A/N:

::Sigh:: this chapter would have been out sooner, but I faced a lot of problems getting it done. Plus, I was gone a week for spring break. Special thanks to Megumi-chan for her help and encouragement, and Kintora for her email.

###

and in the kaleidoscope of colors that are the fragments of the world, among the stars, on the shore that is the beginning, that is paradise, they are conceived by the Great Heart, by the people---the keys---the children, to reclaim what was lost, to connect what was broken; twins; they are inseparable, they are complete, they are yin and yang, darkness and light, divided by Nothing and No one

Venn stops when he feels Luca crane his head over his shoulder. He's pulled down the black hood of his coat, so he can hear Luca's soft, even breaths near his ear above the rhythmic rush of the waves. A few stray strands of Luca's coppery-hair tickle and poke wire-like at his pale skin. He doesn't move away.

"What are you doing?" Luca asks. He stares down at the bottle in Venn's hands. The glass is illuminated silver-white, and when he spies the roll of paper stuck inside the vessel, his eyes flicker with an almost child-like interest.

"Another one of your poems?"

Venn holds the bottle for a moment, feeling its cool weight in his hands.

"Maybe."

Venn stands up. Because of the sudden movement, Luca tips back ungracefully onto the sand, and he tilts his head up to look at the other steel-haired young man curiously. He cries out in indignation and surprise when he sees Venn throw the bottle out into the water---a gleaming, evanescent arc.

"It wasn't very good anyway," Venn says calmly, still standing. "You wouldn't have wanted to read it."

Luca shakes his head. "Liar."

His voice is not colored by annoyance or immaturity---it is the self-possessed statement of a fact.

"Your writing is always beautiful."

He sits up, the skirt of his coat flaring around crossed legs. He leans forward, crystalline gray eyes gazing into the horizon.

"Always," he repeats. "But maybe someone will find it. Someone of the Present World."

His mouth crooks into a wistful little smile as Venn sits down beside him. "I know---I'm dreaming. /We/ can't even leave this world, much less a note in a bottle."

Venn is quiet. He is thinking about the time that has passed as they have waited, and he wonders how much longer they will have to wait, practically non-existent to the outside world. He is thinking about Shaori and the others, waiting with them, and then he looks at Luca. The other youth has propped himself up onto his elbows as he stares out at the water.

He knows that if he were to listen, he would not hear a heartbeat.

endless

maybe our journey meant nothing at all

###

Sora's eyes were intense, flickering like water and metal as he sat across from Riku. Kairi hugged her knees close to her chest as she watched her two friends.

~So much has changed...

The sudden, striking proximity of their two hearts---it was almost as if two pure, contrasting energies had come to rest on that little islet, calm enough for the moment, but almost certain to come into conflict with passing time.

~Light and darkness....

She shivered, hoping that what she was feeling from their connection would not lead to something terrible and irreversible. Her thoughts returned to the events of that morning and what Sora had said---that Riku had attacked him. Looking at Riku now, sensing the darkness from within him like a winter chill and seeing him so pale and blindfolded---she found that it was all too easy to believe.

~what happened to the boys I remember?

Her eyes turned towards Sei, curled up beside Riku beneath the palm. Her stomach knotted when she felt the darkness lying just beneath the surface of Sei's outer shell, barely held in check by a seal she realized was Riku's work and a few tendrils of Sei's light. Sei had said that Ansem had never really gone, but she had never realized how much power Sei's dark side still held until that moment.

~what happened to the days the wind blew by?

She frowned as she studied Sei's heart for a few more moments. Something seemed very strange about the man's fragmented heart, something very different.

"I guess I'll just say it then," Riku was saying quietly. "There's no point in avoiding it any longer. I've already told this to Sei, and I'm sure you can feel it...that I think...I'm becoming the darkness."

Kairi found that she had been holding her breath when Riku spoke. He seemed sorrowful and ashamed, yet somehow resolute at the same time. Sora's face was pained, but it seemed that it had been no more than what they had all been expecting.

"I know, Riku," he whispered. "I know. I just wish...it didn't have to be this way."

He sighed.

"But it's always been this way, hasn't it? Even since that first night, when the darkness came to our island and you told me you weren't afraid. I guess that was the night we made our choice."

Sora's voice shook at the end. Kairi understood what must have been going through his mind because she was feeling the same: it was terrible, just accepting what was happening to Riku. But what else was there that they could do, especially when it seemed not even Riku himself had any control over this?

"It looks like our keyblades reflect our choices," Riku said. "Or at least our keychains." He smiled grimly. "I suppose that means then that both versions of the legend were true."

Kairi started as she recalled something that had been pushed from her mind since their arrival at the Destiny Islands. "That sphere mentioned the legends----but then, what would that mean about my keyblade?"

"Your keyblade??" Riku stared at Kairi, as if wondering if he had heard the girl correctly. His thoughts were written blatantly on his face: since when?

"That's a surprise," someone mumbled. All eyes turned towards the source of the voice. Sei gingerly sat up, rubbing his eyes with the back of a copper-skinned hand. From the way he held himself, it was obvious the man was still very tired despite having just been sleeping.

"How long have you been awake?" Riku asked, his attention momentarily diverted. Then, more sharply, he added, "You know you're never going to recover at that rate."

Sei let out a faint laugh, letting his forehead rest on Riku's shoulder for a moment. "Heh, thanks for the concern."

"Sei, are you all right?" Kairi asked worriedly.

Sei smiled wanly. "I'm fine. Just... a little tired."

Kairi frowned, not believing him at all, but he had already started talking again, asking questions to draw the subject away from himself.

"You were talking about a sphere? And a keyblade?"

"Yes..." She wavered for a moment, unsure of how to explain. "I was asked to deliver the sphere----a kind of dome of blue glass in a metal stand---to the king. It's shown us these...images, I suppose, some of them from our own pasts. Mickey actually gave the keyblade to me while we were at his castle."

She summoned the keyblade to show Riku and Sei. Sei's brows rose, clearly surprised and very interested in the object she now held. Riku watched as Sei accepted the keyblade, feeling it in the palms of his hands and examining it from blade to handle. He paused, noting the absence of a keychain.

"Did the king give you a reason for this?" Riku asked. Kairi shook her head.

"We're very much in the dark about everything. He didn't even tell us very much about the door to the light when we asked him about that. He only said 'you can reach Kingdom Hearts through the heart of the worlds, the heart of a fallen star.'"

"Whatever that means," Sora added, sounding not a little put out.

"The king does seem to make himself purposefully unhelpful at times," Sei observed. He passed the keyblade to Riku, who, after having looked it over himself, returned it to Kairi.

"I left the sphere with my bag back in the village. You can take a look at that when you get the chance," Kairi said.

They continued to talk, filling each other in on what had been happening in the past day since their separation at Hollow Bastion. Sora and Kairi spoke a little more about the events at the Disney Castle, leading into their meeting with the Nobody and the strange nothingness between the worlds.

"I had already met one of them before. When we were separated I found myself in a strange room with a Nobody like myself. She said that what had happened had only been inevitable." Kairi hesitated, thinking. "I wonder...if it's them that separated us between the worlds."

"Perhaps," Sei agreed. "In which case, we're in quite a bind then, aren't we?"

Perhaps. Kairi let out a mental growl of silent frustration. Why were they meddling now, of all times? Just when they had found Sora.... Sometimes it seemed as if everything in the universe were simply set on making their quest more complicated than it, strictly, had to be. Separated on that first night of fate...reunited as Sora and Riku found themselves venturing deeper into their adventures of five years ago. Separated after the closing of the doors of kingdom hearts...then later reunited in the halls of Hollow Bastion...only to be separated again.

~/Please/ tell me this is not going to be a permanent trend

She'd die, she told herself. If this kept up time and time again...she'd crawl into a hole and refuse to keep on living.

Riku and Sei also recounted what had happened to them. Riku spoke of how he had ended up in Hollow Bastion, was cared for by their friends there, and of how he was eventually transported to the Destiny Islands. Sei told about his apparent "fall from the sky" and that he had met some of the trio's old friends in the village. Then, although Selphie had already explained about this somewhat to Sora and Kairi, Sei and Riku detailed the fight on the islet.

"So from here...I suppose we could risk going back to Traverse Town," Sei suggested uncertainly.

"Find the king. Demand some /real/ information for once instead of only riddles," Riku added coolly.

"But, with the chance of getting separated again...I don't know." Kairi's eyes were dark with worry. "We're only going to bring ourselves more trouble if it happens again.

"At the same time we can't just stay here," Sora pointed out.

A grim, uncomfortable silence ensued as each of them considered their present dilemma.

"I guess...we're back to square one on this one," Sora said at last.

Kairi wanted to scream.

Who were these Nobody? Why were they doing this to them?

And yet--- (and Kairi found this to be even more depressing)--- the Nobody weren't even the worst of their problems. She couldn't even begin to understand what was happening to them now, with the darkness and their hearts and their keyblades.

Back to square one indeed.

###

They were waiting on the docks of the village for Sora and Kairi to come back. Selphie had left Yuna to be by herself for a little while in the temple. The other girl had managed to hold herself together long enough to return to the village and help Selphie deliver the news about Riku and Sei to Sora and Kairi. Her grief hadn't begun to show again until she was safely within the cool, quiet confines of the village temple. Then she had let the tears flow freely.

Selphie buried her head into her lap.

She had dated Tidus for a little while when they were younger, but in reality she quite simply loved him like a brother. Tidus hadn't seemed to show much interest in quiet, calm little Yuna when they were kids, but in the past few years it had seemed as if they had been drawn to each other in some sweet, inexplicable way. Kairi had reassured Selphie that Tidus was still alive, that he would come back once they had found the door to the light. Selphie wished she could put all her faith into that idea, but she really didn't know. She didn't know much of anything about those Heartless, about the door to the light. Yet, for Yuna's sake, perhaps she would allow herself to hope.

~Tidus, if you're out there...please come back

~Yuna loves you too much for you to just disappear without even saying goodbye

Sitting beside Selphie was Sonia. Sora's mother had a slight, neatly cut figure with smoky brown hair and clear, silvery-gray eyes. In those eyes Selphie could see a determined spark of life, something that had seemed to slowly die after Sora's mysterious disappearance. She remembered their reunion in the town square, Sonia weeping uncontrollably in her happiness. Even after having just witnessed Yuna's sorrow over Tidus' loss, Selphie was glad for at least that gain this day.

Her eyes scanned the water in increasing agitation. Where /were/ they? What was taking them so long? Didn't they know how much they were beginning to worry her? She was up in an instant when she spotted them on the opposite shore, pushing their boats out into the waves. After what seemed forever, Sora and Kairi's boat reached the dock first. She jumped them the moment their feet hit dry land.

"What were you guys doing out there?" Selphie demanded, "Having a campout?"

"Selphie, please calm down," Sonia said, standing up and putting her hand on the other girl's shoulder. Her face when she looked at the two showed worry as well. "I'm sorry. You four were just gone so long, we were beginning to get anxious." Her eyes settled on the silver-haired young man in the other boat. "Is that Riku? You two have grown so much---"

Riku and Sei had docked. Sei sat down on the planks with a quiet, exhausted sort of sigh. Riku knelt down beside him to make sure he was all right and then looked up uncertainly at Sonia. The woman frowned as she studied his face and the blindfold that covered his eyes, but said nothing when she noticed the uneasy glances that the four companions traded.

"It seems that you all have gone through quite a bit since you left the island." Her gaze turned toward Sei. "I presume that you are Sei." She smiled slightly. "I've heard talk about the man fallen from the sky. I'm Sonia," she added, "Sora's mother."

Sei smiled in return. "It's a pleasure meeting you."

"It's not often that this island is graced with such an unusual visitor. Or, rather, such a group as it is now. Will all of you be staying much longer?" She hesitated and then asked, "Or will you have to leave right away?"

There was a moment's pause. "I think we've decided to stay a little while to recuperate," Sora said at length. "Sei seems to definitely need that, at least. And, to be completely honest, I don't think we know what it is exactly that we are going to do next."

"I understand." Sonia's smile seemed to waver a moment before she fixed it back into place. "You kids had wanted to leave this island so badly," she whispered. "I guess your wish was finally granted."

"Mom...?" Sora asked anxiously.

"I'm sorry. Just getting a little caught up in the past. They were talking about preparing a welcome home meal for all of you," Sonia continued. "I should probably go back and start helping the other girls with that."

"Where should I take Sei?" Riku asked. "He needs rest, after all this."

"I'll take care of him," Selphie spoke up. Clearly she felt her broken leg to be of little hindrance to getting around. "He'd been staying at Yuna's house, in the spare room. I'll ask Braska and Elspeth if they'll let him use it again----though I don't think there should be any problem with that."

"If the rest of you need rooms for the night, I'll see to those arrangements as well," Sonia offered.

"Thank you so much for your help," Kairi said gratefully.

Sonia shook her head.

"It's the least I can do." Her voice caught, and then she cleared her throat. "I'm only happy that you three are well and have returned home to us again."

Sora smiled shyly at his mother. "It's good to be home."

Sonia faltered, then stepped forward and hugged him tightly. "I know."

Old friends and familiar faces quickly surrounded Sora, Kairi, and Riku when they returned to the village streets: Wakka and Chappu, Kairi's foster family (the Mayor Darius and his wife Maia), and all the other people that the three had grown up with. The group was bombarded on all sides by questions of where they had been and what had they been up to and of comments on how much Riku and Sora had changed since their boyhood days at the island. Kairi fit right back in among the other villagers, and, although they had seemed somewhat uncomfortable at first, Sora and Riku were slowly relaxing and beginning to enjoy themselves too.

On the fringes of the crowd, Selphie spoke with a tall, brown-haired man and a handsome woman with blonde hair. Mission accomplished and permission granted, she found Sei and led him away from the crowded street to the house that he recognized from that morning.

"Oh, and Kairi asked me to leave this with you," Selphie added, setting a bag on the floor near the door. "She says there's something for you at the very top of the stuff in there. Have a nice nap, and I guess I'll see you later at dinner."

She closed the door with a soft click behind her. Sei could hear the muffled clacks of her crutches striking the floorboards down the hall. Shaking his head with a wry chuckle at the young woman, Sei pulled off his sandy clothes and dropped them without ceremony onto the ground. He collapsed onto the bed, sleep soon drawing over him like a thick curtain.

###

Kairi went to check on Sei later that evening, about half an hour before dinner. She knocked on the door, peering in when she heard his voice call her inside. Sei had woken up and was lying on his stomach on the bed. His eyes were narrowed slightly as he prodded at the glass and metal sphere Kairi had left for him. Kairi sat on the edge of the mattress, and Sei smiled when he saw who his visitor was.

"Dinner's soon," Kairi informed him. "We're eating at Sora's house, so I'm here to take you."

She looked over his shoulder at the sphere in his hands.

"I can see you're feeling better now," she added teasingly.

"A lot," Sei agreed, sitting up. "How's your stay here been so far?"

"Good. It's just too bad we can't stay longer." She sighed happily. "Home! I didn't realize how much I'd=I missed it until we finally came back."

She gingerly touched the smooth dome of the sphere with a slender fingertip.

"Any luck with that?"

"Some." He held it up in one hand, playing with a small knob.

"It's quite an interesting object," he remarked off-handedly. "As you mentioned before, it has shown images and moments from our pasts and from the lives of others. I can't imagine how anyone would have had access to all of this----but perhaps it might explain some things about King Mickey that I had never understood..."

Sei pressed a button on the side of the stand, and an image burst from the sphere, enveloping them in gray-white light. Two boys, the same twins Kairi remembered seeing in the cathedral chapel, stood before them back to back. Each now held a keyblade---the copper-haired youth wielding what seemed to be the Oathkeeper, while the silver-haired boy clutched Oblivion. On closer inspection, Kairi realized there was something different about the Oathkeeper Copper held---the keychain hanging from the handle was a delicate white flower, edged in lavender and blue. The Oblivion, on the other hand, seemed to be the same blade that Riku now carried.

"I can only guess that these are the boys from whom the legends had risen. I think you are familiar with it: one story says the keyblade's wielder saved the world. Another says that he destroyed it."

Kairi closed her eyes briefly. "So there were others before Sora and Riku. I wonder...what happened to them. Does it show that? On the sphere?"

Sei held the object for a moment in his lap.

"I'm not sure yet," he said. "It may, but I'll have to study it further."

"Thanks, Sei." She paused. "You know, it's insane how much everything has changed since I first met you and Riku in Traverse Town that night. You remember, don't you? It's been only a month, but it feels like an eternity from now." She laughed softly to herself at the memories. "We were searching for Sora then, searching through all the worlds that he had once been in. Wonderland and Neverland and Halloween Town...and we've grown so close. Even Riku with you, and you know how he had been about secretive, dual-blade-wielding Sei."

"Not so much a dual-blader anymore," Sei pointed out, smiling a little.

"Oh, I don't know," Kairi said lightly. "Maybe not keyblades, but if we could get a good pair of swords for you---what do you think? I guess you lost yours from Hollow Bastion in your fall through the sky. But don't worry. I'll see if we can get you another pair before we have to set off again."

She regarded him thoughtfully. "You and Riku really seem to understand each other. Before, had you told us about you and Ansem, I might have been afraid that Riku would have distanced himself even more from you. It's almost strange how things work out in reality---but nice. We'll need each other if we're going to work out this whole business with the Heartless and the Nobody."

She stood up.

"So are you ready to come now?"

Sei stood up as well, putting the sphere on the bedside table. "Sure."

###

dream

Sei is standing in the sky.

No---he is standing on water. He can see the ripples beneath his feet as he takes a step forward, but mostly the water is very still, like glass or crystal. When he looks down he can see the sky's reflection as if in a mirror. After a moment the reflection turns dark, becoming a night sky with bright stars scattered between the silver clouds. Sei looks up, but the sky above him is still bright, sunlight filling the blue expanse.

He nearly jumps when he senses someone coming from behind him, and he turns swiftly to meet the newcomer. Ansem laughs cruelly at the fear in Sei's amber eyes. Sei tries to step back, but his foot sinks through the water. He's falling into the darkness. The stars go out, one by one. Meteors flash across the sky like bits of gold.

Suddenly his descent has stopped. He is in white-gray nothingness, and a very familiar, small figure is standing before him, wearing a sad smile on his mousy face.

~Who is Sora?~ he asks.

And, as if it were only the most natural response in the world, Sei replies

~the light

Mickey nods encouragingly.

~And Riku?

Simple.

~the darkness

Again Mickey nods.

~Who is Kairi?

A pause. Sei knows his confusion must show on his face.

Something other than light or darkness....

The silence stretches into an eternity. Mickey's smile turns sympathetic.

~And who are you? Who is Ansem?

The light and the darkness...a conflict without close in a physical shell...

Sei shakes his head, biting his lip. He feels bewildered and unaccountably scared.

~I...don't know

the 'key' to our very existence

Mickey nods, accepting the answer.

~Find the way...~ he says. ~for /you/ are the way

destati

###

It was agreed that he was a fair and just king.

A powerful and wise monarch, respected and trusted by all.

All knew that he protected the kingdom, helped it prosper and grow, and that, truth be told, he really was the only reason that their entire world hadn't already fallen into the hands of the heartless---into the oblivion of darkness.

A mouse sovereign.

Guardian of their land.

Beloved by his subjects, family, and friends...

Donald sighed, smacking his head against the white marble of the castle wall.

However.

If any were to be asked, they were hard pressed to really understand him and his inexplicable ways.

Disappearing for days...

...weeks...

...MONTHS at a time...

::smack::

...with the barest minimum of explanation.

Donald rubbed his forehead with a wince. Minnie watched him with a concerned look on her face while Daisy only rolled her eyes.

It was enough to drive one mad----and to start all manner of bizarre rumors.

"He's gone again, isn't he?" Daisy asked Goofy. Her tone implied she knew the answer to that question, but Goofy answered anyway.

"Yep."

The note lay on the table.

It said---

Don't worry about me.

I've gone to meet them.

~Mickey

###

A/N:

For a random piece of trivia, I stole Copper's keychain from the Real Blonde Dual-Blader in the Real KH2 Trailer (cool stuff right there, btw). A whim and last minute idea that actually turns out to work quite well for me in the end.