A flash of light, then rushing darkness, then sleep, then the sounds of train tracks rattling too close to the bedroom window.
The boy stirred. He recoiled against the bright light of sunrise streaming through the blinds. But the sound of the train continued, too loud and too persistent to be a product of some inexplicable dream.
The teen sat up and rubbed his eyes, blinking away blurriness to see his room. A sense of déjà vu hung over him like dread, a vague certainty that he had done this too soon before and that there was something wrong this time. It was the light. The light was all wrong.
The train was quieting now, traveling farther away, but the boy's rousing mind latched onto it as the first real conscious thought of the morning. He didn't know his hometown very well, but he knew there were no trains that ran so close to their apartment. This was a fact. So why had a passing train woken him up?
Still in his pajamas, the young man climbed up onto his knees atop the mattress and squinted into the light. He fumbled for the drawstring and pulled them down harshly, making the blinds shoot up with a zzzzwip!
Outside the window was no parking lot, no adjacent duplexes, no trees. Just dark orange bricks against a light orange sky, and behind the buildings a long, stone railway bridge. The sun hung low in the sky perpetually. A bell tower started a chime that was audible from every corner of…
"T… T… T-T… Twilight Town?!"
The boy splashed his face with water from the bathroom sink and stared into the mirror. His own panicked hazel eyes stared back at him, beneath the bangs of his short, dark-brown, combed-forward hair.
"Okay, Alex… Okay," he muttered to himself under his breath. "Outside is Twilight Town. Mom and sis are nowhere to be found. Same with the PS2 and all of your games."
Saying that triggered a fragment of a memory. Sitting down between the foot of the futon and his PlayStation 2. Selecting 'New Game' on Standard Mode. The screen going white, then whiter and brighter in a way that utterly engulfed him…
His jaw hung slightly open at the very thought of it. "I'm… IN… Kingdom Hearts II??"
A dream come true? Sure. But how, why? Where was his family – were they okay? Would he have to fight monsters? Would he get to meet… everyone?
Panic very slowly turned into anticipation. Somehow, his second-story apartment had been apparently transported into Twilight Town. Through the wide glass door in the living room and past the balcony beyond, he could see the alley below and a sliver of the street outside. People were walking by and talking like there was nothing unusual about the building Alex was currently occupying. He certainly hadn't been here an hour ago, but… it didn't look like anyone had noticed.
A part of him made the decision before his conscious mind fully caught up with it: He was going outside.
Dressed in a navy blue hoodie, light blue jeans, and black sneakers, Alex left the apartment and locked the door with his personal house key. With great trepidation, he turned towards the stairs leading down to the ground floor. His second-story apartment door faced the street, so he could see many, many Twilight Towners passing by.
Alex didn't remember there being this many NPCs in the game.
He watched, almost spellbound, with his head craned towards the street as he robotically made his way down the stairs. At the bottom, where the corner of his building met the dark alley, Alexander bumped into another person carrying a garbage can. The lid bounced off the can and fell to the ground with a loud clang and rattling.
"Ah, sorry!" Alex apologized almost instantly.
But the stranger, an older man, simply smiled and said, "Don't worry. My mistake." He set down the garbage can and, with a grunt, knelt down to pick up the garbage lid. Alex instinctively reached down to help, but there was no need. The old man reclaimed his can and looked up at Alex. A look of recognition seemed to cross his face. "Hey, wait…"
Alex gulped. "Yeah?"
There was a slightly intense moment where the old man studied Alex's face, his wrinkled eyes squinting. Then the old man smiled again and said, "You're that new kid that just moved in, right?"
The boy made a quiet sound of half-panicked, half-relieved confusion, something like, "Uh…?"
The old man looked up at the door to the apartment. "That spot hasn't had someone in it for a while. Heard you were the guy to finally move into it. Well, anyway, lemme be the first to welcome you to Twilight Town!" The stranger extended his hand with a warm smile.
Common sense dictated that he just go with it, so Alex did. He took the old man's hand and shook it, putting on his best awkward smile. Inside, his mind raced. He had 'moved in'? He hadn't 'just appeared out of nowhere'? Alex certainly didn't remember a moving process. His apartment right now was as lived-in (messy and cluttered) as it had always been. Some force had copied his apartment into a new location, right down to the food in the refrigerator, but this old man thought he had just 'moved in.'
Alex realized had been thinking too long. He needed to respond. "Uh, thanks. Uh. Nice meeting you."
The old man mercifully released his hand and picked up his garbage can again. "Yes, well, I'd better be on my way, and you on yours. See you around!"
Alex stood frozen as the old man merged with the foot traffic in the street, then turned to the alley to let out a heavy exhalation of breath. He looked down at his hand, remembering the warmth from the old man's grasp.
It took about a minute to summon his courage and step out into the street, wandering the streets with all the rest of the residents. A few friendly folks said, "Hi," and Alex greeted them back politely as they passed by. Other than that, he was another face in the crowd.
The street soon emptied out into what Alex recognized as the Tram Common, which was a VERY big deal to the young teen. The shops. The tram itself traveling around the center loop. The hill leading up to the train station, and even the long water grate at the base of the hill marking where the zone transition would normally be. All straight out of the game, but in stone and metal and air. He wandered around, spinning to look up at all the buildings, switching between stunned laughter and slack-jawed gasps of awe.
Alex eventually found his way to the red-lined accessory shop, which was currently shuttered. Atop a stepladder next to the store counter, gluing posters up on the wall, was a man in a jacket labeled 'Struggle Coordinator.' There was a stack of posters bound up at the foot of the ladder, and there was a small crowd of younger citizens watching him.
"Oh man, I really want to give it a try," said one unrecognized youth, catching Alex's attention.
"Nah, don't bother," his friend said. "It's basically gonna be a grudge match between Hayner and Seifer, and whoever wins is gonna get clobbered by the champ anyway."
"Aw, c'mon! I mean, you're not wrong, but can't you let a guy dream?!"
The coordinator finished the arrangement of posters on the wall and started to step back down. "Alright everyone, make room, make room…" The crowd dispersed a bit, moving to some other spot to hang out and talk about something else. Alex remained, and he was spotted by the working man. "Oh! Hello there." The man folded up the stepladder and picked up his bundle of posters. "You're the kid that moved in, right?"
Surprised, Alex's eyes widened, and then he let out a short chuckle. "Uh, yeah." Alex rubbed the back of his head and looked off to the side, unable to meet the man's eyes. "I've been getting quite a bit of that."
The coordinator shrugged and walked past the teen, setting down his gear on the other side of the accessory shop. "Well, we don't get many outsiders often." He picked up a poster and climbed up the ladder, then glanced back down at Alex. "Taking in the town? What do you think?"
Alex had to laugh a bit more at that. What did he think of being inside Twilight Town itself brought to life from one of his favorite video games? "It's, uh… It's amazing. Just on every level."
The man laughed back. "Aha, good! We put a lot of work into it." Something suddenly occurred to him. "Do you have any friends in town yet? Some kids your own age?"
Caught off guard by the question, Alex frowned and glanced at the ground as he tried to figure out how to respond.
That told the man everything he needed to know, and he nodded. "Well, whatever you do, don't get caught up in Seifer's little street-tough feuds. But… y'know, Hayner and his gang are decent kids. Despite what people say about 'em."
Alex raised an eyebrow. "Despite… huh?"
The man didn't seem to hear him. He pointed towards the street leading up the slope. "If you head up the hill and take the first left, there's a back alley. There's a quiet spot where they usually hang out. Past a gate and through the rags. Everyone knows where it is, so you can ask anyone for directions. Just don't overshoot and head back down into the Sandlot. That's Seifer's turf."
Alex was rather stunned by all this advice and its implications. So far he hadn't met any named characters from the game. But he was just a couple of blocks away from meeting THE Hayner, Pence, and Olette? Could he even keep his cool in that situation? He swallowed and gave the man a smile, stepping backwards towards Station Heights. "Back alley. Right. Thanks."
"No problem! See you around." As the teen turned and power-walked away, the man shouted, "HEY! And if you need some quick munny, you can help me put up… aaaaaand he's gone."
Would he get to meet Roxas?
That was maybe the big question right there. If Roxas was in the gang, that meant he was in the alternate, digital Twilight Town somehow. But if he wasn't, that meant he was in the… "real" one? What did that word mean anymore?
It wasn't a very long distance at all to reach the little nook and the red curtain covering it. The Usual Spot itself. Alex could almost hear his heartbeat in his ears. He felt a little woozy.
He was here. It was now or never. He stepped forward and pulled back the curtain.
Immediately, there was a face right up in his, so close that they nearly bashed their foreheads together. A grumpy face that was on its way out. Alex flinched back and put his hands up. "Woah, sorry, uh…!"
The boy in front of him stopped, and Alex had to suppress a gasp. Black t-shirt with a sketchy skull on it, gray vest, green camouflage shorts and shoes, even the little X pendant hanging from his neck. This was Hayner alright, in the flesh, just a little more than a foot away from him. Glaring at him. "Well?" he asked gruffly. "What are you doing here?"
Alex put his hands up and bowed his head a little bit to try and defuse the situation. "Just… seeing what was back here."
Hayner rolled his eyes a little bit. "Well, now you know. This is our spot."
"Hey," said a girl's voice behind him in a much friendlier tone, "you're the guy that moved into the apartment on Market Street, right?" Alex peered around to see Olette peering back at him from the ratty couch she was sitting on.
Past Olette, sitting on one of many crates haphazardly piled in the corner, was Pence in his red jersey and matching headband. "Lighten up, Hayner, I think he's just exploring." Pence stood up, dusted himself off, and walked up behind the leader of the group with Olette in tow. "So, are you really the new guy?"
Resisting every urge to geek out, Alex just averted his eyes and laughed defensively. "Wow. Didn't realize I was that famous."
Olette let out a sigh and put a hand to her cheek. "It really shouldn't be, but a new kid moving in is kind of a big deal. It's rare, and…"
Sheepishly, Pence shrugged and said, "There's this whole schoolyard politics thing going on… There's this guy, Seifer, and–"
"Heard of him, yeah," Alex said.
Hayner grit his teeth and muttered, "Don't get me started! Gaaaah." He threw up his hands and folded his arms. "Now you've done it." But he looked at Alex and shook his head, visibly calming himself down. "Ah, but you don't really know anything about that. Sorry for getting up in your face. I was just headed out to clear my head."
Alex shrugged back. "Hey, no problem."
Olette pushed the curtain the rest of the way out and stood beside Hayner, while Pence peered over his shoulder. The three of them couldn't quite fit in the opening, but they tried for the moment. "I'm Olette," she said, "and this is Hayner and Pence."
Nodding, Alex said (with a smile that was a little too broad), "Nice to meetcha. My name's Alexander. But, uh, Alex for short is fine."
Hayner nodded passively and said, "Nice to meetcha, Alex." He made a show of stretching as he walked past him. "Well, if you don't mind…"
Alex watched him walk by, then glanced back at Pence and Olette. "'Schoolyard politics'?"
Pence groaned. "Seifer and his group see themselves as the Twilight Town 'disciplinarians,'" he muttered with air-quotes and caustic sarcasm.
Olette folded her arms and shrugged. "And so Hayner's got it in his head that we're the ones who need to stand up to him. Now we're trading off 'scores' to 'settle' and… it's a whole thing." Glancing at Pence, she added, "The two of us kinda get dragged along."
Shaking his head, Pence replied, "It doesn't help with the whole string of thefts lately and Seifer blaming us for that…"
Alex furrowed his brow. "Wait, what?"
"Oh no." Suddenly, Olette brought her hand to her mouth and darted her head back and forth. "Did you see where Hayner went?"
Pence pushed his way past Alex. "Don't tell me he went to the Sandlot by himself!"
Olette followed him, giving Alex an apologetic look as they left the Usual Spot's entrance and towards the downward staircase. "Sorry! We'll hang out later, okay? It was nice meeting you, Alex!" The two of them hurried down the stairs, breathing hard.
Bewildered, Alex followed them to the top of the stairs. From the summit, the empty lot below was just barely visible. A few shapes could be seen clashing. If one listened very closely, the grunts and shouts of two young men clashing was just barely audible.
Alex had a bit of a decision to make. Eventually it was his curiosity that won out, and he carefully made his way down the stairs.
Staying close to the edge of the building near the stairs, Alex peered around the corner and looked in on the scene at the Sandlot. All seven of the characters he expected to see were there, including Fuu, Rai, Vivi, and Seifer. They were standing off against Hayner's group, trading barbs.
"Who else would steal the undeniable proof of their own defeat?" Seifer sneered. His voice and presence were substantially more intimidating than PS2 graphics could convey. He was taller than most of the others, for one thing, and his outfit conveyed substantially more confidence and swagger. He didn't seem so much of a punching bag anymore.
Olette made a harsh crossing motion with her arm. "You've got no evidence that it was us, so stop throwing around accusations!"
"Yeah, we had stuff stolen too!" Pence insisted.
Seifer returned fire with a cocky shrug. "That's exactly what the thieves would say to throw everyone off their tracks."
"Convenient," Fuu added.
"We ain't fallin' for that, y'know!" Rai shouted.
Hayner balled his hands into fists. "Enough! We're sick and tired of everybody shunning us because of YOUR lies!"
"Stuff's been stolen. You're the prime suspects," Seifer said smugly. "Where's the lie?"
Letting out a growl of frustration, Hayner darted over to one of the benches at the edge of the sand, where a pile of Struggle bats had been assembled. He picked one up and pointed it at Seifer threateningly. "Maybe everyone in town will stop listening if someone smacks you off your pedestal!"
Reacting quickly, Seifer produced his own Struggle bat, pointing it straight back at Hayner. "Oh, so it's Round 2, then? Be my guest!"
Olette put her hands up. "Hayner, wait…!" But she didn't look confident she could stop the fight.
From where he was watching, Alex clenched and unclenched his hands with anxiety. Precious seconds later, when it looked like Hayner was about to start a brawl he wasn't likely to win, Alex stepped out from around the corner and walked quickly towards the gaggle of students.
Pence noticed him first. "Alex?"
Everyone turned to look at him, which was a jarring experience, especially the way Seifer's blue-green eyes locked onto him from across half the lot. "And who's this?" he demanded, keeping his Struggle bat up. "Don't tell me – the new kid."
Alex stopped in his tracks. Why in the world was this a big deal to everybody?? Or rather, why didn't this match up with his own experience of just waking up in this world? No, he had to focus… but he had nothing. "Uh…" No plan, no strategy, other than 'get in the way and stall.'
Seifer chuckled and dropped his fighting stance, instead flipping his Struggle bat into the air and catching it with his hand repeatedly, flawlessly every time. "Tell you what. I'm not unreasonable. I'll tell everybody to give you guys a break… IF–" He caught his bat again and, in one smooth motion, pointed it directly at Alexander. "–your new friend here gets on his knees and begs."
Everyone on the other side recoiled, not least of all Alex. "What?!" Hayner exclaimed. "No way that's happening!"
Olette looked back to Alex worriedly. "Sorry you got dragged into this… Please, you don't need to do anything, we can handle this."
Alex looked to Hayner, then Seifer, then Pence and Olette, then back to Seifer. He took a deep breath and then walked forward several steps, between Hayner and Olette, moving to the front of the group.
Seifer grinned at him and, with his Struggle bat, gestured down to the sand.
Alex glanced down, then over to the side at the bench where the remaining Struggle bats lay. The plastic and foam bats came in several shapes: The standard full-length bat, the ones with hand-guards, and the staff-like ones. Alex had chosen his preference long ago at this point.
He glanced back at Seifer, then darted over to the bench, grabbing a Struggle bat with a hand-guard and holding it in a defensive stance toward the bully – his body was turned sideways as he held the bat diagonally. The others reacted with surprise, especially Hayner. "Wait, what…?"
Seifer just scoffed at Alex, grinning. "I like this better anyway. Show me what you got, new kid."
The others backed away. Hayner hesitated, but tossed his bat aside and backed away with Pence and Olette. Alex glanced at Hayner, and they shared a nod.
Moments later, Alex and Seifer had the sandy part of the Sandlot to themselves. Alex became suddenly hyper-aware of himself – how hot he felt under the constant orange sunlight and his hoodie, the nerves making his limbs and hands twitch, the way the sand beneath his sneakers never seemed to grant him a firm footing. And yet, despite never once fighting in his life, Alex felt… well, not 'calm' exactly. More like his usual levels of anxiety and nervousness finally felt appropriate – because he was in a battle – and he could at least use it against his enemy.
Seifer waited, keeping his Struggle bat pointed straight forward in a rapier-like pose. "Well? I'm waiting, chicken wuss."
Alex took a deep breath and, on the exhale, lowered his head as a healthy dose of rage swelled in his chest. He rolled his shoulders and twirled his Struggle bat once. Then he stepped forward, swinging at the tip of Seifer's bat. The foam 'blades' glanced off each other. Seifer's pose hardly budged, and Alexander's swing turned into a flail as he tried to regain his balance.
Seifer laughed. Alex didn't waste a second longer than it took to find his footing and swung again, this time striking Seifer's hand. Again, it didn't do much to faze the taller street-tough. Alex continued by lunging forward with his bat held horizontally, trying to bash the guard against Seifer's chest and push him back. Seifer simply sidestepped him and quickly lunged the tip of his bat into Alexander's left side.
The foam was more dense than Alex expected, and a sharp pain bloomed in the side of his abdomen. Seifer followed it up with a jumping lunge that Alex was completely unprepared for, hitting Alex in the side of the head and sending him sprawling down to the sand. Rai and Vivi cheered from the sidelines.
White-knuckling through the pain and slight confusion, Alex scrambled back onto his feet and glared at Seifer, who looked as smug as ever. Pence cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, "Alex, focus!"
"Come on," Seifer taunted, "stop playing around and fight!"
Alexander grimaced. "If you say so." He launched into a full run towards Seifer, swinging to knock his opponent's bat aside and move into Seifer's space.
The tall punk deflected Alexander's blow and sidestepped, but Alex was more prepared for it this time. He brought his bat up to protect himself, and luckily managed to catch Seifer's lunge against his hand-guard. Seifer didn't let up right away, though, swinging his bat down multiple times, which Alex barely managed to block each time.
After a few unsuccessful swings, Seifer jumped back and simply stood at the ready, waggling his bat, looking ready to punish another offensive. Alex didn't feel like taking the bait, choosing instead to strafe sideways.
Seifer ran out of patience. He crouched down and leaped high into the air, higher than should have been possible in the real world. Alex was momentarily awestruck as Seifer silhouetted the golden sun, taking a midair lunging pose. "Isn't this–"
He recognized the cue. Alex flung himself forward, not quite rolling on the sand but making himself low at the very least.
"–romantic!" Seifer plunged at an unrealistic diagonal, his boots stomping just where Alex had been a second ago. Alex scrambled to his feet and struck Seifer's exposed back with all of his might in one mighty slash. He finally managed to get a solid hit, making Seifer recoil. Alex was so momentarily proud of himself that he nearly forgot to swing again while he had the advantage.
Very suddenly – "So long!" – Seifer spun around twice and smacked Alex both times. The newbie's feet actually left the sand for a second as he was thrown back, stinging terribly from those blows. Alex growled and charged back into range.
Alex's mind reduced to a state of instinctive action and reaction. Strike, sidestep, block, deflect, swing, swing again, guard-bash! He got close enough to shoulder-check Seifer, shoving the thug back with all of his strength while his opponent was off balance, then finishing off with a two-handed lunge straight into Seifer's ribs.
"Urr-rngh!" Seifer stumbled to one knee, his bat clattering at the edge of the sand. He took one look at his bat, seemed to consider it for a nanosecond, then closed his eyes and scoffed.
Rai and Fuu immediately jumped into the fray. "Seifer's not feelin' so hot, y'know!" Rai insisted.
"Tournament decides," Fuu declared.
Alex's eyes went wide, and he started laughing. It started low and quiet, then built up as he leaned back and threw his hands up. "Ha ha ha ha! Ahahaha…" Pumping his fists and staring at his Struggle bat, he said, "I haven't fought a day in my life!"
He turned around to see Pence aiming a camera at him, at just the right angle to catch Alex standing to one side while Rai and Fuu pathetically tried to cover up their downed leader.
Instantly, this all seemed incredibly familiar.
There was a quiet click.
Then something fast and gray spun around Pence, and the next second the camera was gone. Alex watched as the spindly white creature hopped towards the furthest exit to the Commons, stretching and bending unnaturally as it did so.
"Oh no," Alex breathed.
"What was THAT?" Hayner demanded, rolling one shoulder.
"The thief?" Olette proposed. The three of them charged after it to get Pence's camera back.
Alex just stood there a moment longer, dumbstruck. "No…" But as he saw his three new friends disappear around the corner in hot pursuit, he knew he couldn't just let them go alone.
Why was this happening? Why was the photo-thief event taking place outside the simulated Twilight Town? Now that the others were some distance ahead of him, he could think about these questions freely.
Except one question quickly dominated all the others: What happens if I try to fight a Nobody?
Possible answers so far weren't good.
Alex already knew where to go: Through the hole at the other end of the Common, into the spooky woods, and up the hill towards the old mansion. The forest was larger, more spacious, and more uniform than Alex had expected based on the game. He felt lucky to have found the path that led to the clearing at all. Hayner and the others were nowhere to be found – he'd heard their voices in the forest, but they weren't here.
The Nobody wasn't around either, actually. Alex was standing right in front of the locked iron gate and he was the only one around. How…?
A strange wobbling sound made his spine shudder, and Alex whipped around to see the Dusk flying up the path from the forest. It came to a stop a few feet away and landed on the ground, swaying back and forth.
Nervous but somewhat amused, Alex gripped his Struggle bat and grinned at the Dusk. "Oh wow, you were so busy dodging and weaving through the trees that I got here ahead of you, huh? Weird."
Alexander's cocky grin fell with each second that passed while he and the Dusk stared at each other. Despite everything about Twilight Town being so very real now, the Nobodies were… well, still more physical than before, but in a way lacking a certain texture about them that made them seem less 'real.' It was unnerving to look at, especially when they constantly twisted and swayed, as if they'd disappear if they stopped moving.
The young man took a step forward and instantly regretted it. The closer he got, the more he could almost see the round, jagged-mouthed monster head beneath the Dusk's unzipped white hood…
Do not interfere with our search.
Alex jolted, startled. "W-What?!"
The Nobody somersaulted through the air, landing in front of Alex and swiping at him with a flailing headbutt. The blow hit his chest harder than any Struggle bat could manage, and Alex was knocked to the ground immediately.
Pushing himself up, Alex grimaced and stared at the Dusk, which was jumping around the clearing and sashaying ominously in its odd demeanor. "W-Why…?" Alex mumbled as he shakily got his feet under him. "Why me…?"
The Dusk got close but didn't immediately attack. Alex took the opportunity and, with a yell of effort, chopped downward with his Struggle bat.
His 'weapon' slid off the Nobody's form like it was a waterslide. The Dusk wobbled and bent around Alex's bat like it was simply air moving out of the way, showing no sign of being remotely affected by any damage. It then spun around and swiped with its spindly arms.
Alex blocked, but there was an ominous choff sound as the foam blade tore, leaving only a jagged blue stub at the end of the handle. Alex dropped the now useless toy and backed away. The Dusk stood in place and continued to bounce and weave, as if daring him to have a backup plan.
Right about now, Roxas would get a Keyblade edited into his hand, Alex thought. He looked at his own, empty hand. No such luck. And clearly only a Keyblade (or a Keyblade wielder's allies?) could defeat Nobodies.
So… he was a goner.
No, that couldn't be!
One day into Kingdom Hearts II and he was going to get KO'd by a single Dusk?!
Said Dusk was done waiting and was now flying towards him in a spiral, a charging strike. Alex clenched his fists and brought up his arms in front of his face. "Not like this…!"
A brief whirling sound heralded something spinning through the bars of the locked iron gate at high speed, cutting off the Dusk's path and making it jump back. Both Alex and the Dusk looked at the object where it landed: A sword in the shape of a demonic wing of red and purple hues, its blade stabbed into the soil just a few yards away.
Alex knew exactly what that was.
He looked to the mansion. Nothing different to be seen. He looked at where the Soul Eater landed. He dashed over and yanked it out of the ground. It felt very peculiar, like the handle was writhing beneath his palm. And the blue eye in the hilt staring back at him was a detail Alex had never really thought about before this moment.
But it was the actual Soul Eater. Riku's Soul Eater. A weapon of darkness, if his knowledge wasn't about to fail him now. Even the Dusk paused to see him wielding this sword.
Alex, huge nerd that he was, adjusted his stance to what he remembered Riku's was like, the blade held above at his side with his off hand outstretched. He glared at the Dusk. "How d'ya like me now?!"
He charged at the Dusk, swinging the Soul Eater down and across the Nobody. It sliced through and made the Dusk visibly wobble and recoil in pain. Alex followed it up with an upward slash and then a charging lunge, sending the Dusk flying back.
Alex had no idea what was going on, but it felt pretty good! He yelled with all of his fighting spirit and charged the Nobody once more, flying into a berserk frenzy of flailing slashes that didn't give the Dusk even a second to respond.
There was a burst of sound and light. The Dusk disintegrated. Alex stopped swinging and stepped back, wide-eyed as loot exploded onto the ground. Gold diamonds of munny, green orbs of health that flew towards Alex's body and soothed his bruises, and photographs. A dozen or so photographs fluttering down to the grass. There was a clack as Pence's instant camera materialized and landed as well.
Alex looked down at the Soul Eater in his hand, just in time to watch it disappear in a rush of black inky smoke and electricity, making him flinch. He turned and looked at the mansion through the gate. Still no one to be clearly seen through the window curtains. Alex just gave the mansion a wide shrug and said, "Thanks, I guess??"
He was grateful, to be sure. But this whole encounter had just thrown more questions onto the pile of questions.
The boy sighed and knelt down to the ground to pick up the munny and stolen photos. The question still lingered in his mind: Why? From looking at them, the photos were of random townspeople, with nothing in common. There was even one of Hayner, Pence, and Olette posing in front of this very gate...
Atop the clock tower, high above the rest of Twilight Town, a black-robed man in red hair stood waiting. A flock of Dusks and Assassin Nobodies flew around him, occasionally dropping photographs into his hand.
The man rolled his eyes as he inspected the photos. "Seriously, guys? What am I supposed to do with these? You're supposed to be looking for XIII, not pictures of him. Geez…"
With a flick of his hand, the two photographs he was holding caught fire, and he scattered them to the wind as they burned into nothing.
"Hey," Axel said out of the blue, "has anyone felt… 'weird' today? Like today's different from yesterday?"
There was no audible response from the flock of Nobodies.
Axel chuckled. "Right, right. Dumb question to ask." Another two photographs swooped by his face, and on reflex he caught them in each hand. He glared at them, not expecting to find anything, but what he saw gave him pause.
In his left hand was a copy of a photograph of three teens in a cheesy pose in front of the old mansion's gate. In his right hand was the exact same photo… but Roxas was posing with them.
The man couldn't help it; he started to laugh. The photos burst into flames, instantly ash in his hands. "Oh, those bastards…!" he chortled, halfway between something resembling anger and mirth. He stared into the setting sun with new purpose. "Well. That narrows it down by half, doesn't it?"
"Why did you have me intervene?"
Beneath the old mansion, in the secret laboratory, DiZ and his apprentice discussed while the former watched data scroll by on the dozen monitors of his terminal. DiZ barely turned his head at all to reply to the black-robed apprentice behind him. "We cannot have them attacking random civilians, now can we?"
"This is practically the home of Nobodies," the black-robed man pointed out. "They've been operating in the shadows of this world for at least a year. If they want to blow their cover, that's their problem. But that stunt just gave away our position."
DiZ was quiet for a moment. "It was a stroke of luck that the photographs distracted them. It's all just data to them. They've bought us another day."
The black-robed man shook his head. "I can't shake the feeling you wanted me to protect that guy in particular."
"Oh?" DiZ replied with surprisingly renewed interest. "Did you sense something from him?"
Folding his arms, the man thought for a moment and replied, "…Yeah. Couldn't put my finger on it at first."
"Is that why you lent him your blade? Instead of dispatching the Dusk yourself?"
The man reached his hand out and, in a burst of smoke and electricity, the Soul Eater appeared in his hand. "It was a less obvious way to do it than revealing myself," he explained.
DiZ chuckled knowingly. "I see. And now that the boy's hand has touched your blade, what do you sense now?"
The apprentice was quiet for a long moment, staring down at the demonic blade. Then he said, "There's almost no light in him. It's like… the tiniest spark is all that keeps him one step above a Heartless."
The one uncovered eye of DiZ widened, and he let out a low hum of concern. Quietly, he murmured, "So that was the cost…"
DiZ looked back over his shoulder. "I want you to make sure that the Organization does not get their hands on that boy."
The man let out an unsatisfied grunt, dismissing the Soul Eater in a burst of smoke. "I've got my hands full already with them closing in on Roxas."
"Then perhaps I will call the King back here to aid us."
"Won't that just attract more of the Organization's attention?? At least tell me why this new guy is so important!"
DiZ didn't answer for a moment. "…When I am more certain of the answer, I will tell you. But our enemies won't wait so patiently."
The man let out a sigh and shook his head. "If you're that concerned about him, then why not bring him here? That way it would be easier to protect him. I can do it quietly."
"No," DiZ replied firmly. "I'd rather observe his movements for now. Besides, putting all of our potential assets in one location might provoke an all-out assault." He sighed quietly. "All I ask is that you check on him when you're out on patrol."
The man let out a frustrated growl, but then nodded as darkness swirled around him. "I'll take care of it." A corridor of darkness swallowed him up and dissipated.
DiZ turned back to his monitors and shook his head. With a few key presses, security camera stills of Sora and Alexander filled two adjacent monitors. "One last grand mystery, right at the end. And I may not have the time to solve it. What a burden you have given me…"
The computer chirped, "Restoration at 12%."
Hayner, Pence, Olette, and Alexander made their way through Market Street, returning all the photographs that had been stolen while Hayner regaled them with tales of how they caught and punished the 'real thief.' No one seemed to believe his every word, but the fact that Alex was the one bringing them back – a kid who had only been in town for a single day, after the thefts started – was enough to clear the group of suspicion.
It was particularly satisfying to return the photo belonging to Seifer's gang – a picture of Seifer, Rai, and Vivi taunting a knocked-down Hayner. Hayner expressed a desire to tear it up and burn the shreds, but Alex felt far more smug two-finger-tossing the photo into the sand at Seifer's feet and walking away without a word.
As the four of them walked through the Tram Common, Hayner jabbed Alex in the arm and said, "Well, aren't you a good luck charm! In one day, you've cleared our good names and knocked Seifer down a peg!"
Alex fought back a smile and turned his gaze downward shyly. "Sorry I kinda stole your thunder there."
Hayner folded his arms. "Don't get me wrong – I totally had the advantage." Alex caught Pence and Olette making faces out of the corner of his eye. Hayner continued, "But even if I'd won, we'd just be back at it again tomorrow. The fact that YOU knocked him down? For US? Ohhh, that's gonna change things around here."
Alex grimaced a bit, and Olette put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Yeah… the Disciplinary Committee's probably gonna be a bit aggressive to you from now on. Just watch out for that."
"I don't think that's gonna be a problem," Pence said. "Did you SEE that fight? Alex read him like an open book! And you said that was your first fight ever?"
There was an easy way to explain the outcome of that fight: Alex knew what to expect from Seifer's fighting style through playing Kingdom Hearts II multiple times. But he couldn't say that out loud. He felt the need to come up with a convincing lie that was still technically accurate. "I've… played a lot of fighting games? Done some reading on weapons and fighting styles…?"
Hayner smirked and put a hand to his chin. "I see… All theory but no practice. Book-smart but not street-smart."
A little indignant, Alex replied, "What, and you're 'street-smart'?"
"Of course, are you kidding me?! My street-intelligence is through the roof!" Hayner declared with a high fist-pump. He then slouched and added, "My book-smarts, though…"
"Five days until the report's due," Olette cut in.
Hayner looked ready to tear out his hair. "Aaaah, don't remind me!" That got Pence and Olette laughing.
They continued walking and chatting up the hill and down the side street towards the Usual Spot. Hayner turned around and walked backwards, facing Alex. "Seriously though, I'm glad you chose to hang out with us today. If Seifer gives you any trouble, you just let us know and we'll back you up. Far as I'm concerned, you're one of the group."
"You were really brave," Olette agreed.
It was a bit much for Alex to take. "Guys, guys. I was just… another person in the right place at the right time."
"Hey, sometimes that's all it takes," Hayner replied with a nod. "That and stepping up when it counts. And you did that."
As they walked through the metal gate leading back to their hangout spot, Alex rubbed the back of his neck and quietly mumbled, "Thanks…" before walking in after them. He pushed the curtain aside just in time to see Pence filling a small picture frame atop the radiator with the photo that belonged there. As he looked around, Alex realized that he hadn't actually set foot inside until this very moment.
Olette, seated on the ratty green loveseat (that, on closer inspection, only had one decent-looking cushion), gestured over to a nearby crate. "C'mon, Alex. Go ahead and take a seat."
Trying not to beam too brightly, Alex sat down and idly chatted with his newfound friends.
Miraculously, it turned out that the sun did set in Twilight Town. Shortly after the clock tower chimed and the evening trains rolled by, the darkening skies streaming through the grate in the ceiling told the teens that it was time to split up and go home.
Alex was the last to leave, giving him time to have a moment in the Usual Spot. Wondering if in some mirror reflection of this world, Roxas was standing there too.
The walk home was a little bit dissociating, seeing a town he was so familiar with – yet such a stranger to – morph and change and wind down as he walked through it. Street lamps turned on, lights shone through the windows of shops and homes, and the tram turned on headlights to make sure everyone still left on the street would know it was coming through. A stroke of luck meant that the tram was passing by in a way that let Alex hop on and ride it most of the way back to his apartment.
When he finally arrived at the base of the stairs, the deep red and violet in the sky had given way to the last bits of navy blue before night fell completely. The climb up the steps to his second-story apartment were heavy and made Alex feel weary. By the time he unlocked his door and walked through, he felt completely drained.
Inside was exactly what he feared. It was still his apartment, a slice of the real world inside this video game come to life, and he was the only one in it.
He cooked a pot of mac 'n' cheese for dinner.
His old Frankenstein of a computer still existed, but some poking around on it revealed that there were no games installed and no real internet connection save for a very limited municipal network sort of thing that Alex couldn't wrap his head around. The TV would turn on, but there were only about a dozen channels and they all ran out of content to broadcast well before midnight. And the content was mostly local Twilight Town programs.
This was no vacation. This was no dream. Alexander had truly found himself in another world, with no explanation and no way back.
He'd fought a Nobody, but only because someone (Riku??) had been kind enough to spare him a beating.
What was more, events from the game were happening in parallel here. Alex had no way to be sure, but if today truly matched Roxas's first day from the game… That meant he'd arrived here at the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II's story. Which meant in five days, Sora would awaken.
Alex wanted to help. He wanted to join that adventure so badly. But he had no idea how.
And he didn't believe he deserved the honor.