Sora gasped.

After a few moments, when the adrenaline had finished coursing its way through his body, he stood. He planted his hands on his knees, the hairs on the back of his neck standing, and peered cautiously over the edge of the dock. There it was at the bottom, rolling back and forth in the gentle currents that were invisible in the clear water, and it was only a fishing pole after all.

He kept his eye fixed upon it, as if it might suddenly change into a water snake, or something worse, but his intent gaze faltered when he heard footsteps on the planks behind him. He looked over his shoulder, his body still angled toward the water.

Kairi smiled at him, breaking the spell that held him wary and frozen. The afternoon sun was a sudden warm weight on his shoulders and the top of his head, and the ocean breeze rustled his clothes and his hair. He smiled back, and looked beyond her for Riku.

"He's coming," she said. She waved her fishing pole in the air and looked quizzically at him. "I thought we were fishing."

"Oh," said Sora. "Yeah." He leaned out over the water again, and Kairi followed his gaze.

"What's the matter, kitty? Don't want to get wet?" She laughed, already toeing off her shoes. She hopped in the warm water. It was deep enough to cover her knees, and Sora watched her worm her toes under his fishing pole. She raised her knee, balancing, and plucked the pole from its perch on her foot. Her clothing was perfectly dry.

"Who's the scaredy-cat now?" he teased. With his own bare foot he splashed her, but only a little.

She scolded him, laughing, and whacked him with his own fishing pole, but it was too warm for an extended squabble. He reached down and took her wet hand in his, helping her back onto the dock.

They sat together, feet dangling in the water. They looked out over the waves, as they had so many times before, and Sora felt so content that by the time Riku joined them he'd nearly forgotten what had happened just before Kairi arrived.

The fishing pole was dark green in color, and glittered blue in bright sunlight. It had been a gift from his father the first, strange summer after his return to Destiny Islands.

After defeating Organization XIII and returning home, they had spent the first night on the beach. They had talked for hours, side by side in the sand, the flickering light of the bonfire they built playing across their faces and their clothes. Later, they slept, the sound of the ocean their lullaby. There was no question of returning to their homes that night; they had been too long in struggle to resist celebration.

The next morning, King Mickey, Donald, and Goofy had departed, and Sora felt just as he had leaving Twilight Town for the first time, although at least this time he understood why. He didn't know if he would ever see his comrades again, and it didn't help knowing that for the sake of all the worlds he should hope that he wouldn't. The sound of Donald scolding Goofy through the door in the secret place left tears streaked down Sora's face.

The rest of that humid day they had spent lazing around on the island. Sora had forgotten how the sand clung to damp skin, but he wasn't annoyed: the gritty sensation told him he was home. They dozed on the beach, for they were still tired, and when Kairi said she was hungry, Sora shimmied up a tree and tossed down a coconut for each of them.

But the day had waned at last, and they watched the sunset together, all three sharing a paopu fruit Riku had picked. Sora didn't need the fruit to tell him his destiny would be entwined with Riku and Kairi's, but it tasted good anyway.

"Well, what do you think? Time to go home?" Riku had said, after they had licked the last of the sticky red juice from their fingers.

Sora nodded, and Kairi looked at each of them. "Tomorrow?" she said.

"Every day," Sora said, remembering.

Once they had rowed across the waters that separated their island from the much larger one where the town was, they parted ways. Sora walked toward his home under the darkening sky, looking up at the familiar stars as he went. The sunburn on his face throbbed pleasantly. He felt happy and tired, and entered his house without a second thought. His parents sat on stools in the kitchen, sipping at mugs of hot tea. They looked up at the sound of his footsteps, and Sora froze. Their expressions were startled; he saw in their eyes that a stranger had just walked into their home, that they did not know him.

An eternity seemed to go by, but later Sora realized it had lasted only a few moments. His mother put down her mug, and said, "Well, Sora, how did you like camp?"

He was slow to reply, entranced by the puzzled look on his father's face. Only when it faded did he remember he'd been asked a question. How long had he been gone? It felt to him like mere months, but his parents looked older than he remembered; there was gray in his father's hair, and a deep frown line between his mother's eyebrows. Something was subtly wrong with the kitchen, and it took him a moment to realize that he was viewing it from a different perspective; he really was taller. He wondered suddenly just how long he'd been asleep in Twilight Town.

And he didn't understand why his parents seemed to think he'd been at camp. Was it the Keyblade, smoothing his transition back into the life it had plucked him out of? Had it done something similar when he'd left? It was possible; Sora still didn't know everything the Keyblade was capable of. Had it touched the minds of his parents, preventing them from noticing his disappearance or questioning his extended absence?

When had they started remembering him again? A month ago, or when he'd walked in the door a few moments ago?

"Uh, it was fine," he said when he remembered he'd been asked a question. Both of his parents smiled, and he realized suddenly that he hadn't thought of them once during his absence from Destiny Islands. He had never wondered what they made of his disappearance, what they were doing without him, or if they missed him. The wistful look they each bore told him that they had, and he saw suddenly where he got his smile: from his father, and where the brilliant blue of his eyes came from: his mother. And then he saw that those blue eyes were shining with tears.

"Mom," he said, horrified.

"I'm sorry," she said. Sora watched her swipe at her face with her arm, and knew that the movement was another trait he had inherited. How many times had he wiped tears away exactly as she had just done in the last few months? "I'm being silly. It's only been a month."

His father put his arm around her. She sniffed, tried to smile, and then sobbed again, loudly.

"Mom, it's okay," Sora said, and moved toward her. Something moved inside him, too, a kind of reluctance, but he ignored it. He owed her.

Sora hugged his mother. He knew how to do it—Tron had taught him—and she clung to him and stroked his hair. He stood like a block of wood in her embrace, waiting for her to let go. He knew it shouldn't be this way, but put it down to stress and exhaustion.

"Do you want some tea, honey?" his mother said, and released him.

He made a face. "Hot tea? In this weather? Ugh." It was an old joke.

His mother laughed. After a moment he smiled, and as he looked at his parents, he resolved to do better by them. He'd make sure to spend time with them, get to know them. Maybe his father would take him fishing the way he had when Sora had been very little. If he didn't have room in his heart for more people than Riku and Kairi, then he didn't deserve to have friends at all.

Sora was exhausted, and he went to bed thinking only of sleep, not knowing that the disquieting reunion with his parents was only the first and least of the trials he would face over his next three years on Destiny Islands.

The first hint of Sora's second ordeal had come on the hottest day of the year. On very warm days they spent their time at the fountain on the island; the sun made even swimming in the ocean too exhausting. But the fountain's water was cool, and the clubhouse and the plants growing nearby shaded it. They sat side by side, backs against the rough stone of the fountain's edging. The water came up to Sora's neck. It was extremely comfortable.

Kairi sighed, and said, "Only two more weeks."

Sora's eyes were closed. "Until what?"

"School, silly."

On Kairi's other side, Riku groaned. Sora was sleepy, and it took a few seconds for her words to register. His eyes snapped open.

"School? What d'you mean, school?"

She gave a sleepy giggle.

Sora met Riku's gaze, and he could see that his friend was just as dismayed as he was. He nudged her with his elbow. "Uh, Kairi?"

She opened her eyes halfway, and peered at him from the corner of her eye with amusement. But then she saw his face, and relented. "It'll be okay. I'll help you catch up."

And she did. Despite her help, most of the first school year was torture, an awful and humiliating experience. His teachers clearly thought he was slow, and in more than one class he was set to remedial work, covering material that was entirely new to him. It was frustrating, in part because he had never had trouble with school before, even if he hadn't ever been the world's brightest or most enthusiastic student. The thought that the whole endeavor was pointless came to him frequently, but it was not helpful, nor were his slight feelings of disbelief that he was actually expected to attend school after all he had done.

He spent hours with Riku and Kairi, studying and trying to learn the language and math skills he had missed. Kairi hadn't missed even one day of school during her absence, so she was a valuable tutor, but Riku was in the same boat he was, which was the only tolerable thing about it at all. It was a shock to both of them when Kairi estimated that they had missed two whole years of school.

They did see each other daily, as they had promised, but spending that time buried in homework was not the 'every day' Sora had imagined. And though he had no real interest in schoolwork, it was still embarrassing to have to ask Kairi for help, and he knew that if he'd had any other choice he would have hidden his school-related woes from her.

There was one trouble, however, that he did keep from her.

It began with a particularly difficult study session. Sora was having problems with trigonometry, and by the time he had finished the homework set it was very late and he was in a dark, frustrated mood. He said goodbye to Riku and Kairi as soon as he had solved the last, most horrendous exercise, claiming the lateness of the hour. Normally they spent at least a little time after homework chatting and relaxing, but Sora was barely holding onto his temper at that point and thought only of being alone.

Winter had arrived, finally, and the weather had turned. The air was cool and moist. It rained every day in the afternoon as well as most nights, and Sora walked home in the dark under a light drizzle.

He stopped and turned his face to the featureless sky, letting the water bead on his skin. His thoughts strayed to Donald and Goofy. He wondered what they were doing, and all at once he missed them so fiercely that it was like a hand was squeezing his heart. He sat down on the wet sand and rubbed wearily at his face.

He felt horribly out of place, and knew without a doubt that if someone presented him with the choice between living peacefully on Destiny Islands and the terrible dangers he had endured for Kingdom Hearts, he would be out traveling the worlds with Donald and Goofy again, no questions asked. All the time he had been gone he had longed for this place, this life, and now that he had it he hated it.

He hated the excruciating, boring struggle with school. He hated the lack of the freedom he had once enjoyed, and most of all he hated being an ordinary kid. The Keyblade had chosen him, had told him for the first time in his life that he was special, that he wasn't an average child, and he had saved the world—twice!—and it meant nothing. It was all over.

Maybe he just needed reminding. Summoning the Keyblade had become as natural to him as breathing, and he reached out with his hand, imagining danger.

Nothing happened.

Sora let his hand fall to his side, and it was many minutes before he found the strength to rise from the sand and make his solitary way home.

It was the beginning of the darkest year of his life.

Sora had once told Riku that the darkness had gotten to him, but he'd had no idea then how bad it really was. He knew that the vast, sweeping depression that settled over him was a product of that darkness, but the knowledge didn't help.

He fought the despair as best he could, all the while trying to keep it from Kairi. The guilt he felt over hating his restored life was enough to prevent him from saying anything to her. Her disappointment wasn't something he thought he could bear, so he put his best face on when he was with her, and tried not to think too hard about whether she'd noticed anything wrong.

If Kairi noticed, he didn't know of it, but Riku was not fooled.

One evening after they had walked Kairi home, he said, "You want to talk about it?"

"Huh?" said Sora. "What d'you mean?"

"Whatever's wrong with you is what I mean."

He stopped and gaped at Riku. Then he turned away and continued walking. "Nothing's wrong."

His friend gave a snort that meant he was being particularly pigheaded. "You're a bad liar, Sora."

He kept going, his heart beating too fast, feeling a vague threat that he didn't understand. Then he forced himself to stop walking. Riku's footsteps slowed, then halted.

"Don't tell her," Sora said.

"Don't tell her what?"

"I..." Behind him, there was silence. He took a deep breath. "Sometimes I wish I wasn't here."

His friend said nothing, and finally Sora sighed and turned around. He kept his eyes on the sand at his feet.

"And the Keyblade..." He trailed off, not even wanting to say it. Instead he reached out his hand and called, demonstrating what he couldn't put into words. After a moment he made a useless gesture and let his hand fall to his side.

Still Riku was silent, and after a few more moments Sora met his gaze. His friend's face didn't show the anger he'd feared, but something like understanding.

All he said was: "Want to go down to the water?"

They turned and trekked down the beach. They sat and watched the moon silver the waves and listened to the sound they made as they washed onto the beach. It was eerily like the short time they had spent in the realm of darkness, and he wondered if that was why Riku had wanted to come down to the ocean's edge.

"Do you miss it?" Sora asked.

Riku took some time in replying. "No. Not after what I went through. But I get why you do."

After that, there was nothing else said, but things were a little easier afterward, just because Riku knew, and didn't think less of him for it.

Eventually, things got better. It was a long, slow process, though, and there were many days he would have chosen not to see his friends if he hadn't made a vow that he would.

School became easier after a time, and while he never grew to enjoy it, his marks improved, and after a while he was even grateful for the work. It filled the time and distracted him from his inner darkness.

He spent time with his parents, following through on his resolution to get to know them better, and found that days fishing with his father were some of the days he enjoyed most. They spent many quiet hours sitting side by side with their backs against palm trees, not caring whether they caught anything. Even when the fish did bite, they threw them back and cast out their lines again. They didn't talk much, but the look of quiet happiness on his father's face when they were together grew to mean more than all the conversation in the world.

Sora's mother was more difficult, if only because they seemed to have little in common. Eventually he figured out that if he pestered her to let him help her with cooking, she smiled, and when he really did try to help her, the frown line between her eyebrows relaxed. She laughed at his utter incompetence in the kitchen, and after a while he began to enjoy the cooking sessions. Eventually he realized that he did love his parents after all, and something inside him eased.

But it was Kairi who dealt the finishing blow to his depression. Even in the beginning, in the darkest times he had ever experienced, life seemed a little more bearable when he was with her. At first he thought it was simply because she was a Princess of Heart, that her very nature caused the darkness to flee, but as time went on he came to understand that it was because he loved her. He always had, and still did, even on the most difficult days, the ones where he felt like he could disappear and not mind. Not in a gushy romantic way, but because she was Kairi, and his friend, and she'd do anything for him. And he knew he'd do anything for her.

But he didn't tell her that, mostly because he thought she already knew.

It was an average day, one of the second summer since he had returned, and nothing he could think of later should have made it different than any other day. They swam, as they often did, she and Sora and Riku, and then crawled up onto the beach. At least, Sora crawled, because he liked it when she called him lazy. She obliged, and kicked sand on him, and he looked up at her standing over him, her auburn hair wet and hanging in clumps around her face. He realized he was happy, and it felt like the sun coming out again after a long absence.

By his third summer, the summer he turned seventeen, the thought of leaving the Islands was unthinkable. His adventures with Donald and Goofy, when he thought of them, seemed like events from someone else's life, like a movie he had seen once when he was a child.

And on one particular day, a day he and his friends had agreed to spend fishing together, the sudden weight of the Keyblade in his hand instead of his fishing pole caused him to drop it into the water, and waves of shock crashed over him again and again, like storm-whipped ocean waves breaking onto the beach.

That evening, after he and Riku walked Kairi home, he trekked slowly over the beach toward his own home. The moon was half full and the sky cloudless; Sora watched his shadow ripple over the sand as he walked. Summer was still young and the warmth of the day had fled with the sun; it was chilly. Perhaps that was why the sky seemed so dark, even with the moon shining so brightly from the west.

He hummed to himself as he walked, glad that school was over for the year. One more year left, but that subject only merited a glancing thought. Instead he looked forward to the months just ahead, the hot, lazy days and warm nights.

When he reached his house he let himself in and poured a glass of cold water from the tap. His parents were asleep and the lights were out, but he knew the house too well to need any. He stood at the sink, drinking thirstily, and filled the glass again before climbing the stairs to his room.

Here he did light a lamp, and the yellow light it gave revealed clothing and other odds and ends scattered over the bed and across the floor. Sora took another sip of water and eyed the mess. He'd have to do something about it, but not tonight. He set the water on the nightstand and sat on the bed.

Sighing, he bent and took off his shoes. He shook the sand out of them and tossed them aside before sitting up enough to lean an elbow on his knee and cup his chin in his hand. It was late, and he yawned.

Idly, he simply sat, thinking sleepily of nothing in particular. It had been a good day, as all of them had been lately, and contentment stole over him again. Without really realizing it, he found himself thinking of the shock he had suffered that afternoon before Kairi joined him on the dock. Of course, he had imagined it, had dismissed it as nothing just moments later, but still he turned it over in his head. For just a moment, he let himself consider the possibility that it might have been real, that something more was happening, but the mere thought was so surprisingly painful that he dropped it at once. His mind had played a trick on him, that was all, had presented him with some kind of flashback. Perhaps it had been the last, dying twitch of the darkness that had held him in thrall for so long.

That seemed a reasonable explanation. He didn't know why it would happen so long after his life had returned to normal, but it didn't matter.

He tilted his chin and glanced down at his free hand. His sleepiness had vanished, and he noticed that the hairs on his arms were trying to rise. Slowly, he realized that he wouldn't be able to sleep if he went to bed now.

A strange feeling stole over him. Sora cleared his throat uncomfortably and swallowed. His throat was dry, and the feeling inside him was quiet dread. He closed his eyes, telling himself he was the stupidest person alive, but the scared feeling didn't go away.

Just do it, he told himself.

Sora opened his eyes, his gaze snapping onto his free hand. He stared at his fingers until he hardly recognized them as part of himself, and watched as they flexed slowly into position. It didn't feel exactly the way he remembered, but that was all right.

His gaze left his hand and he stared at the wall of his bedroom, eyes unfocused and unseeing. Danger, he thought, and tried to summon the memory of a Heartless. He could see in his mind's eye the matte black of a hide, the yellow glow of eyes. Antennae. Like something out of a slightly stupid nightmare.

The constructed memory moved in his mind, a clumsy, comical hop. And he knew at once, knew without looking, because he could feel the weight of it on the end of his arm and the smooth grip in his hand. Sora closed his eyes, every muscle in his body taut, and the arm that no longer seemed part of him was dragged slowly down under the weight it bore, until the tip of the Keyblade touched the carpet and came to rest.

How long he spent sitting there with his eyes squeezed tightly shut he never knew, but it was long enough for his racing heartbeat to slow and for his ragged breathing to even. After he felt calmer he opened his eyes and looked again at the wall. He could still feel the Keyblade in his now-sweaty grip. Slowly, reluctantly, he turned his eyes down to look at it.

It was much as he remembered, though longer. The blunt teeth of the thing looked deceptively harmless, and the grip was as blocky as ever, fitted perfectly to his hand. The keychain coiled around his wrist, a flat piece of silver fashioned into the king's symbol. He turned his hand until the chain fell away. It chimed, and he dropped the whole thing all at once and shot to his feet. The Keyblade made a soft thumping sound as it hit the carpet.

Sora stared down at it, stiff from sitting motionless for so long. He was shaking, a slow, uncontrollable shuddering that clicked his teeth together.

"I don't want you," he told the thing on the floor. "Leave me alone."

He fumbled his way into his bed, not concerned this evening with pajamas. He turned off the lamp on his nightstand, and rubbed his face. It was wet.

Sora woke slowly, not sprawled over the entirety of his bed as was usual, but very firmly on his side, facing the wall. He yawned hugely and stretched; every muscle in his body felt stiff and heavy, as if he hadn't moved at all during the night. He rolled over, sat up, and reached for the glass of water on his nightstand. As he did so, he glanced at the floor. There was nothing on it apart from dirty clothing.

Unfortunately, the moment he remembered what he had been expecting to see there was the same moment his hand touched the glass; he bumped it and sent it flying. Even as its contents began to spill out of it, his other hand reached out and plucked the glass out of the air. Water sloshed over the rim and fell to the floor to pool on the carpet.

He stared at his hand as if it didn't belong to him for a moment, then drank and set the glass aside.

At this early hour he was too sleepy to feel any of the terrible dread of the evening before. Instead, he felt grim and worn down. He had to make another test, just so he would know he hadn't dreamed it, and then he would be able to decide what, if anything, to do about it. He summoned the Keyblade. It came to his hand immediately and he grimaced.

He leaned his elbows on his knees and tapped the tip of the Keyblade on the floor as he thought. Clearly there was some threat to Kingdom Hearts that required the skills of the Keyblade master. But why did it have to be him? He'd saved the world—all the worlds—more than once. Couldn't that be enough? The Keyblade granted its power to whomever it chose; Sora knew he wasn't naturally blessed with near-inhuman reflexes. He wasn't anyone special, not really, and if he'd done things in the past that others couldn't, it was only through the virtue of the Keyblade.

He wondered what would happen if he simply refused to go. Surely it would find another bearer. He couldn't possibly be the only suitable person in Kingdom Hearts.

"Pick somebody else," he said.

It didn't respond.

Sora spent most of the next two weeks with his hands in his pockets. He was well aware of the Keyblade's ability to simply appear in his hand, unasked for, and he worried that it would happen in public where he wouldn't be able to easily explain it away. What terrified him, though, was that it might show itself in front of Riku and Kairi.

Determined to keep the cat in the bag, he became very careful about what they did together. He couldn't avoid them completely—nothing would make him break that promise, nor did he want to—but he did cut their excursions short during those first, stressful days, when he didn't know how things were going to pan out. He begged off fishing, as it would simply be asking for trouble, and swimming as well until he could buy a pair of trunks with pockets.

Sora knew he was acting strangely, and that his friends had noticed, but he had no attention to spare for trying to act normal. They could wonder all they wanted, but he didn't care in the least as long as they didn't know what was really going on.

The Keyblade haunted him. For the first few days it came to him once or twice a day, but luckily only when he was alone. The fourth day, when he woke up, the Keyblade was in his hand, the blade resting on his chest like a sleeping cat. He started horribly and flung it away from him; it hit his dresser before disappearing.

Sora rolled out of bed fluidly, worrying about dents in the wood of his dresser and what his mother would say. Crouching, he ran his fingers over the finish. There was a tiny chip out of one of the drawers, but he doubted she would notice.

His scalp itched. He raised his hand to scratch his head and hit himself with the Keyblade.

"Ow," he muttered, and dropped it. He stood still in the center of his room for a moment, but nothing else happened, so he dressed and went downstairs in search of food.

One of Sora's favorite pastimes was standing for minutes on end in front of an open refrigerator. It was a habit that never failed to annoy his mother, and this morning was no exception.

"Sora." Her exasperated voice floated through the doorway that led to the living room.

"There's nothing to eat," he called over his shoulder, even though it wasn't true.

"I just went grocery shopping yesterday," she groused.

"Ew, what's this green stuff?"

"It's hummus, dear." Her voice held a definite tone of amusement.

"Mom," he said indignantly. "I can't eat that!"

"Honestly, Sora." He heard her get up from her chair. "Well, I suppose I might go into Coventry. If you want to come we can get breakfast."

"Awesome," he said, and shut the fridge door.

The Keyblade appeared in his hand. Sora froze.

In the next room he could hear his mother moving about. She was talking, saying something about picky eaters, but it was as though she was at the other end of a long tunnel, or underwater: he could hardly hear her. Her keys jingled, and he realized with horror that in seconds she would emerge from the living room and enter the kitchen. Quickly he dropped the Keyblade. Just as quickly, he realized that if it didn't vanish as it fell it would make a horrible clatter on the hardwood floor that he wouldn't be able to explain. The instant before it hit the floor his reflexes took over.

His foot shot out with preternatural speed and the Keyblade landed on it. It balanced there for a split second and then he gave a little kick and it came up flipping. He snatched it out of the air and looked around wildly. His mother's voice was closer but it was only a backdrop to the sound of blood rushing in his ears.

Out of time, with nothing else to do, he whirled toward the living room and hid the Keyblade behind his back. His mother came into the kitchen a moment later and gave him an odd look.

"Sora? You feeling okay?"

"I don't know," he managed to say.

"You look flushed." Frowning, she walked over to him and reached up to feel his forehead. "Hm. A little warm."

"I guess I'm not feeling so good," he said.

"Well, Coventry's out, then." She looked disappointed. "Want me to make you some soup?"

He shook his head. "Think I'll go back to bed. You go on, Mom. Have fun."

"Well, if you're sure."

Sora nodded desperately. His mother gave him a final concerned look, but left him alone in the kitchen. As soon as the front door closed behind her he sagged and closed his eyes. He exhaled deeply.

Slowly he brought the Keyblade out from behind him. Cold anger filled him as he looked at it, and when he spoke to it his voice was hard and fierce.

"I won't do it. I'm staying here and that's it."

He dropped it. It fell a few inches before vanishing and immediately reappeared in his hand. Sora let it fall again, with the same result. He tried again, and again, and again, until he was so furious the Keyblade was only a blurry gleam of silver and gold.

"No!" he roared, and swung the Keyblade with all his might. It hit the metal handle of the oven, recoiled, and bounced off the side of the refrigerator before hitting the floor. Panting, Sora advanced on it and kicked it as hard as he could. It skidded across the wooden floor and struck the baseboards under the sink.

He stood over it, his hands clenched into fists, and watched as it did something it had never done before. Instead of simply vanishing, it dissolved slowly, and several seconds passed before he couldn't see it anymore.

Stiffly, he turned and marched upstairs to collect his shoes. It was over, and he wanted to see Riku and Kairi.

The dent in the handle of the oven and his flat refusal to explain how it had happened meant a week's grounding, but Sora didn't care. The Keyblade had stopped plaguing him.

His days of confinement passed with little to do except think and wait for nightfall, when he could climb out of his window and fulfill his vow to his friends. Unwillingly, he dwelled on the Keyblade and the quest he had declined. It bothered him, now that his wild fury had left him, and he wondered if he had done the right thing. He was sure the Keyblade would find someone else, but he found that he felt guilty about that too, that some innocent would have to take his place and battle darkness. He knew, now, how dangerous to the heart fighting darkness could be.

These guilty feelings were not easy to bear, but when he thought of all he had already sacrificed for Kingdom Hearts, all the suffering he had endured because of it, and what it would have cost him to accept the burden of the Keyblade again, a spark of anger still bloomed inside him. It carried him through the tedious hours until he was allowed out of the house again.

Finally, after seven long days, he had free run of the Islands once more. The next three days he spent carelessly, relieved just to be out of the house legitimately, but by the fourth day he found himself bored, restless, and brooding over the Keyblade again. To alleviate these feelings he bought ice cream and shared it with Riku and Kairi. He watched them as they ate, reminding himself that if he hadn't acted as he had, he would not be sitting with his two best friends eating ice cream. Somehow, though, it didn't taste as good as it usually did.

That night he had trouble sleeping. He stared at his ceiling for hours, fingers laced behind his head. It was nearly two in the morning when he glanced at his clock, and he sighed.

What had been the point of fighting so hard to stay with his friends if he couldn't even enjoy their company after he had won? It was so stupid. Was it so wrong of him to want to preserve the life he had finally begun to enjoy again?

The answer came immediately, from his heart. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.

The Keyblade hadn't stopped haunting him because he'd forced it: it had stopped because he didn't deserve to wield it anymore. He'd cherished his anger, nurtured it, and worst of all he had been selfish. He'd only thought about his own wants, his own perceived needs. He'd thought he'd escaped the darkness, that it had been an external pressure on his life that he had no control over, but he understood now that he had welcomed it with arms wide open.

There wasn't really anything he could do to make amends, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to feel better about it until he told Riku and Kairi everything. He dreaded their reactions to his story—he knew how seriously they would take this, especially Kairi—but he had no choice. His conscience could only be soothed through confession.

Once the matter was decided, he rolled over and closed his eyes. Sleep came within seconds.

Sora slept deeply. He dreamed of battle.

Swarms of Heartless danced toward him and gleaming Nobodies streaked and whirled among them, but they were nothing and he hardly noticed them. Riku's ringing laugh sounded from somewhere unseen, and Sora raised his arm to give a shouted greeting. Kairi's fingers were twined in his own, and she stepped close to him as the height of their hands became too high for her to reach easily. Riku was warding them, so there was time to frame Kairi's beautiful face with his gloved hands and kiss her. It was a brief and perfect kiss, one he had been waiting to give her almost his whole life, but the Keyblade was calling him, and he couldn't linger. It was calling him...

His alarm clock was buzzing. Still in the grip of his dream, he reached out and picked it up, testing the weight of it. It felt strange, and he peered at it as though he had never seen it before. After a moment he realized he was awake, and slid a finger along the clock to push the button that would silence it. Checking the time, he saw that it had been ringing for well over an hour.

Sora sat up. Kairi's face swam before his vision. Soberly, he drank from the glass of water on his nightstand. His dream had shown him in no uncertain terms the reality of his feelings for her, but this realization was a bleak one considering the consequences of what he would soon do.

But the time for lies was over. If he had destroyed his friendship with Kairi, his chances for something more with her, it was his own fault and he would accept it. It would be a terrible penance, but not an undeserved one.

Slowly, he rose from his bed and dressed. He walked down the stairs and through the kitchen and outside, ignoring the curious queries of his parents.

It was late morning, and the sky was very blue. Wisps of clouds drifted far above him, and the wind was brisk and cool. It was strange weather for the summer season, but Sora didn't notice. He stared at the sand as he walked toward the seaside shack. Riku and Kairi would be there, waiting for him to arrive so they could make plans for the day.

He stood outside the wooden door for a moment, rubbing his hands down his chilly arms. The quiet voices of his friends seeped through the door, and finally he sighed and pushed it open.

"I've got something to tell you guys," he said as he shut the door behind him. He turned, opening his mouth to speak. His friends looked at him.

Sora's world fractured. The tears rolling down Kairi's face would have been enough to stun him, were they the only wrong aspect of the scene before him, but they weren't. In an instant everything he had known turned upside down, and the shock of it held him paralyzed for several seconds.

"Uh," he said.

Kairi's eyes widened. Sora tore his gaze from her; it glanced off Riku before resting on the wooden wall of the room. Then he turned back to the door.

"Sora! Wait!" Kairi's anguished cry followed him out of the seaside shack. He closed the door behind him, gently, and stared unseeing at the sea.

Over and over he saw their faces turn toward him, guilt blooming on his face, horror on hers, and Riku's hand falling away from her cheek, his arm from around her, an awkward gesture that came far too late.

He shook his head, dispelling the terrible vision of his best friend preparing to kiss the girl Sora loved, and slipped around the side of the shack. Someone would be coming after him, and he didn't want to be found.

Most of the rest of that day he spent hidden in a tangle of brush on the northernmost edge of the island. This spit of land was wilder than the rest of the island; completely undeveloped, and he fought his way to the center of the thicket of large overgrown bushes. There he lay on his back and watched the wind ruffle the leaves of the palm trees above him.

Solitude provided him time and space for thinking, but instead he slipped into a light, troubled sleep. Sometime later he awoke, and the quality of light was so changed that he knew most of the day was gone. Sunset would soon arrive.

The events of the morning seemed less shocking to him now, though no less painful. He couldn't blame Kairi. Certainly Riku was a far more natural choice for her than himself; he was taller than Sora, better looking, and superior in almost every endeavor. And Sora had never made his intentions clear, had never even fully admitted them to himself. He couldn't blame her, not when he hadn't even tried to tell her how he felt.

But part of him had always thought that telling her wasn't necessary, that she knew and reciprocated, that at some point things would just fall into place naturally, without effort on either side. Any other possibility had been inconceivable, and now he saw the stupidity of that way of thinking. He'd taken her for granted, had played a lazy game, and had lost.

Riku wasn't really to blame either, even though he certainly knew what Sora's feelings for Kairi were: the guilt splashed over his face was proof of it. But who wouldn't love Kairi? Perhaps Riku had waited without hope for a very long time, hiding his own feelings in deference to Sora's. Worse was the thought that Kairi might have waited for a long time as well, but had finally given up on him and turned to Riku.

In any case, what was done was done. Knowing what he did now, he wished fleetingly that he had not alienated the Keyblade. If he hadn't, he would have been able to leave this place and his disappointment behind him. Once again, he had proved his own worst enemy, this time through inaction.

Now he had to live with his mistakes, but he would strive not to make any more. Life without Riku and Kairi, however he felt about their private relationship, would be empty. Spending the rest of his life in their shadow was still preferable to spending it without them. He should find them and ease their minds.

Sora rose from his bed of sand and grasses, stretching. He felt drained and unhappy, not at all pleased with events, but purpose sustained him. If they were not at the shack he would venture to all of their haunts, would spend all evening searching for them if he must.

The setting sun splashed its red light everywhere as he walked. The sand glowed with color, nearly blinding him, and he stepped into the shade of the shack with relief. He let his eyes adjust and stepped through the door.

Within, Riku waited for him, slouched low in a chair. Kairi was not in evidence. At his entrance, Riku looked up at him, clearly annoyed. He must have been waiting there all day while Sora slept in seclusion. He sat down and they looked at each other.

"I'm sorry," Sora said without preamble.

Riku gave him a long look. "You should be."

"I was surprised, I guess." He paused. "You could've told me."

"Told you what?"

Grimacing, Sora gestured. "About Kairi."

His friend stared at him, then looked away. "Yeah? I saw your face this morning. I'm sure telling you would've been a great idea." He scuffed his shoe along the floor and folded his arms. "I didn't want you to know," he muttered. "Ever."

He wasn't sure how Riku had thought he could have kept it from him. "I'm not mad." As he said it he knew it was really true. His hand tingled; surprised, he looked down. It was empty. What was happening? His mind began to race, and it was a few moments before he realized Riku had spoken.

"Huh?" he said.

"I asked you if you had any idea how much you've hurt her."

"What? Hurt who?" He stared at Riku in astonishment. "Kairi?"

The look his friend gave him could have peeled paint. "Did you even notice she was crying?"

"I was sort of distracted," Sora pointed out. "I'll find her, apologize. She's okay, right?" His hand positively vibrated, and he hardly heard Riku tell him she wasn't, not really. Excitement was rising in him. He thought he knew what was happening.

"Sora," Riku said sharply. He blinked and looked at his friend. "What is going on with you?"

A short laugh escaped from him. It shocked his own ears, and he saw that it had disturbed his companion. "I don't know," he said vaguely, and summoned the Keyblade.

It flickered in his hand for a moment before solidifying. He turned it; light gleamed along its length. It enchanted him; he had never been happier to have it in his hand. Riku was silent for a few moments.

"Why didn't you tell us?" There was pain in his voice, and anger too.

"What?" he said absently, still turning the Keyblade.

"Sora," he said. "Put it away, will you?"

When he didn't respond, Riku slammed his fist on the small wooden table between them. The noise snapped him out of the Keyblade's spell. He saw that Riku was furious, and though he did dismiss the Keyblade at once, the vast relief that he felt faded more slowly.

"You should have told us," Riku said, and the raw anger in his voice sobered Sora considerably. His own anger rose.

"Like you told me about you and Kairi?"

"About me and Kairi? What are you talking about?"

"The two of you. Together."

His friend stared at him for a very long time. Understanding blossomed on his face, but anger quickly papered it over. "Sora, you are an idiot."

"Thanks," he glared back. "But would you mind telling me what's going on?"

"Kairi and I aren't together," he said quickly. "I won't lie—I wish it could happen. That's what I didn't want you to know, how I feel about her. I knew I'd get over it after awhile, and I was afraid that if I told you you'd convince yourself that she was off-limits. And then we'd all be miserable, forever, instead of just me for a little while."

Sora stood. "What was she crying about?" he said flatly.

"Finally, you ask." Riku rolled his eyes. "Maybe because you've been distant with us the last few weeks. Because you've been hiding something. Because of this." Riku gestured; a Keyblade appeared in his hand. Sora had seen it before, had seen it many times. "We knew, Sora. She's got one too. We were just waiting for you to tell us so we could plan together. But you didn't."

Sora sat down slowly. A long silence passed.

"I'm sorry," he said finally. "I was scared, I didn't want to go. Didn't want to leave you. I made the Keyblade go away, thought that would be the end of it. But I knew it was wrong, and today I came to tell you guys, and saw you..."

"Yeah, I know," Riku said. His voice was gentle now. "Look, you're my best friend. I know. I'm sorry too."

"Where is she? I have to..."

"Think she went to the secret place. Before you go—are we leaving?"

"Yeah," he said, standing. He burned with the need to talk to Kairi. "I've got to tell my parents this time. We'll go tomorrow."

He made his way out of the shack, and hardly heard Riku's quiet wish of luck.

Night had fallen, and it was even colder than it had been that morning. The stars were bright and crisp in the sky, and the moon hung low over the horizon, a bloated orange disc. He trotted the short distance to the secret place, hoping she hadn't left yet.

She hadn't. Just as he approached the cave, she emerged from the entrance, her arms wrapped around her.

"Sora?" she said. Her voice was hoarse; she had been crying. Guilt filled him and he went to her with his head bowed. Her posture, when he reached her, was so dejected that he couldn't stop himself: he took her in his arms and hugged her fiercely.

A quiet sob came from the vicinity of his shoulder, and her arms moved and hugged him back. She clutched at him, weeping quietly. Every sob was like a knife of shame stabbing into him.

"I'm sorry," he said into her hair. "I'm sorry."

Kairi quieted after a while, and he made himself put her at arm's length. She looked up at him, her wet face gleaming in the starlight, and he sighed. He summoned the Keyblade, and showed it to her, and told her everything that had happened to him since returning to Destiny Islands, omitting only those thoughts that involved her.

She didn't speak while he was talking, and by the time he was done her face was dry.

"Riku showed me his Keyblade a few minutes ago," he said after a moment, when he saw she wasn't going to break the silence.

Kairi moved her hand slowly, without looking at him, and a Keyblade appeared there. It was very slender, the blade and hilt both worked over with elegant scrollwork. She held it awkwardly.

"Riku's going with me. Tomorrow," he said, in an agony of suspense. She still hadn't spoken, and he reached over and adjusted her grip on the hilt. She watched him do it, and when his fingers had finished arranging hers, the Keyblade vanished. His fingers brushed against hers; reluctantly, he let his hand return to his side.

"Are you going with us?" he pressed.

"Yes," she said quietly. "If you promise me..."

"Yes. I promise," he said, not waiting for her to finish. Anything she desired of him, he would give.

"Promise me you won't lie to me again. That you won't hide things from me anymore. Never again, Sora."

"I promise," he said at once.

"Then I'm going." He saw her smile, and relief nearly made him stagger. "You couldn't keep me away. I thought you might try, when we first realized what was happening."

"You know how lazy I am," he said. "Why would I kill all those Heartless alone when I could have you guys to help me?"

She snorted, and he grinned at her. The moment of levity passed soon enough, however, and several moments passed before he realized he was staring at her. She looked back at him, her expression even, and he shook himself.

"It's cold. Want me to walk you back?"

"Sure," she said, but made no sign of moving when he half-turned toward the docks.

He raised his eyebrows. "What is it?"

"Sora," she said quietly. "Is there anything else you haven't told me?"

He stilled and looked at her. This wasn't how he had imagined telling her, but now he was bound by his promise, and they both knew it. And if she was asking, she already knew... it wasn't so difficult.

"I love you," he said.

The moment strung out between them, passing in stillness and silence.

"I love you, too," she said at last. Her voice was very low.

Drawing near him, she took his hand. Despite the cold air, the mistakes and misunderstandings that had plagued the day, and the uncertainties before them, Sora felt as though, at last, everything was just as it should be. Even the somber, silent mood that hung between them was right, as he walked Kairi home for the very last time.

All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

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