Riku stopped at the edge of a wall in Third District, giving me time to catch up to him. He was faster than I thought. He held up his arm to keep me from passing him.
"Stay here, would you? I wanna talk to him alone." He spoke without looking at me, staring instead at something around the corner.
Riku darted around the corner. I edged forward to look around the wall, peering after him. He had his sword out, a long, sharp-looking thing that was shaped like a demon's wing, and had seemingly just slain a Soldier Heartless. He was standing in front of a group of three people - a boy with spiky brown hair, what looked to be a duck, and a tall figure that had the head of a dog. I shook my head to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
"There you are," Riku said, turning to the boy. "What's going on?"
"Riku!" The boy shouted, obviously happy. He hopped up to Riku and stuck his fingers in his mouth, pulling his cheeks apart. Riku waved his hands away.
"Hey, hey, cut it out!"
"I'm not dreaming this time, right?" the brunet asked. Riku flipped his hair out of his eyes, and the brown-haired boy smiled. I assumed that this was Sora, Riku's "best friend".
"Wait a second," he said. "Where's Kairi?"
"Isn't she with you?" Riku replied, confused. Sora looked down sadly. "Well, don't worry. I'm sure she made it off the island, too." He sounded like he wasn't too confident in that fact but was trying to hide it. He looked up to the sky. "We're finally free... Hey, she might even be looking for us now." I noticed a Shadow Heartless slowly emerge from the ground behind him. Riku was oblivious, living in his own little world, speaking almost to himself. "We'll all be together again soon. Don't worry, just leave everything to me. I know this -"
The Heartless burst into wisps of darkness that vanished in the air. Sora had taken the responsibility to kill the Shadow behind Riku. Riku turned around and stared at him in shock. Sora stood up straight, resting his key-shaped sword on his shoulder.
"Leave it to who?" he said in a cocky tone.
Riku was incredulous. "Sora, what did you -"
"I've been looking for you and Kairi, too, with their help." Sora motioned to the other two creatures in his party. They nodded excitedly, but Riku looked apprehensive.
"Who are they?" he asked. He sounded guarded. The duck cleared its throat and spoke in a quack.
"Ahem! My name is -"
"We've visited so many places and worlds, looking for you!" Sora interrupted.
"Really? Well, what do you know? I never would have guessed." Riku sounded bitter. I bit my lip, worrying over him.
The tall dog figure walked up and put his hands on Sora's shouders. "Oh, and guess what?" he said in a silly voice, "Sora's the Keyblade master!"
"Who would've thought it?" the duck said.
Sora turned and glared. "What's that mean?"
Riku spoke up, having suddenly acquired Sora's Keyblade. "So, this is called a Keyblade?"
Sora looked at his now-empty hand. "Huh? Hey, give it back!" He darted forward to grab it, but Riku dodged him easily, sending Sora careening forward. He stumbled and turned to look back to Riku, who was holding the Keyblade high and examining it. He nodded to himself, then looked at Sora.
"Catch!" he said as he tossed it. Sora caught it clumsily, but gathered himself.
"Okay, so you're coming with us, right? We've got this awesome rocket. Wait 'til you see it!"
"No, he can't come!" the duck yelled. Sora whipped around, staring with shock at the duck.
"Oh, come on! He's my friend!"
"I don't care!" the duck folded his arms and looked away, sticking his beak in the air. The dog turned to look at them, and with all the focus suddenly off of him, Riku ran back to me and hid behind the wall. He pressed himself flat against it next to me, staring at the wall across from us. He had a blank expression on his face.
"Huh? He's gone," I heard the dog say.
"Riku?" Sora called. He paused. "Nice going," he said sadly. "Oh, well. At least he's okay. And who knows? Maybe we'll run into Kairi soon, too!" I heard the group retreat, and when I looked around the corner again, they were gone.
I turned back to Riku, worried about the expression on his face. "Riku?"
"I'm fine," he snapped, stepping away from the wall. A great pillar of flame distracted me from saying anything else, and Maleficent stepped in front of us, looking extremely smug.
"My poor dear," she cooed at Riku, "I saw it all. I am so sorry. I just knew that your friend would only replace you - it's clear he doesn't care about you at all." I scowled at her tone - that wasn't what I had gathered from Sora's words, but the look Maleficent gave me kept me quiet. She reached out to put her hand on his shoulder, but he shook her off.
"Maybe he didn't. Maybe he's more worried about Kairi now." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. Maleficent merely smiled.
"Come, my dear, and I will show you the truth." She held her hand out, not as an offer, but as a gesture to follow her. Riku hesitantly took a step forward, then walked quickly. I tried to grab his hand.
"Wait, Riku, just a sec -"
He shook me off and didn't even bother to look over his shoulder. "I should see what she has to show me," he said coldly. I winced, but followed him reluctantly.
Maleficent led us to a small house next to the door to Second District. A large window took up most of the space next to the door, and we could clearly see inside. Sora, the duck, and the dog were standing inside, along with another group of people. They were all talking animatedly about something. I looked to Riku, whose pain was clear on his face, even though he tried to hide it.
"You see?" Maleficent said, smiling. "It's just as I told you. While you toiled away trying to find your dear friend, he quite simply replaced you with some new companions. Evidently, now he values them far more than he does you." She looked down at Riku, who was now glaring at Sora through the window. I was surprised the window hadn't shattered with the force of his stare. "You're better off without that wretched boy," she continued harshly. She bent down a bit to look Riku in the eyes. "Now, think no more of him and come with me. I'll help you find what you're searching for..." She held her arms out, almost as if to embrace him. He turned without a word to face her, allowing her to put her hand on his shoulder. I stepped up quickly to join them, and in a burst of flames, we had left Traverse Town.
It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim room we landed in. Riku stepped away from Maleficent almost immediately.
"Wait, child," she called. He halted, but didn't turn to face her. I thought his shoulders looked rather stiff. "I have a proposition for you."
"I don't want to hear it," he snapped.
"What if it meant helping you find your other friend? What was her name again?"
Riku whipped around. "Kairi! Do you know something? Tell me!"
Maleficent smiled cruelly. "I will help you find her - but only if you help me in return."
"What do you want?" he said quickly. "I'll do anything, just tell me where she is if you know!"
"Riku, don't just jump into something like that!" I exclaimed, trying to take his hand. He evaded me, but otherwise ignored me. Maleficent's grin widened.
"Why, I only need your help in retrieving people of importance. Princesses - princesses of heart, to be exact. If you aid me and my colleagues in collecting them, I will help you find your dear friend."
Riku was quiet for a moment. "... Fine. When do I start?"
"Riku, no!" No matter what Maleficent had done for us, I didn't trust her in this regard. She looked all too happy to enlist Riku's help, and I was scared for him. He continued to ignore me.
"Oh, I'll let you know when your services are required, my dear boy," Maleficent said. "Although there is something that I would like for you to look into for me. In a world submerged in water, there lives a girl with a pure heart... I need you to look closer at her and determine if she is a Princess of Heart. I will give you a tool to do so - all you must do is get near her." She turned away with a flourish. "For now, though, I want you both to rest. Iva, I expect you to go with him. Tomorrow I will test you on your magic - I wish to see how you are progressing on your own, and if I need to continue to train you personally." She said the last word like it tasted bad. I took a step back to keep my distance from her. "Am I clear?"
"Good. Now go, both of you. I have other business to attend to."
Riku left without a word, leaving me to scramble after him. He strides were long and quick, and I almost had to jog to keep up with him - I hadn't realized that his legs were much longer than mine. Something caught on my leg, making me stumble. I stopped and looked down to see a small black blob attached to my calf. Yellow eyes looked up at me, and antennae twitched madly.
"Oh, hi, Chester," I said absently. I looked back up to see Riku had already turned the corner and left me in the dust. I sighed. Chester crawled up my leg and onto my shoulder, nuzzling my cheek. "I hope he's okay," I muttered.
I made my way up to my room, stopping by the library to pick up another spell book. I looked at the old one on my vanity and thought about bringing it back down to the library, but I didn't feel like walking all the way back down again. I flipped through the new one, excited to learn new spells. This one focused on purely offensive magic, and I decided that it would be safer to practice those in the training room, and not my bedroom. I did, however, take a stab at the first spell on the list: Blizzard. I felt drawn to it for some reason. Imagine cold winter mornings, blankets of snow covering the buildings of your home...
I had a hard time picturing that: Twilight Town, covered in snow. Our winters were always mild - at most, we had to wear light jackets during the coldest part of the day. Still, I tried to imagine it. I tried to think of what it must feel like - tiny icicles falling softly on the buildings of home. I knew what snow looked like, or at least, I had seen it in pictures. White, fluffy stuff, that was apparently so cold you had to wear mittens to hold it.
My hands grew cold, and I looked down to see what looked to be frost hovering above them. I stared at it in wonder, feeding it energy and helping it grow. The frost morphed into an ice crystal with sharp edges. Curious, I sent it flying towards the wall, where it shattered, leaving a small circle of frost in its wake.
"Cool," I muttered, then grinned at my pun. I looked down at Chester excitedly, who seemed to be exasperated with my pun. I rubbed my hands together to chase off the chill and shut the book, sending it to sit on the vanity next to the old one. I flopped back onto the bed, sighing as I relaxed. My eyes slipped closed, and before I could even think about getting up and changing, I had already fallen asleep.
"Dylan! Dylan, look what I can do!" The little girl bounded up and held out her hand, palm facing up. She carried a small flower, which hovered an inch off of her skin, the petals opening and closing on their own. The boy in front of her stared in wonder.
"How are you doing that?" He reached up to touch the flower, but the girl withdrew her hand quickly, closing her small fingers loosely around the plant.
"It's a secret, Dylan!" She looked suddenly sad. "But... I really don't know how I do it. I think it's the same thing that makes things break when I get scared..."
The boy looked worried. "Break? What do you mean?"
The little girl's eyes widened in fear. "Oh I-I... Um... I kinda... broke a vase... But I didn't mean to! It just happened! Mom was yelling at me 'cause I went to your house without telling her and I guess she was really worried and I was so scared and upset and I don't know how it happened but the vase broke and she screamed and I screamed and I really don't know what happened, I just... I don't know..." The girl's green eyes were wet with tears.
The boy furrowed his brow, then reached out and pulled the girl into a tight hug. "It's okay, Iva. You don't have to be scared..."
"Iva, come on!"
Dylan's bloody hand grasped mine, and he pulled me to my feet as the ground shook beneath us. He practically dragged me away from the school. My leg was burnt, though I didn't remember how it got that way. People were screaming as they died. I saw Christine again, watched her get overwhelmed by Heartless. I choked back a scream and kept running. Eventually my legs gave out and I stumbled to the ground, my knees scraping on the pavement. I looked up at Dylan for reassurance, only to blink as his blood spattered across my face. A silver claw, drenched in red, had sprouted from his chest.
I woke up with a strangled sort of shout. I was sitting upright in bed, sweating and panting. Chester sat by my leg, staring at me with worry. I dropped my head into my hands as tears pooled in my eyes. I allowed myself to cry for a bit - perhaps I had needed it these past few days.
In time, the tears stopped coming. I detangled myself from the sheets and walked out onto the balcony, once again realizing that it was nearly dawn. I sighed and focused, pulling my legs up to my knees instead of sitting down to meditate. I managed to stay in the air even as both my legs left the floor, and I hovered there for close to an hour, relaxing to the sound of the Rising Falls and my own breathing. After I carefully stood again, I realized that I was still wearing the clothes from yesterday. I grabbed new clothes from my closet and headed to the bathroom for a refreshing shower.
Riku was waiting for me when I exited the bathroom, washed and dressed. "Oh, good morning," I offered as greeting.
"You're up early again," he said dryly.
"Yeah, I just woke up and couldn't go back to sleep."
"Another bad dream?"
I looked away. Riku sighed and stood.
"Well, hopefully today will be too exhausting for you to dream. We're going to another world, Maleficent wants us to check out something there."
"What does she want us to do?"
Riku reached in his pocket and pulled out a small black stone. "She wants us to hold this up to a girl there, some chick named Ariel. Maleficent says that all we need to do is hold this stone near her, and tell her what happens."
"That seems... way too simple."
"Yeah," Riku sighed. "It'll probably be annoying and useless, but I have to find Kairi, and maybe she's there. I have to look everywhere." He walked to the door and held it open. "Well, come on. Let's eat some breakfast before we go see Maleficent. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
I picked up Chester and placed him on my shoulder, grabbed my new spellbook off my vanity, and followed Riku out the door. He led the way to the kitchen, where we ate our fill of bacon, eggs, and pancakes. I gave Chester a bite of bacon, and he purred with pleasure. Riku rolled his eyes at me. I didn't mention what had happened last night, and neither did he. I figured he didn't want to talk about it, given how he had stormed off.
We met Maleficent in her creepy dark room, where she stood waiting for us. Her skin looked more green than usual, but I attributed that to the lighting.
"Are you ready, my dears? Oh, Iva, I must test your magic before you go."
I stepped in front of Riku, peeling off my jacket and handing it to him, causing Chester to jump to the floor and disappear. I figured I was going to get sweaty, as I usually did when Maleficent had me use magic. The witch stood in front of me menacingly, but said nothing. She only raised her hands, sending a bolt of lightning flying towards me without warning. I flung my hands up, forcing the lightning upwards and into the ceiling. Maleficent's hands moved, and suddenly I was surrounded by fire, the real kind, bright red flames reaching almost to my waist. They didn't touch me, but I could feel their heat, and the beginnings of panic hit me.
'Calm down, Iva! She won't let you get hurt... will she?'
I thought to the most recent spell I had learned - well, the basics of it. I clung to the hope that it would help, and I raised my arms, summoning a cloud of frost over my head. It grew, forming hundreds of small ice crystals. I brought my hands down quickly, sending the crystals into the flames, which fizzled as they hit. It seemed that I had made enough, though, as the water formed from the melting crystals began to put out the fire. Gasping from the sudden decrease in my vitality, I looked to Maleficent, who was staring at me with a sinister grin on her face. Her hands fell to her sides, though one stayed on her staff.
"Very good, my dear... You have done well. So well, in fact, I have decided to give you a gift. I was going to wait, but it seems you would do well to have it now." Her staff vanished, and her hands glowed bright green. The light intensified and stretched, forming a bar in her hands. As the light faded, I saw a new staff, made of light wood with a knotted and gnarled top. She held it out to me in offering.
"This... is for me?" I reached out slowly, curious, but cautious. The wood felt cool when I grasped it, and as Maleficent released it, it glowed with a bluish light. As the light faded, vines of light covered the wood, decorating it with swirls of blue and silver. In the knotted mass at the top sat a polished black stone.
"Yes, my dear. It is a staff made just for you. The stone in the top is onyx - it will help amplify your powers. You can call it to your side whenever you wish, and should you have no need of it, you can send it away to wait for you. It is similar to my own, in that way."
The staff felt sturdy in my hands, and it filled me with a strange calm. "I... don't know what to say. Thank you."
"You have only yourself to thank, child," Maleficent cooed, "but you must continue practicing. You must continue to grow. I can tell you have so much untapped potential... I cannot wait to see how far you go." She called her staff back to her and turned to face Riku. "Now, I must send you to this world submerged in water. Ursula will meet you there and provide you the tools to do what I have asked of you. You may want to hold your breath," she cautioned with a sick smile. I quickly made to stand next to Riku and took his hand, slightly surprised when he didn't pull away. Maleficent held her hand and staff up, and we were engulfed in her green flames. I took a deep breath...
And nearly panicked when we hit water. It surrounded us, pushing us down. I let go of Riku's hand and dropped my staff, which vanished in a burst of light and bubbles. Riku caught my attention and pointed to a light above us, which I assumed was the surface. We swam up as quickly as we could, and I gasped for air when I breached the surface. Riku came up next to me, sputtering to get water out of his mouth.
"What the hell does that witch think she's doing?" he yelled. "Is she trying to kill us?"
"I don't know," I replied as I treaded the water, "but we better find Ursula, and quick."
"No need to find me, dearies," a voice called from below, "I have found you."
A chubby grey face with bright red lips breached the water next to us, causing me to recoil. "A-are you Ursula?" I asked warily.
"The one and only, dears! I understand Maleficent has a job for you two. Well, you're not going to last long in this world when you're stuck with those silly legs of yours. And I know Maleficent asked me ever so kindly to work my magic on you, but... You see, I don't like doing things for free. You're going to have to give me something in return for my magic."
"Give you something? As if," Riku scoffed.
"It is a simple thing, really," Ursula continued. "Just a strand of your hair. From both of you. Don't worry, I won't use it to hurt you, it's for an experiment of mine."
I didn't like the sound of this experiment, but I figured we had no choice - especially once I realized that Ursula was actually a rather large woman with octopus tentacles instead of legs.
"Riku, we need to do this," I said to him quietly.
"The hell we do," he retorted, scowling at Ursula.
"Riku, we're eventually going to tire out and drown if we don't have her magic. Have you noticed that she's part octopus? She can probably breathe underwater. It's just a hair. I don't like it either, but I also don't like the idea of drowning, so..." I reached up and yanked a hair from Riku's head, causing him to yelp and swim away from me. I pulled one of my own out and swam over to Ursula, who was grinning in anticipation.
"I will give you these hairs AFTER you do what you were supposed to do. I swear it. But I'm getting really tired of swimming here, so could you please hurry up?"
Ursula scowled. "Oh, alright, fine, you little wretches!" She raised her hands above water, and suddenly Riku and I were sucked into a whirlpool that pulled us underwater. I struggled, trying not to let the water flood my lungs, but as my legs flailed about, they began to move together, and it felt as if they were fusing. I felt lighter, the water felt more like air, and then the whirlpool stopped as soon as it had come. I looked around, still holding my breath, and realized that the hairs were no longer in my hand. Ursula held them instead, and I realized we were completely underwater.
"Thank you for your help, dears. Go on, take a breath! I promise you'll feel better."
I was getting light-headed from holding my breath for so long, and I gave in and gasped, then froze. The water really was like air - I could breathe again! I took a few experimental breaths, slightly freaked out. I looked over to Riku, noticing his look of shock and his long silver fish tail.
"Riku, look! You've got a tail!" I exclaimed, startled.
"So do you!" he retorted, motioning to my legs. I looked down, only to realized that I no longer had legs. They had fused into a long and sleek fish tail that was a pretty shade of golden yellow. It reminded me of my hair. I also noticed that I no longer had a shirt - or even a bra. The only thing covering my chest was a few leaves of seaweed wrapped around my ribs. I yelped and covered my chest with my arms, embarrassed. "Ursula, couldn't you have at least given me a shirt?!" I yelled, looking around for her. I realized she was gone. "Took off... Stupid witch..."
"Oh, come on, Iva, what are you embarrassed for? In case you haven't noticed, I don't have a shirt either."
In fact, I had noticed, and I was trying to ignore it. Without a shirt, I could clearly see how fit Riku was, and that paired with the fact that I was nearly naked had my face feeling rather hot. "W-well, let's just get this stupid mission over with so we can get back to the castle!"
"Well, I have to get used to swimming like this first. We're not going to get anywhere if we can't swim," Riku stated dryly. He dove forward, cutting through the water with ease. I thought he looked like he knew what he was doing, as if he spent a lot of time swimming. I, on the other hand, had not spent much time in the water - I knew how to keep myself afloat, and that was it. Riku swam in circles around the little cove we were in, and after a while, he turned to look at me with a curious expression on his face. "Come on, we need to get moving." He swam up to me, and I felt my face burning again. "What's the matter?"
I looked away. "I, uh... I don't really know how to swim like this."
Riku's laughter brought my eyes back to him. He was holding his sides, his eyes shut, as he laughed harder than I had ever seen, even when I was tickling him. "H-hey! It's not funny!" My comment only seemed to make him laugh more, and he floated there for a few minutes, trying to get a hold of himself. When he finally quieted down, he focused on me, and I couldn't help but notice how bright his eyes were and how happy he looked. He reached out to me and gently took my hands and pulled, effectively unwrapping my arms from around my chest. He didn't look at my bare skin, though - he leaned back and pulled, dragging me slowly through the water.
"Come on, Iva, you can do it. Just imagine your legs are stuck together. Start with your hips, then move down the length of your tail. You'll get the hang of it." He pulled me along as I struggled, smiling at my efforts. At first I merely wiggled in the water, but when Riku swam in front of me and pulled my arms up and then down, making my body form a sort of wave, I got the hang of it. He pulled me around in circles until I could keep up with him, and when I swam past him, he let go of my right hand and swam to my left, holding on to my other hand tightly. He pulled me upwards and we swam slowly out of the cove, and I halted to take in the sights.
The underwater world was simply stunning. Large clam shells littered the ocean floor, and seaweed swayed in gentle currents. Mermaids with seashell bras and mermen with strong tails swam between coral buildings, and in the distance stood a huge castle made of dark stone and coral structures. I didn't want to ever leave this place. The water was so calming, and I felt so comfortable in this new body, even though I was half-naked.
"Hellooo? Earth to Iva?" Riku floated into my vision, his face curious. "You okay in there?" He waved a hand in front of my face. I waved it away, smiling.
"Sorry, I just kinda got caught in the moment. This place is so pretty..."
Riku rolled his eyes. "Well, quit your daydreaming. We have to find this girl, Ariel. This city looks big; we should get started." He swam slowly towards the city, pulling me alongside him. I took in the sights as we moved, running my hands through seaweed patches, staring at hermit crabs as they scuttled along.
We came upon the city fairly quickly. The other mermaids and mermen paid no attention to us as we swam through the streets, staring into shop fronts and pubs. I could hear jazzy music coming from somewhere, but couldn't pinpoint it. Riku stopped on a street corner and held the stone out in front of him. I suddenly wondered where he was storing it.
"Maybe this can help us?"
I didn't have the chance to answer, as a mermaid with long flaming red hair swam past us quickly, bumping into me. She stopped and turned, clutching the bag on her shoulder.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"ARIEL! ARIEEELLL!" a voice yelled from behind.
"Oh, dear! I have to go!" the girl swam off quickly. A small red crab swam up to us, panting.
"Ariel, wait! Oh, Triton will not be happy with me..." He swam off after her, leaving Riku and I staring at each other.
"Go after her?" I asked, though I already knew the answer. Riku nodded, his face suddenly serious, and he took my hand again and cut forward through the water, dragging me along. I caught up to him quickly, and we followed the red-haired mermaid named Ariel as she darted through the streets, eventually swimming away from the city. We hung behind a bit, allowing the crab to follow her on his own, and watched as she shoved aside a rock and swam behind it. The crab followed suit, and I moved forward to do so as well. Riku held me back, staring at me incredulously.
"Iva, what are you doing?" he hissed.
"I'm going to see what all that fuss was about. We need to talk to her anyway, right?" I pulled my hand free and swam towards the rock, Riku trailing behind and muttering to himself about how this didn't seem like a good idea. I squeezed through the small opening the rock had made and into what looked like a little cave tunnel. Riku wriggled in behind me, bumping into me in the dark. I swam quietly towards the light shining from a few feet away, emerging into a small cavern with light filtering down from a hole in the top. I could see the surface of the water shimmering in what seemed to be the setting sun.
"Oh! Hello again!" The mermaid with the red hair appeared in my vision, her blue eyes staring at me intensely. "I am so sorry for bumping into you earlier, but I had to get this away from my father. Look at this," she continued, her voice filled with wonder. She reached into the bag at her side and pulled out a silver fork, her eyes sparkling. "I asked my friend Scuttle what this was and he said it was a 'dinglehopper!' He said that humans use it to brush their hair, like this!" She then proceeded to use the fork to comb through her hair. Riku tried to hide a snicker from behind me. The mermaid stopped and swam away from us, setting the fork down inside a box filled with eating utensils.
"How did you find this place, anyway?" She asked, turning back to us.
"O-oh, um... we followed you," I replied sheepishly. "We were curious to see why you were in such a hurry."
"Well, my father doesn't like me bringing things back from the human ships that sink around here, but I find it all so fascinating!" She twirled in the water, staring up towards the surface with a wistful look on her face. I took the opportunity to look back at Riku, who was holding the stone in his open hand. It looked the same as it always had. I gave Riku a questioning glance, and he shrugged.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't introduce myself! I'm Ariel," the mermaid said, turning back to us. "What are your names?"
"I'm Iva, and this is Riku," I replied, assuming Riku was going to keep his habit of staying silent when talking to new people.
"Are you new around here? I've never seen you before." Ariel stared at us curiously, searching our faces for anything familiar.
"Yeah, uh... we're not from around these, uh, waters. So yeah, I guess we're new. We're only here for a short time, though," I lied, hoping that she couldn't see through it. She didn't seem to catch on, though, as she simply smiled.
"Well, it's wonderful that you're visiting! Do you have a place to stay? I know a few wonderful inns in the city if you want some suggestions!"
I glanced to Riku, who nodded. "Sure," I said, turning back to Ariel. "We need a place to stay for the night, at least."
"Follow me, then! I'll bring you to my favorite!" Ariel swam quickly towards the entrance, the small crab trailing behind and muttering to himself. Riku and I followed, staying back a bit so we could talk.
"Well?" I asked him quietly. "What do you think?"
"I have no idea," he admitted. "I don't know if the stone was supposed to do anything, or what... I guess all that's left to do now is find Ursula so we can get back to the castle."
I groaned. "Finding her again should be fun. She seems like the type that doesn't want to be found."
We swam towards the city without speaking any more, and Ariel turned around occasionally to make sure we were following. She slowed when we reached the streets, leading us carefully through the thinning crowds. I could still hear that jazzy music playing, and it seemed to get louder as we swam. I pinpointed the sound to a nearby building, which we stopped in front of. Ariel turned to us excitedly.
"This is my favorite inn! I don't sleep here, but the music is wonderful! And don't worry, they'll stop playing once night falls, so you can sleep soundly! Come on, I'm sure you'll love it!" Ariel swam inside, leaving the door open for us.
"Ariel, wait! The King will not be happy about this!" the crab yelled after her.
"The King?" I muttered. "So she's a real princess?"
"I guess so," Riku replied, swimming forward. "Come on, let's get a place to sleep."
We entered the inn and were immediately surrounded by laughter, taking, and music. In the corner of the spacious room stood a band of sea creatures, all playing instruments made of coral and rock and shells. Tables were scattered upon the floor, at which sat groups of mermaids and mermen and other creatures such as dolphins and fish. I thought it looked rather bizarre to see all these animals interacting. Ariel's flaming red hair was across the room, as she sat at the bar, talking to what seemed to be the innkeeper. I took Riku's hand and led him to the counter, getting both the innkeeper's and Ariel's attention.
"Oh, here they are! These two, they need a room for the night!"
"Anything for you, my dear Ariel," he grinned. He turned to us, still smiling. "I only have single rooms available, with one bed. Will that be alright? I'm full to the brim!"
I opened my mouth to speak, but Riku cut in before I could. "That will be fine," he said, causing me to look at him in shock, "I can just sleep on the floor, it's no big deal. We're only here for one night." He looked at me with amusement.
"Alrighty! Here's your key, and don't worry about payment - I'm doing this as a favor to my girl Ariel!" he grinned at the mermaid in question, who beamed back at him in return. She turned to us, smiling.
"Well, I've got to get back to the castle now. I hope you guys have a nice stay here!"
"Yeah, and thanks so much for securing this room for us," I said as Riku took the key from the innkeeper. "We really appreciate it."
"It's no problem at all! Well, come on, Sebastian. Daddy will be looking for me soon, so I should get back."
The crab groaned and followed Ariel out of the inn. The innkeeper laughed softly.
"That girl is too spirited for her own good. Good kid, though. Just wish she'd listen to her father more often. He worries about her, he does." He turned his attention back to us. "You guys are on the top floor, so if you wanted to head up now, you'd be far enough from the music so it shouldn't bother you too much, although I'll be telling them to quiet down soon. Do you want anything to drink or eat?"
Now that I thought about it, I was rather hungry - I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and I figured it was nearing dusk. I glanced at Riku, who smiled.
"What do you guys have to eat here?"
The innkeeper handed us a menu and sent us to an empty table, where a dolphin took our orders. I still wasn't sure where Riku was storing things, as he pulled out munny to pay for our meals and to tip the waiter. I thought about asking, then decided it wasn't really important.
Later, when our bellies were full of seaweed salads and various sea vegetation, Riku suggested we go to bed. The band was putting away their instruments, and people were slowly leaving the inn, either going up to their rooms or out the front door to go home. Riku and I followed the small trail of people up the ramp (I guess they didn't need stairs since they didn't have legs), and we reached the third floor with ease. The ramp ran flat into a short hallway, the same length as the floors below. Riku looked at the key in his hand and led the way to our room, quickly unlocking it and ushering me inside.
The room was small, but not cramped. Shells decorated the bed frame and a mirror on the wall, and skirted the edge of a small window leading to the street. No window pane or barrier sat in the window; it was just a square hole in the wall, big enough to swim through. The bed was big enough for two people, and I blushed at the thought of sharing a bed with Riku, then remembered that he had volunteered to sleep on the floor. I swam over to the bed, picking up a pillow and a spare blanket off of it and handing them to Riku with a grin.
"You did volunteer to sleep on the floor," I teased. He rolled his eyes, but took the items with a small smile.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Maybe I should make YOU sleep on the floor."
I gasped in mock surprise. "You would make a lady sleep on the floor?"
"If you can call yourself a lady," he commented.
"Reel in the snark, mister, or I might take away your blanket," I said as I sat on the edge of the bed. It was weird sitting with a tail - I was afraid I wouldn't be able to sleep like this, since I liked to sprawl out in my sleep. I watched as Riku tossed the pillow on the floor and floated down, laying down gently and tossing the blanket over himself. He turned to me with a curious expression.
"What? Why are you staring at me?"
"Huh?" I looked away. "Sorry, I kinda zoned out, I guess." I pulled back the covers and settled into bed myself, trying not to rub my scales the wrong way on the bed. The blanket was surprisingly warm, and I decided that I wouldn't be freezing in the water like I was afraid I would be. I laid my head down on the soft pillow, giving Riku a sleepy "good night" before drifting off to sleep.