Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts belongs to Square Enix and Disney, not me. I'm making no money from this, and no infringement of copyright is intended. I am just a fan, and this is a work of fandom, intended as an appreciation of the original work.
A/N: This is the little fic that could. I started it back in March, when I was still new to Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy in general. I intended it to run to about ten pages, maybe twelve at a push. It ended up … somewhat more than that. In its first draft form it comes in at 506,806 words. That's 865 pages. It's the longest thing I've ever written single-handedly. So, yes, this one's going to be epic. You might want to bring a sandwich.
This will include elements of several Final Fantasy games and Disney fandoms, though they'll be twisted to fit the Kingdom Hearts universe. I still promise to include footnotes when they pop up, as well as appropriate links where necessary so nobody gets left behind just because they haven't played or watched one of them.
Feedback: Because this has pretty much eaten my life since March, and because it is a personal achievement for me (I rarely write multi-chaptered words, let alone finish them) reviews are not only appreciated, they're begged for. I could get all pretentious and say I only write for myself, and that fanfic in itself is reward enough, which is kind of true but … I'm shallow, so I still like hearing what people think.
The only thing I can think to finish with is the hope that you enjoy reading this as much I've enjoyed writing it. I've had an absolute blast with this thing in a way I haven't with fanfiction in a long time. Also, if anything seems 'wrong' or like it doesn't fit with canon, just give it a chance to make sense and it will. It didn't become this long without getting a bit twisty-turny.
The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun
© Scribbler, March/August 2008.
The woman inside the cell is heavily pregnant under the filth. She looks obscene, a swollen belly on a frame so spindly her legs would probably snap like twigs if she tries to stand. Cuts and track marks cover whatever skin is visible – quite as lot, as her dress is little more than rags with a high opinion of themselves.
"Oh, gods …"
At the sound of the voice she looks up. There's a horrified face at the window cut high in the door. She doesn't react. There have been lots of faces there, peering in at her progress – or lack of it. They seem obsessed with her reactions to the darkness, and come to poke and prod her at every opportunity. So far each time they've taken her out to test her she's beaten it back, but now it feels like the heart that stirs their interest is about to explode. Not because of any experiment, oh no, but because of the tremors rippling across her abdomen.
She wheezes as another one hits. "Aaaa-haaaaaaaa!" Her groan is entirely involuntary, and she doesn't even realise she's clutching her dress until her fingers cramp. It hurts so much. She knew there would be pain, but she never realised it would hurt this much…
The face at the door disappears. There's the sound of scuffling and then a hissed, "Damn it!" Strangely, there aren't any footsteps running away, but there are some approaching and the familiar rattle of a key in the lock. Two figures enter, nether of them the face from the door.
"Labour?" The first man looks familiar through the haze of pain and nausea. She thinks she remembers him with a clipboard. "So soon? Do you think the last exposure triggered it?"
"Maybe she'll give birth to a Heartless," says his white-coated partner, though his tone suggests sarcasm. "I always said using a pregnant woman was a bad idea."
"We just followed orders. You know how rare the Ancient bloodline is. There's no way Xehanort was going to be deterred from testing plus-human samples as well as baseline."
"I still say we should've waited. Now we'll lose both her and the infant and have nothing to further our data -"
"We haven't lost anything yet. Here, take this."
"Where are you going? Braig, what are you planning to do?"
"To induce a delivery, of course. The faster we get it out, the faster we can use the recovery drugs."
"But we only use those after experiments. How do we know they won't have an adverse reaction without post-darkness residue in her system to buffer her regular immunities? If the drugs are too strong they'll destroy her internal organs faster than if we made her drink sulphuric acid."
"We don't know it'll work, but without time to make a proper plan this is the most logical option. Using any of the usual recovery drugs while she's in this state would be too dangerous; if she dies first we really will lose them both, and we can't be sure of the dosage for an infant. The only other option is surgery. Have you ever performed a caesarean before?"
"Neither have I, and call me crazy, but I don't mean to start now."
The woman claws ineffectually at the remaining man's arm, but her struggles are useless. She's too caught up in the pain to fight back. Another contraction hits, making her groan again and concentrate on simply not passing out with them in the room. You have to stay conscious with these people. Close your eyes for even a moment and they'll have you out of bed and strapped to a table with a syringe and a set of electrodes at the ready.
Oh gods, it hurts!
Rinoa pelts through the corridors, taking each corner so fast she only just clears them. She's working on pure instinct, her scattered brain still processing what she's seen and heard. Her mind feels like when you're falling asleep and having thoughts you know you should remember, but can't grasp quickly enough before they float away.
One thing thrums through her, becoming her focus as she winds her way up from the sealed passages beneath the castle to the extravagant hallways above: Find Squall. He'll know what to do.
She's hop-skipping up the spiral staircase when the first shockwave vibrates the walls. That brings her up short, and for the first time her resolve wavers. As one of the Royal Guards it's up to her to investigate something like that, but she can't let go of her information. Torn, she nonetheless starts off again. This can't wait. There are other Guards. They'll investigate whatever's going on elsewhere.
Another, more powerful shockwave strikes when she's in the upper levels. It crawls along the walls, making them tremble like the whole building is shivering with cold.
Well, at least they're useful for one thing; now she doesn't have to figure out where to look for Squall. She knows he'd head straight for the computer room in an emergency. He's always been supremely loyal to Lord Ansem and would think of protecting him first, and Lord Ansem will be in his precious computer room at this time.
As Captain, Squall has trained the Royal Guards up to his own exacting standards and trusts them to organise themselves in an emergency. You don't get to be a Guard without his say-so and there's a reason he was made Captain last year even though he was only eighteen at the time. The Royal Guards aren't a machine like the regular guards, they're a collection of individuals who work together, and Squall's brilliance is that he knows this and uses it. Everybody has his or her own role, and his has always been to safeguard Lord Ansem.
Rinoa feels a little guilty that she's not already at her own post, but what she knows is too big to be postponed. She recalls the bloodstained metal table, the rows of scalpels and other ugly implements, the neatly filed cabinets of notes detailing horrors committed in the name of research. Yet most of all she recalls the people – faces made blank with repetitive pain, all their eyes flat and dull and lacking, and that horrible motionless silence in every cell except one. The pregnant woman was the only spark of life in the place and even she was in agony. Rinoa feels dirty from just being down there. Those were Ansem the Wise's subjects, and his own apprentices have turned them into slabs of meat to be prodded, cut up and fed to those hateful things they've been keeping like unexploded bombs under their lord's feet.
The third tremor causes a marble bust to fall off its pedestal and nearly hit her. Rinoa twitches one wing, sliding the bust down her strong white feathers so it reaches the floor without damage.
She pauses to take stock. The further she goes, the more powerful each wave seems. This isn't earthquake country, and even if it was, the epicentre would have to be below-ground. The air tastes of burnt ozone and everything in her unique blood twitches at the flavour of raw magic.
Oh no – Squall!
She's through the doors before she has time to think, Blaster Edge at the ready. What she finds doesn't make her slip – too many early-morning training sessions in the rain to break her iron grip unless she wants it broken – but it does make her eyes widen.
Merlin, the resident wizard, is propped in Squall's arms like he's just flown backwards into them. A blackened blast radius on the floor supports this impression. Opposite them are three figures Rinoa recognises, each wearing a distinctive white labcoat. Before now they've always been on the periphery of her radar, but now when she sees them every molecule of her body burns with rage and grief, plus a hate so strong she's shocked at herself.
"Heartilly?" Squall's looking at her. He never uses her first name in the field, no matter how long they've known each other.
"Squall!" she cries, forgetting protocol in her urgency. "They've been breeding monsters under the castle. Xehanort and his cronies, they've been kidnapping townspeople to use as guinea-pigs, cutting them open and … and they've bred hundreds of the things! They're all stored downstairs in special pens and they -"
"We're already quite aware of what Xehanort has been doing, my dear." Merlin rights his hat and stands up. He's not even wobbly. For an old guy he's pretty resilient. He could probably give Barret a run for his money.
Except Barret went missing weeks ago, and Rinoa has a sick feeling that at least one pair of yellow eyes downstairs is because of him. He never fully trusted Xehanort and wasn't choosy about who knew it, or that he wanted enough dirt on the guy to make Ansem 'stop thinkin' the goddamn sun shines outta that guy's goddamn ass'.
Squall's gunblade is drawn. His arms are stiff and his jaw grimmer than grim. "Heartilly, get to your post," he grits, which is when she notices the blood dripping off his elbow and the stain spreading across the front of his shirt.
She sets her feet. "Sir, with all due respect, I think you need me here."
"Merlin and I are handling it."
"Of course you are." Xehanort stands with an apprentice either side, flanking him like guards. Just like Squall and Barret usually flank …
Rinoa's eyes dart from left to right. "Where's Lord Ansem?"
Squall's grip tightens fractionally.
"Gone," Xehanort answers. "The blind fool finally opened his eyes."
"You're going to bring him back from wherever you sent him." Squall uses his Captain Leonhart Voice. Not even Rinoa will push him too far when he uses that, and she pushes him further than anyone ever thought he could be pushed. Rinoa's the one who discovered Squall has the ability to bend without breaking, but not when he's using his Captain Leonhart Voice. She knows better than anyone that Captain Leonhart isn't Squall.
"You're in no position to give me orders, Captain. If I'm not mistaken, I'm holding all the aces here." Xehanort gestures to his companions, who each drop into ready stances Rinoa would not have expected from scientists. "Ansem is gone. Don't be a fool and die for him now." His voice doesn't rise or fall. He's a handsome man, but there's no warmth to it, just facial expression that change in increments.
"Nobody is going to die now," Merlin says with conviction. He raises his hands and mutters something in a language Rinoa doesn't understand. Instantly, a swirl of sparkling magic appears in front of him like a small cyclone. He directs it at the three men but one of them turns it aside with an equally incomprehensible string of words. "Hmm, it would appear somebody has been reading my books. It's very rude to peruse somebody else's things without their permission, Dilan."
The dark-haired apprentice smiles triumphantly. "You didn't exactly keep them under lock and key, old man."
"Silly me, I thought I lived in a land of trust and peace. That's what Ansem the Wise champions, isn't it? Or has he changed so much that he's started putting his name to research papers that contribute nothing to anyone except fear and monsters? Why don't you enlighten us on the matter, Xehanort?"
Xehanort keeps his arms folded, like he couldn't give a fig what's going on. His eyes aren't cold, but neither are they warm. They're full of indifference with a faint congratulatory edge, like the gummy seal on a letter being mailed too late. "Lord Ansem is dead. Long live Ansem."
"It's time for a new order, old man," Dilan boasts.
"An order of scientific discovery and innovation, not weak-willed cowering from knowledge that doesn't fit into social norms and niceties," adds the other apprentice.
Merlin sighs. "I might have known you'd see it that way, Even."
"You're part of a bygone era, old man," Even sneers. "This is the dawning of an age of real science, not Ansem's unexciting attempts, and certainly not your magic."
"Casting aspersions on my age is hardly the way to win my favour." To the inexperienced ear Merlin sounds nonchalant, but Rinoa's spent enough time around him to recognise his straightened spine and bristling moustache, as though his whole face is full of static electricity and each hair trying to escape his tamped-down anger. When he's offended Merlin rants and raves, but when truly angry his actions become far more decisive.
Merlin is furious, and a furious wizard is a dangerous wizard.
"Neither is casting my friend out of his own castle when he finally catches up to your scheming. What possible reason could you have had to betray him, Xehanort? He defended you when I suspected your motives. He found you when you were dying and nursed you back to health without any thought of repayment. He made you a part of his inner circle even though you couldn't remember who you were and others suspected your trustworthiness. He treated you like his own son."
"Yes, he did do all that," Xehanort admits, inflection competing with a spirit gauge for flatness.
"And this is how you repay him?" Squall demands. "By keeping secrets, going against his express wishes and then turning on him when he uncovers your sick experiments?"
"Did you hate him that much, I wonder?" Merlin's tone is deceptively soft. "Or did you simply resent the boundaries he set in place around you? Given your years and life experience, I thought you were beyond such hormonal acts of teenage rebellion. Ansem always said you were brilliant – sometimes he wondered if your brilliance would outshine his own someday, but not once did he resent you for it. Rather, he wanted you to succeed. He wanted your star to shine brighter than his own. Ansem would've shared the world with you if you'd asked."
"I did ask," Xehanort replies coolly. "Over and over, but the fool wouldn't listen to reason."
"What you asked for was permission to torture innocent people."
"No more than Ansem himself did to me."
"You volunteered for those experiments."
"So I did." Xehanort shrugs. The movement of his shoulders under his labcoat is like silk sliding over a razorblade.
He's made no move so far, leaving Even and Dilan to defend him. It strikes Rinoa that this indicates either supreme stupidity, as there are bound to be guards – both regular and Royal – on their way up here at any moment, or supreme self-confidence.
Xehanort is not a stupid man. Not even close.
She holds Blaster Edge ready. "Orders, Captain?"
Squall doesn't have time to answer.
"I must point out, Merlin, that not all those who participated in our research were innocent," Xehanort says. "Or did you think the reduced number of prisoners and traitors in the dungeons was a happy accident?"
"Nobody has the right to decide who's worthy of living. That's not your decision to make. Thinking you're so much better than everyone else, that it gives you the right to play god with their lives, it's just … it's just selfish arrogance!" The words are out before Rinoa can stop them. She's always had trouble keeping a lid on how she feels about things. Squall's pulled her up about it before, though Lord Ansem is always lenient when he overhears her.
This time, however, it really would've been a good idea to keep quiet.
Xehanort looks at her, and there's nothing in his gaze except a sort of mocking pity. "Everyone can be judged because everyone has darkness somewhere in their hearts. You're judging me right now, or did you draw your weapon to polish it? At this very moment you hate me and if I were to make the wrong move you would cut me down. Even you have darkness inside your heart, Private Heartilly. There are no exceptions. Lieutenant Wallace, for example, had a streak of darkness that even I didn't expect of him, but unexpectedness did nothing to reduce it once it was exposed."
Rinoa has a sudden flash of Barret: big strong Barret, who once took out an entire herd of griffins by himself and beat them even though it half killed him. Barret, who makes Stinkin' Hot Chilli when it's his turn to cook, and curses up a storm even in polite company. Tough-as-dragon-scales, wouldn't-be-seen-dead-sniffin'-no-goddamn-posy Barret, who can also cradle an exhausted friend like a baby and carry her home, and whom she's seen playing with one of her adopted animals when he thought nobody was looking, stroking kittens like he can't crush a man's skull with his bare hands. She imagines the calloused angles of his face, his broad shoulders and scratchy beard, which she always pets and tells him he should shave. She remembers the way he always pulls away, muttering, "Fuck it, Rinoa, I ain't no fuckin' pansy-ass pretty-boy like your Captain!" and how he can make her blush and she can do the same to him by not telling him Squall's right behind him.
In the same instant she thinks of the Heartless she saw when she finally got that locked door open. She thinks of them in their tank, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to reach her. Their scrabbling was like moths inside a lampshade, intent only on reaching her horrified heart and ripping it from her chest.
"I don't trust that mo-fo, and I'm'a prove it one of these days. He's up to sumthin'. All's I need is some goddamn evidence."
"Barret, don't do anything stupid."
"Who's stupid? You callin' me stupid, girl? I ain't stupid, on account of no stupid idiot woulda been able to figure out where that sonofabitch is keepin' special doors locked."
She hears Squall's shout as if from far away. Her feet are off the floor and her wings are beating the air. One of them catches the wall – it's too restricted in here for a proper aerial attack. Instinctively the hand not burdened with Blaster Edge sharpens into claws for close combat, I case she has to retract her wings and lose what protection they afford her.
Someone's screaming and it's only when she's almost reached Xehanort that she realises it's her. Dilan's muttered magic blows past her. She spins to avoid it and comes in upside down, so when Xehanort raises a hand she's more focussed on the shape of his knuckles than the crackling blue energy in his palm.
The world fragments into a series of images and disconnected sensations. It's all she's able to remember afterwards: The crack of a gunblade. Merlin pointing. The sudden knowledge she can't stop. Someone crashing into her from the side. A blast of heat. Squall beside her on the floor, his face a mask of blood. Xehanort and Merlin's different magics clashing like two tidal waves flowing in opposite directions. Dilan and Even bearing down on her. Merlin's beard puffing out like an angry cat. Xehanort's sudden frown as he has to use both hands to hold back the old man's spell. Ienzo in the doorway, pointing at Merlin's back and reading aloud from one of Merlin's stolen books. Xehanort's angry shout for him to stop, to not use the Lexicon of Forbidden Spells.
Rinoa instinctively throws herself over Squall, covering them both with her wings as the whole room explodes with the colour of three irreconcilable magics being forced to mix together.
There's a sensation of power, like the biggest spring in the universe being pressed flat. It cuts through the noise of battle, dragging a cloak of silence behind it. The sound starts like a hiss, as though the whole world is taking a deep breath. It turns into … not noise, but something more like an invisible hammer that smacks into both ears at once. The flattened spring releases, and the tiny room where Ansem the Wise always retreated for peace and quiet erupts with so much magical energy that not even his entire castle can contain it.
It flows down the corridors, it bursts through doors, it pours out of windows and surges down steps. It blasts like dragon-fire from arrow-slits and chimneys, arcing from person to person and sweeping them all up like a riptide. It detonates outwards over the whole of Radiant Garden, tearing holes in the protective wall around it, shutting off the fountains of gentle light that fall like snow. When it can go no further it billows like a fresh sheet floating down over a bed and descends on the city.
Inside Ansem's study, at the core of the eruption, figures flicker and vanish as though incinerated. Merlin throws out a desperate enchantment to shield himself and the two bodies on the floor, but all it does is crystallise around them and they vanish as one.
"No!" Xehanort shouts, fighting the pull. Reality is ragged around him and he can already taste the realm of nothingness dragging him in. "I won't let this be the end! I won't be banished alone again!"
Something that resembles a silver cord flies out of him. Even's outline is already dissolving, but the cord shoots through him, connecting him to Xehanort and then to Ienzo and Dilan. It lances through the floor so fast that Braig and Aeleus, many stories below, are still registering the latest dramatic earthquake when it runs them through. As soon as all six apprentices are linked the cord reconnects with Xehanort and tightens, binding them together as firmly as their secrets bound them together against their teacher.
"I'll come back!" Xehanort screams, body fading and mind following. "I'm not finished here yet! There's still too much to d-argh!"
Something dark, like a solid version of his own shadow, peels away from him and rockets out of the window. Xehanort arches, clutching his chest.
Then he vanishes, and so does all knowledge of him.
She can hear a baby crying.
No, she can hear her baby crying.
She forces her eyes open. She's exhausted, but the sudden cessation of voices draws her back to herself.
The two men are nowhere to be seen. In a container on the floor is a howling, sticky baby wrapped in a towel. Only half its face has been wiped free of blood and birth fluid, and the towel hangs open as though dropped quite suddenly.
She sits up. Something inside her slides horribly, but she reaches to pick up her baby anyway. Her arm hurts where they injected the recovery drugs, but that's nothing compared to the welling queasiness in her gut. Her midriff feels like a pair of bellows that haven't been allowed to inflate for nine months. Her head aches and her joints are on fire, so it's a moment before she realises the impossible has happened.
The door is open.
She vaguely remembers one of the men standing in it before she shut her eyes against the pain and they disappeared. It has to be a ruse. If she tries to escape they'll catch her and strap her down again, like they did in Ragdim, the city where they first found her healing people for a living, before bringing her here.
The baby whimpers and coughs. She gently wipes the last of its tiny puckered face clean, shushing it with a voice made rusty from screaming. Its skin is blotchy, and when it screws up its mouth and nose she notices how delicate its features are. A tiny portion of its head pulses where the skull plates don't yet meet. She imagines the white-coated men with their rough, determined hands picking up her baby and poking it in that vulnerable spot, or forcing living shadows up its nose.
Body on fire, she carefully raises herself to her feet. Afterbirth slithers down her legs, but they cut the umbilical cord, at least. Her joints throb and she wants to throw up, but she picks her way out of the cell and into the corridor beyond, then pauses, not knowing which way to go.
…This way… says a voiceless voice she's used to hearing only in her dreams.
It's then that she understands. The recovery drugs are designed to cleanse a system of residual darkness, leaving it ready for fresh experimentation. The dose now spreading through her system has no darkness to attack and consume, so it's consuming her instead. With every second that passes more poison spreads through her internal organs. She has to get out – now. She can't die here and leave her child where those madmen can find it.
… This way … says the voice again. It reminds her of her mother, except she hasn't seen her mother since she was sixteen and happy, before the older woman died of cholera while tending the poor in a city slum. Unable to heal herself the way she healed others, her mother died and left her to make her own way in the world. … This way …
She follows it, trusting it implicitly. It leads her up, out of the dark passageways. It takes her through doors that it also tells her how to unlock. As she walks it gets louder in her mind, overlaying one voice with another, and another, until her skull feels full to bursting. She hears people who died long ago, people she knew and people who died before she was even born – grandparents, uncles, cousins, ancient ancestors and her own husband, who met his end under the wheels of a cart in Ragdim only days before she was captured. Their increased clarity signals the deterioration of her body – she's getting closer to the speakers, closer to death. She hurries, panting from fatigue and starvation but determined to get out of this place.
When she reaches the last door she pauses. Where is everyone? Surely someone should have tried to stop her by now.
She soon gets her answer. The denizens of the castle are outside, dressed in ordinary clothes and living ordinary lives as though they've never set foot inside it before. They've been taken from their posts and replaced into the outside world by the gently falling magic dust in the night sky. She knows this as surely as she knows her own name, though there's nobody in sight. The dead whisper it into her mind as she stands alone in the remaining shell of a building.
Why wasn't she affected too? Why wasn't she taken from her cell and put into a nice house, with nice clothes and unmarked skin?
… Because you're an Ancient. Because we're different. Because magic can only affect us up to a point. Because we're a part of the mortal world and a part of the next as well …
"It's not fair," she whispers. She'd cry, but her eyeballs have dried out and her tongue is starting to swell.
… No … No disagreement, just fact. It's easy to be practical when you're dead.
The bundle in her arms mewls.
Her resolve tightens. She can't give in; not yet.
The struggle of getting the door open is almost too much for her. It slams shut on her heels, eager to lock her out and seal itself up. The castle has been scoured of life and she's the last to go. The night air is cold and crisp. She shivers, wrapping her baby up against the chill and creeping barefoot where the voices tell her to go. She has to support herself against walls, and she stumbles more than once, but she won't let herself give up until she's done what needs doing. Her baby will know freedom even if she has to die to make sure of it. The magic of her people isn't linear, she knows, though she never learned how to use hers properly because her mother died before she could teach her. She trusts the voices to know what's best for the future.
As the last speck of sorcery falls, Radiant Garden breathes its last and Hollow Bastion opens its eyes to mewl like the orphaned newborn left alone in the cold night.
Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs
Rinoa pelts through the corridors, taking each corner so fast she only just clears them.
-- Rinoa Heartilly, Squall/Leon's girlfriend from FF8 (finalfantasy . wikia . com / wiki / Rinoa (underscore) Heartilly).
Barret, who makes Stinkin' Hot Chilli when it's his turn to cook, and curses up a storm even in polite company.
-- Barret Wallace, a member of the freedom fighter group AVALANCHE in FF7 (finalfantasy . wikia . com / wiki / Barret (underscore) Wallace)