A/N: While the last chapter may have been more subdued than you guys are used to (although it had it moments), I would like to use this one as an opportunity to get back to the roots of the story and hopefully tie up some loose ends that have been hanging around for the last twenty or so chapters.

TCBT

You would think that after all the times we've been through this, Dagger and I would have down some sort of theme or script about what all has happened while we were separated. Then again, you can't exactly base a relationship on separation.

And do you really want to ruin a reunion with a confession of: "Oh, by the way, I had everyone but you assassinated by one of the people that's trying to take over and rule all of existence"? I doubt things would go over very well with that as an opener.

"So..." Dagger looks at me coyly from behind her bangs. She looks like the Dagger I know and love, but older and more mature. Any sense of delicateness her body may have held before my absence is gone. Her build is much leaner and more muscular. Not to mention, my purple prose is as effective as ever.

If she stole my satchel again,I doubt I'd be able to take her down with as much ease as I had prior.

"So what?" I ask as I avoid looking into her eyes.

"How was the shower?"

The shower was a desperate, but welcome, delay from having the inevitable conversation about things I really don't want to discuss. Not that I'm going to tell her that.

"It was nice. Hot water helps more than you know."

"Good. Does that mean you're done avoiding me?" There is no accusatory tone to her voice. It's as though she was expecting such a reaction.

"I wasn't... Fine, I was avoiding this conversation." My legs start shaking. Before the rest of my body starts trembling, I sit down just out of Dagger's reach.

She smiles warmly and leans forward to grab my hand. "Rick, it's okay to be scared. It's a harsh world out there. This is one of the safest places on Gaia, and we barely get by. This town used to be full of survivors."

"What happened to them all? The only people I've seen are you, Ren, and the guy that loaned me some clothes to wear."

Normally, I'd complain about how ugly the clothes are, and they really are, but they are better than the rags I was wearing. Not to mention that my hair is much longer than I thought it was. Being all dirty and matted, I thought it only reached the tops of my ears. After washing the dirt, blood, and who knows what else out, it actually hangs just below them. It might have been longer if it weren't for my familial curse of going bald. Then again, that isn't really my family, despite having raised me most of my life, but I digress.

"When I said this is one of the safest places in the world, I wasn't kidding. This place is safer than most others out there. We hardly get attacked by the Heartless because of the Mana concentration from my Eidolons, but we still have the problems of monsters and dwindling resources, not to forget the occasional human raider."

"It's just humans?" That doesn't sound right. If this is the Dagger from my Gaia, which it undoubtedly is unless Maleficent is in disguise and messing with me again, then this probably really is my Gaia. So where are all the walrus-people and such?

"On this continent. There used to be a band of dwarfs we traded with, but they went silent a few months ago. We haven't risked sending Ren to see what's up. And we know that there is a Qu tribe in one of the marshes, too, but they stick to themselves. Believe it or not, they can actually eat the Heartless and grow stronger from it. That's what Ren said when he came back from trying to establish contact with them, anyway."

This all sounds impossible. I mean, she did say that she hadn't seen me in two years, but to think that things have gotten this bad already.

"Which continent are we on?" I ask her even though I already know the answer. "Where is the Iifa Tree? The red moon?"

"The Iifa Tree was destroyed the day we separated, Rick. I'm honestly surprised you don't know. I could have sworn you were there for it. Some woman in a brown cloak blew it up before summoning Heartless." Dagger does look peculiarly at me as she says this. "I mean, you were there, weren't you? Things happened so fast that my memory is a blur, but I remember she showed up shortly after your fight with Raquel and Lloyd."

"Dagger, I..."

"Please, I haven't been Dagger in years," she interrupts. "Rick, just call me Garnet."

I suppose it isn't inappropriate to use her actual name now that she isn't on the run. My old English teacher would kill me for that last sentence.

"Okay. Garnet. I need to know something. Do you know what happened to Ascantha?"

She doesn't look me in the eye. I don't like this. Sure, I may have run off and abandoned my homeland numerous times, but I still care about the people there. Angelo, Tifa-heck, even Jessica... They have to be okay. Ascantha is home to some of the most powerful mages in the world. Not to mention the Templars must be more than a match for some Heartless. They have that stupid Olga thing on their side. Not that she's done anything for me.

"I don't know anything for sure, Rick. We've been pretty secluded here for over a year. I used to keep in contact with Alma through carrier pigeon right after things first fell apart. It only lasted a few months. Then the birds stopped returning." She wrings her hands. She knows more than she's letting on, but I don't think pushing her right now will do me any good.

We both sit there for a couple minutes in silence. I wonder just what Raquel is up to before remembering that I really couldn't care less.

"They're all dead, aren't they?"

"Yes." Garnet doesn't hesitate to answer. I guess she has matured, not that it's an unexpected development. She's remarkably strong; much more so than I. And despite how welcoming she's been with Raquel and me, I think she's gotten harder and colder.

I killed them all. Sure, Maleficent and the Heartless did all of the work, but I'm the one that summoned her and pulled the trigger. Lloyd, Naruto, Rei...

The thing to ask would be how Garnet managed to survive an onslaught like that.

"I..."

Guilt is a hard thing to hold back. I stare at the floor, my head between my legs as I try to calm my breathing. Fear chokes me. As much hatred as I was feeling when I spoke with her, the only request I made of Maleficent was that she leave Garnet alone.

How could I tell her that the only reason she's alive today is because I requested that everyone else die instead? Would she thank me if I told her? Probably not.

"We don't have to talk now." She squeezes my knee with one hand. "I can leave if you want me to."

"...I love you." Something tells me that's the most honest thing I've said to another person in years.

"I love you, too, Rick." Garnet appraises my sulking frame. When I finally do allow my eyes to meet hers, and she reciprocates, the tears make her little more than a blur.

"Do you know how much I wish it could have been you? How much easier everything would have been?" The look she gives tells me that she knows what I'm talking about.

Garnet squeezes my knee again. "He didn't hate you, Rick. Don't ever think that. Zidane cared for you, just not in the way you wanted."

"You guys knew?"

"It was hard not to," she laughs. "He was flattered, actually. That's probably why he got so jealous when you started seeing Michael."

"What? When? How?"

"We figured it out back at Shikon Academy. When you and Hermione were all closed off and weird. There's a lot of time to mull things over when you're stuck in traction."

Scratching the back of my neck, I remember Sylvarant and Hermione. There's even a sting of absence when I think of Melinda's crazy self.

"He didn't come right out and admit to it all, Rick. Zidane was a lot like you, though. You're both simple people at heart."

"I am not stupid."

Garnet laughs once more. "That's not what I meant, Rick. You're just easy to read. That's how I know that you're hiding from me."

How am I hiding? I'm sitting right in front of her...

"It may have been two years, but that doesn't mean I know you any less." Garnet wrings her hands together, as if nervous. "You're combustible, Rick."

What did she just call me? "I so do not have man-boobs."

Garnet waves that away with a little smile. "That's not what it means. It means you're explosive. When things don't go your way, you blow up at anyone around. Like at the Iifa Tree that day, when you attacked Ren and Raquel."

"Hey, I did not attack that freak Rei, and Raquel deserved..." I stop mid-sentence just to confirm what I heard. "Wait a minute. Did you say Ren, your cowboy friend, was there? Because I definitely do not remember beating him up like I did Raquel."

Biting her bottom lip, Garnet's eyes dart all about the room for a few seconds before she answers me. "About that.. You remember that girl, Rei, don't you?"

"The oversexed freak that constantly tried to rape you? Yeah, I remember her. Why?"

For a brief moment there's a flash of pain in her eyes and she looks down into her lap. Her hands fidget nervously. My mouth opens to ask her what's wrong, but my brain shuts it automatically when I remember.

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking. I'm an idiot."

"It's okay." Taking a deep breath, Garnet looks up. "We haven't really talked in ages, have we? And I don't just mean because you disappeared for two years."

Unsure of what to say, I just nod.

"If nothing else, I want you to know that everyone makes a decision of which they are not proud at some point. I've made plenty, believe me. If I hadn't run away from the castle, a lot of people probably wouldn't have had the hardships they did."

"I thought Tantalus was there to kidnap you."

She laughs. It's nothing more than a mild chuckle, but it breaks some of the tension that had been building between us.

"Rick, trust me when I say that Zidane could no more make me do something I don't want to do than he could make you. If I hadn't wanted to leave, he couldn't have made me."

Assuming I understood what she just said, Garnet collects herself and walks over to what probably passes for a mirror. It's really just a large shard of a broken mirror stuck to the wall somehow. Don't ask me how you can get broken glass to stick to a stone wall.

She looks into the mirror and nods. Then the princess asks me to join her.

I walk over to the mirror and look at myself. I'm a mess. My skin is tinged with red from where I had scrubbed it furiously.

Garnet grabs my hand and leads me out of her room. She calls for Ren and Raquel, though why she wants to see that useless skank is beyond me.

Eventually, Ren and the idiot meet up with us in the Eidolon mural place. Of course, while I look like crap, Raquel is dressed in a form-fitting dress that isn't tight but doesn't hang off of her. Also, the dress isn't anything to write home about;it might as well be a modified burlap sack, but she manages to pull it off. Skank.

"Ren, it's time. Did you fill Raquel in on what's going on?" Garnet asks the cowboy. He just nods before grabbing his sword as if to make sure it's still there and hadn't disappeared somewhere.

Without any further acknowledgement of my existence, outside of a small wave from that skank Raquel, Dagger faces the Eidolon Walleyes and clasps her hands, as if in prayer. I would roll my eyes, but I've seen how magic works. I've seen crazy drunken Scots with the ability to alter reality. Yet, I still don't particularly believe in a god. Call me crazy, but all of the fantastic things I've witnessed have done less to make me believe than a high school science class ever could. Despite my technically now being too old to go to high school anymore, that is.

Nothing happens for a full minute, and I start picking at a random scab on my arm out of boredom, but when I notice the paintings on the mural start to glow, I know some serious mojo is going on. While I remember very few things about the game actually happening, I know this never happened. Then again, what I know about the Final Fantasy IX video game became irrelevant long before Maleficent showed up.

I start to speak up, but a look from Ren shuts me down. Mostly because he looks ready to stab me without a second thought.

Well, at least the psychos are getting more diverse, as opposed to them all being women. And able to control their violent impulses.

A few seconds after they start glowing, the paintings stop. Dagger whispers a barely audible prayer of thanks, then turns around and grabs Raquel's hand, as well as my own, in hers. Lights from every colour of the rainbow shoot from the mural and envelop us. My eyes burn even when closed, but I feel a jerking sensation at the hand Garnet is holding.

In a flash of pain that extends from Dagger's grip outward like lightning, which may be a bad metaphor as I haven't had a decent English lesson in years although I'm probably not even speaking English here on Gaia... Anyway, it really hurts and it's over as soon as it began.

It takes a few seconds, in which I hear people talking but can't understand what they're saying because my mind is like pudding, but I know I'm not in Madain Sari anymore. And Toto is nowhere around.

Before my eyes adjust to my new surroundings, I hear something I haven't heard in months. Or years. Whichever.

"RIIIIIICHAAAAARD!"

I just barely stumble out of the way of a charging mass of man and metal. I hear the armour clink as Steiner adjusts and starts to come at me again. Then Garnet commands him to stop.

"Princess..."

"I know," is all she says to the knight. By this point I'm fully aware of where I am. Dagguero. Why are we in the giant library? I have no idea because I wasn't even expecting us to be able to travel halfway across the world in a matter of moments, magic or no magic.

Books are scattered all over tables:some open, some shut, some with pages lying around them that clearly came loose from their antique bindings. However, all eyes on me. Well, me and the two women I came with.

"I take it Ren decided not to come?" A chill creeps down my spine as I hear the voice I know should have a British accent but never did. At least, not while I knew her.

Garnet turns her attention to Hermione. "He thought he should stay in the village, just in casethere's an emergency."

"Of all the... Fine, then. I've planned for fewer troops than we have available anyway." Hermione looks straight at Raquel, ignoring my existence entirely. Her voice changes, like she's trying to contain excitement. "This is the Master of Keyblade?"

"Err... Hello,"Raquel squeaks out meekly. She's so putting on her innocent act again. Hag.

As the two biggest thorns in my side size each other up, I take inventory of the people in the room. There areseveral faces I do not know, but I do recognize Celes. And Rita Mordio, but she's ignoring the excitement of three people randomly popping into the middle of the room and scanning four books at once.

"Can I get something out of the way?" Hermione asks of the stupid cheerleader. Nervously, Raquel nods. I'm half hoping Hermione blows her ass up with magic, but I know that when she's done she'll turn her attention onto me. "I just want to say that I loved watching your show when I still lived in England."

Bitches.

"What the hell is going on?" I shout as I eye Steiner's sword. "Have you people forgotten that this bitch tried to kill all of us?"

"Actually, Rick, I just just tried to kill you," Hermione growls before catching herself. "I'm not going to excuse what I did or try to make up for it, but I will own it and carry it with me everywhere I go. Besides, isn't it a little hypocritical for you to accuse me of murder?"

She knows. I shouldn't be surprised, because she works for Maleficent, but this is not good.

"I..." Words fail me yet again. They've become so unreliable in trying to express my thoughts.

Dagger is the one to say something. "Rick, we all know. Maleficent told me. As she made me watch everyone else become Heartless, you included, she told me about the deal you made. You told her that you would give us up, as long as she didn't come after me." She doesn't smile, but she does grab my hand and squeeze it. "If I can forgive my mother for genocide, I can forgive you for a moment of weakness under stress."

"Didn't your mother die?" I blurt without thinking. Hermione facepalms.

Dagger steps back and cocks an eyebrow. "How did you know that? It happened well after Ren and I made it to Madain Sari. I didn't even know until a year after Alexandria fell to the Heartless."

So, do I lie or tell the truth? "I thought you mentioned it." So I go with lie. Despite everybody knowing about the whole Drifter thing. Stupid second nature.

"Huh?"

"I mean, on Earth, Brahne dies in the game, so I was kind of expecting you to say something, so I might have imagined it."

An obvious lie wrapped in the truth to cover up another obvious lie... This being honest thing is hard. Well, after months/years of lying, anyway.

Thankfully, nobody focuses on my crappy answer, although Steiner still glares at me as though he'd like to shank me before he beheads me. Can't say as I blame him. I have been a crappy person for a long time. That, and I got a lot of people killed/turned into Heartless. Like Raijin, Zidane, and Lloyd. And Lloyd is the only one I actively did it to. Good god, I'm an ass. I killed someone I cared so much about over something so petty. If it weren't for my X-chromosome, I'd be on that show "Snapped!" or whatever it's called.

"Um, are you still trying to kill us?" Raquel asks of Hermione like the idiot she is.

Hermione answers without an easily readable emotion on her face. "I've left that behind me. All I care about now is stopping Maleficent. There aren't many people left in the world, but she hasn't managed to escape yet. And you're why."

Raquel steps back with a look of confusion on her face that gives away she really is an idiot. Though I have no idea why,myself, since Hermione is a nerd that thinks everyone else spends their day at the library getting their geek on.

"Me?"

The bushy-haired witch nods and prepares to elaborate. "See, despite everything she's done, this is still a locked world. Maleficent found a loophole in bringing Rick, Fujin, and myself here which left some holes in the barriers between the worlds, but between you showing up and what is probably that woman with extremely strong magic Rick and I met on Gaia, all of the holes in the world were patched back up and she can't leave."

"Why didn't she leave after she had brought you guys back? When there were still holes in the barrier?" Raquel wonders.

"King Mickey," I answer even though I barely have any idea what Hermione is talking about. "It's because she was afraid of King Mickey, right?"

The look on Hermione's face is a mixture of surprise and contempt. "Wow, Rick, you are capable of advanced thought processes,or you really good at guessing. I'm going with the latter."

Garnet lays a hand on my shoulder, as if silently telling me to calm down. It's hard to do when the MCoDs want to shred Hermione's face, but I stand still and refuse to reply.

"Anyway, it's just speculation, but based on the rantsI heard while with Maleficent, I do think she was afraid of King Mickey. She's not at full strength, since she somehow split her soul. She hid half of it in this world, on the off chance she lost when she did battle King Mickeyand the previous bearer of the Keyblade. But, nonetheless, half of Maleficent is still stronger than anything I've seen short of he-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or Professor Dumbledore."

"Do you mean Voldemort?" Raquel enquires. Hermione visibly flinches. I make note of this.

"Yes, although he's not much of a concern, here," Hermione answers with a tic.

With everything I hear, I can't help but think that they are forgetting one thing. "Isn't Mickey dead?"

Hermione shoots daggers at me and I debate whether or not to punch her in her stupid buck-toothed face. It's not my fault her dumb self was too idiotic to remember that.

"He's a Heartless, Rick. I always thought that meant someone died, but then you and Raquel showed up. I'm guessing Maleficent knows better." Hermione picks up a book but doesn't open it. "This is just a hypothesis, but I think a person is comprised of four things: a body, a "heart" or "soul", and then there is the Heartless and Nobodies. If a Nobody is created, you have to combine the Heart and the Heartless with the Nobody to get a whole person. In fact, there's only been one case of a Nobody getting a heart without the Heartless."

Dagger nervously clears her throat, but doesn't say anything.

"Yeah, and you are immune to the whole thing because you never had a heart," I snark at Hermione. She then chucks the book at my head. And it connects. It wasn't thrown hard enough to do any permanent damage, but I still let loose a string of expletives.

"Moving on," Hermione says as though nothing happened. "During my time with Maleficent, I learned how to use the magic I knew from my time at Hogwarts. Which was previously impossible. Do you know why?"

"Because the barriers between the worlds are breaking down." Celes crosses her arms and looks right at me as she speaks. "The Drifters are responsible. You, Rick, and Fujin are weakening the walls between the different worlds."

Hermione snaps her fingers. "Yes and no. The walls get weak every time we travel back on forth between dimensions. But we haven't done that in years. That's why Rick and I flashed to Sylvarant. I thought it had something to do with magic or the Materia we had, but when I was with Maleficent, I studied and found that they were red herrings.

"We are natives to this land, but when Maleficent first swapped our consciousnesses with people from other universes all those years ago, nobody noticed and the tiny holes between the universes went unnoticed. Not dissimilar to The Rift."

Raquel chooses this moment to open her skanky mouth. "Are you talking about Torchwood? I love that show!"

"Captain Jack is hot."

Hermione throws another book at my head. This one misses and hits one of the rather large bookcases.

"Yes, Raquel, I mean like The Rift from Torchwood. It's a tear in the universe and things bleed through. But it's not a sci-fi or fantasy show type of thing. Monsters and people can't fit through. It's more like the different laws of physics shift. The only way people can cross the barriers is with magic. It's all about equal exchange." The great buck-toothed one with the bad hair pulls out her wand. "That's why we never just showed up: we showed up as our otherworld equivalents."

She points her wand at the table and says some incomprehensible Latin. Or Spanish. Whichever. But the mess of books and paper rise into the air and arrange themselves on the table in neat little stacks.

"This is all besides the point of this meeting," Hermione states as though she's some kind of person of importance. Which she isn't. "It's taken months of research and studying and figuring out what all is happening, most of which a few of you wouldn't understand."

As she says this, she looks at Steiner and I. If she is comparing me to Rusty, her behind is going down faster than a Kardashian in an NBA locker room!

"We now have a plan of attack." Freya interrupts Hermione and draws her lance. She points it at Raquel. "You wouldn't have cared about them returning if you didn't."

Hermione sighs, slightly deflated that her chance to look important was taken away by someone who actually is.

"Yes, we do. Princess Garnet was safe from the Heartless because of the mana concentration, and Maleficent never attacked personally because of a promise she made." Everyone looks at me but says nothing. "But the reason this place has been safe is because is houses an ancient protection spell. I had to lower it momentarily so that Garnet and her companions could come here, but nothing slipped in."

"And?" Steiner growls while keeping one eye on me.

"And when we leave, we won't be able to return. There's no falling back. We fight to the last person." Hermione walks over to Dagger and puts a hand on her shoulder. "Garnet is our..."

"Her Royal Majesty Queen Garnet Til Alexandros," Steiner interjects. Hermione shoots him a look of annoyance but says nothing.

"Garnet is our trump card. She's a powerful Summoner and a White Magic user who has mastered the difficult Holy spell."

I raise my hand and take a step away from Steiner. "What does that have to do with me and the great Hispanic prostitute over here?"

Raquel visibly clenches her teeth, and I feel a bit disappointed that she doesn't react. It's not as fun when the women of Gaia act sane.

This whole thing has seriously messed me up if I'm wishing for physical harm.

"It's simple," Hermione huffs. "Garnet wouldn't join me until today. It seems she knew you were out there, Richard."

"Rick."

"Ricky," Raquel says with a giggle. I make a mental note to kill her before the Heartless do.

Dagger shuffles her feet but doesn't look at me. She does speak. "I didn't know it. I felt it."

"This does not apply to the task at hand," Celes points out. "What is the plan of attack?"

Hermione, looking annoyed that someone effectively told her to shut her annoying mouth, snaps at me. "Rick, please go away. I don't need you interrupting important conversations with your stupidity anymore."

"Fine, you duck billed beaver toothed fleabag," I reply before stomping off. If I remember correctly, there's a water fountain around here full of coins that I can throw at these idiots.

Unfortunately, Raquel follows me. "Hermione, THE Hermione Granger, asked me to keep you company! Can you believe it?"

"I really can't, considering you're the Keyblade Master and blah blah blah..." I say at the top of my voice as we walk away. "Common logic would dictate that I'm the only useless one here."

"You aren't useless, Rick."

Raquel really needs punched in the face repeatedly. "Oh,really? And just what have I done but make everything worse? Huh? A bunch of people died in Radiata because of me. And Hermione, I guess, but they started dying because of me. I'm the reason Hermione attacked, anyway.

"And people have forgiven her. Nobody is forgiving me. Because I'm utterly useless, and to pretend otherwise is to just be stupid."

"Stop pitying yourself, you idiot. Be glad you're alive. Because no matter what mistakes you made, and you've made a lot of them, you can make up for them. Or at least try." Raquel's pep talk is utter garbage, so I tune her out until I see a flash of light.

"What was that?"

"We aren't going to know if we don't check it out, Rick. Come on."

When we get to the place the others were, we find that they're all gone. Like, apparated or whatever. I just shrug it off, knowing I would be left behind, but Raquel looks kind of upset. I internally debate whether or not I should kill her now.

"I told you we were useless. That's why they left us behind." My tone wasn't as cold as I intended, but my point got through to Raquel as she flinched.

Then I hear a laugh, long and borderline psychotic. My heart beats a thousand times a second as it falls into my stomach.

"Why, yes, my darling Richard, you truly are," Kodachi exclaims as she pirouettes over our heads and lands in front of Raquel and me.

Despite knowing I shouldn't turn my back to the gymnast, I turn around and see Chal casually approaching us with his sword out of sheath and in hand.

"You guys must be late. Hermione and the others already left."

Raquel is such an idiot.

"We know. That's how we got here." Chal doesn't elaborate further. Instead, he holds his sword up in a thrusting position. At this point, Raquel picks up that we're likely to die. "Thanks for the help, Boss Lady."

With a flash of black smoke, which makes me recoil, a figure in brown cloth appears off to the side. She doesn't say anything. She just lets a cold chuckle echo across the chamber.

"Rick, what's going on?" Raquel sounds scared, as she should be. "Why is Maleficent here? Who are these people?"

With a bow, sword still in hand, Chal smiles. "We are but humble servants of His Highness."

"It's been a while, Richard." Maleficent finally lets the words slither out of her mouth, like a snake ready to strike. "It was nice of you to meet me here. You brought the Keyblade's former master as well! How exciting."

"Former..." Raquel repeats.

Maleficent slips a hand out from the folds of her cloak, Keyblade in hand. "It was so nice of you to leave this behind for me, Young Lady."

Raising the Keyblade into the air, a light emanates from the handle. It flows through the length of the blade, shooting out when it hits the teeth. Beams of light pierce out in all directions, circle the entirety of the library, and then come together right above a dragon-shaped fountain. A keyhole appears for a split second in a flash of light, then vanishes, and in its place a large door appears.

The frame is marble. Black marble, to be specific. The door itself is white marble. It looks kinda like a piano key.

"She thought she had me outsmarted. Foolish child," Maleficent tuts as she approaches the door, Keyblade in hand. She stops, looking at Raquel and me. "Kill them."

Chal looks greedy as he readies his sword. But then a shout rings out.

"Expelliarmus!"

A blast of red hits Maleficent in the side, her body flying in one direction and the Keyblade in another. Without even thinking, Raquel darts for the downed weapon.

"NO!" Maleficent screams and the cheerleader spins around Chal's sword and dives for the Keyblade.

The moment her hand touches it, Maleficent cries out in pain as a golden light is ripped from her body and jets into Raquel's. Chal swings his sword downward, only to have the blade repelled by the Keyblade.

"YOU LITTLE BITCH!" Maleficent screams at a darkened corner. She pulls a black staff from her cloak and points it at the corner, but nothing happens.

"Heartless can't be summoned here. Did you forget that?" With a determined look on her face, Hermione emerges from the shadows where she had previously remained undetected. "AVADA KEDAVRA!"

Green light flies in Maleficent's direction from Hermione's wand, but the witch vanishes and it instead hits a table, causing it to explode.

It's right after this that I suddenly lose the ability to breathe.

Fingers try to pry the ribbon loose so I can breathe, but Kodachi won't have it. She jerks even tighter and tears well up in my eyes. Forgetting about her was so stupid.

"My darling Richard, how I've missed you," she whispers in my ear as I choke. "We could've been so beautiful together, but instead you had to go do such abominable things. I can't have that anymore."

She yanks even tighter on the ribbon around my neck and it cuts into my skin like a knife. Blood starts to trickle, but it'snot deep. My arms flail about uselessly, unable to decide if they want to push Kodachi away or try to give my throat some leeway to breathe. Raquel takes the choice away.

Kodachi's hand letsgo of the ribbon as Raquel's shoulder slams into her back. We allgo tumbling and I smack my head on a table leg. The two women recover quickly and I catch a glimpse of Kodachi jump into the air, Raquel following her on the ground.

I grab the table and slowly hoist myself up. It's covered in books and scrolls and I see a letter opener. I grab it. Then an explosion of blood covers the table as a sword scrapes the wood. Looking down, I see that the sword is coming from my abdomen.

"Die already," Chal growls as he twists the sword. Any breath I had leaves my body. My legs collapse and I hear the sickening sound of the blade scraping against the bones that constitute my rib cage. Yet, I feel no pain beyond a pinching sensation.

When he pulls the sword out, the sensation my body is experiencing catches up with my brain. Nausea and pain overwhelms my body as I vomit blood onto his boots. He kicks it off and slams his foot into my face, knocking out a tooth or two.

"Enjoy Hell, you bastard."

Chal turns, sword scraping the stone floor. Feeling through the pain and the haze clouding my eyes, I realize I still have the letter opener in my hand and lash out. The blade isn't particularly sharp, but it still manages to cut through the tendon connecting Chal's right foot to his leg.

He falls, half on me. Not knowing what else to do, and adrenaline the only reason I haven't passed out, I grab the hair on his head with my free hand and stab the letter opener into his neck with the other. Chal grabs at my hand and yanks the letter opener from his throat before realizing that it was the wrong thing to do.

Blood sprays from his neck into the air. It falls onus bothas I close my eyes and resume plunging the makeshift weapon into his body. Tears wash the blood from my eyes enough for me to open them. He's stopped moving.

I shove his corpse off me, my body protesting every movement. The adrenaline starts to fade. My body becomes sluggish and I feel that scarily familiar feeling to go to sleep.

"Episkey." I'm sure someone yelled it, but my brain is more concerned by the sudden heat in my midsection. It starts to fade and then grows cold. Slowly, and painfully, I prop myself up against a leg of the table and wipe face with my sleeve. Whether I removed blood or smeared more on is irrelevant.

My wound is still ugly as hell, but has stopped bleeding. I'm assuming one of the gals cast a healing spell on me when I wasn't looking.

Hard as it is to lift my head, I watch as the four women fight. Raquel is barely keeping up with Kodachi. Hermione is throwing spell after spell in language after language at Maleficent,but nothing is connecting. Thankfully, Maleficent is fallingon the defensive and can't counterattack.

Then, catching everyone off guard, Kodachi leaps directly over Raquel's head, just out of reach of the teeth of the Keyblade, and delivers a kick to the back of Hermione's head. As the witch collapses to the ground, the gymnast regroups and launches herself at Raquel. The cheerleader anticipates this and casts an ice attack directly at Kodachi's face instead of trying a physical attack that could easily be dodged.

As the Black Rose flails about trying to breathe and dodge Raquel's follow up attacks, Hermione that needs to be deleted holds her wand out and cries, "Reducto!"

The moment the spell hits an unaware Kodachi, the gymnast explodes in a fiery shower of blood and gore.

Laughter fills the chamber as the creak of a door opening is heard. Everyone looks over and watches as Maleficent slips into the light beyond.

"CRUCIO!" Hermione screams as she flings a curse at Maleficent, but it bounces harmlessly off the closing door. And before anyone can reach her,Maleficent is gone.

A string of curses leaves Hermione's lips as she stands and tries to balance herself. Raquel drops the Keyblade, which vanishes the moment she lets it go, and runs over to help support Hermione.

"DAMMIT! We lost her!" thewitch rages. "We need to follow her!"

"We will," Raquel says in an assuring voice. "But we can't right now."

"She'll get away."

I croak out a few words, which catch them by surprise. "You don't even know where she went."

An upset but understanding face plants itself on Hermione. "Sad as it is to say, you're right, Rick. We'll get her. Her influence shouldn't be that hard to track. Besides, we have the Keyblade bearer."

As if on cue, the Keyblade appears in Raquel's hand. She looks at me and doesn't say a word as she casts a spell that makes my pain diminish significantly. Then, the sword vanishes again. She walks over to me, kneels down, and hugs me.

I don't even feel the urge to fight her off.

"Rick, I'm so happy you're okay. I was worried you were going to die when HE," her eyes briefly flick over to Chal's corpse, "attacked you."

Then she buries her head into the crick between my neck and shoulder and cries. And even though it hurts, I swing my arm over her shoulder and hold her. My eyes meet Hermione's. "Take care of her."

The witch straightens her robe and keeps my gaze. "I will. And when we come back, I'll be sure to take you home."

"This is our home," I tell her as Raquel continues to cry. Poor thing. She's seen more horror and death than most people could ever handle. I'm surprised I could handle it. "If the others get..."

"When," Hermione interrupts. "When they get back, tell Celes what happened. Please. She'll know what to do."

My eyes close and I breathe deeply. It hurts, but my lungsare thankful. "How do you know they're coming back?"

"Because I believe in them." Her answer is incredibly simple and I don't want to complicate it. "It may take years, but Gaia will be itself again. The walls between the worlds will repair themselves. And when that happens, you won't be able to go back."

"I don't want to go back. And I don't think you do, either."

Hermione doesn't correct me. Raquel, however, chokes down a sob. "What about me?"

"You're the Keyblade Master. You can go wherever you want, whenever you want," Hermione explains. "But, you have a hard life ahead. And it may not be a long one. You can always come to me for help, though." Bitch doesn't sugarcoat anything.

"You guys should go," I tell them. "You're wasting time."

"Weren't you just telling us not to leave so soon?" Raquel asks.

Hermione gets it, though. "Tell everyone we said goodbye, Rick. And I want you to promise me something."

"I'll be alive to see you come home," I tell her with a smile.

She flashes her buckteethat me in a big grin as she helps Raquel to her feet. I'm left with instructions on where to find potions and other such things around the library, and then they disappear into the light beyond the door. The door vanishes behind them.

The End

A/N: I was originally planning on making this a two chapter event, which sadly took over two years to write, but I'm satisfied with what I chose instead. Not happy, but satisfied. A conclusion has been reached, and that in and of itself is a goal that I'm incredibly proud of.

So, thank you for your patience and for sticking with me through writer's block, bursts of inspiration, and everything in between. Thank you, Tabansi232, for editing this chapter for me. I appreciate all my readers and fans more than you'll ever know. And, if you have any questions about the story, feel free to PM me. Beyond that, I have nothing else to say but, once again, thank you.