...Ah.

She's flying.

What hit her...? It sounded like... Water magic. How did she not notice? ...She doesn't know. She didn't have the time to process it.

And now,

she doesn't have the time,

to process what's about to happen.

She can only look at the Kanon-coloured Kokoro standing beneath her, that blue Keyblade pointed forward, and watch as monochrome lines gather at its tip.

"Reign's... End."

A beam of black and white hits Saki-Inari in the chest.

The two souls are separated.

 

---

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"...Hah... hah..."

Misaki is lying on the floor of Hollow Bastion.

"Hah... hah..." Kokoro pants. "Did it... work?" Sweat pours down her face. Her amethyst eye is turning yellow. Before Kanon's consciousness can fade, she runs over. "Misaki... Misaki!"

Misaki's in her arms... eyes closed, breaths soft. There's no aura of darkness around her. Kanon holds the back of her head, softly combing her fingers between those tangled black knots.

"Misaki... Misaki, please, wake up...!"

Her heart is beating; terrified, yet hopeful. She bears through it and waits, staring at Misaki's face with her chest clenched. Waiting... waiting...

...

...

"...mgh... mrrgh..."

She gasps. Misaki's eyes are slowly opening. Irises of a soft, calm sky-grey are meeting Kanon's. It's...

...i-it's her.

It really is her! "Misaki...!"

Misaki blinks. "K-Kokoro? No... Kanon? Is... that... you...?"

Kanon cries, and hugs her. Misaki lets out a gasp as she feels a pair of shaking arms, clutching tight around her hoodie. Kanon buries her head into Misaki's shoulder, surrounding herself in her girlfriend's warmth. It feels just like home again. "I-I'm... I'm so glad... finally."

"This... isn't a dream, is it...?" Misaki's hands move, finding Kanon's back. "N-no, I can move my body... that asshole's gone. I'm free...!"

Upon hearing those words, Kanon lets out a breath she's been holding for weeks... and she closes her eyes. Her hair turns golden; Kokoro's hair. Kokoro senses their hearts split back apart inside her body, a warm, whole relief emanating through them both as a barrage of sensations overwhelms her. Misaki's in her arms. Misaki is... holding the back of her head, quietly...

...finally...

...Misaki's... finally here.

They're finally together again. After all this time. "M-Misaki... Misaki...!"

"...Ah, sheesh..." The voice is hoarse, but soft. "Don't just keep yourself buried in there, silly. Lemme see your face, at least." At that response, Kokoro looks up. The two of them see each other's tears, flowing from their eyes. "...Kokoro... you're crying...?"

"It... really is you, isn't it?"

There's a weak smile. "Mhm. Misaki Okusawa. The one and only."

That's all she needs to know. She buries herself right back into Misaki's shoulder, and stays there, a smile of her own growing beneath her sobs. It's a new emotion for her. She didn't realize she could feel both happy and sad, all at once.

Misaki shuffles closer and relaxes. "I'm home, Kokoro."

"Yeah," Kokoro whispers. "Welcome back☆."