Epilogue: Ever After
Storybook endings, fairytales coming true;
Deep down inside we want to believe they still do.
In our secretest heart, it's our favourite part of the story,
Let's just admit we all want to make it to
Ever ever after.
- from Ever Ever After by Carrie Underwood.
"The thing I don't understand is why. Why here? Is there an emergency we're supposed to deal with? It'd be a pretty weird emergency with three days' notice for us to get here."
"Don't ask me." Sora holds up his hands. "I know as much as you do."
Kairi walks beside him, eyes darting everywhere. Traverse Town is such a strange place, like a patchwork quilt made from the bits at the bottom of a sewing bag. Of all the worlds she has visited since getting her keyblade, this is one of the weirdest. Not on the same level as Halloween Town maybe, but definitely a seven on the weirdness scale.
"Is the rest of this world like this too?"
"Sort of … pieced together."
"I don't follow you."
Kairi sighs. Sora has the biggest heart of anyone she has ever met. It's great when you need extra courage, or the ability to forgive people who have royally screwed you over. However, it also means he is so accommodating he genuinely doesn't register abnormalities anymore. His travels have altered his frame of reference so a world made of leftover parts and people is as valid and normal as … well, as normal as their lives ever get anymore, actually. The improbability bar has definitely been raised in the past few years, and their disbelief has been suspended so high they can't even see it anymore.
On her other side Riku walks like a solider protecting his princess. She thrusts out a foot. He trips, even though his reflexes are too good for him to fall over.
"What did you do that for?" he demands.
"You're being too serious."
He scowls, but his expression abates when he realises she is giggling. One corner of his mouth twitches. "Did you have to kick so hard? You nearly broke my shin."
"Oh, don't be such a baby."
Riku has been most affected by all they have been through. He carries his guilt inside him like a lead weight, and it is up to Kairi and Sora to drag him out of himself. She has been finding ways to make him lighten up ever since they got home to Destiny Islands. Sometimes just being there is enough; she and Sora by his side are enough to subdue any self-loathing. Sometimes a gentle word does the trick. Sometimes what is needed is a bit of roughhousing.
This serves the double purpose of showing him she is not made of glass, even if she is a princess. He respects Sora's strength. Kairi, on the other hand, needs him to know he doesn't have to act like whatever he touches will shatter from the force of the darkness within him. He seems to think that because she needed rescuing more than anybody, she is not as strong as himself or Sora. Sora thinks so too, though not as consciously as Riku, and not as obviously either. Neither of them gets the difference between power and strength.
Riku sees both his friends as things to protect, but Kairi has had enough of being protected. She is ready and willing to protect her boys for once – even if it is from themselves.
Riku looks up. His face tightens. "Is that a Heartless?" He points at a dark shape flying across the moon.
Instead of drawing his keyblade, Sora grins. "That's not a Heartless, that's a gargoyle! Wow, cool. I didn't meet any last time I was here. They were too busy fighting the Heartless, and I was kind of preoccupied. I've never seen one fight, but I hear they're awesome in battle. They're one of the main reasons there aren't any more in Traverse Town. Heartless, I mean. Did you know an entire district here used to be off-limits because it was so full of Heartless? The resistance fought off Heartless attacks for years before I got my keyblade."
No wonder this place feels so ragtag; it is still recovering from what the darkness reduced it to. Kairi instantly regrets thinking mean things about it. The Destiny Islands were consumed by darkness, but then brought back, whole and unchanged. Traverse Town, on the other hand, kept its head above water by adapting and repairing when it was damaged. Now it bears the scars of its survival.
Sora goes on, "The gargoyles are the reason Leon and the others felt they could go and fight to save Radiant Garden once Maleficent was driven out. If they hadn't been here, imagine how the castle could've turned out."
"Maleficent could have tried to retake her stronghold," Riku says grimly. "It definitely would have made her an even greater threat, and a bigger thorn in our sides while we were dealing with Organisation Thirteen."
Sora always speaks so highly of Leon and the Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee. Until he told her, Kairi didn't realise they used to live here. She was surprised that they'd abandoned one world for another, until Sora explained that Traverse Town wasn't left defenceless.
"Leon's not like that. He wouldn't leave people undefended so he could go home. He's a real responsible guy."
Which begs the question of why he and Sora gelled so well. From Sora's stories, Leon strikes Kairi as a humourless, strait-laced man, wedded to rules and intolerant of anyone who breaks them. He is ex-military or something, and sounds like he never really gave up the attitude. Sora is exactly the kind of person the military would reject without a second glance. He feels things too deeply, and couldn't keep a lid on his emotions if it was weighted down like the top on a pan of broiling crabs.
Then again, Sora may not be responsible enough to get his homework done on time, or to pick out his own clothes without looking like a circus reject, but he is responsible enough to have saved the multiverse. That would be enough to earn even the most hardened warrior's respect. Plus Sora is … well, Sora. It is more unusual when he doesn't befriend people.
"Leon's pretty unfriendly until you get to know him," Sora said back on their beach, perched on their favourite leaning palm tree and describing the places he's been and the people he's met. All Kairi or Riku have to do is ask and he's eager to tell them anything, offering to take them to see these wonderful things now they are united by their keyblades as well as their friendship. "But he's better than when I first met him. Yuffie and the others are softening him up. He can actually take a joke now. You'd like Yuffie, she's a scream. She wrote that book I told you about."
"The one with the evil space alien and the giant meteor called Meteor that almost hits a planet called Planet?" Riku deadpans.
"Yeah. It's a bestseller. I've got a signed copy in my bedroom. I'll lend it to you, since I already read it."
"You read a book? A whole one? Does it have big pictures and cardboard pages?"
"Ha freaking ha. She also taught me that trick with the flour bomb above the door."
"Remind me to thank her for that." He looks so much like his old self, when they were just three ordinary kids who didn't know anything about keyblades, or darkness, or the hearts of worlds. Kairi resolves to really thank this Yuffie person if they ever meet.
"So there aren't any Heartless here?" Riku asks "At all?"
Sora shakes his head. "Nope."
"Good." Riku moves incrementally closer to Kairi.
She frowns – not because she doesn't want him near her, but because it means he is thinking about how no Heartless means fewer threats to her safety. Like she's any more important than anybody else?
She sighs. Convincing this pair of idiots she isn't a damsel in distress is going to be a long journey. Damselling is something she will probably never get away from, but she will be damned if she ever falls into the 'in distress' part again. She may be a Princess of the Heart, but she is also a keyblader. The keyblades don't choose weaklings to wield them.
She quickens her step, forcing Sora and Riku to catch up. It puts ahead just enough that they can't try to use their bodies to shield her from dangers that aren't really there. Unfortunately, since she has no clue where to go, she has to stop and they flank her on either side again like a pair of knights.
"Um, Sora, which way do we go?"
Instead of answering, Sora pulls out the king's letter. "Uh … that way?"
"You don't sound too sure." Riku has never been here before either, so he can't offer any suggestions, but he can still sound sceptical.
"Hey, give me a break. I was preoccupied the last time I was here. It's not like I had time to learn where the nearest deli is."
"It's there," says Kairi.
"The nearest deli." She points at a swinging shop sign.
"Oh, ha-ha, very funny."
"Why don't you ask for directions?"
"Because I don't need them."
Kairi rolls her eyes. "What is it with men and asking for directions?"
"Men?" Riku raises an eyebrow. "On the way over you called us 'stupid boys'."
"'Who couldn't fly a Gummi Ship into a mountain if it jumped out in front of them'," Sora adds.
"That's because you wouldn't let me fly. Now are you going to ask for directions?" At Sora's expression she turns and steps out in front of the next person to cross their path. It is so cold out, the person is wrapped up in scarf and woollens, but still recognisable as female. "Excuse me, I'm sorry to be a bother, but could you help us? We're lost. We'd really appreciate it if you could tell us where to find the church."
The woman sniffs and peers through horn-rimmed glasses. "Is there a particular reason you want to find it?" she asks suspiciously. "There's a very important event going on there today. It wouldn't be proper to allow any thoughtless Tom, Dick or Harriet to crash proceedings and trample all over them."
"Um, actually we were invited. Kind of." King Mickey's letter told them to come here today and go to the church. That counts as an invitation, right?
"You were invited?" the woman says incredulously, looking her up and down. She moves her gaze to Sora and Riku. Disapproval rolls off her in waves – not that she, in her giant floral print yellow dress, can make any comment on their outfits. Ick. "I've never seen you before. This is a private gathering – very select. I doubt you young reprobates would be –"
"I've been here before." Sora raises his hand like a kid in class. This woman demands the deference of a pupil to a teacher.
Even Riku looks uncertain when she flashes him a critical look. She eyeballs the curtain of silver hair he has taken to hiding behind. Kairi resolves to cut his fringe when they get home. The less Riku hides, the better.
The woman seems about to say something else cutting, but stops. She gazes myopically at Sora. "You're that boy with the keyblade, aren't you? The one who saved Sarah's dogs?"
"Dogs?" Riku glances at him.
"Those Dalmatians I told you about," says Sora. "I think."
"He's the Keyblade Master," Kairi says, a little boastfully.
The woman studies Sora. "Him?"
She takes a second look at Kairi, as if assessing how truthful she is. Her eyes abruptly widen. "Oh my…"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes. Yes, of course." Without further ado, she gives them directions and hurries away, leaning heavily on a cane and throwing disbelieving looks over her shoulder.
"Well that was weird." Sora tugs at his scarf. Being from a tropical climate, none of them are used to the cold, and even less used to wrapping up warm. Wearing so many layers makes him itch. "She looked like she saw a ghost."
"She sure changed her tune when she heard you're the Keyblade Master," says Kairi. "What a witch."
Riku looks between them. "She changed when she looked at you, Kairi."
"It was like she recognised you."
"But I've never been to Traverse Town." Kairi groans. "Please don't say it's that Princess of the Heart thing again. It was bad enough when Belle's wardrobe tried to make me wear a corset under my dress at dinner."
"I thought you liked being a princess," says Sora.
"It's not all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, people keep kidnapping you and trying to steal your heart, and despite what the fairytales say, you don't get a castle, or a crown, or royal dances held by your parents for all eligible bachelors in the land."
Sora and Riku exchange a look – the one they always do when it comes to parents.
"Oh come on, guys. You always do this! How long have you known me?"
"Sorry, Kairi." Sora has the grace to look embarrassed.
Riku does not. Thankfully, he doesn't say anything.
"It doesn't bother me," Kairi insists. "Really."
She really doesn't regret not knowing her real parents. The mayor and his wife have been good to her. Even her time at the orphanage, before they took her in, wasn't so bad.
That isn't to say she isn't curious. Ever since she washed up on the Destiny Islands as a child, with nothing but her name, a head wound and lungs half full of seawater, she has wondered about her family. Everybody who heard her story assumed she fell off a tourist boat, but nobody ever came forward to claim her. The general feeling towards her family has always been one of condemnation. Who loses a child and doesn't even bother to look for her? A few nurses at the orphanage conjectured about her being thrown off that hypothetical boat, which would account for the lack of a search. One woman even whispered that Kairi may have been the victim of attempted murder, until Matron bullied her into shutting up.
Since Kairi can't remember anything before the age of six – the age doctors put her at when she was checked over – she doesn't feel strongly about whoever she used to be. She used to yearn for an idea of who she was and where she came from, especially when she saw Sora and his mom, or Riku and his parents. A dull ache would start in her chest, until she realised that she is Kairi of the Destiny Islands, and that is all she needs to know because that is who she is now. It doesn't matter whether she was wanted or not, fell or was pushed, because she is wanted for who she is on the inside and that's what is important.
"C'mon," she says, setting off. "Let's see what was so urgent the king sent a royal summons."
"He said it's some sort of commemorative ceremony," Riku offers.
"You've spoken to him?"
"I speak to him a lot." He sounds almost embarrassed. He is close to King Mickey the way Sora is close to Donald and Goofy, and Kairi with Pluto – that mysterious, invisible bond that connects disparate souls during adversity. "He … sometimes I just need to talk. He's a good listener. He gave me something called a scrying crystal and taught me how to use it. He has one too."
"So it's like video-phones," Sora puts in.
"Something like that. I asked him about his letter, but he wouldn't tell me much, just that it's to commemorate some people who died, and that we had to be here today."
"Well we would have been here in daylight if I'd been allowed to pilot the Gummi Ship," Kairi says testily.
"Are you still mad about that?"
"Yes, Sora, I'm still mad about that. And just to warn you both, I expect to be in the pilot's seat on the way home. And one crack about women drivers will get you both a bash on the head with a keyblade."
"You're not supposed to use keyblades for evil acts," Sora protests.
"It's not an evil act; it's an act of justice and emancipation."
"Emancipation," says Riku.
Sora continues to look confused. "What's that? Ow! That hurt, Kairi!"
There aren't any churches at home, just two small chapels. Kairi recognises the building all the same. Even at night it's an imposing place. The single gargoyle on the roof makes it even more daunting. She lets out an embarrassing squeak when the sentry opens its massive wings and glides down to land in front of them. The current of air stings like walking into a blizzard and makes her eyes water.
"You are the Keyblade Master?" the gargoyle asks in a deep voice.
"Um, yeah." Sora gives a weak a finger wave. He barely comes up to the gargoyle's armpit. "Hi there."
"I am Goliath. I was asked to watch for you. There was some concern when you didn't arrive before sunset."
"Yeah, sorry about that. I'm Sora, by the way." He sticks out his hand. Goliath stares at it for a moment, as though remembering what he is supposed to do with it. When he gingerly shakes it, his claws dwarf Sora's fingers.
"I know your name. And you are Riku. And you are Kairi."
"How'd you know that?" she asks.
"You are expected."
"Oh, right. Duh moment. So is the king inside?"
"King Mickey is not in attendance, though I understand this is the first year he has not been able to come. He, regrettably, had other duties at Disney Castle that demanded his attention following the concerted attack on it by the darkness."
Sora frowns. "Then why did he tell us –?"
"I believe all will become clear forthwith. For now, perhaps it is best not to keep those gathered inside waiting any longer."
Goliath leads them to a door that was obviously added well after the church was built. It is a lot newer than the frame it sits in, though it is just as ornate as the rest of the building. Patches of repair work stick out all over the place. Like the rest of Traverse Town, the church has scars.
Goliath pushes open the massive door with one hand. "I shall return to my patrol now. It was good to meet you, Keyblade Master."
"Likewise, I'm sure," Sora murmurs.
Goliath sinks his claws into the brickwork, climbs halfway up the wall and launches himself into the air. It is a magnificent sight, even for seasoned inter-world travellers like them. They spend a moment watching him. The sky above them is heavy with clouds and the promise of snow.
Kairi shivers. Having visited Mulan in her world, she knows snow isn't as great as Christmas cards make out – especially when with people who think snowball fights and buckets of slush are the most hilarious things ever. "Let's get inside where it's warm. Once we can feel our toes again, we can figure out why the king thought we should be at the commemorative ceremony of a guy we never met."
"But aren't churches usually draughty and even colder inside than outside?" Sora asks.
Riku shoves him through the door. He waits for Kairi to go next, but she mimics his move by shoving him inside and bringing up the rear herself.
Despite what Sora thinks, the church is pleasantly warm. Kairi unwraps her scarf from around her neck as they scrape their shoes on an ancient mud grill in the foyer. The main church hall has arching ceilings and murals on the walls. She expects the smell of incense and candles, like in the island chapels. Instead, she is hit by the powerful smell of flowers. She takes breath so deep it squinches her eyes shut – and nearly crashes into Riku.
"Leon?" Sora says in surprise. "What are you guys doing here?"
Kairi peers over his shoulder. Her heart suddenly flutters inside her chest. Blood rushes to her head, making her giddy.
The first thing to notice is the impossible yellow lilies growing in the centre of the floor, as though nobody ever explained to them that floorboards and cement foundations preclude growing there. The scent strikes a sensory memory, like the distinctive taste of sea-salt ice-cream, the sound of a shell pressed to her ear, or the feel of Sora and Riku's hands holding hers.
The people around the flowers turn at their entrance. They are a motley bunch – like Traverse Town itself, they don't match, yet somehow fit anyway. A tall black guy towers over a woman and two kids with mahogany skin. Next to them is their polar opposite, a Caucasian man with a diagonal scar between his eyes. He stands close to a dark-haired girl who doesn't look much older than Riku, but smiles a heck of a lot more. Her elbow is hooked through the scarred man's, ruining the stern effect of his folded arms and straight back. In front of them is a man who can only be a wizard, who was obviously just arguing with a grizzled blond guy chewing a toothpick. A brown-haired woman in high-tops holds them apart by their collars like a mother with two small children, despite being shorter and slighter than both men.
Yet none of these cause Kairi's sharp intake of breath. Sora and Riku instinctively draw closer. This time she doesn't evade their protectiveness. She is entirely taken up with the woman and man in the centre of the crowd.
"Oh," she murmurs, not sure why her heart is suddenly slamming against her ribs like a trapped bird trying to escape a cage; or why the world feels like it's pressing down on her from all sides. "O-Oh…"
"Are you all right?" Sora asks with concern.
She doesn't answer. Something about the couple resonates in a way she doesn't understand. It is like she recognises them, but only as one might recognise part of a dream. She has never felt like this before. Even déjà-vu doesn't quite describe it. The feeling is more than a little overwhelming, and increases as they comes towards she, Riku and Sora.
The woman has a gentle face framed by mousy brown hair. She is pretty, but not remarkably so, especially when you hang out with Princesses of the Heart, whose beauty can make you feel like a frump in your best dress. She pulls the man along, but he keeps his face turned away, as though looking for an exit so he can make a break for it. In contrast to the woman's cheerful pastel outfit, he is dressed in black from head to toe, including thick black gloves. The only pieces of skin on show are his face, neck and right arm. His left arm is covered in a wrap of loose black cloth, as though to hide some deformity. He walks with stiff legs, obviously reluctant. When they stop in front of the trio he flinches at the woman's reassuring pat on the back, like she has touched still-raw sunburn.
Kairi stares. The feeling of familiarly is unbearable. It is made worse by the fact she doesn't have a specific memory to go with it. There is just this feeling rocketing around inside her, making her open and shut her mouth like an idiot. Undeniable knowledge settles in the centre of her brain, heavy as a neuron star, causing an indentation that everything else slides down towards: she knows these people.
But how? She has never met them before. She has never been to Traverse Town before. She has never –
"Cloud," the woman chides softly.
Cloud? That's the guy Sora fought at the Coliseum, isn't it? Kairi remembers him telling her about the ill-fated deal the man struck with Hades, God of the Dead, to resurrect someone in exchange for his eternal service. As is the way of all deals with devils, it didn't turn out as planned. Sora rescued Cloud from the fallout in a typical act of heroism. Sora has 'hero' inscribed right down to his bone marrow.
"What's going on?" Sora asks now. "How come you guys aren't in Radiant Garden?"
"This was more important," the woman says. "We come here every year to remember people who were very important to us."
"But the king's letter said it was just for one guy."
"One very special man, yes, but he's not the only one we remember when we come here."
Kairi hears them as if from far away, because at that moment Cloud raises his eyes. The jolt of recognition is so strong it actually takes her breath away. His eyes are wary, but she knows them. She knows that exact shade of blue, so close to Sora's that many years ago, when wandered along a beach and met a little boy with a wooden sword, she was instantly drawn to him. Sora's personality, however, was more like … like someone else's ... someone who always smiled and tried to look on the bright side even in the darkest situation …
Images flash into her mind: a sword in a dark-haired man's hands; a dark hole peering into nothingness and shadow; the reflection of snow in polished metal; a paler face, mouth forming her name, hands reaching for her as she … as she falls … into the darkness ...
Cloud murmurs, "Hello Kairi." His voice is gruff, and sort of hopeful, scared and ashamed all at the same time.
Kairi's special heart squeezes because the way his lips form her name is exactly like that pale, anguished face in her memory. She has never recovered a memory from her missing past before. Never.
She can suddenly feel every one of her ribs, like hard iron hoops tightening around her chest as she breathes. Her heart remembers long-ago lessons, which only reawakened when she forgot Sora, listened for his heart and heard his Nobody's instead. Her heart is listening – and it hears a voice.
It is just a memory of a memory, the sound of someone gone but here but gone but here, fading in and out, everywhere and nowhere all at once.
But this isn't her home. Destiny Islands is her home.
The voice seems to laugh. Home isn't a place. Home is people.
The girl in shorts slaps a palm to her face and spreads her fingers so she can peer through them. "I don't believe this. After everything I said, she still turned into a pretty pink princess!"
"Oh, keep your pants on, Leon. She's kick-ass anyway, so I can forgive her."
More images flash into Kairi's mind, but only as an unassembled jigsaw puzzle. She sees a mass of isolated instances and impressions with nothing to link them together: a crayoned picture of a Shadow Heartless; a blond man reading to her from a huge book; a ponytail tied with pink ribbon; the order for Small Fry to be a kick-ass princess, not a pathetic fairytale one; the story of a crystal in the mountains; the smell of gunblade oil; the silent voice's laugh when it wasn't silent … and Axel? No, someone very like him but not the Nobody who was so familiar with her and said it felt like … like they were friends already when she'd never met him before … and apologised for 'everything'…
Her head hurts from trying to understand. One by one, each element is here, but the whole is lacking, the parts don't cohere, and she can do no more than search for the remnants of days that, to her, don't fully exist.
Kairi has come to recognise the sensation of Naminé's consciousness stirring. It is like when a muscle falls asleep and tingles back to life, but in her head. In this form, however, as a part of Kairi, she is more nebulous than when she was a Nobody in her own body. In a trice Naminé takes on the aspect of a net and throws it over the unconnected images, winding herself through them like links in chain. She drags them closer together and holds them there, so a pattern is more visible. She was, after all, a memory witch.
"C-Cloud?" Kairi murmurs. "Aerith?" She stares at them. "Oh. Oh."
Aerith squeezes Cloud's hand and he wraps his fingers briefly around hers in return. He still looks like he wants to run away, but he can't take his eyes off Kairi. It is as though someone once told him a wonderful secret, but he never actually believed it until this moment. Aerith holds out her free hand. When she shakes him, Cloud holds out his free hand too.
Kairi steps past Riku and Sora, ignoring their questioning looks as things trickle back into her head. It seems the most natural thing in the world to takes the outstretched hands of these people she has never met.
"Oh…" It isn't the most eloquent thing she has ever said, but it is the only word she can come up with right now. It says enough.
Better late than never, whispers the silent voice. They never gave up hope on you, kid.
"I always knew you'd grow up to be beautiful," Aerith smiles. "Welcome home, Kairi."
No wonder your heart feels it's flying,
Your head feels it's spinning,
Each happy ending's a brand new beginning.
Let yourself be enchanted, you just might break through
To ever ever after.
- from Ever Ever After by Carrie Underwood.
A/N: And that's all she wrote. Many thanks to everyone who has made this journey with me. That sounds incredibly pretentious, but this fic has been very special to me. I started writing it in 2008 and now, in 2011, it is finally finished. That's not to say it isn't flawed. My writing style has changed an awful lot since I started and there are whole sections I would rework if I could do it over again, but I'm still proud of it, flaws and all. I have had a blast and I am grateful to everyone who has read this and given me feedback. A hundred and one instalments. Bloody hell, I never thought I'd manage to write that my on my own. No author is an island, though, so thank you to everyone who has read this and I hope the ending was worth waiting for.