Chapter 1: Parade

July 6, 8:36 P.M.

"Eighth floor, sir. Enjoy your stay."

The attendant stepped out of the way of the elevator doors to reveal a hallway bathed in soft yellow light. The lush carpet had an incredibly intricate design; it seemed a sin to walk upon it. The wallpaper was designed to match the carpet, and every few doors there was a faux-wax candlestick on the wall with a gently flickering electric bulb. Men in tuxedoes escorted women in flowing gowns down the length of the hallway.

The man in the elevator strode into the hall, admiring his surroundings. He reached the far end of the hallway after a minute of slow walking. The hallway entered into a library stocked with thousands of books. The outside wall was glass, giving a panoramic view of the sun setting behind the mountains just outside the city. The man turned around. Maids in black-and-white garments moved from room to room with cleaning equipment as men in freshly pressed suits delivered bottles of the finest champagne in buckets of crystal-clear ice.

The Hotel Regal was aptly named.

The man stood there for just a moment, soaking in the luxurious atmosphere. He finally snapped back into motion when a couple stopped to stare at the far underdressed man who was simply standing in the middle of the hall. He walked to a door labeled 8067. The door handle accepted the key card and opened for the man who was obviously not used to this kind of luxury. Maybe this is what the generals got used to, he thought.

As he entered, he froze in awe of his room. It was dominated by a king bed with a large heap of pillows tastefully arranged at the head. A flat-screen television hung on the wall opposite the bed. There was a desktop PC on a large, polished, stained oak desk. A large window looked out onto a busy downtown street. A plump easy chair sat next to a desk with an ornate lamp. A large closet held a large safe. In short, everything, including the room itself, was big. A room like this must cost nearly 100,000 Munny a night. Good thing this little trip was paid in full by his… employer. For the humble 'employee', that was a car payment, or maybe a premium payment for his outrageous health insurance. That, however, was mostly his own doing. He was perpetually showing up at the hospital with odd injuries.

He set his suitcase down by the desk and picked up the old-fashioned rotary dial phone. He had business to attend to.

The phone rang twice before a hurried-sounding voice picked up. "Yes?"

"I'm at the hotel. Everything is in order. You picked a nice place, sir."

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Harris. Now, are you sure you didn't arouse any suspicion? If anyone's on to you-"

Harris bristled. As if the incompetent security had any inkling of his intentions. "No sir, I'm still clean. You can relax. I'll call when the job is finished. Have you wired my payment?"

The other line hesitated for a moment. The sound of a keyboard clicking could be heard in the background. "Yes. One quarter of your final payment has been deposited into your account. Check for yourself."

Harris accessed his electronic bank account on the PC. Sure enough, four hundred million Munny was there. Still chump change compared to the normal clientele of this particular hotel, but it was still quite a bit of Munny. With that kind of cash he could buy a mansion on some tropical world and have pina coladas and girls for the rest of his life. And watermelon. The 2000 Munny a slice would be a pittance compared with his newfound riches.

"Thank you kindly, sir. Will there be anything else?"

The man on the other side of the line hesitated. "No. That's all. Thank you, Brian."

"My pleasure, sir."

9:02 P.M.

Sora liked visiting other worlds, but not on official business. Even more than a year after his final grueling fight with Xemnas, his duties as Keybearer were not over. He could tolerate being sent to other worlds to beat back the occasional Heartless attack, but this was unbearable. It was a bureaucratic enterprise thought up by some politician with a personal agenda. His proposal would buy him votes and give him the image of someone who looks out for his constituents. He proposed an investigation into how the Heartless had detected and targeted individual worlds and why. Thus was born the Heartless World Detection Investigation. Half of its mission was a joke. Everyone with half a brain knew the Heartless were attracted to the heart of the world. But exactly how the Heartless detected the world's heart was still a mystery, and that was the only reason that the HWDI had legs. It was, for a government operation, small, efficient, and clean. But, like all government projects, it didn't have a clue of what to do next. Most specialists on the heart had given up trying to discover the exact method the Heartless used to detect the mother lode on each world. It seemed a futile endeavor, but it had earned the formerly obscure politician a seat in the Parliament of his world, and he was determined to keep his pet project going.

Sora sighed. As much as he loathed the official progress report meetings, it was as vital part of the Investigation. The Investigation kept most people happy, and that was enough for Sora.

He turned to his left as he heard his name echoing in the cavernous motor pool. Kairi was there, waving to him from behind a few oil drums. Sora ran to her with renewed happiness. They pulled each other close.

"I missed you," Kairi said, her voice muffled in Sora's jacket.

Sora kissed her lightly on top of her head. "I missed you, too."

As Sora pulled away, Kairi reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a small trinket.

"Tarzan made this for you. He and Jane send their regards."

Sora held the small wooden object. It was a miniature Keyblade, carved by stone and fastened to a crude metal ring. He had forgotten how long it had been since he had visited Tarzan and Jane at their treehouse.

Sora continued to look at the trinket "I'm guessing Jane was the one who told you to send 'their regards,'" he said, still admiring Tarzan's handiwork.

Kairi giggled. "How'd you guess?" she replied.

Sora simply smiled. Kairi clasped her hands behind her back and opened her mouth to say something, but she was cut off by another voice from behind Sora.

"Well, look who's back!"

Sora turned around to see Riku walk out from behind a parked limousine. Kairi shouted "Riku!" as she ran over to him and hug him as well. "Good to see you too, Kairi," he said, "but we need to finish our parade preparations. The mayor of this city has organized a big parade in honor of the Keyblade Masters coming to town.

Kairi let go of him and frowned, disheartened. "Isn't that two days away?"

"Yeah, but the police department wants to be able to rope off the streets in advance, and they need to know our route. It needs to be finalized by noon tomorrow at the very latest."

Sora turned to a map of the city on a metal workbench. There were several lines marked on the streets. Some were scratched out with red pen, others had small notes written at one corner or another. One was outlined with yellow highlighter. "It looks like our route is pretty much mapped out, Riku. What else needs to be done?"

Riku and Kairi walked to the map as well. Riku pointed to a building near the center of the city. "The mayor wants us to run the parade by the Hotel Regal. It's supposed to be the most beautiful building on this world, and he wants the TV cameras to see us driving by it. I dunno, maybe it's some publicity matter." Riku indicated an intersection with a pen. "So we're going to have to reroute the parade down 37th Street, then turn left onto Sunset Boulevard here."

Sora scrutinized the proposed route. "It looks a bit longer, but that doesn't really matter. It's not like we have any great reason to get there any earlier."

Riku turned around and walked to a phone mounted on the wall. "Yeah, I don't really want to go either, but if we mess up the mayor's parade, he won't have any incentive to continue paying for our rooms. Plus, it's just common courtesy to be on time when we're staying on this guy's Munny."

Sora glowered by the map. "What do we do at these meetings, anyway? You know, besides listening to some egghead say 'We don't have a clue how they do it. Okay, that's it, see you next month!'?"

Kairi turned to Sora, her hands on her hips. "Sora! Those scientists try really hard to figure it out. Don't be so mean!"

Riku chuckled as he dialed the number for the mayor's office. "Seriously, Kairi, he's right. They're running out of ways to say 'We know nothing.' You'll see for yourself on Thursday. It's so boring tha- Yes, this is Riku, calling for the mayor." He turned his back to the two. "Ah, we have the final parade route mapped out and we need to know when and where to deliver it. Oh good. Have him come in the front entrance. We'll give it to him there. Thank you. Goodbye." Riku placed the handset back on the mount. "The mayor's office is sending a car to pick up our final plan. Sora, would you take the orange highlighter and trace our route?"

Sora ran the highlighter along the planned parade route on the map. He wrote a quick note to designate the orange line as the final route and rolled up the map. He wrapped it with a rubber band and handed it to Riku, who disappeared through a door to the lobby of the hotel. Kairi turned back to Sora and smiled seductively. She placed her hands on his hips and gently pushed him to the concrete wall.

"Now it's just the two of us." She brushed some stray hair out of his face. "Did I tell you how much I missed you?"

Sora wrapped his arms around her. "No, you gave me Tarzan's present instead." He flashed his smile again.

Kairi drew herself even closer to him. "Why don't I show you?" she whispered in his ear.

Their lips touched as she turned her head. They hadn't seen each other in nearly a month, and they could both feel each other's passion as they kissed for what seemed an eternity. Sora ran a gloved hand through her dark red hair as she nibbled on his ear. He had been afraid to make a move in the time since he had returned from his second quest for fear of destroying his friendship with Kairi. But in the months that followed, they had become increasingly more involved with each other. Sora gently bit her neck. He felt her shudder with pleasure as he gently worked his way back up to her lips.

She reached up and played with one of the spikes on his head, twirling and tugging it ever so gently. She had always done that, ever since their first kiss on the dock of their favorite island back home. He had bought her a polished crystal in the shape of a heart. It was just small enough to hide in his clenched hand. He had rowed her out to the island one Friday afternoon and spent the rest of the day sitting on the beach with her, talking and laughing. As sunset approached, he got up and began to walk to the dock.

"Sora, wait. Are we going to leave already?" Kairi had asked, disappointed.

Sora turned around but didn't stop walking. "No, I just wanna show you something. Follow me!"

She got up and wiped the sand off her as she ran to catch up with the not-quite-seventeen-year-old. He sat down on the edge of the dock, his feet inches above the crests of the small waves. She walked to the edge and sat next to him, laying her head on his shoulder. "What is it you wanted to show me?" she had asked, staring into the distance.

Sora's hand opened, revealing his gift as he held it up to the sunset. The last rays of the day glistened in the many facets of the crystal. The edges were a rosy pink, while the center burned with a fiery orange. "It's a fire opal-mmmph" he had begun to explain as she cut him off mid-sentence, her arms around his neck, lips touching. Sora hadn't expected her to kiss him right then and there, and he almost dropped the crystal into the ocean in surprise. He slipped it into her pocket and enjoyed the fleeting moment.

The sound of a toolbox falling to the floor interrupted their reverie. Kairi turned in time to see several mechanics quickly return to their work. They blushed, realizing that they had been making out in full view of the entire motor pool staff. "We'll finish some other time," Sora whispered. "Somewhere a little more private."

Kairi turned to face him again. "Promise?" she asked, pouting.

Sora smiled as Riku walked back through the door. "Promise," Sora whispered, giving her one final kiss.

Riku walked over with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Good news. Not only do we get an open-air limo, but the mayor has agreed to bail us out of the meeting early to go on a tour of the mountains around eleven o'clock that day. Lunch is included." He leaned in closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I can get you two a private tour if you want it."

Kairi spoke up quickly. "Thanks a lot, Riku, but then you'd be all alone! We wouldn't leave you alone with those politicians, would we, Sora?"

Sora slowly raised an uncertain finger in defiance of her noble words. "Actually…"

She cut him off quickly. "We wouldn't."

Riku shrugged. "Okay, it's your call. Anyway, we should get to our rooms for some sleep. Tomorrow we make the final preparations for the parade. See you then!" he called, walking to his rental car. He turned the key and gunned his bright red convertible out into the evening, music blaring.

Kairi smiled and shook her head. "He's gonna get in an accident, the way he drives," she said incredulously. Sora leaned up to her and quietly asked, "Are you sure you don't want a private tour? We could finish up there."

Kairi looked over her shoulder. "And leave Riku alone with a bunch of stuck-up snobs? Sora, that's not very nice."

Sora slid up behind her, running his hands up and down her sides, whispering into her ear. "Riku's a big boy. He can handle himself on a tour. Then maybe I can handle you…" He smiled as she spun around, still in his grasp.

"Sora! You little womanizer, let me go." They both giggled as she hit him in the chest. "If you think that I'm just going to abandon Riku like that, you've got another thing coming, kid."

"He said he'd be alright."

"That doesn't mean he'd like it."

"Oh, he doesn't mind. He wouldn't have offered if it would have made him miserable."

Kairi crossed her arms over her chest. "Sora, we're going with Riku and that's final."

Sora reluctantly agreed. "Okay, we'll go together. I'll find someplace else for you."

She gave him a quick hug before leaving. "I'm sure you will."

July 8, 8:15 A.M.

Brian Harris was going to miss this room. The bed, the chair, the incredible TV with the sports package included. He could watch every Blitzball game on twenty different worlds with it. Everything was simply perfect. Maybe he could get a replica made when he was paid that incredible fee in just a few minutes.

He looked out of the window. It wasn't quite centered along the road, but that was part of his cover. If the placement was too perfect, he would be under suspicion very quickly.

Harris pulled out his suitcase from underneath the desk and hefted it up onto the bed. He unzipped the main compartment to reveal no clothes, no documents, no laptop; nothing that should normally be in a suitcase was there. Instead there was rigid foam. He reached inside to extract his tool.

There was a soft scraping noise as his instrument slid against the foam mold. He pulled out the second piece of the assembly and, with professional speed and precision, assembled his equipment. An optical array was placed on top and tightened. As he finished, he meticulously inspected every part of his matte-black, perfectly cleaned, precision manufactured rifle.

He removed a large silencer from the foam and threaded it onto the end of the barrel. His weapon complete, he began to load the weapon with the four bullets that were also embedded in the foam. A crowd had gathered on the streets below. He waited for the cheer that would signal that his mark had arrived.

8:17 A.M.

`Sora and Riku may have been enjoying the attention they got in the limo, but Kairi was nervous. She hadn't been in front of so many people since her 6th grade class play. She had stuttered all of her lines and nearly wet herself in front of all her friends and their parents. Her stage fright had only mildly decreased over the years. She gave an obligatory smile and wave, and was glad that Sora and Riku were soaking up the crowd's attention. Their antics in the rear passenger seats, Riku on the left, Sora on the right, kept the crowd from noticing the small, timid girl in the front. They had competed to see who could conjure up the best lightning storm, whose Reflect spell lasted longer, and who could create more ice crystals to cool the crowd on that swelteringly hot July day. The crowd ate up their boyish competition with glee.

Those two… she thought. They can't even ride in the same car together without having a contest! She turned in time to see Sora's Reflect spell wear off a fraction of a second sooner than Riku's. Riku pumped his fist in the air as the crowd shouted in a jubilant cheer. Oh well. Boys will be boys, I guess.

8: 21 A.M.

Everything had checked out with his gun. Harris was now entering the Zen 'no-thought' zone that snipers had been trained to enter before a mission. He hadn't served with the military for almost ten years now, but his shooting was still sharp as a had practiced shooting almost every day, using his calming drill before each session. He had to shut out the world. The crowd, the wind, his payment, his ex-wife, anything and everything that got in his way was a test. To score a kill, you must pass each test. Harris believed that God sent each test to him personally. He had to surmount his ex's lawyers looking for alimony, the crowd shouting for their hero, the ridiculous amount of money he was about to be paid. No, ridiculous wasn't the word for it. Incredible? Far too passé. Heavenly? No, sounded like a chocolate ad. Astronomical? Mmmm… maybe. Gettin' there. How about Inconceivable? Oh, that was good. He liked that. Agh! Wait! No! No no! Concentrate! You gotta make this shot, or you won't get paid. That alone was enough to snap him back into his detached state.

The crowd cheered. He saw the limo turn the corner onto the street, four hundred yards away, by his calculations. He could just barely make out four figures in the car. That's right; he had been told that there was a private driver for them.

Three hundred ninety yards.

8:22 A.M.

Sora stood and raised his hand far above his head as the limo rounded the corner. The Keyblade appeared in a flash of light. The crowd shouted for joy as he slowly rolled past. This was a nice way to go if you weren't in a hurry. It took his mind off of the undoubtedly snore-worthy meeting coming up. He watched as Riku followed suit and was greeted with another cheer. They love me! Sora thought. The love us! We're the biggest celebrity in all the worlds right now! I could definitely get used to driving around in an open limo like this one.

Somebody from the crowd threw a paper airplane at the Keyblade Master. He expertly caught it; his reflexes honed sharp from years spent fighting the Heartless. He opened it to see a detailed pencil sketch of himself and Kairi standing on their favorite island. They were on the dock with the waterfall in the background. He noted with some amusement that the entrance to the Secret Place was decidedly absent. There's still one place we can go that the media can't follow us, he thought with a smile. He looked in the general direction of the throw and winked with a smile. Every teenage girl there squealed and reached out to him. Some of the mothers looked at him dreamily; their husbands glowering behind them.

Sora tapped Kairi on the shoulder and handed her the drawing. Kairi accepted it. She looked it over for a few seconds before handing it back, saying "It's good. It's even better than Naminè's work." She felt a strange wave of resentment sweep over her and said "Oh, don't take it personally, Naminè. Somebody's got to be better than you." She giggled as she handed it back.

Sora had felt a similar wave of resentment. Roxas knew when his girl was being dissed.

8:23 A.M.

There was a metallic click as the magazine slid into the bottom of the gun. Harris loaded one bullet into the firing chamber and turned the safety off. The gun was now loaded and dangerous. He looked out the window.

Two hundred sixty yards.

8:24 A.M.

"Kairi, let me ride in the front for a bit!"

Sora began to climb over the seat to the front as Kairi stepped over the central console. Sora plopped himself into the seat, bouncing as the cushioning underneath him recoiled. He liked riding up front, and it was a one-up to Riku, who immediately spoke up.

"Come on, Sora, that's cheating."

Sora turned around and smiled. "By whose rules?"

Riku had to shout to be heard over the crowd. "They don't belong to anyone, they're just rules! Don't make me beat you up again!"

8:25 A.M.

Two hundred yards. Time to go, Harris thought as he opened the window. Several other windows were open, the room's occupants leaning out to get a better view of the most famous hero the worlds had ever known. He walked farther back into the room to keep himself hidden. He shouldered the rifle and looked down the scope at the threesome. They were all smiling and waving. The boys' expressions looked genuine, but the girl's was definitely a façade. He could tell how close they all were. Odds are they never left each others' sides. What a shame to ruin such a close friendship. Although, if his employer was to be believed, the spiky one and the girl were not just friends.

One hundred seventy-five yards. Harris put the crosshairs over the head of the spiky-haired one.

One hundred fifty yards. Time slowed to a crawl.

One hundred forty yards. He rested his finger on the trigger, ready to fire.

130. The limousine slowed down.

128.

127.

126.

At one hundred twenty-five yards, Harris suppressed a small twinge of guilt and pulled the trigger. The rifle made a sound like a muffled sneeze, kicked, and the bullet flew.

8:25 A.M.

The same time.

Riku could swear he felt the limo slow down. As he looked at the crowd, his doubts were silenced. The limo driver had simply taken his foot off of the gas pedal. The motorcycle police behind them exchanged quizzical looks, but continued anyway. Riku, however, knew that they couldn't waste time if they were to get to the meeting on time. He leaned up next to the driver.

"Hey, pick it up. We've got a schedule to keep."

The driver turned to him with a confused look on his face. He pointed to his ear, then the crowd. I can't hear you.

Riku cupped his hands around his mouth. "We've got a schedule – whoa!"

He shouted in surprise as the windshield shattered. A small hole was in the passenger side. Riku ducked and felt a warm spray hit his face. From behind the driver's seat, he saw Sora collapse onto the console, holding his shoulder and screaming in agony. Kairi's shriek joined him. The entire crowd reacted as one, screaming and scattering in every direction. Riku wiped his face and saw red liquid on his hands. Kairi went to crawl over the seat when the driver jumped out of the limo, using the steering wheel to boost himself out. The car swerved, and a second hole appeared in the headrest of the rear seat. Riku peeked over the edge of limo in time to see the driver disappear into the terrified crowd.

Policemen abandoned their motorcycles and drew their pistols, looking for the assassin. One ran to the limo and jumped into the driver's seat.

"Who's hurt?" he shouted to Riku. "Anyone but him?"

Riku looked at Kairi, huddling behind the seat. "No, just Sora. What the hell just happened?"

The cop screeched the tires as he attempted to get off of the parade route. "I don't know! No one knows! But we need to get him to the hospital now!" He pulled a white cloth out from inside his uniform. "Put this over his wound. Stop the bleeding or he'll never make it."

Sora whimpered as Riku pressed the cloth onto Sora's shoulder. He saw Sora's face contort in pain. Hold on, buddy, Riku thought, you can't quit on us now. Just hold on.

The limo sped off towards the hospital.