When does a story begin?
It seems for this question, everyone has their own answers to it. Perhaps a story starts with its characters, still stuck within their creators’ minds long before said creators leave any physical evidence of the existence of their ideas. Perhaps the story is made when its conflict is thought of, before any actors are put on the stage. Or maybe, it begins long before either characters or conflict are made, and the story begins with the beginning of the creator themselves.
Or it could be that I am just saying pretty things, and stories are as stories do, and they begin when they are put to paper and nothing more.
But if you were to ask when this story should begin, I don’t know what the answer would be. It could start a hundred years before everything, with a war between pupils that was sparked by their unscrupulous teacher, that remade the worlds as we know them now. Or maybe this story begins with a broken boy, a misguided master, and a feckless youth that trusted too much and was punished for it.
But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just say that this story begins with a girl, a boy, and a princess, who find themselves on a tiny cluster of islands that they call home.
S O R A + R I K U
Unknown number of years before the fall of Destiny Islands
Unknown number of years before the fall of Radiant Garden
Later on, if you asked either of them about it, neither of the children would be able to tell you how they met.
Perhaps that is inaccurate. The answer of how is easy: Both of them met in a daycare run by Sora’s mother. What they did to meet is easy to guess—They could have been playing and decided to play together, and the rest is history. Or they could have met solely through physical proximity and the guileless social ease of children.
The answer of when, though, is a little harder. To Sora, and Riku, the other was sort of always there. And that was how they liked it.
Where one went, the other followed, and vice versa. Birthdays. Holidays. Sunrises and sunsets. Summer afternoons and autumn evenings, and every hour of the day in between.
And one meandering day, filled with sandcastles and fanciful notions of knighthood, Sora’s dad gave the children presents: A wooden sword for each of them. The swords were clumsily fashioned, made with more love than skill, and almost too large for Sora and Riku to wield properly yet, but they loved them and that was all that mattered. And so, sparring was added to their repertoire, overtaking even the sandcastles and games of pretend, and somewhere along the way other kids joined in too.
(Sora’s dad, Touma, claimed to have taken on the task as a first woodworking project, but interestingly dropped the hobby shortly after completion of the swords. He claimed there were too many splinters, that he already dealt with thorns at work. But Mina, Sora’s mom, noticed the way his eyes danced whenever their daughter came in with a grin wider than her small face and fresh calluses and scrapes up and down her short little legs. And she certainly noticed the schematics for a pair of small shields to match.)
A time would come when destiny came for the children, but not for a long while yet. For now their days would be simple and sweet, subject to their own whims rather than those of greater forces, and the kids would be kids and nothing less.
K A I R I
12 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands
2 Years until the fall of Radiant Garden
Kairi’s earliest memory was of working in the garden with her grandmother.
She wasn’t so good at spelling all of the flowers’ names yet, but she knew their colors and what they smelled like. The red roses had such a sweeter, deeper scent compared to the pink ones, which smelled lighter, more delicate. The white roses were different, with some types of white roses scented just like the pink ones, but other white roses didn’t have any smell at all. And then there were the violets, which were such a pretty purple color and had such a nice fragrance, but only for a moment.
Kairi’s favorites were the lilacs. They only bloomed for a short while, at the beginning of spring for just a couple of weeks, but those couple of weeks were punctuated with the fresh perfume of the blossoms and the knowledge that Kairi could commence work in the garden with her grandmother.
She didn’t remember much in the memory, but she could remember the feel of the rich dark dirt crumbling in her tiny hands, and the squirming sensation of the occasional worm that might be in the clod. There was the sighing applause of leaves moving in the wind, the choir of birdsong and windchimes, and through it all her grandmother talking about all sorts of things, and Kairi wasn’t so good at talking yet, but she was happy to simply listen to her all the same.
And one day, she told Kairi a story. Of Light, and the jealousy it had tempted. And the Darkness that followed it, and swallowed it, and tore everything asunder. And finally, of a new Light, forged from countless Hearts by children like her, that fixed everything until one day the old Light could be found.
With that tale was a resolution: That Kairi could never be lost, so long as she followed Light’s way. And she could never be defeated, so long as she had trust in that Light, and with it she could help save everything just like the kids in the story did.
Kairi loved that story. So much so, that the instant she learned words like ‘please’, ‘tell it again’, and ‘one more story’, she would ask for it and ask for it and ask for it. If her grandmother was weary of telling it so many times, she rarely showed it, but always indulged her. And beyond the feeling of dirt in her hands, or the wriggling of worms, or the soft velvet of flower petals, that feeling of hope was what she remembered most. Hope that maybe one day she could be a hero too.
R I K U
10 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands
6 Months before the fall of Radiant Garden
After he met that man on the play island, Riku started to have dreams where he was fighting.
He was never alone in the dreams. There were others with him, people whose faces and forms he couldn’t see, but he knew they were always there, whether by the light of their magic or by the strength of their shields.
In the first few dreams Riku wielded one of the wooden swords he and Sora played with in their duels, but the shape of it began to change. It became longer, stouter, the end of it capped by a rectangular knob that he used as a bludgeon at times, the design completed with four teeth. The hilt grew rectangular until it formed a guard around the handle, and at the base of the sword sprouted a small chain with a charm at the end that bumped against his arm when he swung the sword. And slowly, Riku realized the wooden toy sword he’d spar with during the day turned into a giant key, exactly like the one the man had him hold when Riku took the oath.
But while its shape never changed, for it was always a keyblade, the form of it evolved. It flashed in between designs, and sometimes it was the large, almost unwieldy bronze and blue key with four teeth at the end of its blade, while other times it took on countless other appearances. And all along, he and his friends were fighting.
And one day, when Riku woke up after a particularly vivid dream, the weight of that key-shaped sword still in his mind, he saw a charm in his outstretched hand.
A crown. Three-pointed and almost geometric in its structure. And at the end of it was a clasp, ready to be placed on anything.
He was not sure where it came from, whether it just appeared there or if perhaps one of his parents carefully placed it in his hand as he slept. The gesture seemed out of character for both of them, neither his mother or father to be the type to give spontaneous presents outside of the designated holidays, and he was too afraid to ask. So Riku kept it close, secret from everyone except Sora, whom he showed it to the same day he got it. They both marveled over the charm, both at the looks of it and at the idea of it just magically appearing in his hand. The concept of magic—real magic— having made the charm appear was a wonder to the children, a reprieve from the relative tedium of life on Destiny Islands. And when he found a chain that worked well with the charm, a forgotten past Christmas present he’d found in his bedside drawer, he wore it under his shirt, instinctively knowing he should keep the necklace secret from everyone except for Sora.
It became one of his most cherished possessions.
Once he wore the charm, the dreams suddenly felt so much more real. He could feel how the sword cut through the monsters, the resistance of their hides and the give when he cut through into air. Riku was everywhere in the dreams, never staying in one place for very long; First he was wandering with his friends through a jungle, a cavern, and then along the rooftops of a town somewhere. At one point he was walking on the walls and the ceiling in a house that looked like something out of a cartoon.
Another thing that changed with the appearance of the charm—now necklace—was his sword in his dreams. The unwieldy rectangular bronze and blue sword shifted slowly over the days into a much simpler design. First, he blinked, and then the blade and the hilt switched colors, the hilt now a gleaming gold. And then the blade’s blue color lightened until it was silver. And then the four teeth at the end of the blade shifted, warped, until it was one rectangular tooth with the shape of a crown in the negative space. And finally a simple shape of three connected circles, two smaller circles atop a third larger one, made up its new charm at the end of the chain on the hilt. The sword was much less unwieldy, then, no longer awkwardly heavy in Riku’s grip. In comparison, it felt as light as air.
He didn’t forget most of the dreams, anymore, when he wore the necklace. Riku could remember everything. He used those memories to renew his fervor in his and Sora’s spars and he won even more often than he did before, to the girl’s surprise. In a way, the dreams worked as practice, too, though he'd never reveal them to Sora whenever she asked why he'd gotten better at dueling.
But it was strange. Because before Riku had the charm, he had the dreams most every night, though they were less vivid. And now, with the charm, Riku didn’t always have the dreams even though they were more lucid. They came and went in waves, especially if he was having a good day. Riku noticed that when he was happy, his thoughts not straying to his home life or his parents, it was as if the dreams never left, and Riku was wandering around all sorts of places fighting strange creatures.
But when Riku was having a bad day, the dreams dried up. Disappeared. Crumbled into dust. He tried not to have any bad days, but it was hard, because that wasn’t often in his control. He dreamed of nothing and yearned for his friends, his sword, the glory.
And then, on the bad days, Riku started to dream of the door on the play island instead.
It started out harmless enough. He would be walking alone on a shore, and sometimes it was in the middle of the night, and other times it was in the middle of the day. It wasn’t the play island as he remembered it looking, small details here and there shifting and morphing as he looked at them, but it never seemed important to Riku in the dream. He’d call for his friends from the good dreams, but they never responded, and he never found them.
Instead it was the door that called back to him, across the dream island. There was no voice or any particular sensation other than a pulling feeling, like an invisible tether connected him to it. And with nothing else to do, Riku followed. The first few dreams, he simply stood in front of the door, his hand hovering towards it cautiously, and then drawing away. But one day he swallowed back his fear enough to open it.
Sometimes, he opened the door and that was how the dream ended, with Riku waking up and the necklace feeling unusually heavy on his neck. But sometimes, he opened the door and the dream kept going.
The door never opened to the same place twice. One night, he would be walking along the shore and it was noon, the crash of the waves ringing in his ears. He would open the door and step out into the bottom of the ocean somewhere. Another night, it would be morning on the shore, and Riku would see a large, sweeping ballroom when he opened the door, with strange beings that looked like furniture puttering about that never seemed to notice him staring at them.
In the dream one particularly bad day after a fight with his parents, it was late into the night, the imaginary moon high up in the sky. And when he opened the door this time, it swung out onto a rocky field that was devoid of any plants or animals, save for blackened, twisted trees in the distance. There were glowing cracks in the earth below a dark, purpling sky. Mist gathered all around.
Another bad night, and it would be sunset in the dream, and the door would open onto a strange shore where the moon was already risen and jagged rocks twisted in the air above.
He told Sora about the dreams of the door sometimes, keeping his dreams of the keyblade a secret as part of his promise to the man from months before. Mostly he told her about the good ones, where he would wander around forests with talking flowers and towns that celebrated Halloween every day, with her amazed at every detail. He felt good at that. He’d always liked having her attention on him.
As he’d grow older the cynic in Riku would want to dismiss the door on the play island as just a prank, or someone’s past art project, or something, any normal rationalization for that which would come to invade his thoughts on more than one occasion.
But the dreamer side of him would keep thinking about it, and would keep thinking about the door opening to somewhere off the islands that have begun to feel claustrophobic to the boy.
K A I R I
10 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands
6 months until the fall of Radiant Garden
Her second memory started much fuzzier, but she remembered what happened next. The clearest part of it were these strange black things, that walked like people, but didn’t look like them at all. Whatever they were, they were bowed, mean, and moved with a purpose. And they were moving towards her.
Once they caught sight of her with those glowering red eyes, she ran, but they were faster. They leapt, and slid through the air like oil, with their hands sharpened into a single point that didn’t bode well for her.
And Kairi remembered feeling so stupid. This was what she got for being careless. Her grandmother told her again and again that day to not wander off, and Kairi had gotten distracted looking around at the blooms in the castle’s flowerbeds and ended up separated and now she had no idea where she was.
She heard a voice from behind her telling her to run, but run where? All around her were indistinguishable stone walls and the sky, there was nowhere Kairi could escape to. She was terrified that those things were gaining up on her. That they were going to cut into her with those pointed claws or with those strange curved antlers that looked nothing like the antlers she would see on wildlife in the fields.
Kairi wasn’t looking where she was going, she could only run. She was breathless from running, could feel a stitch in her side screaming and burning, but there was no stopping. Whatever they were, they were coming for her, and she couldn’t stop if she wanted to live.
She ran, and ran, and ran, hearing her footsteps grow sloppy from exhaustion, the soles of her shoes smacking the ground, and every part of her felt like it was burning. Her throat was like sandpaper, the breaths coming out in a rasp, and she screamed in the hopes that someone would hear that could help her get away. And all the while, those creatures, those not-quite-people that moved so strangely, got closer.
And then there was a wall. Kairi nearly smacked into it until she finally looked up and saw it was uncomfortably close, and she realized she was trapped. If she felt tired before, she was exhausted now that she stopped, the stitch that was still searing into her was matched by another on the opposite side, and her windpipe had gone from feeling like sandpaper to the desert, dry and hot and burning all the way to her lungs, and the lactic acid that had built up in her legs began to catch up. She knew she wouldn’t be able to run again.
The things knew they had her cornered. This time they seemed to approach slower, almost teasingly, in the way that made her think that they didn’t just want to destroy her, they wanted to make her terrified before they did it. Kairi balled her fists before raising them over her head automatically, a gesture that she knew wouldn’t do much to shield her from their claws, the forgotten flowers in her hand bending at the stems.
And finally, Kairi caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of her eye and turned her head. And that’s when she saw her.
Kairi always had a talent for being able to sense who she could and couldn’t trust. It was hard to put into words, but some people just…felt nicer, more genuine, but it wasn’t the kind of feeling that you could do with your hands. The people she could trust the best felt as warm and endless as a summer day, Light shining from them in place of a sun.
And the people she couldn’t trust? Well, she hadn’t encountered many of them around the castle, but there were some amongst the people who felt clouded, dimmer, their Light dogged by a Darkness that hadn’t taken root but managed to leave a seed. She had learned to keep those people at arm’s length but stay sympathetic. Perhaps their troubled nature hadn’t come from a fault in their character but a fault in their circumstance.
The blue out of the corner of her eye turned out to be a woman, tall and bright, so bright, the Light within her so much stronger and surer than anyone Kairi had ever met. And on instinct, she ran to her, hiding behind her and clutching to the strange sword the woman held aloft.
Kairi didn’t know it at the time, but it was the moment she grasped that sword that she completed an eternal ritual, one of inheritance and a vow to defend. The ceremony of heroes.
The creatures turned towards the woman and Kairi, and more joined them. Slithering above in that strange angular dance, they seemed to be sizing the two up. She shuddered at the way their red eyes glowed with a calculating look, and they seemed to be communicating with one another mutely, making a silent plan. And finally, one was daring enough to lunge.
But before they could reach the two, someone (something?) else swept in front of them with a shout and destroyed the thing with a swipe of their sword, the blade in the same strange type of shape as the one Kairi was gripping in the woman’s hand.
It was a…mouse? He, Kairi assumed it was a he, didn’t look much like any mouse she’d ever seen. Two round ears and a flickering tail were where the similarities with a mouse ended. He was short, as short as Kairi, and wore black clothes with zippers and straps all over them. A cartoonish face was held in a scowl reserved for those creatures, who by now had seen what the mouse had done to one of their own and held back, watching the three. The creatures inspected the strange sword in the mouse’s hand from a distance.
“Hurry!” The mouse called back to them, “You gotta get that girl to somewhere safe,”
“Who are you? Why do you have a keyblade?” The woman questioned, and Kairi looked up to see her puzzled expression.
“I’ll tell you later. Right now, we gotta stop these things!”
The woman shifted her stance in acquiescence. And with one hand she picked Kairi up and slung her under her arm like she weighed nothing, the young girl letting out a sound of surprise at it. The flowers still in Kairi’s grip, she looked back past the woman’s arm to watch the mouse anxiously. He was calm in the way that told Kairi he had experience with whatever those things were that had begun to encircle him. She hoped they couldn’t hurt him.
The woman ran down the steps and a little into the courtyard down below. Upon reaching a grassy area, she put the girl down hurriedly, and crouched down to eye level for a moment.
“Stay here, okay? Shout if you’re in trouble.” She said, and Kairi nodded. At this, the woman ran back towards where the mouse had begun fighting those creatures, and she moved so fast it was almost as if she flew.
Kairi angled her head to try and watch. Those things were terrifying, and side by side the mouse and the strange woman’s combined Lights were so dazzling that Kairi was worried for them, as she didn’t want to see them extinguished. But more than worried, she was curious. She wanted to know what those ‘keyblades’ could do.
And it turned out they could do a lot.
The mouse used his more as a classical weapon, spinning and darting forward in a variety of forms, the keyblade piercing the monsters, who dissolved into clouds of smoke under the force. Those claws, the threatening antlers and the red-eyed gazes that seemed too intelligent for such an animal form, poof. Gone. As if that keyblade were just a hot knife slicing through butter.
And the woman, she was electric. Her Light had wreathed her with fire, with frost, with thunder. Magic poured from her keyblade between strikes, and she moved around the creatures like an acrobat. They could hardly touch her. And glowing with light, real Light that was forged of magic and Heart, she crossed the entire span of the balcony in a split second, the move capped off with a sharp thrust into the body of another monster. And then she raised her weapon to the sky, and with a flash of light and a shout Kairi couldn’t hear the words to, the magic danced over the woman’s skin with a tinkling chime, and whatever small wounds she had accumulated sewn themselves shut until it was as if they had never happened. Kairi felt her eyes grow impossibly wide at that.
Over the course of the fight, more of those creatures gathered, seemingly lured by some invisible connection. There were more of those creatures that had chased Kairi, but there were more still whose forms were stranger, some looking more like architecture than animal that bounced from foot to foot and had three leaf-like yellow things sprouting out of their heads, which were featureless silver spheres. And there were some amongst the crowd that fought from above, in the shape of condors, or vultures. But instead of any birds she had ever seen, the only similarities were these creatures having two wings, their gunmetal grey skin devoid of feathers.
And every one of them was destroyed. The woman did a strange move where light began to form at the tip of her keyblade again and she held it high, sliding around the balcony on one foot in a pirouette, the light descending from the weapon in streamers that sucked in the creatures and beat them around to the sound of bells.
“Let’s team up!” The mouse cried, and Kairi watched her give a nod before running over to match his stance. And they rose into the air, their keyblades pointed out, surrounded with light once more that poured from them to the creatures that had amassed. The things had begun to poof out of existence one by one, the noises of their annihilation drowned out by the sound of chimes, and still the magic poured forth, surrounding the two fighters with stars, and swirls aglow.
And only when the last creature died, one of those strange birds who dispersed into smoke with a weary ‘puff!’, did the woman and the mouse start to relax. And Kairi nervously approached the stairs to come closer to them.
It was partially out of a sense of safety, as Kairi hadn’t seen anything manage to destroy those things until she saw what they could do with those keyblades, but it was mostly out of awe. The blue-haired woman, whoever she was, was amazing, and what Kairi would remember most from this day was how badly she yearned to be just like her.
She glanced over and watched Kairi shyly climb up the stairs and gave the young girl a smile. The woman approached her with a hand outstretched, and Kairi took it, using it as a brace as she stepped onto the dais.
“Are you okay?” She asked her, and Kairi nodded. The woman gave her a quick once-over, checking for injuries, and then gave her hand a quick squeeze. “I’ll help you find your parents in a moment, I just need to talk to him first, does that sound alright?” and at Kairi’s assent, the woman kneeled so that she was eye-level with the mouse.
Now that Kairi could relax for a moment and examine the mouse a little more thoroughly, his appearance didn’t seem quite so strange. He was odd, sure, as much as seeing a mouse that could walk and talk could be odd. But she looked beyond that to focus on what she could sense of his Heart: Whereas the woman’s Light was more like the unshakable yellow splendor of the sun at high noon, the mouse’s reminded Kairi more of clear morning light, when all the brightness poured in through the windows with that bluish tone. There was some Darkness, just as there was in everybody, but it was like the occasional cloud on a sunny day that you knew wasn’t going to bring rain.
“Thank you. My name is Master Aqua,” The woman introduced herself to the mouse, “I train under Master Eraqus.”
“And I’m Mickey! I used to be Yen Sid’s apprentice, I came back to him for some more training.” He responded, gesticulating animatedly with his gloved hands.
Kairi tried the names out in her head. Aqua, Mickey. What odd names they have, she thought to herself, it was as if they were from another world. At least the mouse certainly had to be from elsewhere. Kairi looked up when she heard them talking about her.
“I sense a clear Light within this girl,” Aqua asked him, “Do you think that could be why they targeted her?”
“Yep, I think ya might be absolutely right. She must be someone extraordinary, I can’t see any Darkness in her at all!”
Kairi felt her eyes widen at that. Extraordinary? Her? But I’m just a kid, she thought.
Unless… maybe she was like one of the kids from the story. Who could help save everything by rekindling the Light of worlds with her own. The idea made her excited. But who were these two, she wondered, with such strange appearances that could fight with keyblades and magic? How could they sense the contents of Hearts like she could?
“You’re right,” Aqua spoke, “I’m worried the Unversed may come after her again because of it,”
Mickey opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted by a sparkling gleam coming from the pocket of his jacket. He reached in to reveal a star-shaped crystal in his hand that was beginning to crackle with light just like fireworks, and Mickey hurriedly moved away from the two.
“Not again!” The mouse fretted, and he looked back and forth towards them, the light crackling much more severely now and beginning to wrap him with a glow, “Sorry, this, ah, it happens a lot. But I’ll be okay!” And as the stone rocketed towards the sky, Mickey still clinging to it, he shouted to them, “Let’s team up again sometime!”
And with that, the mouse and the stone vanished into a speck of light that careened across the atmosphere and out of sight. Aqua chuckled.
“Probably needed extra training to control that star shard,” She mused, more to herself, and then looked over at Kairi. “Before we go to find your parents, I wanted to ask you about that Light—”
The girl looked over to see her grandmother climb the stairs and walk towards them, her steps measured with age.
Aqua glanced over for a moment and seemed to think to herself for a moment. “Kairi,” She said concernedly, though Kairi couldn’t imagine why she’d be worried, “Just a minute?”
She lowered her hand to the pendant Kairi wore and gave it a gentle tap, a small gleam of magic rippling from the touch.
“There we go. I just cast a spell on you,” She said, and Kairi looked at her with wonder, “One day when you’re in trouble, the Light within you will lead you to the Light of another. Someone to keep you safe.”
“Thank you!” Kairi exclaimed and had to tamper down her excitement before she got too hyper, and then she remembered the bouquet still in her hand and extended it towards the woman, “These are for you. Thank you for saving me, and for the spell,” She added, and the woman gave her a gentle smile.
“That’s so sweet of you,” Aqua said fondly, and held the flowers in one hand and ruffled Kairi’s hair with the other, “Thank you. And stay close to your grandmother from now on, okay?”
“I will!” Kairi promised before running back to her grandmother, who had reached them by then. She took her hand and bid Aqua farewell, and they left.
They had been walking for a few moments when Kairi became lost in thought. Those monsters, and the Light that both Aqua and Mickey discussed. A Light, she wondered. Her? She was someone extraordinary?
And Aqua had said those things—she had called them Unversed—they’d come after her again. Kairi clutched the pendant in her hand. But next time, she’d have a spell to keep them from getting her. A spell, magic, on her! She couldn’t be afraid knowing that. Kairi couldn’t quell the grin on her face.
She looked over, “Hmm? What is it?”
“Could you tell me that story again?”
“Again, dear?” She chuckled.
Her grandmother sighed, though not unkindly. “Very well, then” She complied, and Kairi squeezed her hand in gratitude. They continued to walk down the steps, through the courtyard, framed by the light of the setting sun. And her grandmother began the familiar tale:
“Long ago, people had lived in peace, bathed in the warmth of Light…”
S O R A
10 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands
6 Months until the fall of Radiant Garden
The day had been long, replete with the commotion of duels waged with wooden swords and the shouts of children racing their peers, and now the night was quiet. All of the others had gone home by now—Tidus being the first to go, followed shortly thereafter by Wakka, and eventually even Selphie left for home with a pout and escorted by her exasperated mother, who had already called for her twice by then. Only Sora and Riku were left, laying in the sand and watching the stars.
When the day began to descend into dusk, Sora had off and on felt something pulling at the edge of her consciousness. (A phantom pain, fear, tempered with resolve.) And when she had dueled Riku earlier she kept seeing flashes of another fight overlaid in her vision over her own match (a wooden sword turned into a giant key and Riku shifted into a dark figure that looked identical to her but not her, a wraith made of smoke and steel and the Dark that remains when the Light burns out), and it had distracted her to the point where Riku had held off for a moment and just surveyed her cautiously before asking her if she was okay.
She was okay…or wasn’t she? Sora glanced towards the ocean for a moment (Gold sunlight splintered into red and green and blue and a whole rainbow made of shattered glass that glimmered amid the vacuum) and whatever it was seemed to dull. Another moment, and everything was fine. Whatever it was seemed to subside, so she shook it off and decided to keep going.
Several hours later nothing else like that had happened, and she and Riku reclined on the shore listening to the waves. There were strange twinges in her heart here and there, like when something bad happened and she wanted to cry, but no bad things had happened that day, so Sora merely chalked it up to being tired.
Eventually, Riku was the first to sit up, saying, “Hey. I’m gonna head back.”
And then Sora sat up as well, briskly. “Yeah, me too.”
They both began to plod towards the small fenced entrance that marked the private bay they were at, yawning and shaking the sand out of their shoes. Riku was tiredly looking towards the exit, lost in his own thoughts, when he heard her sniff.
Sora was crying. Her eyes were shiny from tears and her nose had the barest tinge of red at the tip, and he stopped.
“Sora, what’s wrong?”
“Huh?” She glanced back at him and stopped walking. She hadn’t realized her vision was beginning to blur and her eyes felt hot.
“You’re…” He trailed off as he pointed to her eyes, and she could feel a tear begin to fall. Her brows raised in surprise as she carefully pressed a hand to her face and could feel dampness. Somewhere in her chest, her heart gave a pang.
“That’s weird.” She remarked, after pulling her hand away and seeing a teardrop balanced on her fingertip. “It’s like something’s squeezing me inside,”
She thought back to the scenes she saw earlier, and the strange heartache. Riku pondered for a moment.
“Somebody up there might be sad,” He said. Sora scrunched up her eyes in confusion.
The boy turned his face towards the stars.
“They say every world is connected by one great big sky. So maybe there’s somebody up there in all those worlds who’s really hurting, and they’re waiting for you to help them.”
Sora looked up. It was hard to think that every star, every light was a world, with people and places and all sorts of things. It was so easy to forget when all you saw was light.
She wondered who it could be that was in trouble. Were they a little girl on an island somewhere like her? Or maybe it was some kid in a jungle or a city, or maybe they weren’t even on a world at all. She frowned.
“Is there something I can do?”
Riku hummed at that and crossed his arms contemplatively. Finally, he suggested, “Maybe they just need you to open your heart and listen?”
Her forehead creased at that, and she reflexively shifted from foot to foot. Just listening? It sounded a little dubious; Listening by itself didn’t sound like much of a solution to anything and it wasn’t as if they were right there and able to talk to her. But she didn’t have any better ideas.
“I dunno, Riku, you say some weird stuff sometimes,” She teased, “But I’ll try it!”
She altered her stance to something a little more attentive, with her hands instinctively closed loosely into fists. Sora lifted her face back up to the sky and tried to tune the sounds of the ocean out in search of a voice she could listen to. Finally, she closed her eyes and breathed in, out, feeling her pulse start to relax into a more uniform pattern.
She saw nothing at first and then the room appeared. There was a boy, a teen perhaps, though to her teens and adults looked alike since she was so young. He was wearing peculiar clothes with a metal armor thing attached to his shoulder, and he was seated on a throne. The boy was asleep.
The room was shaped like a circle and matched the throne, starkly white and so bright it almost hurt to see. The shadows were so faint they looked lilac. And all along the wall, a symbol kept repeating that matched the badge on the boy’s chest, that looked like a geometric heart with a four-pointed star overlaid on the bottom. From the bottommost point of the symbols on the wall images of chains flashed, stretching through the floor, where the gleaming of the chains seemed to originate from that pale throne.
Sora couldn’t help glancing around for a moment, fascinated by the unfamiliar architecture and the seemingly magical light that lit up the chains. Until her gaze fell back onto the boy and she remembered her task.
“Hey,” She tried, “Can you hear me?”
Once she spoke, the room faded. Sora blinked, expecting to find herself back on the beach with Riku, but she was now in another new place. This time, the boy was absent.
She was standing on an enormous platform. There was no roof, or walls, or even a sky. It was true nothingness. The only source of light was from the platform below her, which was made of an ornate scene composed of stained glass, just like the windows she saw on some buildings back on the islands. She couldn’t see what the entire scene was, and could only vaguely make out that the yellow light behind her was shaped like a…star? But the light from below she couldn’t make out the shape of. On the design yellow was the only color apart from blues. Whatever it was, Sora thought, it was beautiful.
A flicker at the edge of her vision made her turn to see a sparkle that was heading her way. And suddenly she was excited, thinking this might be who she was supposed to help.
“Hey!” She called out again, louder this time, “Can you hear me?”
“I heard your voice,” the twinkle said, sounding slightly awed. “It cut through the Darkness around me.”
She let out a small trill of excitement at the twinkle as it approached, and she stood on her tiptoes and reached out her hands to try and catch it. It continued to speak.
“All alone, I followed the sound, into a sea of Light. And I found myself here with you.”
The globe of light seemed to settle into her grasp, though it didn’t feel like she was holding anything. All she could sense from it was warmth. Her eyes grew round at seeing it, and rounder still that she was holding it.
“You gave me something back when I needed it most. A second chance.”
And she couldn’t see the light change at all, but somehow, she could sense it was nodding.
“But…now I have to go back to sleep again.”
At the voice’s mournful tone, she frowned. “Are you sad?”
It didn’t answer her question, and instead asked, “Would you mind if I stayed here, with you?”
“Sure, if it’ll make you feel better!”
Sora couldn’t explain it, but it seemed relieved at this, and hopeful.
She tried bringing her hands to her heart to pull the twinkle of light in, and it followed. The light disappeared into her with one last flash, and she folded her hands over her chest and closed her eyes, feeling the last dregs of warmth from it.
After a moment she opened her eyes. The sky was back, alive with all its stars, and the stained-glass platform she had stood upon was replaced with sand. Sora could hear the distant crash of the waves. She was on Destiny Islands again.
“Well?” Riku asked. She glanced over to see him watching with curiosity.
“Ya know, I think it worked.” Was all she said, and they both said nothing more, looking back up to the sky.
Amidst the dark blue and countless glimmers of light, three stars flashed together, brighter than all the others.
K A I R I
9 years and 6 months until the fall of Destiny Islands
1 hour until the fall of Radiant Garden
Her third earliest memory began with a storm.
In the days leading up to it, those Unversed had begun appearing all over the city in greater numbers, and nobody knew what to do. The guards had their hands full with dealing with them, on top of the vast numbers of people disappearing recently, and they hadn’t been able to handle the threat anywhere near as effectively as that strange woman and the mouse had been able to.
It had been many days since Kairi was allowed to go outside, stuck within the walls of the castle for her own safety, and she remembered the scent of lilacs coming and going without her or her grandmother being able to work in the garden again. What once had been the herald of a new season and new adventures had now become a taunting reminder.
“One day, dear,” Her granny had promised, sadly. She had seemed to age rapidly within the recent months, with the stress of the Unversed and reports of strange new creatures that were found within the walls of the city. And, lately, reports of trouble with the King and his apprentices.
Kairi didn’t know what was going on, and it was frustrating that nobody seemed to be willing to talk about it with her. Everyone said they didn’t want to worry her, but it was worse being kept in the dark, and it felt demeaning that she wasn’t allowed to know.
So here she was, stuck.
Kairi was in the middle of lessons one day when the storm began to really rev up. All day the clouds had been threatening, making the day almost as dark as night, but nobody paid much attention to it. Storms had been getting more and more common recently, and Kairi was worried that the extra rain would drown her plants. But she still wasn’t allowed to go outside, and by now the flowerbeds must have been choked with weeds long before the rain threatened them.
And apart from the storm outside, for weeks Kairi had begun to feel this weird weight at the edge of her senses. It felt a lot like when she was sensing Darkness in people, but the only Darkness that she could see clearly was that of her instructor’s in front of her, and that didn’t seem like the cause at all. This was a different sort of sensing, all around her now, and the threat of it made her teeth rattle and her stomach churn. It was nearly impossible to focus on anything.
Kairi was in the middle of staring blankly at the page of addition problems she had to finish, when she and her tutor looked up at the sound of shouting and the clanging of armor and swords from the hallway, getting closer. And it sounded like…her grandmother?
The door threw open, revealing that was indeed her. And over her shoulder, a man Kairi only vaguely recognized accompanied by a few guards. It was Xehanort, one of the newest apprentices of King Ansem and the leader of the more questionable experiments in the castle’s basement labs that she had overheard whispers of.
Kairi, personally, had never liked him from the beginning. With other people whose Hearts were more saturated with Darkness than usual, she’d been guarded with them, though cordial. She had usually made it a point to try and see the good in others, and if there wasn’t much Light, to try and be understanding of how their Darkness came to spread—With the disappearances lately, she’d seen people whose Hearts were shining with Light start to dim when a child or a sibling vanished. And in the people whose Hearts were already dim in the first place who had lost someone, dark thickets would bloom.
But Xehanort? He was different. He was first discovered passed out in the courtyard months prior and didn’t know anything of himself but his own name. But his amnesia didn’t hold him back from quickly climbing the ranks to become the impromptu lead of the apprentices. From there, he pushed the ethical boundaries of the experiments to levels the King had found distasteful, causing the rift between King Ansem and his apprentices that had been fueling much of the castle gossip.
But the strangest part about him was his Heart. Apprentice Xehanort had two of them.
One was blacker than midnight, more entrenched in Darkness than any Kairi had ever seen, and it terrified her. It was a Darkness that seemed to have a life of its own.
And the other Heart she could only barely see. It was just like lifting a piece of paper with drawings on both sides up to the sun and seeing the ghost of the art on the other side show through with the light. On one side was the Dark Heart, but just beyond it, bound in chains and weeping, was the dim Light of the second Heart. It was tinged red and purple, like the last thin resigned stripe of sunset on the horizon as evening arrived.
Seeing the lead apprentice now was like looking into an eclipse. The Darkness that had been pulling at the edge of her senses seemed to be attracted to him, intermingling with the blackness of his Hearts. Kairi was beginning to space out again, with the nausea starting to grow worse and evolve into lightheadedness, and she tried to listen past the static in her head to what her grandmother was shouting.
“—ri! Kairi! Come with us, now!”
Kairi blinked slowly, trying to process the words. Her tutor scowled and shook his head in confusion, enquiring, “What could possibly be going on--?” before an ear-splitting CRACK rang out, impossibly close, and they all jumped.
That is, except for Xehanort.
Adrenaline cleared Kairi’s senses immediately, and she knocked over her chair to race to her grandmother and clutched to her hand. Her grandmother held onto her tightly and pressed her close to her side with an iron grip, her mouth pressed in a thin line.
“It’s this way. Follow me.” Xehanort said, and turned to quickly navigate down the halls, which as the group progressed farther from the classroom Kairi could see their former splendor had been freshly marred with long claw-marks and dark stains on the wallpaper, guards’ weapons and raiments laying abandoned here and there. The more distance traveled, the more destruction there was. They passed a fallen chandelier, their footsteps crunching with the glass underfoot. From somewhere distantly behind them rang out the clamor of weapons and shouts. And then, a roar.
“What was that?” Kairi inquired, and fearfully looked behind them, “Grandma? What’s happening?”
“The King is dead,” A guard answered. Her tutor sucked in a gasp.
“Heavens, he’s dead? What, I,” He floundered, and nearly tripped over a forgotten spear in their path, before regaining his voice and saying, “How?”
“That’s what one of the guards said. Braig, or whatever his name was. He said another one of those creatures the apprentices had been experimenting on had escaped and killed the King. Saw his body dissolve into that black smoke we’ve been seeing so much of.”
Kairi thought, Darkness? But she didn’t dare say a word. She peered at the white-haired man—Xehanort—that was leading them down the hallway, who hadn’t spoken since beckoning them to follow him. She didn’t have to turn to know that everyone in the group was doing the same, their looks laced with suspicion. Kairi felt her grandmother’s grip on her tighten as they turned another corner and down a flight of stairs.
The guard continued, “Fifteen minutes ago, we saw the first of those things break down the doors to the laboratory. It was huge, unlike the descriptions of the creatures we’ve been getting in reports from citizens who had the misfortune of encountering them in the city. And it had this strange symbol on its chest, like a heart. The beast took down half a squadron of guards with one swipe, I’ve never seen anything like it,” He shuddered, “And since then we’ve been trying to get as many civilians out as we can and hold those monsters off for as long as possible, but we haven’t been having much luck.”
“Where are we going?” Kairi spoke up.
This time it was Xehanort who answered, in an eerie monotone. “The laboratory.”
“What?!” Kairi and the tutor exclaimed simultaneously.
“You tell us about those beasts that have destroyed so much already, who can shove aside over a dozen trained guards like it’s nothing, and you lead us right to their lair?!” He yelled, his face twisting with fear.
Kairi turned to her grandmother, desperately, and begged, “Grandma, please don’t make me go down there, why can’t we just leave the castle?”
The woman released her hold on Kairi and patted her on the head in attempt to calm her with one hand, still holding her hand with the other. Her grandmother seemed to age another decade in an instant, her form bent with the weight of resignation and dread.
“She’s got a point,” The teacher agreed, and looked between the few guards that escorted the group, “Why are we going into the basement? There is a vast number of exits out of the castle, why aren’t we going outside?”
The guards nervously glanced towards one another, tightening their grips on their spears. One finally responded.
“None of the civilians we’ve escorted out there have survived. Guards, too.” He nervously cleared his throat before saying, “The creatures have stopped coming from the laboratory, but they’re now destroying the city and everyone in it as we speak. The only hope we have of getting people out is a portal that the apprentices managed to open using their research, that they say leads to other worlds.”
“It’s true, Apprentice Xehanort showed me.” Her grandmother spoke, as she looked down at Kairi and tried to give her a smile, but all Kairi could focus on was the worry in her gaze, “He opened up one in front of me and showed how it can transport anyone and anything. It stung a little, to go through, but I saw another world on the other side. No monsters, just sand, and waves. You’ll be safe there, dear.”
“But what about you?” She responded. Her grandmother smiled sadly.
“I’ll join you when I can.”
“Why can’t you come with m—" Kairi started to ask but gasped at another rumble from somewhere in the castle. It seemed to be from far above. And from there, more rumbling started, sustained, and it felt like it was getting closer.
“We need to move! Now!” One guard shouted, and everyone broke into a dead run. Her grandmother tried to gain speed over the brisk walk she had been doing, but only managed to hobble. It didn’t take long until they were closer to the back of the group.
“It’s just one more turn until we’re there.” Xehanort called out, and the group managed to get a burst in speed. Kairi and her grandmother lagged farther behind.
And all along they felt that thunder of countless monstrous footsteps.
Just a bit more, Kairi hoped, still hyped up on terror and all the adrenaline that came with it. They made the turn, and she clipped the edge of the wall hard as she did so, her shoulder aching. But she didn’t think about it, couldn’t afford to, not when the doors were right there just at the end of the hall and she was too terrified to look at what was behind.
And then they were there. The guards threw open the metal doors and they raced inside past the maze of grates, the guards switching them on to barricade against their pursuers as they went. Once they reached the innermost room of the laboratory they hastily constructed a barricade against the doors using whatever they could find in the mess of the room, from ripped out chunks of machinery to books to chairs and desks. And then, from behind them, they heard laughter.
It was a man Kairi had never seen before. He was menacing, even in the familiar guards’ uniform. A black eyepatch covered part of his face, with his dark hair slicked back to reveal the pointed tips of his ears. A deep, brutal-looking scar tore across his cheek and came close to his remaining eye, which was a gold color Kairi had never seen on anyone else before. He was reclining lazily against the wall with both of his arms crossed, a crossbow-like weapon in each hand. Both of his index fingers were on the triggers. He glanced at each of them, before settling on Xehanort. He gave the group a toothy grin.
“I knew you were still in there somewhere, Terra,” He crowed, “The old man told us to just pitch the girl and see where she ended up, but it figures a bleeding heart like you would try and help some useless civvies, too.”
“Braig!” A guard shouted, angrily raising his spear. Braig barely lifted an arm and fired a crossbow without looking. It rang out with a metallic sound, and Kairi heard a dull wet thud as it finally collided with the desk behind the guard in the barricade, the man crumpling to the floor holding his side at the edge of her sight. She heard her grandmother gasp and before moving to turn Kairi away from the body before she could see clearly what happened.
Xehanort opened and closed his mouth, a new look of apprehension in his brown eyes. And as Kairi watched him, the strangest thing happened in his Hearts: It was as if, for a moment, that ghost Heart under the eclipse became a little clearer, a little Lighter. The reds and purples of that Heart flashed to goldenrod yellow. He finally spoke in less of a monotone, “We could experiment with the portals with them. We could see where they end up at, and it’ll give us an idea of where she’ll go.”
Braig gave a harsh bray of laughter. “Come on, you and I both know she’ll end up somewhere completely different. You said so yourself, she’s not like them, and that’ll change the path.”
Xehanort—or was it Terra? —opened and closed his mouth, trying to formulate a response. And before he could say anything, her grandmother spoke.
“I don’t care what happens to me. Please, just save my granddaughter.”
The corners of Braig’s mouth curled more as he gave a cheer. “There we go! Ladies and gents, please give it up for our first volunteer,” He gestured to her with his crossbows and she flinched. “I would clap for you, but I kind of have a hostage situation to maintain just in case softy here doesn’t stay in line. Hopefully you understand.” He finished with a simpering glance.
Kairi looked up at her and implored, “Grandma, no,” but she gently shushed her.
“Kairi, dear, my time is behind me. I brought you here to make sure you were safe, and that is all I want. Nothing else is important.”
“But—” She started to protest, but her grandmother shook her head harshly at her, and the girl went quiet. Kairi could feel her eyes growing wet.
“I knew it,” Her teacher spat out, “I knew it! You traitors orchestrated this whole thing! You killed the king, you let those monsters loose upon the city, it was all you!”
“Hole in one, chump,” Braig replied.
“And you,” He rounded on Xehanort, “I knew there was something off about you from the time you started doing those ghastly experiments! His majesty ordered you to stop, but you were too greedy for knowledge or power or whatever it is you two are after. Were the other apprentices in on this, too?”
Braig gave an exaggerated look to the apprentice, but Xehanort gave no response.
That only seemed to confirm her teacher’s words. He looked too angry to speak.
“Why?” It was the remaining guard. He rose slowly from where he had kneeled beside his fallen comrade. “Why did you do it?”
Braig answered, “And that, my friend, is privileged information.”
And then he looked to Xehanort, his gold eye gleaming in the dimmed light. “Well? What are you waiting for? Open the portal already.”
The apprentice raised a hand to the wall shakily but seemed to hesitate. His eyes flickered again between the group with an almost guilty expression, and Kairi saw the ghost Heart flash again. Braig sighed.
“Can’t muster the nerve, huh?” He sauntered over to the control panel on the far wall, unnoticed amidst the rest of the wreckage. “Then what if I,” He dropped a crossbow to the floor as he lifted one hand to a lever, saying, “Raised the stakes?”
And then he yanked the lever down, and along the adjoining wall a large hole that was shaped like a heart that ended in three points at the tip began to crackle. Then, a smear of colors danced across the archway like an oil slick. And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Creatures began to pour out of the hole, now portal, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but every last one of them had a curious red heart-shaped emblem on their chest that was crossed with barbed vines, and every last one of them was hungry. The group cried out, all but Braig and Xehanort, and Kairi desperately backed away from a small black bug-like thing that turned its glowing yellow eyes on her. She was reminded all too much of a similar encounter with the Unversed months prior, except this time, she wasn’t sure if Aqua would show up at the last moment to save her.
Xehanort’s eyes widened, and he opened the portal immediately, and it settled on the wall closest to him, black and roiling and tendrils reaching out around it.
“Kairi, run!” Her grandmother shouted, and the creatures began to converge on her. Kairi’s vision blurred with horrified tears, and she backed away from the creatures, and felt herself be picked up. It was the apprentice.
“I don’t know where you’ll end up,” He started, and Kairi sobbed as he rushed her to the waiting portal, “But you’re going to be okay. You’re going to find the keybearer. And wherever you go, Light will follow you. I’ve seen it. Lead us to the key to everything. Now go!” He shouted out, tossing her into the portal, and it closed behind her.
And all Kairi knew next was that she was falling, and falling, and falling. The Darkness lapped at her, trying to grip, but it couldn’t. Everything was cold, prickly, but it didn’t hurt.
She felt something tugging at her, but not physically. It was tugging at something deep inside the center of herself.
“One day when you’re in trouble, the Light within you will lead you to the Light of another.”
The familiar words rang out in her head, and Kairi felt warm.
And then there was Light.
And, finally, Kairi knew no more.
S O R A
9 Years and 6 months until the fall of Destiny Islands
Just like how a rain shower begins with a single drop, a meteor shower begins with the twinkle of a single point of light, falling towards the earth.
Sora and Riku had spent the day playing, as children often do, making sand castles and sand battlements and then mock fighting on the shore to practice their skills as the knights for the castles they made. The day was long, and the night had grown late, neither child really noticing the change in light until the flicker of streetlights turning on for the evening had caught their eye. Just as they both fell quiet at the sight of it, for it was often the mark of a gloomy separation, another twinkle sparked at the corner of their eyes and they looked up.
It was a shooting star. Whatever despondence they felt from the streetlights was immediately out of their thoughts as they marveled at the sight. Sora gave an audible gasp.
“Woah,” Riku marveled. And then the glimmer left as fast as it arrived.
“Make a wish, make a wish!” Sora called out to him, and he grinned before they both scrunched their eyes shut with hope.
Sora still had her eyes closed too tightly to notice the continued dance of lights across the sky, too busy trying to figure out what to wish for. But Riku noticed.
“Sora, look,” Was all he said as she opened her eyes and followed where he was pointing.
It was another shooting star.
It started slow, like the first few drops of rain in a storm, and then those first few rays leapt through the sky began to multiply. Three, twelve, too many to count sped across the horizon, and yet more continued to appear. Slowly, Sora’s excitement dissolved into a fearful awe.
“Riku…What’s going on? What’s happening?”
For several moments he had no response. “I don’t know.”
And that’s when Sora really began to be afraid. Riku almost always had the answer: He read all the time, he was older (even if only a year older, but that felt like an eternity to kids), he was supposed to know everything. But now there was finally something he didn’t know. And that was terrifying.
She looked over to see his gaze still glued to the sky, Riku’s face lit up hauntingly from the unnatural light of the shooting stars. The crown pendant around his neck had peeked out of his collar and reflected the atmosphere.
Sora looked back to the sky. Great smears of light were streaked down the horizon, illuminating what few clouds there were from behind. The meteor shower showed no signs of letting up. And then one terrifying thought occurred to her.
“Riku,” Her voice wavered, and she tried again. “Riku, what if one hits the islands? Will we die?”
At those words Riku whipped his face down to look at her. His expression was determined.
“No,” He answered, and took her hand in his own. “We won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“If a shooting star comes this way, I’ll protect you. I won’t let it come near us.”
The notion was encouraging, but then another issue came to mind. Because a shooting star was a force of nature, which meant that it had to be impossibly huge, insurmountable. And Riku, well, even though he seemed so much older and more capable at times, he was still just a kid. Just like her.
And sometimes she was starkly reminded of that, like just a minute ago.
“How are you going to do that?”
At this he paused and looked down in thought. Then he peered at the wooden swords they had left in the sand. Riku let go of her hand to lean over and reach for the handle of one.
“With this,” Riku announced, “Maybe this is what we’ve been practicing for. The real test. We pretend to be knights all the time, so what would be different about this?” He said with a reassuring smile.
“And to make sure I don’t forget this promise when we grow up, here.” He said and buried the tip of the toy sword into the sand, so he could free his hands. Riku reached around behind his neck and undid the clasp on the necklace he wore. The crown pendant sparkled with the movement. And then, once the necklace was free, he picked up the sword again in one hand and held out the necklace to Sora with the other.
“What?” Sora gasped.
“Take it,” Riku repeated.
She looked to the necklace and back to him. That necklace was his most favorite thing, she knew. It was the first implication of magic they’d ever found that showed magic wasn’t impossible (and for Riku she knew it was only suggestion that maybe his parents cared, once, as equally impossible as that seemed. That is, if they were indeed the ones to give it to him, which was the only logical reason for its appearance the two could come up with).
But then again, until an hour or so ago they would have thought that a meteor shower on this scale was impossible, too. Perhaps the time had come for impossible things to happen.
But for him to offer her something like this was an incredible gesture.
“But…Why? This means a lot to you, right?” Sora was bewildered. “And what does it have to do with forgetting the promise?”
“It’ll be a reminder. Every time you look at it, you’ll think of me. And every time I look at it, I’ll think of you. And I will remember my promise. It can connect us.”
And just like that, everything she feared right then seemed to melt away. It was hard to keep being afraid of anything with this. And with the fear gone, a surge of hope and resolution rose in her Heart.
Because Sora and Riku? United, they could handle anything. Nobody and nothing could defeat them. And that was a fact of life, like how the sky is blue, grass is green, and Sora and Riku were unbeatable when they were together. And sure, they were just kids, but that wasn’t for forever, right?
“Then I promise to protect you too.” She vowed. “And then the necklace will remind both of us.”
Sora reached out for the pendant and wrapped its chain around her neck, pulling the ends of it forward so she could see the clasp as she fastened it. Once it was done, she let go of it, and the crown bounced against her sternum, still almost awkwardly big for her. But that didn’t keep it from being the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, and it didn’t dampen the meaning of it. Sora knew she’d wear it forever.
She grinned at him, and then bent down to reach for the other sword and shook off the sand that dusted it. Sora held it aloft in one hand and gripped Riku’s hand with the other.
Riku grinned back, and there they stood, watching the meteor shower, hand in hand.
It wasn’t long after that that even the bright light of the shooting stars couldn’t keep them awake, and both kids’ eyes began to burn with tiredness. Sora figured her mother would be wondering where they were, and they mutually decided to depart. The meteor shower seemed to abate by that point, still lighting up the sky, but it had passed its crescendo, and the overwhelming brightness had dimmed into a more tolerable glow. Fewer star trails lined the atmosphere.
They both walked up to the fenced entrance, their footsteps muffled with the sand. Moths danced around the lights on the streets and the porchlights in the neighborhood beyond. And when Riku began to split up from Sora, for his house was in one direction and hers in the other, she stopped him.
“Wait,” Sora called out, and fumbled with the toy sword in her hands when he turned back towards her.
“Could you…Do you want to sleep over? ‘Cuz it’s, it’s getting kinda dark, and those shooting stars were kinda spooky.”
Riku eyed her for a moment before giving a slow, wily grin.
“Are you afraid of the dark? Is that it?”
“No! No, not at all! I’m not a scaredy cat!”
“I think you are a scaredy cat.”
“No!” Sora protested, and stomped a foot in frustration. “Ugh, nevermind! Forget I said anything,” She turned around to begin walking home, and Riku laughed and fell into step beside her.
“It’s okay,” He said, “I’ll protect you from the dark, too.”
Sora could feel her cheeks get hot from embarrassment and was thankful that he couldn’t see her face too well in that moment as they walked to her house. She mumbled a thanks, and whether Riku could or couldn’t hear it, he didn’t respond.
Later that night, they stayed up in Sora’s bed—Because she really was a scaredy cat, she admitted later as she asked him to sleep in the bed with her. She said she’d be afraid of having nightmares. And Riku went along with it, because they were both young enough to fit in the same bed with room to spare and not feel weird about it.
And in the morning, when her mother came to wake her up, Mina was not surprised to see them curled up together. She didn’t wake them, and instead decided to tiptoe back out of the room with one hand covering the smile on her face, recalculating how much batter she’d need to make extra pancakes.
K A I R I
9 Years and 6 months to the fall of Destiny Islands
The first thing she knew was the sound of waves.
Kairi moved to get up and looked around to find herself on a shoreline somewhere. Along the sand were ferns and palms that bowed under the weight of star-shaped fruit. Wherever she was, it was morning, and the temperature had already started to climb. She breathed in and inhaled the smell of salt. Another inhale, and she realized she smelled like smoke, but for the life of her Kairi couldn’t remember why.
She was exhausted, but she couldn’t remember the reason for that either. Her muscles ached, her lungs hurt, her heart was beating so hard it was shaking her whole body, and it was as if she’d run a marathon but she had just woken up.
She sat there for a while slowly being lulled into a daze from fatigue and the clamor of the ocean, until she heard approaching voices. The first she heard was a young girl, maybe close in age to her.
“…Mom, mom, come on, I saw a weird flash over here…”
A woman’s voice responded, “Sunny, I need to go to work soon, are you sure it wasn’t just the water?”
“It’s true, Ms. Shimamoto, I didn’t see what Sora did, but some girl just appeared on the beach when I turned around.” A boy, this time. Equally as young as the girl.
“Riku, dear, I’ve told you to just call me Mina,” The woman reminded him fondly. Kairi rubbed at her eyes to get the salt and sand out of them. “And if there really is a child there, I’m sure her parents must be close by—Oh!”
Past the waves Kairi could hear the sound of footsteps shuffling through the sand towards her. She blearily looked over and was blinded by the sun.
“Hey!” The girl, the one she heard before, called out to her. She was asking questions a mile a minute. “Who are you? Where did you come from? What was that flash? Where are your mom and dad?”
Mina hushed her and said, “Sora, let me handle this.”
Kairi could only blink, once, twice, trying to focus past the sun. Her head was swimming. Some distant part of her mind was distracted by the red color of the girl’s shorts, the whiteness of the sand. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mina squat down to her eye level and rest a hand on her shoulder.
“Sweetie? Do you know where your parents might be?”
Kairi took a moment longer to gain her bearings. Her vision had stopped blurring, and she was able to focus on the woman talking to her. She seemed kind, with brown hair and eyes, and casually dressed. Her Heart was like looking at late afternoon Light.
“I don’t know.”
She tilted her head in question. “Do you have an idea of where they went? They must have brought you here,”
Kairi began to nervously pull at the lip of the clogs she was wearing and focused on the feel of the rubber in her grip. “I don’t know,” She repeated, “I just remember waking up.”
Mina went quiet at that. Kairi heard the two children at her side shifting, and the wooden swords they were holding made a tapping noise as they did so. Their curiosity was so palpable she could practically feel it.
“Here. I’m going to call the police, and they’ll be happy to send someone over to help, does that sound okay?” Mina asked, and Kairi nodded and looked down. “I’m just going to get up for a minute to call them, but I’ll stay with you the whole time, sweetie. Things are going to turn out okay, I promise.”
She stood and walked a couple of feet away to make the call but didn’t go far. Kairi stared after her and pulled at her shoes again.
“Hey,” The girl said, once the woman was out of earshot. “Do you really not remember anything? At all?”
Kairi only shook her head.
“What about your name? I’m Sora.”
“Sora,” She murmured, testing out the name to remember it. “I’m Kairi.”
“Kairi! That’s perfect!” Sora cheered, “Sora, sky, Kairi, sea, Riku, land! Oops, right, this is Riku, by the way,” She finished sheepishly, gesturing at the boy who then waved.
“Hey,” He greeted with a smile, and Kairi did a double-take. He seemed normal enough if you only looked at his green eyes, but it was his hair she was startled by. It was silver.
Images flashed in her mind. (A man with silver hair and a lab coat leading her down a battered hallway, a scarred grin and the flash of a gold-colored eye, the twinkle of a promise bound in magic in the midst of Darkness as far as she could see. And through it all, the scent of lilacs.) But as quickly as she saw them, the visions were gone again.
She took a moment to glance beyond his visage into his Heart, just the same as she had done with Mina. Inside there was Light, but his was different. His was more like the tired gleam of the sun as it began to descend towards night, clouds warning on the horizon. Be careful, instinct cautioned.
Kairi hadn’t taken a moment to inspect Sora when she first spoke, so she looked to her next. The first thing she noticed were how Sora’s eyes were almost painfully blue, her unruly hair matching Mina’s in color. And then she looked beyond into Sora’s Heart…or rather, Hearts. Riku and Mina both only had one in each of them, but Sora had two. Ghost Heart, that quiet voice of instinct and chained memory in her head murmured again, eclipse. She didn’t understand what Ghost Heart was supposed to mean, but she knew eclipse implied one of the Hearts was being covered, which it wasn’t. It was like staring into a day with two suns, and Kairi almost had to squint at it. One of the suns was odd—one looked normal enough, with a slight stripe of Darkness that hadn’t worried Kairi as it seemed typical, but the other was almost overwhelmingly bright. So bright, it seemed artificial, like staring at a lightbulb.
Kairi suddenly remembered that she was staring at them, even if only for a moment or two, but it was enough to make her embarrassed.
She stammered, “It’s, um, it’s nice to meet you both,”
“Hey, don’t be shy! Your name matches us, that means we’re destined to be friends, right?” Sora joked.
“Sunny,” Mina warned, and walked back over to the three. “I hope you’re not overwhelming her over there.”
“I’m not! Her name’s Kairi, mom. That means she matches me and Riku!”
“Kairi, huh?” Mina looked over at her and her expression softened. “What a pretty name. It’s lovely to meet you, I’m Mina.” She glanced down to her phone, checking the time, before saying, “The police should be here in a minute or two, they diverted an officer that was close by. They’ll be able to help you find your parents, sweetie.”
Her parents. The more Kairi thought about it, the less she could remember. She wasn’t even sure if she’d be able to recognize her parents if they appeared, or anyone else she was related to. All she knew of herself was her name.
Wait a minute she thought to herself, thinking over the first words she heard the girl say.
“Did you say you saw a flash?” Kairi asked, looking to Sora.
Sora got even more excited, if that were possible, her eyes widening as she clutched her hands together. “I did! Oh gosh, I mostly saw it out of the corner of my eye, ‘cuz me and Riku were still getting ready for a duel, but I totally did! It was like, like a big black circle?” Sora had a quizzical expression and paused in effort to remember clearly, “I thought it was an animal or something for a second until I turned to look and saw you lying there like you had just fallen down and the thing vanished. Maybe it was a portal to another world!”
Kairi slowly took it in but couldn’t make much sense of the information. It had to have been before she woke up. She looked between the three and saw that while Sora was looking back at her with an expression of curiosity, Riku was staring off into the horizon with a contemplative look. Mina, though, was disbelieving.
“A portal? Sora, that seems a little farfetched. I’m sure she just got separated from whoever she was with before you saw.”
“Nuh-uh! She wasn’t there when we first walked over here, just ask Riku!”
“It’s true, Ms. Shim—Um, Mina.”
“See, Mom? And if she were with someone and they left her behind, which sounds kinda mean, they had to be running away really, really fast so we wouldn’t see them! And what about that black thingie I saw?”
“I’m sure that was just a trick of the light or maybe a bird or something, Sunny, though not seeing even one other person around is a little concerning—” Whatever Mina was going to say next was quieted at the sound of a police car pulling up, lights and sirens off apart from the headlights, and an officer got out. After showing her badge and identifying herself, the officer turned to Mina.
“Ma’am, which one of these kids is the one you reported?”
At this, Mina gestured to Kairi, saying sadly, “Her. It’s all as I told the lady on the phone, she doesn’t remember anything except her name and waking up.”
“Really? Nothing?” The officer’s stoic expression went concerned as she glanced down at Kairi. And then after a moment she bent over towards the girl to assure her, “I’m sure they’re somewhere close by, honey, we’re just going to go knock on some doors and see if any houses or streets look familiar in a minute.”
At Kairi’s nod, the officer then bid farewell to the group and she and Kairi began to walk towards the car.
Behind them, Sora shouted “If you live close, you’ll be going to the same school as us in the fall! Find me in class!”
Kairi didn’t hear what Riku said in response, but judging by the tone it was something sarcastic, and Sora’s indignant shout and her mother’s laughter were the last things she heard before closing the door.
‘Maybe it was a portal to another world!’
She smelled smoke again, and other memories seeped into her mind once more: The thunder of supernatural footsteps she couldn’t recognize. The swirl of colors on the surface of a gateway. Fear cresting into panic.
That portal going to another world the girl had speculated, what was her name…Sora? Maybe she could have been right. Where Kairi was before, assuming she really was from another world, she couldn’t have been safe. More than likely, she had been left here for her own safety.
Yet wherever Kairi was now, she may have been safe, but she was alone.
K A I R I
8 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands
(It took time, but just as Aqua’s charm led her to the Mayor and his wife being her foster parents, so too did it lead her back to those two children she met on her very first morning on Destiny’s Islands.)
Little did she know, the Mayor’s home resided only a couple of blocks away from Sora and Riku’s, and so on the first day of class for her (though really, it was closer to the middle of the school year than the beginning of it, as being in the foster system and going from house to house didn’t make for very consistent attendance in school, considering she was changing school districts so often), Kairi had the good luck of spotting a familiar tousled head of brown hair, the scenario complete with an unoccupied seat beside Sora.
(And Kairi would never know this either, but the charm’s effects went even deeper than simply placing her on Destiny’s Islands during an hour of need, or even making sure to place her with the more optimal foster families on the list. That charm would make sure she ended up as close as possible to Sora and Riku as much as possible, and by extension, the keyblade, the bearer of which would be tasked with protecting Kairi’s Heart when the time came. And the charm knew the time would come, as part of its construction gave it the ability to tell when forces were aligning that would make for trouble, for the charm’s caster, Aqua, was trying to quell those forces at this very moment.)
(The time would come when even Aqua fell to the Darkness she fought, and then the charm would fail, but today was not that day.)
The two immediately recognized each other and became fast friends. Kairi hadn’t been able to bond much with any of the other foster kids she came across while in the program, whether by lack of common ground or through lack of time before one or the other would be moved elsewhere. If it weren’t for the Mayor and his wife, who she so far had liked a lot, Kairi would have felt just as alone now as she did on that first morning.
But Sora, she quickly realized, was a social butterfly. Like some sort of real life Pollyanna who could be amiable with anyone except the most steadfast curmudgeons. And somewhere along the way, in quickly hushed classroom conversations and playground fun, they became best friends. And through Sora, Kairi came to know Riku, then Selphie, and Wakka and Tidus, and everyone else that was on the crew that was often over at the play island on weekends.
Kairi was a little daunted by how close they all already were with one another, as apparently most them already were friends from being in the same daycare Sora’s mom ran, but they welcomed her readily.
And over time, Kairi and Sora and Riku became a little trio of their own. Best friends, closer than siblings. The months passed by in a blur of sleepovers, hangouts, minutes stolen away at school when they were all three able to be together. It passed by in a blur of prank wars and video games (where Kairi found she preferred to watch rather than play them), daredevil stunts, spars, days where they did everything and days where they did nothing at all. And it passed by in late-night talks with the windows open, feeling the breeze and quickly hushed listening for the footsteps of parents to come and tell them to go to bed.
It’s in these talks that she shared what little she remembered of her past, which still seems so incomplete, but they marveled at it regardless. She would tell about all of the flowers she’s remembered seeing in momentary flashes, how she hates the scent of lilacs now because they make her want to cry.
And Riku and Sora shared so much of themselves in return. About Riku’s broken home, Sora’s father dying in an accident Sora can hardly remember. And the little things, like how Sora’s favorite color was red and Riku’s was yellow, and how Sora was weirded out by how Riku could just bite into ice cream without his teeth hurting—and Kairi, they found, could do it too, and they turned to Sora with equally ice-cream laden grins as she called them crazy.
This is how Kairi had finally found the home she had been looking for. In the cozy corner of an island, with two parents that loved her just as she loved them back. In the companionship of two friends that she could share anything with, whose company and trust would come to help her remember bits and pieces of a story she loved, a story about a Light within the Darkness, a Light that never goes out.
The times were peaceful now. She was safe. And she was finally home.
R I K U
6 Years until the fall of Destiny Islands
One morning later on, all the kids were at the play island. Tidus and Selphie were fiddling with her new jump-rope, sometimes using it for its intended purpose and the rest of the time seeing how it fared as a ranged weapon. Kairi was showing Wakka different net knots she’d made and how to tie them—Riku remembered he mentioned something about trying to make a net to recover some stray blitzballs he’d lost in the cove—and Riku and Sora were trying to spar.
Key word being ‘trying’. The events from the night before were still fresh in his mind, and while it wasn’t bad enough to distract him entirely, it was enough to throw him off his game. Waking up with an unsteady feeling that morning, like he’d woken up in an alternate universe, was enough to make Riku slip up once, twice, and Sora finally called it when she’d landed a third strike. She took a moment to scrutinize him.
“Bad day?” Sora asked the old question, recognizing his downcast mien.
“Do you wanna talk about it?”
He took a moment to think about it. “Not yet.”
They stood side by side and watched the seagulls fly over the ocean, and neither of them said anything for a long while.
“My dad…” Riku started, and saw Sora turn her head to his in the corner of his sight. “…he left last night. My mom told me this morning. They had a really big fight again last night, and I was stupid and said something and it just made everything worse—”
“You were not stupid for saying anything, Riku,” Sora insisted, and he looked to see she had a stubborn expression. “And none of it was your fault. Just saying things never makes it okay for him to hurt you like he does.”
“He didn’t hurt me, this time.” He responded and saw her turn relieved. “I got away. But I heard them keep yelling at each other and eventually I heard the front door slam and his car driving away. And this morning my mom just said he decided he won’t be with us anymore, so I guess he’s gone for good.” Riku shrugged.
“That’s good!” And then Sora hesitated. “That…that is a good thing, right?”
“I don’t know,” Riku answered honestly. The event itself would be considered a good thing by any assessment, but he didn’t feel happy about it, and yet he didn’t feel mad or sad about it either. At the moment, he wasn’t sure what he felt at all.
Riku didn’t know what the future held now, but he knew there was no more injury to be found in it, and that in itself was a good thing.
It took him a moment to realize that a small part of what he was feeling was hope.
“Well, either way, you still have your key, right? The one mom gave you?” Sora asked.
In response, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his keyring and held up the spare key to Sora’s house he had been given a couple of years before with a small smile.
She smiled too. “Good. Whatever happens, you will always a place with us.”
They both went quiet again, the conversation ended, but this time the silence between them was a little more comfortable. Neither the boy nor the girl did anything else but watch the waves and the seagulls gliding lazily above and listen to the din of the other kids sparring, playing, and making memories.
For the moment, the islands felt a little less small. And the oceans felt a little less like the walls to a cage.
Yesterday may have been a bad day, Riku thought to himself. But maybe today was going to be okay.
ILLUSTRATION(S) - Genderswap redesign of Sora in primary outfits
(because AO3's formatting is a little wonky and makes the opening chapter's notes show up on all chapters, I think the only solution is to just throw it into the chapter text. I'm so sorry! If anyone knows a more effective solution, please let me know!)
YOU GUYS DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE FINALLY UPLOADING THIS DAMN THING.
Okay, backstory, I have been working on this fanfic for m o n t h s. And I've been wanting a fic that was basically a fem!Sora novelization of the games for longer than that...like, years. I'm not kidding. You don't know desperation until you're staring down a blank word document, you guys.
Except I wanted a novelization of the games that would be like how the games should totally be (not necessarily with rule 63 Sora, that's just me going pure self-indulgence because I am hopelessly addicted to rule 63 in general) where KAIRI ACTUALLY GOT SOME DANG CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, and WE GET TO SEE EXACTLY WHAT WENT DOWN WITH THE FALL OF RADIANT GARDEN FOR PETE'S SAKE (it's absurd: Eight games, a mobile game, a movie, and we still don't know precisely what happened. That's a giant plot point to leave out, and meanwhile they think it's important to explain why Mickey didn't have a shirt on in the first game compared to 2.8.) and Riku having better reasons to be a turd in the first game beyond what they gave us. He gets better, true, and has a good ol' atonement arc over the games, but they never really discussed why he jump-started the islands' apocalypse in the first place. Oh, and I wanted to fix some of the ridiculously robotic dialogue of the english translation too.
So I guess this is my attempt to answer my own questions! Or, fill in the blanks with my own ideas until canon might or might not retroactively fill in the blanks, which it has an awful habit of doing, in which case I will update this work as needed.
Also I would like to give a gigantic shoutout to Briry18, whose work If I was Yours was the very first Genderswap!Sora fic I have ever found (I literally screamed a little bit when I discovered it), and RayShippouUchiha's Limitations of Wax series (An Avengers genderswap novelization series that inspired me to go whole hog on finally creating the things that I was desperate to see in the world) (and the series is breathtaking and amazingly detailed in scale--you guys really should check it out at the very least!!).
Somewhere along the way I forgot that the real point of participating in fandom is to make yourself happy, and judging by the current state of affairs of an alarming number of fandoms I think lots of other people forgot that too. So, this is me making myself happy. And if there's anyone else out there like me, who wants a fic series like this, I hope I'm making you happy too, even just a tiny bit.