I woke in the middle of the night for seemingly no reason. I rolled over in the bed, trying to adjust my tail so it was comfortable. After minutes of laying there, trying to force myself to go back to sleep, I gave in and sat up in bed, moving the sheets aside quietly. Riku was on the floor still, facing away from me, snoring lightly. I smiled at how relaxed his body looked in sleep. I looked around the room, slightly surprised at how still the water was when there wasn't hundreds of merpeople active nearby. I drifted out of bed and towards the window, leaning out of it to stare up at the surface. I could see reflections of the moon in the rippling waters, and contemplated going up to see, but then decided against it. I wasn't sure if I could find this inn again on my own, and I didn't want to get lost in the middle of the night.
A scallop swam into my view, passing me silently aside from the whoosh of water as it flapped along. I sighed, thinking of home.
'You would love this place... all of you would.' I closed my eyes and thought of my lost friends, but didn't cry. The feeling I had was empty, not sad. It dawned on me how completely and utterly alone I was - on a different world, where no one knows me except the person who came here with me. I looked back at Riku, thinking of how fortunate he was. He knew his friends were alive and well; even if that was all he had, it was more than me. Sora and Kairi... I thought how lucky they must be to have Riku care for them so much.
I tried to distract myself from continuing that train of thought - I didn't want to think about what would happen if Riku made it back to his home with his friends. Instead, I thought about the staff that Maleficent gave me. In a sudden burst of light and bubbles, something solid materialized in my hands. I looked down to see the staff in question, the vines and swirls on the wood glowing with a dull light. I inspected the staff, admiring the finish on the light wood and the careful knots at the top - for upon closer inspection, the knotted mass wasn't natural, but in fact carved. The wood twisted and turned and curled into itself, creating a beautiful mess around the dark stone in the middle. The staff felt sturdy and comfortable in my hands, and I decided to begin learning to fight with it when we returned to the castle. I wondered if Riku would be of any help in learning how to use it.
I spent a long time admiring the staff and staring out of the window at the surface before I found myself sleepy again. I focused on the staff, willing it to vanish and wait until I called it again, and in a burst of bubbles - which I assumed only happened because I was underwater - the wood disappeared from my hands. I glanced once more out the window before turning and drifting back to the bed. Riku, I noticed, had rolled over in his sleep, and had one arm stretched towards the bed. I stared at his relaxed face for a long minute, slightly saddened that I had never seen him this peaceful before. Before I could dwell on it, I laid in bed and willed myself to drift off to sleep.
"Iva, wake up, we need to go find Ursula!"
Riku gave an exasperated sigh and pulled the sheets down to the bottom of the bed, thankfully without knocking me off in the process. I shivered and opened my eyes just enough to glare at him, then buried my head into the pillow.
"Come on, Iva."
"I don't wanna...."
"Look, I don't know about you, but I'm getting real sick of this tail. Don't you wanna get back?"
I thought about learning how to fight with my staff and reluctantly sat up, rubbing my eyes. "Fine, fine. Just give me a few minutes to wake up, okay?" I said with a yawn. Riku rolled his eyes as I stretched, popping a few joints in the process. I thought I saw him wince at the sound.
Riku waited semi-patiently while I became aware of the world around me. After a while of staring around groggily, rubbing my eyes, my stomach growled. Riku smiled softly in spite of his impatience.
"Wanna get some breakfast?"
"Is that a rhetorical question, Riku? 'Cause that seems like a rhetorical question."
He chuckled and drifted towards the door. "Well, come on. We should eat before tracking down Ursula, anyway."
I slowly and reluctantly followed him, checking the room one last time to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything. Riku drifted down the stairs in the wake of a few other sleepy-looking merpeople. The innkeeper greeted everyone with a cheerful "good morning!" and a smile. Riku and I claimed a table away from the gathering crowd, and he swam to order us some food. I hoped I wouldn't have to eat too much more seaweed.
Riku returned a few minutes later, carrying a platter covered with strange sea fruits and a pile of the dreaded seaweed. I could tell from the look on his face that he wasn't too happy with the breakfast, either, but we ate it in resigned silence, ready to get a head start on the day. When we finished, he dropped a bit of munny on the table as tip and took my hand, leading me out the door and into the now-bustling street. We started off away from the inn, trying not to get in the way of merpeople going about their business.
Riku stopped on a street corner and looked around in apparent confusion.
"What's up?" I asked, looking around as well.
"I have no clue where we are," he admitted. "We need to find Ursula, but I don't even know where to start." As he spoke the sea witch's name, a few merpeople looked at us with strange looks and inched away. I wondered why they showed signs of aversion to us so suddenly.
A flash of red hair caught my eye, followed by a pretty green tail. "Look!" I said, pointing as the mermaid rounded the corner and disappeared, "I think that's Ariel! Maybe she knows where to start!"
I darted forward, cutting through the water easily with my wide tail fins. I was getting used to being underwater, and as much as Riku said he hated the tails, they were kind of growing on me. I also thought this underwater world was just breathtakingly beautiful, though I wouldn't admit that to Riku.
Riku caught up to me quickly, being a faster swimmer than I, and we chased the red haired mermaid through the streets until we realized she was leaving the town. I wondered if perhaps she was returning to her little cove of trinkets, but she didn't halt at the moveable rock on the ocean floor. She continued through a dark tunnel, vanishing into the depths. We halted at the tunnel entrance and looked at each other.
"Do we really want to go in there?" I asked, staring into the tunnel, trying to find an exit.
"Yeah, I guess we have to," Riku sighed. "I think Ariel will know where Ursula can be found, given that she's actually a princess. Or at least I hope she knows. I don't feel like going on a wild goose chase." He sighed again and squared his shoulders before looking at me. "Well, let's go. I don't want to waste any time." And he turned and vanished into the tunnel. I groaned and followed reluctantly, swimming slowly into the darkness so that I wouldn't run head first into a rock.
I kept my hands stretched out next to me and in front of me, feeling the curve of the tunnel under my fingers. Eventually, a light signaled that I was near an entrance, and I swam a little more quickly to get out. Riku was waiting for me at the exit, and I stopped to stare at the sight in front of me.
Ariel had led us to a sunken ship, walled off by towering coral and rocks. The main mast had been broken completely in two, and there were holes in the sides and on the bottom. I swam towards it slowly, Riku following suit, and saw Ariel through the large windows on the front of the ship. We neared a broken glass pane, and I decided to call out to her so that we didn't startle her too badly.
"Um, Ariel? Ariel!" I called. She looked up with a start, then grinned.
"Iva! Riku! How nice to see you again. How did you find this place?"
I grinned sheepishly. "We followed you again."
Ariel laughed. "You seem to have a habit of doing that! Did you need something?"
"Yes, actually," Riku piped up, surprising me. "We were wondering if you might know of a woman named Ursula."
Ariel's smile suddenly faded into a scowl mixed with fear. "Oh, the sea witch. Yes, I know of her. Why do you ask?"
Riku looked stumped. "Oh, we uh," I jumped in, "need to take something back from her that she stole from us! And we know she's around here somewhere, but we don't know where to find her!" I said quickly, trying not to give away my fib. "Do you have any idea where she might be?"
Ariel looked scared. "Oh, well... She was exiled from the city a long time ago when she tried to steal the throne from Daddy. I guess I can point you in the right direction, but she's really dangerous... You shouldn't go there. I wouldn't want you to get hurt."
I smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about us, Ariel. We can handle her, I'm sure of it."
She looked unsure, her arms wrapped around her chest and her face turned to the side, chewing on her lip. We waited in silence for a moment before she nodded to herself.
"Alright. Are you sure you can handle it? I'd go with you, but Daddy and Sebastian tell me to stay as far away as possible from her, and I think I'll listen to them on this one... The stories scare me enough as it is."
"We definitely can handle her," Riku said confidently (and, I thought, with an air of arrogance).
"Okay..." Ariel sighed. "She's right this way, follow me."
Ariel swam through the broken window panes to outside the ship and headed towards one of the sheer rock faces. There was a small rowboat on the ocean floor not too far from us, which she stopped by. Riku and I followed quickly.
"Behind this is a weird button, and I'm pretty sure it opens the way to Ursula's lair."
"Her lair?" I repeated, trying not to laugh at the term. It made Ursula sound like some well-known supervillan.
"Yeah. I'm not sure how to reach it, though... I can't move the boat, and the gap here is too small for me to reach it." Ariel stuck her arm between the boat and the rock wall, reaching for something behind it. I could see the strain on her face, but she soon gave up and withdrew her hand. "Well, if you can figure out how to push that, it should lead you right to her... But I've got to get home before Daddy realizes I'm missing."
"Thanks so much for your help, Ariel, " I said, smiling. "I'm sure we'll figure it out."
"Will I see you two again?"
"Probably not," Riku answered, sounding slightly anxious.
"Oh... Well, I do hope you get back whatever was taken from you. Please be careful, though. Ursula really is a dangerous witch," Ariel said, sounding worried.
"Thank you, we will. It was wonderful meeting you, Ariel!"
"And you, too!" She turned and swam off, and I watched her go until she disappeared into the tunnel that led us here. I turned back to Riku, who was examining the gap to find what she was talking about.
"I see the button she was talking about," he said. "It's got a weird design on it, kinda like a sea dragon. But I don't know how to reach it."
"Allow me," I said, swimming forward and pushing him aside. Riku hovered close by, his shoulder brushing mine as I stuck my arm into the gap and reached towards the button, which I now saw had a purple dragon engraved on it. It was out of my reach, no matter how hard I stretched. I held my palm towards it, focusing hard on using the water around me as a medium. I reached for my magic and concentrated on condensing the water between my hand and the button. When I felt something solid against my palm, I pressed down, forcing the block of water against the button and pushing it into the wall. I heard a click, and with a loud rumbling and scraping, the wall beside me moved aside. I yanked my arm from the gap and backed away quickly, watching as the wall of rock opened to reveal a hidden passage trimmed with dark red coral and bioluminescent plants. I got a strange vibe from the tunnel, as if something nasty lay just beyond.
"Ursula must be down that way," I commented, eyeing the path. "I can feel it."
"Then let's go," Riku said, swimming forward without any hesitation. I followed after him reluctantly, and tried to stay close and we plunged into darkness.
I became increasingly uneasy as we made our way through the tunnel, and nearly turned around when I saw hundreds of strange spindly creatures lining the floor of what seemed to be the tunnel leading to Ursula's lair. I kept my tail high above them, trying not to focus on their bulbous eyes that seemed to be crying for help.
The tunnel led to a rather large cavern that looked as if someone lived in it. In the center of the spherical room sat a large cauldron, full of some bubbling substance. A couple cabinets lined the walls, but the room was otherwise empty.
"How did you find this place?" said a voice from behind. Riku and I whirled around to see a very pretty mermaid with long, flowing black hair staring at us with what looked like distaste. Her chocolate brown eyes were cold and calculating, and her bright red tail twitched in the water.
"We're looking for Ursula," I said with a voice more brave than I felt. The mermaid's expression changed from disgust to interest.
"And how can Ursula be of service to you two?" She said coyly, swimming forward and beginning to circle us. I noticed two eels swim in behind her, joining in the circling. Each eel had one yellow eye and one normal eye, creating a rather eerie effect.
"We just need to see her. I don't think it's really any of your business," Riku snapped. I shot a glance at him, hoping that he wouldn't do something like that again. This whole situation was making me extremely uneasy, and I wasn't sure if it was due to the mermaid or the eels or just the location.
"It is my business," she replied, stopping in front of Riku and swimming close to him. He stood his ground, staring at her in challenge. "You see, Ursula and I are rather close. So if someone from the city has found a way to get in here without being invited... Well, you can see the problem." She eyed Riku hungrily, and I felt a strange desire to punch her.
"We know Ursula, too," I interjected. The mermaid glanced over at me with disdain, but backed off a bit. "We just need to see her. She needs to do something for us."
"She must do nothing for you," the mermaid hissed.
"Now, now, Azami, don't get so upset!" a voice called. I recognized it as Ursula's.
The mermaid turned around with a sheepish look on her face. "Sorry, I just wanted to make sure they didn't mean to hurt you."
Ursula slinked up to her and stroked her face with a tentacle. The thought sent a shiver down my spine. "Don't you worry about me, my dear. I can handle these two children. As it so happens, I do need to do something for them." She swam closer to us and looked at Riku. "How did it go, my dears?"
"The stone didn't do anything," Riku said, holding it out to her. "I'm not sure what that means, though."
Ursula took it from his palm and examined it carefully before tossing over her shoulder with a scoff. "It means that Ariel is not as pure as we thought. A shame, really, I would have liked to be rid of her. Oh, well," she sighed dramatically.
"We need you to send us back now," Riku continued coldly. Ursula scowled.
"Yes, yes, alright, you impatient brats. Hold still." She reached out with her tentacles and grabbed Riku and me at the base of our tails, dragging us towards her. I yelped and tried to wriggle away, but her grip was too strong. She shoved me into Riku, who instinctively wrapped his arms around me. Had I not just been manhandled by a crazy octopus woman, I probably would have blushed.
Ursula released us and raised her hands, which started to glow. A whirlpool began to form around us, and Riku's grip on me grew tighter.
"Have a nice evening, my dears," Ursula called tauntingly. The whirlpool grew in ferocity, spinning us with it, and the world around us disappeared in a blur. Just as I thought I might get sick from all the spinning, we stopped with a lurch, and slammed down into the hard ground. Riku took the brunt of the impact, as I landed on top of him, making my fall slightly softer.
"Ugh..." Riku groaned.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" I said quickly, trying to get off of him - but I couldn't. My legs wouldn't listen to me. I looked down at them in confusion and gasped as I saw that we still had our tails. Ursula sent us back to the castle, but she hadn't bothered to change us back into humans. I cursed her mentally, then looked back to Riku.
"Well, we still have our tails. That witch didn't change us back."
Riku muttered something under his breath that I didn't quite catch, but I assumed it wasn't very nice. "Maleficent!" he called.
No response. I thought it was strange, since Maleficent was usually very punctual.
"Maleficent!" he repeated. After a few moments of waiting, he gave a resigned sigh. "Well, I guess she's not here right now. We need to get to some water. We are part fish, after all - it's possible that we could dry out." He wriggled underneath me, pushing me to the side and onto the floor. My tail flopped against the tile, sending shivers down my spine. Riku began to army crawl towards the door, obviously determined to get to water.
"Are you trying to get to the Rising Falls?" I called.
"Yeah," he grunted, inching forward. "It's our best bet to just wait there until Maleficent gets back."
"Then wait up! I have an idea."
Riku waited impatiently for me to drag myself over to his position. He had pushed the door open and was staring down the hallway with an anxious look. "What do you have in mind?"
"Well," I said, gasping from exertion, "remember how I lifted myself onto that rooftop?"
He glanced at me, suddenly interested. "Yeah, why?"
I focused on my hands, willing my staff to come to me. When it did, I held it out to Riku. "I was thinking that I might be able to levitate us, and you could use this to push us around. I don't think I could do both."
Riku looked at me like I was slightly crazy. "You really think that'll work?"
I shrugged. "It's our best chance, right? If we are going to dry out, then we don't really have the time to drag ourselves down there. This would be faster." I held the staff up again, hoping he would take it. "Do you have a better idea?"
He stared at my staff, contemplating for a while, before finally reaching out and taking it. "Alright. Just don't drop us, please."
I took a deep breath. "I'll try."
I focused all of my willpower and energy on lifting us. I thought back to what it felt like to levitate while meditating, and started counting my breaths, willing myself and Riku to float about a foot up in the air. A feeling of weightlessness hit me as we rose, and Riku looked at me with bewilderment as he floated above the floor.
"What are you waiting for?" I snapped, already sweating from the effort of keeping us aloft. "Push us!"
And so we moved through the castle, me using all my energy to keep us in the air, and Riku using my staff to push us along. I set us down gently and rested when we had to take lifts, and was extremely careful going down the stairs in the main hall. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at the lift outside of the castle that led to the base of the Falls. I released my magic and we collapsed rather unceremoniously onto the lift, causing Riku to yelp. I was too tired to do anything but lay there - the world was starting to get blurry, and I was having trouble breathing. I wasn't sure if it was due to the magic or the fact that we really were drying out, as my tail was starting to feel really sensitive against the steel of the lift.
"Iva? Are you okay?" Riku's voice sounded distant.
"I'm fine..." I muttered. I thought I felt his hand on my arm, but I may have been imagining that.
The lift jerked to a stop. "Iva, we made it. We're a bit high up, though. Think you can get us a bit lower?"
I tried to focus on Riku's face, but it was too blurry. I blinked slowly, trying to clear it.
"Maybe not, then. Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm just... tired..."
Riku crawled closer to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Alright, come on. We're gonna fall into the water. It's a bit of a drop, so it might hurt, but I don't see any other option. Can you do it?"
I looked blearily over the edge of the rock we were on, trying to focus on the water far below. The longer I looked, the farther away it seemed to be. I groaned.
"Okay, come on, Iva," Riku said, pulling my arm over his shoulders. I felt him pull me close with one arm and drag us closer to the edge with the other. I felt bad that I couldn't help him, but I could barely keep my eyes open.
"You ready? On three, we're gonna fall." His arm tightened around my waist. "One... two..." I took a deep breath. "Three!"
A long rush of air, pushing my hair back and most likely smacking Riku in the face. He turned us around in the air, so that I was on top, and he wrapped both arms around me. His eyes were shut in anticipation of the impact.
We hit the water like a ton of bricks - at least, that's what I felt. Riku probably felt much worse. He groaned as we sank to the floor.
"Riku, are... you okay?" I said, forcing the words out. His arms had loosened, and I pushed myself away a bit to get a better look at him. My vision was starting to get clearer; maybe my main issue was the lack of water in the castle.
Riku's eyes opened slowly, and he nodded. "Y-yeah. I'm fine. Are you?" He looked at me with worry.
"Yeah, yeah..." I inched away from him as I regained my ability to move. I was still exhausted, and finding it hard to breathe, but at least I could see again. I held out my hand to help Riku upright, and we swam together to the surface, breaching the water next to one of the little islands that permeated this area of the Falls. Riku crossed his arms over the edge to keep himself up, and I followed suit, allowing my body to relax in the water. My eyes drooped closed and my head rested on my arms.
"Iva? You sure you're okay?" I heard Riku ask. I groaned. I felt a tapping on my head and tried to ignore it, but when the tapping persisted, I forced my head up with a glare.
"I'm just tired, okay -"
It hadn't been Riku that was tapping on my head - it was Chester. The tiny Heartless was staring at me with what seemed like worry. I smiled softly and reached out to pat his head. "I'm fine, Chester. Don't worry about me."
We sat in silence for a few minutes while I regained my strength. Chester had curled up by my arms and seemed to be snoozing. Riku's eyes looked distant, as if he was thinking deeply about something. An idea popped in my head, and I nudged Chester awake.
"Hey, buddy. Do you think you can find Maleficent for us?" I heard Riku move beside me, apparently interested. Chester nodded his head enthusiastically, though I wasn't sure if he actually understood me. "Ma-le-fi-cent," I said slowly. "Green lady with horns, yeah?" Chester nodded again. "Alright. I really hope you can understand me. Go find her and bring her here! But be careful, I don't want her to hurt you." Chester did a funny sort of dance before he melted into the ground and vanished.
"That was a good idea," Riku admitted. I smiled and dropped my head back onto my arms - just that short burst of energy was too much for me to handle. In the back of my mind, I was worried something was wrong, but I was too tired to do anything about it.
"You know," Riku continued, his voice somewhat muffled by my arms, "You might be so tired because you used too much magic. Maybe you just need an Ether."
"A... what?" I managed.
"It's sorta like a Potion, only you eat it instead of drink it, and it tastes way better, and apparently it recharges magical energy. I never carry them because I don't use magic. Maybe we should invest in getting some for you," he elaborated. That did sound like a good idea. I was saved the effort of responding by a flash of green flames as Maleficent made her dramatic entrance.
"Get off me, you filthy thing!" she screeched, sending Chester flying off her arm and towards me. I found myself moving to catch him, and we fell backwards into the water, my head spinning. Riku grabbed my arm and pulled me back up. I released Chester onto the island, where he vanished into the ground again. A strange ringing filled my ears from the head rush.
Maleficent seemed to have gained her composure. "Oh? What are you two doing down here? And why are you still like that?" She sounded almost disgusted.
"Ursula didn't change us back," Riku explained with a scowl. Maleficent looked almost amused.
"She didn't? How unfortunate." She stared down at us with a sick smile. "Well? Did you do what I asked of you?"
"The stone you gave me didn't do anything. Ursula threw it away and complained about not being able to be rid of Ariel," he told her. Maleficent sighed, looking disappointed.
"Oh, well. I suppose we should have known better, given that girl's propensity for defying her father. I might as well change you back," she said, raising her hand and staff. Wind whipped up around us and pulled us out of the water. I squirmed in the air for a bit as my tail changed back into legs with a strange itching sensation. An aura glowed around us, and as I felt my feet touch the ground, it vanished to reveal both of us back in our normal forms and in the clothes we were wearing before we left. I felt a weight on my left hip, and glanced down to see a bag strapped to my belt and leg. Upon closer inspection, I found the spellbook I was carrying tucked away inside, although the book had seemed much larger than the bag was.
"There," Maleficent said, lowering her arms. "I will give you a few days' rest before I ask you to do anything else. We must wait on the others. Oh, Iva, my dear, that bag has been magically enchanted to be bigger on the inside. You can store many things in there."
I swayed, still dizzy from exhaustion, and nodded. Maleficent looked almost concerned. "Are you alright, my dear?"
Riku's arms caught me before I could fall, and I leaned heavily into his shoulder. My breath was coming rather roughly. "I think she used too much magic. She levitated us down here from your meeting room."
"Ah, I have just the thing." The witch's free hand came into my vision palm-up, and I vaguely saw that she was holding out a small blue cube. It almost looked like it was glowing. "Eat this, my dear. It's an Ether, it will help."
I struggled to force my arm up, taking the small cube and popping it in my mouth. It was sweet, almost like candy, and the relief I felt was instant. The world around me cleared as a feeling like ice spread through my body. I shivered and stood up straight, sighing in relief.
"Thank you," I said quietly. Riku's arm was still draped around me loosely, though I was no longer using him for support.
"You must be more careful, dear," Maleficent warned. "If you use too much magic, you could expend all the energy in your body... which would kill you." My eyes widened. "The more you use magic, the more energy you will have. It's almost like strength training or something - the more you work, the stronger you get. Magic is much the same. You must practice more before attempting something like that again."
"I will. Although we didn't really have a choice. We probably would have dried out by the time you got here to change us back."
"Yes, perhaps. It is good you sent your little pet along, annoying though it is." She turned and walked a few steps away, her cloak billowing out behind her. "I have business to attend to. I'm sure you can make it back up to the castle on your own." And in a flash of flames, she vanished.
"Are you alright now?" Riku piped up. He was looking at me with concern.
"Yeah, I think so. I feel a lot better. Where can we get those things?"
"Traverse Town, probably. But I don't think we should go anywhere today. You should probably rest."
I rolled my eyes. "Fine, fine. Let's get back up to the castle, then."
Riku had to help me scale the floating islands, as I wasn't quite strong enough to do it on my own. We reached the lift at the top in a relatively short amount of time, though I was rather out of breath. I took my reprieve on the lift, and Riku led the way back through the front gates perhaps a little more slowly than he normally would. Chester met up with us at the top of the stairs in the entrance hall, and I stopped to let him onto my shoulder before continuing.
We reached my room faster than I thought we would. Riku stopped, his hand tightening around mine - I hadn't realized he was holding my hand. I turned to him with a questioning look.
"Iva," he said quietly. "I have to find Kairi."
"No matter what it takes."
I sighed and squeezed his hand. "Just be careful."
"Oh," I started, "what are we gonna do for dinner? We kinda missed lunch, though I'm not really all that hungry..."
"There should be a little speaker thing next to your dresser," he said dryly. "Just speak into that and say you want dinner, and it'll appear in front of your door. It's kinda weird, but that's how I was doing it before you got here."
We stood in silence for a few moments.
"Well, I should get some rest," I continued. "You should, too."
"Sleep well, Riku."
He squeezed my hand again before releasing it and walking down the hall to his room. I waited until I heard the door click before I turned to go into my room. Following Riku's instructions, I inspected the wall next to my dresser, and sure enough, there was a small speaker and button embedded into the wall. I pressed the button experimentally, and a mechanical voice filled the room.
"How can we be of assistance?"
I stared at the speaker in confusion. Was this castle sentient? Did it have servants? "Um... can I get some dinner?"
A clicking and whirring sound filled the air before it spoke again. "It will be up shortly. May we assist you with anything else?"
"Uh, no, I don't think so."
"Have a nice evening." Click. I stared down at Chester in confusion before shrugging it off and making my way to my bed. I unbuckled the bag strapped to me and sat, inspecting it. It was simple black leather, with a strap to attach to a belt and a strap that went around my thigh. The bag only had one pocket, closed by a simple button. The bag was indeed larger on the inside - after a bit of wiggling, I pulled the spell book out, which seemed to enlarge until it reached its normal size. I set it aside and stuck my hand experimentally into the bag, trying to see how big it really was. I kept reaching and reaching, until my arm up to my elbow was inside the bag, even though the outside of it was only a bit larger than my hand. My fingers grazed the edge of the bag, and I pulled my arm out and closed the bag back up. I sent it with magic to rest on my dresser and added the spell book on top of it, then stood to get clothes ready for bed.
A knock sounded on my door, startling me. I hadn't thought that Riku would come back, so I approached the door curiously. When I opened it, I was slightly shocked to see that there wasn't anyone outside. I glanced down the hall, but saw no one. Something shiny caught my eye on the floor, so I looked to see a large silver platter covered with a silver dome. The platter was sitting on a small tray, complete with a bottle of water and a glass of what looked like apple juice. I bent over to pick it up and brought it to my bed, kicking the door closed behind me. Chester jumped up and pawed at the tray curiously. I pulled off the dome, revealing a plate covered in mashed potatoes, green beans, and a grilled piece of chicken. My stomach growled. I sat down, picked up the carefully rolled up silverware, and dug in.
I practically inhaled my dinner, gulping down the bottle of water to wash it down. Chester was gnawing on a piece of chicken I had saved him. I eyed the apple juice cautiously - close up, it looked too light to be apple juice. I took an experimental sniff and nearly dropped it when I encountered the strong smell of alcohol.
"Is this wine?" I mumbled to myself. I took a small sip and gagged - the taste was awful. "Yeah, Chester, I think it's wine." He looked up at me curiously, finished with the chicken. I set the glass down carefully on the tray and noticed for the first time a little note underneath the plate. I pulled it out, staring at the pretty blue print.
Please leave this tray outside your room when you are done!
I shrugged and obliged, setting it in the same place as I found it. I made my way to the bathroom, determined to take a shower and get all the remains of salt water off of me - I only just realized how gross I felt. With pajamas out and the water running, I allowed myself to lean on the sink for a moment and just breathe.
My shower didn't take long; I mainly wanted to get clean, not to relax. The pajamas clung to my damp skin, and once I was done towel-drying my hair, I walked back into my room, shut off the lights, and collapsed into my bed. Even with the Ether, I was still exhausted, and I fell asleep almost immediately after I got settled.
I could hear children screaming.
I wanted to scream, too. My legs were burning, one in a literal sense. Kara was sobbing into my shoulder.
Suddenly she was gone, and I was back in front of the school. To my left, Christine was screaming as the Heartless overwhelmed her. My track team coach was being torn apart on my right. I could see Dylan in the distance, fighting off a group of Soldiers. I called out to him, but my voice was gone. I tried to run to him, but my legs wouldn't move - I looked down to see Shadows had latched themselves to my ankles, anchoring me to the spot. I screamed out Dylan's name, trying to get his attention, but he couldn't hear me.
"DYLAN!" I screeched, going hoarse. "Dylan, get out of there! Please! They're going to kill you!"
One of the Soldiers leaped into the air in front of him, its claws outstretched. I knew what was going to happen. I was screaming for him, desperate for Dylan to get out of the way so that I wouldn't have to see him die again.
This time was so much worse. It didn't just rip his heart out - it ripped him apart completely. I cried his name to the sky, tears pouring down my face. The Soldier that killed him made its way to me, its claws dripping red with his blood. I tried to get away, but the Heartless stood fast at my feet. As the Soldier neared, it grew larger, losing its silver armor, until it loomed high above me, its face surrounded by tendrils of darkness. It reached down with a large hand and picked me up effortlessly, unperturbed by my screaming and struggling. I felt it crushing my ribs, digging its claws into the burns on my legs, and I couldn't help but think that I was going to die. All I could do was scream.
"Iva! Iva, wake up!"
Something was shaking me. I could hear a strange screeching coming from somewhere, and then I realized that it was coming from me. I shot bolt upright in bed, my scream cutting off as I opened my eyes. I was covered in sweat, and the sheets and my clothes clung to me like they were glued onto my skin. I struggled against them, trying to detangle myself, only to make myself more infuriated. Panic began to grip at me as I tried to get free.
Another set of restraints was suddenly upon me. "Iva, snap out of it!" I snapped my head up to see Riku, in his pajamas, sitting on the edge of my bed. His hands were tight on my shoulders, trying to hold me still. His arms were red in a few spots.
"Oh, god," I choked, letting out a sob. I felt myself shaking, and my hands tightened to fists on the sheets. "Oh my god, no." I had woken him up. I had been screaming in the night at my horrible dream that wasn't really a dream, and I had been fighting against anything that touched me. I raised a shaking hand to touch one of the red marks on his arm, which was already turning slightly blue in the middle. A bruise. I had put that there.
I didn't know when I had started crying, or if I was crying when I woke up, but suddenly I was in Riku's arms and sobbing into his shoulder, clinging to his shirt as if my life depended on it. He didn't ask questions. He didn't even talk. He just held me close and stroked my hair, letting me cry until I had enough. I lost track of time for a while - the only thing that mattered was my fear and grief. I could feel Chester pawing anxiously at my leg, but I paid no attention to him.
After what seemed like forever, the tears stopped coming. I thought that perhaps I had expelled all the excess water in my body. I leaned away from Riku slowly, reluctantly, and began to methodically detangle myself from my bed. Riku didn't try to help, and he didn't speak, which I was exceedingly grateful for. Once I was free, I stood, my pajama shorts still clinging to my legs. I made my way over to the balcony and leaned on the railing, trying to drown my thoughts in the sound of the waterfalls.
Riku leaned on the railing beside me after a few moments. He stared out into the darkness for a while before finally speaking.
"The day my world was overtaken by darkness," he started quietly, startling me, "I welcomed it." I looked to him in confusion, but he was still looking out towards the Falls. "I was bored on those islands. Sora, Kairi, and I had built a raft, and we were going to use it to get out. I didn't know there were other worlds out there. I thought there might be, but I wanted to know for sure... and so we built a raft. We were going to leave the next day."
He laughed a little to himself. "It seems silly now, a simple log raft to bring us across the ocean to wherever we wanted to go. Now I know we couldn't have even left that world...
"The darkness came in the night. It was like a big storm, this huge purple cloud that swirled with something more than just rain, and for some reason, I knew that it was my ticket out of there. I grabbed my rowboat and made my way out to the island that we played on, and where our raft was stored. Kairi's boat was already there, but I couldn't find her. So I made my way to the place where the darkness was strongest, and I let it take me. I welcomed it with open arms. Sora tried to stop me, I think. He wanted me to stay there. But I couldn't stay, I knew I couldn't handle it if I stayed on those islands any longer...
"I'm not sure what happened to everyone else." He turned to look at me with a dry smile on his face. "I know Sora's okay, and I hope beyond hope that Kairi is. I don't know about my parents, or my schoolmates. I have bad dreams sometimes, too, you know. The first week was the worst here. Everything was dark and scary and I was completely alone, aside from Maleficent, and she's not the best companion. I wanted so badly to get out of there, but now all I want is to go back. I miss my home. I miss my parents. I just want to make sure they're alright. Maybe then, once I know, I can go back to exploring." His voice trailed off as he turned back to stare at the Falls. I was speechless for a few moments. Did Riku really trust me so much to tell me all this?
I realized, after almost a whole minute of silence, that he was talking mainly to help me calm down. I had stopped shaking, and was no longer gripping the railing as tightly. I took a deep breath, and then began to tell him my story.
"I wish it had been so clean for me. It was the first day of school, around lunchtime. An earthquake hit. I thought the building was going to fall down on top of us. My friend -" my voice cracked slightly, "he took a chair and broke a window so we could get out without dealing with the crowd of people running. I ran to the elementary school first - my younger sister, Kara, was there, hiding under a bench at the playground. When I found her, the earthquake just... stopped. I could hear this rumbling, sort of like thunder... and now that I think back on it, I had a really bad feeling, too. Like something terrible was coming."
I took a shaky breath and continued, Riku watching me closely. "That's when it got really bad. The Heartless started showing up. We had never seen them before, so the only thing I could call them was 'monsters'. Three Shadows popped up at my feet, and my friend distracted them so that I could get away with my sister. We tried running, but she was just so slow, so I picked her up and booked it away from there, but I hated leaving him... I was trying to find a place to hide her. Heartless blocked my way many times... I got those burns on my legs while I was trying to save her."
"Wait, and you still ran like that?" Riku interjected. I glanced over to him and then back down at my hands, which were now shaking again.
"Yeah. I had to. I had to save her. So I hid her in the woods on the edge of town, where there weren't any Heartless, and then I turned and ran right back to get my friend."
My voice was starting to shake. "It had gotten so much worse. The school was the worst part. I can still see all those teachers who sacrificed themselves for their students. And my friend, Christine, who got overwhelmed by Heartless. I think her scream was the worst of all." My voice sounded almost dead at this point. "When I got back to my friend, he pulled me aside into an alley to keep us safe for a bit - he had stayed to help save the kids. When he saw my legs, he tried to get me to a medic, but I fell, and when I looked up he - he had - a Solider had - shoved its arm through his chest," I gasped, tears falling down my face again. "It wasn't even clean. Most of the blood on me wasn't mine."
We were silent for a moment. I avoided Riku's face, and although tears were falling steadily, I didn't sob. "That's all I remember. I blacked out then, and woke up here." I took a breath to steady myself, but only succeeded in hiccupping. "I thought I was going to die here. I couldn't breathe and I couldn't talk and everything hurt so much that I just wanted to sleep."
Riku put his hand on mine gently, stopping the tremors. "I'm so sorry," he said quietly. "Your friend... you seemed very close to him. What was his name?"
I shut my eyes, and his face popped into my mind. His cheerful smile and sparkling blue eyes made me want to cry. I missed him so much, and I had only allowed myself a little grief since the attack...
"His name was Dylan." I choked on his name. "And he was my best friend."
"Like Sora and Kairi were mine," Riku said.
"Yes." I turned to face him, wiping away my tears with my free hand. "Riku, listen to me. I'm going to help you find Kairi, and I'm going to help you get home. I may have lost everything, but you still have Sora and Kairi, and I'm going to do my best to make sure you get back to them, no matter what."
Riku looked at me with shock. "Iva, y-you don't have to do that."
"I'm going to! I won't let you lose everyone." My gaze softened. "I want you to be happy."
Riku smiled the tiniest smile, and I thought his ears went a little pink. "Thank you, Iva." He pulled me into a hug and held me there, expressing his thanks through that one gesture. I wrapped my arms around his waist and hugged him back, calming slightly in his embrace. We stood there for a few moments - at least until Chester began climbing up my leg, startling me into jumping away from Riku. Chester clambered onto my shoulder and nuzzled my cheek. I smiled and patted him before looking back up to Riku.
"You should probably go back to bed," I told him. He rolled his eyes and turned to walk out, but I saw a hint of a smile on his face.
"Yeah, yeah. Jeez, what are you, my mom?"
"I could be!" I retorted, following him to the door. "I can be very mom-ish when I want to be."
"Great, just what I need, a nagger," he said snarkily, leaning on the door frame. I shook my head and smiled, then sobered up.
"... I'm sorry for waking you up," I said.
"Hey," he reached out and pulled me closer, "don't worry about it. You should try to get back to sleep, too." He pulled me into one last hug, and I distinctly felt him press his lips against my forehead. My stomach did a flip, but all I could manage as he let me go was a squeaky "goodnight." He disappeared down the hall, leaving me flustered.