The slender young woman stared across the short expanse of ocean at the small island. A melancholy looked dominated her bright blue eyes. Her cute, straight nose took in a deep breath of the salty sea air. Her moderately thin lips completed a charming face, showing signs of graduating to full, adult beauty. With a slight sigh, she ran her fingers through her shoulder length, deep brown hair. She wore a strapless, pink sheath dress, with three zippers running down the front. The non-decorative fastener was zipped down a fifth of the way, to make space for her burgeoning bustline; though her modesty was preserved by the white tank top she wore underneath. She tapped the toe of one of her sneakers on the sand, her expression changing to a slight smile of exasperation.
"Maybe… waiting isn't good enough," Kairi told the waves, not expecting a response.
"My thoughts exactly!" an unknown voice emerged from the air above the surf, "If you have a dream, don't wait. Act. One of life's little rules. Got it memorized?"
She shifted her gaze to the empty space, and a new figure stepped into being. She studied him as he took another pace towards her. His brilliant red hair was extremely spiky, and his pale blue eyes regarded her with smug mischief. A teardrop tattoo under his left eye marked an angular but not unattractive face. He wore a full-length black leather duster, which should have been extremely warm in the bright summer afternoon, but the young man didn't seem to notice.
"Who are you?" the confident teen challenged him.
"Axel," he answered pointedly, "I happen to be an acquaintance of Sora's. Why don't we go see him?"
"Sora?" her eyes glazed over, as if mesmerized. Axel extended his hand to her, and Kairi moved to take it.
"Kairi! Sorry I'm late," Selphie called as she jogged over to meet her friend. The flips of her light auburn hair bounced as she moved. She had changed from her school uniform into a fitted yellow t-shirt, a pleated, black, mid-thigh length skirt, black knee-high socks, and black sneakers. She was carrying a slightly oversized, Moogle-shaped backpack. Her green eyes sparkled, until she saw the second, unfamiliar figure, and caught a glimpse of the blank expression on Kairi's face.
"Kairi?" she said again. This time the taller teen seemed to hear her classmate, and the princess snatched back her hand, regarding the stranger with suspicion. Axel sighed at her response, and snapped his fingers. Strange white creatures sprang up around them, basically human shaped but lacking faces, and their fingers were bound so instead of hands, their arms ended in spikes. They sauntered closer, surrounding Kairi and cutting off Selphie.
"We've got something in common, Kairi," Axel informed her, "You and I both miss someone we care about. Hey, I feel like we're friends already."
"You're not acting very friendly!" the princess countered, stepping away from the bizarre creatures.
"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way," for a moment, he appeared genuinely hurt. Then his visage became dark and he ordered, "Dusks, bring her. And if the other one interferes, dispose of her."
The creatures slid closer, their movements sinuous. Selphie quickly reached into her backpack, and extracted a single, extra-large nunchaku. The arms of the weapon were almost three-feet long, and the chain between them was four-feet in length. As she armed herself, two of the Dusks noticed and turned back to meet her. Before the first one could react, she jabbed both ends of the nunchaku into its chest, and then spun the weapon around to smack it in the side of the head. The creature tumbled away, but stretched back to its feet, more awkwardly then before. Selphie rotated her bludgeon again, but missed the second Dusk.
"Slippery devil," she cursed, and then noticed the others had Kairi trapped, "Get away from her."
She deflected the monster and darted forward, but more of the white humanoids intercepted her. One of the Dusks reached for Kairi, but when its talon brushed her skin, an explosion of light knocked it away. The bright spot dropped to the ground, expanding as it went. When it touched the sand, it formed a pool of radiance, and the young woman began to sink into it.
"Kairi!" Selphie shouted for her again, as her friend vanished.
She felt like she was falling. But that wasn't right, this was no rapid, dangerous descent. Instead, it was as if she were slowly sinking, as if the air were thick like water, though she could still breathe. No, sinking might be closer, but it was still not right. This feeling was like when she dived into the water, and then just let herself be lifted to the surface. That was it; she was being buoyed down. Was such a thing possible?
Do not worry. This journey is of your own choosing.
She heard a voice, but with her Heart and with her Soul, not her ears. It was gentle and the young woman was comforted by it. Her descent changed, slowing, and shifting her body until she was effectively standing up. As her feet touched down, light sprang up around her. She was on a large platform in a vast emptiness. But under her was no simple floor. Instead, it appeared to be an elaborate stained glass window. In the center was a depiction of her younger self, curled up, asleep. And surrounding her were six smaller circles, containing the faces of the other six Princesses of Heart. As she wandered around, taking the mosaic in, she heard a sound, like a weak, yet vicious chuckle. She turned, and an inky black form emerged from the floor. Its small body was basically human shaped, but plump with spherical hands. Except for its glowing yellow eyes, no light escaped its 'skin'.
"Heartless," she exhaled, stepping back instinctively. She cast about, looking for any way to defend herself. The Shadow crouched, preparing to leap at her. But as it sprang forward, two new shadows appeared. Sora batted the Heartless away, standing in front of her defensively. And Riku followed after the creature, striking the finishing blow. They looked the same as they had before they had left the island, but she could see right through them. Except, instead of wooden swords, the phantoms wielded Keyblades. Riku turned back, and nodded to Sora with a smirk. Then the brown-haired kid looked at her and offered a broad grin. She reached for him, but both faded from existence.
Up until now, you have counted on others to defend you. This is not necessarily a bad thing; each person has his or her own role to play. But if you would step beyond your familiar shores once more, you need to be able to defend yourself. If you make this choice, it cannot be undone later. Would you gain the power to stand alone?
"Of course," she shouted upwards. Though there was no hint challenge in the Voice, she was shamed by the words nevertheless. In response to her acceptance, five pillars rose out of the ground, each bearing a single weapon.
Choose the form your power will take.
The teen walked over to the first pedestal. On it rested a double bladed battle-axe. It was simple, unadorned except for the symbol of the King, and looked heavy.
The Axe. Pure power, at the cost of speed.
She stepped to the next dais. It had a sword, with a slender needle blade. Like the axe, it bore the three overlapping circle that were the emblem of Disney Castle, but this time on the pommel.
The Rapier. Quick to strike, but hard to use for defense.
The third platform held a large shield. It was flat on top, but came to a rounded point at the bottom. And as she expected, it was emblazoned with the same crest as the first two weapons.
The Shield. Powerful protection, it holds little power to attack.
The fourth pillar held another sword, but this weapon was slightly longer and much wider. It held the symbol of the King on the crosspiece.
The Sword. A balanced weapon, lacking both strengths and weaknesses.
The last weapon was a short staff, with the King's emblem as the headpiece.
The Staff. The power of magic, at the cost of the physical.
She stepped back and considered the weapons.
"Riku is the Axe," she thought aloud, "And Sora is the Shield, or maybe the Sword. I think the Rapier might suit me best."
She took a half step towards the narrow weapon; but before she reached it, she paused, her brow furrowed in thought.
"But if I want to compliment them, I should take the Staff," she looked over at the mystical wand. Then she pursed her lips and shook her head.
"No, this is my journey," she scolded herself, "I don't know when I will meet up with those two. I need to be true to myself."
She moved in front of the pedestal, and reached for the dueling sword. Though the Rapier was heavier than she expected; it was surprisingly comfortable to hold.
This choice can shape your journey in ways you might not expect. Are you sure?
She nodded, and swung the blade with a flourish. The five pillars all sank back into the decorated floor. She heard the wheeze of the Heartless again.
An enemy approaches. Defend yourself.
The Shadow began to scamper towards her, and she darted forward to meet it. As the Heartless hunched down to attack, she pierced it between the eyes, stunning it. She followed it up with a diagonal slash to the creature's 'throat', and finished with another stab to the chest. The Heartless exploded into a black mist. She heard a second Shadow approaching, and was already swinging as she rotated to meet it. Her blow knocked the jumping creature back to the ground, and she skewered it, freeing the captive Heart. As the ichors faded, a series of floating platforms appeared on the edge of the plateau, creating a staircase leading up into the void.
A new path has opened up. On your journey, it may appear that your way is blocked. But if you persevere, you will be able to open new routes.
The young woman walked over to the steps, and then paused, unsure if the disconnected stairway was safe. Then she took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders to the path. She placed her foot firmly on the hovering step, and then moved to the next. She walked slowly, resolutely. Twenty-one steps lead her higher into the darkness, and deposited her on another station. As before, the floor was ornate construction. This time, it was Sora and Riku, but they looked older and were wearing unfamiliar clothes. Behind Riku 'hovered' the face and torso of Ansem, the Heartless who had controlled her friend. And similarly behind Sora was the mysterious youth Roxas she had encountered briefly. After taking in the stained glass beneath her, she lifted her head, and saw a treasure chest sitting next to the image of Ansem.
Enemies will not be the only obstacles in your search.
She walked over to the chest, and tried to lift the lid. But it was sealed. She took a step back, and remembered what he had done, all those times. She tapped the blade of the Rapier to the lid of the container, and it popped open with a click. She knelt down and extracted three small bottles from the box. As she stood, the chest faded from view. She slipped the potions into the pouch on her left hip, and looked around again.
A large door had appeared on the opposite edge of the platform, with a trio of crates stacked in front of it. The young woman walked over to the door, and tried to shift the boxes out of the way. But they were too heavy for her to move. She remembered how he had done it, when she had 'observed' his actions. Then she looked to the weapon in her hand. The Rapier seemed to be too light to break the crates.
"But if this is what I think it is," she considered aloud. She decided it couldn't hurt to try, and stabbed at the first box. For an instant, her sword felt heavier, and the wooden container shattered. She did not pause, swinging backhand at the other two. They obliged her and broke into pieces. The door uncovered, she shifted her weapon to her left hand, and reached for the handle. She pulled the door towards her, and as she did, she heard the sound of shattering glass. The floor beneath her vanished, and she was falling again, but this time she plummeted like she would have expected in her initial descent. As she looked down, she realized another platform was rapidly approaching her. This time, the mosaic was of King Mickey, with Goofy on his right and Donald on his left. Again there were smaller circles around the edge of the platform, and this time they contained set of symbols: a flame, a lightning bolt, a snow flake, a leaf, a tornado, a broken purple sphere, and lastly a four pointed white star. She slowed rapidly as she grew closer, and once again, she touched down lightly.
Physical might is not always enough. You will need the power of magic to complete your quest.
A ringing sound filled the space around her, and four floating Heartless appeared. She recognized them immediately by their distinctive straw hats and their bell-shaped, primary-colored robes. There was one each of the Blue Rhapsody, Green Requiem, Red Nocturne, and Yellow Opera types. She drew on the memories she shared with him, and recognized the retreating emerald Heartless was the most dangerous, because it had the power to heal its comrades. The Rhapsody began to bob up and down randomly, and electricity surrounded the body of the Opera, which charged her. She brought her Rapier up to block, but the flying Heartless avoided the narrow blade and struck her unguarded shoulder. The impact was jarring and the spark traveled down her arm and into her chest, numbing her left side. Her sword arm was unaffected, and she stabbed the yellow creature before it could withdraw. The lightweight Heartless was knocked back by her strike, and began swaying erratically. But the body of the Requiem shook, creating a ringing noise and flashes of green light. The spell settled onto the Opera, which began moving normally again.
The teen took advantage of the opening, and raced over to the Heartless healer. She jumped up, and brought the edge of the Rapier down with her weight behind it. The Requiem crashed to the ground, but did not dissolved; so she slashed at it again, and then stabbed it for good measure. The being of darkness dissolved, releasing a glowing, translucent, pink heart, which rose into the air and vanished.
A small sphere of fire struck her in the back, driving her close to the edge of the platform. Emboldened by her victory and annoyed by the attack, she darted after the closest Heartless, the Rhapsody. It fired a burst of snow and cold at her, but she had seen them attack before, and she somersaulted to the side, avoiding the spell. She finished closing the distance, and destroyed the monster with two quick jabs. The Opera tried to slam into her again, but she sidestepped, and it flew past her.
'I chose speed at the cost of defense,' she reminded herself, 'I have to dodge.'
The Nocturne was still holding back, preparing to fire again. She chased it down, avoiding another rush by the aggressive yellow Heartless. The young woman caught up with the red spellcaster, and eliminated it with the same ease she had its blue counterpart. The memories of battle came back to her, helping her know how to move and attack, almost as if she had been the one doing the fighting back then. She turned to face the last Heartless, which was darting forward again. This time she met it with her blade, letting it impale itself.
As the last heart was freed, she breathed a sigh of relief. A column of light surrounded her, and four shining crystal descended slowly towards her. She cupped her hands to catch them, and when they touched her palms, they absorbed into her skin. As they did, she understood.
"Cure, Blizzard, Fire, Thunder," she noted as the green, blue, red, and lastly yellow gems were integrated into her core. Then, recognizing the lingering pain in her left arm and back, she raised the tip of her Rapier, and intoned, "Cure!"
Green light surrounded her, and her wounds vanished. She nodded resolutely, and looked for her exit. But none was to be found. Instead, she saw another Heartless appear, this one with a whitish body and a broad red cap. She remembered it was called a White Mushroom, and was generally harmless. It shuffled closer, and then appeared to notice her. It looked her up and down, then it began shivering.
She recognized this game. She pointed her weapon at the Heartless and proclaimed, "Fire."
A small sphere of flame shot out and struck the mushroom. It straightened, and let out a joyful noise. It took a step back and regarded her again. After a moment, it hunched forward and began fanning its face rapidly.
"Blizzard," she obliged the creature, and again it crowed happily. It turned around and took a few steps, and then seemed to remember her. It looked at her again, then looked upwards with a hand under its 'chin', and an unlit light bulb appeared over its head.
"Thunder," she incanted, and a bolt of lightning struck the Heartless. The bulb started to glow, and the White Mushroom indicated her success again. It hopped into the air, spinning rapidly, and vanished. A small bracelet appeared in its place, and dropped onto Donald's face with a twinkle. She retrieved the protective charm, and quickly buckled it around her left wrist.
A tear in space opened before visible against the abyss only by the swirling flecks of purple and grey. Despite being offered a way to continue, she felt worried looking at the door into darkness.
"No, I decided to do this," she reminded herself, and stepped into the rip.
The teen appeared on another station, this one slightly larger than the last three. The motif was of an unfamiliar young woman. She was pretty, with soft blue eyes, and short, pale blonde hair. She wore an unadorned white dress, and the stained glass gave her a look of great sadness. Though she did not recognize the girl pictured, she could not help but feel she knew other teen.
Before she could ponder it too much, the plateau began to shake.
As you continue your journey, you will face many challenges.
A giant Heartless rose past the edge. She was shocked to find the creature looked like her. It's facial features were somewhat blurred, and there were tendrils extending from the monster's shoulders and wrists. And there was a large, heart-shaped whole through its stomach. But it had her hairstyle, and her clothes, and its nose and cheeks were definitely hers.
But you have the tools you need to reach your goal.
The Heartless raised its right hand, and punched downward at her. She jumped back, barely avoiding the fist, and the whole pillar shook. Then the creature's arm appeared to dissolve into the floor, forming an inky black spot. In the next instant, one Shadow emerged, and then another. She ran past them, striking at the arm before any more of the tiny Heartless could appear. The giant monster gasped noiselessly, and yanked back its arm. She killed the Shadows before they could attack, and turned her attention back to her main foe. But before she or the Heartless could act, the platform began to shake again.
So don't worry, your belief in yourself and your friends will see you through.
Both the girl and her dark doppelganger paused, watching as a giant white form rose on the opposite side of the platform. It was basically similar to the creature Axel had called Dusks; it had the same coloring and texture, and was marked with the same symbol like an inverted heart with a dagger or spear stabbing out of it, though this enemy bore the mark on its chest. But like the Heartless behind her, the white monster had distinctly feminine shape, slender waist with the hint of breasts under its armor. The new opponent quickly raised its right hand, and swept across the plateau, attempting to knock her down, or off into the abyss. She hopped over the attack, but it still clipped her, and she was thrown back, landing close to the Heartless. The giant black creature chose that as the cue to resume its attack, punching down at her again. The young woman rolled to her feet and dove out of the way. Again, the Heartless melded into the stained glass, and began to spawn Shadows. But before she could react, the white monster howled angrily. It slammed its hands into the underside of the disc, causing it to spin in place. She was catapulted into the air, and the Shadows vanished into the emptiness. The white creature kept spinning the floor as she reached the apex of her flight, not wanting to give her a spot to land.
'Trust my friends, huh?' she thought to herself as she started to fall, 'If that's true, you better help me with this, Sora.'
"I know what you are," she address the Rapier, "It's time to stop hiding. Strike Raid!"
She threw the Rapier sidearm at the head of the white entity, and as it left her hand, it changed. The blade of the sword was replaced by a bronze pole with a golden vine wrapped around it. The handle was blue, and the hand guard was also gold, and heart shaped, except on top where it faded into blue, and ended in a crashing wave motif. A Paopu fruit charm was attached to the hilt by a red cord. And at the end of the haft, the tines were a bouquet of multi-hued flowers. The Keyblade rotated through the air, slamming into the side of the monster's face, and then whirling back to her.
With the agitator knocked back, the platform stopped revolving. But it came to a halt with the opposite side face up, and instead of the blonde, the teen landed on a different girl. This picture bore her face, but with jet-black hair. Her altered twin wore the same style of black coat Axel sported, with black gloves and thigh-high boot visible. She was also holding Sora's Kingdom Key in her left hand. But the floor was less important than her opponents, both of whom struck even as she caught the returning weapon.
"Thunder!" she called down lightning on both of their hands, before they could strike her. They flinched just enough for her to flip back out of the way. Their fists collided, and the white monster hissed, while the Heartless grimaced, still silent. For a moment, the two titans glared at one another, but the black silhouette broke the gridlock by hammering the edge of the station, flipping it again and sending her upwards. But instead of keeping it spinning, the Heartless caught the platform so that the blonde girl was showing again.
'They don't appear to get along,' she decided, 'Maybe I can…'
Her speculation was cut short as the white being suddenly manifested a spear, and prepared to throw it at her.
"Blizzard," she hit it with a blast of ice, but it was undeterred. It launched the spike at her, but before it could hit her, the Heartless snatched her out of the air, and smashed her into the platform. It continued pressing down on her, trying to smother her. She slashed out wildly with her Keyblade, striking its wrist hard enough to make it release her.
"Cure," she could feel her mystical power being exhausted as she slid away and healed herself. She knew it would be a while before she could cast any more spells. She scrambled to her feet, and raced over to the white creature, slashing at its chest. She decided the being close to the unknown giant was less risky then being impaled on its javelins. The Heartless seemed determine not to let her escape so easily. It raised its hands, and a sphere of black and purple energy formed between them. Then it pushed both palms towards them and launched the orb at them. The teen cried out wordlessly as she dove out of the way. The attack passed over her head, and struck the white entity, which roared in pain. It formed another lance, and threw it at the Heartless. The inky duplicate reared back, unable to voice its pain. While the Heartless tore out the spike, the new creature turned its attention back to her, aiming its left hand at her while she was off balance.
'That's what I need, if I can just get them fighting again,' she decided, as she rolled out of the way tumbling back to her feet. Then she remembered another move she had witnessed her friend perform.
"I wonder if can pull that off, too," she pondered aloud, moving back to the center of the platform.
Both of the giants were preparing their ranged attacks again. She tensed, watching them both, their focus once again firmly on her. The Heartless finished first, shooting the darkness at the new Keyblade wielder. Just before the sphere would have struck her, she darted back, and swung her weapon like a baseball bat. She hit the ball of energy, diverting it higher, so it hit the white monster in the head. The pale titan switched its attention, aiming its completed javelin at the Heartless.
"Now," she shouted as the projectile hit. She could tell the Heartless was weakening. She followed behind the white lance, and when it buried itself in the breast of the Heartless, she hopped up on to the impromptu ledge, and then jumped again. Her movements put her in range of the black entity's face, and she quickly launched trio of strikes at the copy of her eyes. The Heartless began to dissolve where she had hit it, and fell backwards into the abyss. By the time she landed lightly on the station, the Heartless was gone.
"One down, one to go," she huffed, turning back to the white creature, which also looked ragged around the edges. The remaining monster hung its arms down, and she realized her mistake. The white giant brought its hands up, flipping the stage for the third time. The young woman was catapulted upwards, and she righted herself as quickly as she was able. The monster continued to spin the platform, giving her brief glimpses of both the blonde and raven-haired mosaics and robbing her of a place to land.
"Strike Raid," she shouted, hurtling her Keyblade at the creature. The weapon hit her opponent in the head for the second time, but this time it did not stop agitating the floor.
"Strike Raid," she yelled as soon as the hilt of the key touched her palm, this time a hint of desperation in her voice. The creature shuddered when it was hit, but managed to continue its actions. She wasn't sure if she would be able to throw her Keyblade again before it was too late, and she was struck by the flipping floor or simply fell past it. But before she could surrender, she felt a small kernel of power blossom in her. She just hoped it would be enough.
"Fire," without her weapon to act as a wand, she pointed the first two fingers of her right hand at the monster to focus. The gout of flame hit the giant in the insignia on its chest, and it began to break apart. The station slowed, but not quickly enough. She didn't think she was in danger of getting hit any more, but it did not look like she would have a surface to land on either. She took a deep breath as she caught her Keyblade, and relaxed as she fell past the platform, into the infinite darkness below. When she looked back up, the eyes of the sad blonde girl seemed to follow her down
If you are able to stay strong, yours will once more be the light of others' salvation.
"Kairi!" Selphie shouted for her again, as her friend vanished. She knocked aside the Dusk between her and the now blank section of sand. The shifty humanoid broke apart, but others moved in the take its place.
"What did you do to her?" Selphie demanded, struggling to keep her opponents at bay with broad swipes of her nunchaku.
"Nothing," Axel shrugged with a slightly mystified look. Then he looked at the younger teen, his grin dark and mischievous.
"But it looks like we'll have to move on to plan B," he told her, "And unfortunately for you, there is no need for you in plan B, either."
He snapped his fingers, and the Dusks stepped up their attacks. Selphie found she had to focus entirely on defense, and even so she took a number of weak hits to her arms and legs. Then one of the Dusk's talons slipped past the chain of her bludgeon, aiming right for her heart. But before it could eliminate her, a point of light appears in between them, throwing the Dusks backwards. The dot expanded into a sphere, and then an oblong. The cocoon exploded, revealing Kairi, floating in the fetal position. The princess unfolded her body, landing softly on the beach. She took a quick look around, and then swung out her right hand, brandishing her new weapon. The Dusks recognized their original target, and started to move in again to capture her.
"Thunder!" Kairi incanted, and the three white entities closest to the two girls exploded.
"No one mentioned she had a Keyblade," Axel snarked to himself, then to everyone else, added, "I guess I'll have to handle this."
He snapped his fingers for a third time, and the Dusks left. He stepped closer to the two young women, as Kairi healed Selphie.
"Are you sure you don't want to come with me to see Sora, Kairi?" he asked sweetly.
"Any chance of that went down the drain when you attacked my friend," she countered, raising her Keyblade. Axel held out his hands, and his twin chakrams appeared in matching plumes of flame.
"Then it's going to be the hard way," he smirked at them, "And I thought this assignment would be boring."
Fire lit the edges of his circular blades. He crossed his arms, and darted towards Kairi. She met his charge by stabbing out her weapon, taking advantage of her superior reach. Her initial strike interrupted his momentum, and she followed up with a horizontal slash that hit his right shoulder, and a diagonal strike that would have hit his collarbone, had he not recovered in time to block. With her Keyblade tied up on his left chakram, he spun his right disc upwards at her stomach. Again, his attack was disrupted, when Selphie struck the small of his back with her twirling nunchaku. He stumbled forward, and Kairi disconnected their weapons to let him stagger past her. Axel took a few more steps than he need to, and turned to face them.
"Burn," he ordered, looking happy. Fire erupted from his weapons again and he hurtled them both, sending one arcing towards each of the teens. Selphie rolled underneath the weapon, and Kairi knocked it back towards the black-cloaked man. Axel caught the chakram, and his other discus vanished and reappeared in his hand. Kairi met Selphie's eye, and the younger girl nodded. The nunchaku user ran straight towards Axel, whose eyes widened incredulously. He readied his inferno to burn her out of existence.
"Blizzard," Kairi unleashed the cone of cold and ice, which struck the unsuspecting fire user dead center in the chest, stunning him. Selphie took advantage of the opening, slamming one of the arms of her tool into his temple, and the other into his neck. Axel tumbled away, losing his grip on his chakrams. Selphie withdrew quickly.
"Did we get him?" she asked nervously.
"No, no you didn't," Axel sounded amused as he stood. His blades reappeared in his hands, and he grinned at them.
"You fight a lot like those two," he told Kairi, "But not exactly the same. Which makes sense, all things considered. But either way, it's time to end this."
Masses of white-hot flame built up over the surface of his chakrams. But then a trio of loud laughs echoed from the hill behind the girls, growing closer.
"We don't need any more company," Axel sounded annoyed, and banished his weapons, "I'll see you later, Kairi."
Then he smirked at Selphie, "And you had better hope you don't see me again."
With that, he vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared. Kairi sent away her Keyblade, as Tidus, Wakka, Cecil, Locke, and Celes crested the rise. Wakka was spinning the blitzball on his finger, and they were all wearing their uniforms. The first three boys looked amused, while Locke looked chagrined and Celes looked angry.
"Would you guys lay off?" Locke asked, "It's not like you've never missed shots. And that's why we're having this extra pract..."
He trailed off as they noticed Kairi and Selphie, both panting, and Selphie still holding her weapon.
"Is everything all right?" Wakka asked curiously.
"Yes, I was just having Selphie teach me some self-defense," Kairi lied easily. Celes nodded, and the team continued their trek down the beach.
"I'm teaching you?" the younger brunette said incredulous once the others were out of earshot, "I think you could teach me a thing or three. Where did you learn to fight like that?"
"Sora," Kairi admitted with a small grin.
"Really? Sora? When did he teach you to fight?" Selphie pointed at her, "For that matter, where are Riku and Sora? Fourteen months ago, the three of you vanished on the night of the storm. A week later, you just suddenly reappear, but you never said what happened. I know the Mayor convinced Riku's parents and Sora's mom that they were fine, and that we should wait until you were ready to tell us, but just how long are you going to shut me out?"
"Selphie, I..." Kairi started to protest.
"And that's another thing," the younger teen interrupted, on a roll, "I overheard the Mayor and uncle Tella talking. The night after the storm, the stars were different. Some of the stars that had disappeared were suddenly back in the sky. And the constellations were in the wrong places, like instead of one night it had been over four months! That's impossible, right?"
She stared at her friend, and the princess could not meet her eyes.
"You know something," Selphie read her expression correctly, "Tell me!"
"It's safer you don't know," Kairi said softly.
"Safer? Safer than getting attacked by some crazy fire guy and his white monsters?" Selphie was incredulous. Then she grinned slyly, and decided on a different tack.
"Then maybe it's safer I don't show you what that guy dropped," the younger woman taunted, holding her hand behind her. Kairi looked at her curiously, and Selphie couldn't help but triumphantly extend the slim white drawing pen. The Keyblade user reached out to touch it, and despite her earlier statement, the nunchaku user did not retract the item. When her fingers touched the instrument, Kairi briefly remembered the blonde girl on the last station. A bright light sprang out from her fingertips, and the pen rose into the air. Unbidden, her Keyblade appeared in her hand, and she instinctively pointed her weapon at the implement. A beam emerged from the Keyblade, and when it struck the pen, it split and expanded, inscribing a keyhole shape on the sky. Then there was a loud click, and the beam disappeared.
"What was that?" Selphie gasped, turning to stare at Kairi. The Keyblade user caught the pen as it fell, and it changed in her hands, a silver chain tumbling free from nowhere, with a clip on the end.
"Innocent Snowfall," she recognized the name of the Keychain instinctively. She held up the hilt of her weapon, and attached the new accessory. The original Keychain, Princess Key, came off in her hand, and the Keyblade changed form. The haft became longer and narrower, and lightened into a pure, white metal. The hand-guard transformed into a stylized snowflake, and the tines became half of a different ice crystal.
Selphie stared at her in amazement.
"OK, you are telling me everything," the younger woman insisted firmly. Before they could debate the matter further, a loud rumbling, like thunder, shook the sky above them. Both girls looked up, and a bulbous orange device coasted out of the sky. Kairi recognized the Gummi Ship immediately, while Selphie struggled just to keep her mouth from hanging open.
"Sora," Kairi murmured hopefully under her breath, and ran over to meet the ship as it landed. But when the hatched opened, the occupant what not who she was hoping it would be.
A mouse clambered out of the cockpit. Though she was generally humanoid, unlike the King, she was the size of a normal mouse, barely five inches at full extension, and a fair percentage of that was her tail. Still, she walked on her rear legs, had a mop of untidy, dirty blonde hair, and wore light blue coveralls with matching goggles in her hair between her ears. The rodent looked around, and when she saw the Keyblade user, her face brightened.
"Princess Kairi," she exclaimed, "I found you."
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" Kairi asked carefully; more aware than ever of the gaps in her early memories.
"Gosh, I don't think so," the mouse shook her head, "I'm Gadget, Gadget Hackwrench. I was sent to help you find Sora."
Selphie had been flabbergasted by the royal title the mouse applied to her friend, but when the tiny mammal mentioned Sora, both girls turned to look at one another dubiously.
"What?" Gadget asked, recognizing their expressions.