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IV[or]y Wall

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-Prologue-

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[>Yes]

 

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[>X]

It was a familiar sensation. Weightlessness surrounded by the consuming embrace of the void, like water clinging to every pore, ushering him slowly downward. Inevitable. Sora opened his eyes. 

His station was mesmerizing. The fractals of blue light that pushed past the imperfect glass drew a stark contrast to the bonds of black caulking etching his identity into the window. As always, he appeared young in the image-- a naive 14-year-old soon to be launched into an adventure. He was sleeping, nestled amongst illustrations of his memories. 

Sora righted himself in his slow fall, his black and yellow shoes easing onto the darker blue emblems at the foot of his massive monument. He straightened his posture to look along the vast span of his platform, its glow belying a world of black nonexistence. The air was heavy but sharp like a live wire was permeating all space. Sora never had to breathe here. 

There isn’t much time.

The voice. Sora knew it well. Its sound was more of a crystal clear feeling. Gravity. The voice was a guide. 

You have to keep moving. Can you do it?

The question was palpable. It filled Sora’s limbs with tension and his mind buzzed with uncertainty. Could he?

He obeyed. Taking an extra step for insurance. The air shifted. 

So many paths... The voice said and a flash of light in the abyss drew his attention. A rectangular platform of stained glass formed at the edge of the station across the way, followed quickly by another and another, spiraling a trail of colorful light into the air. The shimmering sound surrounded him and the reveal of two other paths on either side of him made him turn his head between them. To where they led, he had no clue.

So many stories. Which one will you experience? 

-?-

[>X]

-?-

[>X]

The station had changed. The picture was the same, but the color bled a deep red. Her young face stared back at him from a dramatic angle. So did his… so did…

The emotion was like being pinched awake. It settled a heavy rock in his gut, the weight of which seeped through his body to his toes and his lungs. Wretched bitterness. Longing. He missed them. 

So many paths.

The voice repeated. 

So many wrong turns.

The floor shivered. From their faces sprung unfamiliar creatures. They were small, green things with sheer skin like a phantom. Angular, almost sharp, their foremost appendages were fit with sprawling daggers. Upon their heads were a strange pair of antenna, sweeping behind their pointed, muzzled faces like long ears. They scratched the platform glass with instant jerks, their eyes boring into him like black pits. 

Can you right the wrongs?

 

[]

 

The weight in his hands was a beloved burden. His fingers curled tighter still around the textured grip of the key. The power oozing from the blade bathed him in waves of relief, an old friend. He fought the very sudden pressure behind his eyes as his heart embraced the sword to its lonely scabbard. But Sora didn’t even spare it’s gleaming gold hilt and silver shaft a glance and instead trained a focused glare to the creatures. They scuttled in confused, jagged motions like they were being pulled in multiple directions at once. 

He coiled himself back, feeling a well of power, a map of instincts, a shiver of excitement. And with a lurch forward, he unleashed a precise swing to the nearest green scrub. The hit was squared. The creature reeled in the kickback, but it could clearly take a little more. 

It was like breathing after that. Sora swung the teeth around, bludgeoning the crowd of crawling enemies in efficient strikes. The creatures produced an occasional warble, a garbled screech, guaranteed when their forms collapsed around his key, dispersing into a spiraling puff of shimmering essence. 

The pace was sure until he felt a retaliating slash make contact along his calf. The claws ripped into his flesh metaphysically, Sora feeling the gaping damage dig right into the core of his existence rather than make waste of his muscles and skin, even if the pain was just as draining.

‘Come on Sora, I thought you were stronger than that!’

Perhaps Sora’s eye caught his friend’s image too long. The memory grabbed him by the neck and he shook off a spell of overwhelming emotion with a shocked stumble. The Keyblade felt more like splintered wood in his palms. The swipes were a little more reckless and hungry like he was trying to prove himself. Like they would win him something impossible.  

The Kingdom Key froze in alert, the stage empty. 

Mistakes can be hidden and destroyed. But you can always make more. 

Sora took a step back. The floor shimmered again, as though the surface was turned into a quaking and viscous liquid, this time in a dauntingly large radius. Then a massive hand-- animalistic, with curling claws-- exploded out of the sleeping expression of his pictured fourteen-year-old face and crashed along the edge of the stained glass tower. Another paw followed, it’s skin a refracting collection of jagged green glass. With convulsing jerks, the arms hoisted the rest of the creature from the undulating ground, revealing a humanoid head with skin like a cracking emerald. Large pointed ears pulled back from the side of its head and what appeared to be a forward sprawl of rock-like hair grew from its head beneath a crystalline mockery of a crown.

It loomed over him, Sora taking uneven steps closer to the edge of the station.  A maw of sharp crystal teeth tore open to the sky, sharing the same pitch-black void inside. It released a deafening wail. Chains rattled, coils of thick links drooping along its rock torse which pantomimed some idea of clothes. It pulled its legs from the portal, feet a semblance of some kind of large shoe, left hanging off the ledge like the gangly limbs of a prepubescent teenager. It stumbled into an upright position with a thrashing tail behind it, tufted like a lion and as dangerous as a morning star. 

Its eyes were punched-in holes of envious black. Fixated. 

The Keyblade slacked unconsciously in Sora’s hand.  And the tail wound itself back. 

At its erupting impact, the battle began. A wire of fear launched Sora into an examining defense of the crystalized creature. It swung its paws low and he rolled to avoid it. Fortunately, it was slow… except when chance would cause the beast to blink out of existence like a glitch-- only to slam back into view instantly, a foot closer.  For the sake of battle data, Sora let a sweeping claw graze him. Like it’s smaller incarnations’ attacks, the wound dug beyond the flesh, this hit leaving a howling burn in its wake. In the hurling kick-back, Sora parried his weight with a determined post of his leg. 

Sora crouched low as he observed its pattern. It keenly targeted him but was bogged down by a horrid windup. After two failed predictable swipes-- dodged along the line between surface and void, the beast leaned back and gathered a luminous ball of energy in its teeth. Sora got the confirmation of a projectile he needed to put himself into offensive motion. The teeth of his keyblade gleamed and promptly tore through the paws of the beast at ease all while the hum of the energy charged.

A pulsing sound indicated its release. Sora scurried to the corners of his heart platform as the blast scattered. 

It then became a dance. His keyblade would hack away at the thing when the opportunity knocked, screeches like shattered glass forcing him to fight through involuntary flinches. A respite from the string of leaping hits would force a reassessment, finding weak cores in its arms and drooping head. Its tail was the most unpredictable thing, bludgeoning Sora from behind with a nasty crack. It was one such time that the beast followed up with a juggling swipe and he was found free-falling, the burning pain gnashing his teeth to the point of erosion. 

How much could this thing take? Hulking battles like these were a testament to endurance, something Sora was finding himself in short supply of. Impatience seeped into his bones and expelled his sense of self-preservation. 

Sora charged forward, jumped high into the air and cracked the green thing in the jaw, it’s resemblance to a big cat more apparent with its profile. He followed up, knocking it three more times back and forth, each blow recoiling up his arm in the strain. Then, with a pinwheel turn to build momentum, Sora struck the beast atop the crown-like protrusion on its head. 

It shrieked horribly, a roar like garbled elephants coming from its maw. It seized Sora’s stomach more so than any leap-induced vertigo. And then there was an ear-splitting crack to harmonize with the scream. It cut off abruptly. 

The crater of Sora’s attack splintered a blinding light. It branched down its face, beneath it’s draping chains to the tip of its lion tail. The light buckled around those faults before suddenly erupting. 

Sora hit the floor of his station in a crumpled heap. Around him rained shards of green crystals. Their landing like tinkling music. Glass on glass. Immediately he registered the exhaustion, but the satisfaction of victory was king. Between panting huffs (was he already out of shape?), Sora watched the creature’s remains litter his station, speckling glitter around a particular illustration on the glass.

A kind and loving eye staring back at him through his sprawled fingers. 

That pinching emotion twisted at his heart again. Those same eyes spilling over in tears, fighting a resigned smile. His left hand tingled. The surreal sense of vertigo creeping upon him and crescendoing with blaring, dire, catastrophic alarm. Slipping. He was falling. Her hand in his was the only ledge he could purchase and that too was fading. The strength it took to hide the fear was greater than any blade he had ever wielded. 

Mistakes...

The voice returned and Sora felt a chill of irritation. Its gravity was somehow painful. Familiar.

… make you stronger. But they too can grow.

A roar ripped through the air. Blustering. Mechanical. Angry.

Sora lifted his head but it was too late. From the heap of crystal shards erupted a figure that closed the distance in a lightning fast dash. He didn’t even get a good look at the thing before he was hurled onto his back, skull cracking against the platform, a foot pinning him by the right shoulder. That angry sound revved again, barreling through the silence. Sora opened the eyes that had reflexively closed.

It stood over him-- smaller-- skin refracting that same green, but of a pale shade, more translucent. The grotesque amalgamation of rock flaked with transparent dust, revealing a human cut face-- a boyish nose and a straight line for the mouth. "Human" was the best approximation, though chains still rattled and a tail still swung behind it. Sora couldn’t help but feel the terrifying sense of recognition in the still void-like gaze of this monster.

Yet in its paw-like hands, a new contraption salivated over Sora, a large sword buzzing and gyrating gnarled crystal teeth like a chainsaw. It curled back along its arc and without warning snapped forward.

>Move

                               >MOVE!

>>>>MOVE

[>x]                                        

Sora wretched the keyblade from his right hand with desperate fingers. In a blink, the shaft was stretched before him in defense as a high pitched metallic clatter rained sparks and glass shards like a screaming blender. Piercing agony bloomed in Sora’s wrist at the relentless pressure and horrible angle, but the opening was clear.

He pushed through the pain, shoving the crystalline, chainsaw-slinging boy back, the weapon unwieldy enough to send it stumbling. Sora leaped to his feet, tossing the keyblade into his dominant hand and following up with a critical strike to its’ side. This monster didn’t cry out. That made things easier. He pressed on.

Fight Fight FIGHT

The satisfaction of the consecutive combo was short lived. Pushed to the edge of his heart station, the lion creature broke from it's mindless, ragdoll stare to size up the drop behind it. A semblance of fear somehow inching along the rim of those punched out holes called eyes.

And then it glitched. Like it’s lesser incarnations and the beastly form it assumed moments before, its physical hold on reality folded over, blinking it out of existence until it stumbled back in.

That’s when the gouging shred of the crystal chainsaw plowed into his shoulder. Sora recoiled back, his free hand grappling the nonexistent wound in a pointless attempt to stifle the oozing bleed out of essence he so surely felt. But the beast was relentless, squaring a blow along his jaw that sent him flying back. Sora smacked the stained glass once again, the keyblade dissolving and his head reeling from the impact while the lion thing shifted back in preparation for something new. 

A white glow emanated from behind and Sora whipped his head around to see ethereal chains sprawl from the creature's chest-- now an illuminated blueprint of a heart. Those chains shot out like vipers and Sora’s world was consumed by a lurching jerk as they wrapped around his wrists and ankles and head. Tightly coiled and digging deep, they snaked around his body and began to drag him closer. Sora bucked wildly against his bindings, eyes fixed on the greedy heart of this strange enemy. Every inch forward increased the panic, this electric trill of useless, mind-scrambling alarm.   

And for a moment the thing took on a color other than green. An indecisive shade of red along the clothes, hair refining its texture to a dull brown, rock softening to a fleshy tone… Its mirror likeness was a dawning horror. 

 

Sora wrestled the chains with vigor. Between the links was a shocking lack of pigmentation from his skin. His clothes seeped light. A familiar ghostly likeness.

 

The dreading realization was a cold stone in his stomach. The drain of his corporeal form traveled fast up his arms. His pulse was a war drum. 

The beast with his face looked on him with hunger as it drew him in. Sora’s arms, though pulled by the spindles were not bound to his body and he grabbed at the chains curling around his neck with significant contortion. His fingers made clicking sounds against the links, hardening stone themselves. The rubber soles of his shoes squealed along the station, a war between catching friction and sliding rock-on-rock. 

At the base of its feet, Sora’s fighting grasp on the neck chain slackened in a violent jerk. The bindings ushering him toward this devouring abomination. The attempt to block from sight the source of his inevitable demise was fruitless. His shaking hands were now a transparent sprawl of pleading fingers. 

Sora screamed, tears pooling his vision. 

 

A flash of light erupted in his bound hand. 

And everything stopped. 

 

A breathless gasp filled the air. Warbled. The echo of a million voices. Confused. And very much in pain. 

 

Drawn from the scrambled scabbard of his heart, the keyblade settled in Sora’s grip but from there it would not move. Resistance. The chains grew slack. Sora’s keyblade directly impaled the light of the lion boy’s heart. Its black eyes stared right into him.

 

Sora twisted the key. There was a click.

 

The glow warmed, spreading along its limbs from the heart where Sora’s keyblade penetrated. The humanoid colors and textures faded into a sheer icy glass. Ghastly and fragile, it caught that illuminating light along the fractal of its skin. The chains dissipated in a flaky smattering of stardust. Meanwhile, the glass on its skin began to chip away, peeling into the ether. 

Sora slumped forward as his shackles disappeared. His own limbs had returned to proper color and texture, the firm reality they emitted was a precious intangible gift after their momentary absence. Exhaustion dripped from them, but his hand was still on the hilt of his blade.

He pulled back to take in its final moments. This terrible thing. 

And the fading lion boy reached out to him. Yearning. Gaze unwavering. Desperate. It pulled at Sora’s heart in a different way and his fingers twitched in hesitant reception-- if only a little mystified. 

It smiled at him and was no more.

The silence was endless. The washing fatigue grew exponentially. It was truly finished.

 

Only time will tell...

The voice’s return was an ice bath and Sora found every muscle clenched tight. It was a sick nausea that made his keyblade tremble. 

...the real winners.

The station shimmered for the third time, this time underneath Sora’s shoes. He stumbled as it undulated like liquid. Permeation kicking in and grabbing hold of his feet while he slowly sunk through reality. Uncertainty pumped heavy heartbeats. 

--But don’t be afraid.  

Sora’s balanced keeled over and he crashed into the liquid floor. The Keyblade slammed to the ground without clatter. The consuming station then took his hands.

You hold the mightiest weapon of all.

His legs were submerged. He fought in vain as gravity pushed him deeper and deeper. Thoughts stacked upon thoughts. Welling through the panic. Drowning. Defiance. Desperation. Déjà vu.

Not yet not yet notyet idontwanttogobackNONONOjustalittlelongerpleasenot yetNO

So don’t forget: 

Sora sipped the air out of instinctive habit, his body, his ears, everything-- gone. Fighting until dark nothingness took him away once again.

You are the one who will open the door.

 

-Continue?-


 

 

Chapter Text

Beepbeep beepbeep beepbee---

The blaring phone alarm met the haphazard landing of a tired hand. There was a clatter as the brutish response knocked it from its bedside perch and momentum slid it deeper under the bed. The alarm persisted, echoing off the bare wood floors.

A groan, undead in quality. The boy, tangled in blankets, thrashed a great protest.

The alarm continued to shriek. 

In a burst of retaliation, he threw the covers off himself and then hurled over the edge to retrieve it. He tapped the screen of the offensive thing with several unsure jabs before fate would have his finger pads land on the proper buttons. The silence was like jumping into the ocean.

He slumped back, phone slacking in his grip. Eyes still bleary but the blood rushing a little faster, he surveyed the morning light in his unfamiliar room. Empty, save for basic furnishing. A western-style bed, covered in uninspired white, a side table begging for a lamp, a hollow dresser completely untouched. Only the desk had life, covered in scraps of rejected letter drafts around an abandoned metal crown necklace.

Sora could feel his heartbeat in his head. He squeezed his eyes shut.

Fatigue took to the darkness like a jealous wife. That sinking sensation tugged hard against the declared coherence, inviting back black voids filled with beautiful beacons of colorful stained glass. Phantom memories danced. An envious monster, its screaming chainsaw, the absolute terror of it dragging him closer, the greater terror of leaving that stage behind. Sora’s breath hitched.

“That dream again.” Maybe if he said it aloud the details would stay longer. He wondered why it had to be so cruel, taunting him night after night. And he wondered why the memories fled so fast. Sora wasn’t used to such fairweather things. He wasn’t used to much lately. 

A shrill tone rapped against the window above his bed. Curiosity a muscle memory, Sora perched himself along the morning light to take in the view.

Tokyo’s grand horizon stared back from the stories-high apartment window. An angry traffic skirmish indicated the blustering streets of the Shibuya ward where people milled like ants. His complex was positioned in such a way that the notable Shibuya Crossing could be glimpsed like the corner of a buzzing beehive. The profile of the 104 shopping mall burned into his eyes a little too fiercely, even in the morning light. 

A different sounding alarm brought Sora to reality. He looked at his spazzing phone only to read the reminder with expectant dread. 

‘Get ready for school’

A little on the nose, Sora tossed the phone onto his sheets and moseyed to the small closet in the corner where lie a navy school uniform. The elaborate emblem on the breast pocket suggested a finer pedigree, one that his former school made no attempts towards. He grabbed them off the hook, cursing the sudden pause the flash of red in the dark closet gave him. The familiar hood of the thick jacket and cargo pants were tossed on the floor of the storage space. 

Methodical, the morning routine guided him through bathroom rituals and haphazard finger combing. He fastened the buttons of the dress shirt and shuffled on the slacks and blazer. Stiff, even after a decent adjustment period, Sora tugged at the collar of his dress shirt, clothes far too tight. The strip of light blue fabric was thumbed cautiously like a bitter pill.  

His old high school uniform had a tie. Not that he ever had the chance to wear it.

For the third time that morning, Sora’s phone chirped its strange jingle, different from the alarms and in a manner that brought more hesitation. The device was sleek, lacking the protective bulk and color of a case and Sora often found it slipping through his fingers. When he unlocked it, the mail notification brought of shiver of tension.

< Try making some friends today. <3 >

Sora sucked in a breath through his teeth, vague feelings swelling to the surface. The stares, the guarded eyes, and veiled expressions. Whispers. Scrutiny. Wariness. Disappointment. Rinse, repeat.

“I’m trying.” He defended aloud after a moment. He hated the waver in his tone. A helplessness he wasn’t sure how to produce on purpose. The texts raced along the backlit screen under his thumb, like a nervous pace. The expectation was a daunting rock in his gut and a little more than irritating.  

Him. Having trouble making friends.

Anonymous. The sender was a mess of numbers, identity never asserted. The message history was bountiful though, and Sora found himself scrolled all the way to the top once again. Drawn to the pervasive mystery of this little device, the characters slotted into his focused gaze as they did several days ago when he first laid eyes on them.

 

__________

____________________

______________________________

 

[4 days ago]

 

Sleep still dripped off his bones like a viscous liquid. Fresh rainfall dewed in patches on his dark clothes, clinging to his skin in a similar discomfort. Nevertheless, a familiar sense of wonder moved his feet forward, shoes splashing in shimmering puddles upon the black asphalt. His eyes darted around with adrenaline-fueled caution. The dazzling flash of neon lights, the sweeping height of the dark metropolis-- nothing absolutely foreign to his understanding but existing beyond any expectation. 

Big. It was huge. And not in ways he had grown accustomed too. A looming skyline, impossibly deep. A horizon so far and pitch black, practically starless. Memories echoed in his mind-- the lamplight in a lonely and mysterious town, encased in eternal night. A young boy, left renegade and alone, daunted by the harrowing confirmation that he was very very small. And after all this time, the phantoms of that feeling stirred in his chest.

The confusion from such a realization was lost in the haze of befuddling sights. 

Sora stopped along the eerily empty crossings, head still craned up, taking in the red font on the skyscraper, like a focal point. The weight of this… world… so palpably heavy. 

The air rushed along the walls. Water dripped along the streets. Silence. 

 

--Shattered by a sudden, high-pitched, digital chime. 

 

A familiar ditty, a rousing fanfare converted to endearing bleeps that instantly made Sora’s heart leap. A habit formed in the short months of his most recent journey, he shot his hands to his pockets lightning fast. He fumbled the unwieldy gummiphone from its confines, almost choking on the wave of desperate hope welling in his throat. That was his ringtone. That was the sound that preceded the face of his closest friends. They were calling him. He was going to see them. Riku, the King, Donald, Goofy-- 

A dead screen stared back. 

Empty and powerless. The gummiphone was a lump of useless plastic and the sight didn’t register properly. Sora’s mind was just as blank. Confused. Expectant. He was pressing the button and nothing was happening. Something was wrong. The haze was sharp and elicited a small whine from his lips.

“Come on…” He moaned. Sora shook the device, slapping it along his palm spastically. The screen was still dead. 

But his ringtone sang on, disgustingly chipper. 

And then it registered where the sound was coming from. Distant, a way to his right. 

Mindless. He followed the sound. Step by step. Confusion heightened by the rocking shift of his weight. Madness from the pendulum of senseless motion.

He stopped at the foot of a curb, dividing the line between street and sidewalk. A sleek device much like his gummiphone drew him like a moth to a flame. From its speakers blared his familiar tune. He picked it up, recognizing the ‘accepting call’ button as similar to the interface he had to learn before. Before he could swipe the green in affirmative the call ended, screen flashing the alerting concern in red letters with a swath of silence. 

He scrutinized the device in his hand with a clumsy twist of his wrist. It beeped a different tone and a message popped on the screen.

 

< Are you lost Little King? >

  

______________________________

____________________

__________

Sora held his head down.

His fellow pedestrians paid him little mind. They blurred past his brisk pace, lifelessly hurling themselves through their day. Hand in his pants pocket, thumbing circles in his cellphone, he adjusted his school bag and peaked his chin up tentatively. Checking the crosswalk before plowing across the street, the rumbling vehicles idly seized with agitation. 

People spilled from the train doors. Bodies around him far too close, he pushed past shoulders in strategic bobs and weaves. He wasn’t going to repeat his first day, polite regard and overwhelming congestion allowing the doors to the train slam shut and zip away without him. The floor rumbled beneath his shoes as he secured his place on the transit. He only lurched a little when it took off. 

There was a familiar blur of navy in the corner of his vision. A nestled pair of students in Soroku High School Uniforms chattered bombastically during their morning commute. He didn’t recognize them, but a wave of vulnerability doused over him and he tucked himself a little deeper among the bodies of commuters. The message from Anonymous burned in his mind’s eye.

< Try making some friends today. <3 >

His heart was starved. But his stomach turned. Sora darted off the train when the momentum settled, unwilling to let the pair of peers catch up with him as they followed to the same destination. 

Soroku High School was a small establishment on the corner of main street offshoot, two good blocks away from the post office and in the throes of commercial shops. There was little yard to speak of as the building and its middle school feeder towered several stories high with a distinctly modern flair to the architecture. The bustle of traffic bounced off the windows of the classrooms.

The daunting sensation that consumed him the first day he laid eyes on the school had only dimmed a fraction. This first week was a long one. 

Sora shuffled by the shoe lockers, taking his shoes off and peeling back the door at the bottom corner of the cubicles. He was a little slower than the students around him in ways that made him furtively glance left and right. He slipped the house shoes on in a fumble, trying to not mind the distracted stares of the strangers around him, entranced by this new spectacle in quiet ways. 

The door to his classroom was already opened as students milled in before the classes commenced. This allowed him a noiseless entry amongst the swell of animated conversations. Friends rattling on about gossip and schoolwork and an episode of television last night. Sora made his way to his desk, second row, two aisles from the window-- but he couldn’t avoid the scooting groan of the chair legs against the floor.

 

“Kakehashi-kun~”

The voice was in a sing-song tone but blended in with the animation around him. Sora placed his bag on the hook and settled into his chair. 

Oi! Kakehashi!”

Rather abruptly, a pair of hands slammed down on the desk before him. Sora jumped, his right arm coiling back, hand in an unconscious fist, grabbing for something that wasn’t there. The amused grin of a male classmate consumed his vision, eyes wide in some exaggerated concern. Sora slyly loosened his hand, hoping no one had noticed the obvious paranoia. The rude peer rocked back casually, catching the eye of some classmates in the desks behind him before releasing an exasperated sigh. 

“They weren’t kidding when they said the new kid’s a space cadet.”

Sora, uncertain, put on a smile. “Good morning Yoshida... san .” 

Sora was very good at remembering names, the honorifics… not so much. He could only play the foreigner card so much with courtesy. Yoshida stood out as carefree and personable, his classmates flocked to his charisma for a good laugh and a strong opinion. At the moment they seemed to be enjoying a pretty funny one with how he kept glancing and laughing at (with?)  the folks in the back of the classroom. 

“Hey hey so I just found out--” A giddy laugh stopped him, high on a joke. “So I just found out that I’m going on vacation to Hawaii this summer and I was wondering if you could teach me how to say some things in Hawaiian.”

The way he stressed the word was obnoxiously theatrical. There were stifled giggles from the peanut gallery. Sora’s neck tensed involuntarily while his stomach coiled tight. An unbearable wave of dread rolled through his veins like a cold bath. The proverbial spotlight was a blistering beam. 

Eyes flickering for an escape, Sora’s tongue instinctively sharpened behind his clamped teeth. It took all his will power and logic to contain that line of verbal defense.

“Well?” Yoshida pressed with irritation.

Sora squirmed, wishing he’d just press the punchline button and move on. He searched for his words, afraid of the incriminating and damning things he could say. In this case, he couldn’t even find a good lie.

“E-Excuse me?” He managed to spit out. Buy time, divert attention. 

“Come on! Hawaiian. Ha-wai-ian! You’re from there aren’t you?”

That… was supposed to be his cover story.

“Yes?”

“Say something in Hawaiian!”

“I don’t… ahh.” He avoided the expectant gaze. He was always a terrible liar… The truth was reckless in his hands half the time, as open honesty was an inherent policy of his. He was always lucky to have his… friends… to talk him out of those sticky situations. 

Wretched bitterness returned like an arch enemy. Sora felt his heart seize at the cavernous hole that came back into awareness. He tried to stamp it out like a simple house pest.

“Really?” More laughing. Mortified, Sora felt himself sink in his chair. His elbows resting on the desk, he curled face closer to his arms, a slow retreat. “How about your English?”

“... please… ” 

What... was he supposed to say? What would work? He didn’t comprehend the very language flitting through his head, less so the ones from other countries on this world.

“Hm? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sora felt his teeth grind together. His jaw bloomed a horrible ache. He eyed the door. The rest of his surrounding peers were growing distracted by their golden boy’s project with the new kid-- ever the pervasive mystery. They did nothing.

They were so much nicer on his first day. 

“Please… leave me alone…” The words felt wrong. 

Yoshida raised a brow, a satisfied smile hovering around his lips. He curled himself into a semblance of concern. “Oh, sorry sorry!” He insisted, removing himself from the casual lean he was placing on Sora’s desk. He put a show of sheepishness on with a sharp self-conscious exhale.

“Yeesh, there I go getting carried away! I was just curious. Sorry, Kakehashi-kun!”

He could have pressed harder, but that would have been too direct to the new kid. People were still making their mind up about Sora after all. Yoshida retreated to his entourage, passing a low comment in a much less animated tone.

“Knew something wasn’t right about him.” That made Sora sit up straight. He resisted the urge to turn around to face the continuing conversation. The lack of care against surrounding ears was probably intentional. Another voice responded only slightly hushed. 

“Is he actually from the States?” 

“Yeah, I hear some transfers like to beef up their resumes.”

Yoshida’s voice carried a resonant bemusement. “But he’s got nothing to back his story up.”

“How did he even pass the entrance exam?!”

--Jeez, ” The voice that cut across the room was humorless and stern, dripping with irritation. Sora couldn’t control how fast it sucked in his attention.

Inoue Ami had a glare that could kill. She was already well classified as an uptight sort and she had the title of ‘class rep’ to back it up. 

“You should get in your seat Yoshida. You know class is about to start.” 

A routine it seemed. She narrowed her eyes at him, taking far too seriously her responsibilities with the class. Yoshida kicked off yet another desk he was leaning on with a lively chirp of affirmation.

“Sure thing!” He sauntered to the front of the room to make his way to the desk by the door. While passing his stern classmate he gave a playful coo. “Oh, but do keep your eye on the new kid Rep-- he’s a liar.

With that, Yoshida settled in his chair, Inoue rolling her eyes in disgust. She, unfortunately, had the desk right in from of his and positioned herself standing alongside it. There was a glance at the clock and the student leader cleared her throat. The bell signified the start of the day and the homeroom teacher plowed in, shutting the door behind her.

“Rise! ...Bow!”

The chairs lurched from their desks as the class stood in practiced perfection. They were bowing by the time Sora got to his feet.

-Loading...-

Chapter Text

Sora did not miss school. It didn’t take long for the buzz of restlessness to shiver under his skin. He took to fiddling with his pencil as the lecture rolled in one ear and out the other… numbers were flying around the board… it must have been math. He wasn’t sure if the subject worked the same as where he was from. He was well behind whatever concept they were discussing should they actually align. 

By then, the tension from the morning episode had just about completely uncoiled. In the days prior, the curious grilling to his backstory had become commonplace among his peers. They were genuine questions, understandable and innocent, wholly intended to open his defenses… and perhaps form a connection.  Caught off guard, Sora must have given enough bland nonanswers to quell the initial crowd of female classmates from his innate intrigue.

It didn’t take them long to get bored. His responses were too slow. He fished for words too often. He avoided elaborate stories. He glanced at his phone like a security blanket. Even when he furtively chuckled at his own discomfort in an easy question-dodge, the endearment failed to charm them. 

“Why did you move here?” They’d ask, the memory of his name on the board completely forgotten.

<People need a reason for why you are at a new school! It doesn’t happen a lot and people get curious.> Anonymous would respond. Late. He was always hours behind the need, but the questions were of a repetitive nature.

>What do I say?< Sora snuck his questions along the frustrating phone keypad at a horribly slow pace. The teachers of this ‘under-the-desk’ method were all around him in the classroom, only they were so much faster.

<Blame a parent. People have to change jobs all the time and they take their kids with them.>

That sat weirdly with him. Sora dodged the image of his parents coming to mind with a strange ease. Who knew what kind of guilt that could arise from his heart with them. 

“My ... dad got a new job.” Adults, when mentioned, were never interesting enough to carry a follow-up. 

It seemed like many of the girls thought he was attractive, or there was perhaps a hard-to-shake foreign allure to him. They kept coming back after the disappointing conversations. They liked his hair. It was wild and unruly and light. He got a comment on his eyes on the first day. Their bright blue was dazzlingly different. For the stubborn sort, they worked their imagination between his apparent lack of wit. 

But everyone tired soon enough. Sora wasn’t exactly aiming for this, but the nature of the questions only made things more challenging. 

“Is it true that there’s a Cometbucks at every corner in America?”

 >They keep asking weird questions about Hawaii.<

<Just agree with their assumptions. It makes it easier for everyone. I believe in you!”

That made him crack a smile. Once a mindless default, the kindness was too warm to resist. It was simple, but Sora could stretch the confidence for miles. 

 “Kakehashi-kun?”

“Oh? uh ...Yeah.”

The honeymoon period was tentative and cautious, and Sora failed it for the most part. Folks like class-local Yoshida and his closest cohorts keyed into his weaknesses and worked to return the hierarchy to the status quo. He was an intruder to their months established routine. A mid-year transfer was not a completely unheard of scenario, but different enough to make the class hearken to the most notable sitcom or anime trope they knew. Fantastical by nature and threatening by circumstance.

He couldn’t really blame them. It felt pretty contrived on Sora’s end as well. 

 “Your Japanese is so good!”

Sora’s heart had leaped at the kindness-- his bright grin pulled at the first chance for air. Without even fully comprehending the compliment, he had chirped an eager reply. 

“Thank you!” 

 Maybe he was too insistent. They didn’t intend to ignite him like that and looked a little lost. Fortunately, his smile was surprisingly magnetic and pushed the dialogue past Round 1.

“Did you… learn it when you were young?” Sora had to hide the stress of confusion and loosen his tongue.

“...Yes.” A silence. Was he supposed to continue?

Uh ...Neat.” Round 2 failure.

 Lunch period rolled around and for the first time since arriving, he wasn’t swarmed by shallow curiosities. He gave it a moment as students milled through their bags or got up from their seats, but they let him be for a change. Sora recognized the gentle twist in his gut as disappointment. 

He thumbed the plastic-wrapped package, eyeing the price sticker and the lackluster product in the store-bought bento-box with caution. The past few days he had failed to bring a lunch. An onset of anxiety crippled him before he could join the line of students purchasing a quick bite from the stand. He asked Anonymous about it and the next day the package appeared in the small apartment fridge. The contents were familiar enough, he grew up munching on boxed lunches like this, but the freshness was far from home. Though, it was better than having nothing to eat at all. 

As he was finding with every new experience (--and ‘store-bought’ was entirely new), Sora thought it wise to investigate with privacy. He weaseled past the milling students and into the hall, quickly finding the stairwell. A glance around him proved the coast clear and he flew up the steps. Flight after flight, the pace immediately started to protest with his muscles, the ceiling climbed at a frustrating rate until the path finally ended at the door to the roof-access. 

Riku told him in the schoolyard a lifetime ago that all the cool high schoolers ate lunch on the roof. Sora remembered that being one of the few things to get him excited for another year of learning. 

His friend’s name was a bloom of poison that only the sight of a familiar sky could balm. He pushed forward to that promised exit.

The knob to the roof access door froze after a breath of motion. 

 

It was locked.

 

Sora’s hand lingered on the door a little too long. The weight of nothing acutely present in his chest. He refused to direct that feeling into thought. He turned away, mouth an even line as he began a slower descent back down the steps.

His weight plowed along methodically. The bento box pressed its contents against the sealed plastic. Flight after flight, it was a competition to see what floor had the dirtiest landing. The void rattled with his defeated return. If he closed his eyes, the echo of his footfalls had the same hollow sound as that eerily quiet night.

 

__________

____________________

______________________________

[4 days ago continued] 

 

< You need to get out of the street.>

The phone vibrated unnecessarily as the chat bubble shoved the cryptic opening question up the screen’s chatspace. Honestly baffled at the unfolding, Sora stared at the message in fixation. Questions he couldn’t completely pin down spun in his head. He wasn’t sure what to do with the thing.

< Now!> It insisted, lacking the urgency of a spoken command. 

Sora broke away from the screen to glance at his surroundings. He still stood in the sea of black asphalt, shining from the recent rainfall. The warmly lit sidewalk hovered beyond the lip of the curb where the phone was found. Reflections of the luminous city pulled him further away, the screaming neon advertisements occasionally shifting and morphing. A billboard left of the towering 104 building caught his attention in particular. 

Peculiar, the billboard’s random array of text characters cycled rapidly into a nondistinct blur. Unreadable, strange. Like a glitch. 

...That suddenly snapped. The dark background of the screen did a 180, flashing an eye-popping color that made Sora’s eyes squint. 

Now, the digital billboard flashed a larger-than-life image of a beautiful woman’s serious face, doused in make-up. The words “Facade Beauty” floated alongside her exclusively. It was not the only thing that suddenly shifted. The air seemed to hum with the dull roar of zooming vehicles. The silence from before, which cradled his lonely footsteps now skirted to a more ambient buzz. 

Things in motion, the folly of nightlife. The font on signs shimmered before his eyes. Flickers of figures in the distance grabbed his attention. It was a little like breaking the consuming ocean’s surface. The rush of colors and sounds was not deafening but indicative of a whole new world.

In his mesmerized haze, the dramatic shift of light around him made little sense. His shadow snapped clean lines along the street and stretched out further and further from his feet. 

There was a thundering tone. The sound grew louder, accompanied by a desperate mechanical growl.

Sora felt reality click back into place. He whipped his head around to face the source of light and sound and his stomach dropped in the process. A massive beast barreled toward him, screaming murderously. Its eyes were points of impossibly bright light. A horn blared hysterically. 

Overwhelmed with a wave of electrifying instinct, Sora dove into a somersault, head crashing haphazardly along the curb. He stumbled into a defensive crouch along the sidewalk, phone miraculously in his grip while his open fist snatched the air in defensive habit. 

A large truck whistled past him, kicking up a wind that tossed his hair. 

Behind him paused the tread of concerned witnesses, now abundantly covering the walkways in their midnight business. 

And his hand remained completely empty. His Keyblade had not come. 

______________________________

____________________

__________

 

A defensive and shrill voice registered in the stairwell. Sora halted his descent.

It’s none of your business!” It insisted. He recognized the tone as one of Yoshida’s female friends. Suzuki Mei. She stood out to him for her remarkably defined attitude problem.

Actually, it is. There are stipulations in the dress code on dying your hair and I know that’s not your natural color.”

He recognized that voice as well. It was hard to mistake the assertive manner of speaking for anyone other than the class representative who ushered the morning lessons in. Sora was only just beginning to understand the expanse of responsibilities this post granted her… but hair color? The subject was entirely confusing to Sora and he felt the need to get a better look. He eased down a few more steps and peeked under the safety railing. Suzuki’s face was red with rage, her mouth a gap in scandalized disbelief.

Excuse you. If you did any research before throwing your student council weight around you’d learn that my mom even signed a letter of verification to the school. God what an actual power trip!”

Inoue simply crossed her arms, impervious to the attacks. There was a smug smirk in her voice. “I guess I don’t have access to everything. Would it be ok if I gave your mother a call to ask about that letter?”

There was a gasp. “What? No! You are unbelievable!”

This argument was getting hard to watch. The amount of vitriol flying around over something so petty almost made Sora sick. 

“I’m simply making sure the rules are enforced,” Inoue replied calmly. 

“How about you let the new kid in on the rules! He’s a walking dress code violation.” 

Sora jolted to attention an unconscious blush dusting his cheeks. It was true that he looked very different from everyone else, his brunette hair was the lightest shade in the classroom by far and his mess of spikes made him stand out even more… but he didn’t think he was violating some rule, that’s just how he looked. Actually, many of his peers seemed to like it at first. 

“This isn’t about him. Suzuki-san. Though apparently he also had his parent call in with verification in the same way yours did. Jury’s out on if that’s just an adult lying for him too.”

That really got Sora’s attention. His ‘parent’? That didn’t make any sense. This caught Suzuki off guard, and Sora stole a glimpse of her eyes narrowing in blistering hate. Her anger was more genuinely red than the shade of her hair. Inoue stiffened in preparation. Sora only just noticed the class rep holding her cellphone behind her, poised casually behind a proper power stance. 

Was she recording her?

What are you playing at?” And suspicion made Suzuki step forward toward Inoue. Tension snapped tight, the rep parried herself back in defense which only enticed Suzuki more. The accused girl lit up and-- as though possessed-- snatched her hand toward Inoue in a fit of anger.

Sora felt his body move on his own. 

“Hey!” 

The barked escaped him and bounced around the space. That fire of discomfort that brewed under him watching this petty conflict took the reins and his stumbled into the girls’ vantage point. They whipped their heads to face him, both with expressions of distressed surprise.

The instinct moving him was foundational. It was only when he began responding to it that his body registered the profound lack of helping people that his current situation had restricted him from. It was an honest rush in the second of motion it inspired… and then it was over.

There was a beat of silence that was far too long. Suzuki’s striking arm was clamped by Inoue’s defensive grab. She had been brute forcing her way to Inoue’s phone before the interruption. Perhaps convinced that she was in the most compromising state, Suzuki, backed off her. 

Gaze dancing between Sora and her interrogator, she abandoned the defense. She huffed in frustration and squared a threatening glare at Inoue. 

“Nobody’s gonna vote for you!” Suzuki shook her head and plowed into the door to the stairwell. They slammed with an echo. The day was saved, though Sora wasn’t sure if he saved the right girl or not.

“Vote? Is there a popularity contest coming up?” Sora brought up casually with a habitual scratch of his head. 

But Inoue was immediately concerned with her phone, she tapped at the device a couple of times before turning off the screen and letting it settle to her side. She inhaled sharply before jerking her head to Sora.

“How much did you hear?”

Sora hesitated, only because every question he had received since arriving here was a monumental task. He was refreshed to find the answer came so easily. 

“A lot.”

Inoue groaned and put a hand to her forehead, but said nothing.

“But if it’s any comfort...” He continued, feeling a sense of distress at her clear distress. “... I didn’t understand any of it.”

That made her square an incredulous glare. “You expect me to believe that?”

 Sora blinked back, baffled by the hostility.

“...yeah…” He didn’t want his voice to be that small, but he was a little hurt. The twist of her brow under her sharp black bangs remained paused with her turning mental gears.

“...I just don’t get you at all.” She finally said. 

“I’m ...sorry?” He offered with uncertainty. Her nonsensical anger was starting to really tick him off.  She gave a tired sigh that tossed her eyes into a flippant roll. 

“You better be.” She shot, looking at something interesting on her phone. 

That made something snap in Sora. It was the fullest feeling to have crossed his heart the past few days, next to the sallow brand of isolation. Like being graced with a high-performance vehicle, Sora felt the emotion wake through him. It constricted his chest and twisted his face.

“I’m sorry I think I just helped you right there?!” 

Inoue recoiled slightly, not expecting the sharp-tongued reaction from him. Sora didn’t have a track record for speaking up, he’d give her that. But even that was almost insulting. She shook it off quickly, matching his expression, nostrils flaring. 

Actually, I had everything handled. Your interrupting screwed everything up!”

“‘Handled’? Is that what you call that?”

“I was getting a confession!” 

“You were getting into a fight!” Sora insisted, stepping just a tad closer. She was just under his height but she held her chin up proudly. Her long black hair was constricted into a high ponytail that emphasized her sense of order. While he could see her face grow red and the control of her expression was not beyond the twists of fury, she still clung to an air of righteousness. 

“That wasn’t a fight.” She said matter-of-factly. 

“It was going to be.”

“And you know that because you have a record of getting into them?”

 

The Keyblade sliced the Soldier clean in half while a writhing Dusk swooped into his blindspot. He enjoyed a brief kickback before recovering and landing a retaliatory strike at the animated cloth. With a determined yell, he barrelled at the mob swinging. 

 

“No.”

“Clearly.” That slice seemed like a wide-reaching reference. He recognized the judgemental narrow of her eyes from earlier that morning when she interrupted Yoshida’s loud indirect jabs before class. Sora shook off the cruelty and tried to turn things back onto her.

“What were you doing cornering her like that? You were just asking for her to take a swing at you.”

Inoue huffed a dry laugh.

Please -- things are never that dramatic.”

“You don’t know that.”

“And just how is this any of your business?” 

That was a question that would have stumped Sora had his heart still been dazed as it was moments before. Instead, it almost amused him because it was a crystal clear answer.

“You looked like you needed help. I made it my business.”

That perked up Inoue’s eyes, but it was more in genuine surprise than a softening disposition. She blinked a couple of times before settling into a snide accusation. “What, are you some kind of hero?” 

And that was a question that stumped Sora. Mainly because the words ignited a slew of painfully familiar voices in his memory. 

 

‘Junior heroes, always busy!’

 

Something young and stubborn placed the resounding ‘yes’ on his tongue. He clamped his mouth shut in a gripping bath of uncertainty. It translated into wide-eyed silence.

Inoue had the gall to look disappointed. “Oh.” 

What was that supposed to mean? A confused protest rumbled in his throat. She cut him off.

“I think I’m understanding you a little better now, Kakehashi-san.” Her anger was subsiding into something more precise and sharp.

“And if I can leave you with some advice; give the dumb act a rest and ground your delusion of heroics a little-- they don’t exist anywhere, much less Japan.”

Sora was speechless as she took a step back toward the stairwell exit, placing a hand on the door with her closing lines.

“Oh and don’t tell anyone about this failure of an interrogation, please. I have a reputation to maintain.”

And then Sora was alone.

The muted bell that indicated the end of the lunch period shimmered along the building. His food was untouched. 

-Loading...-

Chapter Text

Sora stumbled out the school with poorly contained anxiety. The chance to just stretch his legs was reprieve enough, but he also felt the edging click of the clock move him through the shoe lockers and past the throng of students. As he had been since beginning classes here, Sora took a sharp right out of the school gates as opposed to the left where lied the nearest train station.

This alternative route was not an organic discovery. It added an entire half-hour to his commute to the apartment. Sora had the careful directions memorized now as he moved the school gradually into his backdrop. Two blocks right of the Soroku High, take a left at the convenience store, keep moving past the bluster of the towering reflective corporate monuments. His navy blazer stood out among the sea of black suits leaving the supposed business headquarters. 

If he pretended, the wealth of people in his sight could convince him of some kind of comforting normalcy. He could pretend that among these faces were ones he recognized. The truth nagged at him nevertheless. Alone in a crowded room… or world. 

<Try making some friends today <3>

He royally screwed that advice up today. Sora brought the phone closer to his face as he walked on. “Anonymous” as he was forced to name, was a puzzling character in this entire episode. Despite the lack of identity, the person on the other side of the messages was an undeniable lifeline, guiding him through a world that was completely foreign and unforgiving. The exchange was imbalanced, and Sora genuinely found their intentional vagueness and question dodges to be particularly frustrating. But ultimately the free flow of advice, the explanations, and string-pulling proved Anonymous to be an invested ally. Sora couldn’t deny that and the connection was born. 

And in the same way he accepted the namelessness of the enigma, Sora followed the seemingly nonsensical detour at the request of that mystery. 

<We may get lucky! Just don’t be late.>

That was the brand of response to his push for answers. Why he had to weave through pedestrian traffic deep in the heart of the business district was a prevailing mystery among many. It wore Sora’s patience. Lucky? Late for what? The past few days all he did was wait around some shop until Anon told him to 'go home'. 'Hurry up and wait' was an apt phrase. 'For absolutely nothing' was a great addition. 

Nevertheless, the vague timeframe Anonymous provided to this daily adventure moved his feet promptly. What if it was important?

<So how was school?>

Sora frowned at the message that just snuck on screen. Sometimes it seemed like Anonymous asked things knowing the answer already. He thought of the morning skirmish from Yoshida and then of the episode in the stairwell. Was it really ok for him to step-in like that? Inoue’s anger and nasty scorn burned in his mind's eye. 

>It was ok.< Generic response. He was getting a little faster at the keyboard. But it took him a couple of minutes to finish his thought. >I got more questions about Hawaii again<

<lol that doesn’t sound fun>

>I don’t know what to say<

The form of communication didn’t capture the extent of his frustration on the matter. He didn’t know how to lie. He didn’t know a single thing about this massive place. His cover-story was so flimsy and see-through and question-inspiring. He knew just enough from his upbringing and travels for things to make sense and then the next moment nothing made sense. As he walked on, the towering skyscrapers were starting to draw his attention again.

Even in the context, his adventurous spirit stirred in awe. A reminder. What if he scaled those walls?

<Relax~> His phone buzzed. <You know…>

Sora found himself feeling the string of tense expectation. Yet another thing he didn’t like about this stilted communication. He wanted to hear a voice and see their face. At least written letters were nice in how they kind of lingered with you… When was the last time someone actually looked him in the eye?

 

Her tears welled over, shining in the painfully beautiful sunset as everything around her faded like a shaky breath. And then, she too was gone. 

 

<You should just tell the truth.>

Sora didn’t really understand the words he just read. It felt like a fog over his senses. The messages rattled off at a slower pace, either distracted or hesitant.

<Maybe ‘Hawaii’ is a lot like home?>

Home. 

Undulating waves along the white sand rushing the scampering feet of giggling children. The dull clatter of wooden swords atop the shimmering roar of the vast ocean. The flaky bark of an old curling fruit tree. A sky so blue and clear, it looked brand new. A serene seafoam green gaze, loyal and strong. Like the very land gravity pushed him toward. A slim hand in his. Conformed perfectly to the grooves and curves of his fingers like the ocean in a bottle.

>Really?<

He seriously doubted that. 

 

Anonymous was silent for a good while as he entered a two-leveled pedestrian shopping park, looming concrete bridges like refined caves. White daylight cut shallow lines in artistic circular skylights. Stopping before a bench, beside a centerpiece of urban botany, he checked his phone once again. The smell of coffee and confections was his first indication that he had made it to his destination in good time… whatever that meant.

The growl of his stomach brought him out of his trance. He had inadvertently skipped lunch to get chewed out by an ice queen. He turned to face the source of the smells and the unofficial landmark to his detour’s destination-- Tully's Coffee. A sleek little cafe that Anonymous selected as a training ground for Sora’s financial lesson on his second day. 

>I know how to buy things<

<You’ve never used a credit card before.>

For the record, that was easier than rustling through coins and bills for a quick bite to eat. But that was his first transaction in what was very clearly asserting itself as a transactional world. 

Before he could even get to the door of the cafe, Sora took note of the anomaly along the empty patio tables. An unattended plate of food. The meal consisted of an elaborately dressed club sandwich, a bag of chips, and a novelty glass bottle of soda. And not a soul was taking advantage of the outdoor seating, or nearby to claim it. But, Sora would have thought nothing of it had a banner of abnormally long receipt paper not been trailing in the breeze. Looking around for the owner in a quick once-over to the pedestrian area, he grabbed at the paper and squared it’s sloppily scribbled message to his vision.

‘You hungry Little King?’ It read. 

His phone buzzed. Sora glanced down to read the one character message sent to him. 

<3

 

Subtle. He wasn’t sure how. He wasn’t sure why. But this was quickly becoming a commonplace phenomenon with Anonymous. Random gestures of kindness to the point of superfluousness. Directions and keys to a ready apartment, a stocked refrigerator, extensive explanations on cultural customs or pop culture. Anonymous was like some kind of guardian angel it seemed. Sure, the nickname they granted was weird, and the stranger knew a lot about him, but…it was his first connection here. That was special. 

Sora pulled out the chair, set his school bag on the ground and slammed a massive bite into the sandwich. He was starving.


Inside the cafe, a figure flipped their phone on the table face down. Tired, they leaned their chin in hand, eyes captivated by something outside the window. It was the image of the young, spiky-haired brunette fiddling mindlessly with the empty glass soda bottle, framed candidly as though his life was a story behind a tv screen. 

A smile. Loving. 


The ringtone chimed.

<I have a place I’d like you to see>

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______________________________

[4 days ago, continued]

 

His fist was trembling, outstretched and empty. 

It hadn’t come. His keyblade refused him.

That hadn’t happened since…

 

He remembered the cold stone under his empty palms as the footsteps of his friends grew faint among the muffled chorus of the rising falls. The sight of the wooden sword thrown to the ground was almost as physically painful as a hole in his chest. Next to him, a grumbling beast had shuffled with little compassion.

 

There were people around him. They walked on and on and paused to chat with each other or their devices, and some spared the strange boy on the concrete a second glance. What was once an empty world was now bustling with pedestrian life. It was… loud. The lights and people kept moving. The cars in the streets rolled into motion at the command of measured street lights. The signs that flashed simplistically from before were now shimmering with distracting colors and cinematic depictions. Massive font messages, shuffling numbers, smiling faces, inviting characters… he felt his attention drift toward a billboard like it was a shiny black hole.

“Are you okay?” A younger man hesitantly approached him. Everyone heard the screaming truck horn, everyone had seen the strangely dressed boy escape an unfortunate fate, only a few thought it worthy for their pause. 

“Should someone call an ambulance?” A woman off to the side thought aloud.

He couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel any of it.

The magic coursing in his veins like an electric, viscous syrup of endless possibilities. The metaphysical muscles that usher its release, taut and ready to power his physical ability or respond to his imagination. It wasn’t there. His limbs were desolate, to the point that it seemed like the fibers of strength in his arms shook and buckled in lonely independence. 

And his heart… 

His center, his core burned with intense anxiety, the organ erratically pulsing through the haze. Because it wasn’t there. His keyblade. The weapon that settled perfectly in his palm, that retreated within the confines of his heart like a sword in its sheath. At this point, Sora had little concept of what it was like before it appeared in his life… the void in its place sent alarms through his body. Like he was about to collapse right there in its harrowing absence.

His breath came in shallow puffs at this realization.

The world loomed around him, from the faint stars behind the sharply cut skyline to the lamp post and garbage bin along the concrete sidewalk where a couple of witnesses posted along with the tide of nightlife walkers, some inching away with fading interest.  

“I think he’s in shock.”

“You think? He was almost plowed over!”

Oi !” Sora’s wide eyes focused on the unremarkable bystander with a sharp, battle-honed jerk. They leaned forward, to better square down to Sora’s form--still on his knees. “You need a hospital kid?”

Befuddled Sora shook his head to clear the daze. 

“Where am I?” The question flew out of his mouth urgently. The phone-thing in his hand had answers but people … people were real. 

The stranger looked at his companion beside him, an observing bystander also rose a brow. 

Uh…. Shibuya.”

“Are you okay?”

 

Shibuya…. Shibuya...

 

The name struck a familiar chord. Sora tucked his chin down as he scanned his memories.

“Did you hit your head?” Some of the strangers were growing bored. Some more interested.

‘See you in Shibuya.’

Like a firework, Sora gasped in realization and jumped to his feet. 

Neku !” That gut-twisting anxiety untangled with a single rippling bubble of excited laughter.

The pedestrians giving him attention recoiled at the sudden, bombastic motion. 

Neko?” A woman questioned in attempted discretion with her companion. Sora keyed into her faint misunderstanding with a chuckle.

“No no, Ne- ku. Sa… Sa… Sakuraba! Sakuraba Neku! This is his wor-- uh… I mean… he lives here.”

Their eyes shifted uncomfortably and they inched closer to the flow of traffic. Sora’s heart filled with anticipation. This was Shibuya. The Shibuya. He had friends here. He wasn’t alone. The image of Neku and his Riku-like smile brought an almost overwhelming fondness. A symptom of drought. 

He didn’t know what to expect… but his luck at finding himself on the plane of allies was enough to power him for days. Another pedestrian left.

Sora squared in on the closest couple to approach him. The young man had a strained expression for some reason. Tension crawled up his neck and the woman with him pulled at his arm. 

“Do you know him?” Sora pushed, eagerness in his voice. The step he took forward was unconscious and they responded in the reverse.

The young man gave a silent confirmation to his companion. And then followed up with a frazzled bow. He spoke very fast.

“No no I don’t-- uh-- It seems that you’re ok so I have to get going now. Sorry.”

And with that, the final witness to his near-death by truck collision had left the scene. The hopeful smile still lingered on Sora’s face as he once again took in the volume of people around him. Their forms shuffled like a rippling stream blending into the background. It was… amazing really. Probably the most people he’d ever seen in one place. He dared to taste the wonder of the metropolitan scenery, even if just to balm the worrying emptiness within him with mindless distraction. He could find someone. He could fix this perplexing, magic-less problem. He could go home. 

Sora took a step forward into the foot traffic.  

Shibuya… was large. It might take a while.

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-Loading...- 

Chapter Text

<I have a place I’d like you to see>

The sky was starting to take on a pinkish hue as Sora stepped off the bus. In his hand was the glass bottle from his meal, the bottom rimmed with a stubborn trim of cola. He mindlessly tapped his nails along the surface to a satisfying click. With his other hand, he thumbed the screen of his phone intently, a little more than tempted to explore the in-depth map that Anon had sent him.

The clock along the top border of the screen ticked in an uncertain way. He was assured that as long as he left promptly he’d be okay in getting to the apartment before fear of consequence. 

But practically all concerns vanished when the sound of crashing waves met his ears. 

His heart groaned in his chest. Sora darted his eyes around the bus stop in vain, pleased by the less crowded suburban emptiness of the street, but desperate for the unmissable sight. He followed his nose, the air drenched in the sharp splash of salt. Memories flooded in. Festivals on the pier, races on the beach, sunsets on the Paopu tree. Sora’s breaking run echoed his childhood manner of play and he darted past the street and through the entrance of the coastal park. All the while the glass bottle tucked into his excited vice grip. The groves of the crafted logo imprinted along his palm. 

He hit a metal railing designed to prevent park going pedestrians from falling into the coast, the vast ocean consuming his gaze with open arms. 

Tokyo Bay shimmered like a million diamonds in the dying light. Pinks and oranges crashed into the line of water next to starkly cast purple shadows. Along that endless horizon was an aberrant cut of the city skyline, geometric and sharp. The burning orange sun crept closer to the skyscraper stencils. 

If he squinted, he could pretend that was another world in view. The joy of his greatest imaginations. The most he could have ever hoped for when it was just him, Riku, Kairi, and a shabby raft.  

 

‘I just can’t wait. Once we set sail, it’ll be great.’

The words rang bittersweet. And without warning his vision blurred, hot pressure growing behind his eyes. 

What if…

Sora hurled a forceful breath, blinking the hypotheticals away. Those never did him any good. No regrets. He didn’t hesitate. Even as the unnatural feeling wrapped around his entire being like a sick sense of vertigo he stood strong. Resolute was his expression as he suppressed the bone-chilling shivers while upon the beautiful ruins of an ancient city-turned-battleground. Staring down that arrogant source of torment, Sora had pushed a lesson he would soon live. A display of fearless justice as fate breathed down his neck. A show of righteousness in hypocritical fashion.

See, he might have been tempted to reset the world if it meant avoiding fate too. 

And he smiled false reassurance to his friends as panic-inducing alarms blared their last protest-- an invisible pressure already weakening around his form. It was as though gravity would turn off any second and he’d suddenly unlatch from the earth. At the same time, it felt like falling. Clinging desperately through a fog as he plummeted. Slipping away from his world like waking up from a dream.

He knew what saving her would do to him. 

 

Sora hopped the railing, landing firmly on the gravel of the short margin of land between path and sea. He sat on a larger retaining rock as he pulled his school bag off his shoulder, flipping it open in one motion after setting the glass bottle to the side.

A short shuffle of papers later and Sora took in the object of his search-- a haphazardly folded square of notebook paper. He opened the paper to a mess of his pencil-drawn chicken-scratch.

He knew the contents well. Wads of rejected drafts of this letter littered his desk at the apartment. Some more self-piteous than others. Most of them told confident lies. He could not profess himself to the level of prose as Kairi, but the heart had a way of saying the right thing. 

Sora rinsed the soda bottle in the surprisingly murky coast water and gave it a couple of violent shakes to wring it dry. It was a smaller vessel than the wine bottles found at home but in its folded incarnation, the paper slotted into the bottle with little protest. 

For a moment he stared at the message in a bottle. He wondered what went through Kairi’s mind as she so blindly sent one his way. Did she let the thorn of doubt fester in her gut as he did? Did the hopeless subtext of a ‘ message in a bottle ’ not deter her from making a perfect miracle occur? He remembered how her words on his lips filled him with such impossible hope that it had cut the air in front of him. While his heart settled in a timeless margin of darkness, her words saved him. She saved him. 

 

Was he allowed to ask again? Did it work that way?

 

He widened the stance of his feet and drew a long breath. The gentle waves along a smooth beach were the perfect starting point for a bottle’s journey, but this mess of rocks and coastline offered little peace for Sora to attempt the same. So in the spirit of blind leaps, Sora curled his arm back and chucked the bottle into the Bay. It crashed onto the water with an unceremonious plop and bobbed to the surface. The distance thrown had embarrassed Sora to no recent surprise, but the freedom from the heavy letter made his heart sing. 

Sora let himself feel the comforts of faith, watching the current push at the bottle. They were safe and happy. They were strong and brilliant. It’d reach them. He’d see them again. 

Everything would work out in the end. 

 

<Isn’t it nice?> Anonymous’s message broke the serene reverie. Sora couldn’t help but smile softly.  This mysterious stranger had come to his aid at every turn these past few days. Despite not being there, they did what they could. While the cold sense of loneliness prevailed, his surviving light was through a phone screen. 

>Thank you

He responded back, and he wished he could have provided more to his words than cold text. In this world of mundane cruelties, he didn’t know what he’d do without this companion. 

<I’m so proud of you.> The text bubble rattled back. 

Proud? Anon didn’t make sense a lot of the time, but… the message made Sora’s chest swell with warmth. 

The last of the orange sunset light was fading as Sora vaulted back over the railing. Where once gravity was his plaything, the action required more effort than he ever anticipated and punctuated reality. He glanced once more at the hour on his phone. There was a short while before he’d run into bus troubles. It was better he left now. 

Sora gave one last look at the city-marred ocean horizon. It really paled in comparison to home. It wasn’t fair of him to place a boundless ocean next to a self-contained bay, but Tokyo somehow seemed smaller than any island settlement from this perspective. Yet, cities were exciting. So many people. So many hearts lived and loved here. It was beautiful really. Worthy of some regard or gratitude...

But Sora couldn’t help the poisonous resentment simmer underneath him. It fueled his hope. Made his heart yearn for home all the greater. This place wasn’t enough. And that was okay. 

And before he could manage that horrible bitterness brewing within him, he caught sight of the metal sign right by the railing he just leaped over. It was almost too dark to read. In this case, the darkness would have been a welcome service because he could even make out the basic illustration under its bold text.

'No littering. Violators will be fined.'

The picture of a bottle floating in cartoonish waves was almost hilarious.

 

__________

____________________

______________________________

[4 days ago, continued]

 

“E-Excuse me!”

Sora pushed himself before another group of strangers in the bustling shopping district. Their surprise overrode the irritation long enough for him to continue. 

“Do you know where I can find Neku-- ah, someone. I’m looking for someone.”

Their flustered discomfort was a speechless phenomenon. They chose to ignore him with a forceful push. Determined, Sora moved to the next target. It’d take several more disappointments for him to change the strategy.

It was foolish to ask for specifics in this boundless sea of people yet It hadn’t stopped Sora’s occasional name drop in this crowd. He even asked about Rhyme and Joshua though that received even stranger looks. But if he could find them, his friends from the dream, he’d get answers. Unfortunately, this method of random sampling forced him to cross the street to other crowds of pedestrians as immediate neighbors would avoid his path in anticipation. 

A younger man gave a sneer before turning to his friends.

“Cosplay?”

They laughed.

“It looks really good!” One of them called back and they moved on. 

“I’m sorry! I don’t know how to help you.” Was the nicest response he could get from the crowd.

“Are they missing? Take it to the police.” Another person clapped back in a quick exchange. That was probably the greatest lead yet and Sora beamed a smile. It even curled the stranger’s lips like a contagion.

“Thank you!” Sora didn’t know how to get a hold of the police here. The Island had a law enforcement chief they reported to but there was little procedure for emergencies beside rallying the neighbors and town help. It’s not like there were gummiphones. In other worlds, it was never a need that cropped up. He was an enforcer most of the time.

So he just asked. 

It was a middle-aged lady that wore a look of alarm the moment he asked. “C-call the police? What’s wrong? Do you need a phone?”

Her urgency surprised him and she said it in a loud way that turned heads. Some folks stopped in curiosity yet again. 

 

“Ah no, nothing’s wrong ma’am… I’m just looking for someone.” Sora tried to pacify with a sheepish scratch of his head. This turned the woman’s concern into a guarded scowl at the drop of a coin. 

“Looking for someone? Are they your parents? It’s awful late for someone your age to be out on a school night… and wearing that .”

Sora gave a self-conscious tug at his plaid lapel with a pout. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can help you… but if you’re looking to call the police you know the number.” And she walked away, taking the rug out from under him.

“Hey wait!” He called but she ignored him. Defeated, Sora’s reaching hand slackened. “I don’t know the number.

He pulled out his phone to see that there was that phone number rolling across a preview bar on the screen with the phrase “24 messages” on it. It took him a moment to follow the directions of the plain blue background, swiping it awake and clicking on the mail app. When the log finally popped up, Sora was surprised to see the alert that spared him a set of tire track scars. 

<Now!>

<That was close! Glad you’re okay.>

There were several minutes from this message to the next.

<I wish you’d check your phone.>

A little longer. 

<Hey>

….

<Hey>

….

<(`^´)>

Was that supposed to be a face?

<Hey>

<How are you not hearing your notification right now?>

<Hey>

<(ノಠ益ಠ)ノ>

There were quite a few of these until...

<WRONG!>

<SHIBUYA!>

Sora’s brow curled. Something cold slid into his gut.

 

<I’m here to help you out if you’d just check your phone!>

<So not cool...>

<Just let me know when you need help.>

The last message was 15 minutes ago. Sora pursed his lips with uncertainty. He then whipped his head up for inspiration only to lock eyes with the woman from earlier… speaking to a uniformed officer in the distance by what appeared to be a police car.  

The sight of the officer walking toward him shocked his system with an irrational desire to run.

He could ask them to help him find his friends right?

 

WRONG!

 

He glanced at the message in the long chain and a single word flew across his own keyboard in a split-second decision. Send.

>help<

The officer’s posture wasn’t very inviting. In fact, he was postured like he was about to bust a bunch of rowdy kids. Battle instincts told him this wasn’t going to help. He didn’t do anything wrong right? He was just asking questions… right?

His stomach clenched as the officer casually strolled before him. 

“Hey kid, is everything okay here?” The substance of the words was almost comforting, but the officer said it in a rhetorical way like he knew the answer.

World travel 101 was to defer to the government of the land unless it’s Trouble. Confrontation was the last thing Sora needed. He gave a nervous chuckle and tried to look him in the eyes once again. 

“Yes, sir…”

He gave him a once over. “What school do you go to?”

“School?” Sora’s voice cracked. The befuddlement must have answered the question.

“Work, then?”

Sora shook his head. The officer sighed.

“You are about 10 minutes from hitting the unattended youth curfew, your parents nearby?”

Dumbfounded and a little wide-eyed, Sora shook his head. 

“Are you on your way home?”

Sora was about to choke on his own silence. He just didn’t know what to say. This was when Donald or Goofy would bust him out. The officer seemed to have waning patience, but the intensity was starting to loosen at the passive demeanor Sora was putting on. But the non-answer pressed on. He needed to… find...

 

WRONG!

 

I’m looking for someone!” He said finally. 

The officer blinked. “Your parents?”

Another shake of the head. “A friend.” And suddenly Sora found his determination clamping down despite the pulsing doubt. Neku, Joshua…. They had to be here.

He needed them to be here. 

The officer ran a hand through his hair. “Look, kid. There’s a curfew, if you want, I can give you a lift to your home.”

“I need to know how I can find him! His name is Sakuraba Neku, sir.” The insistence seemed to summon back the veil of tension that the officer held before. It was chilling.

“You need to go home. File a complaint in the morning if you are so worried. Should I give you a ride?”

The answer was insufficient and the rest left him cornered. Home? There was no going home anymore. The pressure was almost suffocating as he waited for an answer. The striking reality of having absolutely nowhere to go was crashing down hard. What was he going to do? A panic rose in Sora’s lungs. 

Please, I need to find my friend.” He couldn’t hide the desperation in his voice. Meanwhile, the text of that message burned into his eyes. They had to be here. He needed to find them. 

WRONG! SHIBUYA!

The shift in Sora’s demeanor gave the officer pause. 

“Stay put a second.” He ordered and took a step back before grabbing at a radio on his hip. 

“Yamoto to Dispatch, there’s an unattended minor; male, 15-ish--appears to be in some kind of character cosplay. Gonna give him an escort.”

The radio gave a hiss before responding. “Copy. Proceed.”

Sora’s phone made a sound and it occurred to him that he had been hearing it all through his street questionnaire. He didn’t make the same mistake. 

 

<Turn around and run down the street away from the square. Don’t stop.>

 

“Alright kid. Can I get your name?” The police officer said stepping forward from his aside. 

Sora looked up from the screen. 

And broke into a sprint.

“Hey! Get back here!” He shouted after him. But Sora didn’t turn around. 

______________________________

____________________

__________

There was a package at the apartment doorstep as Sora pulled himself up the steps. No sender address-- it was a cardboard box a little smaller than a plate, sealed in a strip of packing tape. The lightweight object inside slid to the far end as he picked it up. 

A thrill of caution stowed away with his instinctive curiosity. 

Sora shuffled in his pocket for the keys. He pinched one of the rattling metal pieces from the ring with a grimace. It fumbled around the lock before slotting along the grooves. He turned it around awkwardly, the device demanding more from him than he could ever hope to remember. 

He kept the key out as he flipped the light on. Its jagged teeth gnashed at the tape of the package soon after. Brutish, dull sawing was as effective as any bladeless clobbering. Mundane resourcefulness was an inherent feature to the simple machine it seemed. The thought brought a bitter smile… that promptly dropped as he peeled away the lid.

Sora picked up the contents of the package with both hands. Despite his naivete with most technological gadgets, this one was hard to mistake. Hiro Hamada explained its use while rustling around his sci-fi garage of gizmos. In the painful bank of Roxas’s digital memories were evenings with Pence sitting around a TV screen tossing one of these around in the throes of competition. 

He thumbed a circle along the smooth plastic of its handle. And he swallowed his thoughts down thickly. A cumbersomely thick cord uncoiled. The buttons gave a faint click and the joysticks bowed as he hesitantly ran his fingertips along its face. 

His expression was level. Intentional. Neutral. Average. Intentional. Forced. Struggling. Bursting.

Petrified. 

 

The next breath he took was fruitless. Brambles of ice jolted through his veins and his stomach gave a lurch. The gift was shaking in his hand. Sora clapped a hand across his mouth as a wave of nausea gave a violent threat. The air stopped completely. His heart pounded in his ears. There was a pained moan that felt like a cry caught in his suffocating throat. 

The game controller clattered along the floor of the apartment. 

 

__________

____________________

______________________________

 

Arms pumped, lashing through the air. Feet pushed against the sidewalk. 

Pedestrians darted out of his way and the large Shibuya square narrowed into metropolitan streets. Claws of strain slashed down his blurring legs. Needles prickled along his lungs.

He ran harder. Beating the pavement with his escape, too afraid to check for pursuit. Shops flew past him. Street lights strobed in a lulling pattern. The traffic thinned. It was quieter. Only the ripping slam of his soles on the concrete echoed in the ambiance. 

And gravity had never felt more heavy.

That’s when he failed to swing his shoe high enough. Sora felt a stomach pulling yank and he was flying through the air, the sidewalk careening his way at a strange angle. He gave a startled howl and his face planted on the street, his hands barely breaking the brunt of it. The phone slid across the concrete.

Sora grunted at his scrambled brains and rattling bones, meanwhile, his lungs heaved the air desperately. Even his breathing tripped as a cough barged out of him in a relentless stream. Insult to injury. 

The screen of his phone was a beacon. 

<Will you be okay?> It said. 

Sora didn’t have the mind to feel gratitude or embarrassment at that moment as he reached for the device.  He couldn’t comprehend how this absent messenger could tell that he just wiped out from his own sudden bout of clumsiness. He couldn’t wrap his head around how hard that escape was. He couldn’t focus. There was a distracting buzz in this haze of pain and adrenaline. Everything felt sharp. So sharp and heavy and loud and

Real

Sora got to his feet and his hand tracked across his face. There was a liquid smear along his fingers and chin. The orange streetlights reflected in a handful of red blood. 

Will you be okay?

Motion pulled at the corner of his vision. It was his reflection in a storefront window. Call it vanity, but his own familiar face was a pleasing comfort. He could find a friend in his features, but the stream of blood from his nose was a disturbing sight of vandalism. He took a step closer. 

And a phantom image seeped in from behind the glass. A large advertisement hung in the dark display of some kind of entertainment store. The closer he got, the clearer the image became through the thick window. A cardboard cut-out display it seemed...

 

Recognition.

Sora blinked. 

 

What a tragedy it is. 

 

The advertisement’s illustration lined into focus, faintly tracing the dark curves of his lamplight cast shadow. Perfectly.

 

To tarnish purity. 

 

A confident smirk made of pencil and printer ink cut through his blood marred reflection. Static, stylized eyes bore into him. He-- It lounged within a chair like an arrogant king.  

 

To disturb the still waters. 

 

Elaborate, stylistic text, silver and angular, hung over the stagnant depiction of royalty. How Sora could break his gaze from the image to read the title was beyond comprehension.

 

To tear down those beautiful walls. 

 

‘Kingdom Hearts’

 

______________________________

____________________

__________

-X Continue…?-

Chapter Text

He was dreaming. Well… dreaming again

Xigbar didn’t care much for dreams. 

The notion buzzed like a mosquito in his ear. It accompanied his every day, but now it was impossible to ignore. A sepia-tone impression. Unfocused in places, momentary lapses of time and space. The world was a conjuring of his mind’s eye of course. Without real, tangible functions at work, this was just a shoddy jerry-rig job by his brain. And boy did it show. 

He could only describe it as a crystalline cave. Jagged spikes of multifaceted purple and blue curled like a frozen tidal wave. The ground beneath his feet had a similar, rock-like texture, but resembled more a toddler’s art project than water. Thick shapes of colored glass gummed together to make the earth at his feet. Countless in number and shade. In occasional points, stone pillars, like roman pedestals, rose from the junk like an ambitious tower only to drip crumbling stone in discontinuation. This cave, though dark, had a substantial light at the end of the tunnel. A beacon progressing him to the next stage...

Now if he was remembering correctly, he had in fact not died at the hands of Sora. He had made a point to fake his death. He simply, let the slivering piece of Old Coot Darkness seep from his vessel, bidding its slimy occupancy farewell as it carried on with the plot. Yep, no fading or vanishing. Just smoke and mirrors. Maybe he went a little overboard. Tossing himself backward off of the circuit board was a little dark for the kids.

Eh, a primer for what’s to come. 

The point was, there shouldn’t be any ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ or ‘pearly gates’ and what-not waiting for him… for a multitude of reasons. And why the garbage walkway? Frustration was an old friend but man did he need a break from the nonsense. This was why Xigbar didn’t care for dreams.

His reflection’s profile shimmered in the fractals of crystal, like a funhouse. His appearance was that of Braig. A little beat-up around the edges and older than that first and final meeting with the kid over 10 years prior. The darkness scar on his cheek was a fun touch now that hindsight removed the infuriating pain and vanity from the equation. And without it, the eye-patch wouldn’t be a thing now would it?

Xigbar really liked the eye-patch. He honestly, really liked this form. Perhaps that’s why the dream manifested this body as opposed to his original. That, and he wasn’t sure he remembered what he used to look like. So many faces…

Well due to the rarity of such conscious dreaming he thought it best to carry on without trepidation. The light from the tunnel unfolded into a remarkably endless space, drenched in beaming incandescents. The sky was a massive glass dome, arching an elaborate and abstract stained glass construction around a flowering, sun-like centerpiece. The cave dropped off into a sprawling pit of black void. 

It was like standing on the night sky. Countless Heart Stations poked their precious light on this black sea in an intermittent fashion. Had they been smaller, he would have felt the temptation to skip along them like stones in a river. Despite this sea of hearts, one station stood high above the rest. It was a stone spire that dangled glass pathways from its platform. One path squared itself before Xigbar. He began the climb.

The station was as elaborate as one might suspect with its towering status, but you probably couldn’t tell because it, like the cave-like entrance, was completely trashed. Stray glass shards positively littered the platform, obscuring the intended illustration. They were assembled in haphazard piles, some of like colors (what an improvement…). Like the trail from a crime scene, the glass led toward the center of the station where lie the back of a crystal throne. 

That, unexpectedly, swiveled on its axis.

Xigbar’s eyes widened in the recognition.

I presume you’re wondering why I summoned you this evening?” 

The voice bubbled with theatrical and practiced mirth. The throne turned to reveal a cloaked figure lounging cross-legged, his black-gloved hands woven together patiently. Silence followed. 

Xigbar couldn’t order his thoughts. That voice, the mannerisms. It… It was Him. His chest flared with an impossible emotion. Baffled excitement. Elation. Frantic desperation. He felt like a kid again, holding No Name reverently, staring into that blue eye and wishing for a face around its pupil. He was here. He was right in front of him. It was… unbelievable.

 

A dream.

 

The Master of Masters suddenly slumped forward in his chair, groaning loudly in defeat. 

Come on!”  

His signature hand gesticulations snapped into full force. “All this time and I’m still not worthy of a little-- ‘oh!’-- and --’whaa?’? -- You wound me!”

Confusion blistered through Xigbar and like it had the young apprentice centuries ago, he found his response to be identical. Wide-eyed, speechless. Frazzled and desperate. It was overcoming.  

“A-Ah… Sorry?”

Was he blubbering? The Master exploded into a sudden cackle that made Xigbar jump. 

Oh man! It’s been how long for you? You haven’t changed at all, little one!”

Little?

Xigbar-- no Luxu looked at his Master. The man he sacrificed so much for. The man who he spent ages fighting to bring back. And here he was. Right in front of him. Defying every prophecy and calculated ambition. 

“Master…” He was breathless. “How?”

The Master gave a couple of claps. “I’m glad you asked!-- as you already can tell this is a dream! You’re asleep catching a few victory “z’s ” and I thought I’d pop you on over here to give you a little congrats .”

Xigbar found himself scanning the stained glass workshop around the Master’s lounging chair and the magnificent domed sky. He must have had a face on. The Master gleefully continued. 

“‘Here’ of course is--” He spared himself a dramatic pause to place his arms in a grand presenting gesture, “--my ‘Brain Storm!’  Do you like the name? ‘Mind Palace’ was taken and I’m not getting into legal trouble no matter who I’ve got on my side.”

There was another pause. The Master waited eagerly for a response.

Xigbar shifted uncomfortably. This entire reunion was not what he expected, but perhaps the ages did a number on his memory of the eccentric man. “It’s… nice.”

"Always so agreeable. I knew I gave you the right role."

His role. Pass down the blade. Watch. See to the end. Stay out of sight. Wait for his return…

“You’ve done well.” The Master’s voice was calmer. Controlled, but pleased. Xigbar swallowed down the roar of emotion into his gut. Swelling, bulbous pride. Excitement and joy like a live wire. How he dreamed of those words from the Master… he was... still dreaming them. 

“It’s finished. My role.” It was faint but a vulnerable smile graced the hardened gruffness of Braig’s scarred face. Relief. He had finished and he was witnessing the fruits of his labor.

“Yeah, I said that.--You do realize I’m not actually back yet?”

This sobered the apprentice and his unconscious smile dropped. The Master rose from his throne with a stretch. 

Standing before him revealed that this body of his now towered over his Master by a few inches. That along with the gruff look and mean glare scratched a vain itch in Luxu. His original body wasn’t nearly this effective at asserting himself. Though, at this moment he might as well have been a child. 

“There, there.” The Master said flippantly taking a few steps to his left towards a pile of decorative glass. “That’s what we are here to talk about.” He picked up a single book that Xigbar just noticed was resting atop the pile. 

“Cause see, we kinda hit peak prediction a while ago, not that you'd know the details. So…”

He fingered mindlessly through the pages before clapping the book shut. Xigbar got a better look at the cover this time. It was in fact the Book of Prophecies. 1st edition, Author copy. 

Which the Master proceeded to toss into the air over his back. Xigbar watched in horror as the book fell off the heart station platform and into the black void. 

“That’s old news now. Shame you never got to read it, but believe me-- you missed nothing.”

“What… happens next?” ...Now that everything was finished.

The question poured out of him slowly. He was so used to being the smartest one in the room by far. That was the furthest description now and every word felt bumbling before the Master. 

I dunno~ I haven’t figured it out yet.” He turned his back to his apprentice, folding his hands behind himself in a characteristic pose. His postured silhouette inspired the image of a contemplative and serene individual. 

“Well, I mean I have a plan of course.” He turned around to add. “I just- - okay, let’s get down to business.

Did he sing that last phrase? The Master suddenly pressed forward, taking quick strides across the platform. “Did you bring the box?” 

Bring the box? This was a dream. He had slept by the box while waiting around. It wasn’t here--

“Good!” 

And Xigbar was surprised as the Master crouched and curled around his legs, landing a gloved hand smack on the surface of the large box in question. He hadn’t noticed its presence behind his feet until now. Xigbar quickly spun around and positioned himself on the other side. And much like when he first laid eyes on the black box, he assisted his Master in pushing it along the ground, more squared to their conversation. It was a heavy thing, and the metal corner guards dragged along the glass with a high pitched screech. 

“So--” The Master began between pulls casual conversation in his tone. Sure the box was heavy but not impossible. If forced and with a good grip, Xigbar could carry the thing for a bit. “--what did you think of its contents?”

Xigbar stopped pushing and straightened himself in confusion. “What? I didn’t open the box. You told me not to.”

The Master straightened himself up just as fast. “You mean you didn’t even try?”

“No! You told me what was in it already. Why would I look?” His defense came out desperately. For a moment he felt like he had failed some massive reverse-psychological test.  

The Master crossed his arms and swayed a little. “Oh, no reason. I was just convinced you would be overcome with your sense of curiosity and have a peek anyway. I mean it’s what I would have done and you’ve clearly been taking notes from your Master.”

Xigbar was almost close to a flush of embarrassment. Why did his Master have to be so… so… frank about his observations?

“I just…”

“No need to explain yourself. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I’m touched, really.”

The Master shifted his tone and placed his hands on his student’s broad shoulders. 

“You’ve worked so hard for me. Lived countless lifetimes. Undergone plenty of embarrassments and defeats. And you did everything I asked. So as thanks-- I’m gonna let you open the box .”

Luxu, currently basking in a sudden but pleasant shower of praise did not expect that permission. 

“Really?”

He had spent years earnestly abstaining from opening the box, satisfied with the memory of his Master’s answer in his ear. No matter how… confusing that answer was. 

“Really really.” He assured.

And if he was honest he didn’t actually care about seeing the famed contents, it was the trust he was given that meant more. For centuries, the why danced around his head and he just assumed it was a matter of his Master’s utmost confidential plans. His novice could not be trusted to open the box back then… but now he could.

Luxu got on his knees before the clasps. His hands were shaking. Did he… even want to see it? 

And throw away the Master’s trust like it was nothing?

He thumbed one of the clasps along the lid. They were artistic and jagged spears of metal across the lid accented with a stark red. There were 13 across the entire thing, 7 in the front and 3 on either side. Excessive as it might seem, the number was fitting. He curled his fingers under the largest clasp. 

And he gave a sharp tug.

 

It didn’t budge. 

 

Luxu’s brow furrowed. He examined the box a little more closely, even though he stared at the thing for ages and knew it like the back of his own hand… that actually wasn’t an apt phrase considering. The clasps were immobile as though bound to the foundation of the box itself. He tried again, this time with a different latch. 

He tried each one. Nothing moved. Confusion and irritation trembled along his mind. He attempted to latch his fingers under the lid itself and pull. There was a strange sound above him. 

The Master’s attempt at containing his laughter failed. He exploded into a gut-rending cackle. 

“Oh my gosh!” He howled between giggles. “I just can’t believe you never tried to open it. You didn’t think I’d just leave it vulnerable or something? You are so precious. So so precious.”

Xigbar stamped down his irritation. He was a patient man, he had proved that much… 

“Do I need my keyblade?” He hissed under gritted teeth. No Name, if he was correct it’d probably land somewhere in the Graveyard after this whole mess. 

The Master’s laughs were now spells of chuckles. He shook his head. “I wouldn’t try. Thing’s got no lock see?”

“Were you... just saying that for my reaction?”

“Oh not at all.” The Master straightened himself up from his contorted jubilance. He must have expelled all of his humor in that bought because it was the calmest his voice had become. “That’s actually your next task-- or role.

Xigbar raised a brow at that.

“My return is upon you. Wake up your fellow apprentices and set out to open the black box you’ve so carefully hidden. When that happens, you will find me.”

His fellow apprentices? The Foretellers were long gone… unless he expected him to… a thrill rang down his spine. But…

“How do I open it?”

He couldn’t see his Master’s face… but he knew he was smiling.

“The term ‘Black Box’… where I’m from-- has a lot of connotations… but mainly they are known for being… virtually indestructible. And that’s because they serve a very important role: They protect precious data in the case of pure and utter destruction. Most of the time, they are only opened in the wake of that disaster.”

The Master took a seat on the box in question and gave it a mindless stroke. His tone was low. So even and calculated... like it had its own gravity. He practically felt the words etch themselves into his heart like a glowing spike of metal. It was a force of nature.

It was… terrifying.

“I designed this box to be the same way. Destabilize the realms and the box will open. Leverage that unchained instability with the power of your being and wreak havoc… I’ll be there eventually to pick up the pieces.”

Luxu fell to his knees. The glorious purpose that was leaving him before was now being refilled right before his eyes. It was a soothing balm. It was a quenched thirst. There was no memory of hunger. There was nothing like this. He felt alive.

He felt real.

“Yes, Master.” He breathed. “It will be done.”

The Master was silent for a moment. Something about his posture seemed disappointed.

“I know it will.”

 

Click

 

Upon the lid of the box, one of the thirteen latches shot out by the Master’s coat.

“It’s already begun. The realm has lost something... completely irreplaceable. It’s reeling. You need to strike while it is weak.” With a gloved finger, the Master snapped.

The piles of glass started to vibrate. All around him the rock chinked together, making shimmering music with a swell of foreboding happening. 

It dawned on him that the Master was wrapping up the meeting. Luxu seized at the moment, a blanket thought of refusal echoing in his mind. 

“Wait! Will we be able to speak again?”

The Master stood up. “Unfortunately, young one, this will be the last you see of me… at least… until that promised day. But… keep your keyblade drawn. I’ll certainly be watching.”

“But--” Luxu pushed, but then stopped himself. He bowed his head. Below his feet was the image of a goat. The caulking around its gray glass was expanding at his feet. His insignia was swallowing him whole.  “I won’t let you down.”

“May your heart…” The Master began, watching his sixth apprentice go down into the void of waking like one watches their child through a rising elevator. “...on second thought, that’s kinda useless for you.”

And everything was black.


 Xigbar woke up gasping. He turned his head to see the black box with a latch undone. 

A sneering grin split across his face. Pure satisfaction. 

Hope’ indeed. 

-Loading...-

Chapter Text

"I've been having these weird thoughts lately… Like is any of this for real?... Or not?"

The voice. The inflection. He knew it well.  

The illuminating glow of the TV monitor made Sawada Shoto’s pupils a brilliant white. He reached for a cheese-powder coated chip, not considering the war between the sound system and crackling snack bag. He shuffled himself forward in his tall, red and black cushioned chair. 

The boy hovered his thumb over the pause button. He tore his gaze momentarily to the phone on the side table. There was a video on it that he snuck while at school. Did he dare compare its audio side-by-side to this example?

The bass on his speakers pulsed like a heartbeat. Shoto suddenly found the notion of pausing the gradually building, electric melody a daunting task. The screen depicted a cartoony youth falling in the void. It was fantastical imagery. Gripping and nostalgic. 

The vocals pulled him in. His memories ushered the cinematics through their patterns like rehearsed routine. It might have been years since he booted up this particular disk, but the practice of restarting his game system just to rewatch the opening etched this visual artwork into his very soul. The waves crashed. The boy spun. His friend reached. The tide carried him away. 

There was a pretty girl waving the character down. He ran to her. She smiled, so did he. It was an infectious and bright grin. Shoto felt his lips curl unconsciously with them.

The song kicked into a new idea, grabbing Shoto and tossing him emotionally around and around like a thrilling rollercoaster looking down upon a theme park. He almost felt compelled to sing along with it as the pair of characters looked to the sky at the falling star. But wait, that was actually the boy falling through the sky. Two places at once. How wild. 

 

“Shoto! Are you listening to music? It’s late!”

 

Hot anger invaded. His finger jolted onto the pause button in a knee-trigger response. The music stopped abruptly. It was almost painful cutting off the beat, choking the melody in its place and freezing the image of boy inverted on the screen. 

“No Mom!” Shoto shouted through the door, unwilling to get up to answer her sudden question. It was a response in kind. 

“What’s that I hear? You need to go to bed!”

“It’s only 9 o’clock!” He felt those words leave him like a scream.

Excuse me?” There were clomping stomps up the step. Fear shoved aside that sticky irritation in no time at all. The doorknob shivered, wiggled, and clicked. His mother’s face poked through the door opening with laser beams for eyes. With a single flip of a switch, the room exploded into light. “Watch your tone young man!

The den was littered in clothes and snack wrappers. Homework covered the desk in haphazard piles, surrounded by dioramic figures and game cases. His massive TV was tucked in the corner dripping in cords. It filled his mother with resigned regret every time. 

Shoto scrambled the game controller onto his side table and swiveled his chair to face his mother, submission already gestured on his hands. “Sorry! Sorry!” 

“It is a school night boy! You have classes and cram school you are not going to be playing your games all night!”

Shoto cringed at her venomous voice. “I promise I won’t play long.. I-I.. just need to check something!” 

“That game isn’t going anywhere, but the clock is. Last warning.”

Shoto’s round face scrunched red. Habitually, he reached for the black knit beanie on his head of curly dark hair. He tugged on the sides like they were floppy ears. The boy waited a moment as though to see if his mother would have a change of heart, her stoic power stance made him seize. 

Fine.”

He rose and smacked a hand to the side of the large TV. The screen sucked itself into darkness. 

Pleased, his mother turned on her heels. The door was promptly closed behind her. 

He waited for her footsteps to die down before flicking the TV monitor right back on and turning the lights off. Status quo achieved.

“Alright, let’s see…” He muttered sitting back down on his gaming chair. The volume dial started to shrink with his repetitive remote clicks while his free hand reached for his phone on the side table. While he was already paused...

The phone screen sprung awake. He unlocked it to an already opened picture app. On it was an unfocused candid photo. 

A boy. Light brown hair in wild directions holding up his head against a desk. Bored out of his mind. His school blazer was askew. It looked like he had never tied a tie in his life. Shoto held the picture in front of him, sharing his vision with the paused TV image. 

And what a close match it was. The blue of the character's eyes was identical to the picture's glazed over disinterest. The spikes were a little different but of the same theme. 

Satisfied, the dreamlike cinematics flared back to life with Shoto's button-press permission. 

Falling. Falling. The boy was falling. Shoto was quickly sucked in. He fiddled with the controller eagerly, waiting to take over. He gave a dry chuckle as the music died down and the iconic stained glass setting consumed the screen. He couldn’t control the grin that curled along his face as the character in lower polygon count and saturated colors glanced around the black void. He looked at the camera. At Sawada Shoto.

“... you were a cute kid, Kakehashi-kun…”

The research continued.  


<Someone knows>

Anon’s response was not a comfort. It was obvious. Of course, someone knew. 

>Did they just guess?< He typed back. In his panic, the box and video game controller was tossed on the floor and pushed several feet away. He didn’t really know what came over him. He just knew that his heart was still racing and that the sight of the thing-- message-- was chilling to the core. 

<Maybe…> Anon responded back almost instantly. 

His first day of classes, the school body or at least the ones of basic pop-culture savvy, were nothing close to discrete in observing that new kid ‘Kakehashi’ had a likeness to video game icon and JRPG protagonist Sora. His given name was especially coincidental. Anon told him to excuse the coincidence to chance, admiration, and imitation-- a very awkward idea to wrap his head around. It was still a buzzy topic in the class, even as his social performance began to wear on his novelty factor. 

<But why mail it?> Anon pressed. <It feels like a threat.>

Sora couldn’t help but agree. The shivers of shock relaxed at an inconveniently slow pace. His body at that moment had an inherent understanding of what he saw. Because it made sense. No one knew his address (save for those with access to his school files). And while his appearance could spark a number of reactions, even some of a taunting nature, the specific selection of a game controller was remarkably vague. And well...

Controllers like that… meant only one thing to someone like Sora. 

Strings

Witnessing the advertisement with his face on it was the most peculiar revelations in this new setting. It didn’t hit him with confidence as one might expect, but it did unsettle him. Surely it was a coincidence (down to the threads on his back?). Perhaps there was an explanation-- like his legend traveling through the Ocean Between, captivating this world (? was this a world? No, this was… a consequence…). And then that stranger on the phone put it so bluntly.

 

Created

 

                          Character

Puppet

                                                                                     Story

Show

[Game]

Controlled

 

The vice grip of fate clamped around his neck. It was so similar to his time before, as the Power of Waking he so freely abused knocked and knocked and that dream Xehanort's gloat tapped on his shoulder. There was no one to pretend around now. No one to promise grand returns to. But there were also no strings… right?

Sora swallowed the thoughts down with a shudder. It didn’t help. He could deal. 

>What should we do?<

It kinda felt nice to type ‘we’. 

<Find the sender. They could really mess things up if they started blabbing.> 

The threat of that happening gave Sora pause. An earlier conversation fluttered through his mind. The confusion he had when making the game plan with Anon for what to do next stemmed from exactly this.

>But you said that no one would believe me if I told them.<

He tried typing faster to finish his point. These words seemed harder because of the very real fear he associated with them.

>You said they’d think I was sick.

 

‘Crazy.’ The word was crazy. 

 

A word that never held much weight or power until it was the very factor between his heart thriving or starving. Hindsight provided him a montage of that word in the thoughts and faces of the strangers around Shibuya crossing. The pain in his chest was real and cold, like claws digging. Denial was a feeble shield to others and to himself.

>Shouldn’t that be the same for anyone else?<

He was used to a little restraint in his travels. So much that he stopped trying to count the number of times he mistook Donald’s ‘World Order’ warning with ‘World Border’. You weren’t allowed to tell folks about other worlds. The exact reason was a little elusive, and he was pretty sure there were a number of exceptions to the rule but it made sense. People can’t go knowing that there’s a bunch of other places. It might make the denizen’s painfully curious. Hungry for power and knowledge. It could lead to a path of darkness. 

That’s what Sora deduced at least. The friends on his travels were probably the furthest candidates for such temptation (maybe not Jack… both Jacks ) but that’s where he was sure there was another reason. One Donald probably explained in a long gummiship transit. 

This is all to say that it made sense for him to keep hush about where he was from. But he never actively sought to preserve or correct that order. And this ‘world’ ( consequence )... it wasn’t the same. This situation wasn’t the same. Could this even be considered ‘World Order’? 

<I guess you could say I’m more worried about what they’re trying to do to you...>

Sora cupped the phone in his hands. In the silence, he started imagining Anon’s voice speaking his written word. He wasn’t capable of conjuring a voice he had never heard before, so he auditioned his memory of timbres. Riku’s soft reassurance was the only thing that could easily slot into these protective words. It made him feel warm in the proverbial safety, even as he looked out to the unknown. 

<Most people assume you’re imitating art.>

<If someone thinks you actually are art…No one will believe them. You’re safe.>

<But...>

<They could have done anything to let you know they know.>

<And now I’m just wondering what they are gonna do next>

Sora tore the phone from his sight, choosing to look at the game controller on the floor. The cord sprawled in his direction.


 “I have a case for you, Miss Rep.”

A hand slapped Inoue’s desk before the morning bell. She tore away irritably from the textbook she was reading to look at the wry grin of fellow classmate, Sawada Shoto.

 He was a picture of immaturity, round-faced with wild curly hair and dopey round eyes. Usually, he kept to himself, head in a magazine or game device. Yet he was also known for being eccentric and opinionated to the point of pure annoyance. Criticism rolled off of his self-confident defenses like water on rubber. Inoue did not see him as a person of her circle (when she thought to have a circle that is) and did not find pleasure in some of his more outlandish public forum outbursts. 

The unwarranted approach was too familiar. She decided it was not welcome.

“A case? Am I a PI?” People came to her to complain as she was a vehicle for their voice in the council. Though as of late the use of her resources were slowing. 

“No, but you are a lady of justice!” Sawada responded with a little too much cheer. He spoke too fast and the tone was a clear front, he must be nervous. “And one with resources!”

Inoue’s neutral face fell into dry irritation. “Yeah, I am not looking up some girl’s phone number for you. It goes against my beliefs on privacy not to mention that it’s actually beyond my purpose as your rep.”

Sawada made a squeak of surprise. “No no! I don’t want-- ugh-- I mean, I have some interesting information for you, something that you might want to look into as it pertains to someone in our class.

Inoue scowled. This was probably a bogus plot to rat on one of his neighbors or maybe stir up a rumor. While he didn’t seem like one to stage elaborate information schemes, he had proven in casual conversation to be full of crazy media-inspired ideas. She didn’t have to act on anything. “I’m listening then.”

Sawada lit up and then in a manner she could only describe as theatrical, he leaned in with his conspiracy. 

“I think the new kid has an after school part-time job.” 

That got her attention. While many would think it was due to her hawkish enforcement of school policy that was only partly the reason. 

“Kakehashi-san?”

Sawada nodded in earnest. 

This new kid was perplexing on so many levels and the simple thought of him brought a bad taste in her mouth. Her condemnation of him the day before was on the basis of his infuriating act in the day-to-day. Because that’s what it was. An act. His pathetic submission, his dumb silence, the curt agreement to questions, the way he let the idiot socialites peck at him. She just couldn’t buy that this kid was genuinely that self-pitying.

So he was a foreigner-- with impeccable language capacity but almost infantile cultural understanding? And his Hawaii backstory… it is like he was just beefing up his resume with lies. And then the hero thing…

It almost made her grind her teeth. 

Before she just thought he needed to grow a backbone or maybe he was playing up a card in some form of defense in the new environment. But after yesterday’s stairwell confrontation, with his blaze of snide confidence and his clear-as-day heroic inclinations, she was almost certain he was just manipulating a new school situation. Creating some kind of new-kid underdog scenario. To what end, she couldn’t tell but she didn’t trust him one bit. 

“What makes you think that?” She asked with narrowed eyes.

“Well, that’s the thing. I’m not sure exactly. I know for a fact that he comes to school from the North station like everyone else, but he doesn’t take it home.”

“That’s not, unheard of. There’s a bus stop 3 blocks right of school.”

“-- But he goes into the business district!”

That definitely wasn’t near residential districts, maybe a hotel...and there weren’t cram schools that way… wait...

“You… know a lot about the new kid’s patterns...”

Sawada’s face grew flush and he recoiled at her accusation. “I-I got curious so I w-watched him a bit. Lost him… after a turn…” He trailed in his swell of nerves. Sawada’s fascination was beneath her. But...

An after school job? That wasn’t what she expected in the slew of things. The validity was dubious, but not unfounded.

And school policy was her jurisdiction. 

 

“And what exactly are you looking to me for?” 

“Well! It’s against school rules to have a part-time job, isn’t it? You report that kind of stuff right?”

“Yes… but this is just a theory-- a guess. I’d need proof.”

Gee , makes you wonder what his admission papers have to say about it…”

Huh? 

“What would his admission papers have to do with a part-time job?” She was genuinely dumbfounded. 

 “Maybe… he’s got special… permissions?”

Actually not a bad connection, but not the first thing she’d think of. Now it was pretty clear that Sawada was fishing for some specific details on the new kid that only she might be able to procure. The confidence that this was a false lead was set in stone and now she could shake the leech. 

“Maybe... you need more proof. I can’t just go snooping into the personal information of classmates on a hunch .  And I’m insulted you think I’d even try.”

And Sawada took his hand off her desk like it was a hot stove. “Oh.”

Defeated and with an awkward glance around the room, Sawada stepped back. “I’m sorry I guess I’ve just been a little…” There was a high exasperated sigh. “...carried away… again. Uh ... we can forget this.”

Sawada returned to his desk. Not long after, Kakehashi shuffled through the door without a word, setting his bag on his desk and taking a seat. Capturing his gaze was the image of socializing classmates, laughing and chatting. Like a wide-eyed puppy dog, he watched the cluster of kids almost envious.

Inoue held her textbook to her face to hide her flare of frustrated anger. At lunch, she’d ask the homeroom teacher to use the copy machine in the teachers' offices. She had the teacher’s password after an innocent favor months ago. Maybe the admission file could shine some light on this potential part-timer problem. 


 The sky above Disney Castle glittered with a million stars. 

Beneath the stars, past the thicket of sculpted ivy hedges, underneath the shell of metal, through the coiling gears and pistons lied the workshop of Gummiship Engineers, Chip, and Dale. Chip was currently jumping around the computer module designing a ship model with frantic creative energy. Dale, on the other hand, was by the massive telescope. The contraption looped and coiled surfacing it’s large scope toward the night sky. The red-nosed chipmunk’s brother was too consumed in his work to scold Dale for such an unproductive activity, but he had heard word of an amusing formation in the stars and wanted to investigate.

… and something was definitely eye-catching.

Wowza ! Hey, Chip check this out!”

Chip paused the repetitive two-handed press of a button with a sigh.

“Now Dale, we told Cid we’d finish the blueprints to the new Excalibur ship by tomorrow!”

Excited, Dale ushered his brother to the telescope. “I know, but Chipper this is really neat! Who knows if it will last!”

Fine.” Chip scampered from the terminal. “But we should get to work right after!”

He squared his gaze into the eye-hole that was basically the size of his face. 

 “That star in the middle is so bright! Like a shooting star! But it’s not moving nowhere!”

Indeed, squared in the telescope was a brilliant star, It was massive. Spires of light sprawling around it. It even produced a halo around its shimmering brilliance. It filled Chip with wonder… then concern.

Wordlessly, he jumped off the platform and climbed up to another computer terminal. A smack of a button brought the screen to life and he pulled the telescope’s vision on the screen. Another button press and scanners and meters were analyzing with frantic beeps. 

“What’s wrong Chip?” Dale asked in the midst of the sudden focus. 

“I-I’m not sure! I think something’s wrong! You remember what the King always says. Those stars are Worlds!”

The computer’s analysis was soon completed. A large box filled the screen in red.

[Error: Unable to Anchor Coordinates]

“No Coordinates?!” Dale exclaimed.

“But there are still readings! It’s there!”

“Is it moving?!”

“I-It’s shaking. The World is… is shaking!”

“Oh no! What does that mean?”

“Ready the ship Dale! I’ll tell the King!”

The chipmunk pattered across the echoing floors of the castle halls, sliding at the turns with his panicked momentum. He got to the massive throne room doors and without hesitation, he ran directly at it. With his tiny body, he smushed himself through the bottom crack of the door, popping out of the other end like a slingshot.

“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” He called, closing the distance. The king wasn’t on his throne… but a glow emitted from behind his chair. That meant only one thing. 

“Your Majesty!” Chip shouted turning around the throne. There stood the King, a serious expression on his face staring at a glowing keyhole on the back of his chair. 

“--Yes Master Yen Sid!” He said with a nod. “And I’ll get back with you on his whereabouts the moment I find them!” The light died away.

“Chip! What are you doing here?” The mouse king exclaimed.

“Dale and I found a strange reading on a World! We’ve never seen anything like it! It’s like it’s going all haywire!”

“Haywire?” Mickey jumped. He quickly sobered his expression. “Thank you Chip. Actually, Master Yen Sid just explained how the stars are all messed up all of a sudden. We must be looking at the same problem.”

“We’re readying a ship! Are you going to investigate?”

Mickey solemnly shook his head. “Not me. Master Yen Sid is sending our fastest.”

“Is it Riku?” Chip asked hopefully.

That question brought pain to the mouse’s eyes. Dejected, the King visibly slumped forward. “No.”

Chip let out a sympathetic sigh as the King continued. 

“We haven’t heard from Riku in weeks. The Master wants to keep me on the look-out for him.”

Chip gave himself a determined shake. “Oh! He’ll come back to us! You can scold him for days for the trouble!”

The King gave a small smile. “Aw, Thanks Chip.”

The chipmunk looked at his feet, suddenly troubled. “Say… your Majesty? This… isn’t the darkness again is it?”

The mouse grimaced. The answer shivered behind his eyes-- how he didn’t want this truth. 

“That’s the thing… it’s definitely not the darkness this time.”

Chapter Text

“‘Kakehashi Sora. Birthday… March 28th... 15 years old… male… --ah, Transfer Student…’”

The computer screen rattled off data in a blur. Most of it was standard. Address, contact information, allergies… But of course, for this transfer student, nothing was straightforward. 

Former School: ______[no data]_________        

Rank percentile: _____[no data]_________

Entrance Exam Score: _____exempt______

“Didn’t take the test?” Inoue muttered. She was grateful for the staff lunch meeting that cleared the office space. It was exceedingly rare that a transfer student would be able to get into the school without taking the benchmark exam. And in the case of exemption, they needed to be in a high academic rank at their previous school. Kakehashi had none of that. 

The class rep suddenly had the mind to jot some of these things down. As she took down the address, the parental contact caught her eye. Only one section was filled out. Only one parent. 

Kakehashi” Was all it read. No given name. The phone number by his name was the same as the primary contact information and under relation, it simply said: ‘father’.

Confusion twisted the knife as each line came up blank. Required fields were filled with zeros and ‘n/a’. No mention of America. Nothing on his school. This kid was an absolute ghost. Somebody had to approve of this.

She scrolled down to the bottom where administrator notes were compiled. One such bullet point was something she was already aware of. 

  • Student has a note of authentication for their hairstyle on file. Do not penalize. 

The homeroom teacher mentioned this when Inoue voiced her concern in private. After observing the remarkable holes in this file, the desire to actually see this correspondence was palpable. This ‘Mr. Kakehashi’ was enigmatic to the point of criminal. But more damning yet was the final administrator ‘note’ on the transfer student’s profile. Because it wasn’t a note. It was a badge. A flashing ‘Backer’ badge. 

 

Reserved to denote tuition paid with the highest donations. 


 “Fate is such a funny thing, doncha think?” Xigbar purred, crouched low to rest his legs. In his hands was a beautifully crafted wooden bow. He strummed the taut string in a distracted manner, allowing it’s dull twang to amuse him. There was a sharp tongue click, almost masked by the distant sounds of festivities.

“I don’t see what’s so funny at all. I’d rather not be a puppet to some force I cannot even fathom.”

“But see that’s the thing.” Xigbar countered, grabbing the bow and pointing it at his hooded companion whose broad shoulders faced the crowd of merry denizens. “People get so bent out of shape trying to defy it the moment it doesn’t look good for them.--But that’s just so much work! Why try so hard against the inevitable?”

At his feet, Xigbar grabbed at a small quiver of arrows. For a moment he fiddled with the thing until finally lacing it along the bow. “Fate’s like a user’s manual. Makes things easy. Smooth sailing.

Even in his poor posture, Xigbar mocked the arrow’s draw, squinting his gaze to the back of his companion’s head like a target. If he let go, the arrow would probably fall onto the earth. 

“... and I bet you know all about that-- Aced.

The Foreteller, wearing the mask of the bear, turned to face his brother-in-training. He was unphased by the targeted weapon but angered by other means. “I don’t see how this conversation aids the situation at hand-- Luxu.

The drawn arrow floated from its post away from the bow. It smacked Xigbar’s eyepatch and he made a face at the offensive weapon.

 “Tch-- That’s why I prefer the more modern versions of these things.” He muttered, setting the bow down and rising to his feet. 

“Well?” Aced pressed. “Why are we here? And where is this?”

“‘The Land of Fate’-- A heavy title for such a light-hearted World, you agree?”

Aced returned his attention to the festivities beyond the trees. At the foot of a modest stone castle was a village in anticipation. People were shuffling about the dirt paths back and forth moving towards an open clearing. Docked ships in the nearby channel and the steady drone of bagpipes indicated formal company. 

“What do you suppose is going on?”

Well, according to the kingdom heralds-- there is to be a competition for the princess of this fine land’s hand in marriage. The event of the ages!”

“And are we here to view this?”

“You got that right bear-boy. Where else would the story start?”

 

Xigbar led the charge to the village streets where flows of people congregated to the field. The townsfolk were too full of their excited rabble to even give them a second look.  Aced trailed in with uncertainty.

“W-Wait! Shouldn’t we assume a glamour of some kind? The World Order.

Xigbar stopped his gait with an exasperated roll of his eyes. His former colleagues weren’t nearly this considerate of such trivial things. He was lucky none of the summoned Foretellers knew of his hand in inciting the Keyblade War. Such goodie-goodies. 

“Actually, that isn’t necessary. Robes are all the rage here-- well next to kilts. Oh-- and hey--” He snatched something from one of the neighboring market stands. “--you fit right in with your bear-y-ness.”

He wiggled a small wooden figurine of a bear in his companion’s face. It was a savage-looking toy with a maw of chiseled teeth and battle scars engraved in its wooden hide. Aced bared his notably less pointy teeth in response, swiping the thing away with annoyance. Xigbar returned the figurine to the stand of wood carvings, giving the glaring old lady a charming grin of apology.

“Besides, fitting in goes against the point.”

In the event clearing, the pair weaseled away from the crowding stand of onlookers and curled around the outskirts of the subjected spectacle. There was little order in the sense of audience control so no one stopped them from hanging back closer to the action. Upon the field, people took on feats of physical prowess in a series of games and challenges. Dancers performed, musicians flailed their fingers, kids played.

The contestants prepared for the trial; stretching with theatrical posturing, convening with the clan heads, and fiddling with the object of the test.

‘Oh, so it’s a game of good ol’ archery’ His body was a proud marksman, a trait Luxu happily assimilated when he commandeered poor Braig’s life from him. The thrill of setting one’s sights on a target and pulling the trigger to take it instantly was a sensation he could sympathize with. 

Elevated in a sturdy viewing structure was a row of thrones, the royal family took their seats. An elegant woman in green, a large peg-legged beast of a man, three antsy red-headed triplets and a young lady. The princess sat in discomfort, covered head to toe in a formal gown-- a lick of her red hair poking from her head covering in rebellion. Her defiance was a brilliant spotlight. Xigbar couldn’t help the chuckle that came from him.

“What is it?” Aced asked, practically offended. 

“Oh, nothing,” Xigbar said. “I’m just tickled that you lot needed a book to tell you how things would play out.”

Aced was about to protest when the woman in green-- clearly the queen-- rose above the rabble of villagers beside her excited husband. Unable to contain himself, the king stood abruptly and loudly proclaimed.

“It’s time!”

The queen in a clear voice, dripping in similar mirth shouted after him. “Archers, to your mark!”

“Aye! Archers, to…your marks!”

“And may the lucky arrow find its target!”

What proceeded could only be described as anti-climatic. Xigbar knew he shouldn’t have expected more from three amateur children against stale immobile targets, but the rhythmic drumming preamble got his hopes up. The three suitors, one by one, filed to their target, drew their bow, and gave archery a good old try. 

The final, strange-looking, vertically challenged suitor, landed a bullseye-- by no effort but luck’s sense of humor. 

The people were cheering wildly. Music was sounding, things were being thrown. Joyous chaos. Aced turned to Xigbar with his lips pursed. 

“I don’t understand the significance of our being here. The princess is to marry. It’s done.”

Xigbar had his eye fixed on a rock in the storm. The princess abruptly rising in the uproar and ducking behind her throne while the world was distracted. His grin was ear-splitting.

“Don’t speak so soon my friend.” He said without breaking his gaze. Behind his observing yellow eye, an idea brewed. The thrill it brought him was maddening. 

Sure enough, a banner perched into the ground, a new clan symbol joined the other three. It’s presence brought silence. An unexpectant new contestant for the princess’s hand was draped in a cloak.

Who could it be? An old friend here to prove his love for her? A scheming villain here to steal the throne? If you paid attention, it wasn’t hard to guess. 

A shock of wild red hair was freed from the cloak and the crowd gasped. 

“I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch, and I'll be shooting for my own hand!”

 

Bingo~

 

Xigbar gave Aced a sidelong glance and finger guns. The Foreteller looked around under his mask in confusion. 

“I’d like you to watch carefully what I’m about to do, Aced.” He walked away, weaving through the crowd while Aced stumbled his questions and protest.

The people exclaimed as the princess drew her bow, ripping her constricting dress in an angry jerk of her torso. 

Merida!” Her mother shouted in horror. 

Calmly, and with a piercing focus in her eyes, the now unconfined princess prepped her arrow to the target and paced along the line. She released.

Bullseye.

Draw, release.

Bullseye.

Before the victor’s target, Merida paused to center her breath. There was an entire arrow shaft in her way. She’d have to split it. Her mother was plowing towards her, declaring furious threats against her daughter’s actions. The young royal was unphased. 

“Merida! I forbid it!”

She released the arrow. It slithered past. The bow knocked into her forearm. It was sure. The trajectory was straight and ferocious and inevitable. 

 

Only for a black-gloved hand to stop it frozen in its tracks.

 

The village was stunned silent. Merida’s jaw was slack. 

Xigbar pulled the arrow to his face and poked at its pointed head with childish ignorance. He whistled, impressed.

“Man, you are good!” He laughed. “That was definitely gonna make its mark.” He briefly fiddled with the tail of the submerged winning arrow.

No one could find words. The intruder continued, directing his attention out.

“So the princess doesn’t want to get married? You are way ahead of your time Little Miss!”

Merida found her voice in a hot spike of anger. “Who are you?” 

The villagers waited with curious anticipation. Xigbar balanced the arrow in his palm. “Who me? I’m just a concerned passerby.” 

In the crowd, Aced seethed. Finally kicking himself out of his shocked silence, he intervened pushing himself into the clearing with billowing steam. “What are you doing Luxu?!”

Xigbar gave an amicable exclamation. “Oh Aced, I’m glad you were watching. Come here, I’ll walk you through it.”

Aced’s confusion at Xigbar’s plot won out. He drew closer, cautiously glancing around for something as the interloper continued.

“You see--people of this fine land…” Aced had never seen Luxu speak to a crowd before, there was a remarkable amount of showmanship. “... I find myself concerned with the dear princess’s spit of rebellion! Does she not understand the responsibility of her station?”

The crowd shuffled a little. They were listening. Xigbar’s words were charming. There were many faces they did not recognize around them. They weren’t nearly as hostile as they could’ve been. 

“I mean, they don’t put on these arranged marriages for no reason am I right? The queen can probably attest to that!”

Eyes turned to the regal woman. She seemed perturbed by the grandstanding stranger but she remained silent. 

“Just think, years from now-- calamity could strike! Invaders from far off lands! A poor yield of crops! Or even just a big scary bear could happen upon the kingdom. And when the princess calls for help she’s going to wonder why everyone’s just being so darn rude! --It’s not like she snubbed their rightful chance for power or anything!”

The Clan heads who were postured in a defensive manner slackened their stances in consideration. The royal couple looked as uncomfortable as poor Merida in her constricting dress. 

“But forgive me for my forwardness! I do think we’ve avoided the complication now haven’t we?” Xigbar stepped to the side to prevent his obscuring of the target. The arrow of the third suitor was still squarely in place. 

“Congratulations are in order for Lord… ‘Dingwall’-- was it? You are sure to be a hearty ally!” 

The Dingwall Clan took the spotlight with befuddlement. Xigbar threw his hand their way in presentation.

“Hear, hear!”

Any and all tension created from Xigbar’s outburst diffused. The excited noises from the people began to return. Laughs and calls rang out once more. People were always ready to dismiss their troubles.

 

“Aye! Hear, hear!”

“Congratulations!”

“To Lord Dingwall!”

"What a happy couple they'll be!"

The people resumed their cheering from before Merida’s interruption. The rabble was almost a protest in its own right. Xigbar gave a glance to the royals location, the queen consulting with her husband who had come to her side. Without taking her eyes off of the villagers, she held her mouth in a thin line, containing her steady fury. She settled her focus on her daughter in the sea of victory.

Merida was shell-shocked. Her hands were shaking.

“Princess.” Xigbar directed his attention square on the red-head as the people celebrated. “Don’t take it personally. I’m just trying to... what was it? Oh!--‘change yer fate.'” 

There were furious tears in her eyes. She darted her gaze around the people, celebrating her imprisonment. Xigbar took note of the queen making moves toward her daughter, a pursuit. 

Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch gave an enraged yell of protest. Her bow whipped the air. And with that, she stormed away. Her forceful walk through the people turned into a trot and then an all-out run.

Merida!” Her mother called after her. 

The sound of her stifled sobs rang through the land.

Xigbar looked at the arrow he stole pensively as the people took alarm to her retreat. “Oh but princess, it appears you’re going the wrong way.”

Peculiar. The arrow was flickering, distortions peeled off its shaft. Buzzing, glitching. As though it was throwing an absolute fit. Satisfaction curled Xigbar’s lips like a purring cat eating a canary.

At his feet, the grass turned into liquid puddles. Slowly, small crystalline creatures shivered from the earth, emitting a faint glow. Their long rabbit-like ears were chains that jostled with their emergence. They scratched at the earth with spastic twitching. Their pitch-black eyes darted around the world from which they were born. 

Drafts-- as they were called, were rather adorable abominations.

Luxu… ” Aced called cautiously, eyes on the green creatures. No one had noticed their sly activity just yet. 

“Don’t worry. They’re a sign.”

“A sign?”

“A sign that we are poking the right holes.”

“‘Poking holes’? What are you talking about!?”

Xigbar ignored him and instead looked down to the three creatures at his feet. “The fate of this World is sure to right itself!” He whispered sensationally to the Drafts, displaying the arrow before them. “Give her a little slow down will you?”

The mindless things made no note of Xigbar’s word. They simply shivered into the earth. The distortions of their puddles then shot along the surface in Merida’s direction.

“Let’s get to work Aced. We only caused a slight snag in the World’s design-- and well--the Master said to ‘wreak havoc’ after all.” 

Chapter Text

The sight of his classmate’s back walking through the crowded pedestrian path, sucked Sawada’s gaze in. He followed leagues behind him, obscured by fellow strangers in either direction, but hypersensitive to the sightlines. He needed to see the peer’s head of wild brown spikes, bowed forward but bobbing to a slumping gait.

Everything about the new kid triggered Sawada’s recognition. The way he held himself in idle moments, his lounging posture of boredom. His nervous vocal lilt when he wasn’t sure.

Appearance-wise, his hair was the greatest tell. The unruly spikes poked in just the right directions to be unmistakable. Next to that, it was his dazzling blue eyes, rimmed around full, almost feminine lashes. And he’d be remiss not to mention how the boy had received a gentle scolding from the homeroom teacher for the clattering metal necklace by his collar on the first day. 

The crown pendant convinced him that these features were less than coincidental. He didn’t wear it again, but there was no hiding that thing’s unique origin. 

A theory stirred. Self-indulgent. Fantastical and fun. He wanted it. Wanted something . Wouldn’t that just be the craziest thing? And so cool. Just the thought of it made his heart race.

--which he’d promptly squelch with the correct combo of unsavory memories. Too many times was the victim to scornful ridicule and chastisement.

If in the end, Kakehashi Sora was just an aptly named enthusiast-- perhaps Sawada could simply enjoy like-minded company. The new kid never had to know.

He was absorbed in watching him so much that he failed to notice the figure flank his left.

“Tell me the real reason you’re following Kakehashi.” 

Sawada jumped, a surprised yelp escaping him as Inoue shot him an annoyed glare at his loud exuberance. Nevertheless, her gaze was postured forward, an arrow at her target a block ahead of her. She was a fierce-looking girl, the only sign of levity was the bounce of her ponytail, even then it was pulled iron tight to her head. 

“Huh?” He said in a high voice. 

Kakehashi was approaching a crosswalk. The sudden pair had to think quick before they caught up with him. Inoue grabbed Sawada’s arm and pulled him around the entryway of a convenience store, obscured from the sidewalk. Pedestrians looked at the two with disinterest. Just another young couple looking for a place to share a moment. 

“You wanted me to check his files. Why?”

Sawada was visibly intimidated by Inoue’s forceful question, but something in her answer triggered a spark of delight. 

What did you find?”

His eagerness made her take a step back. Sawada’s was trying to make her look up his file. This ‘stake-out’ was just a front to get her on board, right? He supposedly knew what she’d find in his files. She bit her tongue from the free flow answer to his question-- undeniably genuine. He really didn’t know...

“That he’s definitely not in need of a part-time job.” She said sourly, trying to call him out on this facade.

“Interesting…” He practically whispered. His eyes were dancing around the street, mulling a million thoughts. He glanced behind the corner to take another look at the subject. Kakehashi was on his phone. 

“Where are you going?” Sawada asked himself.

“You knew that already didn’t you? That’s why you mentioned his file.” She tried to cover up her implicit obedience to his plan with a forceful delivery.

“Not at all. The only thing I knew is… he’s ...just--  something’s not right about the new kid. ” 

Inoue let something sink in-- trying to read Sawada’s face for a tell. He was self-conscious about something. She sighed. 

“So...it was a hunch. An honest to god hunch.” She confirmed, beside herself with disbelief. He nodded fiercely. She felt played. And disappointed in herself.

She knew well enough that a guess would not have brought her to look into Kakehashi, regardless of her irritation at him. Her principles were too strong. She needed an excuse as much as Sawada did. She fell back a little dumbfounded. 

“... I guess you have decent instincts…” 

Sawada perked up.

“The kid’s a total ghost. There are no records, no test, no data except the basic stuff...”

“No way. Wild.” The excitement in his eyes was uncontained and fervent. Inoue suddenly regretted the share of info. He was positively beaming. It was creepy. 

“Now this could mean a lot of things.” She pressed, trying to temper the imagination of this insufferable classmate of hers. “It could be an administration error or something. He’s got a parent contact...” With no given name… Seriously how did anyone sign off on that?

The donor badge flashed for a reason. Inoue felt a well of shame twist her face. 

Her school was dirty.

“A parent contact? Who is it? Maybe we can dig up where they are!”

… he wanted to play detective, didn’t he? Inoue scoffed, disgusted with the child standing before her.

“What? no! There’s just a last name and a phone number--”

“--Let’s call ‘em!” 

 

“Call who?”

Inoue’s stomach dropped. In her sightline, she saw the crosswalk, completely empty. A number of well-dressed businessmen walked across the street, unhindered by the lights. 

Their target was nowhere to be found. 

 

“Do… you wanted my phone number?… I’m happy to give it to you if ask.”

She turned to see Kakehashi standing awkwardly in the sidewalk beside them. He had a hand on his school bag, grip tight. She noticed his cellphone in his right hand, held like a protective talisman. His expression was level, chin down ever so slightly. Defensive. 

“What? How?” Sawada spluttered, as surprised as Inoue. What direction had he come from? When?

“--Actually” The interruption from their target was a haphazard bite at the air. Breathless. Forced. “I have a question for you.” 

Any rebuttal forming in Inoue’s throat retreated. He didn’t speak impolitely. In fact, he sounded uncomfortable. Almost scared. He swallowed. 

“Did either one of you… send a package to my address?”

Confusion swept away Inoue’s expression. 

“A package?” She parrotted. She didn’t expect such a forward question. She didn’t expect to talk to him at all.

Kakehashi shifted. “Yeah… it’s just… no one knows where I live. At least I think…

--And why is that?” Sawada blurted loudly and Inoue sharply took in his tense excitement. He looked like a dog pulling on a leash. Kakehashi jerked back in response. He looked overwhelmed, his eye contact breaking to look around, trained for an easy escape. 

“Sawada!” Inoue snapped. She didn’t know if it was from the sudden instinct to apologize for her presence next to this immature company, or if it was in defense of whatever investigative strategy she thought to employ on the new kid. 

“Because I… I’m new…” Kakehashi tried a smile, spluttering a response, caught off guard. This was the pathetic-new-kid act once again. Nothing like the boy in the stairwell telling her off for reckless evidence gathering. 

“What were you sent?” Inoue asked with a frown. Kakehashi looked like a deer in the headlights.

“N-nothing… uh… It was nothing…” He took a step back, avoiding eye contact. “I’m sorry to bother you…”

Inoue slammed her teeth together. Like a cobra her hand snatched out, her fingers curled around his forearm, pulling at his sudden retreat. Kakehashi was stunned at her attack.

“It’s clearly not nothing! ” She growled, fed up with the kid. Her fingers dug into his blazer jacket. “What were you sent?”

For all she knew, it could violate school rules. 

“A… a game controller.”

Huh? He had mumbled the words but… she heard it.

That made Inoue pause. Nothing about this kid was predictable. Awkwardness rushed over her and she raised a brow. She couldn’t control the lace of judgment in her words.

“And that ...bothers you?”

Kakehashi pulled himself from her grip. “I-It’s nothing! Like I said… nothing… sorry...” He insisted and he turned around, practically trotting down the street toward the crosswalk. The slump of his shoulders was embarrassed and defensive. She could tell his chin was tucked down.

I-Is it because you’re from a video game?

Sawada blurted, wild. He was breathing heavy, eyes practically clipped open. Like saying that one question took everything in his power. Inoue’s face dropped.

What…

Kakehashi frozen mid-stride.

“I-It’s cause you’re from a video game… right? Sora?” Sawada was shaking. Adrenaline buzzing and coursing through him. 

Confusion, gobsmacked befuddlement corkscrewed around Inoue’s head. What did he just say? She gave a dry huff in an attempt to expel some of her offense. Was he crazy? Was this opinionated immature classmate of hers certifiably insane?  

“W-what did you just say?” She directed at her unintentional companion. He ignored her.

“Sora? I-I didn’t send you any package… but that’s your name. Sora .” Sawada pressed. Kakehashi hadn’t moved. An absolute statue.

Inoue barked a laugh. The tension was suffocating. The world turned upside down. 

“What are you talking about?” She pressed with a forced smile. She had some hope that this classmate of hers wasn’t off his rocker, lost in baby dreamland. She wanted to believe that she didn’t just enable such an unhealthy, absorbed, deluded theory and help him corner an innocent if infuriating classmate. “You’re being too casual with someone you just met don’t you think?”

Kakehashi was slumped forward. Was he angry? Scared? Inoue regretted being a part of this scene. She felt the need to apologize for even associating… She glanced between the two parties for a moment more. Confusion buzzing behind her face like a nest of annoying, aggressive hornets. 

 

Then, Kakehashi turned around. 

 

And tears were falling down his cheeks. His petrified blue eyes swimming. Shaking. He was red in the face, mounting in barely contained emotions seeping from the cracks. He looked at Sawada. A shuddering breath escaped him. 

“You…” He started, struggling to speak. His voice was thick, wet and crackling. His hands were shaking fists. He sniffed. The tears just spilled down the tracks. 

And there was a phantom smile in all of that pain. Hopeful, yearning, relief. 

“...don’t think I’m crazy?”


 Sora held his breath. Cutting off the air forcibly as if to suspend the silence between his question and the frightening response. Ever since he read the word on Anon’s chatlog. Ever since that first night in this Consequence where his very being was a point of senseless rejection. A rejection he couldn’t fight. Viewing that picture of his face behind a wall so untouchable. So far. So invisible. A wall telling him he was stuck here. And here was the Truth. The dream was over and he was nothing. Nothing. Nothing but crazy. Insane. Out of touch. Unreachable in every sense of the word.

He did this to himself. He knew. He knew. He felt it coming. Why did he expect anything different? Why did he do it? Why did he go over the edge? He knew. Crazy. Insane. Stupid. Stupid. CRAZY.

‘Sora you lazy bum!’

 

Clarity. 

He hadn’t realized it until Sawada had said it, but Sora hadn’t been called by his name since arriving here. 

 

Sawada’s mind was racing. He couldn’t close his mouth. His fantasy. The greatest conjuring of his imagination… was real? It was… a game… a wish… something so farcical. Unreal. He… didn’t think he’d get this far. And here he was… the wildest option was apparently true. And it was crying.

He felt a laugh of disbelief taunt his chest. Sawada gave the briefest of nods. Dazed. Against any better judgment.

“Yeah…” He heard his voice say. “A-Are you really… from...?”

A final shot in the dark. A final chance for Sawada to be disappointed. For the game to stop.

Inoue watched the scene helpless to the sickness in her gut. It festered cold… her muscles constricted.

The tension snapped for Sora first. A rush of relief. He brought the heel of his hand to his eye. He sniffled while rubbing his eyes. Sucking a breath through clenched teeth, he nodded.

“It’s a little hard for me to get my head around it myself...” He smiled at Sawada, inviting the boy to release some of that pent up excitement in his own expression.

“The actual hard thing to understand…” Inoue's voice pressed out of her with force. A fire in her was fueling its volume. “... is how you both aren’t in some kind of hospital.”

Kakehashi’s face fell. Any and all hope or relief out like a light as is expression glazed over.

“Do you guys hear yourself? -- it’s ridiculous.

 

“Rep…” Sawada cautioned in a low voice. The hostility he turned on was not an expression she could even imagine on the boy. It only served to infuriate her even more.

“You dragged me into this Sawada, I’ll speak my mind. --I mean you two are 15-years old.

Kakehashi flinched. He wasn’t looking at her anymore. 

“You’re telling me, the new kid just fell out of the sky? From fictional lala-land?-- and of course it’s a video game -- This must be some kind of prank on me. I hope it’s a prank on me.”

Sawada scowled, an angry fire in his own gaze. His face was red and his hands were balled into fists. “You saw his file. Explain that.”

Inoue laughed with a forced gusto. “Easy.” The anger still coated her head. The bubble of joy it produced was toxic. Like painful needles pushing into her, deeper and deeper. 

“Daddy’s a big donor to the school. He pulled a quick favor. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it happens in the finest of institutions.”

Kakehashi’s eyes were staring off in dazed horror. Total shutdown. Sawada was gritting his teeth as Inoue continued. 

“Kakehashi Sora is just an everyday rich guy’s kid who's crying out for attention. Playing the meek little transfer student. And now he’s playing you Sawada-- the class coo-coo-lander.”

“You’re wrong!” Sawada yelled, face red. His eyes were enraged and glassy. Commuters stared and gave the group space. Inoue matched Sawada’s anger but with more self-righteousness.

You’re crazy!

Kakehashi actually jerked his hands to his ears. Inoue bit back her tongue instantly. She wasn’t one to hesitate but there was something about the new kid. He played every vulnerability defense instinct in her body like a fiddle and that was a power she couldn’t resent less. She had to fight.

Inoue released a lungful of air. Settling her thoughts and tone. Readjusting her position defensively but notably calmer. All of her words were directed at Sawada who had the fighting spark in him. 

“I can’t believe you’re gonna make me get proof… I guess I’ll consider it my duty as your Rep.”

“Save yourself the trouble!” Sawada stood in front of the transfer student who was currently in utter silence. Venom on his tongue.

“Noted.” Inoue scowled. 

Looking at it pragmatically, the moment was not completely lost. If there was one thing she could take away from this it was that the new kid was an actual freak and the class annoyance lived up to the gripes and then some. She spared one last glance to Kakehashi. His head was hanging. Absolute defeat. Maybe even more than that… 

Guilt soured her stomach despite herself. Soft. He was manipulating everyone’s feelings. 

And if he… god forbid actually believed this story of his… Inoue felt compelled to wake him up from his dream, no matter how good that made him feel. She was used to taking the heat for what is right. It’d be good for him. And if he was lying-- which he probably was-- she was in for sweet justice. He had to be lying...

“Well, this is an afternoon I won’t get back. Have a good weekend you two.” 

And Inoue stormed away.


It was like suffocating. Fingers scratching raw on a cliffside trying to stay afloat.

Crazy

                                                                                                                In s  a  ne

Manipulating

                                     Acting

Playing dumb                                                       STUPID

Fictional

MADE UP

                                                                                                                                                                          not real

                                                                                                                             pointless

PUPPET

Show

[pawn]

C  R A  Z Y

 

Game.

“Sora!”

And for a second it sounded like Goofy’s encouraging laugh was prodding him for a smile. The hands on his shoulders were so much like his. Firm and reassuring. Just looking at him and Donald made him feel warm and loved and protected. He was a part of a set. Their set. 

“Sora?” The voice tried again. 

Sora flicked his eyes to the speaker. His defender. The boy classmate of his that was following him. He called him by name. He saw him. He believed him. He fought by his side. Sora’s heart stirred. Gears in motion. Stretching stiff limbs. Reaching...

“Thank you...”

His words were the vessel for his feelings, spoken slowly. The wind in those sails was hesitant but his sailor’s sight persisted fervently. Sora was usually so good with names but his head was fuzzy. Filled with cotton having been mauled by intrusive thoughts he never before had experienced. 

“Sawada, Sawada Shoto.”

Oh yeah, she called him that. A hand left his shoulder and placed itself firmly before him, palm open. An offering. He stared.

“We hadn’t formally introduced ourselves outside of class… I-I… bet you have questions.”

The spark of joy in his chest was almost painful. It lingered and the smile grew from its nourishment. Unmistakable was the moment. Sora grabbed the hand outstretched before him. Both of them squeezed the handshake too tight. One, starved. A meal after a famine. A friend.

“I’m Sora.”

The other-- vindicated. The pinched cheek of amazement. Real.

“I know.”


Gnawing. The memory on replay. Her words, an echo. 

She laid flat on her bed, staring at her light fixture until spots peppered her vision. Absolutely still. As still as the new kid crumbling on a Shibuya sidewalk in the wake of her outburst. Her panicked sneers. The too-loud laughs. Sick. She felt sick. 

Inoue launched from her bed and scrambled to the cellphone on her desk. Right next to it was a ripped piece of paper, scribbles along the yellow writing lines. Her notes from the research into Kakehashi.

If I just…

Confirm the truth. Call this crazy story for what it is. Punish the schemer. Wake up the dreamer. Calm the denier. 

The cover story churned from her imagination like an algorithm. A student council profile. The request for more information. An apology for the evening call. For the disturbance. No mention of the bribe. Just proof. 

Kakehashi’s mysterious father was behind the number she just dialed. 

And when she pressed ‘call’ it rang four times.

 

And then…

 

[click]

 

“Hello?”

-X Continue…?-

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand!” Aced’s voice was a snarl and Xigbar could only huff a laugh at his intensity. Once upon a time, Aced was his elder. Now his rash immaturity was clear as day. The flickering torchlight in the castle walls gleamed against his bared teeth. 

“We are sworn to the keyblade. We are to defend the worlds. Whatever you are doing is the exact opposite of that!” The bear mask foreteller pushed his strides aggressively at his brother in training. Xigbar submitted with bemusement, slyly navigating backward past a table clattering with tools, quills, and parchment. Evening light spilled into the tapestry room of the castle and the hearth blazed a complement of colors.

The DuBroch Clan pride hung along the walls of this room. The stitched illustration pieced together a picture of the royal family between strobes of darkness and firelight. A magnificent tapestry of green with intricate embroidery threaded with care and love.

“Now you’re not looking at the bigger picture, Aced.”

“Big picture? Are you mad Luxu?”

Xigbar rolled his eyes, more tired of the conversation than annoyed with the direction.

“Please, this is the only way to bring back the Master. Don’t you want that?”

Aced bit his tongue. A stifled gurgle in his throat. He released an exasperated lung full of air.

“You misunderstand me.” He said. “I am not as enamored with our Master as maybe Ava or Ira. I am no fool to the hindrance his teachings placed on our shoulders.”

“But you are still his disciple. You are here. The prospect of his return holds some kind of value to you.”

Aced lifted his chin up in a mindless defense against his logic. His younger brother-in-training continued.

“Don’t you want to know why the Master shackled you Foretellers with such arbitrary rules? Rules that mean nothing in the face of the threat of the encroaching Darkness? Do you blame him? For the prophecy? Don’t you wish to understand why all of that shameful strife had to happen?”

“Not at this cost!” Aced barked. Xigbar mocked exaggerated surprise at his outburst.

“Cost? Do you even know what is happening?” The eye-patched intruder moved his posture forward, instantly consuming the high ground. Dominance. His next words were ice cold. “Everything in the World is chained to a predestined fate. A destiny that can’t be changed. Sound familiar?”

Aced bared his teeth. Xigbar sneered a grin. That predictable frustration in the bear was just so satisfying. He turned to the tapestry hanging on the wall so proudly. The stitched depiction of the royal family was fictional and idyllic. The perfect example.  

“Every choice that little princess makes is a part of a perfect design. Orchestrated with all the ups and downs and twists and turns witnessed. Even those acts of defiance are a part of her story. An illusion of free will. Her world is woven together like this tapestry. Never able to go beyond the threads of the loom.” 

Xigbar stretched his arms in presentation to the product of tradition and delicate artistry. He stroked his gloved hand across the fabric in admiration. A beautiful thing. Positively gorgeous. 

“By disrupting this ‘order’ we free her. We unlock her entire World.”

Aced jump back as the air crackled to life before Xigbar’s hands and the Gazing Eye bore into him. In one sure motion, Luxu split the tapestry in half with the keyblade in a horrible ripping sound. A family cleaved in half.

“And as we free these Worlds, we free our greater realm. No more destiny.”

The air seemed to vibrate before them. The walls shimmered. Flickered. Unease settled in Aced’s gut. His jaw was slack. His fingers trembled.

“Isn’t that what you wanted Aced? Isn’t that why you worked so tirelessly against the Master’s orders to find the traitor? To forge alliances, throw off the balance of the unions, and service the tension that would later ignite into the war you wanted to avoid? You didn’t know it, but nothing you ever did could have avoided your destiny.”

The bear Foreteller was limp. Realization. Horror weakening his limbs to jelly. Ice coursing in his veins, heavy and slow. His foolish heartbeat fighting against its solid walls with throbbing protests. 

“Without its author. The story can only loop. And that oaf of a bear. The lazy, feckless bear. Unable-- unwilling to fight its destiny. Playing into it. At every. Single. Turn.”

Aced’s voice caught in his throat. That night played in his memory over and over. Like it had happened… over and over again. Rain falling down, hearts falling up. His brethren at the tip of his blade, his men at his feet. His heart screaming behind an impenetrable fort, built for his own protection. Keeping him from the true threat...

Why. Why was this happening? Why did he let this happen? Restart. Try again. Restart. Why?

“You and your inherited will enabled the senselessness. You were a pawn to the end, and you will be a pawn in your sequel.”

No.

The warping concentrated along the tapestry’s frayed threads, the image of the mother broken away from the daughter. Spindles of crystal fiber seeped from the fabric wound like webs. The illustration glitched spastically. 

Xigbar’s eyes shot wide with elation. A laugh of disbelief escaped his grin. 

Well, I’ll be…” He murmured as the distortion bowed and buckled. Aced had summoned his keyblade in the brewing storm. Behind the eyes of his bear mask, panicked pupils flickered back and forth. Uncertainty. Fear. Denial. His companion took a step back from the bleeding cut. 

“The Unchained...” He said, staring as the web of fibers built a skeleton of crystal in the tapestry room, “...are possibilities given form. Shells of the lost, given enough light to hide in the fabric of the World but not enough to truly imprint in the hearts of its denizens. Fascinating things don’t you think?”

The Unchained being birthed grew and flickered faintly. A light so delicate and faint. Washed out by its surroundings. 

“It’s just so convenient!” He blurted suddenly. Glee uncontained at this surprising development. “Defy that fate and these creatures find their strength and aid the spiral.”

He seemed overwhelmed with a bout of impatience and he squared himself up to the tapestry. Suddenly Luxu’s keyblade was raking the fabric again and again. Vertical strikes slashing through the face of the daughter, the mother, the father, the children. It frayed into tatters. Demolished scraps of irreparable art and sentiment littered the floor. There was a stifled cackle among the friction of snapping strings.

“How lucky! Did I pinch a nerve?!” Who he was speaking to, Aced couldn’t tell. All he could see was the abomination growing and thrashing. Bulking up, towering over, unsheathing claws, snapping teeth. Luxu throwing his head back between slashes with glee. 

“Did this world need you for the story? Am I messing things up? Or are you just spinning at the endless lost potential in my big brother! Lost ideas have to stick together!”

Aced didn’t mean to drop his keyblade, but it shattered onto the ground in an explosion of light. Between the looping horrors of his complicit deeds and the shocking madness of his ally, the Unchained had matured. A massive bear with void-like eyes, made of refracting faces of crystal. Blooming with dim light, the beast filled the tapestry room and crowded Aced, bearing rows of jagged stone teeth rimmed around a pit of nothing. 

'No wonder you ended up as the bear. You're scary.'

Why did he have to be this way? What would it take to break free? 

The Unchained’s dim crystal light curled toward Aced. Chains of pure light snaked along his limbs. The Foreteller felt the chains grow taut, and mindlessly took a step closer to the beast. 

“Help me unravel the greater realm Aced. Let’s bring the Master back.”

He was pulled closer. Engraved in the bear’s skin of crystal stone was a heart, flickering with light and pulsing erratically. The chains of energy were snares drawing its doom prey to that empty heart. An unformed idea. Incomplete. Unstable. Aced didn’t fight its jealous pull. It mesmerized him. It was defiance embodied. It was the answer. 

The dim light ignited into a brilliant illumination as Aced’s form was encompassed by the creature. 

The bond was covalent. 

And the two became one. 


“So… no powers? At all?” Sawada asked the question while tossing a can spat out from a bus station vending machine. Sora caught the drink with one hand, only a slight notion of surprise on his face at the gesture. 

“None.” He confirmed before wiping the condensation of the can on his hoodie. It was the first time he had worn something other than pajamas and his uniform since landing in Shibuya. The hood hanging from his shoulders was a welcome feature.

“Reflexes seem fine,” Sawada commented grabbing his own beverage from the machine. 

“Not really.” Sora took a sip. Contrary to popular belief, Sora was not one to drink a lot of carbonated drinks but that seemed to be the gift to give here. “I don’t think I’m as quick as I was back home… but I’m not sure.”

“I wonder if we should test it.” Sawada mused with a twinkle in his eye. There was a bench in this bus stop, baking in the midday sun. He led the charge in sitting down and Sora followed, letting himself get distracted by the urban setting. There was a row of planted greenery along the walkway for beautification. Sawada jumped with a sudden idea. 

“What about your strength? And like, your skills? You could do crazy things with your keyblade. Backflips! Crazy jumps! Dual-wielding!”

Sora stirred uncomfortably. Trying not to disappoint his new friend's enthusiasm.“I know I’m not as strong. I’ve been tiring easily.”

“Hmm… I guess it makes sense that physics would work against you here… but…” Sawada stood up suddenly, his gaze darting toward the ground in search of something. His sight landed on something at the base of the urban tree and he launched to pick it up.

“Knowledge is something no world can take away from you.” He finished wisely, presenting a thin branch before him. Sora raised a brow in confusion. 

'Roxas, that’s a stick.'

Sora pushed down the memory that was not his and tentatively took the branch from Sawada’s hand. He was right. Still knew how to use it, regardless of if his keyblade would not come. 

“Go ahead and give it a couple of swings. Let’s see what you got.”

For some reason, Sora felt butterflies rustle as he glanced around the sparsely populated area. Sawada was waiting anxiously to be wowed. The hollow emptiness in his heart where his real weapon should be ached. He unconsciously fixed his attention on a distant pedestrian and sucked in a breath through his teeth. 

“Are you sure?” He couldn’t help the doubtful lilt of his voice. Sawada huffed a sheepish laugh. 

“Yeah! It’s okay…” Sawada urged with an insistent nod, shifting in a bout of embarrassment. He then failed to brush aside a mindless thought with an awkward chuckle. “The worrying is a little unlike you.”

Sora felt a stab of guilt twist his gut. Was he disappointing Sawada? Was Sawada doubting him? The emotions coursing through his heart seemed treacherous. Hesitant, he curled the stick back in the air and willed his muscles to move.

 

The air whistled with his swipe. 

 

There was a beat. An underwhelming display clearly. His heart wasn’t in it. 

“... I’m sorry.” Sawada said quietly. “I think I’m being too pushy.”

Sora embarrassed by the pathetic slash of his ‘weapon’ spluttered a defense. His face was red hot. “No no! I’m sorry… I’m just… I don’t know… lost I guess. 

There was a clap on his shoulder. Sawada curled an encouraging smirk. “Don’t worry. We’ll get to the bottom of it. And… we’ll get you home.”

Sora felt the warmth in his heart long after the bus skirted in front of the pair. The bumpy drive to Sawada’s home mimicked the bubble of happiness in Sora’s stomach.


 The massive shire horse tore through the forest, atop its back was a blaze of red hair bouncing along the creature’s bobbing push. The tears of frustration and embarrassment had dried salty tracks along Merida’s round face, her eyes now blaring wide open. Shaking with alarm, the princess darted her gaze left and right through the blurring scenery gasping for air in a panic. 

“Keep moving Angus!” She called towards the horse in shrill desperation. Forgotten was the original source of her fleeing. The horse grunted, resisting nervous attention toward the ground.

Merida yelped for Angus as the strange green creatures shimmered from the earth and swiped at his hooves. Left in the dust of the horse’s breakneck speed, the creatures only retreated into the ground like it was water, preparing to swim ahead to try again. 

“What are these things!?” Merida cried. They were too small and dodgy for her to square a clean shot. Their glowing complexion and sharp appendages were akin to some kind of demon or cursed creature. They spooked Angus to the point that most of her riding strength was curled in her iron grip on his mane. 

These pursuing goblins assaulted her senses with a distinct feeling of wrongness. The air sat wrong around the blur of their form. They glowed and shivered along the ground. Their eyes… an empty horror. Otherworldly, like the fables of ghouls and ghosts in the story, they did little to inspire the theatrical swells of bravery from her youth. 

Her mind went to the image of the eye-patched intruder. His sneer as he diffused her defiant act. The consuming black of his clock. His mocking voice, curling facial expressions, snappy gesticulations. Something was wrong about him too.

Merida’s steed gave a screaming whinny. There was a deafening crack as a tree behind her snapped in half. The archer reflexively looked back and felt her racing heart shoot up her throat.

 

Mor’du.

 

Her brain supplied the name with lightning speed, the horrifying memory of her childhood painting the dark, looming, and murderous beast from that horrible day. That memory had washed out after years by the dramatic retellings in her father’s voice and now the image was refreshed in an instant. The demon bear had returned. 

And it was right behind her.

The beast gave a roar that sounded like screeching glass, bending and ripping and breaking.

But it also sounded like a man. Unbridled rage yelling from human chords but equal to that of a demon, unlike the pure animal from her nightmares. It was tearing through the trees, striking them with massive claws, their cascading demolition clattering, rustling, breaking as it launched itself off the ground to keep up with the powerful horse before it.

Her own scream was stuck in her throat as she tore herself away in focus of her escape. Rows of forest zipped past and the path curled and twisted, the exit was only growing darker. 

“NEVER AGAIN!”

The beast bellowed behind the racing princess. And another tree fell at its savage tirade. Unfamiliar. Chilling. Wrong.

WRONG

Baffled by the words so clearly anguished through the trees Merida faced Mor’du, blind fear stripping her rational mind clean. 

It wasn’t Mor’du.  

WRONG

The beast was human in stature and animal in motion. Cloaked in tan robes which were encased in legions of pulsing yellow and black crystals that sprouted from its thrashing arms like massive claws. Its face was encircled by the unnatural stone shaped like a vicious maw of razor-sharp teeth. It was a monster. 

NEVER AGAIN!” It roared again and tore closer and closer to her horse’s panicked dash. Around it, the world seemed to buckle under the strain. The earth warped. The air compressed. Like it was an abomination in every sense of the word.

A helpless instinct in Merida brought her bow into her shaking hands. But the speed of her horse gave her nothing to hold onto. The undrawn arrow wove between her desperate fingers and horsehair

Angus lost his footing to the earth’s distorted weakness. 

And Merida went flying off her trusted steed. She crashed in a heap against the roots of the ancient trees. The pain and aching agony squeezing her body and head. Her mind kept her painful body awake as the threat loomed over her, panting heavily.

From this angle, she could see a bear mask underneath the crystal, cracked and chipping away to reveal sharp fearful eyes. It held a hand out and the air ignited into light.

In its hands was a blade, shaped like a giant key. 

Never again. ” It said, voice still laced in the breaking glass. And it pointed the tip at her. 

Deep within Merida was an unfathomable instinct. A clenching defense as the wind around her picked up, pushing out before her. A primal lurch in her chest reverberating within her like her very being was digging roots into her body. Into her world. Into everything. Bracing for the unraveling. The wind grew sharper. Angry. Aggressive.

Intentional.

GET AWAY FROM HER! ” Another voice screamed and suddenly the creature was bodily rammed into from the side at incredible speed.

The bear stumbled to the ground, the blade in its hands clattering out of its claws as a blur of gold rallied a series of assaulting blows with a bronze weapon she couldn’t even see. There was a battle cry and the wind picked up around the two in a cyclone. The large enemy, staggered, was lifted off the ground and thrown into another tree where it crumpled in a heap of pulsing light. 

Her savior held a wide stance with his back to her, panting vigorously. He had windswept blond hair and layers of black and white clothes. Bronze armor decorated his body in an unorthodox manner. With the beast still, he spared a glance to Merida who took in his sky blue eyes still blazing with fury.

Who was he? What was that thing? Those questions didn't have time to breathe.

The beast was on its feet and hurling toward the savior who held his weapon up defensively. A sharp clatter rang out as the bear’s claws curled around the strange weapon’s teeth. He grunted against the force pressing against him, arms shaking as the bear used its impressive stature and strength to overwhelm him.

The golden-haired boy relented with a parry, sending the beast forward and striking it on the back. It retaliated with a swipe at his feet that knocked him to the ground. He hit the earth hard and Merida made a wordless protest despite her bodily pain. Once again, the beast curled over the smaller victim, brandishing claws instead of its strange blade.

“Ven!” Another voice cut through and suddenly a large sword was flung at the bear-person, hitting it square in the head. A newcomer caught the projectile and assumed a defensive stance alongside the golden-haired boy rising to his feet. 

He was taller, with earth brown hair and broad shoulders-- just as strangely dressed.

“Terra!” The younger boy exclaimed with a relieved smile.

“Take care of the girl!” He ordered and the boy nodded. 

With that, this Terra charged at the beast dashing at it with a wealth of power. A clash ensued with a vicious back and forth between claw and blade. This left the first boy to stumble toward the site of Merida’s agony.

“Are you okay?” The boy’s voice was kind, trembling with concern for her safety. Merida heard herself grunt as an attempt to sit up was made. Instantly the blond-haired boy was by her side. “Whoa! Whoa! Steady!”

He put a firm grasp around her shoulders and helped her sit up from her uncomfortable heap. She was distracted by the battling warrior behind him. He spared a glance as well but completed his assistance.

“We have a second.” He said quickly, examining her injuries. He reached for his weapon laid behind him which she suddenly recognized as some kind of bronze key-shaped blade. In one motion he flourished his blade above her and a bath of green light swept through her. 

She was speechless as the pain vanished instantly and strength crowded her muscles. 

“Y-you have magic!” She stuttered. Legends of witches and sorcerers simmered the outskirts of her mind with some phantom of excitement. The wind must have been at his command as well. 

“Among other things” The stranger’s smile beamed and Merida sat up on her own strength. He put a hand forward before her. “My name is Ventus. You can call me Ven.”

With the return of her strength, Merida felt her senses slowly return, but her emotions were still running high. She ignored the gesture of friendship and kept her cautious gaze on the battle, steadily growing distant. 

“Explain what is going on, Ventus.” Merida couldn’t help the sharpness creep in her voice in response to the fear.

Ventus gave a pitying glance and rose from his crouch. “That guy is bad news.” 

Merida almost heard her patience snapped her into a more familiar version of herself. “ Yeah, I got that. What is that blasted thing!? What does it want?!

Ventus stepped back but couldn’t help raise a hand of cautioning support as the girl stumbled to her feet, surprised that the return to strength didn’t gather her bearings. She practically slapped him away.

“I’m not… er… All I can say is that he’s an intruder… and it seems like he’s after you.” 

“Why me?” She countered and suddenly she remembered something important with a gasp. “ Angus!”  

She darted her head around in search of her horse who fell in the area. The panic was almost equal to her mortal peril before as her friend was out of sight. 

“Your horse is safe!” Ventus interjected, but eyed the threat behind him. “I saw him running off that way.”

Relief spilled from her in a large exhale. Overwhelmed, Merida tried to push past Ventus in front of her. “ I have to find him.

“You’re not well yet,” Ventus pushed back blocking her with firm concern. “We need to get you home.”

“No!”  Merida’s response was knee-jerk. It was an instinctive answer but driven by the recent memory of that bulls-eye arrow squared in the target of her fate. 

It was a floodgate after that. Captivity. Her fate. Stubborn defiance. The reason for this escape. For some reason, it pressed against her heart so insistently. Those wrong creatures, the terrifying beast now battling Ventus’s ally beyond the thick trees-- they were nothing to the fate that suffocated her very life away. It pushed any lingering panic out of her and replaced it with simmering anxiety. Uncomfortable. 

“I need to… find a way to change my fate.” She declared in a disconnected daze. 

“Fate?” Ventus raised a brow, baffled at the sudden lack of sense in the girl he rescued. “There’s a monster after you! Let’s find you someplace safe at least!”

“Get outta my way!” She pushed past him with a stagger. “You can’t make me go back home. Not until I’ve changed it!”

“Changed what?” Ven pressed grabbing onto her arm as she passed. He was not ignorant of the fact that Terra was on his own battling the great threat from earlier. He wanted nothing more than to tear away and help him but the mission his brother gave him was in peril by the charge herself. 

Merida’s nostrils flared at Ven’s grip. “ My fate.” She barked, getting into his face. “I am tired of living my life for other people. People who never ask what I want and try to make me into them.”

She jerked her arm out of Ven’s hands. Ven’s brow curled up and his voice clenched with sympathy. “Who could ever do that to you?”

The blazing redhead pulled a branch from her mane angrily. “ My Mother .” She spat before adding ruefully “--the queen.”

Ventus blinked in surprise. “That’s... complicated.” Worked up, the princess wrung her fist along her mess of curls and let her feelings come to the surface.

“She’s never there for me. This marriage is what she wants. She doesn’t care about what I want at all.” And Ven’s heart broke for her anguish and he heaved a sigh.

“It sounds like…” Ven spoke up after a silent moment. “That you should tell her what you’re feeling.” 

Merida gave a scoff that surprised Ven. “ She doesn’t listen! I’m stuck like this. It’s my fate unless I can find some way to change that. Maybe that means never coming back!”

“--P-Princess--”

“-- Merida”

Merida--,"  Ven corrected himself. “Running away isn’t the answer. Believe me. Running from your problems only lets them hurt more people.”

“Maybe I don’t care.” She spat. And Ven practically saw the brilliant light in her heart flicker in the anguish of that lie. She was the exact opposite of that. So proud and steadfast. Compassion was trying to grow into the illustration of her heart in excess. She stormed along the forest path in finality, Ven watched her with a knot in his stomach, knowing how unsafe it was out here for her-- a Princess of Heart. 

A few steps away was the bow she had grasped in her hands during the chase. 

Merida picked up the weapon with her mouth in a thin line as it revealed the wood snapped clean in half from her landing. A piece of the wood slipped from her grasp, still tethered to the bowstring between them and now dancing in the suspension of the reins. Her fingers trembled.

Merida threw the bow on the ground with angry tears. “Just great!” She cried, her face unable to contain the emotional turmoil of a loss like that. She choked on a sob that suddenly overwhelmed her. She held her mouth back and another sob rolled through her.

Ventus’s heart spurred him into motion and-- careless to her preferences-- he wrapped his arms around her. She was cold to the affection but didn’t outright resist it. Something about the proximity was a comfort in the whirlwind of a day. 

“It isn’t fair.” She pouted in the helplessness. She was just a kid. 

“I know,” Ven said with pain in his voice, knowing all too well that truth. 

A shiver of motion caught his eye during this hug. The remnants of the bow flickering. Oozing some kind of light that shimmered onto the grass below it. Ven took Merida’s anguished form in his hands and nudged her a step away from the strange phenomenon. 

From the bow--broken by the wrong person-- crystal abominations sprung. 

[Loading...]

Chapter Text

The hearth was popping and spitting even after hours unsupervised. A sound like the slow creeping cracks on a porcelain vase unable to take the pressure anymore. It threw angry shadows along the tapestry room where stood a figure out of place. 

The stranger was draped in a loose white cloak, standing before the room's namesake. At their feet was the horrible sight of the piece of art in tatters. Scraps of thread and cloth peppered the floor around their black boots. Like a dusting of out-of-season snow. 

The face of a mother was frayed in the ruins. Liquid light still oozed from its tears and the distortions flickered every so often. A peculiar sight. A disturbing anomaly. 

But it was the stench that drew the stranger to these rags.

There was a heavy clatter in the distance. It tore the cloaked figure from the sickening sight and they darted out of sight.

“Merida…”

A shrill voice called from behind the thick wood door, echoing along the walls of the castle. A name, spoken like a prayer on worried lips. “Merida. You better have returned or I swear--”

The door to the tapestry room swung open dramatically. Iron slamming into stone. Queen Elinor stood with red-faced regality, a slight hair out of place from a bout of frantic searching. Her neck was taut with anxiety curling her muscles. He brow was permanently furrowed from the day of hostility. Perhaps there were more strands of grey along her long brown hair. She had aged in hours by the grace of her daughter’s rebellion. The idea that the heiress would have deserted the kingdom entirely was knocking on her panicked brain like a screaming banshee.

Her eyes fell on the strips of tapestry on the ground and she felt her heart stop. 

Oh,” The stern woman expelled in a weak voice. It was like something had reached into her chest to squeeze her heart. The queen felt it hard to breathe. “Oh my…”

And she was faint with the horrifying sight. Her knees buckled and her regal gown hit the floor. She released a wail of grief.

The stranger, concealed, bore witness to this woman of power sobbing at the senseless destruction. Her love and hard work, the emblem of her family-- destroyed. There was poetry in that symbol that spoke to the truth in foreboding ways. The bystander clenched at their heart.

“Merida.” The queen rose from her hiccups breathless, possessed by a haunting thought. “Merida!” 

And her voice was a cry, bringing her to her feet. Her heart pulled her. She hiked her dress up and scrambled out of the tapestry room, face still stained with salty tears. 

The cloaked intruder was careful not to step on a single thread as the worried mother raced to the stables. 


A beast.

The memories of his heart were vague impressions. His sentience at the time was almost nonexistent, like a haze of smoke. When Terra’s heart was imprisoned by Xehanort, he felt nothing but blind rage and constricting bindings over his monstrous body and mouth. Silenced and seething. At the mercy of another inside his overwhelming darkness. 

Those chains. The gag. The irrefutable command to submit. The ever-present, never-ceasing reminder that he once turned his back on what was right and good and the consequence had a vice grip that would never let him forget. 

Powerless. Terra knew that his father’s faith in him and the burning light of his friends were the reason his heart could power his keyblade today. Grateful was his every breath after his liberation. So as he stared into the crazed expression of the shackled beast before him, panting in an exerted effort against the claws of crystal laced around his defending blade, he saw himself. He felt pity. 

And then the bear-like creature summoned a keyblade of his own. An earthy blade like a curling boulder. Engraved in ancient symbols. A keychain shaped as a chilling blue iris dangling from its hilt. It hulked in the creature’s claws, suddenly swinging with the weight of a mountain. 

“Never again!” It screamed in a garbled tone. Terra was knocked back at the immense force of the blade. He fell to the ground in tandem with the teeth of the weapons haphazard crash into the earth. 

One day, I will set this right. 

The resonance was overwhelming. Terra stood up with his teeth bared. Determined to fight out of instinct alone. Nevertheless, Ends of the Earth slacken from his stance with the welling question in his throat. 

“Why do you have the keyblade?” He called out. Years had passed since his apprenticeship but the number of wielders was still too small. There were no strangers among the ranks of key keepers. 

The question enraged the beast. And that boulder of a blade lashed out at remarkable speeds, slashing in fury and putting Terra on the defense. That’s when the mouth-like teeth of the blade caught Terra shoulder between his armor. Like a snare, the adversary yanked him back to the ground, placing a claw on his other shoulder to keep him down. Pinned, Terra flinched back fruitlessly as the man gave a garbled roar. 

“NEVER AGAIN!” There was anguish in his words that he hadn’t heard earlier. But that was all it said. As mindless as a heartless. Was this what it was like to look at a heart once full of promise (the promise of a keyblade)? 

Disappointing? 

Frustrating.

“‘Never-- WHAT ?!” Terra yelled back with a furious snap. He grabbed the claw and with brute strength alone he slowly pried it off his shoulder. His arms shook in the war and Terra found the creature’s eyes crazed and pleading behind the film of crystal. 

Terra caught his breath. 

And the Ends of the Earth crashed into the side of the bear, knocking him back.

“I can tell you are hurting!” He pleaded, rising to his feet. Underneath, there was a man. A wielder in that growth of hardened light.  He had to reach him. He had to pry the bindings from his mouth. 

“If you are filled with regret, let me bear your burden!” He continued. As he spoke the enemy verbally balked, warbled grunts from denial or anger. The emotions too much for his heart to contain until we snapped a physical response. 

The bear charged forward once again, blade swinging like blinding fast wrecking balls. Terra was forced to alternate between the offense and defense. This expense of energy he gave speaking to him was on unfounded grounds. It was a fire in his heart pushing him to make this case. To try to reach this insanely powerful but mad wielder. 

Submit!

Come, Guardian!

Submit

“Come to your senses!” Terra cried. Allowing his blade to crack the earth with an earthquake spell that landed the beast in surprise. 

And the beast couldn’t see Terra after that. He only saw a woman with the mask of the snake, crying out against his rampage. “ You need to come to your senses!” She had screamed in the heat of their battle. The battle he fought… so pointlessly. There was nothing he could have done to stop the darkness. His attempts to even try simply ushered in that horrible fate.

In all the anger and denial, there was shame.

(Shame like a shrieking knife on the window.)

“I…” The bear’s voice cracked like an unoiled door hinge as it shook off a dusting of earth from Terra’s attack. “...refuse fate…” 

Terra held back his follow-up swing. 

“Who are you?” He asked after a moment of silence. Something must have ebbed in the energy of this opponent. Terra took a step forward but kept the grip on his blade cautiously firm. 

“I… am… Aced. Master Aced.” 

Human sentience and human name. Aced, cloaked in abominable light seemed to stare into space. 

“Master?” Terra breathed in surprise and suddenly he squared in on the keyblade that ravaged him moments before. Mortal dread was a shiver through his core. The sneaking suspicion that the mad strength opposing him was an unfocused lethal threat blared in the hindsight. A keyblade master was a force to be reckoned with. But…

“How?” There were no masters beyond Riku, the King, and Aqua. No one to grant a title. 

The keyblade master’s face was unreadable, surrounded by the bear mask and crystal coating. His mouth was a line. 

“I couldn’t tell you.” Aced sounded detached. Wounded. A stark difference to his impassioned screams from before. He had yet to even square his gaze at Terra.

Terra resisted the spike of anger at the apathy. “Well, maybe you could tell me why you are attacking that girl.”

Aced looked off in an adjacent direction like he just remembered he left something behind. 

“The Princess… is a pillar.”

A pillar to the Realm of Light. Even the most passing interaction keyed Terra into her status. She was impossibly radiant. Any darkness in her heart was cast from her mortal shell. 

“She is innocent,” Terra responded to the master-turned-creature with an angered sneer. It didn’t even matter that she was a bastion to all the light in their world, she was uninvolved and harmless. The senselessness was driving Terra’s fury to blindness.

“She is.” Aced agreed easily.  “She doesn’t deserve this.” 

Only now was the manner of the creature’s response starting to unsettle Terra. He had little control over the sparks of irritation that kindled at the strangeness. The light pulsing from the bear was a violent flash, but the heartbeat pounding was slower. Sleepy. 

Then why !? You wield a Keyblade! You are a defender of this realm!”

Aced looked at his keyblade as though regarding it for the first time. Perhaps legend painted the key that way. Because like a bird in its cage the possibility to live more than this was scary. The unknown stoked such deadly fear and kept the imprisoned in their place.  Fate strapped them down and made the key a pathetic plaything.

“She doesn’t deserve… captivity. No one does.”

And Aced curled his fingers tighter. The doubt that was swimming in his mind, the possibility given life from the parasite on his heart was ebbing away. The fear of uselessness. Of doing nothing. Sloth. It ached on its way out. And how empty it felt in its wake. 

 The roots of light dug deeper in chorus. It etched branches of possibilities into his heart, destroying the foundation of memories, mangling the light of his very being. Clarity of mind. Aced came to a realization.

Liberation…

He had been going at this wrong.

Aced dropped any semblance of combative stance the keyblade forced him with instinctually. The blade vanished on the spot in a flurry of lights. And with that, the master, with a distant glaze in his posture, walked. So directly and precise, he crossed the space of his recent battle. His opponent stunned as those words from before miraculously found his ears.

“Never again.” A determined whisper as he walked past Terra. 

Never again would fate decide.

Terra watched the opponent abandon him abruptly in confusion. Where was he going? Liberation? ‘Never-- what’ ? Captivity? There was an instinct in his heart that was potent and bitter, but foreign. Follow him. Stop him. Stop him. Stop him. 

The princess was in danger.

“Wait!” He called after the master. 

But the trees had quickly swallowed him. Aced, was nowhere to be found. Terra’s breath shivered. His heart pulled him in search of his comrade.  


The streets of the castle village were in chaos.

The streets pattered with the shameless shuffles of gossiping hens running from home to home to speak of the newest update on the missing princess drama. Guests from the event were boisterously confused and unruly some of the men taking to the town to complain loudly to the torchlight merchantry. The sounds from the rioting castle halls could be heard from behind the stone fortress. It tainted the air with tension and unease. 

What they couldn’t hear was the beat-less music of the snapping strings under the surface. The ropes of a bridge detaching in an instant, the tension vibrating along the entire world. They had yet to notice the earth glitching as a symptom. The physical embodiment of reality recoiled like a frantic animal backed into a corner. Losing ground. It stirred primal anxiety in the villager's hearts as their lights wavered against each other. 

And Xigbar could only sigh as he strolled through it. He was far too good at watching. He skirted around a distorted patch in the air like dodging a muddy puddle. A waltz.

In the process of doing so, he felt himself bump into a small form. 

“Excuse me.” He said politely, a standard smile plastered on his face to be pacifistic.

“You should keep your eye open, stranger. That shouldn’t be too hard, you only have one to care for after all.”

The voice sounded as old as Xigbar felt. It summoned a genuine laugh from his gut before he could even register the speaker. 

“I actually see quite well, believe it or not.” Xigbar purred. The old woman he was now speaking to was vaguely familiar. Someone from the merchant shops during the festival? Unlike her peers, she was in light spirits a smile on her crackly old lips as he defended his pride.

“Maybe with what you want to see. But when you have expectations, even the smaaallest things can slip past you.”

That rose another chuckle. The quirky old woman had a comically wry expression, a brow raised in a knowing manner. Her eyes were crazed and expecting. Positively charming. It was such a pity. “Hey, I said sorry.” He raised his hands in surrender. 

And in easy rapport, the merchant woman gave a hearty laugh. “Ha ha! Just teasing you! Of course, you’re sorry. We are all sorry!”

It was Xigbar’s turn to raise a brow. “Sorry for what now?” He wasn’t one for conversation with locals. But he decided that he liked her.

“Oh nothing nothing!” She deflected waving her spinny fingers through the air, the other hand grabbing at what appeared to be a heavy tote filled with wooden figures.  “Well-- I hope everyone is sorry for not buying any of this humble widdler’s carvings! No appreciation for art. They’d rather tear up tapestries then ask for a little levity in their chambers.”

Xigbar allowed himself a moment of perplexity at the keen metaphor, but the personality in front of him was still going.

“So much pride in these shoppers. Makes you wonder how the wrong sin tore it!” She snapped that last line with a cackle as though talking about a collective societal annoyance they were helpless to bare.

Luxu felt the flutter of amusement grow into bubbly satisfaction. How interesting...

“And who’s to say which sin is the right one?” He asked poetically. A little fun in this teasing exchange. 

“A prince with some serious issues that’s what!” She responded, not missing a beat. In the process, she had whipped out what looked like a bear figurine from her bag. It had become a prop to her gesticulations. “A surly customer back then and now everyone's still the same! These kinds of things stick around until someone else mends it.”

“And whatever happened to this prince?” Luxu was known by his peers for his curiosity. He resembled his master in that manner. 

“Oh, he couldn’t bear being powerless.” She barked a sudden cackle of amusement. “Asked for the strength of ten men! Wanted to take down his own family. You could say he is succeeding as we speak.”

“Sounds like fate.” Xigbar felt the grin one only gets when they are undeniably right. 

But the old woman just waved her hand away. “ Bah, more like poor business!” 

“Don’t believe in fate?”  

 She gave him a pointed look. Coming from her crazy bug eyes was irony in its finest. “The sun rises. Food cost money! Yer family is gonna tell you what to do! An eyepatched stranger is likely to bump into small humble witches walking down the street! Some call it fate, I call it fact.”

Xigbar exploded into gut bouncing laughter. There was as much power as there was ignorance in that answer. And that was the philosophy of a powerful denizen. You had to admire the stupidity. “That’s rich!” He said between chortles. It was such a pity a heart like this was fated to be unraveled with the rest of this world.

The merchant woman straightened during his expression of amusement. “Perhaps the right sin did tear it.” She adjusted the bag on her shoulder once again with a smug look on her face. “Or at the very least a cheap imitation of it…”  Xigbar let his laugh fizzle. His sudden conversation was showing signs of departure as the woman took a step toward her original direction. 

“Now, remember to watch where you’re walking. We wouldn’t want you running into trouble.” She tapped at her eye where Xigbar’s eye-patch was mirrored. A reference to her unsolicited wisdom at the start of this exchange. 

The witch was already hobbling down the road when Luxu responded softly. “Oh, I will.”

‘Mend the tapestry.’ He hummed thoughtfully. 

Such a specific image to summon, but a clear answer to the surprising Unchained his actions had created. This world was fated to right an ancient wrong. It was always more than a domestic dispute between mother and daughter. As he had hoped, there were always greater powers at work around them. Poetry in motion. Confirmation.

The woman was a speck across the town square when a panting herald of the kingdom tore through the streets. He skidded to a halt by an alarmed gaggle of uneasy villagers chatting. He took a comical gasp of air before shouting at the top of his lungs. 

The queen is gone! The queen is pursuing her daughter!”

There was a moment of silence as the messenger fought for air in frazzled huffs. 

And then the crowd broke into a chaotic rabble. Whispers and exclaims of concern. Their queen had left her station. Forced out by the rebellious behavior of her daughter. 

Xigbar settled back into his heels. Fate was trying to right itself. That relationship yearned to mend the tapestry he had destroyed.

All the while, a cursed prince stirred. Waiting for no one. 


 

The creatures of light collapsed around the Ven’s keyblade in a manner unlike the heartless. While those bodies of darkness snapped into pieces and released their captive hearts like a liberating prison, the unchained seemed to shatter into itself, imploding before the energy expelled in rejection. Ven was growing more accustomed to their patterns of erratic motion several leagues into their search for the princess’s noble steed. 

Merida gave a frustrated shriek after another infesting creature met its fate at the end of Ven’s blade.

“This is impossible!” She gave an overwhelmed tug at her hair. “- -Angus! ” She called once again, the tears about to return. “Angus, you oaf of a horse come back!”

Ventus felt his anxiety spike at his companion’s emotions. Calming her down just moments ago took seconds he didn’t want to spare. He needed to find Terra. He needed to keep her safe. This was an absolute mess. 

“We’ll find him Merida.” Ven offered calmly, with only a slight pinch. “He just got scared, it’s understandable.”

“Those demons…” She said with harrowing possibilities on her tongue. “... they aren’t right. I-I… don’t blame him.”

Ventus had to agree. There was something foundationally wrong in those creatures. They flickered and glitched. Like the world itself was rejecting it. There was no question that they were a force for someone like Ven to take care of regardless of him never having seen them before. Not that Merida would be able to zero in on the specifics as to why, but it was clear they were nothing close to a native demon from her realm should they exist or not. 

But the princess stopped at a sudden idea.

Are they my fault?”

“What?”

“Are those demons… Are they here because of me?” Merida turned around in their woodland trek to square down Ventus.

Caught off guard, Ven flubbed in his nerves. 

“I-I don’t know.” They seemed to be after her at the very least. “We can’t be sure.”

“It is .” Merida seemed to balk at this assumed answer. Suddenly beside herself in frustration, Merida threw her arm in anger. “Is this fate? For me choosing who gets my hand? ” 

Ven wasn’t sure this connection was all that logical, but anger was better than despair in this case. The red-head was curling her fingers, itching to hit or throw something in her fit.

“They should have just kept me locked up in a tower for all I care!” Merida shrieked. “No, I get the wrath of the gods for wanting a little freedom! Thanks mum!

And suddenly Ven was struck by the familiar emotions from this heart. Held back, confined against her will, by nature of her unique station. 

For Ventus, it was more about his unique Station of Awakening than position in life. 

The pity was undeniable. This princess was a slave to her responsibilities. Burdens enforced by someone she loves… The sick stone in his throat he felt while holding the departing spirit of the father who wronged him returned without warning. The way he had to stifle his uncontrollable sobs as he spoke his last words to him was like self suffocation. His master had pointed his blade at him. This man he loved, who cared for him and healed and trained him, had been so overcome with fear that it blinded him. Passing time had stirred the regret in the repentant man. The relief of receiving his apology was almost more painful to Ventus than any betrayal. 

His master wasn’t infallible. He had made a mistake. 

“Maybe, your mother was scared.” Ven offered to his own surprise, detached.  Was he defending this woman he never met? Projecting? Wishing?

“Scared?” Merida scoffed. “Scared of losing control of me. She’s… supposed to care about me.”

It was like seeing himself from another perspective. The rage and confusion and betrayal. It was vivid and helpless. Merida’s obvious pain dug spires of anguish in Ven’s own heart. He didn’t want this for her. Nothing was worth this. 

Eraqus kept Ven from the world because he was a weapon. That fear was so gripping and harrowing that the master could even bring himself to destroying his own child. His father wanted to kill him. When that old man’s fears were finally realized, Ven’s heart had cracks untouched by his self-sacrificing battle with Vanitas. 

And when he embraced his son in departing guilt, those wounds ached and bled. Salvation was forever escaping with Eraqus’ passing spirit. 

How could he do that to him? He was supposed to care. 

“Maybe that’s all she knows,” Ven answered his mouth a devil’s advocate. He wasn’t sure he believed his own words. All he knew was the sadness looking at that lone master’s keyblade in the ground symbolized a loss greater than his own scars. He wanted understanding. He wanted better. He wanted the chance.

“Are you saying I should pity her? I’m not her doll Ventus.” Merida looked scandalized by his suggestion. 

But if… he hadn’t run off when Terra stormed away. If he trusted his master and listened and told him his feelings… maybe none of this would have happened. The master wouldn’t have felt the need to destroy him. He’d still be alive. That keyblade would be within the cold light of his thriving and loving heart instead of in the cold earth surrounded by enchanted flowers. 

“No no…” Ven argued and he spoke to truth his own wish. “I’m just saying… you could… fix this. It’s possible.” 

 

Merida’s nostrils flared. “My mother sent you.” She accused in a shaking voice. 

 

And it suddenly occurred to him how foolish this heart-to-heart was. His stomach dropped.

“No. Merida, she didn’t.” He spoke too fast. The fear poured into the moment like breaching floodgates. The creatures. Terra. The princess of heart. The world seemed to undulate around her.

“I can’t believe her.” Merida stewed, tears once again pricking her eyes. “She couldn’t even try to bring me back herself.” 

“No no-- she didn’t send me.”

As if to threaten Ven’s fears, the earth distorted in the telltale sign of those enemies. Although, nothing surfaced.

Was she forgetting her pursuer? The disturbing creatures at her heels? It was like her heart was frantically pushing out the fear and discomfort the anomalies brought with the overflow of turmoil within it. At all costs. The Order was asserting itself with fumbling bandages.

Merida threw herself off the path they had been walking. The trees trembled unnaturally. Ven felt nauseous.

No, wait!

“--go away Ventus!” She screamed back, kicking the skirt of her dress with raging steps as though confined by chains. 

Merida !” He yelled. And just as his leg muscles coiled to release his proud speed, the princess broke into a blind run into the dark woods.

 

And behind her, the world literally ripped in half. 

 

Ven gave a startled scream, stumbling over his false start, stopping only a hairs length from an endless drop.

Reality distorted around an oozing gash in the air. With it, the sound of a woven tapestry ripping. Light flaked and dripped around the tear, slowly creeping along the earth. A mesmerizing dance of colors and lights vortex within the crack the princess created. Like a galaxy of endless impossible threads of ideas.

Eyes wide and body frozen, Ven stared at the world’s wound in abject horror.

Ven !” Not even the voice of his dear friend could knock Ven from his petrified stupor. Terra’s own register of the sight was delayed and only stood to mirror his. 

What in the world? ” Terra’s voice hitched. The grotesque had an unwavering grip on the attention. He couldn’t look away. 

“Ven.” He had never heard Terra sound so scared. “Where’s the princess?”

 

Ven pointed at the wound in reality with a shaking finger. It was wrong. Wrong. 

Wrong

WRONG               

W       R O       N          G

 

Ven felt a scream clawing in his throat because there was something coming from the unholy gash in the world.

A call. A message, clear as day but wild and unnatural. Like a siren song reflecting in the very foundation of his heart. A shift in gravity. Vertigo seizing his stomach. A sensation as simple as twitching his finger.

                                             Jump

The sensation to jump.

The tangible probability that he could just walk forward and unravel in the cosmic dust. It was possible. The sick curiosity that pried at his skin, made him feel loose and wobbly. He never felt his mortal shell more keenly. 

 

“Snap out of it Ventus!” Like a rock in the storm. Terra’s impassioned yell brought Ven back like a slap in the face. Tearing away from the sight was enough to cancel the overwhelming dominance of that horrifying temptation.

“The other keyblade wielder… his name is Aced.” He breathed, physically pushing Ven backward away from the abomination. He then summoned his keyblade with a determined jerk of his arm.  “He’s a Master. I don’t know how, but he’s intelligent. Not mindless like those smaller creatures.”

Terra then threw his keyblade abruptly, willing it to transform. His bike, hovered before them.

“He’s after some kind of ‘liberation’. I-I don’t understand it but we have to stop him.”

Terra then grabbed Ventus’ still shocked form in his arms and carried him to his vehicle. 

“We have to hurry. This World is ripping apart.” 

-Loading....X-

Chapter Text

< Miss me?>

Sora snuck a glance at his pinging phone while Sawada explained the pros and cons of this particular bus route. He was only partly listening as the sight of the city scrolling along the window was hypnotizing. When he heard the short ping he practically jumped in surprise, a thrill shocking his system. It had felt like forever since Anon had last mailed him but it wasn’t long in retrospect. Right around yesterday’s encounter with Sawada and Inoue had Sora actually heard from the mysterious sender. In fact his last message had gone unanswered.

There was a lot to fill Anon in on. 

“Who’s that?” Sawada asked peering over Sora’s shoulder. If the following fiasco hadn’t occurred Sora would have still understood this curly haired gamer to be extremely nosy. He didn’t really mind it though. 

“Oh, I’m talking to Anon. They’ve been helping me.”

Sawada made an outrageous face that surprised Sora into a semblance of defense.

“‘ Anon?’ --as in, ‘Anonymous?’ Uhh does this guy have a weird sense of humor or has he not actually told you his name?”

“No, it’s not what they go by, I just… call them Anon. They never told me their name…”

Sawada physicalized his reaction. Sora flinched as his new friend's voice rose in decibels. 

Wait wait, back it up … are you telling me you are conversing with a mysterious nameless stranger and you never once asked for their name? Do they know who you are?

He said the last question lower and with more afterthought. Nevertheless, the three other pedestrians on the bus had their heads turned. Scrambling, Sora shooed the thought with his hands.

“Not so loud!” He protested before continuing. “Yes, okay? I tried once but it never came up after that. They helped me out a ton and I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I have questions.”

“And I’ll explain the best I can,” Sora promised. Sawada moved the subject from there, satisfied with Sora’s word. While he continued the tour of his neighborhood Sora snuck his phone out. With his clumsy paced typing, Sora sent his response.

>There’s a lot to tell you.<

Sawada pushed the gate open to his modern-looking suburban home, the characters on his nameplate gleaming in the late morning sun. Sora darted his head around the property noticing how well off it was. It reminded him of Riku’s affluent childhood home-- cold and well maintained-- though it was distinctly different in style. 

“So a little warning my mom is really nosy. She may take a second to get rid of and I don’t bring friends home… like ever.” Somehow that didn’t surprise Sora. 

“That’s okay. It’ll be nice to meet your mom.” Sawada practically rolled his eyes at his new friend’s pleasant smile. 

You’ll see. --You’re saying you're from Hawaii as your cover story -- right?” Sawada said, reaching for the front door.

“Yeah.” An afterthought.

Sawada cracked a grin opening to the door to what Sora understood as the genkan. “That makes perfect sense you know…” He tore his amused expression away to call out into the house.

Mom, I’m home !”

A spluttered surprise that echoed in a bigger, unseen room. “Welcome back!”

“Hawaii is vacation destination here.” Sawada finished as his mother shuffled into the room. She was a small thing with a short haircut and signs of aging around the eyes. She appeared to have come from the kitchen wearing an apron. 

“Oh hello there! You must be Kakehashi-kun. It’s so nice to meet you.” Sawada’s mother had exuberant energy that leaked into her animated greeting. Sora would’ve been blind not to notice the way she performed a lightning-fast glance over Sora’s appearance. He was impressed with how seamless she moved forward with her words among the minuscule hiccup of judgment.

“The pleasure is mine, ma’am.” He spoke as politely as he could. This satisfied her.

“Such good manners. Shoto tells me you’re from the states.”

“H-Hawaii ma’am.”

“Ooh, that sounds so nice. We should vacation there Shoto.”

“Sure mom.”

The Sawada matriarch shook away a noticeable irritation at her son’s dry tone. “Well I won’t keep you longer, I’ll bring up snacks in a few minutes! I’m almost giddy, Shoto doesn’t have friends to bring home.”

Mom. ” Sawada’s grumbling protest was not registered as the woman turned back to the kitchen.

“Thank you!” Sora’s smile was blinding and he followed the desperately escaping Sawada up the stairs.

“Your mom seems nice.” Sora complimented as he shut the door of his friend’s room. 

“Nice and fake, is what.” Sawada spat bitterly and Sora turned to take in the considerably dark den that was his room. The dark blue curtains were drawn in an effort to obscure a glare from the window that was poised against his massive flat screen tv. And while the concern for Sawada’s animosity fluttered through his mind, his eyes took in the colorful splash of wall art over the tv and he froze.

 

It was a poster. Of himself. That same stylized illustration. His face baring into him with a smirk.

His stomach dropped in the same way it did those many nights ago. His breath came up a little short and something electric and instinctual took control of Sora’s functions.

He spun on his heels and faced the door to Sawada’s room. Head down like a cowering turtle as he let his sight split intentionally out of focus, favoring blurry blindness. Out of sight. Like a child lacking object permanence. The shiver of shame waiting in the wings could hold off a little longer against the relief.  

Sawada made a confused grunt, at a sudden loss. “I-I’m sorry. I’m a bit of a fan…” 

“I’m sorry !” Sora insisted to the door, suddenly blubbering against the embarrassing reaction. “I-It’s just a little weird for me still…”

“I get it, I get it,” Sawada spoke like someone talking to a panicking animal. “I’ll take them down if you want. It’s not a big deal…” 

“No, don’t.” Sora protested. He took a long breath in. “... it’s fine… just give me a second.”

It wasn’t that the pictures themselves brought such a visceral rejection, but as with the game controller, the memory of that night surged with vengeance. A reminder. As denial and confusion welled around the revealing proof of his fictionality, something foundational within him shattered. It was painful and disorienting and made every step wobbly and unsure. Like the ground had been pulled up from under him. It made him sick.

But it was the recognition. The sureness that the illustration was him. Like looking at a photo of yourself in a time you don’t remember. 

“You sure?”

 

Sora nodded fiercely. 

 

“Weird” was an understatement. It felt wrong. 

Slowly, Sora pulled himself together. He paid attention to the texture on the metal doorknob he didn’t realize he was holding. It was cold and smooth, with a hollow rattle that spoke of it’s turning power. He centered himself around the smell. Air slightly stale, a hint of body odor and powdered snacks. He funneled himself along the sure pattern of the wood knots on the door. He marveled at the miracle of the organic tree rings snaking along perfect margins. 

He was real. He was here. 

Sora turned back around and opened his eyes. Sawada was frozen in a gobsmacked position of concern, eyes bug-wide and mouth hanging open ever so slightly. A moment more and the offending image settled. There was another one on the adjacent wall taunting him that he’d have to take in slower. For now this would be fine. 

“I… don’t know how to explain why it bothers me… it just does…” He started and Sawada exhaled the breath he was holding.

“We have to start from the beginning.”

So Sora recounted the night he landed in Shibuya. The emptiness of the city. The sudden snap of life. Finding the phone and conversing with Anon. 

“Now that’s just suspicious,” Sawada interjected, almost angry. “And you just trusted him like that?”

“I was lost! And confused… I’m still confused!”

“Not everyone with answers has your best interest in mind.”

“I know that .” Sora insisted. Because he did. He wasn’t blind to the stupidity of his conversation with the phone, especially at first. “But Anon’s proven themselves since then. They want to help me get home. ”

Sawada didn’t seem convinced but settled his emotions. “There’s a million red flags Sora. Your Anon is the first major lead to figuring out what the hell is going on… like why put you through school of all things? Talk about a time-suck.”

Sora pursed his lips in thought. “I was under the impression they did it so I could… make friends…”

Gah! Homework assignment!” Sawada snapped. “You gotta start asking this Anon some personal questions. Even the hypothetical lies are better than this.”

“I’d say it worked though…” Sora offered slyly. Sawada paused at that. 

“Hm?”

“Friends. I made a friend… finally. I should thank Anon.”

Sawada looked like he was holding back his tongue. On his face was a mix of pity and concern but also warm sympathy. He exhaled through his nose slowly. 

“Look, do what you want, but I’ve made up my mind and I’m gonna try to get you home. If that means you help with my detective methods, I’d like a little cooperation. ‘Kay?”

Sora felt a shock of clarity. It filled him with an incredulous attitude he wore on his face. “Are you gonna have me stalking our leads?”

Sawada recoiled with a violent blush. His voice was a series of spluttering grunts of protest. “ What? T-That wasn’t my idea alone. It’s not a habit.”

The fictitious renegade was surprised to spit out a laugh at the blubbering antics. He threw his head back in full-on chortling.  It was so contagious that the uncomfortable Sawada soon joined him with a chuckle or two as Sora continued. “It’s a deal.”

And as the fumes of amusement shuffled through the air, neither party exactly sure how to carry on, Sawada broke the silence.

“I’m still in shock, you know.”

Sora raised a brow, having begun a casual scan of Sawada’s unkempt den. There were figures on his desk and he was starting to think he recognized one of the elaborately positioned ones. 

“I mean-- it’s probably not as big a deal to you seeing how you world-hop as a hobby , but… the fact that you’re here is… unbelievable really.” Sawada had that loose smile on his face. Kinda dreamy and reflective.

“You don’t have to believe me.” Sora didn’t want to force the faith between them. Self-destructive as it may be. 

“No, I believe you,” Sawada said firmly. “I’ve decided to. I’m just… in awe I guess. Magic isn’t real, but here you are.”

Sora suddenly remembered Inoue’s words in the stairwell. 

“...ground your delusion of heroics a little-- they don’t exist anywhere, much less Japan.”

 

It wasn’t just ‘magic’ missing. Sora didn’t listen to the specifics of Donald’s casting lessons but he wouldn’t forget a defining moment with the mage in his first adventure, squabbling at one of Sora’s rare bouts of helplessness during a magic lesson.

“Stop that moping! The smile’s aren’t just for the gummi-ship! Magic comes from imagination. Imagination’s not gonna happen if you are stuck in a rut.”

“It… wasn’t magic that brought me here.” Sora felt that conclusion roll off his tongue without feeling. Detached, he found his gaze on the collector figures on the desk once again. 

Cloud. He recognized one of the figures on the shelf as his old friend. The unmistakable spiky blond hair and the signature blade was posed on his miniature likeness with style next to a motorcycle. How strange it was, but it was a little like the voodoo dolls Hades possessed in the Underworld. Curious little things that were eerily accurate. 

But the longer he stared the more he took note of just how different this familiar face appeared to him. From his clothes… to the manner his hair fell on his head in the image. A different style. Something that competed with his mind... But it was him. It had to be.

Sora wondered if that’s how Sawada felt about him. If that was the basis of his belief, maybe he could find confidence.

“The Power of Waking...” Sawada said, tasting the word with uncertainty, afraid to use it wrong. “That’s why you’re here?”

Sora’s heart was stone still. 

“Yes.” He said softer then he intended. “I used it wrong.” 

Sawada was quiet for a lot longer than a conversation permitted. Gears turning. A million questions to settle on. “It seemed so straight forward on paper… I took it as a plot device.”

“‘To wake sleeping hearts.’” Sora quoted his deepest understanding. He’d never profess the capacity to comprehend the machinations of his universe’s laws. The science didn’t mean anything ultimately. Even when this key to saving his world held such dire consequences, it ultimately didn’t influence the outcome. Nothing warned or predicted would have stopped his decision to use it. 

Sawada huffed a dry laugh out of the blue.

“It kinda seems like… the only one who actually ‘woke up’… was you.”  

 

A play on words. A bark of irony. For some reason they brought a wave of numbing pressure along Sora’s limbs. Nothing as acute as the rattling concept of facing your own conundrum of existence… but something just as heavy and cold. 

Sora recalled how the dusting of rain weighed down on his clothes as his eyes fluttered open. His head throbbed while he rose to his feet, groggily registering the strange new location as though shaking off an incredible sleep. 

 

A lifetime of sleep. 


 

Elinor’s panic was in sync with the shire horse running beneath her. In the midst of the rioting guests she was expected to pacify, her determined worry cleared the path of any protesting duty. She scrambled her grip on her royal steed, unused to the extremes she was pushing the horse and uncomfortable with the time of day. 

But none of that mattered. The sight of that tapestry destroyed like that… while it stirred immeasurable grief the mystery of its destruction haunted her with a vengeance. Merida was the prime culprit to such vindictive ruin-- except Elinor knew her daughter. She had a temper. She was headstrong and her expression at the competition was so heartbroken and wounded… she was capable of a world of irrational action. But there was more than anguish in the tapestry’s scars. 

It was savage joy.

Perplexed by the vandalism, Elinor could only worry for her daughter’s safety. Yes, there was a list of grievances to discuss, but she was unsettled and scared-- those could wait. There was potential sabotage afoot. 

Her steed gave a whiny as they approached the mouth of the forest.

“Steady!” She cautioned as the horse slowed.

 There was a figure blocking its entrance. A cloaked silhouette she recognized from the morning holding a swinging lantern in the twilight.

Something clicked and Elinor felt a furious defense rise from her heart. 

“You’re the stranger from before.” She accused.

“Did you a pretty favor settling your daughter's rebellious streak now didn’t I?” The voice was that casual lilt. Far too amused. To think that his actions during the competition had answered her unspoken prayers during Merida’s outburst. To think she had been cautiously gracious. 

“There was no need for your meddling.” The queen countered. “It’s a family matter.”

“I wasn’t wrong though.” The cloaked man taunted. “I heard the protesting clans in the castle. Your ‘family matter’ has consequences.”

Elinor clamped her jaw in anger. “Was this your goal? To stir unrest in this kingdom?”

The stranger rocked back on his heels, placing more weight on the pole of the lantern he was swinging. “‘Stirring unrest’ is the nicest way to put it, but something tells me that would have happened no matter who landed that bullseye.”

“You snake!” The queen spat. 

“Let’s not get so mad. I did nothing you wouldn’t have wanted. So let’s flip the question. What’s your goal queen-y? You planning on dragging your teenage daughter back by the ear and forcing her to marry that sorry excuse for a bachelor? Do you think she’s just gonna let you? Whatever understanding you forge will simply relapse into the relationship that brought you this . I did nothing but save you the trouble.”

Elinor didn’t let the damage of his words show. “Clear the way.” She commanded firmly, pulling the reins of her horse forward to emphasize the higher ground she dwelled upon. She’d plow past him if necessary. 

“See that’s the thing. No matter if it’s possible or not, you’re trying to fix things. And well…”

The ground started to shift around him. To Elinor’s shock creatures sprung from the earth.

“These guys are chomping at the bit to finally exist. They don’t want to give that up so easily.”

The queen’s horse took a step back as the crystalline demons shuddered forward. What were those things? She felt a sick sense of disgust take over at the sight of the enemies. Along with the terror of their physical threat. She held onto to her stubborn stance and countered her horse’s hesitation with a firm pull of the reins. She was bigger. 

But it only took one swipe at her horse’s leg to send it in a scrambling scream a cry of surprise escaping her in chorus. It bucked on its hind and the queen stumbled, grabbing the shire horse’s mane in self-preservation. The creatures slashed forward again. She couldn’t brace herself against the scared animal.  

Elinor fell from her horse with a painful crash. The creatures surrounded her defenseless form. 

“Don’t be scared. They’re just a little jealous .”

The queen threw her arms up in defense as the things made their jump. Bracing for the attack…

 

That never came.

 

“Well, that’s a surprise appearance.” The casual tones of her intercepting enemy called out.

Another figure stood over her, cloaked in white with a smattering of light from the hostile creatures decayed around a well-timed rescue. In his hand was a strange weapon, a wide slab of metal held like a sword around a large black hilt but resembling more of a gleaming blunt object. 

“Rumor had it that you went MIA. Gotta say I was kinda banking on that… Riku .”

Elinor’s rescuer threw off his hood to reveal a boy with silver hair and furious sea-foam colored eyes. 

“And I thought you’d be done with the shenanigans after re-forming Xigbar,” Riku responded.

Xigbar peeled away his hood to reveal the same eye-patched face from the morning games. He had a curly grin.

“Nothing re-formed about me. Don’t wanna leave you scratching your head needlessly, but I wasn’t interested in a fresh start. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Riku simmered with a death glare. The confusing vagueness was Xigbar’s MO. The one-eyed stranger let his face light up with an exciting thought.

“Say...have you had any luck finding Sora?”

Riku was gone.

 

His bludgeoning blade cork-screwed instantly into Xigbar’s face his cloak whipping in the air like wings. The lantern crashed into the dirt while the snake went flying.

“What do you know?! ” Riku roared while pursuing his launched prey. Xigbar’s head lolled up with a comical smugness. 

“Touched a nerve! A little low-grade hit there Master . You look a little tired, have you been sleeping?” He rose to his feet.

Riku summoned a flurry of dark fire from his hand. There was a burst of pink light and Xigbar’s bows materialized, shooting a flurry of arrows in the same breath. They hit the ground, forming a barrier of energy that blocked the offending magic.

“What are you after, Xigbar?” Riku snarled, snapping his keyblade aggressively to his side, encasing it in a buzzing coat of dark magic. 

“Well aren’t we a little darkness-happy…” Xigbar mused but he didn’t posture his weapons logically. “I’d ask what happened to you, but it’s real easy to guess.”

Riku fought like a dancer. His keyblade coated in energy that smeared the air in purple, he flailed his danger in wide sweeping succession. While probably the slowest of the living masters without certain boosts, he hit like a truck and aimed with precision. Xigbar parried the close-range attacks with the shaft of his bows, taking advantage of their dual nature to cover Riku’s wide reach.

 

During this fantastical display, the queen had scrambled to her feet and stumbled to the saddle of her nervous horse. 

“Shh, Shh!” She urged her companion, taking advantage of the wild spectacle to press on ahead. Nothing could quell the pull towards her daughter. It felt like the climb through the depths for air at this point. Mounting the saddle took two pulls too many. 

“Woah! Nope. No. Can’t have that.” Elinor froze as her cloaked obstacle broke his attention from her savior’s barrage.

Suddenly, he was much closer.

“I’m sorry, m’lady. I got distracted. See I really just think you should give this up. Give your girl a little breathing room. Try again later. Turn yourself around and tend to the damage she left behind.”

Elinor jumped at his blink into existence, tearing the reins away from him reflexively. She gathered her courage and her face twisted into a disgusted sneer.

“Get away from me!” 

And with a jerk her massive horse reared in Xigbar’s face, bringing him inches from the iron shoes of its powerful hooves. Unfortunately for the body-snatching ancient schemer, he didn’t see this kind of attack coming. 

Xigbar’s face crashed into the dirt. Skull dented and ears ringing. 

Elinor tore into the forest in pursuit of her daughter. The gallop of those deadly horseshoes clattering unevenly along the riding path.

That would have surely killed a normal man. At least on some worlds. Xigbar lifted his head against the wait of his crumbling pride. Disoriented and dripping in agony. 

Only to face the tip of Riku’s furious keyblade.

“What are you after?”

Despite his constant levity and smug confidence, something about this conga-line soured Xigbar’s sense of humor like spoiled milk. Black, sticky irritation gummed up his chest. Cold electricity shuffled through his system. 

“You could say that we want the same thing.” 

Riku felt his air stutter with the leap of his heart. His keyblade fell slack… before he pushed the dark energy closer, sharper against Xigbar’s chin. Any composure lost, Riku clamped his jaw tight against a roar of anger.

 

Where is he!? ” 

Xigbar narrowed his eyes. There was no humor in his dismissive regard.

“You reek of the Realm of Sleep.” He said pointedly. “I bet you searched everywhere.”

Answer the question, ” Riku ordered with a dangerous and venomous voice. True to his observation, the keyblade master dripped in the metaphysical remnants of the dream worlds. It was a residue you felt more so than saw. Like water that soaked your clothes. His steps were heavy, soaked in a sleep far beyond his waking movements.

“But that’s the thing. You’re in the right direction kid…You’ll find him in no time, around the corner, reaping his reward.”

“That’s a lie.” Riku pressed the keyblade closer. Xigbar seemed unphased even with his chin crooked higher than comfortable. “He’s not there. I’d know. When I’m there, I know.”

The urgency of his words suggested some level of denial. Xigbar scoffed.

“Believe what you want, Dream Eater, but I wouldn’t be so quick to trust your nose. Sure it probably brought you here, telling you something in the foundation of this world was rotten, but you can’t really tell exactly what that is now can you?”

The keyblade master unconsciously lifted a hand to his face. His sensitivity to the nature of things was seldom significant until the disturbing odor carried across the Ocean Between at his return to the Realm of Light. It was as though taking a dip in the Sleeping Realm brought him outside of the stagnant rot long enough for him to differentiate the nuance, track the source. But Xigbar, in all his strange knowledge, was right. Riku didn’t understand the cause. He didn’t know what it meant. Or how to fix it. 

“What is happening to this World?” Riku’s question was level. Untrusting of any response but intent on the answer nonetheless. Xigbar was no slouch and his compromised position was by his own graces. Sure enough, his single gold eye seemed to look into a confident future. Subdued, not by giddy pleasure in righteousness, but by the comfort of knowledge.

“You are witnessing an Unraveling . The Unchained are half-formed hearts. Ideas, possibilities, people and their incarnations just barely on the verge of existence… buried in the foundation of the world and given a will. The World Order jails them, and now that a few got out-- they will stop at nothing to cannibalize the very prison that gave birth to them.”

Riku sucked in a breath behind bared teeth unable to contain the alarm. 

“Didn’t think there was a fate worse than the darkness, did you? Nothing’s getting swallowed or consumed. The light isn’t falling into an endless, unreachable realm. No, instead, the seams just pop . Every heart returns to the scraps of light it once was. Every link of memory disperses into the ether. Just gone . At least when the worlds fell to Ansem, there was an ounce of hope left for foolish heroes to risk it all.”

Xigbar cracked a horrible smile.

“With him nowhere to be found, you have to wonder if Sora’s suffered the same fate.”

 

Shut-up!!” And Riku’s voice was a furious roar. He had long lost the composure to scrutinize his enemies spinning words. The anger festered a sick power. It welled like bubbling nausea and gripped his body like a chill. 

“Watch yourself, Champion of Light. You’ll succumb to the darkness you’re so proudly immune to.”

Riku held back the physical response he felt so vividly. Some kind of pride clamping his mouth shut, an alliance with his dominating shame. Any hope that such a war didn’t read was lost to the amused chuckle from his opponent. 

Xigbar took this time to rise from his pinned position on the earth. Riku hadn’t noticed the charge of Braveheart dimming in light of his words. 

“Now, as hopeless as it is, the World Order works in mysterious ways. If there is one big take away, I’d say it’s practically sentient. You’ll have to excuse me.”

The content of his words registered a moment too late. 

Stop !” Riku snatched his hand out toward where Xigbar once stood but the Nobody with the affinity of Space simply blinked himself away.

 

Left alone. Riku shook. His heart brimmed.

And then Braveheart was slamming into the ground a bursting cry of rage. Fingers grabbed at his hair-- the style as short as the child he felt himself become. But the frustration. The hopelessness was too much. 

He wished Mickey was there to calm his heart.

He wished Sora was there.

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Chapter Text

Catching up to a speeding horse was a matter of engaging with a seldom-used keyblader glider above the trees. Reasoning with an impatient World denizen without disturbing the World Order anymore was a matter of playing the hero card… Maintaining that Order, on the other hand, would be a lost cause.

And Riku wasn’t playing things safe anymore.

“I beg your pardon?” The queen’s nostrils flared, pulling at the reins of her horse to balance its anxious trots in a balanced direction. She was already perturbed by the second interruption in her pursuit for her daughter.

“You need to come with me,” Riku repeated evenly, standing before her path. Elinor set her jaw.

“I’m grateful for your aid before but I am trying to find my daughter so get out of my way!”

Riku clenched his fist. He understood that urgency, he felt it enough himself to do something this crazy. Based on Xigbar’s words, the reunion of this mother and daughter was vital to threatening his havoc-wreaking plot. She was important. But this wasn’t happening fast enough.

“And I can find her,” He replied with desperate fire. “Come with me.”

Riku was reminded of the moment before when she reared her horse at a Founding Organization member. She pulled at the shire horse’s reins again and he was made aware of how short he was in comparison to the creature. 

“And this is urgent! Unless you have a horse hiding behind the trees I will simply take your guidance and forge ahead myself.”

Riku took a breath without breaking eye contact. Xigbar’s interference was one thing. Witnessing his magic was another thing. But this… was ‘meddling’. 

He summoned Braveheart into his hand and watched her jump in surprise. Unfortunately, he wasn’t done. Riku threw the keyblade, a bright light erupting around the blade’s pinwheeling form. From that eruption, his glider hovered into place beside him. 

Riku held out his hand. “Come with me.”

Elinor’s eyes were wide. “W-Who are you?”

“My name is Riku and I need you to save your daughter.”


Ven!”

Terra’s voice snapped alongside the sound of rushing wind and the low hum of the keyblade’s emitting propulsion. The world zoomed past them in a blur, the pair hovering just above the treetops towards a far off indentation of cleared trees they assumed their charge to be. Ven jumped at the driver’s urgency, not having realized he was spacing out. His grip on Terra’s waist had grown tight in an absentminded slip of focus. 

He couldn’t stop thinking about the gash in the World. The strange manner in which it sprawled and spread, cutting through layers of physical existence Ven had never once imagined before. 

“You need to call Yen Sid.” Terra urged, focusing on the pursuit.

“Y-Yes.” Ven spluttered, awkwardly reaching to his back pocket for his gummiphone. Riding second on a keyblade was not comfortable, but the strain of holding on simply proved how out of sorts Ven was. 

“What’s the status?” Mickey’s voice zapped through the speaker. Just as Ven suspected, his environment was not of the royal Disney Castle throne room but of the humble Mysterious Tower study. It shocked Ven’s system with a much-needed purpose. 

“Not good.” He began. And the briefest report he could manage he rattled off his tongue, mixing in a touch of Terra’s cryptic information.

“A keyblade wielder?” Mickey’s voice responded with an unbridled surprise. Meanwhile, another voice cut into the fray.

Master Aced…” Yen Sid’s voice held wonder and caution. Mickey allowed the former Master to take the screen.

“There is a frightful amount of concern.” He continued in his signature slow drawl.

“--Yeah and we are running on a time limit!” Terra threw over his shoulder. “This World is falling apart. Tell us how to fix it!”

Yen Sid did not seem perturbed by Terra’s short fuse. “Of course… An Unraveling is a harrowing disease upon the physical realm. The World Order is the primary defense against such a disastrous event, but if the damage is as you say, the unique properties of the Princess of Heart might be necessary for mending the damage.”

“Is that why that bear guy was going after Merida? She can fix this?” Ven couldn’t help the bubble of hope in his voice.

“Perhaps. It is imperative that you protect her from these abominations. The World Order is most likely pushing its denizens to act in its favor. If the Princess has a goal, she must fulfill it! Only then can the healing begin.”

“A goal?” Terra balked. Ven’s eyes shot wide.

“She wanted to change her fate! She was going on about that even after the creature’s attack.” Ven was still baffled at her sense of priorities. It bordered on mad.

“And how are we supposed to make that happen!?” Terra seemed daunted.

“-- she must fulfill this.” Yen Sid interrupted. “Keyblade wielders, no matter the intention, are still intruders on the natural order of the World. Above all else, the Princess must be the sole beneficiary. This is her World and her fate at work.”

Ven’s mind was racing at the speed of the flying keyblade. Scouring the conversation he had with her. Searching for the secret hiding in the short glimpse of her heart she provided. It felt impossible-- like he only had half the puzzle pieces. Half of the puzzle...

“Her mother!” Ven gasped. “She had a fight with her mom. Maybe that’s it?”

“You might be onto something… but we need to instigate a make-up while strapped to a world-sized bomb?”

“It may be your only chance.” Yen Sid conceded. There was only a moment of pause when the inflection of his tone tensed slightly. A momentous sign. “But take warning wielders. Should you make contact with the unraveling scars you face a most certain demise. It is a sickness!”

The picture of Yen Sid’s most foreboding fury blurred in the moving camera of the gummiphone. Suddenly the mouse king was consuming the screen with an obvious expression of panic. 

“Gee, I dunno about this guys… I-I don’t want you getting hurt!”

Ven bit back a sudden swell of sympathy at his friend’s soulful protest. It surged at him with a wave of warmth and stinging pain. Stirring inside him, Ven took that concern and spun it into liquid courage. He swallowed and pressed his face toward the camera with a defiant look. 

“We’ll be okay!” He promised. And Ven believed it. He was with Terra. Sora had conquered the greatest threat they’d ever see again. There was nothing they couldn’t do. The mouse’s expression softened, forcing the faith. 

 

And that’s when the gummiphone exploded out of Ven’s hand, bathed in a searing hot splash of energy. 

 

Ven gave a startled cry. His blistered red fingers twitched empty and raw. The phone’s circuits had fried before their danger was clear and now it hurtled toward the earth. The keyblade vehicle seized violently. 

What’s happening Terra!?” Ven scrambled to find better purchase onto the driver. The bike was jerking violently to an endless barrage of blasts on the undercarriage. The line of trees tossed and twirled. The bullets rattled off, chipping away at Ven’s back and ankles. The progress forward was stifled and aerial balance was a distant dream.

“We’re engaging!” Terra warned just before their craft crashed into the forest underbelly. And with a powerful leap, he launched himself off the bike trusting Ven’s quick but clumsy mimic. They were pinballs in the thicket of branches, blind to the dark forest’s hostile surprises. The vehicle was a keyblade before the two could vault themselves onto the forest floor, brandishing their defenses. 

Before them, their attacker stepped forward into a spot of moonlight. He wore a black cloak, but his hood was down and his gaze was knowing.  

“Pests.” 

Xigbar curled his lip in disgust while lazily tapping one of his crossbows on his shoulder. “I’ve got a lot on my plate you know.”

Terra clamped his teeth into an eroding grind. “Braig!

“It’s Xigbar!” He moaned the correction in loud annoyance. “You are so slow. No wonder it was so easy for the old coot to spin you into his pawn.” He flashed the other bow in presentation to Terra’s furious posture.

“Shut up!” Ven snarled, a fire in his eyes. His keyblade curled in his grip, itching to tear through the sky. Xigbar took notice of Ven with a blink.

The annoyance melted into wry amusement in an instant. 

Again with the look.” Xigbar chuckled nostalgically. “Positively righteous and yet so ignorant.” Like he had drowned his goldfish. Ven wasn’t wise to the personal joke which made him all the more infuriating. 

 

“What is your goal?” Terra interrupted and like a light switch, the charming pleasure once again left Xigbar’s face. He rolled his eyes like an inconvenienced teenager.

“I’m actually tired of explaining. Long story short: stay out of the way.” And then with a dash of sass-- “Oh, and you might want to hop on the next train off-World cause this place is doomed.”

“Like we’re gonna let you get away with that!” Ven snapped crouching low. Just looking at Xigbar made him feel sick.

Xigbar had a clear preference, his irritation melting into a warm laugh.

“So spunky! I can’t for the life of me understand why no one wanted to be your friend back in the day.”

Ven couldn’t help the confused twist of his brow. He unconsciously lifted his head from his defensive position ever so slightly. 

“Sorry, am I bringing back bad memories? Or did you shove those with your other half too?”

“Enough of your mind-games!” Terra clapped back and prepared his stance in sync with his brother-in-training. 

Xigbar shrugged. “Naturally, you don’t remember a thing. I get it, the trip does that to you. But you brush with your demise a few times and they come back, slowly but surely. So why is it that you are still sitting cozy in your ivory tower?” 

“What are you talking about!?” Ven screamed in frustration. There was a hitch in his voice as a ball of anxiety wound itself tight in his gut. An intrusive thought pawed at him. Wrapping his arms around Chirithy and the nudging suspicion that the Dream Eater fit into the grooves of his embrace far too nicely. Like a stuffed animal worn from the tight squeeze of a lonely child. So lonely. 

‘I missed you,’ Chirithy said softly at the grave. 

“He’s just trying to get a rise out of you,” Terra warned in a low voice. The eldest wielder was looking for the prime opportunity to strike. His hulking keyblade vibrated anxiously in his hand.

“Don’t you think it’s time you start asking yourself who you really are? Why you were found wandering the badlands with nothing but your name? Xehanort took you in for a reason, Ventus.”

Xigbar purred at the dropped expression. Ven’s ears and imagination were at the villain's mercy as that forgotten time came rushing back.

 

The wasteland was old and barren and lonely and it was all he knew. No memories. No past. No friends. He was young and scared and lost. Looking up along the black boots of an aging Xehanort, squaring his gaze into the yellow eyes of a wise Master-- Ven couldn’t help but feel hope. And that gnarled old man… he must have felt something similar looking into him. 

And that hope had dried up so quickly as he followed at the heels of his master. Without memory to guide his thoughts, Ven had succumbed to a near-constant sense of isolation and dread. Felt with acute precision, his heart having been coddled from knowledge only to be dropped into a vat of suffering, his Master provided little comfort of presence, word, or deed. And thus that sense of lost hope was mutual between them.

Wayward Wind was shiny and new in his hands but it quickly dulled against the barrage of strange enemies and the black blade of his master. The sun would travel slowly across the dusty ruins. The training sessions were impatient and fierce. His pleading protests were met with deaf ears. Until finally it was too much to take.

His master’s black boot kicked his limp body onto his back and that sick keyblade cleaved his heart in two.

 

“Ven doesn’t need your questions! He knows who he is!” Terra spat back. He looked at his younger friend for the confident endorsement only to find him slack and distant. His attention was far away and running farther. His breath was reduced to short, fruitless huffs. 

There was a laugh.

It’s so predictable of you,” Xigbar ignored Terra, opting to lower his head in the manner one speaks to a small child. He strolled towards the chronic amnesiac with that patronizing tone. “But I’m almost jealous. What I wouldn’t give to finally forget the horrifying truth of this game we’re playing.”

Ven raised his head. Noticing that Xigbar had grown closer still, he tilted it reluctantly higher. He felt small and dumb. That skin-crawling itch from before suddenly returned and brought with it the same overwhelming sense of rejection that the unraveling wound in Merida’s beautiful World emitted. The impending void, the suction of complete and utter absence. The gash that wasted light and seeped an insatiable hunger. Just one look at it sparked an instinct in Ventus honed by experience. That wasn’t the first time he had seen a scar like that...

“All you Dandelion’s ever knew how to do was run away.”

A sharp inhale. Fear. Confusion. Envy. Protest. Outrage. Righteousness. Doubt. Self-preservation. Fear. Panic. Loneliness. And then… nothing. A pain so unfathomable he refused to feel it. That ache was missing.

 

“Enough!” 

Terra was swinging the Ends of the Earth over his head. His fury was raw power. 

Xigbar flashed both of his bows and caught the strike. 

“Don’t listen to him, Ven!” Terra insisted, pushing his blade deeper into the sniper’s held defenses. “None of that stuff matters! We’re a team!”

Xigbar was pushed back against Terra’s screaming keyblade. The windswept keyblade wielder jerked into awareness.  

 

“I will not...let you hurt my friend”

“Together… always.”

Me and him will always be a team!”

 

Terra, was a rock in the storm. Ventus held on desperately, his heart swelling around a raging fire.

And Wayward Wind was in his hands with a burst of reinvigorated green energy. Ven was a blur as he snapped himself forward in a signature vortex motion, pinwheeling a savage tornado across Xigbar’s defenseless posture. 

Only for the sniper to blink out of existence. Xigbar very shortly materialized from a wormhole of his creation just a few yards away. 

Ven halted the extreme wind-up from his attack, only looking a little perturbed at having missed the target. That was the problem with battling a space-manipulator. His nostrils flared and his face twisted around a brightly assessing expression.

 

“Sorry, Terra,” Ven said, eyeing his pest of an opponent.  “What do you say we slap that smile off his face and save Merida?”

“You know we don’t have time to play around, Ven.”

Ven’s fury was nothing like Terra’s-- but it was unmistakable. Then a smile, reminiscent of a gold-eyed, monster-spawning abomination, snuck onto his face unconsciously.

“Don’t worry. I’m fast.”

 

Xigbar whistled.

“‘For a kid without a lick of darkness, you can be so mean. A far cry from your pacifist days.” The space manipulator clicked his tongue and warped out of sight. Terra and Ven’s head shot up, frantically searching for Xigbar. 

“Lock on!” 

A flurry of bullets answered the pair’s prevailing question before they could pinpoint his location. Ven was darting around the attacks while Terra took to blocking. A dance better avoided with the more magically apt Aqua. Her reflect spell was fast and stronger than anything Terra could conjure. The attack stopped as abruptly as it began, the forest filling with the mechanical clips and creaks of his crossbow’s reloading process. That was all Ven needed to begin closing the gap between them.  

Tch!” Xigbar stopped the reload in favor of warping away. This time he didn’t appear so obviously. 

“Where’d he go?” Terra demanded. A moment later an arrow struck him on the side. There was the distinct sound of warping as they turned their heads in the direction of the attack.

Another shot, this time from behind Ventus. Space loudly zipped itself close again. 

The air whistled from above. 

“Stop hiding you coward!” Terra managed a block before calling out. 

Ven was struck twice before backing up toward his friend. 

“He’s toying with us,” Ven concluded and Terra gave a sharp grunt as he took another small blow to the back. 

“No kidding.” 

Ven squared himself to Terra’s back, covering all of his bases, his eyes zipping around for their opponent. Maybe he could try airstepping like Sora? Close the distance. Melee was the only way for him. He cursed his lack of strong ranged attacks to counter. But he could do it. 

He waited for the sharpshooter to burst into his sight, his muscles coiled like springs. Adrenaline rushed through his veins. His heart raced and his net of awareness was cast as wide as he could manage. He could catch several insects out of the air if he so chose.

 

But the next attack never came.

 

There was a beat. Ven was the first to slack his defense. Did…

Did Xigbar up and run from the fight?

 

“I think he ditched us.”

No way.”

“I really think he did.”

“That doesn’t make sense, why shoot us down in the first place?”

Ven was pale. “To stall us?”

Terra’s eyes were saucers. Yen Sid’s warnings rang in his ears. The power Master Aced’s swing ached in his arms. 

“Let’s move.” 


Riku chose to ride the glider under the trees, along the path to better pacify Queen Elinor who was frazzled by the speed. That meant less of a straight shot… and more of a winding ride. The tradeoffs were relatively equal. Her long hair whipped behind her as they wove unhindered by gravity and obstacles. It was a remarkable improvement regardless of the downsides. 

The medieval queen twisted her fingers into Riku’s jacket, muttering in her exasperation and fear. 

Riku followed the path along a sharp turn. There was a moan at the vertigo.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” The queen muttered to herself right by Riku’s ears. 

A lump of guilt traveled down Riku’s throat and hesitantly, he put a hand over the queen’s grip. 

“We’re going to save her.” He reassured, focusing on their path. It was hard not to know where to go. The stench of wrongness wafted before him. It was nothing like the darkness he was so accustomed to. It was positively nauseating. 

It was perplexing. For some reason, his recent failure of a trip in the Realm of Sleep brought about another sensitivity. And with it were questions about the nature of such an ability. His heart doused in darkness gave him a taste for the contrasts of light and dark. Now, doused in dreams… he could sense this harrowing ‘unraveling’. He wasn’t sure of the connection but he wasn’t going to snuff the asset.  

Sure enough, the closer his journey traveled to the concentration of smell, the physical signs of blight increased. It started off as cracks in the air and earth traveling miles along the earth. Soon those cracks had faulted open into massive gashes, exposing a cosmic vortex of nothingness oozing threads of light. They were chilling wounds, unlike anything he’d ever seen. He was thankful that the World’s denizen had her eyes squeezed shut.

“This is my fault.” The queen moaned. She was overwhelmed with the transportation, but it was bringing out the dark sadness of her heart. He couldn’t let that fester…

“What happened?” Such counseling was not Riku’s strong suit. 

“I’m a horrible mother. I pushed her away. I didn’t listen to her and now… she’s in danger. I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose her.”

Riku tightened the protective covering of his hand over hers. She was a stranger but her heart was laid bare. He couldn’t help but recall his overprotective sense of possession with his dear friendship with Sora when they were kids. His fear of losing him drove him to dark thoughts and rash decisions that pushed him away-- outright rejected the person he wanted to protect. His most precious person. It was a bitter irony.

 

We are always our worst enemies. 

 

“You’ll find a way to her,” Riku reassured. The thought of Sora’s smile. There wasn’t an ounce of blame. That bond was stronger than any misunderstanding. “Because you’re there for her. You always will be. Remind her of that.”

There was a bloom of physical pain at the grief his own words brought him.

Riku would be there for Sora. No matter how hopeless it seemed. 

The fog around them thickened in the moonlit night. They needed to find her.


The blue orb danced and flickered-- a high pitched chatter of interest emitting from its ethereal flame as it looked at her. Merida made a connection to those demonic creatures attacking her but she recognized this spirit. She saw them when she was a child. The day Mor’du attacked her family and took her father’s leg. 

“A wisp!” She said in awe. The spirit bobbed in response, slowly bowing its twig-like appendages. Cautiously, Merida took a step forward. The blue glow was dim in the deep night, blurred along a thick coat of fog, characteristic of this ancient forest. Her careful hand reached out into the moonlight. If she could just... 

“You know, some say, that will-o'-the wisps lead you to your fate.”

Wonder filled her eyes. Meanwhile, a hunger burned under her skin. This was her chance. 

Eagerly, her fingers laced across the creature. Just like before, it vanished into thin air. 

Before she could mourn the loss, a bell-like tone tinkled ahead of her. There another wisp floated ahead of her. And then another behind that. The number was countless as they formed a perfect trail. It was leading her… to her fate. 

She hiked her skirt up, a breath of a smile curling her lips at the prospect. The princess was running along the wisps careful paths. Their ghostly flames dispersed in chorus with her own fiery mane as she passed. To where she didn’t know. But there was hope and that made her bold. 

The trail was long and winding, climbing starkly up an incline laced with rock and cliffsides that Merida proudly scaled. Anything to change her fate. Anything to break free from the shackles of her prison. 

The wisps were blue beacons in the darkness, the fog catching the bright moonbeams like billows of endless smoke. It only increased as the altitude increased. Eventually, the mouth of the forest cleared to make way for the jagged and desolate clearing of crumbling stone. From the enshrouding mist was a grand spire of rock, carved by man and nature alike, standing indomitable. A seal of crossed axes on its archway. 

Why did the wisps bring her here?

She walked under it, carefully treading along the path of broken stone. Before her was the remnants of what appeared to be a regal stone building, dilapidated walls fruitlessly scaling the sky, covered in ancient overgrown and destruction. Completely abandoned. In total ruin. Lost to time.  A kingdom standing along a cliffside. 

Whoever they were, they've been gone for a long, long time.

And Merida’s cautious step forward was met with gravity. The stones at her feet suddenly buckling under a hollow and worn center. For the second time that night she tumbled hard along the earth, a slide of jagged rubble pushing her down into a heap. She groaned-- the urge to reassure someone of her health was strange considering her solo adventure.

She squared her vision on a throne room, littered with rubble, savage scars, and human bones.

 

It was the kingdom from her mother’s story. Or rather… what was left of it.

 

“It seems like destruction is a fate we all share.” Merida jumped at garbled voice cutting through the darkness. It almost sounded like it was crying. A grand difference from when she last saw the speaker. 

The warrior in the bear mask hovered by the ruins of one of the prince’s thrones. At his foot was a tablet chiseled with the royal likeness of the story’s four central characters. He looked contemplatively at the image lit only by moonlight, shining from the recently made skylight. 

“What are you doing here?” She called and she wasn’t sure if her voice conveyed the rebellious spite she wanted or if her genuine surprise was actually creeping through. The bear mask gleamed as he turned his head to face her. 

“I am here to set you free.”

Despite herself, Merida felt her stomach jump at the answer to her prayers. Even still his armor of jagged crystal dimly pulsed around him. She recalled his mindless fury against her and the fear trickled back. 

“Do you mean… change my fate?” 

He nodded. 

“Yes. You may not understand it princess, but you are special. Within your heart is an ancient light and that light holds up this very realm of existence. Without your safekeeping, the great Kingdom Hearts would simply collapse.”

Merida scoffed, taking what she could from the jumble of nonsense. “Being a princess has never helped. I don’t care how special that makes me.”

The enemy almost projected a sense of pity. 

“One’s circumstance of birth is the first blow of fate. Your World subjects you to its design that way. And your very existence ensures that the greater World can continue this endless cycle.”

He gave a bitter smile before continuing. “Should I destroy you, that ancient light would simply move onto the next worthy candidate.”

Merida unconsciously reached for her bow only to find her shoulder bare. He didn’t move further and they were at physical standstills. “W-what are you going to do?”

The man traced a hand along the engraved stone of the throne and Merida saw him thoughtfully browse the dark throne room they inhabited. He finally landed on the hole she fell through. 

 

“If we can’t destroy the pillar, then we destroy the ground it stands on.”

 

Merida trembled at the catastrophic threat. A flash of metal on the ground snatched at her desperate attention and her defenseless hands were quickly shuffling out an ancient sword from the skeletal grip of one of the many victims in the castle. 

The sword wavered awkwardly in her hand, pointed at the still and contemplative figure. He was a savage beast before, she barely recognized his human shape when he was attacking her. And… it was different pointing a blade at a man. She could bravely face the bared teeth of an animal but he seemed far more intimidating. It made the dust flake off the metal. It gave cracks to her panicked thoughts, allowing an intrusive question to creep into her consciousness. As if to add to the horror. 

Why were there so many remains here?

 

The tablet at the foot of the invader was cracked along the edge, separating the eldest, power-hungry brother from his family. His stone engraved face was mauled by massive claw marks.

“The Unchained were drawn here. Countless possibilities teem underneath this world and soon they will be free. Free to unchain you from this world. Free to change your fate.”

There was a flash of light. In his hands settled a massive blade, oddly shaped, just like Ventus. Like a key, it’s shaft was a boulder with a bear-like maw for the teeth. He shifted its position in his grip, pointing it toward the ground, toward the tablet. 

“It’s clear now why destroying your tapestry would result in the damage thus far. Your story is an echo.”

Merida didn’t know what he was talking about. But staring at the broken tablet reminded her of the dear tapestry her mother wove together. Stormy nights by the hearth. Her mother’s voice soothing her fear of thunder while tirelessly slaving away at this symbol of her family's bond. The depiction of the four brothers was the same, only torn and savagely destroyed. The eldest brother of fitful jealousy and betrayal haunted the eyes.

The crystalline stranger summoned a narrow beam of light from the tip of his blade. It sliced into the tablet with an ethereal blue light. 

“And with my keyblade, I will unlock those possibilities trapped within the source of your echo.”

The source of her echo? All she saw was a stone tablet mauled by what seemed to be…

 

A bear.

 

Merida registered the heavy sounding of breathing behind her. The stones creaked together. Cold dread fell into her stomach and her body froze with a realization she’d probably never completely understand. She couldn’t breathe. The sword in her hand trembled. Those, claws. The brothers. The prince was…

 

“Mor’du!”

 

 She screamed, whipping her hair around to face the massive beast from her nightmares. A bear so large and savage songs were sung of its endless murderous plague. It’s mindless gaze blinked from within the dark corners of the throne room like fireflies. At her alarm, the bear began a charge toward her, jumping over the rubble. 

She gave a shriek once more as it closed the distance. Her head darting around the dark space for the fight of her life or the flight of her life.  The rusty blade from the ruins reaffirmed its position in her clammy palms. The sword was not her weapon of choice. The blood rushed in her ears, accompanied the bear’s aggressive vocalization. 

Merida lashed the dull blade at the snout of the beast who gave a deafening roar. The sword was thrown out of her hands with a simple swipe of the bear's claws. Panic overtook the princess and she dove out of the way of the bear's ruthless pursuit. 

Mor’du’s claws swiped through the space she once occupied. It was time to run. She scrambled up the slope of crumbled castle frantic limbs, the bear at her heels. Or at least, she thought it was. 

She turned her head just in time to see the bear of legend charge at the keyblade wielder. His brandished defense was nothing to the massive paw and thousand-year rage. And as her enemy recoiled, Merida pushed herself up the rocks, scaling it like the cliffsides she’d leisure along with Angus only with more urgency. 

Soaked in the moonlight, Merida reached the top of the slope, with one eye on the battle below. They were perfectly occupied with each other, the savage demeanor of the keyblade wielder had returned only with a flashing blade above his head. 

The gap to the surface was a little more than an arms-length from her wide-eyed form. There was no purchase for her climb.

The dread was almost too much and she whimpered while searching the immediate surroundings for a solution. Something to climb atop? A stone to leap toward in the interim? She was stuck in a cage with a bloodthirsty bear.

The idea struck her and her risk assessment was a tidal wave of uncertainty. The sword she used to defend herself fell a ways down the slope where Mor’du launched it. She’d have to be fast and hope for the beast of a man to occupy the actual beast well enough. 

 

As she slid down the slope a blistering roar stole her attention.

 

The keyblade wielder covered in the crystal burned a bright yellow, illuminating the dark ruins with a brandish of his rock-like claws. He tackled the savage Mor’du with bared teeth and his keyblade, overwhelmed by some base instinct. Mor’du was larger and piled his maw into the man.

He cried out and the keyblade conjured a bright ball of magic that dispersed along the earth. A sudden spire of stone erupted from under the bear. Mor’du shrieked and recoiled from the attack.

What ensued was a battle between monsters. The wielder’s sword lashed at the bear who stood immortal ages. Mor’du’s claws would land against the man’s head and torso, cleaving into him at unexpected times. A savage pleasure was seen on the lips of the bear-masked man. He craved power and yearned for a match no matter how he dressed the desire up.

Fitting that the warrior would find that satisfied against something so mindless.

The intruder rose from the bear’s landing strike with a mad bark of laughter. It reminded Merida vaguely of her father’s exaggerated tales and the stupid grin on his face when he described the truly horrible experience of having his limb bitten off. That beastly first impression was returning. 

“A formidable beast! How I would’ve enjoyed a clash with your blade you cursed thing!” 

 

His voice echoed its heckle in the dark space while Merida search for the gleam of that sword-- any sword. No matter the intimidation of the man, her fear of Mor’du’s responding roar shook her foundation differently. The bear grunted and she spared a glance long enough to see the maw of the bear close on keyblade wielder’s blade arm. 

Suddenly, the man was being tossed in the air by the arm, pinned and suffering from the repeated slams against the floor. Something about the limb would not detach and the bear was forced to let go throwing the man across the room.

He crashed against the wall with an echoing crack and fell limp onto the floor. The glow of his crystalline armor dimmed.

 

Merida balked, stunned at the sure take-down. She wasn’t sure what to feel, but the gleam of that sword in the corner of her eye gave her hope.

Mor’du was approaching the still body of it’s defeated opponent when Merida secured the hilt in her hand at the foot of the slope.

There was a grunt and the bear’s mindless eyes took in her frozen form. The horror dawned on her with the intensity of a swinging hammer.

Merida scrambled back up the rubble with an electric jolt. The sword clanging and clattering along the stone, in tandem with the claws of the bear who abandoned the other inhabitant. She could feel it’s hot air creep along her ankles. She lurched herself higher and higher until she reached her dead end.

The sword was raised in one quick motion and with a mindless snap she hurled the weapon at the stack of rock just out of reach. 

It wedged itself deep into that wall by some miracle. Extended just far enough under the mouth of the opening to the surface. She wanted nothing more than to bridge that gap.

She launched her blind jump in the mad momentum. Reaching her arm out, she wished the outstretched hand of someone she loved would miraculously grab it. The bears’ jaws snapped behind her. 

 

And she fell onto the sword’s hilt. Salvation.

 

Mor’du tumbled down the slope from the momentum and Merida scurried up the hole. 

The desolate ruins upon the surface were a source of relief but the growls from the hole convinced her she wasn’t safe. She broke into her run before even getting to her feet. Merida tossed her head behind her wheezing for air.

Mor’du pulled himself to the surface with a roar. She’d have no chance of outrunning him on level ground. 

And as Merida ran, the ruins at her feet changed into the grass-covered clearing. The spires of stone bricks transformed into massive slabs of rock, standing like pillars, points of worship in the green fields bathed in moonlight. 

But underneath the blades of grass was a sinister glow, cracks along the World. Oozing scars that creaked wider and wider with each hopeless step towards the perceived escape. With a clear snap the gashes extended before Merida, lacing through the earth, the stone pillars, the air itself. The World between the wounds stretched and pulled under the strain, undulating under the princess’s path. 

Merida’s foot caught, mind distracted by the nightmare before her and horror behind her. Her momentum sent her tumbling along the grass, among the stone structures. 

Mor’du’s image closed in. 

On her back, the horrifying sight of those teeth ready to tear into her, getting larger, getting closer. Her scream was sucked up by the endless voids in her World.  Pushing herself up along the thick grass, kicking in a frantic back-peddle, she was unable to tear herself away from the source of her sure and certain death. 

Her head hit the broad wall of one of the stone pillars. Merida whimpered her anguished surprise. A dead end.

Mor’du rushed toward her helpless body. 

 

She was going to die. The bear stood its full height before her and she was heaving fruitless gasps. She was going to die. This was the end. Merida wailed and hiccupped along the bear’s horrible sounds.

Mor’du swung its paw into the air. Merida finally recoiled her swimming gaze. She wasn’t brave enough to stare her end in the face. Her eyes squeezed tight and her voice cracked in her screaming cries… The tears were spilling down her cheeks. 

 

She was going to die. 




“MERIDA!”

….

 

There was a weight atop her. A familiar form and timeless smell. Warmth. A soothing voice singing above a raging storm.

 

Arms wrapped around her tight. The death-dealing blow didn’t come. Just a single, desperate embrace. Merida took in a shuddering breath she had resigned herself from ever having. 

 

“Mum?” She gasped underneath the hug. Eyes wide.

 

“I’m here.” Elinor sobbed. “I’ll always be right here.”

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