This was written June 2018. At the time, Kingdom Hearts 3 had not come out yet, so this was sort of a speculation fic. It looks like I wrote this after watching an E3 trailer, probably the first one that showed Aqua. I'll include the original author's notes at the end.
"The last time any of us saw Aqua outside the Realm of Darkness, she left to take Ventus somewhere safe," Mickey had told Riku.
"The last time we saw her, she left to save Terra," Mickey had said.
There were a number of reasons that Riku and Mickey Mouse, dressed in outfits to protect themselves from the darkness, had set out to save Aqua from the Realm of Darkness. They owed it to her, for starters, after she stayed behind to let them escape safely. They were still trying to prevent this whole Keyblade War business, and Aqua was one of the guardians of light they needed on their side. Ever since she became a master, she'd fought for and sacrificed herself for others, and it was about time someone fought for her sake. No one deserved to wander in darkness for ten years without reprieve. The fact that she'd still been okay the last time anyone saw her was a testament to her inner strength. And of course there was the obvious: Aqua was the only one who knew where to find Ventus, and they'd need her to recover Terra as well.
But, Riku reflected, it wasn't just that either. He spare a glance down at Mickey, who was still at his side. Ever since they'd doubled down on rescuing Aqua, Mickey had grown somber. Riku doubted he had the whole story, but he knew enough.
However big of a role Mickey had played the first time Xehanort struck, it was clear that Mickey blamed himself for not doing more. For allowing his friends to end up the way they had.
On his part, Riku didn't believe it for a second. He knew Mickey. He was sure that Mickey had done the best he could at the time, tried as hard as he could for his friends. But Xehanort had backup plans upon backup plans for every scenario. He knew exactly what to do to get the outcome he wanted. Mickey could hardly be blamed for that.
That didn't seem to stop Mickey from blaming himself, though.
At this moment, though, Mickey didn't seem to want to talk about it, and Riku wasn't about to push it or force him. Now, they had a mission. When the time came, he'd do his best to support him.
Pulling himself out of his own thoughts, Riku looked around the area. He nearly missed it, but caught it in the corner of his eye: a corridor of darkness. It was only a few feet away, and a Neoshadow was crawling out of it. How did he miss it before? The Neoshadow sprang forward, lunging at Mickey.
"Behind you!" Riku called out.
Without hesitation, Mickey spun around and threw his keyblade at the Heartless. The keyblade hit its mark accurately; with one hit, the Neoshadow was destroyed. But the keyblade kept going, flying straight through the corridor.
"Shucks," Mickey muttered when it didn't come back. "I didn't..."
"It's okay. Let's go get it," Riku said. He moved first, walking through the corridor before Mickey reached it.
On the other side, he spotted Mickey's keyblade immediately. It had wedged itself in the ground, sticking straight up. Relieved, Riku had been about to walk forward and retrieve it.
That's when he noticed he wasn't alone.
A figure coated in darkness had watched him walk through the corridor. Now that he was out, it approached the keyblade. It tilted its head, studying the weapon, before picking it up for itself.
"This keyblade..." The figure mused. Its voice called out to the furthest corners of Riku's memories, begged for him to place it. It sounded so familiar, but he couldn't figure it out.
All the same, that voice rooted Riku in place.
Mickey was just starting to catch up. His head poked out of the corridor, but he quickly saw the figure, too, and he'd clearly heard it speak. He froze, too. "Is that...?" he began, unwilling to finish the question.
The darkness rolled off the figure like the tide, until it was nearly gone. Now, they could see the figure's face clearly. It was Aqua, but something was wrong. Her hair had grown a cloudy white, her eyes a sharp yellow, and Riku didn't like at all what this might mean.
As Mickey spoke, Aqua turned to face him, and recognition flashed in her eyes. "Mickey." Her grip on the keyblade tightened until she was practically squeezing it. Darkness began to coat the weapon. "You're too late."
For a moment, everything was completely still. Then Aqua sprinted forward, Mickey's keyblade still in hand. She dashed at Mickey, raising her keyblade. Mickey still wasn't moving, and Riku wasn't sure if he would. His instincts told him that Mickey wouldn't. That he had to do something, now. He ran the few steps that would put him between Mickey and Aqua. With no time to spare, Way to the Dawn appeared in his hand, and he raised it up to block Aqua's attack.
Light flashed between their weapons, and darkness flared up around Mickey's keyblade, still in Aqua's hand. There was an audible crack as the force of Aqua's attack split Riku's keyblade in two. The weapon's grip, still in his hand, remained where it was. The blade's teeth, now detached, spun in the air before wedging itself in the ground a few feet away.
With wide eyes, Aqua stared at what remained of the Way to the Dawn.
"Mickey." At the sound of Riku's voice, Mickey blinked a few times, shook his head, and made eye contact. "We have to go," Riku said.
"But, Aqua-" Mickey protested.
"We'll come back, we'll save her," Riku promised. "But right now, this is a fight we can't win."
Mickey hesitated for a moment, looking between Riku and Aqua, who still appeared shocked. Then he nodded and disappeared back into the corridor of darkness they came from. Riku followed after before Aqua had a chance to react.
"You are who you are because of those people, but they're hurting, and you're the only one who can end their sadness. They need you," Mickey had written.
Well, Sora reflected, Roxas was a given, but...who else was there? Recollections of dreams and half-memories stirred in the back of his mind, but they were unreachable. He didn't have any leads on that front. With Mickey and Riku gone on their own mission, he couldn't ask, either.
So he did the next best thing, and worked with what he did have. With any luck, Roxas would lead him to someone else, and he could keep going until he'd reached everyone that needed him. Lea had been recruited to help, of course; he knew Roxas better than anyone. And on Lea's suggestion, they went to Ienzo. Roxas' memories of him were far and few between, but Lea assured Sora that Ienzo was the right person for the job. When Sora had gone to meet with Ienzo, however, Lea stayed behind. He claimed he needed to focus on training with Kairi, but Sora could tell that was just an excuse. For some reason, Lea didn't want to go, but Sora didn't feel like pushing it.
Between Sora and Ienzo, however, they had all the knowledge they needed. When Sora brought up the digital Twilight Town, Ienzo had been intrigued. Given all the data the simulation had to hold on Roxas just to run, it might have everything necessary to bring Roxas back. Soon, everyone got to work.
It wasn't long before Donald and Goofy caught up to them. The duo watched everyone working with a frown.
"Messing with the other Twilight Town again?" Donald asked.
"Yup!" Sora flashed them a smile. "Ienzo thinks it holds the key to bringing Roxas back." Donald and Goofy shared a look, and Sora laughed. "What? C'mon, don't leave me hanging!"
"Gawrsh, uh, did you know this isn't the only digital simulation around?" Goofy asked.
"And, uh, it's not the only one that's had data on Roxas in it, either," Donald added.
"Huh? What are you talking about?" Sora asked.
Without looking up form his work, Ienzo waved his hand at Sora. "It sounds like you have other matters to attend to. It will take the rest of us some time to complete the preparations anyway, but we will be fine here on our own. You can go. By the time you come back, hopefully we will be ready for you."
"Well, fellas, I think it's time we took another trip to the castle," Goofy decided.
A short Gummi Ship trip away, and Sora, Donald, and Goofy were back in Disney Castle. Donald and Goofy quickly lead Sora through the castle until they were in an area that was even familiar to Sora: the castle's library. But, as Sora took in the scene, he realized even the library had changed.
What had once been a largely empty space was now filled with, well, that was the elephant in the room, wasn't it? Sora had never seen that giant machine before, resting on a table in the middle of the room. It was attached to a monitor like a computer, but he'd never seen a computer that looked quite like it. A tiny book rested inside the machine. It was so small that Sora could only reach one conclusion: it had to be one of the journals written by Jiminy.
This was confirmed when Jiminy, who had been present the whole time but had remained quiet, hopped out from his usual resting space in Sora's hood and landed neatly on the table. He adjusted his hat. "Well, you see, Sora, after you finished your second adventure, I was going through my old journals and making sure everything was in order. The journal of your first journal was blank, other than one page. But when I went through it again, I found writing on a second page. I never wrote the message waiting there, and I always kept it with me, so no one else could have written in it either. So, I started to investigate.
"What our investigation led us to wasn't exactly a happy ending. It's why Mickey wrote you that letter, about people that needed your help. And when Mickey reported everything to Yen Sid, it helped us realize that Master Xehanort wold be returning. Not to mention, if we never conducted our investigation, the mission Mickey and Riku are on wouldn't be happening at all, or if it was, Riku would probably have gone on his own. But to find all that out, we had to digitize the contents of my first journal. It turned out, the pages are blank, but the book is still full of all the memories I first wrote in it."
"So..." Sora approached the table, looking over the giant machine. "...You're saying that this is a digital simulation of our first journey?"
"Exactly. All the worlds we visited, everyone I wrote about, they're all in there," Jiminy told him. "There's even a simulation of you in there. And we learned a lot about you from this simulation, Sora. Things you might not even be aware of."
"Well, that doesn't sound weird at all," Sora chuckled.
"I might not be the best person to explain all this," Jiminy admitted. "But I know the perfect person for the job." Clearing his throat, Jiminy pressed a button on the machine's keyboard and tapped a microphone stiking out from it. "Hello? Are you there? It's me, Jiminy. I've got a special guest here that needs to speak with you."
The machine's monitor flashed on without Jiminy pressing anything. Most of the monitor's display was white, but there was a person amidst all that whiteness. They made eye contact with Sora, and immediately, both of them gasped. Sora took a step back.
"Sora?" the person on the monitor asked.
Damaged as it was, Way to the Dawn was no use as a weapon for Riku. But he could manage. It still worked well enough as a conduit for his magic, and he had more than enough magic up his sleeve.
Since they found Aqua, Riku could swear he could see her everywhere, around every corner, at the edges of his vision. At one point he even thought he saw...himself? But that was merely his own paranoia. They weren't really there.
When Aqua showed herself to them again, ready to fight, he knew that this time she was real.
"You knew I was here," Aqua said, looking at Mickey. "I kept waiting for anyone to come save me. But it seems you couldn't bring yourself to face me again. You couldn't face your own failures."
She went in to strike once again, and once again, Mickey did not react. Riku readied his weapon and cast his spell. Dark fire shot out from his weapon and spread on the ground, separating Mickey and Aqua. It wouldn't keep them apart for long, of course, but it would be just enough time for what he needed.
"Mickey, do you trust me?" Riku asked. It was the question he didn't deserve to even ask, and the only answer he deserved was a 'no'. He'd done so much to hurt and betray his friends, trust wasn't something he was worthy of it now. But there was no time for that, no time to wallow in his own guilt. Riku glanced back at Mickey, who was staring at the ground. It looked like Mickey was doing enough of that for the two of them, anyway. Mickey couldn't bring himself to fight Aqua, and Riku wouldn't ask him to. But one of them had to.
"Of course I do," Mickey answered immediately. He stared up at Riku, frowning. "You know I do."
"I need to borrow your keyblade," Riku said. He was the only one capable of fighting in this moment. But Mickey was the only one with a working weapon.
"Ah, of course!" In a flash of light, Mickey's keyblade appeared in his hand. It was the same one he'd been wielding the last time they'd seen Aqua; he'd of course been able to call it back to himself after they ran away. This keyblade was a new one, looking like a cross between Star Seeker and the Kingdom Key D. He held it out to Riku, who took it. "I trust you, Riku."
Riku nodded. "Thank you. I know it's not too late to save her."
In that moment, the dark flames burned out between the two of them. Aqua closed the difference between them, but Riku was ready. With both light and dark attacks, he struck back.
The keyblade Aqua was now using was one Riku didn't recognize, but he assumed it was her own. It responded to her as well as he imagined hers would. Aqua's strengths lay in her magic, and it really showed in the way she fought. Aqua relied less on physically swinging her keyblade around, and more in casting spells, trying to encase Riku in ice or strike him with lightning.
Two could play at that game.
Riku spun the keyblade in his hand in a circle, then held it up over his head, pointing upwards. A giant meteor came crashing down on top of Aqua. After it made contact, Aqua appeared to disappear completely in a puff of darkness.
Mickey blinked. "What...just happened?"
"I doubt that that would've been enough to take down Aqua." Riku tossed the keyblade back to Mickey, who caught it easily. "Or even be enough to stop her. So it looks like that Aqua was a fake."
"A..fake?" Mickey blinks. "So we didn't find her after all?"
Riku shook his head. "Darkness can get in your head. Make you see things that aren't really there, create illusions based on your memories. It looks like the darkness used your fears about finding her and used it against us."
"Well, gosh." Mickey scratched an itch behind his ear. "Looks like this whole thing's been a dead end, and I guess I'm the one that led us down it. I'm sorry, Riku."
"Don't be. We all get tricked by the dark sometimes."
The darkness from the false Aqua's defeat dissipated at that, and something else took its place. Something long and dark, that briefly floated in their air before clattering to the ground. Riku and Mickey exchanged a glance.
"Is that...?" Riku asked.
"A new keyblade," Mickey confirmed.
"From the Realm of Darkness?"
"That's not necessarily a bad thing," Mickey pointed out. "My own keyblade is from here, too. And you've proven to me time and time again that darkness can be used for good." He flashed Riku a smile. "Go on, take it. It's yours."
Importing people into Jiminy's Journal was a simple task for Data Riku. He'd done it before, and he could do it again. So bringing Sora in and taking him to Castle Oblivion wasn't hard at all.
Sora looked around at the white walls, the white ceiling, the white floor with a frown. "It feels like I've been here before."
"That's because you have," Data Riku told him. "Depending on how you look at it, you've been here a few times, actually."
"So, then, why did you bring me here?" Sora crossed his arms. "Is this a place I should remember? Or..."
"Not really. You chose to forget most of it, and were forced to forget some of the rest. Roxas came here briefly once, but lost consciousness almost immediately, so he might not remember it too well," Data Riku answered. He gestured to the room around them. "This world isn't supposed to be here. It was added after the journal was completed. But it wasn't an accident, or part of any design to attack the journal. As it is, this world was constructed entirely for you."
"For me?" Sora took a step forward, looking around again. "Why would someone create a world for me that I've forgotten?"
"Because it's not the only thing here you don't remember." Riku's gaze fixated on the door on the other side of the room, which likely led further into the castle. "You spent a year asleep in the outside world. During that time, memories were found deep in your heart, that belong to you. But they aren't memories you made. These memories belong to others connected to you, that need your help. But in order to help them, you need to unlock those memories. So along with this world, a copy of those memories was put into the journal, to let you know that those memories are there, and to help guide you to what you need to do."
"My...memories are here," Sora repeated. "And in order to help everyone, I need to...remember?"
"That's the first step. Recovering your lost memories is the way of things here in Castle Oblivion. But what you do after is up to you." Data Riku shrugged. "Whatever you choose, it'll help them, it'll be the right choice. I know it will."
"If that's the case, then..." Sora nodded, his arms dropping to his sides. "Then I'm ready. How do I access the memories?"
Riku frowned. "Before you do, I need to warn you that these memories aren't happy ones. Mickey and your counterpart here relived them before, and since these memories are part of the journal now, I have access to them, too. I've analyzed them as thoroughly as possible. These memories are painful, and they could drag you into darkness if you're not careful. You could lose yourself entirely. But they're easier to face with a friend. So that's why I asked these two to tag along."
Riku jerked his head backwards, and Sora turned around. In a flash of data, two other people appeared and ran to him: Data Sora and Data Kairi.
"I've been through it before, so I know you'll make it out okay," Data Sora said. "We'll get through it together."
"I've always been with you. So I'll be with you through this, too," Data Kairi added. "Don't forget, your friends are always here for you."
"I won't. I know we can do it." Sora turned to face Data Riku, smiling. "And you're coming, too, right?"
"I... Do you really want me there?" Data Riku asked. He took a step backwards. "You know who I am, right? I'm a version of the Riku that let himself fall to darkness. The Riku that betrayed you. Whatever the Riku you know now is like... I'm not him. I'm not the friend you've come to know."
"Of course I know who you are. No matter what happened, Riku never stopped being my friend. I never turned my back on you before, and I'm not about to start now," Sora answered.
"It doesn't matter what you've done, or how the journal's changed you," Data Sora answered. "You're still Riku, and you always will be our best friend."
"When I was lost, you never gave up on me. You never stopped searching, never stopped trying. No matter what, I won't give up on you either," Data Kairi told Data Riku with a smile.
Data Riku sighed, then he began to smile as well. "Alright. Then I'll come, too. We'll get through this together."
Sora took Data Sora and Data Kairi's hands, and Data Riku took Data Sora's free hand. Data Riku took the four of them into the room Namine had once inhabited.
"Can't use this keyblade anymore," Riku muttered, Way to the Dawn in his hand. He thrust it into the ground so that it sat upright, the handle sticking up in the air. Then he turned its back on it. "Might as well leave it here...in case the other me needs it."
Mickey shot him a questioning glance, but Riku didn't answer it. Sora might not be able to remember everything that happened in Castle Oblivion, but Riku did. And while the Aqua they saw turned out to be a fake...he had a feeling.
In your hand, take this key...
This just wasn't their day, was it?
Darksides surrounded Mickey and Riku from every side, every angle. Whenver they managed to defeat one, more appeared to take its place. Not to mention just how hard their attacks hit. The two of them couldn't keep this up forever.
Suddenly, glowing chains wrapped around every single Darkside. Magic weaved around the chains as they squeezed tighter, eventually destroying all the Heartless in the area.
"It looks like my carriage to take me home has arrived." Aqua ran towards them.
"Aqua!" Mickey greeted her with a grin.
"Aren't we supposed to be the ones saving you?" Riku pointed out with a laugh.
Aqua chuckled as she reached them. She gasped for breath, grabbing Riku's shoulder for support. "You are, trust me. Thank you for coming back. I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate it."
Mickey looked her up and down. It was clear she had been the one to cast the spell that defeat the Darksides, but... "You don't have the keyblade we saw you use last time."
"No, you're right, I don't," Aqua confirmed. She clasped her hands together in front of her chest and stared down at them. "The Master's keyblade is the key to finding where Ven is resting. I've been holding onto it for years, looking for a way out, looking for a way to go back to him. But lately, the shadows have grown stronger. The darkness has tighter hold on me than ever. If I fell, I didn't want to wake Ventus up only to bend him to Xehanort's will." She sighed. "So I sent it away, to the only other person who can find Ven and wake him up. He can do a better job of it than I have, I know he can."
"And how is it supposed to reach him from here?" Riku asked.
Aqua brought a hand up to her mouth and laughed. "I cast a magic spell." She laughed more at that, and Riku and Mickey exchanged glances. It sounded like some kind of inside joke...with...herself? "There's a place here that connects to the Realm of Light," she finally explained. "If I'm not mistaken, I believe it connects to the world you're from, Riku. It's the world he's from as well. So I...sent it through that connection, carried by the waves. Like a message in a bottle."
"I think I know where you mean." Riku smiled. "It'll reach him. I know it will."
"So, this is the keyblade Aqua used to hide Ventus away," Sora mused, holding Master's Defender to the light, as if that would reveal all its secrets.
"Ventus, huh?" Sora turned to see Lea approaching him from behind, hands in his coat pockets. "There's a name I haven't heard in awhile."
"That's right, you met him, too, didn't you?" Sora looked back to Master's Defender. "He's been asleep for a long time. This keyblade is the only way we can find him."
"So, you must be off to Castle Oblivion, then," Lea declared, taking one of his hands out of its pocket to pat Sora roughly on the back.
Sora jumped, then frowned. "How did you know?"
"Well, Xemnas had me searching every inch of the place for something," Lea recalled. "I never found it, and at the time, I don't think he even expected me to. Right now, Ven's the only thing I can think of that's un-findable."
"Well, you're right." Sora sat the keyblade down against his leg. "That's where he is, and that's where I'm going."
"Guess that makes two of us, then," Lea decided, stretching his arms in the air.
"What, you're not going to find another excuse to back out?" Sora asked, raising his eyebrows.
"I had very important training to get to last time!" Lea protested, his hands falling to his hips.
"More like you had important sleeping to get to," Sora retorted, grinning.
Lea laughed. It was just like having Roxas back again, but it was...weird, hearing it all come from Sora. Something about it just felt off. Once they got Roxas back, it would be better. He hoped. "Anyway, with all that time I spent in the castle, I know it better than anyone else. And Ven deserves to at least see more than one friendly face when he finally wakes up. I think I'm the best candidate for the job, and you should be glad to have me."
"Since you so kindly volunteered yourself," Sora said with a laugh, "It looks like it's you and me."
Lea stopped a second after Sora froze beside him. Sora was just..staring up at the castle, eyes wide. He looked completely lost to the world.
Lea waved a hand in front of his face. "Yo, Sora. You in there?"
Sora shook his head lightly, blinking. "Sorry, it's just..." He stared up at Castle Oblivion once again, a frown tugging at his mouth. "It's just...this was their home."
"Ven lived here?" Lea looked the castle up and down again. That cast this whole place in a new light. He tried to imagine living in that place full time, training(?) there, doing the same sorts of things he and Isa used to do for fun in Radiant Garden. "Poor guy. Must've been easy to get lost in."
"No, it...wasn't always like this," Sora told him. "This world used to have another name. It was turned into this, to keep Ventus safe. So no one would find him. Before that, this whole place was destroyed, and everyone else who lived here is...gone. They had so many happy memories here, before. It's so sad."
"Well, maybe they can fix it, put it back the way it was," Lea suggested. "Make new memories here."
Sora held his hand out, and Master's Defender appeared in his hand. He tore his gaze away from the castle and looked up at Lea. "Everyone's memories...they're still deep inside me. I'm not Aqua. But I remember enough that we can find Ven. And when we do, I'm the only one that can wake him up. It has to be me."
"Well, don't sell yourself so short!" Lea teased.
Sora snorted. "No, I mean... I remember now. I've been connected to him for longer than I can remember. I've been letting his heart rest in mine this whole time. He can't wake up without it."
'Oh,' Lea mouthed, the shape of the vowel remaining on his lips for a few seconds. "Well, that explains a lot, then, doesn't it? Can't believe he's been there the whole time," he added with a shake of his head.
Sora smiled. "Well, then, are you ready?"
"Only if you are," Lea told him.
"Well, then...let's go find Ventus."
Well dang how about that E3!
Ever since I keep trying to put the pieces together in my head, figure out what exactly is going on. We've gotten some glimpses into both storylines, and Riku's bits especially are quite interesting: his old keyblade gets broken and he leaves it behind, he finds a new one, he and Mickey got to the realm of darkness to find Aqua, and there they find a seemingly norted Aqua! Personally, I'm of the opinion that this Aqua will turn out to be an illusion, the darkness preying on Mickey's guilts and fears about letting her wander there alone for so long, and from having to leave her behind. She seems to be mad at Mickey, blame him, and while I didn't touch upon it here, I don't think Aqua actually blames Mickey for anything, and she's probably just grateful for the things he has done to help her here and there, despite what Mickey might fear. Given all these pieces, I think they mesh together quite nicely, don't you? They meet this norted Aqua and, real or not, she ends up breaking Riku's keyblade, and in the ensuing conflict Riku proves himself worthy to wield this new keyblade. If she turns out to actually be Aqua I will be doubly excited! But, til then, these are my theories on the matter.
And then of course, there's Sora, too. We've gotten all these glimpses into him trying to bring Roxas back, but hey, there's a handful of other missing people that need Sora's help, too! That glimpse we got so long ago of Sora with Aqua's keyblade, sooner or later he'll end up at Castle Oblivion, and if Aqua doesn't have her keyblade, he might do that before she's rescued, I think it's possible for Sora to find Ventus on his own if he has that keyblade and has accessed those hurting memories. And as for the Re:Coded stuff in here, that's more of the wishful thinking part. I would love for this callback to Re:Coded, for Sora to meet Data Riku and to experience those memories Data Namine mentioned. She may have removed herself from the journal, but I don't think she removed Castle Oblivion, and I don't think those memories are gone, either, so this is one way it could go down, I think. I know I'm in a minority in all this, of course, and we'll see what Square brings. I don't truly believe Re:Coded will be called back to in this way, but let me hope...
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed all this speculation, and whether Kingdom Hearts 3 takes any of these routes or not, I'm excited to find out!
Edit (6/21/18): Fixed a few typos