Once upon a time, two boys challenged each other to see who could swim the fastest and farthest into sea. Then one disappeared.
Sora loves Kairi. For Kairi to Sora is a glimmer of light when the night is too dark to see, the still star northwards that steers Sora as he navigates the worlds, the voice he hears when he falls into limbo, the embrace of home. Once swinging a wooden sword and now brandishing a Keyblade Sora has never made a convincing prince, but he is her knight still, and though he bears no shining armour, his heart is certain and sure: he will protect her.
But Sora loves Riku too.
Sora had never expected the storm to have taken Riku, and even now when Riku seems so safe and so harboured, he senses – he knows – that Riku feels more comfortable in the dark. Still if Riku ever wished to disappear, Sora would insist: never. But Sora knows.
When they were children Riku had always had his eyes set on worlds farther than Sora had dreamed of, and now that they had grown Sora would see in Riku a kind of restlessness, a kind of uneasiness, a sense of knowing that this world, while his, was not where he belonged. Once, when they were hanging out on the beach – just the two of them – when they were very young, Sora had challenged Riku for a swim.
“You sure you wanna take me on?” Riku had chided, when Sora said that he could swim farther and faster than Riku could. I’ve been practising, Sora had insisted. I’m stronger than I was before. Riku had laughed, pulled his shirt over his shoulders, told Sora that if he ever needed help he’d just have to call his name, and then dived into the water.
Sora remembered that day.
At first Sora led. Even as a child he was athletic, and his small body adjusted quickly to the sea water, making up for the lack of physical build that gave Riku so much advantage on land. For a moment, it seemed as if it was true: Sora would win. Their marker – a buoy floating at the end of the bay, where waves and green waters met the invisible undercurrents of the ocean – bobbed serenely, a goalpost in the sea. Sora knew that he would reach it. Then he heard a large splash and felt a sudden weight on his body, and something tugged at his legs and he was pulled beneath the water’s surface.
When Sora emerged he shouted at Riku and called him a cheat. Riku laughed. “Not bad Sora!” Riku had said, “you really are getting better at this!”
Sora, ever envious of Riku, could not have taken the compliment without feeling flattered, and could not prevent a beam from growing on his face. Thankfully, before his drive for competition was betrayed by his smile, Riku had called out – “I guess I can’t hold back with you now!” – and plunged back into the water.
Moving his body against the rise and fall of waves, Sora felt the waters parting for him. He thrust his arms forward, his legs propelled him forth, and the elements made way for a small human boy in the sea. Over him the sky stretched wide and seamless and all around him was water. Before him the buoy floated.
I can’t let Riku win. I can’t let Riku win all the time, Sora thought to himself. He felt his legs straining, and he knew that he had swum faster and harder than he had ever done before. His shoulders were beginning to ache. Sora realized that his body was beginning to tire. I can’t lose, Sora thought. I can’t let Riku win this time.
He was becoming tired and his body was hurting but he pushed himself a little harder. The waters continued to part for him, obedient to his hands. He pushed himself, pulled himself, arms and legs and torso moving in unison towards one desired goal. Sora knew that underneath him the bottom of the sea lay rich with coral and life, distant from the surface and from air. Above was the surface, wilder, windier and wavier the farther Sora swam, and the slopes of curling waves splashed against Sora’s face as he pushed himself forward. Sora could feel the taste of sea salt in his mouth and the drenched locks of his hair made his sight blurry. The world looked like a mess of water, depth, surface and sky blended together. Sora pushed on. I can win this, he thought to himself. I can win this. I can beat Riku. I can defeat Riku! I’m almost there. Then, just as Sora lifted his head for air, a large wave hit him and he choked and went underwater.
A few seconds later Sora bolted through the surface of the water, large locks of hair dripping wet with water and sea salt. Kicking his legs beneath him so he remained afloat, Sora suddenly realized how tired he was. His legs felt drained, his arms felt drained, his chest heaved, and he took deep breaths of air. They had both swum very far from the shore and he was exhausted. He breathed.
“I’ve lost,” Sora said to himself. I’m really tired, he thought to himself. I’ve got to slow down. Besides, he added mentally, Riku would have won by now. As usual, he thought.
He brushed his hair from his eyes and looked at the buoy. Where was Riku? He would have finished the race by now. He’d be at the buoy, standing triumphantly, or sitting and gazing at the horizon. Sora blinked and looked at the buoy again. Where was Riku? No one was there on the buoy.
Sora scanned the horizon. No Riku. For a few moments Sora wondered if Riku had simply been slower than he usually was. Could he have gone past Riku? Could he have beaten him? He turned around, his eyes casting a radius over the entire bay. There was no sign of Riku anywhere.
“Riku?” called Sora.
Above him the clouds rolled and around him the sea rose and fell. The waves swept past Sora. He bobbed on the surface. “Riku!” called Sora again. Nothing responded. The wind blew through his hair. “Riku!” Sora called again at the top of his voice. “Riku!”
From where Sora was floating the beach was distant, too far away for anyone to have heard his voice. “Riku!” he called again. The sky, wide and endless, hung above Sora and gave nothing in reply. Before him the horizon stretched into eternity. “Riku!” called Sora again, not even knowing if he was expecting an answer, from whom, or from what. “Riku!” he cried, this time at the peak of his voice, as though by screaming loud enough he would subdue earth, sky and water to give up its secrets. But he could hear nothing around him except for silence and the sounds of the sea.
Sora plunged into the water. Riku, he thought to himself, what happened to Riku? Eyes open wide underwater, Sora felt the seawater stinging his eyes. Memories of warnings and reprimands flooded into Sora’s thoughts. Don’t swim too far from the beach. Don’t go too far to where your feet can’t touch the ground. Don’t venture out of the bay. Sora rose to the surface, felt grateful for his tears, took a quick breath, and plunged into the ocean again. Don’t underestimate the sea. Don’t overestimate your ability. The sea may look calm, but never forget that there are underwater currents that will sweep you away from the shore. If you get caught in them while you are too far away – Sora rose and dove into the water again – you may never find your way back home.
Sora surfaced. They’d gone too far. The current must have taken Riku away.
His eyes were full of tears and they stung terribly from the seawater. They hurt. His whole body hurt. He was exhausted. He’d only succeeded in dipping four or five feet into the sea before the pain assaulted him and made it unbearable.
“Riku,” Sora mumbled as he floated on the sea, “Riku where are you?”
Then he heard it. For a split second Sora had to make sure his ears were not playing tricks on him; that dipping into water so quickly had not affected his hearing. He heard it again, clearly this time.
“Sora! Sora, what’s the hell’s wrong with you?”
Turning towards the buoy Sora saw Riku. He was standing on it, as calm and as confident as he ever was on land. He was well and unharmed.
“Riku!” Sora cried back in anger, “Riku! What do you mean what the hell’s wrong with me? What happened to you? Where were you?”
“What do you mean, Sora? I was here all the while. I got here way before you –,” Riku said, and then noticed Sora’s red eyes and angry tears. He dived into the water and swam towards Sora.
“Hey, what are you upset about?” he asked, but even before he had finished his question Sora’s words came spewing. I thought you were gone, I couldn’t find you, I called out to you, where were you, I thought you’d been swept away. Riku replied that he’d reached the buoy ages ago, got bored waiting for Sora, and decided to dive into the water to check out what was underneath the buoy. There had been a metallic pole underneath the buoy, and from the pole a chain stretched to the bottom of the ocean. He planned to check it out in the future. They’d need diving gear. There could be anything down there: metal, garbage, pirates’ treasure. It was a world that begged to be explored.
“Look, I’m okay,” Riku explained to Sora, but then Sora wrapped his arms around Riku’s neck and refused to let go.
Somehow they found their way back to the shore. Somehow they made their way back through the waters, letting the waves push them back to the beach. Back on land Sora buried his face in Riku and sobbed and choked, muttering incoherent things about fearing that he’d never see him again. Don’t disappear from me Riku, don’t disappear ever again. Sora’s small fingers dug deeply into Riku’s back, his arms wrapped tightly around Riku’s salty, sandy and drenched body, skin stubbornly sticking against skin, as if the slightest detachment would severe them forever. After ten full minutes Sora coughed and realized how embarrassing it was to have cried so much. Riku is all right. Riku is here. He sniffed and tasted salt in his mouth: salt-water, Riku, tears. Then he had blushed when he realized how much he had cried.
Sora was quietly grateful that Riku had never mentioned of his crying to anyone.
Now they were grown, and both had ventured too far from home, to where the currents could have and would have swept them away from home forever. They’d both survived, and now they were both back home.
Sometimes, Sora would spy Riku standing on the beach at night. They’d both had experienced more dangerous things since then. They’d both had their brushes with death. They’d both feared each other and for each other, because they’d both tried, and at least believed, that if the circumstances were right (or more accurately, wrong) they could have killed each other. But it still seems that despite all of this, the greatest fear that Sora had was for Riku to disappear again.
Then Sora would walk down the pier and join Riku on the beach. “What’s up, Riku?” he’d ask. “Oh, Sora,” Riku would reply, nonchalant. So much has changed in Riku since they were children -- no, since their island was destroyed the first time, when Riku opened the door to the darkness. Sometimes Riku would say that he was up because the weather was too warm at home, that he simply had some trouble sleeping, or that it was a lovely night far too beautiful to be spent asleep.
During those nights, Sora knew that Riku was remembering the darkness. Not the deep and terrible darkness that he once succumbed to, but the other darkness that they had found themselves in after they had defeated Xemnas, that shoreline in the place of not-quite-light, where the darkness was quiet and calm and comforting. What had Riku said back then again? Oh yes. If the world is made of both light and darkness, we’ll be darkness. It was only after some time had passed – when the battle with Xemnas had settled into the back of their memories and daily life took its course on the islands, with homework and school and worried parents – did Sora realize that he had not objected to Riku’s usage of pronouns.
This was the world that Riku felt comfortable in, the hours just before the break of twilight, before dawn. This was the world that Sora could not belong in, not without slipping deeper into darkness and losing himself. To give in to that hint of darkness that lay even in his heart was to give up all that was bright and wonderful and joyous in the world of pure light, his friends, his family, Donald and Goofy, sea-salt ice cream, Kairi. So Sora would accompany Riku (even if he was sometimes half-asleep) in those morning hours, and wait with him until the sun would rise over the bay and the light from the sunshine broke into a hundred thousand diamonds scattered across the sea. Then he would bring Riku home.
Sora knows. Riku does not belong to the world of light, but Sora is an unbeliever. If Riku wanted to remain in the world between darkness and light, for as long as Kairi is safe in light, Sora would follow. And if Riku should slink away and hide again the way he did before, Sora would chase after him, like a stormchaser after the wind.