(A/N): I might be shooting myself in the foot here, trying to juggle two multi-chapter works at the same time, but I'm going to try. I was browsing through some KH forums, and someone mentioned the fact that most AU fics take place in the "real" world - there's none of the fantasy that's inherent in the games. Well, my brain apparently ran with it and decided it wanted to write something resembling a twisted fairy tale - maybe something from the darker side of the original folk tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. I also wanted to write something that incorporated Sora much more deeply into the story line than anything I've attempted before, because, let's face it - he's a bit of an underused character for me. It should be noted that this work is not affiliated with the series by Frank Beddor (which I've never read) in any way, and any similarities between the two are the fault of coincidence. Let me know what you guys think!
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters depicted in the Kingdom Hearts series.
There was smoke everywhere. His eyes and lungs burned with it – the very world seemed to be set ablaze. The air was filled with the inhuman cries of their enemy, an almost claustrophobic cacophony pressing in on him from all sides. His weapons were heavy and clumsy in his hands, but still he fought, a grim determination burning in his veins.
A claw-tipped hand swept under his guard, grazed his side, slicing both cloth and flesh. With a dry hiss, he turned and smashed his blade down into the top of the thing's head, wrenching it free as it began to dissolve into a filmy black wisp. Spinning away from the decomposing body, he swept his weapons in a deadly arc, opening a narrow avenue of escape. He ran.
Ruined buildings flashed past him in rapid sequence; he planted one booted foot in the niche of a crumbling wall and leapt into the air, up away from his pursuers. He reached the apex of his jump quickly, twisting in the air to survey what he could of the battlefield. His soldiers were spread out beneath him, locked in battle with the shadows slowly sweeping across the city. A sudden roiling explosion of flame to the southeast betrayed the location of at least one of his comrades, and then he was falling back toward the horde of monsters rising to meet him.
Sora wrenched himself upright with a thin cry, holding his arms in front of his face as if to stave off a blow. When he recognized the banal trappings of his own room, he flopped back down onto the pillow with a harsh sigh. "Not again," he muttered, shivering slightly at the feel of the chilly air on his damp skin. He reached down and grabbed the blankets he'd thrown off in his earlier panic, drawing them up around his shoulders again. His gaze roamed the familiar contours of the room, probing the dark spill of shadows as he waited for his pulse to stop beating in his ears.
Something with yellow eyes peered at him from underneath his dresser. Sora's heart stopped, then began to beat double-time. "You're not real," he whispered. The thing under the dresser blinked its large eyes, the only part of it Sora could make out, but offered no response. "You're not," Sora repeated, his voice a little stronger. He squeezed his eyes closed, hands tightening into fists around his blankets. "You're not."
The thing was gone when he opened his eyes.
He stared at the spot it had been for a moment before he flung the covers back and reached for the lamp on his night stand. Light flooded the room, and Sora's heartbeat immediately began to settle back into its proper rhythm. His Struggle bat was propped against the foot of his bed, and Sora hefted it in both hands as he advanced on the dresser.
No inhuman voices whispered to him. No hooked claw shot out to grab his ankle. Taking a deep breath, Sora dropped to one knee and thrust the makeshift weapon underneath the dresser. The only resistance he met was the wall. Feeling bolder, he set the bat on the floor next to his hand and bent over further, pressing his cheek to the carpet so he could peer into the narrow space. It was deserted.
All the strength went out of his limbs and he sprawled on his stomach, hugging the carpet as he tried to fight down a giddy fit of laughter. "You're not there," he mumbled, grinning. "I told you you weren't." He remained where he was for a while, letting the nap of the carpet whisper across his cheek as he convulsed in silent laughter.
When he felt calmer he pushed himself up, bending to retrieve the Struggle bat before he made a slow circuit of the rest of the room. Nothing was out of place, and the shadows were only that – shadows. He returned to his bed and drew the blankets up around his shoulders before reaching out and flicking the light off. He slid the Struggle bat underneath his pillow. It was uncomfortable, but he left it there, one hand wrapped tightly around the handle.
"Hello? Earth to Sora. Come in, Sora."
Sora twitched and raised his eyes from the textbook he'd been pretending to read. "Hmm?"
Kairi sighed and shook her head at him from across the room. "You haven't heard a word we've said, have you?"
Sora closed his book and offered her an abashed smile. "Sorry, guys."
They were spread around Riku's living room, the books and notes for the homework they were supposed to be working on piled in drifts around them. Riku was sprawled at the other end of the couch, his blue tie hanging loose and crooked. Kairi was seated in the overstuffed armchair, her legs tucked primly beneath her and her uniform's skirt smoothed over her knees. They were both regarding him with identical expressions of amused exasperation. Kairi huffed and smoothed a stray piece of auburn hair off of her forehead. "We were talking about going out to the island tomorrow. The three of us, before it starts getting too chilly."
Sora's embarrassed smile brightened. "Tomorrow? That'd be great! Oh man, it feels like we haven't been out there in forever."
Riku snorted, one arm tucked behind his head as he regarded Sora from beneath lowered lids. "We were out there two weeks ago." Sora pulled a face at him and made a half-hearted effort to punch his shin. Riku pulled his leg away from him, then settled it back into place when Sora didn't move to try and hit him again. "Nice, Sora." Sora stuck his tongue out at him for good measure.
"Knock it off, you guys." Laughter sang just underneath Kairi's voice, but the two boys immediately turned away from each other, Riku gazing blandly at the ceiling as Sora crossed his arms and mock-glared at the blank television screen.
"It's not my fault someone's a dork," he declared loudly.
"We know, but we don't hold it against you," Riku returned, smirking. Sora gave a loud war cry and turned on the other teen, batting him about the head and shoulders with the nearest throw pillow.
"Guys! Guys!" Giving up on getting their attention by peaceable means, Kairi unfolded herself from the chair and waded into the fray. She managed to grab a corner of the pillow as Sora brought it down on Riku's head, and the three of them tussled over it until Kairi wrenched it away. "We're supposed to be working on the reading assignment," she panted out, grinning.
"Oh, c'mon, Kairi," Sora wheedled, putting on his best smile. "We've got the weekend."
"She's right. You should start now," Riku said, yelling and rolling off the couch when Sora dove for him. Sora followed him down, and Kairi beat the pillow over the both of them as they wrestled on the floor.
Ten minutes later the front door opened and closed, and Riku's mother poked her head into the room to find all three of them slumped across various pieces of furniture, panting and grinning. "What are you kids doing in here?" she asked.
"Homework," Riku answered. The three friends looked at each other and simultaneously broke into fresh fits of laughter. Riku's mom arched an eyebrow in silent question, then apparently decided she didn't want to know. Shaking her head, she turned and headed toward the kitchen.
"Well all right, but it's starting to get late."
Sora sighed as the last of his laughter died away, sweeping his bangs out of his eyes and snuggling a little more deeply into the cushions beneath him. "Okay, okay, so when do you guys want to go tomorrow?"
"Nine?" Kairi suggested, settling herself demurely in the armchair once again. Sora groaned.
"C'mon, Kairi, it's Saturday," he protested.
"How about ten?" Riku asked, stretching his arms over his head in a lazy yawn.
"Yeah, that sounds better," Sora said with a grin. He glanced out the window, then down at his watch before bending to retrieve his school bag. "I've gotta run, guys. My mom'll be home soon."
"I should go, too," Kairi sighed, standing and smoothing her skirt.
Riku grunted and pulled himself to his feet to follow them out. "All right." Sora and Kairi both made a detour through the kitchen to say goodbye to Riku's mom, and she gave each of them a cookie for the road. Sora took his with a grin. This was part of the reason they always seemed to wind up at Riku's house – not only was his home the closest to Trinity High School, but (and Sora would never actually admit this to his own mother) Riku's mom made the absolute best cookies.
"See you guys tomorrow," Riku called after them as he and Kairi reached the end of his driveway. Kairi spun on her heel, smiling and waving. Sora merely waved over his shoulder, happily munching on his cookie.
The late afternoon light painted everything in warm hues, and as they walked they lifted their faces to the cool breeze coming in off the water. "Did you finish your biology project yet?" Kairi asked, letting her eyes slide closed and smiling as a particularly brisk gust of wind swept past them.
"Not yet," Sora mumbled, licking the crumbs from his fingers.
"It's due next Friday."
Sora hummed and smiled at the familiar accusation. "That's me," he agreed. Kairi laughed gently, and they lapsed into silence. Sora paused as they reached the end of his driveway. "So, see you tomorrow."
"Mm." Kairi glanced over her shoulder in the direction they'd come from, then placed her fingers lightly against Sora's wrist, halting him before he could walk away. "Sora?"
Sora frowned slightly at her expression. "What?"
Kairi's eyes met and held his. "Is something…bothering you?" Sora remained silent, too startled to speak, and Kairi's fingers pressed into his skin with a little more force. "Riku didn't want to say anything, but… Well, Riku's Riku, but we've both noticed you've been a little…strange lately."
Sora forced himself to smile. "You guys are imagining things. Really," he added when she remained silent. "I'm fine." Kairi peered up at him for another second before she stepped back.
"Okay. If you're sure…"
"I'm fine," Sora repeated, thumping one fist against his chest to illustrate his point. He felt immeasurably relieved when Kairi smiled.
"Okay. See you tomorrow."
"Yeah," Sora mumbled through numb lips. "See you."
He met his mom in the short hall that led from the front door to the living room. "Hi sweetie. How was school?"
Sora shrugged as she bent and planted a light kiss on his forehead. "It was school." He kicked his shoes off and left them beside the front door before trailing her toward the living room. "How was work?"
She glanced at him as she reached up to unpin her dark blonde hair. Her eyes were the same brilliant shade of blue as Sora's, and the first faint signs of crow's feet warmed into laugh lines as she smiled. "It was work." Her smile slipped a little as she got a better look at his expression. "Do you feel all right, honey?"
"Yeah. I'm just a little tired."
"Well, why don't you go lie down for a little bit?" she suggested, slipping out of her low pumps. "Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes, okay?"
"Remember to wash up before you come back down," she called after him as he turned toward the stairs.
Once he was in his room, Sora shut the door firmly behind him. Tossing his school bag onto the seat of his desk chair, he sank down onto his mattress, glancing at the place beneath his dresser from which the thing with the yellow eyes had looked out at him the night before. There was nothing there. He flopped backward with a sigh, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars he'd pasted to the ceiling when he was eight and never gotten around to removing.
The nightmares had begun almost a month ago, but they hadn't worried him at first. Growing boys with active imaginations were bound to have the occasional bad dream, weren't they? Of course they were. It was perfectly normal. Seeing the black things from his dreams while awake wasn't. That wasn't the experience of a growing boy with an active imagination. That was the experience of a crazy person.
His mind drifted back to his latest nightmare – the stark, unremitting realism of it and the glowing eyes that had followed him into the waking world. "It's not real," he said, feeling slightly foolish speaking to the empty room. When nothing answered him he turned onto his side, drawing his legs up onto the bed and curling into a tight ball.
Sora twitched and opened his eyes, thoughts muzzy. He hadn't meant to fall asleep.
"'M coming, mom!" Sora yelled back, levering himself upright. Rubbing the heel of one hand into his right eye, he cast a quick glance at his dresser. Nothing there. Sora blew his bangs out of his eyes and stood, reaching up to pull his tie off and flinging it to the side as he headed for the hallway.
"Sorry," he called down the stairs as he descended. "I fell asleep." His mother hummed a response at him from the kitchen, and Sora glanced into the living room as he reached the foot of the stairs. "Where's dad?"
"He's working late again. Can you set the table, please?"
Sora moved past his mom, who was standing at the stove and scooping the last of the stir-fry out of the pan and onto a serving plate. Her hair was loose and her feet were bare against the green linoleum. "Thank you, honey." She grabbed a large bowel of white rice and turned toward the small dining room. "Grab the vegetables on your way out, would you?" Sora nodded as he pulled two plates down from the cupboard, and his mom smiled and disappeared through the low archway.
Gathering the silverware and glasses onto the plates, Sora snagged the steaming dish of vegetables and carefully made his way to the table. His mother glanced up with a smile as he edged his way into the room. "Are you sure you don't want something else to carry? We could sell tickets."
"Do you want some milk?"
"Soda?" he asked hopefully, carefully lowering his armload onto the tablecloth.
"Milk it is," she said, smiling at his expression. "You'll thank me when you're all grown up with all your own teeth still in your head." She ruffled his hair affectionately as she brushed past him, and Sora sighed and set out the plates and silverware. A minute later she was back, a pitcher of milk in her hand. "Okay. Dig in." She set the milk on the table and they both took their seats, passing the serving dishes back and forth.
"Take another spoonful of string beans, dear."
"Well, you know I'm always going to say it. Why don't you just do it the first time?" Sora mumbled under his breath, but he added another spoonful of vegetables to his existing pile. "There, now. Was that so hard?"
"Exhausting," Sora said solemnly. His mother almost managed to hide her smile behind her glass.
"So do you have any plans this weekend?"
Sora swallowed his mouthful of food and nodded. "We're going to go out to the island tomorrow."
Sora shrugged. "I guess."
"Well, don't forget you said you'd help me put the patio furniture in the shed sometime."
"All right. Will you need a lunch tomorrow?"
"I don't know."
She continued to ask him questions about his day, his schoolwork, his friends, and Sora took comfort in the quiet normalcy of it all. When they were finished eating he offered to clear the table, but his mom waved him off. "You've got a full day ahead of you tomorrow, and you're still looking a little pale. I think you'd be better served heading to bed, young man."
"Okay. Thanks, mom."
"Mm-hmm." She bent over as she retrieved his plate and pecked him on the temple. "Sleep well."
Sora hid a yawn and grinned up at her sheepishly. "Night."
"Good night, honey."
Sora pushed himself away from the table and headed for the stairs, scratching idly at his temple as he yawned again, loudly. His mother's voice followed him from the kitchen: "Cover your mouth when you yawn." Sora grinned and stretched, lacing his hands on the top of his head as he climbed the stairs.
He was passing the mirror in the hall when he froze, staring in disbelief and a sickly sort of dawning horror. His reflection had been usurped by a boy with blond hair, framed behind the glass from the chest up. He was dressed in dark clothing, and he had one gloved hand pressed to his side of the mirror.
He didn't have any eyes. Empty sockets that were little more than dark wounds in his face seemed to extend back into a blackness deeper than that found at the edge of the universe, but Sora knew the thing in the mirror could see him. He shuffled a step to the side and the boy's head turned to track him. Sora reached out a hand to lay it against the glass, then lost his nerve and tucked it against his chest. "You're not real," he whispered, voice shaking.
The boy's mouth moved, but it seemed to Sora his voice sprang from within his own mind. "Time's running out."
"You're not really there," Sora insisted, squeezing his eyes shut. "You're not, you're not, you're not." From somewhere far away, water began running into the kitchen sink. He opened his eyes. The boy was gone. His own reflection stared back at him, eyes wide and startled.
When he lay down to sleep, he brought the Struggle bat into his bed again.
The next morning Sora bolted out of bed at nine-fifty. He'd lain awake half the night, gaze continually traversing the dark recesses of his room, but no yellow eyes had peered at him from the shadows, and his sleep had been untroubled by dreams. When he glanced at his mirror, the eyes looking back at him were his own. Hurriedly dressing in black swim trunks and sandals, he dragged a Besaid Aurochs t-shirt over his unruly hair as he banged down the stairs. "Where's the fire?" his mom inquired mildly from the living room as his sandals skidded on the hardwood floor.
"I said I'd meet Riku and Kairi at the docks," Sora said, tugging the hem of his shirt down. "I'll see you later, I love you, bye!" She tried to call something after him, but it was lost in the slam of the front door and the sound of his feet slapping against the ground.
Riku and Kairi were already at the edge of the pier when Sora jogged up to them, holding a hand against the stitch in his side. "Sorry," he gasped out. "Overslept."
Riku's lips dipped down in a slight frown as he shifted his rucksack from one hand to the other. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."
"I'm fine." Sora took a few deep breaths and tentatively lowered his hand from his side. Riku and Kairi exchanged looks, and he frowned. "Really, guys – I'm fine. I just overslept is all." He clapped his hands together and forced a smile. "C'mon, we're already behind schedule. Let's get going already." Riku continued to stare at him. "What?"
"Didn't you bring any lunch?"
Sora's mouth flapped uselessly for a moment before he scowled and crossed his arms. "Ah, shoot." They stared at him for another moment before Kairi stepped forward, linking her arm with his.
"That's all right. I packed some extra. We can share." Sora didn't miss the look she threw over her shoulder at Riku as they headed down the pier to where their small rowboat was docked.
The trip out to the island was silent save for the creak of the oars and the waves splashing against the wooden hull. Sora pulled grimly on his oar and pretended he didn't notice Kairi watching him from beneath lowered lids, or Riku stealing worried glances at him out of the corner of his eye.
When they reached the small pier, Sora jumped out and caught the rope Riku threw him, tying off the small craft with neat, precise motions. He stepped back as his two friends clambered up onto the pier with him.
"So." His voice came out a bit too loudly, and Sora winced inwardly and strove to bring it back under control. "What do you guys wanna do first?" There was a moment of silence, and Sora could see both of them struggling with whether they should say something or simply play along. Then Riku reached into his rucksack and brought out a blitzball. He cocked an eyebrow at Sora, and the dark-haired boy felt a grin stealing across his face. "Oh, you're on."
They hit the water at the same time.
When they splashed to shore an hour later, Kairi was sitting on the steps that led to the secret place, carefully threading a small pile of puka shells onto a thin cord. Their belongings were piled neatly beside her. She glanced up and smiled as they approached. "So who won?"
Sora huffed and glanced to the side, crossing his arms across his chest. "Riku."
Kairi's smile spread. "Ah. Well then it's a good thing this is a consolation prize for the runner-up." She lifted the unfinished project and the shells clacked quietly against one another. Riku rolled his eyes and grabbed his rucksack from where it was resting beside her.
"Should I leave you two alone?"
Kairi wrinkled her nose as a few drops of water fell on her bare leg. "Nobody likes a sore winner, Riku," she admonished in a singsong voice, digging her toes a little further into the sand. Riku snorted and sank down on the steps beside her, propping his elbows back on the top step and tilting his face up into the sun. Kairi poked a stiff finger into his side. "Hey! Watch the shells – it took me a long time to find all of those." Riku's expression was one of long-suffering tolerance as he obediently scooted to the side.
Sora snickered and moved to sit on Kairi's other side. "Man, she's got you whipped."
Riku eyed him with a lazy sort of arrogance. "Look who's talking."
Kairi rolled her eyes as she slid another shell onto the length of cord. "Fascinating as this conversation is," she interrupted, "am I the only one who's hungry? You guys abandoned me without telling me where you hid the food…Riku."
For a moment the silver-haired teen really did look abashed. "Sorry."
"Someone's in trouble," Sora sang, grinning at the look Riku shot him.
"You two could bicker like an old married couple," Kairi interjected before they could get going again, "or we could eat. I vote for eating." She glanced up at the sudden silence, a light blush staining her cheeks when she saw the way their eyes were shining. "Oh, shut up." Sora burst out laughing, and she thumped him on the shoulder, expression slightly peeved. A smirk tugged at the edge of Riku's lips, but he managed to contain himself. "You guys are jerks," Kairi informed them, carefully tying off the ends of the shell-laced cord before standing and scooping up the remaining shells in one hand and Riku's rucksack in the other.
"Aw, c'mon Kairi, we didn't mean it!" Sora shouted as she stomped toward the shed.
"I'm eating your share of the food!" she shot back over her shoulder, but they could both hear her smile in her voice. Riku and Sora glanced at each other, grinning, before they pushed themselves up off the steps and trailed after her, the sand sticking to their feet and ankles.
She was at the base of the twisted paopu tree when they caught her, trying to extract a blanket from the mess in Riku's rucksack. "How much did you pack, Riku?" she inquired, not raising her eyes. Riku shrugged and nudged her to the side, kneeling next to the open bag and slipping the blanket free of its surroundings. He handed it over to Kairi, and Sora stepped forward to help her fan it open across the sand. Riku pulled out five Tupperware dishes and pried off the lids before setting four of them around the corners of the blanket to keep the breeze from blowing it away.
"Okay," he sighed, drawing the rucksack's draw chord closed. "That's it."
"Well, thanks Riku, but what are you going to eat?" Sora inquired innocently, sitting down cross-legged next to a container piled high with fruit salad.
"Ugh." Kairi thrust a drumstick in his face, almost bopping him on the nose. "Shut up and eat."
When the food was gone and the containers and blanket were safely back inside the rucksack, Riku and Sora sprawled around the base of the twisted tree, watching the light refract over the water as they began the process of digestion with contented sighs. "Kairi, I'm gonna marry your mom for her cooking," Sora groaned, patting his stomach fondly.
The redhead glanced down at him from her perch on the paopu's trunk, one delicate brow arched. "She'll be thrilled," she mumbled dryly, threading another shell onto what was now clearly meant to eventually be a necklace. Riku snorted, and they lapsed back into silence. Sora lay back and laced his hands behind his head, his eyes falling closed as he let the heat of the sun beating down on him and the fullness of his belly lull him toward sleep.
"'S nice out here," he mumbled. The other two hummed an agreement, and Sora let the darkness carry him away.
The sun was sinking toward the water when Kairi shook him awake. She smiled when he woke with a start, blinking up at her owlishly. "We're getting ready to go," she said, tucking a stray strand of hair back behind one ear. "Riku's already left for the boat."
Sora groaned and pulled himself into a sitting position. "How long was I asleep?" he asked, wiping a hand across his eyes. Kairi shrugged.
"A couple hours."
"What? Why –?"
"You looked like you needed it," Kairi said softly. Her eyes caught his. They glowed in the warm light.
Sora flushed and glanced away, scratching self-consciously at the sand in his hair. "Well, thanks," he mumbled.
"Sora…" Kairi's voice trailed off into nothing, and her lips thinned. "Let's go," she said at last, extending her hand. Sora grabbed it and let her haul him to his feet – the ease with which she pulled him upright never ceased to surprise him. He brushed at the sand in his hair again, and she smiled and reached a hand up to sweep the tiny granules from his shoulder. Her fingers were cool against his sun-warmed skin.
Riku's voice sounded from the direction of the pier. "Get a room, you two!"
They both jumped, sharing grins shaded with embarrassment, before Kairi dug the necklace of puka shells out of the pocket hidden in the pleats of her skirt. "Here," she said, reaching up and knotting the string around his neck. "It's not finished yet… I couldn't find enough shells."
Sora fingered the string of shells resting against his collarbone. "It's fine, Kairi. Thanks."
"I guess I'm the only one going back to shore!"
Sora glanced down the short beach to where Riku was standing ankle-deep in the water, hands on his hips and head cocked to the side. "Jeez, keep your shirt on, okay? We're coming!"
Kairi's fingers slipped into his, squeezing gently, before she whirled and bolted for the steps leading back down to the beach. "Last one there's a rotten Tonberry!" she called over her shoulder.
"Hey, no fair! You had a head start!" Feet scrabbling for purchase in the loose sand, Sora started after her, and in that moment shadows made solid and boys that appeared in mirrors seemed so far removed from his own life that they might as well have been part of someone else's.