<Peeks out before coming into view.> Hi. This is the first time I've actually shared a fanfiction online. So this is a big moment for me. Constructive criticism is welcome if you have any, but above all, I hope you enjoy. Breaking and Mending Description: Sora is haunted by Young Xehanort’s words when he realizes how many X’s his clothes have. AN: I decided to give Sora and his mom the last name of Maki, Japanese for “shepherd, tend cattle.” (At least according to the site I looked at.) I have seen Sora referred to as a guardian or shepherd a couple times, so I thought it fit. Her teenaged son rocked back and forth on his bed. His knees were tucked against his chest with his ankles crossed. His hands desperately clutched his hair as he bowed his head into his knees. The worried mother could only watch helplessly. Ever since he returned from his year long plus disappearance, he had been both more grownup and as much of a child as before. She gently touched his shoulder. Her heart broke as his rocking only stopped long enough to jerk away from her. Tears stung her eyes. His father was just like him: bright, cheery, ever the optimist, but slumping into the deepest pits of despair when he slipped. Unfortunately, she had missed all the warning signs as her husband sank so deep that he couldn’t climb out. Not even for his wife and little boy. “I won’t lose you too,” she whispered fiercely through her tears. Vow still echoing softly in her ears, she moved to take action. Since her son had returned, he would occasionally fall into this darkness. Admittedly, this was by far the worst that she had seen. But there were two who could draw him out and back to the light when she couldn’t. She picked up the phone from the kitchen counter. A moment later a conference call was placed to her son’s two best friends. “Hello, Riku here.” “Hi, this is Kairi.” A pause and then they simultaneously greeted, “Hello, Mrs. Maki.” “Hey, kids,” she said quietly. “Sora is in really deep. He needs you.” Kairi softly growled. “Of course I have to be out of town.” “I’ll be right over,” Riku said, calm, assured. “How bad is he?” Sora’s mother bit her lip, recalling the too fresh scene in her mind. “This is the worst he’s ever been. He won’t even let me touch him.” “I promise I’ll be right there,” Riku said. “Ten minutes tops.” “Riku,” Kairi said hurriedly, “call me as soon as you get to him.” “I will, Kai, promise,” Riku said. A quick round of goodbyes and Mrs. Maki was left with her phone and worries. Now, all she could do was wait and pray that Sora could be drawn out this time. She didn’t want to lose someone else to the darkness of his own mind. ~ ~ ~ Riku jogged up the porch steps, fist already up and rapping on the door before he half-slid to a stop. He’d barely caught his breath when Mrs. Maki opened the door. “Come on in, Riku,” she said. “Sora’s up in his room.” “Thanks,” Riku said, already heading up to his friend’s second story room. Despite his rush, he was already searching his mind for possibilities of what had triggered this breakdown. If he was one to bet, he would put his money on something that happened during their trials. That had to be it. Nothing from their first journeys had been this bad. But what was the cause? The kidnaping? Practically being locked inside himself with no way out? Almost becoming another Xehanort? Something that had happened on one of the sleeping worlds? As an afterthought, the fact he was now a Master, essentially a mentor for Sora now, caused the situation to lay on him a little heavier than before. Perfect way to build the pressure. And he was virtually on his own since Kairi was currently at the Mysterious Tower training under Yen Sid. He forced all his thoughts to come to a halt as he reached Sora’s door. He slipped through the half-open door, closing it behind him. He gave the room a once-over, trying to spy any possible triggers. The last year had surprisingly shown that Sora could create order to the chaos called his room. Even despite the minor lapse this morning. His favorite clothes were strewn all over the floor. Not immediately seeing a possible trigger, Riku turned to take in his friend. Sora was curled up as though to hide from the world. He was barefoot, wearing his white nightshirt and red shorts. A glance at his night stand showed that he hadn’t even put his signature crown necklace on yet. Riku pulled out his cellphone and speed dialed Kairi. Unsurprisingly, she picked up immediately. “I’m here,” he said. “So far I’m not seeing any triggers.” As he settled on the bed beside Sora, Kairi asked, “What’s Sora doing?” “He’s curled in on himself, rocking on his bed, and not making a sound,” Riku answered. Kairi gave a soft cry. “He’s never done that without at least crying,” she whispered. Riku slowly nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see it. Normally, Sora would be curled up on his side not making a sound, or rocking on his bed while sobbing or whimpering. Or sometimes he would be curled up crying. But, he had never hidden his face like this or been so silent. Riku tried to smell the air. Nothing out of the ordinary since their trial. Sora was still brimming with light, the faintest tinge of darkness that came from his unexpected immersion in it. His eyebrow rose has he caught the scent of intense fear. Cautiously, he reached out and touched his friend’s shoulder. “Sora? Sora, it’s me. Riku.” Sora whipped his head up. His eyes were wide with terror. His body was tense, ready to spring. Whether to fight or run Riku couldn’t rightly say. “Easy,” Riku said quietly. “We’re all a bit worried about you right now. Me, your mom, Kairi.” “Kairi,” Sora repeated. His voice became tinged with frantic worry. “Where is she?” “She’s with Master Yen Sid,” Riku answered. “But I have her on my phone right now.” He’d barely hit the button to put it on speaker when Sora snatched it from his hands. “Kairi! Never wear anything with x’s,” Sora pleaded in desperation. “What do you mean, Sora?” Kairi asked. “Promise me, no x’s,” Sora cried. “Please. I can’t let them find you. Please.” “Okay, okay,” Kairi soothed. “I won’t wear anything with x’s. I’m perfectly fine. Sh. No one’s going to find me.” Relief flashed through Sora’s eyes seconds before the tears poured forth. He wrapped his arms round his knees even as Riku’s phone slipped through his fingers. His head was buried in his knees again, but at least he was making some noise with his tear laden breathing. Riku saved his phone before it reached the floor. He self-consciously rubbed circles across Sora’s shoulders. Kairi was better at this comforting thing than he was. “Okay, so we managed to break the tension,” Riku said. “‘Never wear anything with x’s’?” Kairi repeated, thinking out loud. “‘Can’t let them find you.’ Could something on his clothes have been the trigger?” “I’ll have a closer look,” Riku said. He briefly turned to Sora. “I’m still here with you. I’m just checking something out.” He was rewarded with a small nod. Then, he knelt down by the clothes his friend had discarded. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. Then he saw it. On the back of Sora’s gloves. At the top of his pants. On his pouches. Even on his shoes. “The straps,” he murmured. “They all form an x. But why–?” He searched his memory for the clothes Sora wore during their trials. Almost devoid of straps, but blazingly white against his black shirt was an x. “This has to do with your Master Exams, doesn’t it?” Kairi asked. “Yeah, I think so,” Riku answered. “Then I’ll be of little help until you get the whole story,” Kairi surrendered with a sigh. “But, I’ll be wanting the full story once you two have talked it out.” Riku stared at the phone. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with Kairi?” he asked, voice low enough as to not worry the overly distressed Sora. Usually, Kairi was eager, almost to the point of being pushy, to know every detail of their adventures. “Very funny,” Kairi bit back. “I would love nothing else than to listen in first-hand. But, you two haven’t even told me anything beyond the basics of what happened so I’ll only bog you down while you’re trying to figure things out. But I’ll be wanting a full report later.” “Alright,” Riku said. “I’ll call you later then.” “Okay, good luck.” Then she hung up. Riku pocketed his phone as he stood and walked back to Sora’s bed. He sat beside his best friend and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, care to fill me in? I know that whatever happened was big, but I can’t help ya unless I know how to.” Sora lifted his head, resting his chin on his knees. But he didn’t turn to Riku, he just looked across the room. “They were always there. It didn’t matter what world I was on, they always found me.” “Who always found you?” Riku asked. “Xemnas, Young Xehanort. They’d just show up without warning, telling me things.” A moment passed and when it was clear that Sora wasn’t going to offer the information, Riku asked, “What did they tell you?” “I was nothing. A copy. Nothing was my own.” “They were lying, Sora,” Riku said, squeezing his shoulder. “They were just trying to break you so that they could enact their plans later.” “Really?” Sora asked, his eyes void of emotion. “I know for a fact that there are other memories inside me that aren’t my own.” “Those would be Roxas’s.” “No, more than just him. There was this girl who looked like Kairi but with black hair. People that are strangers to me, but one of them I actually saw before. A boy who looks exactly like me but his eyes are gold and his hair is black.” Sora hugged himself tighter than before. “I . . . I don’t even know if I’m me anymore.” Riku released a quiet sigh. That topic was going to take a whole lot more than this one time to sort through. Probably the first thing to do was to learn everything that happened to Sora, which would mean pinning the kid down for awhile. He tucked all of this information away into his “Must Talk to Sora About This” file. Then, he tried to bring it back to what had apparently triggered this breakdown. “What about the x’s?” he asked. “That’s how they always found me,” Sora said. “That . . . sigil on my chest.” He grasped his t-shirt, as though the mark was still there. “No matter where I went, they would always find me because of it.” “So, that’s why you begged Kairi to never wear it,” Riku said. “You want to make sure that they never find her.” “I-I don’t want them to hurt her, like they did me, or worse.” He half-turned his head. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? To hardly be able to move, knowing that you had doomed yourself, possibly even your best friends?” Riku’s mind immediately flew to that first adventure, misadventure for him. Being possessed by Xehanort’s Heartless had made him unable to do anything he wished. Only Ansem could move, Riku was powerless. And, he had threatened the lives of his friends, had thought for a while that Sora was gone forever until he saw him at the door. “Yeah, I have at least some idea.” “I-I had exhausted myself to nothing, I could barely even talk or think.” Sora shook, his blue eyes clouded by the memories that haunted him. “I’d been stupid. I let them pull me into the trap. I let them win. What if I . . . ?” Riku wrapped his trembling friend into a tight hug. “It’s gonna be okay. You hear me, Sora? We’re not going to let those guys have another chance at finding you.” “But, what if they trick me again?” Sora asked. “Do I have to change? Stop . . . being who I am, if I can even say that anymore?” “No, Sora. You don’t have to change,” Riku answered. “Maybe get a little wiser and discerning, but no, don’t stop being who you are. The reason you keep on winning is because you have been the lovable dork who can’t turn down someone in need. And what have you always told us? The secret to how you always manage to pull through?” Sora breathed deeply, slowly steadying himself. “My friends are my power.” “Exactly,” Riku said. “That is part of who you are. If you stop, well, you’d stop being the you we all know and love.” Sora smiled weakly before he leaned fully against Riku. “Thanks, Riku.” Riku returned the smile, still holding his friend close. “Anytime, Sora. And you can be sure that we’re going to be talking about everything you experienced later.” Sora gave a resigned nod though his smile was still there. “But before we have any psychoanalyzing, is there anything else that we should take care of? Maybe something to help you feel better?” “I’ve been wondering how Tron is,” Sora said, his smile disappearing. “From Space Paranoids? What brought this on?” Riku asked. “I saw him on The Grid, as Rinzler,” Sora answered. “We were made to fight each other. He fell down a hole, and I don’t know what happened to him.” “Okay, we’ll go check on him,” Riku said. “Just get dressed and then we’ll find a quiet place to head out to Radiant Garden.” Sora nodded, slowly pulling away and uncurling. “Riku. Do you think that Tron’s okay?” Riku paused for only a moment’s thought. “I’m sure he is. We were in the Dream Realm, awakening Sleeping Worlds. He’ll probably be asking you to tell him everything that’s happened since you two last saw each other.” “I hope so,” Sora said sadly. “I’ll go let your mom know that we’ll be heading out,” Riku said. With that, he left Sora’s room and headed down to the kitchen. Mrs. Maki was at the counter, finishing some no-bake chocolate cookies. Her gaze immediately lifted from her task to Riku when he stepped in. “How is he?” “Better,” Riku answered. “We’re actually going to go hang out for awhile.” He released a sigh. “There is actually a bit more involved to this episode. It will take awhile before we get it all sorted out.” Mrs. Maki softly laughed, no doubt fueled by relief. “Are you sure you’re not wanting to become a therapist? Between Sora and Kairi, you may have enough practice before you even graduate.” “I’m still not sure,” Riku said with a noncommittal shrug. “Though I’ve been doing enough research into it that I might as well seriously consider it.” “Riku, is there anything I can do to help?” she asked, a faint desperation to her voice. The silver-haired teen sighed. How can you assure someone that he is still him, no matter what some brainwashing villains said? How did you even explain that to someone who had no idea of their son’s job of Guardian of the Worlds? “Just . . . just be there for him. Let him know that he matters.” Mrs. Maki nodded, dropping a few more dollops of cookie onto the wax paper. “You can be sure I’ll do that.” “I’m ready.” Sora stepped into the kitchen. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a red t-shirt with blue trim. Riku had to stop himself from reacting in surprise. He’d forgotten how skinny Sora was. Not skinny as in need to be worried. It was just a drastic change from the baggy outfits he usually wore. “Hey, sweetie,” Mrs. Maki said. She left her cookie making so that she could give her only child a hug. “Riku said that the two of you are heading out?” “Yeah,” Sora said, wrapping an arm around her. “Maybe go over to the play island, that sort of thing.” “Okay, how about some cookies for the road?” she asked. “Some of your favorites.” Sora’s eyes lit up when he spied the fresh cookies. “Can I have one that’s still gooey?” “Sure,” Mrs. Maki said with a laugh. “Riku?” “I’ll go with the non-gooey,” Riku said. “Aw, come on, Riku,” Sora said. “You’re missing out.” He had spoken in his carefree, signature Sora personality so well that Riku could almost forget that five minutes ago he had been trembling and crying. The only real evidence was his slightly dimmed eyes. Riku filed this information away in his “Ways to Read Sora” box. After each of them had a stack of three cookies, and Sora talking Riku into trying the gooey mass, they headed out the door. In all honesty, this appeared no different then a couple years ago, when other worlds were only an intriguing fantasy. But Riku knew it wasn’t. He understood that underneath his friend’s sunny face, Sora was possibly a single wrong word away from falling apart. “So, where do we want to transport from?” Sora asked, licking his fingers free of the melting chocolate, even if he still had two more in his hand. “How about the beach,” Riku suggested. “If there’s too many people, we can row out to the island.” “Okay,” Sora agreed. About ten minutes later, they reached the deserted beach. “Well, are you ready?” Riku asked. Sora shifted a little, his happy attitude dropping a bit. “Yeah. I think so.” Riku nodded as he summoned Way to Dawn and created a portal that led directly to Radiant Garden. He squeezed Sora’s shoulder. “Everything will be fine,” he murmured. Then they stepped through, although Riku was already thinking about going ahead and just making certain that Tron was okay. ~ ~ ~ Sora stepped through the light and onto the familiar stone streets. His smile became real as he spotted the shop where Leon and the rest had been staying. In fact, Leon was stepping out right now. “Leon!” Sora called. Leon turned sharply before a small smile brightened his face. “Sora. It’s been awhile. Who’s that with you?” “Oh.” Sora grabbed hold of Riku to drag his friend forward. “This is Riku. One of my friends I was searching for. Riku, this is Leon. The guy who first told me what was going on.” “Pleasure to finally meet you, Riku,” Leon said, extending a hand. “Same here, Leon,” Riku said. “Thanks for making sure nothing happened to Sora.” Leon shrugged. “He’s a good kid. Maybe not the brightest sometimes, but he means well.” “Hey! I’m standing right here,” Sora protested, crossing his arms. The two only laughed, as only people could when laughing at a good-natured joke. Riku slung an arm round his neck, pulling Sora into a roughhousing hug. “That’s what we love about you, Sora. Sometimes a little too innocent for your own good.” Sora smiled. This was the Riku he liked. No big, dark secrets. Just some honest fun. Once he wriggled out of Riku’s hold, he said to Leon, “We were hoping to see how Tron is doing.” “I was actually about to head up to the main computers myself,” Leon said. As he led the way, he continued, “We have some new people working up there now. Well, not new exactly. They disappeared a little over ten years ago, but just within the past couple of months they’ve come back.” “Who are they?” Riku asked. “A couple castle guards, a scientist and his apprentice, and a civilian,” Leon answered. “You probably don’t know them.” A short time later, they were inside and heading toward Ansem’s office. Just outside stood two large men. One dark-haired one was painfully familiar. “Xaldin?” Sora asked. The man started, staring at the teen. “Sora,” he said. “I should have guessed you had been here. And actually, the name’s Dilan.” “Lexaeus?” Riku asked. The auburn-haired guard stiffened. “Riku?” he said. A pause and then. “You are not as dark as you were in Castle Oblivion.” Riku stiffened. “No. I have learned how to wield both light and dark.” “You know them?” Leon asked, surprised. “They were members of the Organization,” Riku answered. “We are no longer,” Dilan answered. “Apparently, we have you both to thank for that.” “Once you destroyed our Nobodies,” Lexaeus said, “we were free to return to our true selves. And, my name is Aeleus.” “So,” Riku said slowly, “no need for weapons?” “None,” Aeleus said. “We’re on the same side now.” Sora shifted. “Are the other guys former Organization members?” “Even, Ienzo, and Lea are inside,” Dilan answered. “Provided you met them, they used to be known as Vexen, Zexion, and Axel.” “Uh,” Sora searched his memories. “I think I’ve only ever met Axel.” “I’m familiar with all three,” Riku said. “Kill any of them?” Dilan asked. “No,” Riku answered. “Then you shouldn’t have to worry about any possible hostility,” Aeleus said. “Just don’t touch anything. Ienzo may forgive you, but Even will not.” “I can imagine,” Riku said. Sora scratched the back of his head. He was feeling as though he was missing something here. Something huge. But then, they were in the office and were greeted by a fearful gasp and crash of glass. Sora turned to see a man probably just a few years older then him and Riku staring at them in fear. No. He was staring at Riku. “Okay, I would have thought our last parting was a bit unsettling,” Riku said, “but I didn’t think it was that bad.” Finally the man started to breathe again. “Oh, it, it wasn’t you really,” he said. “It was your replica.” “Ah.” And that was all Riku said. “Do you need any help?” Sora asked, gesturing to the broken containers. The man looked down before releasing a sigh. “I can just be thankful that they were empty,” he said, crouching down to pick it up. Sora quickly joined him, since there had been no refusal. “My master can be a hard man, but he means well.” He sighed. “He is also the closest thing to a father I had after I lost my parents.” “Oh,” Sora said quietly. “I lost my dad before I turned ten.” The man looked up at him for the first time, his gray-blue hair covering one of his dark blue eyes. “From all the reports we received about you, I never would have guessed,” he said quietly. Sora shrugged. “It’s just that after the initial grief passed, I decided that I never wanted to see someone experience that kind of pain again. And Dad never liked seeing me or Mom sad.” “So you do your best to stay happy to honor your father,” the man said, a small, genuine smile gracing his lips. Sora nodded, smiling himself. “Let’s start properly. I’m Sora.” “Ienzo,” the man answered, extending a hand. The shake was firm, friendly, and even a sense of shared pain. “Ienzo!” A sharp voice interrupted. “Yes, sorry, Master Even,” Ienzo said, hurriedly picking up the last remains onto the tray and standing. “I just received a shock a moment ago.” “Ah, yes, Riku,” Even said, catching blonde hair behind his ear before it fell into the way of his work on the table. “Completely understandable.” He looked up briefly at the two but then immediately looked up again, surprise coloring his features. “Sora. So, you did manage to survive Castle Oblivion.” “Uh, what?” Sora asked. He shrank back from the cold, calculating eyes. “Master Even,” Ienzo said, “it’s possible that he doesn’t remember. He didn’t act as though he recognized you.” “Hm.” Even rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Quite possible. But shouldn’t he be an empty shell then?” “Not necessarily, Even,” a new, familiar voice broke in. The red head entered from the computer room, no longer wearing his black coat, but worn jeans and a light orange, button-up shirt with rolled sleeves. “Namine put him and his companions into a year-long sleep so she could restore his memories. The price was his memories of Castle Oblivion and Namine herself. But, he seemed fairly certain that he would one day remember Namine because the memories are still there, he just needs to find them.” “And you know this how?” Even asked, the slightest hint of ice edging his voice. “You get plenty of chances to learn things after you’re exiled from the Organization and help keep a girl from being destroyed,” Axel said evenly. Ienzo neatly broke the argument by loudly dumping the broken glass into a trash bin. “So, what brings you from the computers, Lea?” “Oh, I was just told that an old friend was here and I wanted to see how he was doing,” Axel answered. His green eyes then found Sora. “Hey, did you shrink? Or is it just the new duds?” “The clothes,” Sora answered, smiling. Thanks to the memories that Roxas had shared with him, he didn’t feel so uncomfortable around the fire-wielder anymore. There were phantom pains of an old wound since forgiven, but it wasn’t bad. “It’s good to see you again, Axel.” He laughed, rolling his eyes. “How many times do I have to say it, Kid? It’s Lea now.” But he was laughing. “I’ll have to take it up with Roxas,” Sora said, latching his hands behind his head. “He’s only ever known you as Axel.” He stopped as he saw Axel freeze. Ienzo and Even went back to work without a glance at them. “You-you can actually talk to him?” Axel asked, his voice almost a whisper. Sora slowly nodded, glancing about the room. Riku and Leon must have already gone into the computer room. Axel quickly nodded toward the corridor, slipping into the dark recess himself. Sora followed, hoping he hadn’t said or done anything wrong. It wasn’t until they were halfway between the office and computer room that Axel stopped, leaning back against the wall. “You really can talk to him?” Axel asked. “Yeah,” Sora said. “Only in my dreams though. Ever since the Master Exam, we’ve been able to talk.” “Can you–” Axel bit his lip, blinking rapidly. “Can you tell him I’m sorry for what happened?” “I will,” Sora promised. “But, I can already tell you that he’s forgiven you.” Axel gasped a half-sob, though he tried to muffle it with a hand. A couple tears escaped his squeezed shut eyes. “Stupid emotions,” he muttered. “Too many to handle.” Sora offered a half-smile before touching the man’s arm. “It’ll get better. Just take your time.” A moment later, Axel forced his emotions back with a visible effort. “Being a Somebody again takes a while to adjust to,” he said. Sora slowly nodded. “Roxas said something along those same lines. He hated all the emotions he experienced second-hand for the next couple of weeks. ‘I never knew a boy could laugh and cry and be scared and love so much. How do you handle it all?!’” The two laughed over their mutual friend’s frustrations. “Of course, having you as a Somebody must have put him through multiple highs and lows,” Axel said. Sora nodded. “But he also shared something with me: pain. It wasn’t just you,” he added quickly. “Riku also caused him pain, and there was another girl.” He pressed a hand over his heart as he remembered her pain as well. “The three of you . . . were close.” “Larxene was the only girl in the Organization,” Axel said. “Was she about my age? Looked like Kairi but with black hair?” Sora asked. “I saw her before I found Roxas in the Dream Realm.” Axel looked at him, confused. “I don’t remember seeing a girl like that, but you say that she used to hang out with Roxas and me?” “Yeah.” Axel’s eyes closed, his brow furrowed in concentration. With a grunt of pain he shook his head. “Nothing. Yet, there is something about some of my memories. Something blurred out. A garbled voice.” He shook his head again. “Tell Xion I’m sorry.” He gasped, his fingertips brushing his lips. “Xion?” Sora said. “That’s her name?” “I-I don’t know,” Axel murmured. His focus returned to Sora. “Do you think you would be able to find her again?” “I don’t know,” Sora admitted. He shuffled on his feet a bit. “I’ve been nervous about wandering too far into my dreams.” Axel nodded. “I understand. Well, maybe Roxas could look then. Even if he doesn’t know what Kairi looks like, you could use Namine as an example.” “Yeah, I’ll do that,” Sora said. He sighed. “I just hope she’ll let me talk to her. She didn’t say anything when I saw her before.” “Just give her time,” Axel said. “Some girls just feel shy around guys.” “Okay,” Sora said. “If nothing else, Roxas could let her know that I’d like to talk to her, and then when she feels ready, we can talk.” “If you can, fill me in on what you find out, okay?” Axel asked. “Sure thing,” Sora answered. It was really the least he could do for someone who’d lost a close friend to the Darkness. He knew the sting all too well. ~ ~ ~ When Riku saw that Sora was distracted with Ienzo, he had silently caught Leon’s attention. “Can we continue?” he whispered. “Without Sora?” Leon nodded and led the way down a metal corridor. Once they were out of earshot, he said, “There’s something on your mind.” “I just want to make sure Tron is still there,” Riku said. “Recently, Sora and I were sent to awaken Sleeping Worlds as our Mark of Mastery Exam. One of the worlds held a corrupted version of Tron, Rinzler. Apparently Sora was forced to fight him and Rinzler ended up falling from a great height. Sora is afraid that the Tron he knows is dead.” Leon gave him a confused look. “You had to awaken Space Paranoids?” “No,” Riku said, shaking his head. “It was a different world, called The Grid. From what I could see, it struck me as the sort of world that Sora wouldn’t necessarily enjoy very much. It was dark, not just in the Darkness but just the buildings, the suits.” “The complete opposite of Space Paranoids,” Leon said with finality. “I went in to speak with Tron face to face once. Everything is very light with soft blues and whites. There is almost an innocence to it, even though you need only look through its history to discover otherwise.” He then looked over at Riku. “If the appearances of these two worlds are so different, why is Sora so worried?” Riku sighed. “He’s the kind of kid who takes things at face-value. If he had stopped to look around to notice the differences, he probably would have chocked it up to the world falling into the wrong hands.” “And would have taken it upon himself to fix it,” Leon guessed. He released a breath. “Your friend is too trusting and helpful sometimes.” “But that is how he ends up winning most of the time,” Riku pointed out. “He worries me sometimes though. Almost as soon as we got back from the islands that first time, we were swapping stories. I did my best to hide the darker parts of my adventures, but he shared everything. Since the Exam? He’s hardly said anything. Today has actually been the most he’s talked about it.” “How long has it been?” Leon asked. He stepped aside from a blonde scientist, Riku could only assume it was the former Vexen. “A little over a week,” Riku answered. “It’s just not like him to clam up like this. I’m suppose to be the one who doesn’t talk things over and let things just stew for awhile.” “Did you ever consider that what he went through is bigger than what he has ever been through before?” Leon asked. “I suppose I never seriously considered that,” Riku admitted. “He just tends to bounce back so quick so often, I started to think nothing could faze him.” “Everyone has their limits,” Leon said. “Even the most resilient. Just continue to be there for him. Let him know that you’re there for him, whenever he’s ready to talk.” “I will, you can count on that,” Riku said. “Thanks, Leon.” “Anything for the friend of a friend,” Leon said. “Here we are.” Riku looked around, finding himself in a room that seemed to basically be just one large computer. In front of the actual command station, he spied a familiar red-head. The man turned, a smile creasing his face when he caught sight of them. “Leon, Riku, nice to see ya round.” “Hey, Axel,” Riku greeted. “It’s Lea,” Leon corrected. “Ah,” Axel waved it off. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve given up trying to tell those guys the difference long ago. Well, almost.” His focus shifted to Riku. “So, what brings you to Radiant Garden?” “Sora and I were hoping to see Tron in Space Paranoids,” Riku answered. “Actually, if you don’t mind checking on Sora and distracting him for a few minutes, I’d appreciate it.” “Sure thing,” Axel said. “I’d like to see how the kid is doing after his run-in with all those Xehanorts.” He shook his head a little as he headed out the door. “Tough kid. Never would have thought he’d be back on his feet so fast.” Riku looked at the floor. If only that guy knew what was really going on. He took a deep breath, heading over to the control station. Thankfully, DiZ had taught him enough about computers and how they worked so that he could find the answers he needed. He typed, “Hello, Tron? Are you there?” “You must be a new user,” a man’s soft voice floated from the speakers. “All my other users know they can address me vocally.” Riku would forever deny afterward that he had jumped a little in surprise. But what was he supposed to expect from a program that Sora made friends with? “My name’s Riku,” he said. “I’m a friend of Sora’s.” “Ah, I believe he mentioned you,” Tron said. “Is Sora with you?” “Yes, not in the room, but nearby,” Riku said. “He is actually the reason we’re here.” “I’m not sure I understand,” Tron said. Riku gnawed his bottom lip. As a computer program, Tron was already familiar with the concept of other worlds. It wouldn’t hurt to explain. “Recently, Sora went on a mission, during that mission, he came across a corrupted version of yourself.” A beat and then. “He came across a corrupted Tron program?” “Yes,” Riku answered. “He was forced to fight it . . . him. Well, anyway, the program, renamed Rinzler, fell down a deep hole. Sora was worried that he had died and thus in extension you.” “So, you came ahead of Sora just to make sure I was still here and safe,” Tron said. “Yeah, as crazy as it may sound,” Riku said. “I just wanted to prepare myself in case the worst had happened, even if it was clearly another version of your world.” “You’re a good friend, Riku, looking after Sora.” Riku sighed. “I have a lot to make up with him for. I haven’t always been a good friend.” “But you’re making things right,” Tron said. Riku released a single chuckle. Then he said, “I guess I overestimated the amount of time I would need to make sure you were okay. Axel and Sora may be talking for awhile.” “They do have some catching up to do,” Tron said. Was that a smile that Riku heard? “So, how’d you and Sora become friends?” Riku asked. “Sora has told me his side, but I wouldn’t mind hearing yours.” “Alright,” Tron said. For the next few minutes, Tron recounted how he had met Sora, Donald, and Goofy about a year ago. Riku couldn’t help but chuckle at some parts or shake his head at others. He could almost hear the gradual progression from simply a highly intelligent program to as close to a digitized heart as one could find. Sora was more amazing than he gave himself credit for. “And that is my tale,” Tron concluded. “Although I fear some of my memory was damaged beyond recovery, so I could not recount it in full.” “But what you gave was enough,” Riku said. “Thank you.” “What about you? How do you know Sora?” Tron asked. Riku smiled. “We’ve been friends even before I can remember. We’ve always had this competition going on between ourselves. Our parents have told stories of how we seemed to race to see who would walk first, run first, lose our first tooth. As we got older, it was more of who could be the strongest, the fastest. But between all those competitions and races, we allowed ourselves to just be friends, confidants, supporters, or if need be, the one with the proper sense.” His smile faded. “We have also been enemies, through no fault of Sora’s. I distanced myself. But Sora wouldn’t let me do that. Even when I had taken on the form of the man we both despised, as soon as he realized it was me, he clung to me, welcomed me back with tears and open arms. He had never given up on me.” “That definitely sounds like Sora,” Tron said. Riku looked up at the sound of familiar steps. “And here he comes,” he said. “Enjoy your time with Axel?” “Yeah,” Sora said. “Oh, and remember that girl you told me about? The girl who asked you that question?” “Yeah?” Riku ventured. “I think I might ‘ave discovered her name,” Sora said. “I’m not for sure. But it’s better than nothing.” Riku nodded. “So, want to just talk to Tron here or actually enter inside?” “I’d rather talk face to face,” Sora said. He stepped up to the control panel, tapped a few buttons with practiced ease, and dragged Riku to a specific spot. Not even a moment later, Riku could feel himself being broken down into data before being swept up into the computer. Seconds later, he was reconstructed, now wearing a pale blue version of the suit he’d worn on The Grid. He turned slightly to see that Sora was wearing a similar suit, though much slimmer than it must have been before because of his change of clothes. “Sora,” Tron’s voice greeted them. “Tron!” Sora raced forward, almost bowling the man over. The man stood there in shock for a moment before he wrapped his arms around the boy. If Riku were to guess his age based on appearances, he’d say that Tron couldn’t have been older than mid-twenties. Yet the spark in his grey-blue eyes showed that he could have easily been around for much longer. There was something gentle, human even, about his face. And it wasn’t just because he had been made to have a humanoid appearance. No, Tron looked fully capable of expressing every emotion known to man. He even had the vague shadows of a man who had fought a battle and won. But most importantly, especially for Sora right now, his face was that of a caring friend. Tron looked to Riku over Sora’s shoulder. “He’s tense, I don’t know . . .” Riku stepped down from the platform he and Sora had landed on so he could touch his friend’s shoulder. “Hey, Sora. Talk to us.” “What’s wrong?” Tron asked. A shuddering sob broke through Sora. “You’re here,” he gasped out. “You’re not dead. I was so afraid that you weren’t.” Tron’s hold tightened. “Yes, I’m here,” Tron said. “I’m fine. Everything’s alright.” “He’s alive, Sora,” Riku said. “Nothing’s happened to him.” Sora still spent the next couple minutes crying, tears stemming from relief. At some point, he lost his ability to stand, so they all three slumped to the floor: Sora from exhaustion, Riku and Tron to continue offering comfort. Finally, Sora released a final shuddering breath and just rested in Tron’s arms. “I guess I still have much to learn about users,” Tron said. “I had thought crying was only for sad times. But I don’t think that this was a sad time.” “I was just so happy and relieved to see you,” Sora said. “So users also cry when they are relieved and happy,” Tron said, his face relaxed yet concentrated. Sora nodded. “Not often, but sometimes.” “Huge amounts of worry tend to precede it,” Riku offered. “At least, that’s how it works for Sora.” He lightly chuckled as Sora leveled a glare at him. “Do you want to talk about what happened?” Tron asked. “What made you worried?” Sora just sat there, eyes downcast. Finally, he started recounting what happened to him on The Grid. Riku listened in silence, focusing on his friend’s voice, expressions, and actions. The lingering excitement of meeting new people when he spoke of Sam, Quora, and Kevin. The determination to restore the corrupted Rinzler back to Tron. The shock and worry as Rinzler attacked and took Quora. The confusion and muddled despair as Young Xehanort and Xemnas messed with his mind, causing him to question his worth and memories. The hesitance and reluctance to fight Rinzler. The desperation to break through the corruption to the real Tron. The fear and despair as Rinzler fell through the hole, even as he reached for Sora. “Sora,” Tron said gently, once the story was done, “you realize now that Rinzler wasn’t me, right?” Sora looked at his hands. “I guess, looking back on it, I probably should have realized that it was a different world. But, Rinzler had been Tron.” Tron smiled. “The only connection I could have to Rinzler is me being a copy of him. My first user copied a system from another world. It’s possible that The Grid was that world.” “So,” Riku thought out loud, “if Rinzler was any real relation, he would be more like a father.” Tron nodded. “That may be the closest user equivalent. And if that Tron really started to react to you, Sora, it’s possible that he and I have a thin connection, just enough for him to recognize you from my memory.” “You’ve got something mighty special then,” Riku said. “Able to connect two different programs through memories alone. That is some feat.” “And you are able to unlock and awaken sleeping hearts,” Sora returned. The momentary quiet was full, warm, and welcome. Then Sora turned to Tron. “Hey, have Leon and the rest taught you singing and dancing.” Tron gave an awkward smile. “Well, they installed a dancing program.” “Let’s try it out,” the boy said, excited. Tron looked to Riku. “Does Sora always emotionally bounce like this?” Riku caught Sora’s eye as the boy stood looking at the two of them. The twinkle there was no longer dimmed. It was as bright as it ever was. There was still pain and uncertainty hidden behind them. But, he was better. “Yeah,” he said finally. “It tends to be the norm. I’d start to worry if he didn’t bounce back.” “Alright then,” Tron said with laughter that only held the hint of being preprogrammed. “Lets see if I can teach you users a few dance moves.” Riku lost track of time as Tron taught them fancy footwork, the three of them laughed and teased each other. But the best part of it all was seeing Sora relax into his own element, hanging out with good friends and being the goofball that didn’t have the fate of the worlds resting on his shoulders. After Axel commed them to say it was getting close to dinner and “won’t your parents want you home by then?” Riku and Sora bid Tron goodbye and left Space Paranoids. Back in Radiant Garden “proper,” they were greeted by Axel and Leon. “Enjoy your visit?” Leon asked. “Yeah, it was a blast,” Sora answered, grinning widely. “It was nice to finally meet one of Sora’s many friends,” Riku said, smiling. Axel rested a hand on their shoulders. “Take care, okay? I don’t want to come swinging in to rescue you guys without warning.” He winked at them. “Got it memorized?” “Sure thing, Axel,” Sora said, a slightly different gleam in his eye. Riku almost missed it and Axel’s reaction. The former Nobody’s smile turned bittersweet and the hint of tears gleamed in his eyes. He squeezed Sora’s shoulder before he released the both of them. The two teens then headed out of the computer lab, Leon saying that he wanted to work on the computer since he could have Tron’s full attention now. They passed the scientists and guards with a quick wave between Sora and Ienzo. Outside, Riku said, “Made a new friend, huh?” “Yeah,” Sora said, latching his hands behind his head. “Sometimes it’s surprising how knowing another person’s pain can connect you.” Before Riku could even form the question, Sora said, “I’ll tell you some other time, or maybe I’ll let Ienzo keep his secret.” Riku nodded in acceptance. He turned his eyes to the sky, being greeted by the first brave stars of evening. A distant memory tickled the back of his mind. Somebody up there must be sad. They’re waiting for you to help them. “Do you think there’s something I can do?” . . . open your heart and listen. “Ya know, I think it worked.” Riku smiled. The night he had urged Sora to help someone in need. He had no idea what had happened, especially now that the memory was old and just barely within his grasp. “Riku, whatcha thinking about?” Sora asked. “A long ago, far off memory,” Riku answered. “Beneath the stars, right?” “Yeah. When you felt another person’s hurt from far, far away.” Sora chuckled. “I’d almost forgotten about that, and about that lady we met a couple days before.” “Huh?” Riku turned to Sora. “What lady?” “With short blue hair,” Sora answered. “She jumped from the bridge down to the beach and ruffled our hair. Her eyes were kind and yet they seemed sad too.” He finally turned to Riku. “She was the one Kairi turned into, when I was chasing after you and her in my dreams.” “Who did I turn into?” Riku asked. Sora had never told him about this. Sora squinted, thinking hard. “You turned into a guy with brown hair. I-I think that we saw him a couple days before the lady came. You actually talked to him, but you never told me what it was about.” “You gotta keep this a secret otherwise, all the magic will wear off.” Riku smiled a little at the memory. “Maybe one day, I’ll tell you what it was about. But for now, I have a promise to keep.” “He made you promise not to tell?” Sora asked. “Yeah,” Riku answered. “Besides, you never really told me what happened that night. So, fair’s fair.” “You know, I’m not sure if I actually remember what did happen,” Sora said. “Although, I wonder if it has to do with who the lady and man thought I was: Ven.” “Maybe they’re some of the ones we’ll help,” Riku said. “You know, to stop the hurt.” Sora shrugged. “Don’t know, but we’ll be finding out soon won’t we?” “Yeah. Xehanort has made it pretty clear that he is getting ready for his final attack.” “But we’ll be ready for him. Just like always.” Riku caught Sora’s eye. Confidence, determination, excitement burned there. Sora was back. So long as he stayed like this, they had a chance of winning. Riku, Kairi, and the rest would just have to work together to make sure it stayed that way. “Well, then, guess we’re gonna have to find you new battle clothes that Xehanort won’t be able to track.” “Same for you and Kairi,” Sora said. “Right,” Riku said. “But first, lets get home. Can’t let you miss dinner again.” Sora laughed as Riku summoned the portal home. Sure, they were facing an uncertain future that seemed dark. But so long as they stuck together, everything would turn out fine.