Sora knew this place.
Strange creatures glittered in the corners of his vision, dark and rustling but never there when he sought them out. It was cold, too. There was enough of a breeze that he wished for sleeves, but it wasn’t so cool that it distracted him from the realm. It was in the back of his mind, just as much as the lingering movement in the corner of his eyes, but not wholly important.
He stepped forward, his feet finding the path easily despite not seeing it below him. He was barefoot – something else that should’ve bothered him, but it didn’t. It hardly registered in his mind. He moved ahead instead, the heaviness of the night (was it night? Or was it something different completely, somewhere concepts like day and night were irrelevant?) creeping into his eyes, pulling the weight of his eyelids down.
He knew this feeling. It was like every step brought him deeper and deeper down, into unconsciousness, but not like a good night’s rest would. It felt foreboding. It felt tiring, exhausting, like he might want to lie down and curl up on the oddly-soft dirt beneath his soles, but he knew if he did, he wouldn’t get back up.
He didn’t want to know how he knew that.
He walked on, moving into a different clearing than the one from the last time he visited. It was always a different clearing. He stifled a yawn, drawing his hands over his head instead, stretching for a second before he saw her, and then a smile spread over his face.
“Hey!” he called, knowing he didn’t have to. She knew he was there.
She always did.
She turned around then, a knowing look in her eyes as she appraised him.
“You can’t keep coming here,” she told him.
He shrugged, though. “You’ve said that before.”
For a moment, she looked at Sora, but it almost felt like she looked through him. Her eyes weren’t truly meeting his, though they stared into them. “I have. And I understand you cannot yet control that you find yourself here.”
Here, Sora sat down on the ground, looking up at her with a grin. “And I keep telling you, I don’t know what that means. This is just a dream, right? No one can control their dreams.”
She sighed. “Perhaps not.” Then, she smiled at him. A soft expression that shone mostly in her eyes, but it warmed him up inside.
“So,” he prompted, crossing his legs underneath him and looking up at her expectantly, “what story do you have tonight?”
Sora came here frequently. He met this girl each time. Sometimes she seemed different than others, but it was always her. She told him stories of another time, she said, of Gods and Goddesses and when fates were challenged. It sounded real, the way she told him, like she’d been there – and maybe she had, Sora reasoned, but he never put much thought into it.
It was all a dream, anyway.
She began her tale: of a woman who fought to save her sister and sacrificed what mattered most to her in order to do that. Sora listened to the story but also the sound of her voice: soft but oddly flat, disregarding emotion in almost every sentence. Her story was matter-of-fact, almost textbook in the way she chose her words, but her tone made it sound like some long epic. Something he’d find in a classic.
He closed his eyes, her voice lulling him into a calm he hadn’t experienced before in this realm. She kept speaking, the words sounding as if they were coming through a tunnel.
This place, Sora recognised. He came here before in his dreams, and something about it reminded him of being a kid exploring the Islands. He knew the feeling of this place and, even if he didn’t know how he knew it, he understood the rules of it. This girl, though, he didn’t know. She never told him her name, though he asked almost every time he visited – and that number kept going up with each week that passed. He really couldn’t help it, much as he did try to obey the dream-girl’s request that he stop joining her.
Part of him truly believed it was a dream, and therefore what did it matter if he dreamt of her? But another part of him knew something about this place was different, and she was right to be concerned.
The girl reminded him of Kairi, but he couldn’t place why. They weren’t very similar. This girl told Sora once that she remained in that realm as penance for her wrongdoings, but he couldn’t imagine what harm she could have done to deserve such an isolating existence. When he told her that, though, she genuinely smiled – “I’m not alone,” she told him pleasantly, but he woke up as he began to ask what she meant by it, and he never got a chance to bring it back up with her.
“Sora?” he heard her ask then, but he was too sleepy to open his eyes or respond. He waved his hand at her, hoping she’d get the message. He just needed to rest for a little bit, that was all, and her voice was so relaxing….
“Sora?” a voice called again. It sounded more concerned. He wanted to lie down, but he didn’t dare move. He was too relaxed. He waved the voice off a second time, something like shut up, I’m just resting my eyes trying to form on his tongue.
Only, his mouth wouldn’t open.
It’s just a dream, he tried to remind himself, but his eyelids felt heavy. He thought about pinching himself, but his hands felt like lead weights, immobile in his lap.
The voice echoed in his head, but it sounded further away. “Sora,” it called, but it was fading.
He felt… weightless. Heavy, yes, but weightless. Even the ground underneath him no longer registered.
But then the voice changed. He wasn’t listening to the girl anymore; it deepened, taking on a panicked edge. He would know that voice if he didn’t even know himself anymore.
He wanted to come back, to wake up, to tell Riku he was fine and not to worry, but he was so far away… and the air, it was getting thicker….
A man appeared inside his mind’s eye. Knowing eyes looked down at him, and Sora wanted to stand up to face him but he couldn’t move, his dream-self heavy with something like sleep, but heavier. Like sleep, but final.
“You don’t belong here,” the man said. He sounded… sad. “It’s too early for you.”
He reached for Sora, holding him in his arms, but Sora barely felt it. Sora saw him, though, inside his eyelids as if seeing it from another, third perspective. He looked small. Curled in on himself, arms around his stomach, the skin on his face going blue with chill—
The man brushed Sora’s fringe off of his face and pressed his hand to Sora’s forehead, and Sora—
Sora sat up with a gasp, a hand clenching the tank top over his chest – his palm was clammy, his chest soaked with sweat, heart racing under his grip.
“Sora,” Riku exclaimed. His hands gripped Sora’s upper arms. His grip was tight, white hot to Sora’s somehow cold skin.
“What happened?” Sora asked.
Already, snippets of the dream were fading. He remembered the girl, the start of her story, but….
A feeling of terror settled into Sora’s stomach like tar and he began shaking, instantly grateful for Riku’s firm grip on his arms sliding up to cup his face and then back down to clasp his hands.
Riku looked at Sora with a frenzied expression. “Are you okay?” he asked instead. There was a tremor in his voice that scared Sora, but not as badly as how his own body was behaving.
Sora tried to breathe, to return his heart rate to something more normal, but his breaths kept coming in gasps, uneven and shallow. It took a minute for them to even out with Riku’s assistance, though he still couldn’t place his finger on what happened—
“You stopped breathing.”
Riku stared at Sora with pained eyes, a haunted expression plain on his face.
“You usually snore,” he said, no trace of humor in his voice, “but you weren’t. I wasn’t going to think much of it, but something felt weird. Off, I guess.”
“I… died?” Sora stuttered.
“You weren’t breathing,” Riku repeated. His eyes looked manic, wide open and bright against the pale flush of his face.
Sora let Riku pull him close, felt Riku’s arms circle around his torso with a vice-like intensity, and he allowed himself to press his cheek against the warmth of Riku’s shoulder. His own arms crossed over his stomach, as if he were holding himself together at the seams, but he couldn’t focus on Riku no matter how hard he tried.
He tried to think only of the way Riku’s skin was hot against his own. How Riku was bare-chested because it was too warm to sleep with a shirt on, so instead he crashed in a pair of boxers and socks and really, Sora should be laughing himself silly because his boyfriend wore socks to bed. He tried to think of the way they were half draped on Sora’s bed but Riku only had one leg propped up and the rest of him was left on the ground, his blankets discarded without a care on the ground behind them.
But he could only remember the man’s eyes. Deep violet eyes that were too sad staring into Sora’s blue. He could only remember the man picking Sora up like he was just a baby instead of a full-grown adult, holding him securely in one arm and using the other to touch his face.
He only remembered the girl and how she always said she was never alone, and how she always said she was atoning for her sins, and how Sora never belonged there.
He only remembered the feeling that he could never fall asleep there, no matter how tired he always felt. No matter how the realm tried to lull him into unconsciousness. Because if he did, he wouldn’t wake up.
Finally, Sora moved. It didn’t take much effort to move his arms from their loose fold over his chest and snake them around Riku, pulling him up onto his bed completely. Sora could hear the rain falling outside their window, but there was no light coming in. It was too dark. He felt his heartrate quicken –
But Riku was already on it, blindly reaching one hand out to pick up Sora’s phone on the nightstand and turning the flashlight on, setting it down on the bed beside them.
“You’re safe now,” Riku told him, reaching around to cover Sora’s shoulders with one of his comforters, blanketing them both. “We can figure this out, Sora.”
He didn’t know if he wanted to figure it out. To go back there, with the figures that shuffled around in the darkness and lurked where he couldn’t see. To go back where the girl looked at him knowingly with ageless eyes. To see him again, the man who told Sora it was too soon for him to be there, who brought him back—
“You’re safe,” Riku repeated.