tyger: Sora grinning ridiculously wide.  Coloured with multicoloured vaguely 'watercolour' effects.  Text: Yup.  Totally sane. (Sora - sane)
Tyger ([personal profile] tyger) wrote in [community profile] hardmode2011-08-02 02:38 pm

[FIC] Kingdom Hearts: Step by Step

Title: Step by Step
Author: [personal profile] tyger
Beta: [personal profile] azremodehar and [personal profile] kunenk
Media Creator: None.
Word Count: 14 884
Fandom: Kingdom Hearts (all)
Characters/Pairing(s): Sora, Roxas, Xion, Antisora, Ven. Mentions of others.
Rating: PG-13 (some disturbing, creepy content. [Violent imagery])
Warnings: As noted in the rating. Also, spoilers for everything except Re:coded.
Summary: Sora gets stuck in his head, and meets everyone that lives there on his way out.



-XIII-


Sora knows he's dreaming, when he wakes up in the dark Twilight Town. He's been here a few times before, and it's always a dream. A weird dream, that gets stuck in his head all day, but a dream.

He calls it the dark Twilight Town 'cause it looks just like bits of Twilight Town all smashed together, and even though everything's the same sort of late afternoon gold that it always is, the sky's black. Kind of like Traverse Town used to be, but there aren't any stars in the sky. Just buildings, that look really bright against the blackness. It doesn't really smell like Twilight Town either, Twilight Town always smells kind of happy and lazy, maybe a little bit sweaty but the sandstone is earthy and reminds him a bit of home, except that the only salt on the air is the smell of sea-salt ice-cream, too sweet to be the ocean. Here, but, it smells like the air does just after it's rained - clean, with that weird smell you only ever get after storms.

It's not really a bad place. Sora doesn't usually remember his dreams, but he's pretty sure a lot of them have monsters and scary things, even if others have his friends. (Sometimes they have both. Sora's always glad that he can't really remember those dreams very well. The feelings he wakes up with are bad enough, and he always thought you had to be awake to cry, but you don't.) So yeah, it's not really a bad place, but Sora's not sure he really likes it, either. It always feels really sad and lonely.

Maybe it's because there aren't any people. He hasn't met anyone at all, when he's been here before. Even though it's obvious that there should be people around - down in the Sandlot there're struggle bats, skateboards, and that big white ball that Hanyer and Pence and Olette play the don't let it touch the ground! game with. Olette told him once that the ball belongs to Hayner's dad, and he gets really angry if Hayner doesn't bring it back in perfect condition. And there are sea-salt ice creams on the counter of the shop in the Tram Common, though the amount is always changing. Mostly it's three, but sometimes it's four or two or even just one.

There's those weird marks that get left when heartless die everywhere, too. They're not exactly splotches of darkness - kind of more like burn marks, but without any fire. Only there's actual burn marks too, here and there. Specially in that bit off the Common where he'd broken up all that junk for that guy.

But even with all that, the town doesn't feel like it's fallen into the dark or anything. Sora has been on worlds that've fallen almost all the way (but not quite; he's only been in the dark realm once), and even though the sky here's gone black there's no real feeling of darkness everywhere, thick enough in the air it feels like it's choking him. You always get that, on worlds that're close to the end. Here, though, it's just kind of like everyone's disappeared.

Which is kind of creepy. And yeah, sad and lonely, so even though it's pretty peaceful for a dream Sora doesn't like it.

But there's not much he can do about it, right? So whenever he has the dream he runs around and does stuff. Sometimes he goes exploring, though with the way everything's all smooshed together there isn't really anywhere he hasn't been before. But he can play the ball game, and he can do some really cool stuff on one of the skateboards, so Sora manages to make the best of it. He always wakes up eventually.

Only this time he kind of doesn't. He gets all the way up to a thousand hits on the ball game before he gets bored, and he does tricks until he feels like that if this wasn't a dream he'd've have gravel rash everywhere and - he's still here. He does other stuff, too, and eats one of the ice-creams that're magically not melting - even though it's just a dream he puts down the munny, because he really doesn't think he'd be able to eat it if he doesn't - and he's still not awake.

Still not awake and bored, and eventually he just starts wandering around, not doing anything special. After a while he ends up at the station tower, and okay usually he doesn't take much notice of it other than how it's right at the top of the hill so he can get on a skateboard and go so fast down to the bottom, but right now he's bored. And because he's bored he goes over to the actual doors of the station, kind of vaguely thinking that maybe if he goes in there might be a train out to Yen Sid's tower or something? Maybe. The inside of the old mansion doesn't exist in this dream, but maybe that does. Sora doesn't pretend to know how it works.

Only when he goes in the glass doors he's not in the station at all. Well, maybe, actually - it's hard to say but it does kind of feel like the station, even though he's never been here before. Instead of the booking window and the stairs up to the trains, it's... well, there're stairs, only they're more like a spiral staircase. Except with straight sides and square corners, so it's not really a spiral at all.

Sora shrugs, and starts to climb. At least this is new, and new is interesting!

There are windows, on the way up. Only little ones, and not many, but Sora peers out them anyway. He can't see Twilight Town through them. He sees other worlds, instead. Beast's Castle - wonder how he and Belle are doing? - and Halloween Town - he'd seen Jack last month, it'd been awesome. Sora had the best Halloween costume of anyone on the whole island - and Neverland and Wonderland and Agrabah - oh yeah, Aladdin and Jasmine are getting married soon, he needs to figure out how to get out of being grounded forever so he can go - and the Colosseum. He can't see any people through the windows, though.

When he gets to the top he's back in Twilight Town, only on the top of the station tower this time. Which.

"Woah!" You can see forever, and even though if he looks up the sky is still black if he looks across he can see the sunset. It's really, really pretty, so Sora has no idea why seeing it makes him feel like there's a knife in his chest, stabbing inwards towards his heart. Why it makes him want to cry more and more the longer he stares at it.

It's like this is where all the sad and lonely that the dream feels like is coming from, like the air up here isn't really air at all, it's bad feelings pouring down on the city like fog. Only emotions aren't fog. And fog is kind of dark. Maybe it's a special magical emotional see-through fog? Sora wouldn't be surprised if that's a real thing. He should ask Riku sometime. When he wakes up, maybe.

It's not like there was any noise or anything, so Sora doesn't know how he knows, but he definitely knows that someone's staring at him. So he tears his eyes away from the sunset (it's really sad, why is it hard to stop looking at? That doesn't even make sense) and looks across. No. Down and across.

There's a guy in an Organisation coat sitting on the clocktower, an ice-cream stick clenched in his right hand as he glares up at Sora, and Sora almost panics, almost calls the keyblade, but hey! He knows that face!

"Roxas! You're Roxas, right?" Even after everything Sora still can't feel him there in his heart - Riku says it's 'cause he's dumb, but Kairi looked really worried when he mentioned it, so he doesn't talk about it any more. He doesn't like making Kairi worried. But at least now Sora knows Roxas is there, right? And he guesses if there was ever any way to talk to someone kind of stuck in his heart - or something, Sora doesn't really get it, other than Roxas is part of him somehow - doing it in a dream makes sense.

"Yeah," says Roxas. "Why are you here?"

"I'm dreaming," Sora explains.

"Yeah," says Roxas, like that's really obvious. It kinda is, isn't it? "But why're you dreaming?"

...hey, that's a really good question! "Um," says Sora, shifting to his thinking pose. It's kinda hard to think with all the sadness up here, but he's gonna give it his best shot. "I was at school." Sora really doesn't like being back at school. It's really boring, and he can't see why he has to learn all this stuff. Okay, geography's pretty useful, particularly when you're on a new world - Goofy already taught him how to read maps, even the really fancy ones, but stuff about how the environment works is really useful! Like, if he'd known that deserts got really really cold at night they would've bought some blankets or something when they were in Agrabah, so they didn't have to huddle together so they didn't freeze to death that one time when they were going to the Cave of Wonders. That had sucked. Sora never ever wanted to know what Donald's feathers taste like, but he does now. So anyway, geography's pretty good! And sport's fun. But everything else seems kinda useless at best, or super massively dangerous at worst. Like science. Science is bad, only no one except Riku and Kairi thinks he's being serious when he tries to explain it, even though he really, really is.

Anyway, he'd been at school. Then what? "Then me'n Riku'n Kairi went over to the play island." They do that most days! Except when parents are being really tight, but it's been long enough now that going to the play island is usually allowed. Or at least they don't get yelled at much for it, if they get caught. "Oh yeah! Me'n Riku were teaching Kairi how to use her keyblade!" Kind of like how Leon did when Sora first made it to Traverse Town, by fighting her, but obviously not at full strength, 'cause Kairi's still only learning. Even if she is getting better really really fast. "Um." He can't remember anything after that. He'd blocked Kairi's blade, then struck out at her and she'd jumped back then forward again really quickly, inside his guard and she'd swung at him, and-

"I think Kairi hit me. Like, really, really hard."

Roxas snorts. "And now you're stuck."

"Huh?" says Sora. Stuck? Okay, he's been dreaming for a while, but-

"You've been here nearly two days," says Roxas, and he's not glaring up at Sora like he was any more, he's looking out over the city into the sunset, and oh, man. He looks just like how the air feels up here, and Sora wants to make it better but he doesn't know what's wrong.

Wait...

"Two days?" Seriously? But - wait, how can you even tell?

"Yeah," says Roxas, and he gets up off the side of the walkway. Puts the ice-cream stick in his pocket, and turns and faces Sora.

"I don't like you." He says it straight-out, really bluntly, and it's weird, 'cause Sora doesn't feel hurt at all. Not even a little bit, and doesn't it always hurt, when someone doesn't like you and you don't know why? Shouldn't it be worse when it's kinda sorta part of yourself? But Sora doesn't feel hurt. Maybe it's 'cause even though Roxas says it like it's true there's no real feeling behind it.

"I don't want to be here," Roxas continues, "I never wanted anything like this. And it was all done for you, so I don't like you." That makes sense, and - it's like the sad and the lonely up here has wormed its way inside Sora's heart. Sora feels sad and lonely, even though Roxas is right there, and -

oh. He thinks he gets it. This is how Roxas feels. This is how Roxas must feel all the time, 'cause it always feels like that here. Sora doesn't know what to do. Or say. Or anything. He just knows he wants to help Roxas, somehow. But he doesn't know how. Definitely got to ask Riku when he wakes up. And Kairi. Kairi is the best at making people feel better.

"But," says Roxas, shrugging and looking away a bit. "I don't hate you any more. So I guess I should help you wake up, right?"

"I'm sorry," says Sora. He doesn't really know what he's apologising for, but he feels like he should, so he does.

"It's not like you're the one that did anything," says Roxas, looking down at the ground. "Anyway, come on."

He pushes past Sora, back to the stairs, only the stairs aren't there any more, there's one of those dark portal things, that the Organisation was always using.

"Where are we going?" Sora asks, following along right behind Roxas. Right behind, he's been left behind by these things way too many times before.

"You're gonna have to go further in," says Roxas.

"In?" Sora asks. In where? Inside the dream? But if you're in a dream aren't you just in a dream? There's not like there's a kind of dreaming that's more got more dreaming-ness than other types of dreams, is there? And anyway, if you're trying to wake up shouldn't you be trying to get out of the dream?

"Yeah," says Roxas, as they exit the darkness into - oh hey, he's been here before! This is the Castle that Never Was.

It's actually pretty much how he remembers it, really really empty of everything, colour and sound and smells and it feels kind of like a museum, or a library, where you have to be quiet all the time and not touch anything because if you do you'll ruin it, because you're clumsy and it's fragile, old and valuable and it's worth more than you'll ever be, so don't even think about taking those hands from behind your back, Sora, if you do I will know and then you'll be in so much strife.

Like that, only way more likely to have intentionally deadly traps.

Roxas seems to know where he's going, and yeah, Sora's pretty sure he's been through most of these rooms, but those last couple of - hours? days? weeks? He doesn't even know - are really kind of blurred and hazy. Kairi was in danger and everything was trying to kill them and then Riku and he doesn't even remember most of the fight against that guy with the blue hair but he's pretty sure something really bad happened because everyone had been staring at him and giving him more space than normal after but even then he didn't know why and then there was DiZ and Xemnas and the fake Kingdom Hearts and the next next thing that isn't just too sharp-bright-blurry adrenaline-memories is when he'n Riku were stuck on that beach.

So basically even though he's seen most of these places before Sora has no idea where he's going - where Roxas is taking him. And anyway, if it's like the dark Twilight Town it might not even be following normal logic anyway.

"Aren't you cold?" Sora asks Roxas, rubbing his arms to try and warm up. It's freezing in here, not the kind of freezing you get in some buildings on the islands, where the air-con is turned up way too high, more like - like when they were in the Land of Dragons, just after the town had been destroyed. It'd been even more cold up on the mountain, but it wasn't the same sort of cold like in the town. The town's cold was the type that settled in your heart, and didn't go away very easily at all, even if you ended up somewhere warm. But also the kind of cold that gives you the shivers.

"No," says Roxas, looking back at him over his shoulder, frowning at Sora like he's really kind of confused.

"I guess you have that coat," says Sora. It looks pretty warm! And Sora's just in shorts and a t-shirt, which is kind of weird 'cause wasn't he at school today? Shouldn't he be wearing his uniform?

Oh yeah, he's dreaming. Sora'd almost forgotten, since things are interesting again. And it's not like this is something that would never happen in real life, or anything.

They walk for a bit more, and then they come to a room that isn't just blank and shiny walls and floors. There's a whole wall of windows and through them Sora can see the dark city thing you have to walk through to get to the castle. The city's at ground level and Sora remembers just how high the buildings were, but somehow they're smaller even though they're the same, because he barely has to look up at all, before he can see the fake Kingdom Hearts shining brightly above it. But the actual room has stuff in it! There's that weird musical instrument that cowardly thief guy'd had resting against a couch, and on one of the coffee tables there's a book, and cards spread out like some people were playing and just walked away for a sec. There's a whole bunch of snacks on the other coffee table, as well as stacks of paper and pens and folders, and some of them are being used, too. There're a couple of pot-plants, and someone's boots have been shoved under one of the couches, and there's a heap of black just near the door. Sora stares at it a bit, thinking maybe it's a shadow, until he realises it's a coat. Like Roxas', except really really little. There're a whole bunch of weapons, propped up against that wall, some that Sora recognises and some that he doesn't, but-

Sora can't look at that wall for very long. Roxas doesn't look at it at all. Doesn't look at anything, really, just stands by the doorway, the other side than the tiny coat, head bowed.

"Are you okay?" Sora asks, walking over, and Roxas does look up then.

He looks like he's about to say something, but then he doesn't. Just shrugs.

"You're gonna have to go through there," he says, pointing down the corridor, and wait, didn't they come in through there? But Sora can't see any other door, and this room - well, it's not like the dark Twilight Town. But at the same time it's... something. Empty, not like how the rest of the castle is empty, where there isn't any stuff. It's empty because there are things that definitely aren't there, and-

Yeah. It's not good. And Sora wants to fix it, but what can he do? There's nothing to fight or hidden treasures to find or - anything. That he knows how to do.

So he just smiles, and says, "Okay!" Because at least he can do that much.

He makes it a few steps down the corridor, before he realises something.

"Hey," he says, turning around to look at Roxas. "Aren't you coming with me?"

Roxas shakes his head, and - oh. There's a chain around Roxas' leg, tying him down to the floor. It's definitely been there the whole time, Sora just couldn't see it until now.

"Oh," says Sora, and then -

He doesn't think about it. Not at all. Sora trusts his body, and his instincts, and sometimes that puts him in really weird situations, but it's never led him astray before, at least not that he can remember.

Roxas is kind of cold, he thinks, as he holds him tight. Cold enough he should be shivering, but he's not shivering. He's not moving at all.

"I'm sorry," Sora says into Roxas' neck, and he doesn't know what happened to Roxas, doesn't know why he's here at all, not really. But he really, really is sorry, anyway.

"I'm gonna find a way to make things better," Sora says, stepping back. Roxas is looking at him like he's some sort of space-alien or something. That's okay, Sora gets it. He'd felt the same way when Tron had hugged him that one time. He thinks he kind of gets why Tron did it now, though.

"I promise," he adds, because if he makes a promise there's no way he's going to fail. Promises are too important to mess up.

Roxas smiles, a bit. It's not a giant happy smile, but it - it feels real.

"Okay," he says, and Sora grins back at him.

And then he turns and walks down the corridor, because he's definitely gonna have to ask Riku and Kairi for help on this one, and probably Donald and Goofy and Jiminy too. And maybe the King and Yen Sid and Merlin as well. And if that still doesn't work then maybe Leon or Cid or Genie or Jack or Belle or - well, someone's gotta know what to do, right?

Only he can't ask them if he's still unconscious, so he's gonna have to wake up, first.




-XIV.i-



It's a really, really long corridor. Definitely not the same one that Sora walked down with Roxas. Sora is pretty sure he's still in the Castle that Never Was - well, a dream one, anyway - but it's different to how the Castle was when Sora was with Roxas. Darker.

Not, like, darker like the lights aren't working properly or something, 'cause it's still the same bright as before, for that. Darker how like it gets when you're exhausted, or really really sad, or something like that. Sora bets Riku could explain it better. He still gets gloomy sometimes, even though Sora and Kairi have been trying really hard to cheer him up.

It's lonely, too, but different to how the dark Twilight Town or the Castle just before were lonely. Not like it's lonely because no one's there, but more like even if there were people everywhere it would still be lonely.

Sora doesn't get it at all. That doesn't make any sense, because how can you be lonely if there're people around? Even if you don't know them you can totally make friends! But that's how it feels.

It's still cold, too, so after a bit Sora starts running, just so he feels a bit warmer. At the end of the corridor there's another corridor, just as long. Maybe even longer.

Sora turns around, and looks back down where he'd come. Roxas is still standing in the doorway, even though he looks tiny 'cause it's so far away. Sora waves with both his arms over his head, to make sure Roxas sees.

And Roxas waves back! Only with one hand, but Sora can see it so it's okay.

"Bye Roxas!" he shouts. "I'll see you later okay!" He doesn't know how, exactly, but he's gonna make sure it happens.

Roxas doesn't shout anything back - maybe he didn't hear him? Or maybe he just doesn't want to say anything, he seems like a kinda quiet guy - so after a couple of seconds Sora turns down the next corridor.

There're a whole bunch of - doors, he guesses. They look like they should be doors, but they don't feel like doors - ever since he got the keyblade he's always been able to tell - and anyway, they don't have doorknobs. And they don't open if he pushes, or tries to slide them, or anything.

There're heaps of not-doors, it feels like, and the corridor is pretty long, but Sora just walks down, in case he misses something. The end of the corridor looks like it's a dead end - there's a couch there, which is kind of weird in this castle but there were couches back in that other room, right? So maybe it's not - and you don't usually put a couch in the middle of a walkway. Sora definitely knows about that, his dad always grumbles at him when he ends up sitting in one of the hallways at home for whatever reason. It's usually because he's been making something awesome, like with his train set or something like that when he was little, but sometimes he just gets distracted and sits down wherever. That happens a lot when he's reading comics or something.

Anyway, at least one of the doors has to be real, he's pretty sure, 'cause otherwise he's stuck. So he takes it kinda slow, prods at all the doors as he passes them. Nothing much happens, though, until he's almost up to the couch. There's a last door, there, only it's not closed. It's not, like, wide open or anything, but it's open a crack.

Sora suppresses the urge to summon the keyblade - it's hard, 'cause he'd always had it in hand in this Castle, when they were there in real life, but he's dreaming, right? So probably nothing's going to hurt him. If it was that kind of dream wouldn't Roxas have attacked him? Since he actually did do that once. (Sora is pretty sure. Donald and Goofy hadn't seen him or the fight or anything, but Sora can remember it and it feels like it really happened, so...)

He does push the door open wider, though, so he can see what's in there - Goofy had taught him to do that, 'cause what if there's a giant spike trap just on the other side of the door or something? - and it's. ...a bedroom?

Huh.

It's just as bare as the rest of the castle, but there's a bed, and a wardrobe, and a little table with a mirror above it. And a window, too, with the fake Kingdom Hearts shining outside, which is a lot smaller than Sora remembers it being.

It's weird, though. It doesn't look like there's anyone in here, or another way out, or anything. Sora looks around, but all he finds out is there's a few coats in the wardrobe - probably the same size as Roxas? Maybe it's Roxas' room? That would be kind of cool - and a few ice-cream sticks and potions and ethers and stuff that looks like synthesis items under the bed. And under the pillow there're some shells. They're really nice shells, too, like the ones you can find on the beaches at home. They're all complete, no chips or anything; Sora's spent enough time looking for shells that he knows how long it takes to find that kind - usually it's way way too much work to bother with. He'd made a wind-chime out of really nice bright ones for his dad one Christmas, though, so he knows it can be done. And Kairi makes stuff out of shells sometimes! Like her charm! And stuff!

Still, it means it probably isn't Roxas' room, 'cause it's usually girls that like shells, right? But he can't remember there being any girls in the Organisation at all. There'd been that cowardly guy and the guy with the dreadlocks and Axel and the old guy and the guy that turned him into a dice when he was fighting him and the guy with the blue hair and Xemnas. And Roxas, obviously. He's pretty sure none of them were girls.

He goes over to the little table, to see if there's a drawer in it, 'cause a drawer will definitely have more stuff in it. But no, it's just a table. With a glass top, even, so Sora can see there's definitely no hidden compartments or anything.

"Hmm," he says, thinking hard - and then he catches sight of himself in the mirror, and "Woah!" His reflection is wearing a coat! The same as the Organisation wore!

Sora pats at his head and looks down, but no, he's really not wearing a coat! But his reflection still is, hood pulled down over his face. Weird.

Sora stares for a second, but his reflection doesn't do anything, so he does the only thing he can think of. He moves closer and pokes the mirror.

Woah! It rippled! Like a barrier or something! And his reflection didn't move at all, just kind of stared at him. Which is kind of weird, but then again it's just kind of like everything in Halloween Town, too.

"Um," says Sora, because he's kind of surprised but hey, he's been in Halloween Town enough times he's not really really surprised or anything, and he's had conversations like this a few times. "Hi, is this your room?"

His reflection nods.

"Oh, right, sorry. I'm Sora!"

I know.

It's not really a voice but it's not really not a voice but mostly-

"You're a girl!" Woah! There IS a girl in the Organisation! Probably. Riku did wear one of those coats too, but he's pretty sure Riku didn't have a room in the Castle that Never Was, either. Probably, anyway.

His reflection - only it's not really his reflection, is it? The coat in the mirror nods.

"What's your name?" Sora asks. He can't keep calling her 'the coat in the mirror', that's just kind of weird.

Xion.

"Nice to meet you, Xion!" says Sora, grinning at her. Xion ducks her head down, and Sora could see her chin a bit before but now he can't see anything, just a dark little space where the hood isn't covering.

...yeah, she says after a moment. It's good to finally meet you too.

Sora smiles, and then he remembers why he's there.

"Um, hey," he says. "Do you know where I need to go? So I can wake up? Roxas said I need to go 'further in', but I dunno how to get there."

Roxas... says Xion, and her shoulders slump, like she's curling into herself even more. The air starts tasting like failure, an uncomfortable sharp taste on the back of his tongue. Which. That's gotta be Xion, right? Which. Man, he didn't mean to make her unhappy and he doesn't really know what he did but he guesses maybe it's got to do with Roxas but they were in the same Organisation so weren't they buddies or something? Only wait, Axel was friends with Roxas - Sora's not dumb enough he didn't notice that - and he was trying to help Sora, not the Organisation so maybe they weren't buddies maybe they hated each other or something and -

Hey, wait, isn't this a dream? Why's Xion in his dream? He's never even met her before! Maybe it's because Roxas is in his dream, she obviously knows Roxas but hey why did mentioning Roxas make her feel really bad, anyway?

Is he okay? Xion asks.

"Huh?" says Sora. What're they talking about, again?

Roxas. Is he okay?

"Uh." Sora thinks about it. He looked kind of okay, and he was walking normally so he guesses he must be kind of okay, at least, but then again he's really sad and tied to the floor and everything so that's not really okay, is it? "I dunno," he says, because at least he knows that much. "I'm gonna try and help him, though, when I wake up!" He promised!

Xion looks up at that, and hey! He can see her smiling! He can't see the rest of her face, but she has a nice smile, Sora decides.

Good.

Sora grins back at her. He guesses she's friends with Roxas after all. That's great!

You need to come through here, she says, and Sora has to think a moment before he gets it.

"Through the mirror?" That's - well, it's not the weirdest thing he's ever done. Xion nods.

"Okay! Um. You might wanna step back a bit." It's not a really big mirror, or anything, so Sora's gonna have to try and climb through.

Xion nods again, and steps to the side, so he can only see her in the corner of the mirror. That should be fine, right? Right.

He climbs up on the table carefully, 'cause it's glass and maybe it'll break? But it holds okay, so he pushes his hand against the glass, and - it just feels like a mirror for a second, even though it ripples like a barrier, but when he keeps pressing, he starts kind of sliding through.

It takes forever, though, so Sora pushes harder, and then all of a sudden it's like bam! And he's falling through the mirror head first and oh crap dodge roll!

He's going kind of fast, though, so he bangs his shoulder a bit ow and rolls a couple more times to slow down, and woah.

Woah.

"That was awesome!" he says, grinning and bouncing to his feet. Probably not as fast as going down the hill on a skateboard in Twilight Town, but pretty close! And it was a surprise, so that always seems faster.

Xion smiles at him, from where she's still standing by the mirror, and walks over to stand by the door, instead.

Sora looks around, now that the rush is kind of fading. It looks exactly like the room on the other side of the mirror, except there's no window and the shells that he'd been looking at aren't on the bed any more. It smells different, too. Like the basement in the mansion in Twilight Town - 'specially the room where he woke up in - and kind of like the rooms near where Tron lives in Radiant Garden, and also kind of like Dr. Finklestein's lab, only without the rotting. And it doesn't feel like the Castle that Never Was at all. It feels... kind of familiar and unfamiliar all at once, nostalgic and happy and sad and. And. Something. The word's on the tip of his tongue, but Sora can't remember it. That's so annoying!

"Okay, let's go!" he says, walking over to Xion. She opens the door, and there's a corridor there, too, but it's not as long, and it's really kind of dark. Shadowy-dark, though it's still that other kind of dark as well.

"So," says Sora, as they turn into another corridor, just as stark and white as the previous one, and then through a series of really really creepy labs. "How come you're in my dream?" It's weird, right? That a girl he doesn't know at all is in his dream?

Xion looks down, and the darkness gets wayheaps stronger, and uh-oh, that was probably a bad question to ask. Oops.

"I came here so Roxas wouldn't have to," she says. But wait, Roxas is- "But it didn't work." Her voice is so small he can barely hear it. Sora suddenly tastes failure on the back of his tongue so strongly he almost vomits.

...maaan. That. "That sucks!"

Xion just shrugs, and she looks really really down, and - hey, wait!

"Why'd you have to be here, anyway?" Shouldn't Sora know that kind of thing? Like, he'd thought that Roxas was here 'cause he's Sora's nobody, but Xion definitely isn't, so why...?

"You were sleeping," says Xion. "For a long time. They wanted to wake you up."

...huh. "Maybe I was just really really tired?" It's almost impossible to wake Sora up when he doesn't wanna get up, according to his dad. Sora ends up being late for school a lot.

"I-" says Xion, and he still can't really see her face at all, but he gets the impression that she's kind of confused. "I don't think so. I think it was worse than that."

"Huh." Sora thinks about it for a sec, as they walk up yet another set of stairs. There are a lot of stairs in this place, too. Maybe it is the Castle that Never Was, after all. "I don't remember anything like that."

"You were asleep," Xion points out.

"Oh yeah," says Sora. "But shouldn't I remember why I was sleeping?"

"I don't know," says Xion. "Maybe."

Hmmm.

"Anyway, you must like Roxas a lot, right?" he asks, because at least that sort of thing he can understand without making his brain feel like it's gonna explode.

"I," says Xion, and then she doesn't say anything at all for a while.

"You were trying to protect him, right?"

"..yeah. It didn't work at all, though," and hey the darkness is getting even more dark and. Aww, Xion!

"But you tried, right?" says Sora, bouncing in front of her to try and look her in the eyes. "That's the important thing!"

Xion doesn't say anything, and she doesn't seem cheered up at all. That's no good. It's just like when Riku gets into one of his moods! And Sora doesn't think he can cheer her up like he does Riku. For one, Kairi's not here. And he doesn't really know Xion at all. Um.

"Look," says Sora, as they wind their way through yet another set of labs. "Even though things didn't work out how you wanted that doesn't mean you should give up or anything! I mean, there's gotta be a way to fix things, right?" Xion doesn't really seem convinced, but Sora soldiers on. If there's anything he's learned, it's that there's always a way for friendship to prevail! "And I've already promised to help Roxas! And I bet that means I can help you too! And even if it's not the same thing I totally will anyway, 'cause you seem cool and you're Roxas' friend and anyway, I don't think anyone should be unhappy unless they're mean and evil and trying to hurt other people. I mean, I know that it's probably not actually going to happen or anything, and Riku's always telling me off for being a 'idealistic moron', but, you know. If I can help I definitely will! Okay?"

"...okay," says Xion, after a long moment. Yeah!

"So don't be so down! You should smile and be happy, okay? Even if things kind of suck if you smile and find things to be happy about then it's way better!" Sora knows a lot about that. The gummi ship is really really empathetic - that's what Donald says, anyway, and it means that if you're happy it works well but if you're not it tends to explode - so he's got lots of practice. And it really does work, anyway! Even if the odds are like a thousand to one, if you keep feeling positive you can definitely beat them all!

"But..." says Xion, looking down at the stairs as she walks.

"But nothing! Um. I know it's hard to start with though. But it's easier if you do if for your friends! 'Cause if you're happy your friend is happy and your friend being happy makes you happy, right? So be happy for - um, I don't know who your friends are. But I'm sure you've got lots! And Roxas, too, obviously, and me!"

They've stopped for a sec, and Xion's kind of staring at him.

"You?" she says, after the silence has gone on long enough Sora's kind of uncomfortable.

"Well yeah!" says Sora. "We're totally friends!" ...wait. "Unless you don't want to be, I guess." That would suck, but you can't make someone be friends with you. Even if they pretend it's okay if they don't wanna be friends it's not really friendship.

"We only just met," is what Xion says, though, not anything like you're a poopyhead or anything.

"That's okay! You don't have to know someone for a long time to be friends! That's what happens after you're friends, usually."

"Oh," says Xion, and she looks down at her feet again before looking back up at Sora.

"So we're friends, right?"

"I don't really get it," says Xion. "But okay." And then she smiles, and it's still a really nice smile but this one is better than the other one he saw. Really really happy, and Sora grins back, because that's awesome. The whole room brightens up, too, which is even more awesome.

"Great!" says Sora. And then, "race you to the top of the stairs!"

He takes off, and Xion follows pretty quickly, and the stairs aren't all that long, so Sora wins by a little bit, but he's pretty sure it's 'cause he took her by surprise. Which is cool! It's great when things are actually a competition.

There isn't another lab, at the top of these stairs. There's just a square room. Kind of big, but really blank and white. There're some of those weird vases with flowers and white flower-arrangement looking things that all seem to be made of the same stuff as the walls, and like most of the corridors it has columns on the sides, but other than that there's nothing, except a door across from the door to the stairs.

"We're nearly there," says Xion. Sora isn't sure what to think of that. On the one hand, waking up is a good thing! On the other, well. He just made a friend, and he doesn't like leaving his friends behind.

They walk across the room, and into a hallway. Not just a hallway but an entrance hall, it's big and grand like the rest of the castle, and there's a giant set of doors at one end, with bright blue hinges and - and another, smaller one, at the other, up a small flight of stairs. It's.

It's.

"I think," says Sora, frowning, thinking hard but his head feels really weird and heavy kind of of like when he's got a really bad cold and is stuck in bed for days and he can't do anything at all, not even reading. "I think... I've been here before."

"Really?" says Xion. "I was made here." Really? Xion's from here? That sounds. That sounds kind of weird, kind of - not wrong like she shouldn't be born or anything, but like this is really not the kind of place where people get born, or something. Even if it is white like a hospital.

Wait...

"Made?" She'd definitely said made, not born, hadn't she.

Xion nods. "I'm just a doll." She looks down at her hands, flexes them a couple of times. The leather of her gloves creaks, loud in the silent hallway. The darkness is back, too, though Sora's head is fuzzy enough it's hard to pay attention to.

"Like Pinocchio?" he asks, instead.

"Huh?" says Xion, and oh, yeah, maybe she wouldn't know Pinocchio.

"Pinocchio! He's, um. Well, we met him in Traverse Town and we helped him out later, that time when we got swallowed by Monstro - that was really gross - and, uh. Well, he was a puppet, not a doll, but that's kind of the same thing, right? Anyway, um. Jiminy told us but I kinda forget how but anyway somehow he came to life 'cause Geppetto wanted a son and he had to learn how to be good first, but Leon said he eventually did and became a real human boy!" Sora should go find them sometime, and find out how they're going! Once he's not. You know. Grounded forever.

Xion's staring at him again, he can tell even though she's still wearing her hood. "...really? He became a human?"

"Uh-huh! Leon wouldn't lie!" No way would Leon lie! Not about important things. Even though he'd definitely lie if Yuffie was trying to find something he didn't want her to find, like cake or something like that.

And Xion smiles again! Awesome! Sora can totally make a mental tally of how many times he gets her to smile. He can put it up besides Riku's! It's harder now that Jiminy's not here to write things down, but Sora can try, at least.

"That sounds nice," she says, and then she starts walking over to the big doors.

"Yeah!" Sora agrees, and pushes the door open. It doesn't budge. Um. Pull? Yeah, it pulls! Wow, it's really dark outside. Like, middle of the night on a world that doesn't have electricity sort of dark.

He looks back over at Xion, and he's. Well, it sucks, but he's not really surprised to see Xion's chained down, too, just like Roxas.

"I'll see you soon, okay?"

Xion nods, and he starts walking down the - more stairs? Whoever build this castle really likes stairs, that's for sure!

"Sora," calls Xion, after he gets about halfway down.

"Yeah?"

"I know he won't remember me, but... could you say hi to Riku for me?"

"Sure!" says Sora. Wow, he didn't know she knew Riku! He's totally gonna whinge at Riku forever about not telling him things. Again. And then tease him even more. Yup.

He waves, walking backwards down the steps, but not for long; the castle kind of fades into the dark all around. Then he turns back around, and, well. There's kind of a path to follow, at the bottom of the stairs, and it's not like he has any better ideas, so he sets off into the dark.



-⨍⁻¹-




It's dark. Really, really dark, so dark Sora can't even see his hands if he puts them right in front of his face, let alone the path that crunches under his feet. He keeps walking, though, doesn't stop at all, and tries not to think.

If he thinks he'll have to think about what he's feeling, about what the dark feels like and it's. It's.

prey here no prey here no prey no prey no prey need them the little black ones are best, yes, rip them and tear them and sometimes they will squeak and find the heart find it find it find it get it out of the prey and it flies up up up but that's boring want the prey want to taste it on the back of my tongue, yes, crunchy or spicy or - yes, the black ones are best sweet and delicious as they dissolve in my mouth and never enough, never never ever enough, need more prey no prey here no prey at all need to find some rip it and tear it and and destroy it, eat more more more

Sora doesn't want to think about it. Doesn't want to feel it but he can't stop feeling. Only thinking.

He walks, and eventually the gravel under his feet turns into some kind of tiles, then there're stairs down - Sora almost falls on his face, but dodge roll saves him again! Dodge roll is the best move ever, he's pretty sure. Even though Riku doesn't think so. He's definitely gonna teach it to Kairi, anyway, no matter what Riku says!

There's - grass, he thinks, yeah, grass after that and then stairs up - inside stairs? It feels like carpet, but when did he get inside? A hall, after the stairs, and he brushes against something and nearly freaks out, but oh, it's just a wall. He keeps his hand on it, until he gets to another doorway, and down stairs - stone, these ones. Cobbles. Yeah. He walks across cobbles, for a while, then the gravelly kind of sand, then- Sora just keeps walking forward. The way the ground changes under his feet is the only way he knows he's actually going anywhere, and if he was thinking about anything he'd probably be going mad by now, but he's not thinking. Not thinking at all.

If he just keeps walking forward, he'll find something eventually.

It takes what feels like forever, but he does, finally. The blackness fades, slightly, and it's still dark, still would be almost impossible to see, normally, but he's been walking in the dark so long even a little bit of light is a huge improvement.

And woah, hey! Sora can't see more than as far as he can jump - and okay that's kind of far these days, but still - but that's far enough, because he knows where he is, now! It's Hollow Bastion! Or, well, Radiant Garden, but he'd only ever been up on this walkway when it was Hollow Bastion, so he still thinks of it like that. That's the front door, right there, he remembers it pretty well. He and Beast had had to figure out how to get in, and then Riku had been in there, and, well. It'd been pretty intense! He'd ended up having to fight Riku, too, which sucked.

Actually, this whole world kind of sucked, the first time he was here. But it'd worked out in the end! Everyone's okay, too, except maybe Maleficent? But it's always really hard to tell, with her. They'd thought she was dead, but then later she really wasn't, so he doesn't know.

And Ansem - well, Xehanort's heartless - but Sora knows for sure that Xehanort's heartless not being okay is a really really good thing.

He pushes open the doors, and walks in. Everything's really shadowy, but other than that it's pretty much how he remembers. Really impressive stairs and a fountain and yellow eyes glinting in the dark.

Wait.

Crap.

Sora jumps back a bit, summons the keyblade - but the keyblade doesn't come. It doesn't come, it doesn't come, and it's just like when he was here the first time, when it was just him and Beast and the heartless is coming closer now, and it's a pure, inky black, bigger than a shadow but Sora can't tell what shape it is, or just how big it is 'cause it's goes kind of smoky at the edges, fades into the shadows in the room, and oh crap.

It springs, and the last thing Sora thinks before it hits is hey, it doesn't have a symbol. And then it's on him, claws scraping across his throat, his chest, aiming for his heart.

Sora can't summon the keyblade (why why why) and he doesn't have any sort of weapon so he dodge rolls away but it's faster than him, so fast, and all he can track it by is its eyes, and. And Sora's never thought much when he's fighting, strategy's not really his thing at all. Never needed to be, the keyblade always knows where it needs to hit, to kill heartless. But what he does do in a fight is rely on his instincts, on what he's feeling. What he's feeling right at that moment.

Sora

swipes his claws at the prey the prey that thinks it can best him the stupid stupid stupid stupid prey, he is the king here, he is the hunter the prey cannot win can never ever ever win. it will taste so good when he bites its throat out, and eats the liver, the kidneys, the brain. he will save the eyes for last, the beautiful beautiful bits of inner light, and they will be golden and crisp and sweet. he will leave the heart in, though, leave the heart in to the very last, so the prey doesn't dissolve away, back into the æther, back into KINGDOM HEARTS the painful dark-bright place all the prey fades to when he is done with it

he will do this to the prey, as soon as he
catches it! the prey is fast, so very fast, not like normal prey at all, but it knows him now, knows he is the king and hunter, knows he is stronger and it runs, up and up and up and up and up but there is only so much space it can run, only so far until it hits a wall bright-bright shiny-wall, smells like princesses and desperation and love, and it hurts the prey, hurts it slows it and he pounces, wraps his claws around its throat, holds on and then he sees it, dark stripped away and he sees it clearly and he

looks down into his own face. Radiating darkness, with gold eyes but it's him, it's him, fallen into the dark like Riku never did.

Sora still has his hands wrapped around the dark-him's throat. Tight enough to strangle him to death, Sora can feel his nails cutting into not-quite-flesh. It would be easy. It would be so easy, and deep in the depths of his heart Sora hates the heartless, hates the dark, hates what he's seen it do to people, and now there's a bit of it right here, helpless, and it would be so easy.

Sora jumps back, fast enough he slams into something hard enough to knock the air out of himself but Sora really really doesn't care about that right now. He's trembling all over. He thinks he's going to be sick.

The dark him (heartless him?) gets up, slowly. Crouches in on itself, but it doesn't look like it's going to run. Doesn't look like it's going to attack. It looks cowed, like it's scared of Sora, and. And. It fades into darkness at all its edges, but the dark's more gushing out, in a few points around its neck. Puncture wounds. Almost like it's bleeding.

Sora brings a hand up to his mouth. He really doesn't want to throw up, but. Just in case.

king, says the dark him, and. Um. Maybe it isn't a heartless? The only heartless Sora's even heard of talking is Xehanort's heartless, and yeah, okay, he'd beaten him, but that was with the keyblade, not with his bare-

Sora looks down, checks. No, they are fingers, not claws. Fingers.

"I'm not a king," says Sora, and his voice is all rough and scratchy, but at least he's not throwing up, right.

king, says the dark him, insistent. rule us. strongest. king.

"I don't know-" Sora starts, but the dark him snarls, which is really fucking scary. It's even more scary than how most heartless are completely, utterly silent, and that still gives Sora nightmares.

born here, it says, claws scraping at the ground.

The very, very familiar ground. Oh. They're still in Hollow Bastion, up at the top, on the platform where Riku - Kairi - where Sora had.

Oh.

"I thought Kairi fixed me," Sora says, because hadn't she? It'd been weird being a heartless, but Sora had known what was going on, it hadn't been like. Been like just before. It'd just been another weird shape-change.

always here. you. not you. not king but always always always here. will always be here, can't kill the darkness the darkness is everywhere is everyone is all! can't kill. but you king. It smiles. but maybe not always king

And then it slides into the floor, just like a shadow, and disappears.

Sora stares, for a long, long moment, until the metal edge of the keyhole starts digging into his back hard enough he has to move, and. Oh, fuck.

He can see the light, now, that stopped it - a barrier, around the platform. It really does feel like the Princesses. Mainly Kairi, but he can feel Alice and Belle and Jasmine pretty easily too. There're a few more feelings, too. They must be Snow White and Aurora and Cinderella, but he'd only really met them once, for a little while, so it's harder to pick them out. He puts both hands on the barrier, and thinks thank you thank you thank you, as hard as he can. He doesn't know if it'll reach them, but he's got to at least try, right?

After that he looks around. The rest of the castle is the same shadowy-dark he'd been walking through, and there's no way he's going back down in that, so Sora turns back towards the keyhole. The only way out is in, right?

am watching, comes the not-voice of the dark him, just as he's about to step through, always always watching

Sora shudders, but he braces himself, and steps through.



-χ-




The other side of the keyhole doesn't feel very dark at all, not like the side he came through. It actually feels pretty safe, so Sora doesn't even look around. Just drops to the ground, curls up in a ball and trembles, for a while.

He hates it, when this kind of thing happens - that... back there, that was pretty bad, worse than most things, but it's not the first time he's had this reaction. He wishes Donald and Goofy were here. They always know what to do. Goofy usually sits right next to him, and sometimes he just sits there, and but mostly he starts on cleaning his shield. It's important to keep yer tools in good nick, a-hyuck. Gotta remember that. Donald usually cooks them a hot meal, and doesn't even grumble about it. It's easier to be sad if you're hungry, he'd told Sora one night, after a really really bad day, for everybody. Even that big palooka over there knows that. Food doesn't just feed your body, you know. That's why it's important to eat food that tastes good, not just what's healthy. ...aww, why'm I bothering, it's not like a doofus like you would understand.

But Donald is always like that, and Sora does get it, kind of. He wishes they were here right now. But they're not, so. So. He puts his hands to his heart. Even if they're apart their hearts are connected, right? Right. Always.

Sora takes a deep breath.

And stands up. It's black, everywhere around here, too. He can't actually see the keyhole any more, even though it was right there. And it's black, but not dark. Which is kind of weird, but it's like that. It's just like it's night-time, like if you're outside at night or something, but somewhere safe. Like when he'n his dad have gone camping together, and the fire's gone down enough that if you need to go. Well, you know, go it's really dark everywhere but it's not scary at all. It's that sort of darkness, balmy and peaceful.

Sora steps forward, and then kind of trips, because crap, there's no floor there-! He dodge rolls, and that kind of helps, but only after he rolls a couple more times than he meant to, and oh! He's on stairs!

The ones he's fallen down have lit up, now - why is it only the ones he's been on, that's dangerous! - and they're all multicoloured and stained-glass, a gently curving staircase shining in the dark, and hasn't Sora been here before?

He has, he's sure, but he can't remember it well at all, like it's a dream. Hey, wait. He's dreaming right now, too! It must have been a dream, then! That makes sense.

Sora takes the steps slow, after that, keeps his eyes on his feet so he doesn't accidentally slip again. It doesn't really hurt like it would in real life, but falling down stairs is never fun, Sora knows from experience.

Once the staircase has gone down about three-quarters of a really big circle, though, he hits flat ground. Well, flat giant stained glass platform, but that's practically the same thing. It's not stairs, anyway.

It's big enough Sora can't really see what the design is, but more importantly-

"Woah! Roxas!" He's standing right there! And okay he's wearing different clothes than he was before, but hey! He's here! And not all chained down! And wow, awesome! Sora didn't think he'd see him again quite so soon! This is great!

Only Roxas is looking at kind of confused, as Sora runs up.

"Roxas?" he asks, and Roxas looks at him really confused.

"Um," he says. "I'm Ventus. You can call me Ven, but I'm not Roxas."

"Oh," says Sora, and. "That's so weird! You look just like him! Like identical!"

"Really?" says Ven.

"Yeah!"

"That's kind of weird."

"It totally is!" It's not even like how Riku and his brothers look a lot alike, it's like identical. "Are you twins?"

"I don't think so," says Ven, thinking about it.

"Huh," says Sora. Oh, wait. Roxas is supposed to be Sora's nobody, right? So they're probably not twins. Can nobodies even have twins?

Well, whatever, he can worry about that later. "Anyway, I'm Sora!"

"I know," says Ven, smiling a bit. "Thank you for letting me stay here."

"Huh?" says Sora. What?

"I guess you don't remember," says Ven. "I had to sleep, so you let me stay here."

That doesn't - wait. Sora can. Kind of. Sort of. Vaguely remember something like that, maybe, a long long time ago. If if wasn't just a figment of his imagination. His dad always said he had a really good one. Too good, sometimes. It sounds kind of familiar, anyway. "Well, I'm glad I could help?" That's definitely true, whether he remembers or not.

Ven grins, so Sora grins back. It's awesome when people are happy.

There's a sound, only it's not really like a real sound, from not so far away. It sounds a lot like hmph. Sora looks around, but he can't see anyone at all. Huh. Maybe he's hearing things.

"You're not just visiting, though, are you?" Ven asks, and he looks kind of happy-sad. Not sad like he's miserable, though, just that he knows Sora isn't here to see him, or anything.

"Well, no," says Sora, 'cause he kind of isn't. Telling the truth is important! "Roxas says I need to go 'further in', so I can wake up. But I can come back and visit you sometimes, right?" Sora's gonna be really busy when he wakes up, he can tell already!

"Sure!" says Ven, grinning at him. "That'd be fun."

"Yeah!" says Sora. "Um." He looks around, but there doesn't seem to be anywhere where he can leave, just the stairs shining all the way up into the dark.

"C'mon, this way," says Ven, walking across the stained glass to exactly opposite where the stairs touch down. Sora follows along, and when he tentatively pokes his toe out over the edge, there's a step there. Another whole set, really, winding its way around down through the dark. Not straight, but not wrapping around the pillar, either.

"Down there?" Sora asks, and Ven nods. Sora takes a few steps, and. Oh. "You can't come, huh?" He can't see any chains, or anything, but Ven isn't moving.

"I could," says Ven, looking off into the distance. "But it's better if I stay here."

"Oh, okay," says Sora. That sucks.

"Anyway, the Master always says that some battles have to be fought alone."

"Really?" Sora doesn't know anyone called the Master. He wonders what kind of person he (she? it?) is. That seems like the kind of advice Riku would really take to heart. Sora's not so sure, though. Fighting with the support of your friends is way better than fighting alone, right? You're always stronger together than you are apart.

"Yeah," says Ven. "So you know what you're made of, that kind of thing. 'If you can't rely on yourself how can anyone else rely on you?'."

"Huh," says Sora, thinking about it. "I don't really get it." Sora hasn't fought by himself hardly at all, but he's still pretty sure he can protect people! And people believe in him, too! Like Leon and Yuffie and everyone! He still carries his Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee Honorary Member card around in his wallet, even though he hasn't been to Radiant Garden since he and Riku got home. Because, you know. Grounded forever.

"Me either," Ven admits. Which is kind of nice. Maybe he's not just being dumb. "I guess that's why I didn't even get to take the acknowledgement of mastery exam." He looks sad for a second, but then he kind of shrugs, and smiles again.

"Well, I'll come back and visit you later," says Sora, smiling back up at Ven.

"Yeah!"

It's pretty awesome, to have someone happy waving him off. Not like happy to see him go, but happy for him. Nice, and also kinda nostalgic - mostly when they were travelling they were helping people. Sora misses that, a bit. Not that he doesn't try to help people at home! It's just, there's kind of a difference between defeating evil tyrants and picking up someone's shopping and helping to carry it home when they drop it. Kind of a big difference. It's not that stuff at home is bad, but... well, even though it was hard and scary and he got so homesick - for his house and his islands and his friends and his dad, and they're not anywhere near the same sort of homesicknesses, Sora's learned that the hard way - he misses it. Now that he's home he's kind of... homesick for that.

It's weird, but he is. Every day he rolls out of bed and there's a half-second where he wonders where he is and how he got separated from Donald and Goofy and Jiminy - especially Jiminy, even that one time the gummi ship crashed he hadn't lost Jiminy. It'd taken him nearly a month to not summon the keyblade as he rolled to his feet, because he was alone and no one was standing guard and what if there are heartless?. He's better at sensing the safe-ness of home, now, but it's still strange, to be in one place so long.

He spends his time at school daydreaming, of all the worlds he's been to and all the ones he's heard of and wondering what other worlds might be out there. What kind of friends he could make. There are probably still heartless out there, at least a few, shouldn't he at least try and get rid of them? He got the keyblade for a reason, right? Isn't it his responsibility to help? Kairi's mother always says if you have the ability to help people you should, even if it's only a small thing. But big things have got to be better, right?

Anyway, he can't do anything about it if he's stuck here, so he takes the steps down two at a time. It's a longer staircase than the first one, gently curving downwards. Eventually he comes to a - well, it's not a doorway, it looks exactly like the rest of the stairs, but it feels like a doorway, and when he passes it he's suddenly in a wide, bright hall. It's made of sandstone - Sora doesn't know much about rocks but sandstone's everywhere on the islands - and has a really high ceiling, all fancy like the Beast's castle except way less gloomy. There's a big round stained-glass window, too, with the sun streaming through it, throwing coloured patterns on the floor.

Sora's never been here before, but it makes something in his chest relax anyway. It's safe here. It could never be anything but safe here.

Which means it feels kind of like the islands, and Sora just stands in the middle of the hall for a while, with the light warm on his face, and breathes it in. That's another thing he's learned on his travels. You've gotta take advantage of good things when you can. He's got pretty good at it.

After a bit, though, he finds the stairs, goes out the huge and impressive front door. Though it's not the most hugest and impressive door he's ever seen, which is kind of weird. If he thinks about it, Sora's actually seen a lot of giant doors. Beast's, obviously, and some of the ones in Hollow Bastion and the one in Disney Castle so huge it has a little door hidden in it, and. Well, yeah. Kingdom Hearts' door is definitely the biggest and most impressive.

Anyway, anyway, on the other side of the door it's night, which is a little bit weird, but it's not bad. It's the safe sort of darkness here, too, and if he looks up there're stars, everywhere. So many stars. So many worlds, safe and twinkling. Sora wants to see them all, some day.

He walks across the courtyard, over the bridge, which is kinda pretty, and then there's kind of like a path, even though you have to jump up to get to it. Which isn't a problem, or anything! Sora's just not sure if this is actually the way he's meant to go.

Still, it's not like he can see any other way, so he climbs up and starts walking. He's winding his way through a narrow path with rock walls, when the scenery changes again, night turning back into day. He's going downhill, instead of uphill, now, and the rock is red-brown, not grey. The sun overhead is harsh, and the stone is radiating enough heat Sora can't help but be reminded of that time they'd fought the giant demon-thing that was stuck in the middle of a volcano at the end of the world. It's really, really hot. It smells kind of like the desert, too, though not exactly like Agrabah. It's more dusty, kind of like when you trip and end up face-first in dirt, only way more dry. And... kind of sad? Not exactly sad, but it's got bits of sad. Bits of other things, too. It's kind of like... yeah! It's like how it felt when that village got destroyed in the Land of Dragons again, but combined with how Beast's castle felt when they first got there and no one was around with, like. Places that nobody goes to because there's nothing there. In a bad way.

It's not a good feeling at all, and it rests heavy, on Sora's heart. He winds his way through the hot mountain path, and when he comes to the end, it's.

There's. There's this giant plain, with rusty-looking metal things sticking up, with a gap down the middle that you could totally walk through.

When he gets a bit closer, he sees that they're keyblades. All of them are keyblades.

The first thing Sora thinks of is a whole lot of words he's learned from Cid. The ones that make Riku's eyes go really wide and panicky when he says them. (Riku is kind of hilariously bad at swearing, Sora thinks. Even Kairi swears better than he does, and Kairi almost never swears.)

The second thing he wonders is Is this where keyblade wielders go when they die?, because yeah, that's what it feels like. A graveyard. An old, old graveyard; all the keyblades are battered and rusty, like an old broken car that's been living in someone's backyard for longer than Sora's been alive.

And there's so many. Sora can't even imagine what it'd be like if there was that many keyblade wielders actually alive. Maybe if there was things wouldn't have got so bad? With the heartless and stuff. There was only Sora, and King Mickey, before. Riku and Kairi now, too, but when the heartless were at their very worst there was only the two of them. Maybe if there had been so many people with keyblades running around the heartless would never have been able to destroy anywhere.

Maybe. Maybe not. Sora can't really tell for sure or anything, and at least it all worked out in the end! That's the important thing.

It'd be cool if there was more keyblade wielders, though. Sora could totally exchange moves with them and stuff! It'd be awesome. And maybe they'd have better ideas of how to help train Kairi. Not that Sora thinks he'n Riku are doing a bad job! But it's kinda their first go, and stuff, and sometimes Kairi doesn't get what they're trying to tell her and then when she finally figures it out she's grumpy at them for a bit because it would've been so obvious if they weren't using the completely wrong words, and Sora doesn't really get it, but proper teachers have, like, training to figure out how to tell someone else something that you know even when the words you use don't make sense to them, right? So that'd be cool too. But mainly it'd be cool to be able to talk to more people who can do the same sort of things you can do! That'd be great.

But that can't happen. And the field of keyblades that are probably grave-markers in the middle of the desert actually kinds of sucks. It's really really sad and depressing and a whole lot of heart-heavy emotions and Sora doesn't like it at all.

Sora walks through the middle of it, though, because he can't think of anything else to do. He can see a kind of rock wall sort of thing straight ahead, and he doesn't really have any better idea than to head towards that, so he does. Walking through the keyblades takes forever, though, and they're. If it wasn't such a sad place Sora would probably stay here for days, just looking at all the sorts there are, because there's so many, and none of them are like the Kingdom Key. It's really awesome!

But it is a sad place, so Sora just walks through, and eventually he gets to the end of them. Even though the rock wall looked really far away after he passes the last of the keyblades it hardly takes any time for Sora to get there.

It's a giant sheer cliff face, and with the sun out like it is Sora doesn't really want to touch it, it's so hot. But he pokes around for a couple of minutes, and he finds kind of a corridor-like sort of canyon-ish gap-thing. It's shady, too, which is kind of amazing, so he walks down through it. It's way cooler in the shade than Sora would've thought - he doesn't quite start shivering, but he almost thinks he's gonna. It's a really really long sort of corridor gap-thing, but the cold gives Sora a whole lot of energy back, so it doesn't take too long.

At the end it opens up into a circular sort of - it's not a forest so it's not a clearing, but it feels exactly like a forest clearing, except it's. You know. Giant stone cliffs, not trees.

There's another, shorter, passage on the other side of the not-clearing, but Sora takes a couple of minutes, just to breathe, before he starts down that path.



-(0,0)-




Sora wakes up.

In his own bed, even. And it's warm and comfy and he can feel mid-morning sun on his face, so he almost doesn't get up. That'd been a weird dream, though, and he wants to talk to Riku and Kairi about it, so he rolls out of bed -

...

He's shrunk!

And not shrunk like what happens in Wonderland, either! It's like. He's all little! And. Really little! A little kid!

Sora picks himself up off the floor, and runs to the bathroom, to look in the mirror and make sure he's not crazy. It's harder than it should be, though! His legs are all tiny and fat and everything's suddenly really tall and-!

At least he can still use air slide, is all Sora can say! Otherwise it would have been Sora pancakes for breakfast, ow. But eventually he gets into the bathroom, and - huh. It's the old bathroom! From before the shower broke for the millionth time and his dad cracked the shits with it and got it all renovated, pipes and all. Sora had been maybe seven when that happened. It's kind of weird to see it again.

But hey, there's the old bath, with the anti-slip stickers on the bottom, and heaps of his old bath toys, and -

Wait. Mirror. Right.

Sora has to find the turtle, first - well okay, it's his old potty, but it's always been the turtle - so he can get up high enough to see in the mirror.

Woah. He knew he'd shrunk, but! But! He looks just like he does in really old photos with! From before Kairi came to the island, that's how old!

"This is so weird," he says, and. Crap! Even his voice is different, all high and, and - is he dreaming, still? He must be dreaming still, right? Even with everything he's been through it'd be way too weird if he was really like. Four again, or something.

Right?

Hopefully, anyway. Sora brushes his teeth - his toothbrush is rocket-shaped! He forgot about that - in case it isn't, though. His dad will be really sad at him if he finds out he didn't brush his teeth. (Sora hasn't told him about how they only had any toothbrushes about half the time, when they were travelling. They got them when they could (well, he'n Goofy did, Donald didn't really need to), but they always wore out quicker than they could get new ones.)

Okay, okay. Uh. Right. If this is still a dream... Roxas said to go further in, right?

Maybe there could be lots of places that're 'further in', but, well. Sora's pretty sure there's not actually any choice about it. It's gotta be the Secret Place, right? Right.

Right. Um.

Sora's not entirely sure how he's gonna get over there while his body is all babied and stuff, but. Um. First he should get dressed! Yeah.

He runs back to his room - only falls over twice this time! - and changes out of his bug-patterned pyjamas into the white shirt and red shorts on his floor. They don't smell all that bad, so it's fine! And anyway, this's - probably - a dream, so. Yeah.

The stairs in Sora's house are a pretty steep set with a turn in the middle, and they're hard to go down, when you're small. Sora had forgotten about that, too, so he takes them full-speed and - well, he manages the first bit pretty well! But the second bit not so much, and Sora ends up dodge-rolling head-first into the dresser across the hall from the base of the stairs.

Ow.

This has officially been the worst dream ever for stairs. Worst ever.

And his head really hurts, which would be a point for this actually being reality, only it's not the sharp-hurt you get when you ram into something solid in real life. It's a different kind of hurt, like - his head is pounding hard enough everything's foggy and he can't think, and everything's ravelling away and he can't hold on to things, is just grasping at threads and hoping, hoping he's getting the right ones, and he doesn't know what to do doesn't know what's right thinks maybe the worst thing ever has happened and not - didn't mean - but but but -

Sora grabs his head, takes a deep breath, and. Yeah. It's not - not better, exactly, but. He can think a little bit, now. He can sit up and open his eyes.

The drawer he'd banged into is open a crack, and there're a few papers sticking up out of the gap. Which is weird, 'cause that drawer has had placemats in it, as long as Sora can remember.

So he does the only sensible thing, and opens it. Pulls out the top piece.

And.

It's a drawing.

In pencil, and the style seems kind of familiar even though Sora can't remember seeing it before. But there's Sora and Donald and Goofy, in - some kind of giant green field. And a guy in an Organisation coat! But Sora doesn't remember ever meeting someone from the Organisation somewhere like that... Sora doesn't really remember ever being somewhere like that at all.

He pulls out the next one. A big weird-looking castle. Sora's pretty sure he'd remember how the towers are at crazy angles, if he'd seen it before, but... there's. There's something...

Next one. Sora and Donald and Goofy and the Organisation coat-person again, only this time they're in a big white room.

Next, and it's Sora and Donald and Goofy and Leon and Yuffie in Traverse Town, only they're all looking really confused.

Sora gives up, and pulls the whole stack out, starts flicking through. Traverse Town, Traverse Town, Coat guy in a white room again - hey! Hey, that's Axel! That's definitely Axel, Sora wouldn't mistake him for anyone.

Uh.

This is. This is really kind of strange, and Sora starts flicking through faster. There's a girl, too! From the Organisation! Wow, Sora didn't know there was any girls before he got stuck in this dream and now he knows there're two - well. If this is real. It shouldn't be real, Sora doesn't remember anything that's happening here, but it. It kind of feels real, anyway. Um.

Hey, there's Riku! So maybe Riku would know, when he wakes up?

And there's another guy with an Organisation coat, too! Wow, heaps of them in this. And heaps of people and places he knows, too, Pinocchio and Aladdin and Jack and Alice and Beast and - hey, it's Twilight Town! And home! It's home, but Sora never went home before, well, before he'n Riku got home. Which um. This is drawn like it happened before that - those are his old clothes! - but it still feels real, and. Sora doesn't get it at all.

He flicks through to the end, and. Naminé! That's Naminé, right? Yeah, it is! And - she did something to Riku? And then the first guy in the Organisation coat grabs her, and then Axel is - but why would Axel do that? Axel's a nice guy, no way would he hurt Naminé! But Sora-in-the-pictures beats him up a lot, which - which is weird, because it's Axel, but it also doesn't feel weird at all, which. Sora's brain hurts again, though it's a more familiar too-much-thinking kind of hurt.

Anyway in the end Sora beats up pink-haired Organisation guy and talks to Naminé and - hey! Hey, that's that pod thing he woke up in Twilight Town!

...

Um.

Sora knows he's not a genius like his dad or anything, but. Is this telling the story of how come him'n Jiminy and Donald and Goofy woke up in Twilight Town?

It. It kind of seems like it, but he just doesn't know, either.

And his brain hurts.

So, Sora does the reasonable thing, and goes to whine at his mother.

He picks up the stack of drawings, though, and brings it with him. He just - has a feeling, that leaving it alone would be bad, somehow.

Anyway, he doesn't have to take it very far. He puts it down in front of the shrine, and lights some incense. Which has got way easier, since he learned fire magic! It's pretty great. And at the moment he wouldn't be able to reach, if he didn't have magic. Being really little sucks.

"Hi," he tells his mother. She's really pretty, in the photo. Sora doesn't know if she was like that in real life, though. He'd been pretty young, when she'd... gone away. That's how his dad always talks about it.

"I don't really get any of this at all," he says. "And I'm pretty sure I'm still dreaming 'cause dad would be really really really mad if someone took the placemats your grandmother made for the housewarming just to put pictures in the drawer, if this was real life. So this is really weird. And Roxas says I need to go further in so that's probably the Secret Place, right? I told you about the Secret Place, didn't I? I'm sorry I didn't before but it was a secret, and it's not like we thought it was a super-important place or anything. I didn't even know what world-keyholes were 'till I'd sealed a couple. Anyway, I should probably go over there but this is really confusing and Axel's in the pictures and so's Riku but I can just ask Riku, right? But I can't ask Axel. Um.

"Um, maybe I didn't tell you about Axel yet. It's kinda hard to talk about him 'cause even though I've got lots of friends that've fought with me he's the only one that's-

"I kinda get why Dad doesn't like talking about you a whole lot, now. And Axel is - well, I didn't even know him that well, not like Dad knew you, you know? Anyway, I don't know if you can hear this or anything, since this is a dream and all, but I promise I'll try and be nicer to Dad and Auntie K from now, okay? About everything, but like this particularly and stuff.

"I'm still really confused, though. None of this really makes sense at all, even for a dream! I mean usually in a dream it at least makes sense while you're dreaming, right? Even if it's a really really bad dream! But this one doesn't. Maybe it's 'cause I know it's a dream? Or something? I don't know.

"But I guess I'm never going to know if I don't wake up! Okay! I'm gonna go do that. I'll see you when I wake up in real life, okay?"

Sora makes sure the incense-ash-collector-thing isn't going to overflow - his dad always gets so mad when that sort of thing happens. He really doesn't want anything to get burned. Sora tries to remember, but sometimes he forgets. Anyway, he does that, and then he jumps up! Smiles at his mother. Whining at her always make him feel better.

He bends down and picks up the stack of drawings - and on a whim folds them in half and shoves them in his pocket. They don't really want to fit, and the corners jab into his leg kinda sharply, but that's okay. Sora can deal with that. He's only going down to the play island, after all.

And he'd better get going, before he gets distracted again!

It's warm outside, like it usually is at home, and Sora runs down to the dock, thongs flapping on the footpath. He wants an ice-cream, but maybe he should do this first.

When he gets down to the dock, and jumps in his boat, Sora realises two things.

One, he's really really tiny still, so there's no way he can reach both the oars, let alone row out to the play island himself. And two, there's no one around.

No one at all.

No shopkeepers or fishermen or kids or grown-ups or even the old guy, who spends all day every day sitting at the end of the pier with his fishing rod and the newspaper crossword. Sora's never even heard of him catching anything, but he's always nice to the kids. Sometimes he tells stories about pirates! Or giant whales, which Sora used to think was really cool, but now knows is just really really gross. Really gross!

But yeah, there's no one around at all, and Sora almost starts panicking, when his boat starts gliding through the water, all on its own. Magic! Definitely magic, but not magic Sora knows how to do. Donald might be able to, and Merlin probably could without even thinking about it, but Sora can't. The only sort of magic he knows is battle-magic.

But this is a dream, right, so it kind of makes sense. Kind of, and anyway it's going where he needs to go, so what's the point in worrying about it? Exactly.

The play island feels like happiness, always does - well, okay, except for that one time, but that was a totally weird night, and there's no way it's going to happen again. (Right?) Anyway it's happy, really really happy, and Sora almost forgets why he's here and goes off to see if he can catch a fish. Roast beach fish sounds like the best thing ever about now. Maybe with mushrooms, if he can find them. Mmm, yum.

But no! Wait! Totally trying to wake up, here, and he only sticks a toe or two into the waterfall pond before heading in to the Secret Place.

It's dark, like it always is, and the drawings they've made on the walls over the years stand out like they've just been freshly made, bright white on the dark stones, even though when Sora was actually this small he didn't even know where the Secret Place was. It was ages before they started making pictures on the walls. But they're there anyway, which definitely proves that this is a dream!

The Door is there like it always has been, too - and it deserves a capital letter, no one can convince Sora otherwise. Usually, it's kind of creepy-feeling, though not creepy enough to stop them coming in here. It doesn't fell like that now, though. It just feels kind of right. Sora's only felt one thing this right before in his life, and it's weird, to think that Kingdom Hearts is in his dream, even if it's not the real one.

Weird in a good way, though, and Sora puts both palms on the door, pictures still digging into this leg, and makes sure he remembers what he needs to do. He needs to wake up. Wake up, and find some way to help Roxas out. And Xion, too. And he needs to figure out how to visit Ven sometimes. That's it, right? Yeah, that's it.

Breathe in.

Sora opens the door.

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