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Chapter L: Next Steps

“Where was I when all this happened…?” Leon mumbled.

“Here, back in your world, I’m guessing…” Riku said slowly. “Eventually the Heartless will find their way here, too.”

Leon and Riku leaned idly against a stone wall in the lobby of Balamb Garden. They were pretty much alone, aside from occasional students, would-be SeeD operatives, that wandered to and fro. Leon was only beginning to take in the story of Riku’s current journey. “Well,” he started. “It already happened years ago. Perhaps we can brace ourselves for an attack this time?if we know when the actual attack will commence…”

Riku grunted in agreement. As he turned to leave, he remembered something.

“By the way,” he said. “You don’t mind if I knocked out a couple of guards on my way here, do you?”

“Was this last night or this morning?” Leon asked.

“Last night.”

“Hopefully they did not see your face. The guards here are fairly adept at their jobs,” Leon responded with a smirk.

“Anyway,” Riku said quickly. “I’m going to take a look around this place, before I try to find the keyhole.” He leapt into the air and quickly departed the scene before Leon could say anything.

I hope everything will turn out in our favor in the meantime. Leon mind was boggled. He thought, months ago, nearly a year ago, that they have solved Kingdom Hearts. He, for one, thought that he had done his job, and that he could finally return to a restored home. But that was then, and in a short time he now faced the same threat once again. Darkness. The Heartless. Maleficent. Kingdom Hearts. They were the same thing according to Leon. And then there was Riku and the Keyblade master’s control over the power of darkness that rattled Leon. He shook his head.

“All the same,” he muttered under his breath.

“What’s all the same?” a feminine voice asked from nowhere.

Leon felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun his head around to check, and felt another tap on his opposite shoulder. Child’s play, thought Leon. He stuck his hand backwards and grabbed what felt like a taut dress.

“…Rinoa,” Leon murmured.

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Sora was up earlier than he expected. Kairi was still sound asleep a few feet away from him under a pile of soft, matted straw and woven fabrics. The previous night was another story exchanging night. Sora and Kairi told theirs while Pacha and Chicha listened with wonder. At the same time, Pacha told his terribly unfortunate story about his visit with Emperor Kuzco…

“I-I got this summons...” Pacha stammered as he inched himself into the emperor’s throne room.

Kuzco sat atop his royal chair, looking down at his subject. The young emperor appeared full of glee, anxious to say something. “Pacha. That's right. You are just the man I wanted to see.”

Pacha blinked in confusion. “I am?”

Kuzco smiled casually. “Word on the street is that you can fix my problem,” he paused for a brief second. You can fix my problem, can't you?”

Pacha remained confused and unsure of his words. “Sure. I'll do what I can,” he said without thinking. This was the emperor he was talking to.

Kuzco cheered up again. “Good, good. That's just what I wanted to hear!” he jumped off his royal seat and approached Pacha. “Are you aware of just how important your village is to the empire?”

Well, I know we grow the crops that you use here at the palace… We also herd the llamas that you...” Pacha paused for a second. He asked hesitantly, “My village?”

Oh, yeah,” Kuzco answered. He revealed a scaled-down model of Pacha village. “You got a pretty sweet little setup there on top of that hill, don't you?”

Pacha admitted that he was impressed with the model’s likeliness with the actual village. “Yeah. My family has lived on that hilltop for the last six generations,” he proudly stated.

Uh-huh. So tell me... where do you find you get the most sun?”

Oh, l-I'd say just on the other side of those trees?” Pacha demonstrated by pointing to one side of the hill. “When the sun hits that ridge just right, these hills sing.”

Kuzco clasped his hands together in bliss. “Well, that settles it.”

Really?” Pacha was confused again. What does the emperor want?

Yep. Problem solved. Thanks for coming.”

That's it? That's all you wanted me for?”

I just needed an insider's opinion before I okayed this spot for my pool.”

Now Pacha was confused, in a more suspicious way than before. “Uh, your pool…?”

Boo-yah!” Kuzco cheered. He knocked over the model of Pacha’s village and replaced it with a fancy resort-like structure. “Welcome to Kuzcotopia! My ultimate summer getaway, complete with water slide.”

What…?”

Isn't it great?” Kuzco said in a voice as blissful as ever. “It's my birthday gift to me! I'm so happy.”

I don't understand…” Pacha uttered, more to himself. “How this could happen…?”

“Well, let me clear it up for you,” Kuzco suggested. “At my birthday celebration tomorrow... I give the word… and your town will be destroyed?to make way for this. So, if I were you, I'd pick up some change-of-address forms on the way home.”

But-but, um,” Pacha stammered. “W-where will we live?”

Kuzco rolled his eyes. “Hmm,” he mused. “Don't know, don't care.”

That’s terrible, Sora thought. He knew Kuzco was quirky in his own way, but he never knew the emperor could be such a selfish miscreant. Sora never liked the emperor from the start. Even though his objective was to find and seal the world’s keyhole, he could not help but feel that a spoiled leader was wrongly treating Pacha, his family, and his fellow villagers. If there was only something he could do to help… and how? Sora had so many questions.

Then again, whatever happened to Kuzco? How did he become a llama? Did he ever find his way back to his palace after Kairi and I left him?

Sora decided he should go and talk to Kuzco. But he had to find him first.

“Hey, Pacha,” Sora spoke after a minute of silence. “Where’s the quickest route to the palace?”

Pacha rubbed his face in dismay, and then looked up.

“What good will that do? Are you going to see the emperor? He’s selfish, he’s stubborn… he won’t listen to anyone but himself…”

Sora shrugged. “It’s worth a shot right? It’s better than just sitting here and waiting for him to come build his, um, pool.”

Pacha gave this proposal a thought. Indeed it would be better to at least give the emperor a piece of their minds before awaiting the village’s demolition. It would be better to at least try to snap the emperor out of his immature egotism. But knowing emperor Kuzco, Pacha still had his doubts. Pessimist, Pacha wanted to shake himself silly. Come on.It’s better than nothing.

Then Sora remembered something he forgot to mention.

“Oh, by the way,” said Sora. “The emperor turned into a llama.”

Kairi helplessly giggled.

Pacha stared confusedly at Sora, an eyebrow slightly furrowed.

“…Huh? A llama?”

“Yeah, a llama,” Sora repeated. “Please, just tell us how to get to the palace. Maybe we can find the emperor there… if he managed to find his own way back.”

Pacha sighed. “Alright. Take a seat again.”

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Riku leapt high onto the roof of Balamb Garden to get a clear view of the world around him. Apparently he was in the middle of nowhere. In one direction Riku saw dense jungles and miles of vegetation. In another direction, he saw barren plains, seas and lakes; and another, snow-peaked mountains. It would take a lifetime to find the keyhole in this world without the guidance of the Keyblade. Unfortunately, Riku’s Keyblade showed no signs or hints as to which direction the keyhole may lie. Perhaps no keyhole was open as of yet, since Riku has not encountered any Heartless since his arrival.

Still, Riku was certain that eventually the Heartless would swarm upon this world. But when or where would an invasion occur? That location would be where the keyhole lies. Riku shook his head in disappointment as he sat down on the metal roof and stared at the sun.

“Riku,” a voice sounded behind him.

“Leon,” Riku semi-whispered in response. Riku’s attention was towards the morning sky, but he knew it was Leon who approached from behind. “What is it?”

“Turn around, I would to introduce someone to you.”

Riku turned his head and glanced back to see a young woman with silky, black hair about Leon’s age. Riku ultimately decided he did not recognize this woman.

“This is Rinoa,” Leon continued. “She may be able to help you find Sora and Kairi, or at least tell you where Sora and Kairi are.”

Riku now stood up and faced Leon and Rinoa. “Pleasure to meet you, Rinoa,” Riku greeted her quietly. He sighed and added to Leon directly. “As of now, Leon, I don’t think I will be joining any of my friends.”

As if Leon expected the answer, he whispered something to Rinoa, who conjured a magic window in the air. Through the window, Riku saw more trees, much like the forests that surrounded this world, but as the window panned, Riku saw villages and their natives. He saw a palace, a long dirt path leading to the palace, and then…

“It’s Sora and Kairi,” Riku noted. “Are they in this world, too?”

Rinoa shook her head and closed the window. “No, they’re in another world, searching for a keyhole, just like you are.”

Riku stayed silent.

“If you’re still going to stay in this world, Riku,” Leon said. “And search for this world’s keyhole… I will help you.”

“I don’t need any help,” Riku answered suddenly and leapt off the roof of Balamb Garden.

Leon and Rinoa watched Riku’s dark figure vanish into the trees below and gazed towards the horizon. Far away, miles and miles away, a dark cloud appeared in the sky, under the blazing sun. Leon knew it and Rinoa knew as well, but they did not feel too alerted. Rinoa sat down, still gazing beyond the horizon at the dark cloud.

“Squall, why does he call you Leon?”

Leon sat down next to her, still watching the dark cloud form.

“Are you trying to forget the past?” Rinoa added.

The question made Leon shift uncomfortably. Though he only shared his thoughts with Rinoa, he still had a hard time expressing them. “The past is the past. I’m still Squall. But I’m also Leon.”

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