A cool night breeze whistled through the trees, causing a net hanging high amongst the branches to sway slightly. The net's occupants were likewise swayed as well, which knotted them together further as they continued squabbling with each other.
"Sora, stop wiggling, you're making it worse! And watch your elbow! You're going to give me a black eye!"
"Ah, Master Riku, would you mind—you're stepping on my shoulder."
"Oh, I apologize, let me—"
"Gah! Riku that was my nose!"
"Well move your nose, idiot!"
The net was jostled as Sora, Kairi, and Riku wrestled to sit comfortably in their trap, a flurry of limbs that ultimately did nothing to ease their situation. An ill-placed knee to the ribs caused a tussle between Sora and Riku, who began kicking and pinching each other like naughty schoolchildren.
"Alright alright, everybody just calm down okay?" Kairi huffed. She was, of course, ignored. "Hey, cut it out, will ya? Ow! Alright stop! What the hell is the matter with you two?" The hitting and hair-pulling ceased at her suddenly dangerous tone, and the boys offered her guilty smiles. Kairi was less than impressed. "Let's think of a way down from here. Anyone have any ideas?"
"If you think of anything, could you let me know?" called a voice nearby.
Surprised, the three turned to find the speaker, and because the worst of the mist had cleared, they found Namine hanging in a net identical to theirs a few trees away. She still had her lantern, and it glowed warmly around her net like a miniature moon.
"Namine!" called Sora in a tone of pleasant surprise, as if he had run into her at the market instead. "What are you doing up here?"
"Ah, well, it's quite embarrassing, but I was looking around the ruins of the cabin, and it seems I set off a tripwire and wound up in a net. I assume something similar has happened to you all?" she asked. She managed to sit in her trap with prim composure, as calm as if they were discussing the weather.
"So that's where you disappeared to! No wonder I couldn't see you anywhere," Sora nodded. "And yeah, Riku wasn't looking where he was stepping and now we're here."
"Well maybe if certain people hadn't jumped out and attacked me, I wouldn't have tripped over the tripwire in the first place," Riku growled, moodily. He folded his arms over his chest, but the fearsome look he was aiming for was lessened significantly due to fact that he was drenched and muddy.
Sora only laughed at the memory. "But we thought you were a monster, so of course we would attack you!" He was grinning in a way that made it impossible to stay mad at him, and it was all Riku could do to keep his scowl from slipping into a smile.
"It doesn't matter how we got up here, it only matters how we get down," Kairi said, hoping to avoid another tussle.
"I have a knife in my bag we could use to cut the net," offered Riku.
"Great, where's your bag?"
"It's um…" He twisted to look around for the bag he had been holding moments before. Then he spotted it below them, sitting tauntingly in the dirt, and his stomach sank in disappointment. "down there," he mumbled.
"Good," Kairi sighed. Her neck hurt from the angle she was crouched in, and her leg was beginning to fall asleep, crushed as it was beneath Sora, who was a lot heavier than he looked.
"Roxas!" Sora shouted. Both Riku and Kairi flinched, as he was practically yelling in their ears. "Roxas get your fuzzy butt over here! Help us down!"
"And how exactly is your cat going to help us down?" Riku asked, annoyed.
Roxas came trotting over and sat himself directly beneath them. He wore the distinctive feline expression of bored derision, and if Riku and Kairi didn't know any better, they'd say the cat looked like he was laughing at them.
"Okay Roxas, Riku says there's a knife in his bag there next to you. Could you please find it and cut us down?" Sora asked.
Roxas raised a cat eyebrow, skeptical, and said nothing.
"Don't be a jerk! Get us down from here!" Sora pleaded. "How am I gonna feed you if I'm stuck in a tree for the rest of my life, huh? I know you can do it, don't give me that look. You did it when we fought the Nothing Man, you can do it here for sure!"
Roxas' ears folded back grumpily, and he glanced meaningfully over Riku, Kairi, and Namine before glaring back at Sora.
Sora only rolled his eyes. "It'll be alright, they won't care. No big deal."
Roxas gave a look clearly expressing what he thought of that.
"But Roooxaaass!" Sora whined, "It's the only way! We need you. Like, what if there really is a monster or something? If you don't help us, whoever put these nets here could come and eat us or whatever. You're our only hope!"
Roxas' face was scrunched with inner contention, and he crouched on the ground unhappily. Sora could tell Roxas was close to cracking, so he broke out his best puppy-dog eyes and pressed his face up against the rope, like a prisoner holding the bars of his jail cell. "Please save us! Pleeeeeaaassse!"
"Cut that out, it's annoying,"snapped Riku. "You're cat can't help us." He and the girls were trying to think of ways down, but Sora's usual antics were making it difficult to concentrate.
But Sora ignored him and continued his prolonged 'please' with a trembling look at the cat.
"Fine, I'll do it. Just shut up already, you look pathetic," Roxas grumbled at last.
Riku, Kairi, and Namine all started in shock. Before their eyes, the cat below stood up on his hind legs, suddenly growing much taller, then much more human-shaped, until a boy had replaced the cat. Roxas stretched his back in an arch and was rewarded with a satisfying crack. He brushed the cobwebs out of his hair, then rubbed his bare arms and flexed his toes in an attempt to warm them slightly. He was much colder as a human, for he was shoeless and wore only a white t-shirt and khaki pants—definitely a downgrade from his complete fur coat.
"What the fuck?" gaped Riku. "What the actual fuck!"
Kairi's shocked face echoed the sentiment.
Roxas spared them an irritated 'tch' before he began rummaging through Riku's bag beside him.
"H-hey what are you doing!" Riku shouted, alarmed. It was his bag, after all, and strange, shape-shifting creatures were not allowed to look through it at will.
"What's it look like, asshole? I'm getting your stupid knife to cut you down," Roxas snapped. "Or would you rather stay up there?" He found the knife at last, and waved it in front of him as proof.
Riku frowned, but said nothing, still recovering from the shock.
Roxas stood and began cutting away at the rope he could reach in silence, and soon had created a hole big enough for the three captives to slip through. As they helped each other down, he moved on to Namine's net and let her out as well. She hopped down lightly, lantern in hand, and took a moment to straighten her dress. When enough rumbles had been smoothed out, she gave Roxas a curious look.
"Yahoo! Roxas saved us!" Sora cheered, running up to his friend. He clapped a hand around Roxas' shoulder, rough with excitement. "You are so completely awesome! I'm super proud of you!"
Riku and Kairi approached cautiously, each gawking at him as if he might change form into something stranger still.
"Whatever," Roxas mumbled, nervous and tense with everyone's attention on him. "I'll just, um, go back to..." He shifted slightly, hoping to turn back into his more comfortable feline form without trouble.
"Oh no you don't," said Riku, picking up on his plan. "You don't get to just pop back into a cat after this stunning reveal. You stay right where you are—and stay what you are, too." He then rounded on Sora. "He's been a shape-shifter this whole time? You knew about this?" he demanded.
"Well duh," Sora shrugged. "Here, why don't I do some introductions," he said, waving an arm in an official manner. "Everyone, this is my friend Roxas, he's a shape-shifter who prefers to be a cat because of reasons. But don't ask him about it, he'll tell you when he's ready. He's still working through some personal issues, and we should all respect that."
"Hi Roxas," Kairi and Namine chimed together. Roxas gave a small, stiff wave.
"First the blonde maid turns out to be a spy, then the cat turns out to be some kid," Riku huffed. "What's next, Miss Kairi turns out to be a fairy princess?"
"Who says I'm not?" Kairi grinned.
Sora laughed and Namine smiled behind her hand, but Riku had turned a severe frown to Roxas.
"So, what, you just go around as a cat and conveniently forget to mention that you're a human? That's kind of weird if you ask me," Riku sneered. He looked Roxas over with the expression, innate to the upper class, which causes the receiver of such a gaze to become bafflingly self-conscious of their apparently substandard appearance.
"Whatever, you conveniently didn't tell anyone that fucking shadow monsters were devouring your soul," Roxas shot back. "I don't see much difference." But he stood up straighter and tugged at his dingy t-shirt as if doing so might make it more presentable, all the same—Riku had learned that particular look from his uncle Sephiroth, after all, and it was a powerful one.
At Roxas' words, however, Riku's eyebrows rose high enough on his forehead to disappear underneath overgrown bangs, and he grit his teeth as the full implication of the shape-shifter's revelation hit him. Every personal secret he had confided to Sora had been spoken in the presence of the cat, after all, and to discover that things he'd never confessed to anyone else had unwittingly been told to this stranger was more than a little unsettling. Riku's throat constricted in panic.
"Oh, come on, guys. Let's just be friends!" Sora insisted, as if making friends was as easy for everyone else as it was for him. "Besides, you two have a lot in common, so it's dumb to be mad about nothing. No fighting, okay?"
One thing that Roxas and Riku had in common, at least, was that they were willing to do just about anything Sora asked them to. And so, though they eyed each other warily for a long moment, they agreed with a tight, wordless nod of understanding to hold off on their quarrel— within reason, at least.
"Well, I suppose if Roxas decides he likes running around as a simple cat, then that's his prerogative," said Riku with a lofty shrug. "Mentally unbalanced, maybe, but hey, it's your life."
"Thank you," Roxas said through pursed lips. "And I suppose you're an expert on being unbalanced, aren't you? What with all the falling into muddy streams and all." He nodded at Riku's mud-covered clothes and dripping hair, one eyebrow raised testily.
Riku's cheeks heated immediately, and his lips curled back in a sneer.
But whatever undoubtedly brilliant retort he might have made was interrupted when familiar, ethereal laughter rang out around them as suddenly as a bell.
The group froze where they stood, tense and alarmed at the return of the eerie laughter. A cold chill passed over them in a sweep of breeze, causing the remaining mist to swirl like lazy tide pools around them. Hearts pounded and hands clenched.
Something was coming. Or, rather, something was already there.
"You're all so funny, I can hardly stand it," laughed the unearthly voice.
The group jumped with shock. They turned slowly, almost unwillingly, toward the source, not entirely sure they wanted to find out who or what was behind the ghostly laughter that had haunted them all evening.
What they found was a girl sitting on a heap of logs as if it were a throne. She was surrounded by—or perhaps composed of—a soft golden glow which flickered slightly like a candle flame. She was not entirely solid, but instead resembled the sort of pale reflection one might see when looking in a dark window. It was difficult to make out her features, for they were blurred and hazy, as if she could not decide what she looked like. Despite her unclear face, however, they had the impression that she was giving them a mischievous grin.
"What the what?" breathed Kairi, eyes wide with alarm. That seemed to sum up the feelings of the rest of the group, who all stood with mouths agape and faces pale.
The apparition laughed again at their reaction. "Oh my, are you frightened of me?" she asked, tilting her head with curiosity.
"Well that depends," hedged Sora. "Are you a ghost?"
"Hm, maybe," she said in a thoughtful, sing-song voice. Then she laughed again. "Everyone is always frightened of me these days, but I can't help myself. It's just too funny when I scare them, even if I don't mean to." She paused for a moment, looking at them.
"Boo!" she tried suddenly, and they all jumped. Both Kairi and Roxas' feet nearly left the ground, their flinch was so severe. She laughed again, throwing her head back merrily.
"I guess it's a little comforting to know there actually was a ghost all along, and that I wasn't just imagining things," said Kairi feebly. Having her fears realized could have been worse, she figured. At least the ghost seemed content to simply sit and make fun of them, rather than something more gruesome.
"Oh gosh, when the tall one tripped and fell into the stream! That was too funny! And the girl thought a monster had eaten him, when really he was just too embarrassed to call for help!" laughed the ghost. "You're not hurt, are you?"
"I—uh, no. I'm fine," answered Riku, both unnerved and embarrassed to have a ghost laughing at his clumsiness.
"And the cat!" she continued. "That one definitely surprised me! But it's good he was there to help you down. I'm sorry you got caught in the nets. She always was very efficient when it came to her traps, so I'm not surprised they still work after all this time."
"Who was?" asked Sora suddenly.
"Hm?" asked the ghost.
"Whose traps? You know who put these nets here?"
"I…what?" the question seemed to throw her. "No, I don't know who put them here, why do you ask?"
"But you just said! You said 'she was always efficient with her traps' didn't you? 'She' who?" Sora insisted.
"I…" the ghost seemed at a loss. "Did I? I'm not sure why I said that…"
"Oh. Well, uh, who are you, then?" Sora asked instead.
"Hm? What do you mean?"
"I mean, what's your name? How come you're haunting this forest?"
"My…name?" she repeated slowly, as if confused. A frown marked her vague features.
"Yeah, you have one, don't you?"
The ghost was no longer laughing. The glow surrounding her flickered and she clutched her head as if it pained her.
"My…name?" she repeated, distressed. "I don't…I can't…" The wind picked up again, causing trees and bushes to shudder violently.
Kairi jabbed her elbow into Sora's side. "What the hell are you doing, don't make her upset!"
"I didn't realize it was a sore subject," he said with a casual shrug. "Hey, it's okay if you don't remember your name," he called to the ghost. "No big deal!"
"But I must have a name," she said. "I used to, I know I did. But I just… don't remember. I haven't thought about it in so long that I can't…" The wind died down suddenly, the burst of the girl's emotion worn out. She slumped in her seat, clutching her head, exhausted. "How could I forget something so important?" she asked plaintively.
"Ah, perhaps I could be of some help?" Namine suggested timidly, stepping forward.
The ghost looked up and seemed to squint at her.
"I'm a mage, you see," Namine continued, growing more confident when the ghost did not lash out. "And I'm rather good with memory spells, if I do say so myself. Perhaps I could—I mean, I might be able to help you remember, if you want to."
"Woah, you could use your magic on a ghost?" Sora gaped, amazed.
"I don't see why not," Namine replied thoughtfully. "I've actually read quite a number of articles discussing the nature of ghosts and spirits, and the major theories all suggest that what we think of as a ghost is really just the energy of manifested memories."
"Huh?" Sora scrunched up his nose. "Maniwhatnow?"
"Manifested memories," Namine explained patiently. "You see, when a person dies, their memory lingers in the hearts of the people they left behind. But if a person with a particularly strong spirit dies, especially if they die in a particularly violent way, these memories might manifest into a nearly-physical entity, forming what we commonly call a ghost." She paused and considered the translucent girl before her.
"She must have become bound to a physical object," Namine continued. "This can happen with objects or places that were important to the spirit in life, and causes them to linger in the physical world when they would otherwise pass on, as people's memories of them become fainter. In time, the spirit's own memories can fade, causing the energy to become chaotic and directionless as they forget who they were in life. But because they are bound to something in the physical world, they cannot pass on."
"Huh?" Sora repeated, as confused as ever.
"Don't worry, most of that went over my head, too," said Roxas, whose face was also scrunched up.
"Ugh, forget it," sighed Riku. "Look, the point is, if ghosts are made of memories, then Namine should be able to help with her memory spells. Okay?"
"Oh, I see! That makes sense!" Sora said brightly. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
"But I did…" said Namine.
"You have to use small words with Sora. Yunalesca et al is way beyond him," Riku snorted.
"You've read Yunalesca?" Namine's eyebrows raised with polite surprise, for it wasn't often she found someone to discuss magical theory with.
"Of course I have," said Riku with the smug air of a well-read man. "She's only the most prominent researcher in the field of spectral-spiritual studies. Her theories about the fayth of Zanarkand were ground breaking."
"Oh, I know! I actually wrote my senior thesis about Zanarkand and its importance to the field of memory magic," said Namine, not to be outdone when it came to pompous displays of knowledge.
"You two are such nerds!" Sora laughed, shattering their intellectual competition.
The ghost was chuckling, too. "It's very strange to be analyzed so academically," she said. "I'm not sure if it makes me feel better or not."
"It should make you feel better, I hope," said Namine. "Because if you are composed of memories, that means your memories still exist, even if you have forgotten them. You almost remembered who made the traps, didn't you? I'll just have to repair the connections and strengthen your ability to recollect. Do you want me to help you? I've never done this sort of thing with a spirit, but theoretically, it should work."
The ghost gave a tentative but hopeful nod, eager to remember the important things she had forgotten.
Namine stepped forward before the ghost with the posture and grace of a ballerina's first position. Her eyes were closed and her breath deep and even in meditation. Her audience, physical and not, watched her eagerly. After a moment, Namine opened her eyes and raised her arms toward the spirit. Her hands began to sway like an easy breeze, and the ghostly girl moved with her, seemingly hypnotized. Slowly, she began tracing out odd patterns with her fingers as if playing an invisible piano, and the golden haze surrounding the ghost shimmied and quivered like smoke. They moved like this for several tense minutes. Then, with a final flick of her delicate fingers, Namine released the ghost from whatever hold she'd had over her, and stepped back, apparently finished with her spell.
The ghost snapped up abruptly in her seat and blinked. Her features began to solidify as the hazy blur eased away, and the group marveled at the young woman it revealed. Her large eyes were now a definite blue, her mouth a puckered pout, and her nose an impish nub. Her hair became dark and short, cut just above her narrow shoulders, and she appeared to be wearing a featureless dress made up of the glow surrounding her.
The girl gazed at them, mirroring their surprise. Then her face broke out in an infectious grin.
"You did it!" she laughed. "I remember now!" Her voice had lost some of its unearthly quality, and her laughter no longer echoed quite as eerily. She jumped off her perch on the logs and danced about the clearing, arms raised with excitement while she laughed. "I remember! I remember my name!" she cried jubilantly.
"Well, what is it?" Sora prompted.
She turned back to her audience, beaming. "My name is Xion," she declared.
"That's a lovely name," Kairi said with an encouraging smile.
Namine was grinning wickedly at her success. This was definitely one to brag about back home.
"Let's see, what else do I know again?" Xion pondered as she skipped and twirled. "The traps! I remember when she made them." She stopped her dancing and smiled fondly at the nets in the trees. "She made them to protect me when everyone was trying to kidnap me. She had so many tricks. She was a mage, too, but not quite like you. She used her magic to make things. She made all kinds of things, you know. She was brilliant!"
"So you remember her name?" asked Sora.
"Her name was Faris," she answered with a faraway smile. "I remember her again. I can't believe I could ever forget her!" Xion's eyes were lit with excitement. "Faris would always come visit me, the fireflies would lead her here, too. But they were much better about that kind of thing back then. Those fireflies would never have let you get split up or abandon you out of nowhere. I suspect they've gotten lazy these days. A firefly's lifespan is so short, so it's been about a bajillion generations for them since the old days. No wonder they've forgotten how it used to be."
"What do you mean?" asked Kairi, a sneaking suspicion coming over her. "How did it used to be?"
"Well it used to be that the fireflies would find anyone lost in this forest and bring them to me so I could help them! It always made me so sad to know there might be someone hurt and afraid nearby, so the fireflies agreed to help. They were my friends and they always did what I asked them to. They were very kind that way. And I think somewhere in them, the fireflies must remember doing that, instinctually, because sometimes they still lead people around the forest. But nowadays they only seem to make people lost, just like they did with you all! They've turned into regular will o' the wisps!" Xion laughed.
"But I suppose some of them managed better than others," she continued. "I mean, they found their way back to my old cabin this time, didn't they? This is where they used to take people when I was still alive. Although," she paused, looking over the decaying remains of the cabin wistfully, "It's not quite what it used to be, is it? I suppose time will do that to anything if no one's around to keep it nice. Pity."
The group stared at her with wide eyes.
"Then does that mean…that you're the Firefly Queen?" asked Kairi in awe.
Xion laughed again. "Firefly Queen? Gosh, I haven't heard that old nickname in ages! Faris used to call me that, mostly to make fun of me, really, since those little buggers were always following me around. I'd forgotten about that!"
There was silence as the group gaped incredulously at the ghost of the mythical Firefly Queen, but it was broken after a moment when Sora barked a laugh.
"See? What'd I tell ya? The Firefly Queen is totally real! That means her dagger must be real too!" he cried with triumph, thrilled at his luck.
"I don't believe this," groaned Roxas, slapping a palm to his forehead. "This'll just end up encouraging your crazy ideas even more."
"My dagger?" asked Xion.
"Yeah, that's why we're here in the first place," Sora explained. "We're looking for that magic dagger you had that was connected to your heart that let you wield your light or whatever. Cuz we need to use it to defeat this evil no-eyebrows guy so he doesn't eat everyone's soul. It's been lost for a few hundred years, but I asked the fireflies and they took us here. Do you have it?"
"No eyebrows? Hm, that does sound serious. But which dagger do you…Oh." Xion paused, and her blue eyed darkened with sorrow. "You must mean that dagger." She was quiet for a long moment. Eventually, she looked up at them with a sad smile.
"It's a peculiar thing to suddenly remember all your sad memories at once." She scrubbed her eye with the palm of her hand and swallowed thickly. "I'm sorry, but I don't have it anymore."
"Do you know where it is?" Kairi asked gently.
"It's been taken."
"By whom?" asked Namine, when Xion did not elaborate.
"The crows," she sighed sadly. "And you won't get it back from them easily. They're very possessive of their treasure."
"Crows?" balked Roxas. "First fireflies, now crows? Should we just go ask a zoo for help?"
"Says the cat," snorted Riku.
Roxas narrowed his eyes at the noble, thinking that Sora had said the exact same thing to him earlier that evening.
"Can you take us to where the crows are?" asked Kairi.
"Alright. Though I don't know how much good it will do. Years ago, back before I began losing my memories, I tried to get the dagger back from them, but they refused. Crows are incredibly stubborn, you know. But I'll take you if you think it'll help. Their nest isn't far."
And so they set off in search of the crow's nest, following behind Xion like a gaggle of baby ducks. Xion was a much better guide than her firefly counterparts, both more reliable and more talkative. She chattered pleasantly about funny things she had witnessed in the forest and the unfortunate lost wanderers she had terrorized, however unintentionally.
"I do things I used to do when I was alive, but they always turn out frightening. I used to laugh all the time, but now my laughter scares people instead. And I try to help them if they're lost, but they always scream and run away when they see me and wind up more lost than ever!"
"That's probably because you're dead," said Roxas. Kairi elbowed him in the side for being so blunt, but Xion only nodded thoughtfully.
"I suppose that's true," she agreed with a soft chuckle.
Kairi eventually took pity on a shivering Riku, whose drenched clothing and hair had turned freezing in the night air, and gave him a small hand towel that she had brought in her pack. Riku received it graciously, echoing all his rarely-used training in polite etiquette to thank her as he dried his hair and wiped his face clean. Namine produced a pair of extra socks from her well-equipped pack, and he changed into them with relish, grateful to be rid of his uncomfortable wet pair. The rest of the group raised surprised eyebrows when she pulled them out, but Namine was unfazed.
"When you work as a spy for a long as I have, you quickly realize the immense benefits of bringing extra socks," she explained.
As they walked, fireflies appeared out of the darkness to gather around Xion like joyous dogs greeting an owner. She beamed as she received them, though she scolded them playfully for their poor guiding abilities. Soon a glowing cloud had formed, the fireflies that had initially led them into the forest and infinitely more, and Xion's own ghostly, golden glow made her appear as if she were one of them, the true Queen of the Fireflies.
Kairi asked about Faris, and Xion eagerly launched into story after story of how they had met, the long, lazy days spent together in their secluded forest paradise, and various adventures and mishaps the two had gotten into and out of. Perhaps because she was a spirit, a collection of memories rather than a physical body, her emotions seemed to radiate from her, and the group could feel Xion's love for Faris as if it were their own.
She did not mention their sorrowful ending with the dagger and the tower, nor did they ask her about it.
"Okay, I got a question," Roxas blurted eventually. "I mean, somebody's gotta ask it, right? The Firefly Queen myth is all about the girl with the pure heart and the mage who loved her—the male mage. The mage in the story is definitely a man. But you are telling us that the mage you were in love with is a woman. So, what's the deal?"
"There's a myth about us?" Xion asked, eyebrows raised. "Oh how strange!" (No one thought to mention the irony of a ghost calling something strange.) "Faris was definitely a woman, though." She blushed slightly, and gave the ground a secret smile. "Definitely a woman. Though she often wore pants and suits like a man. She preferred that to dresses and skirts. Sometimes people would confuse her for a man when they first met her—There was nothing quite as funny as confusing people about which gender she was. And Faris never really cared either way."
"Well I think this is clearly a case of queer erasure," said Kairi. "Society altering things to follow a heteronormative narrative. The Firefly Queen myth is meant to be a patriotic story that makes Nomura out to be a city founded on principles of light and love which can overcome hate and darkness. Except that it wouldn't do for a story like that to be about a lesbian couple, even if that was the truth. So whoever decided to make the story part of the city's historical and cultural narrative tweaked that bit. Cases of queer erasure are unfortunately very common."
Kairi found the group had stopped to stare at her, wide-eyed. Even the fireflies seemed surprised by her outburst.
She cleared her throat, fighting down a blush. "As a feminist, this is a subject that I'm very passionate about," she said by way of explanation. "The heteronormative structure controlled by the patriarchy is damaging for everyone involved."
"Well said," said Riku. She narrowed her eyes at him, trying to detect traces of sarcasm, but found none. "You sure you want to be a scientist, not a sociologist?"
"I don't see why I can't pursue both interests," she shrugged, now definitely blushing.
"Well, that explains that, then," said Roxas, clapping his hands together. "I'm satisfied. Rock on, you awesome dead lesbian lovers. Fight the power."
Xion laughed, thrilled at the controversy her life had apparently inspired.
To say that the crow's nest was a bird's nest would be to claim the Jenova Mansion a house, or the sun a source of light. So enormous and complex was it that it morphed the trees in which they were roosted into an intricate jumble of absurd, stick-constructed apartments, housing hundreds of squabbling, scuffling, squawking birds. Items both nature and human-made were woven into sturdy walls tucked between tree branches, with shards of glass for windows and stray horseshoes as archways for the entrances. It was the strangest, most unbird-like nest any of them had ever seen.
The birds' raucous clamor came to an abrupt silence at the group's arrival, as hundreds of pairs of beady eyes glared down at them with suspicion. The humans could only gape like fish in response.
"Holy shit," said Roxas. "That nest is huge! Is that normal?"
"Not for most crows, no," said Xion. "But the crows in this forest have always been a bit peculiar. For some reason, they've got it in their heads that they want to be like people, so they've taken to imitating them. I think it's dreadful, personally. A bird's way of doing thing is perfectly fine, there's no need for them to pretend to be human."
"So the magic dagger is hidden somewhere in there?" Sora asked.
"Yes. Crows often like to collect shiny things to decorate their nest with, but these birds have taken it further in their attempt to act like people. Now the bird with the best collection is revered and apparently given higher social status. They've got quite the plutocracy, it seems. The bird that has my dagger won't give it up because it's the biggest, prettiest object he has. He's quite respected in the community because of it."
"Sounds like a blast," muttered Riku sourly. He had quite enough experience with rich-obsessed people as it was, and was not looking forward to dealing with birds of the same mindset.
"Excuse me!" Sora shouted up at the nest. "Hello there, crows! I need to speak with one of you! Would the bird with the magic dagger please come out! It's extremely important!"
"What, like they're just going to respond to you?" scoffed Riku.
"It worked with the fireflies. Roxas too," Sora shrugged.
"I don't count," said Roxas. He thwacked Sora's head lightly, and Sora laughed.
"Really? The fireflies responded when you asked a question?" Xion asked, her transparent eyebrows raised.
"Yeah, sure. I asked them to take me to your dagger, and they took us all into the forest. Then they got lazy and stopped listening to me, but at first they were helpful."
"Is that true? Oh my, I just assumed they had found you lost in the forest, like they usually do. I've never known them to respond to someone else's questions and guide people who aren't lost to begin with."
"Yeah, well, that's Sora for ya. Weird shit always happens to him," said Roxas.
"Yeah, I'm pretty lucky," Sora agreed, beaming at his fortune.
"It's really very unusual, though," Xion insisted. She squinted at Sora, as if to get a better look at him, and tilted her head thoughtfully at what she seemed to find. "But then again, perhaps you're—"
But whatever Xion thought Sora might be was lost in a burst of harsh cawing from the nest. The group looked up to see that several crows had come out to perch on low branches, studying the humans in interest and squawking loudly as they did so. The birds scooted along the branches until they had formed two lines like a royal guard. All that was missing were the trumpets and flags. The birds still inside the nest clamored wildly with flapping wings and harsh screeching, and some peeked out of the entryways and windows. Still others gathered in the upper branches to get a better look at them all.
Then, when the racket seemed it might rouse the whole forest from slumber, it quieted all at once. From an entryway built around an old, tarnished picture frame emerged an enormous, fat bird, as large as a terrier, with dull feathers graying around the tips. He wore what looked like a woman's pendant earring hanging from a small chain on his breast, which he bore as proudly as if it were a king's emblem.
"That's a crow?" gaped Kairi.
"They tend to grow big in these woods. The lesser crows bring the high status birds food in order to gain favor, and since everyone's doing the work for them, they hardly need to fly anymore. They just get fatter and fatter." said Xion, mildly disgusted.
"Hello Crow," greeted Sora cheerfully. "You're the one who has the magic dagger?"
The crow barked a rude and grumpy response and seemed to sneer at them. Sora, of course, was not offended.
"Okay, here's the thing—we need to use that dagger to save people and stuff. Can we have it?"
All the crows immediately began cawing in what was clearly hysterical laughter. The fat bird cackled as well, before turning to hop back to the nest.
"Amateur," sighed Riku, shaking his head. "There's no way you'll convince a rich man—or crow— to do anything that way. Let me show you how it's done." He stepped forward with an air of importance and an expression of extreme boredom, standing as straight as a pole with arms clasped behind his back.
Riku cleared his throat with a precise ahem, and though it was not a loud sound by any means, it managed to catch the attention of the lord bird, for he turned at the sound. The surrounding crows hushed.
"Good evening, Mister Crow," Riku said with a slight incline of his head. "My name is Riku Harvey, son of Cecil Harvey and Rosa Jenova, of the Jenova family of Nomura." He paused a moment to let the gravity of his name take hold, and it had the desired effect of inciting the lord crow's obvious interest. He hopped forward on his perch, tilting his head from side to side to better examine one of the upper class humans he was so desperate to emulate.
"It has come to our attention that you are in possession of an old dagger that once belonged to this fine ghost here, is that correct?"
The crow gave a small noise of affirmation. Riku thought the bird was probably a bit peeved that he had declared the dagger old and implied wrongful ownership of some sort. That, of course, had been the point, to make the bird slightly indignant. An indignant man—or bird—was more likely to do what you wanted, in an effort to prove you wrong.
"Really? Excellent. We were hoping we might see it. Just a quick look, of course. The ghost has been telling us tales of its beauty, and we were thinking the stories were a bit hard to believe. We have a small wager between us, you see. Some of us are convinced the dagger is as brilliant as she says. I, of course, am not so certain. It would just be a small favor, but we would surely appreciate it. The wager simply cannot be settled without a real look at the thing." Riku had slipped into the bored drawl of the upper class, something he had mastered at a young age. He squinted his eyes and raised an eyebrow expectantly.
The crow thought it over for a moment before calling what seemed to be quick orders to the crows beside him, and the birds scuttled back inside the nest to retrieve the dagger. The lord bird shifted on his branch, eager to prove to the Jenova human that his dagger was indeed as beautiful as claimed. No—more beautiful, even! Humans did have such amusing tendencies, and what harm could it do to humor them, especially for a noble? Perhaps these wagers could become a fun pastime for the upper class crows, as well.
The servant crows returned bearing the dagger between them, wrapped in cloth and suspended from rope clutched in their beaks. They landed on the lowest branch of the tree, so that the dagger hung just a few feet above their heads.
Riku make no obvious reaction when the dagger was brought out, though the flurry of fanfare from the crows made it clear that they meant to impress. Sora and the others took their cue from Riku and adopted his vaguely interested expression.
"Well we can't exactly get a good look at it from up there, can we?" said Riku, rolling his eyes with annoyed disdain. "Can't you come any closer?"
The crows fussed and bent their heads down as far as they could, but the rope was still too short.
"Might you just drop it down to us? We'll only look at it for a moment," he said.
The crows hesitated and looked back to their lord with question. The fat crow mulled it over for a moment, then bobbed his head in consent. The crows released their hold on the rope and dropped the dagger down to them. Riku caught it easily.
Riku grinned to himself. Social upstarts were all the same, human or not.
He paused a moment to give a significant look to his companions, who peered at the wrapped dagger eagerly. Xion's eyes were wide with longing, and her ghostly glimmer shivered. The fireflies with them fluttered and flickered excitedly.
With careful, precise movements, Riku removed the rope and cloth covering. The dagger was revealed, tarnished and covered with dust, yet the featherlike engravings were still visible on the smooth hilt, and the blue-tinted blade looked sharp as ever. It was half as long as Riku's forearm, and surprisingly light.
Xion gasped sharply at the sight of it, and tears began to well up in her eyes. No one but her fireflies noticed, however, for everyone was too absorbed with the weapon before them.
It was rather strange. They had expected…more. It was a beautiful weapon, truly, but there was nothing obviously magical about it. Merely an old, well-made knife.
"This is it, then? This is the one?" asked Kairi.
"Oh yes," said Xion breathlessly. "This is it," She reached out a hand toward it timidly, but seemed to change her mind at the last moment, pulling away as if might bite her.
"I say we run for it," said Roxas in low voice. "With trees dense as this, they'll have trouble flying after us."
But it seemed the crows had heard him, for they shifted and clacked their beaks dangerously. Their sharp claws glinted in the moonlight.
Riku began to laugh, loudly and obviously, a stage actors laugh. "Oh, ha ha what a good joke. So funny, aren't you!" he called for the crows to hear. Then he added in a fierce, close whisper to Roxas "Are you crazy? There's over a hundred of them, they'll scratch our eyes out!" He returned to his false laugh, and Kairi and Namine joined in nervously.
Roxas managed a forced grin up at the trees. "Well, you know me, odd sense of humor."
The birds seemed to settle a bit. They knew nothing about human comedy. Humans were much stranger than birds, after all.
"So what do we do, then?" Kairi whispered tensely through a broad smile.
"Follow my lead," said Riku. He turned to the crows, his blank, bored expression back in place. "Well it's a fine weapon, to be sure. But I don't know if it can stand up to modern standards of beauty," he sniffed.
"I quite agree," said Namine, assuming the same unimpressed air as Riku. "It's simply covered in rust. Shoddy maintenance, poor preservation indeed."
"I guess I've lost the wager," said Kairi, nervous yet thrilled to be in on the ruse. "I owe you, then."
It was all Sora could do to keep his face blank. He was no good at things like this, for he was prone to bursting out with laughter at the wrong moment.
Riku held it up to the moonlight, squinting his eyes in a flippant examination, then sighed and gave it a dismissive wave. "Not sure it's worth much more than scrap metal these days, honestly."
Though she knew it was an act, Xion still tensed at seeing her treasured dagger treated so. The crows were not particularly happy about it either, and they shuffled about and clucked to each other in hushed tones, perhaps discussing whether the lord bird should really be held in such high regard after all, if his prized possession was worth so little. The lord crow, for his part, had stiffened, his beady eyes shining unhappily.
"Alright, Mister Crow, I have a proposition for you," said Riku, as he rolled the dagger back up in the old cloth. "My ghostly friend here is rather fond of this hunk of junk, and she would very much like to have it back. Purely sentimental reasons—you know how ghosts are. And I'm sure you'd be relieved to get this thing off your hands—or, wings, rather. What do you think? Mind letting us have it?"
The lord crow clearly did mind, and began cawing fiercely, feathers puffed up in anger enough to make him look twice his size. The surrounding crows beat their wings and squawked in uproar. Some swooped through the air high above in an alarming frenzy.
Riku tensed and grit his teeth at his miscalculation. Roxas hunched in a predatory stance, prepared to take some of the birds down should they attack. Cats were never intimidated by birds.
"It'll be a trade, of course!" Kairi interjected suddenly. "We'll give you something in return!"
The crows were mollified for a moment, willing to hear out the proposal.
"We're going to what?" Riku hissed at her.
"We're going to trade," she insisted. Her smile was beginning to look more like a grimace. "We obviously can't just take something of theirs without giving them something in exchange. Otherwise it would be stealing."
"Ah," was all Riku had to say to that.
"Nobles! Honestly!" Kairi huffed, rolling her eyes in exasperation. "Alright, everyone look for something we can give them."
They all shuffled through the things they had brought as quickly as they could. Xion, being a ghost, had nothing, of course. Roxas had nothing, either, for he never carried anything as a cat. Sora had the keys to his apartment and bike lock, some pocket lint, and a packet of gum. Besides her lantern and extra socks, Namine had brought an apple, matches, a notebook, and a pencil. Kairi's bag contained a pair of scissors, a spool of thread, some of her cleaning spray, the towel she had lent to Riku, and some bandages. Riku had only his knife, a water canteen, and a pocket watch.
The obvious choices were between Riku's knife and pocket watch. Which, unfortunately, he was quite unwilling to give up.
"What about Miss Kairi's scissors? They're shiny enough. We'll just tell them they're extremely valuable." But the scissors were well-used and slightly tarnished, and didn't look worth much of anything.
"Come on, Riku, what's it gonna be? The knife or the watch? The fate of the world depends on it," said Sora.
"It does not, stop saying that." Riku sighed, looking between his two possessions regretfully. The knife had once belonged to his father, and though the knife itself was not worth much, it was still beautiful from constant, meticulous care. The watch had been a gift from his uncle for his birthday last year, the customary gift when one turned sixteen. It was much more valuable than the rusted dagger, and engraved dragons gleamed smartly on both sides of the silver case. He flicked it open to look at its face, then closed it again with an annoyed sigh. It was an easy choice, really.
He turned to back to the expectant crows. "In exchange for this decrepit old dagger, I offer you instead this priceless silver pocket watch, engraved with a dragon, the emblem of the Jenova family," he declared. He held the watch up for the crows to see, and they all shifted to get a better view of it. "It is sturdy and shiny, and set to the exact time, not a second off. This is a one-time opportunity. I suggest you take it."
The lord crow looked down at him imperiously, then gave a sharp, affirmative caw. His servants dutifully swooped down and snatched the watch from his outstretched hand.
And with that, the bargain was done. The pocket watch for the dagger, both sides feeling as if they'd gotten the better deal. The crows were in an uproar of excitement, as loud as a storm, their beating wings tumultuous thunderclaps, their screeches cracks of lightning.
"My uncle is going to kill me when he finds out what happened to that watch," Riku groaned.
"So don't tell him, then," snorted Sora.
"He'll find out somehow. He always finds out." Riku shook his head in resignation.
They left the crows' racket behind them, eager to be off in case the crows decided to change their mind and come clawing out their eyes.
"Well, let's see it, then," said Sora once they had put enough distance between them and the birds.
Riku pulled it out and uncovered it, and they all peered down at their prize.
"It's here, it's really here," said Xion. "I can't believe you got it back. I don't know how I can ever repay you. Thank you so much!" She reached out once again, but was still hesitant to touch it.
"Will you let us take it? We need it to fight Xehanort, you know," said Roxas.
"The man with no eyebrows, yes, you said earlier." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she was smiling. "Yes, you have my blessing. I would much rather people like you have it and use it for good than let it sit on display in that dreadful nest. It's meant to protect, and that's how it should be used."
"Thank you," said Sora, with a kind smile.
"I can polish it up a bit," said Kairi. She took out her polish spray and hand towel. A few quick spritzes and some careful scrubbing cleaned away the dirt and most of the tarnish, and it gleamed brilliantly in her hands, as good a new.
"I wanna hold it!" said Sora, as giddy as a child with a new toy. Kairi warned him to be careful before she handed it over, and he nodded eagerly.
Once in his hands, however, it began to glow, a faint, golden light that exactly matched the one surrounding Xion. Kairi made a noise of surprise, and everyone's eyes widened. The fireflies around them whizzed about in a flurry. Sora looked down at the dagger with bewilderment. It certainly looked more like a magic dagger now.
"What's happening?" asked Roxas, alarmed. "Why does it glow when he holds it?"
Xion smiled and stepped toward Sora, her ghostly feet soundless on the grass. She reached a hand out to touch his cheek.
"I thought so," she said. "The fireflies don't respond like that to just anyone. And now my dagger is greeting you, too. You're like me, aren't you? Pure of heart."
Sora looked up, surprised. "Am I? I didn't know."
"Definitely. I can feel it, your warm light. So does the dagger. Sometimes people are just born pure of heart, an anomaly of goodness. You can't help it, and you can't change it. It's who you are."
Sora frowned, confused, but she only smiled back, chuckling at his expression.
"That dagger has a name, you know. I called it Oathkeeper when it was first given to me, all those years ago," said Xion.
"Oathkeeper," he repeated, testing the name on his tongue. It fit well, he thought, as he looked at it glowing in his grasp.
"I'm glad I met you all," said Xion, looking back at everyone. "Especially you, Sora. It wouldn't feel right leaving Oathkeeper with anyone less worthy."
"Who says I'm worthy?" he asked quietly.
"The blade does. The glow means she's calling you. Oathkeeper has chosen you for your pure heart."
For the first time in quite a while, Sora was absolutely speechless.
"I think it's time for me to go," said Xion, with a tone of deep emotion. "I've been bound to this earth far longer than I wanted to be. And now that a worthy wielder has claimed my Oathkeeper, I think it's time I moved on."
Once again, Xion reached her hand toward her dagger, and finally placed her palm over the engraved hilt, allowing herself to touch it at last. And then, before their eyes, she began to disintegrate, fading away like glitter dissolving in water.
Roxas cried out at the suddenness of it, and Kairi gasped in horror. Riku and Namine were equally silent but wide-eyed. Sora met her lingering gaze, saw both the infinite sadness and the limitless joy in her being, set free at last now that the dagger had been reclaimed.
"Thank you," she said, her voice echoing like a choir of bells, resonating deeply within her forest.
Sora gave her a firm nod, answering her unspoken request to take care of her dearest possession.
And with that, Xion was gone, reunited with Faris at last.
The fireflies swirled around them like tiny fireworks, wild with the light overwhelming their senses.
"Fireflies, could you please take us home now?" Sora asked, suddenly weary.
And, eager to please and elated by the rush of light that had just passed, they did.